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Commons Chamber

Volume 405: debated on Friday 16 May 2003

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House Of Commons

Friday 16 May 2003

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock



Mr Speaker's Absence

The House being met, and the Speaker having leave of absence pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 3 (Deputy Speaker), SIR ALAN HASELHURST, The Chairman of Ways and Means, proceeded to the Table.



9.33 am

I wish to present a petition signed by 237 residents of Ilford, North, entitled "Save Our Pharmacy Services". My constituents feel very strongly about the Office of Fair Trading recommendations, which they believe could jeopardise the future of local pharmacies, which provide an excellent service to the community in Redbridge.

The petition states that the undersigned urge

the Government to reject the proposals that would allow unrestricted opening of pharmacies able to dispense NHS prescriptions

to preserve local pharmacies and safeguard their continued services to local communities.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.

To lie upon the Table.

9.34 am

I wish to present a petition on behalf of my constituents in Ryedale, who are also very concerned about proposals from the Office of Fair Trading to change the rules with regard to pharmacies and the dispensing of NHS prescriptions. Throughout my constituency, whether in the suburbs of York or the remote rural villages and market towns, people value highly their local pharmacies and are very worried that this vital local service may be lost. The petition has been signed by almost 1,000 residents in the Kirby Moorside area—a significant proportion of the local population of that small market town.

The petition states:

The Petition of electors within the Parliamentary Constituency of Ryedale

Declares that they are concerned about proposals that would allow unrestricted opening of pharmacies able to dispense NHS prescriptions, and to preserve local pharmacies and safeguard their continued services to local communities.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons reject the proposals from the Office of Fair Trading on local pharmacies.

And the petitioners remain etc.

To lie upon the Table

Orders Of The Day

Sunday Working (Scotland) Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 1

Sunday Working: Shop And Betting Workers In Scotland

9.36 am

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 14, at end insert—

'( ) at the end of subsection (1) add "; and in Scotland "shop workers" include estate agents and travel agents."'.
The amendment would clarify and slightly extend the definition of "shop worker". I have had legal advice to the effect that the legislation as it currently stands can be construed not to include travel agents and estate agents. I know from a conversation that I had yesterday with the promoter of this excellent Bill, which we all hope will be passed, that he believes that travel agents are covered, but, as I said, I have received advice stating that that is a grey area, so it would be useful to clarify it. Adding travel agents would clarify the position and ensure that any unscrupulous owners of travel agencies would not be able to force their staff to open on Sundays.

I understand that the position regarding estate agents is clear, as they are not currently included in the definition of "shop worker". Like any group of workers in shops, they need the protection that the Bill would afford them in Scotland. On visiting any high street on a Sunday, one will find that many estate agents are open. On Sunday mornings, my family and I go to church in Leighton Buzzard in my constituency. A number of estate agents are located next to the church; they are open on Sunday mornings and people go into their premises. The right of those estate agents to open would certainly continue and people would certainly have the right to go into an estate agency and pursue their business there, as well as to look at houses if they choose to do so. However, the amendment would give those who work in estate agencies a right allowing them not to be forced to work on a Sunday.

I think that such a measure would take matters forward. Essentially, the Bill amends very slightly the Employment Rights Act 1996. I think that this is an opportunity for workers in Scotland to take the situation forward and perhaps improve matters there to a position slightly better than that in England and Wales. A general point can be made about that: why should Scotland come up only to the level of protection that exists in England and Wales? All that the Bill does is amend legislation that this House passed in 1996, but the world has moved on since then. I imagine that hon. Members felt in 1996 that only people in shops were forced to work on Sundays, as general commercial and industrial activity did not take place on that day.

My worry about the Bill in general, and the reason for tabling the amendment, is that times have changed and that pressure is applied to more and more workers in all sectors of the economy to work on Sundays. We need to recognise that, and the measure gives us an opportunity to make progress on the matter in Scotland. I hope that, in due course, we could extend the additional rights for Scottish workers to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am therefore pleased to move the amendment.

I pay tribute to the campaigning activity of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). We have held many discussions on the subject and he believes passionately that, in our busy modern world, space must be carved out for families, for the sake of the children, and that, if necessary, statute must enable families to spend time together as the pressures of commercialisation crowd in. He knows that I have enormous sympathy with that view. He has attempted to raise the matter in almost every measure that has come supported before the House. Indeed, his attempt to do that in the Local Government Bill, which applies to England and Wales and is now in another place. His track record is well established and the amendment reflects his sincerely held belief. It was tabled with the intention of improving the Bill, widening its scope and bringing more people into its ambit. I do not cavil about the intention.

However, I have some reservations, which I shall explain so that the hon. Gentleman understands why I hope that he will not press the amendment. First, the Bill's underlying principle is harmonisation of the law in Scotland with that in England and Wales. Such a law also applies in Northern Ireland, albeit through a separate legislative route. The consultation took place and responses were made on that basis we may hear more about that when we discuss the next group of amendments. I presented the measure on Second Reading on that basis, and it was consequently not amended in Committee.

Throughout the Bill's passage, there was general agreement that we were trying to harmonise legislation. In Committee, I quoted the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who said on Second Reading that
"one of the reasons why the Bill has an excellent chance of succeeding is that it is a classic private Member's Bill—it is modest in scope, identifies a real problem and sets out in a succinct and uncontroversial way to solve that problem".—[Official Report, 7 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 572.]
The shadow Leader of the House acknowledged that the Bill, with its modest scope, succinct nature and lack of controversy was the right way in which to proceed. On that basis, it has not encountered any difficulties so far.

If we breached the principle of harmonisation, we would run into difficulties with those who have given the Bill a fair wind hitherto. Although the amendment would be a good cause in which to breach the principle, I urge the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire not to take that route.

I do not want to put words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth, but he may believe that current legislation in England and Wales is not entirely adequate and that it does not achieve what we hoped and what was intended when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed. He may be right. I have spoken to employers and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and there is some disquiet about the way in which the law functions in England and Wales. Perhaps we should deal with that. The Department of Trade and Industry is conducting a review of employment rights and perhaps the hon. Gentleman could input some of his reservations. However, I do not believe that we can tackle the matter by amending the Bill. Once the measure has been passed, perhaps we could go back to the trade unions together and remind them that the Employment Rights Act 1996 is applicable and that they should ensure that all workers in the sector are aware of their rights. Perhaps that has been forgotten. I would be happy to join the him in such an endeavour.

9.45 am

Secondly, there is some dispute about the necessity for the amendment. When I spoke to the hon. Gentleman yesterday about the 1996 Act, I was clear that it covered travel agents, who are in the retail sector. I was not sure about estate agents, who appear to operate in a grey area between the retail and service sectors. Estate agents do not sell houses; people sell each other houses. Estate agents provide a service in the middle. In my constituency, places that resemble estate agents do not even provide such a service; they are simply mortgage brokers' premises. Mortgage brokers also work from shops. Would the amendment cover them if we begin to specify too much?

After my conversation with the hon. Gentleman, which he recalled earlier, I checked again with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is the Department's understanding that the 1996 Act covers estate agents and travel agents. That has never been challenged, although he may claim that that would not happen because it contains no specific safeguards for those individuals. He may be right but no attempt has been made to prove that current legislation does not apply to estate agents.

Thirdly, if the amendment were accepted, it could inadvertently create problems for England and Wales. If the law in Scotland specifically mentions estate agents arid travel agents, unscrupulous owners of estate agents and travel agencies in England and Wales could claim that the law did not cover them because we had explicitly included them in the law that applied to Scotland. Although it is generally understood that estate agents and travel agents are currently covered in England and Wales, the amendment, by explicitly mentioning them, could inadvertently create a problem. Someone could mount a legal challenge on the basis that the inclusion of estate agents and travel agents is merely implicit in the law that applies to England and Wales.

For those reasons—the general principle and the implications of the amendment—I regret that I am not in a position to accept it, although it is well intentioned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

I confirm the interpretation of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) in his response to amendment No. 3. There is no obvious reason why existing definitions do not cover estate agents and travel agents. They could therefore opt out of Sunday working if they chose. The protections have been in place in England and Wales for seven years and we are aware of no challenge. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will take my hon. Friend's advice and withdraw the amendment.

I am especially grateful for the Under-Secretary's remarks. If there were any doubt about the law, I hope that her words from the Dispatch Box will clarify matters. Owners of estate agents and travel agencies will be clear that they are covered by legislation in England and Wales and that that will soon apply in Scotland.

I shall not press the amendment. I told the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) that I would prefer to secure some advance in protecting workers' rights to a shared day off with their families to build sustainable relationships. It is important to have some advance, although, as I said earlier, many groups of workers are not covered. The House may recall that I mentioned on Second Reading the case of a worker who lost his job in January this year, because he was unwilling to work regularly on a Sunday. That shows that the issue is real.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde for his kind words and I graciously accept his offer to examine the matter again together once we have secured the safe passage of the Bill. He will agree that the world has moved on considerably in the seven years since 1996. If the Minister can provide more information about the Government's intentions on the broader issues of Sunday trading, I would be interested to hear it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

Transitory, Transitional And Saving Provisions

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 7, at end insert—

'( ) No Statutory Instrument shall be made under this section for three months after the Act has been passed.'.

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 10 [Clause 3], at end insert—

'( ) No Statutory Instrument shall be made under this section until a further Regulatory Impact Assessment has been undertaken.'.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) on introducing the Bill. I assure him that we have no desire to stop it passing into law and we hope that it has an equally easy passage in the other place. Some important issues arising from Second Reading, Committee—and, indeed, from the consultation—need to be teased out further, and they are embodied in the amendments that we have tabled.

One of our main concerns—it is not a criticism of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde—was that the regulatory impact assessment came out later than usual. Some Scottish organisations made the point that, if the Government are committed to better regulation, a late regulatory impact assessment is unhelpful. When the time is compressed, it is difficult to secure responses in time for the Committee stage. We felt that it would help businesses to have more time to examine the issues more closely.

Our amendments are focused on creating more time for employers to examine their practices and assess the impact of the changes. That applies particularly to amendment No. 5 on transitional arrangements, whereby no statutory instrument would be tabled until
"three months after the Act has been passed".
We do not intend to press the amendment to a vote, but it would be helpful to bracket statutory instruments with commencement of the Act—the main point of our amendments.

Employers need more time to consider the impacts, which can be many and various. For example, employers in rural areas might find it much more difficult to replace people who decide that they no longer want to work on a Sunday. We are all aware that small shops are the lifeblood of many villages—thank goodness for all of us, they open on a Sunday. Suddenly, their core worker—for all sorts of good reasons that we all support—decides to spend Sunday with their family. It can be extremely difficult in rural areas to find someone else to replace that key worker. Once replaced, the new worker will require training.

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is at the heart of the debate. She has spoken about the tremendous usefulness to all communities, and particularly small rural ones, of having shops open on a Sunday. However, does she agree that none of us has an inherent right to goods or services on a Sunday for the sake of it? I am delighted that people are able to receive goods, services and leisure services on a Sunday if they want to avail themselves of them, and that people are able to provide those services if they choose to do so for pleasure or to earn more income. However, it is important to establish the principle that, when we avail ourselves of any goods or services on a Sunday, we should do so only if the suppliers are willing. No one has an inherent right to demand them at the cost of other people's lives and family relationships on a Sunday.

I Have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. We are all well aware of his concern that people should not be obliged—in any way, shape or form—to work on a Sunday. We are all agreed on that: it is the principle of the Bill. I am merely teasing out some of the practicalities. I wish to reassure my hon. Friend that I have no intention of insisting that people work on Sundays. Rather, I am trying to help employers find replacements for people who decide not to work on a Sunday. It is crucial that that is by agreement between willing employers and willing workers.

What does the hon. Lady believe would help employers to find alternative staff for Sunday working? Is it a matter of time, or some other factor?

I apologise to the Minister if I have not made it clear that the key point for us is time. That is why we tabled the amendment to prevent statutory instruments from being introduced until three months after commencement. If the Minister will concede that point, I will be happy to move on to other issues. We look forward to hearing from her, and hope that she will offer good news for employers. As I said, the difficulties are particularly acute for employers in rural areas, and that matter should be part of any further study if the regulatory impact assessment is rewritten, or part of any further consultation with employers.

I should like to deal with the broad reason why we believe that the regulatory impact assessment should be in one shape or form, though I am not saying that it should necessarily be a rewrite of the consultation or the draft regulatory impact assessment sent out at the time of the consultation. There should, however, be further consultation on the impact on employers.

The responses to the initial consultation revealed concerns, not so much from the Scottish CBI, the Institute of Directors or the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, but from organisations representing smaller businesses, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Scottish Retail Consortium. For example, the Federation of Small Businesses was concerned that a balance needed to be struck
"between effective protection for workers and placing unnecessary regulatory burdens on businesses in Scotland".
It believed that the proposals would place an unnecessary burden on businesses.

I am interested in the hon. Lady's case. However, the legislation has been in force in England and Wales for seven years, so, unlike most regulatory impact assessments, it is not theoretical. Before drafting the Bill, I had discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses, which expressed no concerns about the application of the legislation in England and Wales. The Federation of Small Businesses may have some concerns in Scotland, where the legislation does not currently apply, but the Federation of Small Businesses in England and Wales is effectively saying that those concerns have, in practice, proved groundless.

10 am

I am delighted to hear that the FSB in England and Wales believes that the measure will not have a significant impact on Scottish businesses, but the Scottish FSB has said that it believes that there could be an impact on business. The Government's own impact assessment set out the number of employees who are employed by small retail businesses with fewer than five employees. Most of us, on both sides of the House, know from our constituents the general level of concern that exists among small businesses with fewer than 50 employees—although in the present context we are talking about businesses with fewer than five employees—about the impact of extra regulation on those businesses. It is the employer, of course, who sits down in those useful two hours between 2 am and 4 am to deal with all the regulation—the form-filling, the response to consultations and so on—that imposes such a burden on employers and distracts them from running their businesses.

Can the hon. Lady tell us what additional form-filling will be entailed when a member of staff of a small business elects not to work on a Sunday?

I was referring to the impact of all the regulations, not necessarily form-filling, in this case as a response to Government. It is up to the employer whether to change the rostering or whether it is necessary to employ somebody else to cover the Sunday. The measure should not have any impact on the outgoings in terms of salary, but it could well have an impact in terms of claiming national insurance and claiming tax credit for a new employee—all the implications of hiring a new employee or re-rostering.

It is the sheer practicality of running a business that the measure will affect. It is so easy, when one is in Government, to say, "It will take only five minutes of somebody's time to do whatever the measure entails," but the five minutes add up. The CBI recently estimated that since 1997 the total impact of all the Government's new regulatory measures is costing the economy £20 billion a year—a sum that would buy an awful lot of schools, hospitals, teachers and all the better services that we all want. Meanwhile, businesses are paying less in tax, because they have to pay it out in a different way as a result of the costs of regulation.

That is one of the Opposition's concerns. Another is the cumulative effect. The regulatory impact assessment is a good idea, but it tends not to take into account the cumulative effect of all the various regulations. We need to examine closely the impact of the measure on businesses. I have cited a few of the potential problems that could arise when employees are given the choice whether to work on a Sunday or not.

I alluded earlier to the effect on small businesses of national insurance contributions, pension contributions and tax credits. Many of the employees in question may earn no more than the national minimum wage. One of the topics discussed briefly in Committee was the impact of the measure on people's pensions and national insurance. The Minister undertook to write to members of the Committee if she thought that there would be any impact on pensions. I have not seen any letter from her, but when I was thinking about the regulatory burden, one aspect that intrigued me was what would happen to part-time workers who decided, for all the right reasons, that they did not want to work on a Sunday. The employer is under no obligation to make up those hours for the purposes of contributions.

Many workers are on the cusp of paying national insurance. As everybody knows, national insurance kicks in at the rate of the personal tax allowance. A worker may work, say, between 16 and 24 hours a week, on the national minimum wage. The current national minimum wage is £4.20 an hour. People are eligible for national insurance contributions if they earn £77 a week.

According to my dodgy arithmetic, a person would have to work only 18 hours a week to be eligible for imputed national insurance payments, and 22 hours before they started paying national insurance. If they decided that they did not want to work on a Sunday, they would suddenly fall below national insurance contribution level, which would mean that they had a gap in their employment record. As we learned in the past few days, the Inland Revenue has forborne for the past five years from alerting people to that problem. Regardless of that, there is still the problem in principle of people having a broken national insurance contribution record. If they cannot make up those contributions in the future, their state pension is affected.

I think that I am right in saying that not only would that person's basic state pension be affected, but they would not be eligible for the state second pension, and companies with fewer than five employees have no obligation to offer a stakeholder pension. So we are speaking about a fair number of people on the cusp of having their pensions affected by the proposed change.

As I have said all along, I have no intention of pressing the matter to a Division, but we need to work through such examples much more closely in this place or in another place, or as we suggest, in a further regulatory impact assessment or further consultation.

I welcome the hon. Lady and her party's conversion to the introduction of a national minimum wage. May I remind her that both the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI objected and actively campaigned against the introduction of a minimum wage?

The hon. Gentleman may well remember that we said some time ago that we supported the national minimum wage, provided it was at a reasonable level. I am working through the existing situation so that hon. Members realise that there is a potential problem for the sort of people who we are all concerned should continue to work and be rewarded for it, and in their retirement should have access to a proper state pension. Without getting too technical, we all know that with the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit, their income will be made up anyway, but most people would prefer to feel that they had earned their state pension, rather than having it imputed to them. The change would cause them concern, and we need to make sure that they are aware of it.

The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) used the word "conversion" and my hon. Friend has also talked about conversion in relation to our party. Does she agree that, sadly, there seems to have been something of a conversion on the Labour Benches? Back in 1994, the Labour shadow Home Secretary was very much in favour of people not having to work on Sundays, but when I proposed a small and simple amendment to the Local Government Bill to prevent council employees from being forced to work on a Saturday or a Sunday, it was robustly attacked by Ministers and not taken up. On this issue, the Government seem, sadly, to have undergone a conversion in the wrong direction.

My hon. Friend would probably agree that a fair number of conversions on all sorts of subjects are taking place on the Government Benches, but, tempted as I am, we will not go into those, as I suspect that the Chair might become a touch twitched.

I have covered pensions exhaustively, but the effect of the measure on tax credits is a related problem. It will be no news to anyone in the Chamber that the introduction of tax credits has been less than smooth. I have received complaints from constituents who cannot get through on the phone and who have not yet been paid.

As my hon. Friend says, the system is in chaos. Without going into detail about those current practical difficulties, there will be problems for people who decide not to work on a Sunday and cannot make up those hours, or for people whose income is reduced as, although they could make up the hours, they are not paid as much, because Sunday working may involve special deals, with double pay or time and a half. We should not, of course, interfere in their decisions, and I have no difficulty about that, but the employer could still be left with form-filling changes and the employee might have to reclaim tax credit and fill in the forms again.

I am sure that in the best of all possible worlds, which we all want to see, the chaos would merely be temporary, but those of us who listen to our constituents in our surgeries week after week know that the problems are not temporary—they tend to turn up regularly.

The hon. Lady may shake her head, but I have been a Member of Parliament for 10 years, representing two very different areas, and I can assure her that the same problems turn up week after week after week, because one or other state organisation cannot cope. For example, without reverting much to the subject of pensions, I heard this week from a constituent who has been trying to get her basic state pension for at least a year. She has received letters saying "We don't know your national insurance number" even though the number was printed at the top of the page, which leads one to reflect that the Inland Revenue's "temporary" problem with tax credits may not be solved in the short term.

There is a fluctuating situation as regards tax credits and there are implications for the measure.

Did any of the constituents who visited the hon. Lady's surgery tell her that they did not really want the tax credits and that they were a bad idea? If they did not, why did she vote against tax credits?

Order. We do not need to explore that route further. Let us go back to the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait).

I am happy to take your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that you will agree that the general issue of tax credits is relevant to the amendment, as well as to the regulatory burden and the need for further exploration of the implications of what may seem a simple change.

10.15 am

As we are not all instant experts on these subjects, I hope that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde will be able to reassure us that he will take those points into account. They could affect not only employers, but also organisations such as USDAW. They, too, may want to be consulted further on the implications of the proposals. I am sure that anybody involved in wealth creation will be extremely concerned about the direction that we are, unfortunately, taking. With the lack of competitiveness of our businesses, we are all reliant on the retail industry. Despite the point made, rightly, by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that people should not have to work on a Sunday unless they volunteer to do so, nobody would want further burdens to be placed on businesses, either in rural areas or in town or city centres, whose existence may be marginal.

The extra burdens produced by the change could precipitate a proprietor's desire to retire early and, suddenly, a crucial shop could close and we all know how much that can affect communities, wherever they are. Things could spiral down to a vision of dereliction and deprivation that none of us wants to see. As a law-making body, we should be wary of taking action that could drive businesses into closing down, with proprietors deciding to give up the game as it is no longer worth carrying on.

The Government have put huge layers of regulation on to businesses. The implication even of the few issues that I have raised is that further regulatory burdens will be laid on businesses. I hope that the Minister will indicate not only that there will be time for the transition arrangements to be worked through, but that the issues that I raised will be teased out so that everybody is aware of the implications and can adjust in plenty of time, if they need to do so.

I am in a slightly invidious position. Although I am steering the Bill through the House, the effect of the amendment would be to call on the Government to do various things, so I must await the response of my hon. Friend the Minister.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) suggested that she did not wish to press the amendment to a Division, but is using the classic probing amendment technique that I have come to know and love during the passage of the Bill. While remaining in order at all times, she showed remarkable ingenuity in covering such contemporary issues as national insurance contributions and pensions. I was wondering how she could get the euro, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and whether Celtic or Rangers would win the premier league into her speech. I look forward to hearing whether the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) is backing Celtic or Rangers for the title—[Interruption.] He must answer.

The narrow effect of amendment No. 5 would simply be to delay the commencement of the Act by one month, which does not seem to present a huge problem. If the Government are happy to give that assurance, I should be happy to agree to the proposal.

With regard to the amendment proposing a further regulatory impact assessment, there is a slight irony in the position of Opposition Members; they want to spare businesses from form-filling and from having to respond to yet more Government initiatives by sending businesses even more forms to complete and consulting them yet again. It may take only five or 10 minutes but, as the hon. Lady said, those minutes add up. It is a peculiar wish to want to spare people from something by giving them more of it to do.

The hon. Lady's points were well made, and I understood them. However, this legislation has one key element: the fact that it actually exists. It has been working since the passage of what became the Sunday Trading Act 1994. These proposals are not just theoretical. When we are thinking of introducing a new piece of legislation and are not sure of its effects, of course regulatory impact assessments are crucial. One makes assumptions, which may or may not be shown to be accurate, so it is necessary to probe the limits. But this legislation exists: it is up and running.

The hon. Lady posited the hypothetical example of a person who, having worked for 22 hours a week, drops to 17 hours a week and falls below the national insurance threshold. She is concerned about how that will affect that person's pension. Presumably, that happens day in, day out in England and Wales. I should not have thought that it was as widespread as the hon. Lady implied, but it must be happening and it does not appear to be presenting insuperable problems for those individuals. At the end of the day, it is an individual choice. We are telling people, "You have the right not to work on a Sunday but there will be consequences to that right."

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the current problem has arisen because the Inland Revenue decided not to—as opposed to forgot to—write to people who had fallen into that position, to ask whether they wanted to top up their contributions. These things do not happen in isolation. Obviously, as it now appears that the Inland Revenue had decided not to write, it does not care too much. I suspect that most people do not realise. I am concerned about any increase in the number of people who will not have access to a full state pension.

I do not wish to break the relatively convivial and non-partisan nature of today's debate, but I could remind the hon. Lady of the decision taken by the previous Government to change the rules of the state earnings-related pension scheme, and not tell people who were going to lose out very badly that they had changed the rules on inherited SERPS—an extremely costly blunder, which the Labour Government had to make up. We did not go back to people who lost out arid say, "I'm afraid you will have to make it up." We inherited that disaster and we made it good. The hon. Lady must acknowledge that the Conservative party does not have an unblemished track record on changing rules and not communicating with people about the change.

It would be out of order to discuss what did or did not go wrong, and whether it was planned, in terms of informing people about their national insurance breaks. My simple point is that a further regulatory impact assessment will not alter the situation one jot. It will make no difference to those people. That is the situation for everyone who is affected in this regard, whether or not they work in the retail sector, or are local government employees, or whatever. That matter must be dealt with separately. It does not impinge to such a degree as to render a further regulatory impact assessment necessary.

I am not, as the hon. Lady suggested, an expert on all these matters and in every field. The draft regulatory impact assessment, of which I have a copy, which she has seen and which has been widely available, is extensive. It makes a range of assumptions, which are quite prudent, and contains a range of cost options. However, we can base the assessment on the practical reality of the legislation as it has been operating in England and Wales for several years.

The hon. Gentleman said that the legislation was up and running and working in England and Wales. I wonder whether he would share with the House his more general thoughts as to the real effect and impact of the legislation in England and Wales. As far as I am aware, only one tribunal case in England and Wales has cited the 1994 Act since its provisions came in, in 1996. My worry is that the reality for most shop workers is that they are scared of losing their jobs and of the hassle of going to a tribunal and everything that is entailed in that process. They are scared of taking up their rights, particularly because, as the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do, the norm in the retail trade is to have variable five-out-of-seven-day flexible contracts, which do not guarantee that any of the two days off will happen to fall on a Sunday. What are his thoughts on the effectiveness of the current legislation?

I thought that I had partly addressed that issue in the previous short debate. The hon. Gentleman may have a point; I have not sought to deny that. When I said that the legislation was up and working, I was referring to the narrow point that the hon. Member for Beckenham made.

On the general principle, when I spoke to USDAW, the union that represents most of the people that the hon. Gentleman mentions, its officials did not say, "There is no point in replicating this legislation across the border. It does not work and there has only been one tribunal case." They said, "This is exactly what we want." Obviously, when a case reaches a tribunal, the process has gone beyond the stage where it can be settled amicably between the employer and employee directly. Perhaps—the hon. Gentleman does not know this any more than I do—many of these issues have been settled at a lower level and the fact that there has been only one tribunal case is not an indication that the legislation is ineffective. It may be, and perhaps we need to look at that, but I would not say that it automatically follows that it is ineffective.

I agree that there may be a case for reviewing whether the lack of tribunal cases is an indication that the legislation is not working, but the fact is that because of the 1994 Act, many of the major employers have almost divided their work force and they specifically recruit some people for weekend work and other people for weekday work, so the issue does not arise for many individual employees. The choice is made when they are recruited. That would not have happened if that legislation had not come into effect.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that valid point.

Although the hon. Member for Beckenham was right to table the amendments to probe the legislation, focusing on small shops with five or fewer employees, the majority of people who work in this sector on a Sunday work for larger businesses—businesses that have bases and operations in England and Wales. It would not be an enormous administrative burden for them to extend the practice, with one qualification, given their understanding of how things work in England as opposed to Scotland.

The difference is that in Scotland, Tesco in Greenock can, and does, open 24 hours on a Sunday, whereas Tesco in England and Wales, because of the 1994 Act, opens for only six hours. That was one of the issues on which there was consultation. One issue that must be taken into consideration as part of the regulatory impact is that shops that open 24 hours on a Sunday must find more staff than those that open for only six. There is a clear difference there. When we were discussing the draft of the Bill and considering regulatory impact and consultation, I bore that point very much in mind. That is self-evident.

The consultation went out to businesses, including the large companies, and as far as I am aware—the Minister may correct me—they did not make that argument in their response. I do not think that Tesco said, "We cannot apply the law in Scotland because we have a 24-hour operation as opposed to six hours in England and Wales." Tesco appears confident that it could make the provisions work in Scotland, should the House be pleased to grant the Bill a Third Reading. Such businesses do not appear to think that it will be an insuperable problem.

10.30 am

Surely the point is that, by its very nature, business is flexible and all businesses will adapt to new circumstances as they arise. The amendment would allow more time for them to arise. The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) suggested that staff were recruited purely for weekend and Sunday working, so surely time needs to be given to recruit staff who want to work then.

I accept that. The hon. Gentleman is actually saying that, because of the Government's outstanding success in lowering unemployment and because we have more people in work today than ever before, the economy—which is under the excellent stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—is growing at a faster rate than that of any other G7 country. However, there may be a relative shortage of available labour, so I take the hon. Gentleman's praise of the Government's economic policy in the spirit in which he offered it. [Interruption.] He may be naively optimistic in thinking that the policies that are emanating from the Conservative Benches would address that situation.

We have a three-month window of opportunity before the proposals kick in, so I simply do not believe that shops cannot adjust to them and find the necessary labour. It may be that, when people realise that they have such a right, they will take it up, but I suspect that the vast majority will not. They certainly have not in England and Wales, so Tesco in Greenock will not suddenly have to recruit 1,000 people—would that they did. The hon. Gentleman is right to probe the issue, but I do not think that it will present the obstacle that he suggests.

Does my hon. Friend agree that both Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have concentrated only on the effect that the Bill could have on business, without mentioning the benefits to the workers? Will my hon. Friend remind the House that the rationale behind the Bill is to protect workers and stop discrimination and exploitation in Scotland?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was attempting not to goad Opposition Front Benchers into rash action, and I am pleased with their assurances hitherto. Although my hon. Friend will of course continue to make his case, I will not use his phraseology, other than to say that, in welcoming the Bill, all parties—it has received backing from all parties—acknowledge that the freedom to shop on a Sunday should go hand in hand with the freedom not to work on a Sunday for those who are employed in this sector. Those words were used by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during the consideration of the Sunday Trading Act 1994. They are as true today as they were then, and they are as true in Scotland as they are in England and Wales. I accept the assurances that these are probing amendments, and I look forward to hearing the wise words of my hon. Friend he Minister.

I rise to make one brief point. I assure the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) that I listened carefully to his argument. He was at pains to point out his belief that the Bill will predominantly apply to large businesses in Scotland. I assure him that I am mindful of that point, but I want to make a related point about the impact of regulation—the specific subject of the amendment.

In the two years since I was elected to the House, I have become increasingly aware of its tendency to place greater legislative burdens on business. The Bill is arguably regulatory. We parliamentarians sometimes make the mistake of assuming that whatever regulations we pass will affect only relatively large businesses with the resources, time and people to understand their implications and administer them across their businesses and for all their employees.

We must remember that much of the business base in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, is made up of small and medium-sized businesses. Some of them are run by owner-managers, and they do not always have sufficient resources to deal with an increasing tide of regulation. They do not have personnel departments to administer all this stuff. In effect, they are the personnel department, as well as the finance department, the credit control department, the marketing department and the management department.

I am mindful of what the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde said, but as Members of Parliament, when we pass measures, we should avoid a mindset that thinks automatically of large businesses with personnel departments that can cope. Our mindset should include medium and small businesses, including owner-managers, for whom every measure passed by the House represents one more thing that they have to deal with.

My hon. Friend has not yet visited my constituency—I greatly look forward to such a visit—but when he does, he will learn that 95 per cent. of all enterprises in my constituency equate to fewer than two employees. That shows the scale of the problem that we are talking about. The enterprise balance is heavily skewed towards those who employ only family or one other member of staff.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, and I sincerely hope to visit his constituency at some point. He reiterates effectively a point that I am seeking to make because I have seen the creeping tide of extra burdens on business in many areas.

I understand the issue that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde wishes to address. I think that he will find from the debate that the Opposition are not necessarily antithetical to his view, but I feel that this is one of those occasions when one should stand up for the small business man and ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to remember that, when they discuss something that has an impact on business, the practical reality often boils down to someone who runs a business sitting in their study late at night, burning the midnight oil, trying to deal with the impact of what we have come up with. We as parliamentarians should bear that in mind more often, particularly as a number of hon. Members have no experience of running businesses before being elected; I did.

Listening to the hon. Gentleman is like taking a trip down nostalgia lane because I heard the same arguments used during the introduction of the national minimum wage, when it was said that it would have a disastrous effect on small businesses. It is time that Opposition Members took a leap in the dark and started thinking outside the box.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the national minimum wage; he has reflected that in his comments this morning. He knows that Conservative party policy on the minimum wage has changed, but I caution him that a classical argument about the minimum wage concerns its effect during a recession as well as when the economy is doing well. Fortunately, the UK economy is not in recession, although the economy is not doing as well in Scotland as in the rest of the UK. The real test of the minimum wage is what happens when the economy is in recession, when its impact may bite more heavily at the margin. I do not want to see the United Kingdom in recession any more than any other Member, but in such economic conditions, the minimum wage tends to bite the hardest, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that counterpoint.

Before the hon. Gentleman leads me too far down that alley, I should like to summarise my remarks by pleading with hon. Members on both sides to remember that, when we pass legislation that affects employees and employers, many employers, who create wealth for the benefit of the economy, have to deal with the stuff and that many of them do not have a big personnel department to cope with our bright ideas. It is incumbent on all of us as parliamentarians to have that in the forefront of our minds before we pass legislation.

I will continue in this atmosphere of consensus. I must admit that I had to pinch myself, however, when the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) was creating an image of the ruination of rural and urban communities because of what her right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has accepted is an excellent little Bill going through the House this morning. I congratulate her on her ingenuity in managing to bring just about everything into her contribution.

I also want to reassure the hon. Member for Raleigh—

I apologise. One of these days, I shall ask the hon. Gentleman to spell Milngavie. I reassure him that the Bill is intended to deal with a lacuna in a piece of legislation that was passed and whipped as Government business in 1996, under the Government whom I assume he would have supported had he been a Member at the time.

I want to deal on behalf of the Government with one or two issues that were raised today. Amendment No. 5 seeks an assurance that no statutory instrument shall be made under clause 2 for three months after the Act has been passed. We recommend that the amendment be resisted. We welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Beckenham that it is a probing amendment, and, by convention, we would not normally commence within two months of Royal Assent anyway. I am happy, however, to give an undertaking that the provision will not be used in Scotland within the three-month period, which I hope addresses the point that she highlighted.

I reassure the hon. Member for Beckenham that employers, whether urban or rural, will receive at least three months' notice of opting out of working on a Sunday if an employee wants to take that route. Taken with my commitment that we will not enact this Bill until at least three months after Royal Assent, I hope that that reassures her.

I want to echo some of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) on pensions and the knock-on effect on tax credits and other aspects of an individual's income. If somebody elects not to work on a Sunday, it is a personal decision. There will be implications for individuals as a result of taking that decision that will not come about only as a consequence of this legislation. That is something that anyone who decides to alter their working hours will have to factor in. It was appropriate that the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) made the point that, nowadays, many employers adjust their recruitment practices to take account of the way in which people want to work. Although I know that some in this House would not want anyone to work on a Sunday—or at least would reduce the options for working on a Sunday, which is a legitimate positionfor many people, working on a Sunday fulfils their needs in terms of family or other commitments. I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham will accept that any decision must be made with a personal responsibility for the implications.

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady's remarks were directed to me; she looked at me as she spoke, so they may have been. To clarify my position, at no point have I said that I do not want people to work on a Sunday. The point that I have made consistently throughout this Bill and others is that many workers who are not covered by this Bill choose not to work on a Sunday. I could mention Mr. Copsey, who lost his job in January in Norfolk because he did not want to work on a Sunday. He had worked for the same employer for 14 years and was a model employee but was told that he had to work regularly on a Sunday and lost his job. I want the House to consider such people. When the Minister responds, will she say whether the Government think that we should consider the matter more generally to take account of people such as Mr. Copsey?

Order. The hon. Gentleman must master the art of the short intervention.

10.45 am

I am sorry if, by looking at the hon. Gentleman—quite fondly, as I know that he is a real hon. Gentleman—I gave the impression that he wanted to be over-restrictive. As a result of consultation with some organisations in Scotland, we know that some would prefer that nothing happened at all on a Sunday. I hope that he will not feel embarrassed if I decide not to look at him again for the rest of my contribution, in case he intervenes. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde have a community of interests, and I leave it to them to determine how they want to pursue that. As the House will know, however, the Department of Trade and Industry is consulting on Christmas trading, and I am sure that that will provide opportunities if hon. Members wish to take advantage of them.

On the regulatory impact assessment, like my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, I am perplexed that the hon. Member for Beckenham spent so much time talking about regulations and red tape for businesses. She is asking for something that would tie up businesses, even if only for the 10 or 15 minutes that it would take to answer an impact assessment. I reassure the House that the RIA was published on 7 February, and the closing date for comments was 14 March. An assurance was given to the House on Second Reading that any comments as a result of the RIA would be made available in time for Committee, which they were. There was no comment that the RIA was not adequate or that it did not cover all the relevant issues. Only one organisation raised concerns about the lateness of the RIA—the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. We are not aware of any other organisations that raised that issue.

To confirm the point, the RIA is no longer a draft: it was published on 7 February and is in the House of Commons Library. It was not based on the situation in England and Wales but on the impact in Scotland. It contains the best estimates for business and the impact on business in Scotland. Of the businesses in the sector affected, 97 per cent. are defined as small businesses, as the hon. Lady said. They employ only 12 per cent. of the 264,000 employees working in the sector, however, which is approximately 30,000 workers. The cost for small businesses in total range between £212,000 and £797,000. We have given a generous spread of estimates, which is the equivalent of between £11.03 and £41.48 per enterprise, not per employee. The costs for the employer are predominantly transferable.

As I am sure that the hon. Member for Beckenham will be aware, there is absolutely no obligation on employers to make alternative arrangements for hours and so on to accommodate a worker who decides not to work on a Sunday. Only one of the 139 responses raised regulatory burden as an issue. The only additional paperwork—I congratulate the hon. Lady on making rather a lot of this point—will be the initial changes to rotas and shifts, which are probably the stuff of organising a small business.

On those grounds, we ask that the amendments be resisted. We do not think that a further RIA before commencement of the legislation would serve any purpose because more accurate estimates would still be difficult to produce. Clearly, however, in such a piece of legislation, we must estimate. It is not clear, and the hon. Lady has not made it clear, to what use a further RIA could be put after the Bill has been passed. With those few comments, I advise my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde not to accept the amendments.

It gives me pleasure to wind up for the Opposition in our short debate on amendments Nos. 5 and 7. I welcome the pleasure with which the Minister greeted the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Bedfordshire—

I apologise. My thoughts automatically go to the north-west of anywhere. The Minister obviously recognises my hon. Friend as an honourable man and deserving of kind glances across the Chamber. I am beginning to get slightly offended that those glances always evade me, particularly as they were also cast in the direction of my colleague when he diverted attention away from the Minister's mobile phone in Committee.

Although I did not have an opportunity to say this earlier, I appreciate my hon. Friend's campaigning work on this issue. He speaks for a good constituency, not just geographically but in terms of interest groups throughout the United Kingdom. The issue is of great concern to many of my constituents, as it is to everyone in the Chamber and beyond. He speaks well for them, and long may he continue to do so.

The amendments seek to amend what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) described as
"a classic private Member's Bill".—[Official Report, 7 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 572.]
I note that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) has recovered from that compliment. He has steered the Bill courageously through its early stages in the House.

The Bill deals with what are essentially twin freedoms. The first is the freedom to shop on a Sunday; but it has to be right that the Bill confers also the freedom not to work on a Sunday if one does not wish to.

These issues are important for the Scots economy. We have an important and thriving retail sector, and part of the reason for our tabling amendment No. 5, which would delay the implementation of the Bill, is that we recognise the importance of that sector. The Scots retail sector has had a dramatic effect in driving the Scots economy, which has been all but stagnant for the past 18 months. How much worse matters would be without a thriving retail sector that includes not only conventional businesses such as Marks and Spencer in Braehead but the sale of football tickets in retail outlets across Scotland and the retail exchange of sterling and the common European currency. [Interruption.] Hon. Members must have known that I would mention that somewhere in my speech.

Amendment No. 5 on the transitional arrangements is important because we appreciate the importance of the retail sector and the seriousness with which representative organisations have responded to the consultation. We endeavoured to respond to their views in the amendment.

The aim of the Bill is to equalise rights across the UK, and no one can quibble with that aim as far as it goes. However, the Bill will self-evidently add to burdens. I accept that those burdens are faced by businesses in England and Wales, and Scottish business can expect to have to meet them over time. But they are burdens none the less and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) said, we do not take lightly the prospect of adding burdens to business, small or large. We will never do that lightly in considering legislation, whether we agree with it or not.

The retail sector is particularly dependent on very small enterprises. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde referred at some length to Tesco in Greenock, an outlet with which I am all too familiar. In fact, my wife's credit card is all too familiar with it, too. A wide spread of businesses will be affected by the Bill, and Tesco at Greenock is at the top of that list. However, there are many small enterprises in Greenock and throughout Scotland that employ very few people.

Such businesses are not open for 24 hours a day. My point was not about the size of an operation, but about the length of opening its hours. Tesco in Greenock opens for 24 hours, but the small businesses do not.

I take that point entirely. I simply observe that the hon. Gentleman focused many of his remarks on Tesco and that there is nothing to say that small enterprises could not open for 24 hours. A couple of petrol stations in my constituency—in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale that represents quite a large proportion—open for 24 hours, and they are small businesses. The point about 24-hour opening does not apply only to large businesses.

A wide range of businesses will be affected by the Bill, and amendment No. 5 seeks to focus attention on how the most vulnerable of them will be affected. The issue is about the dissemination of information to small and medium-sized enterprises. That will require guidance notes to be issued, and owners of such businesses are already swamped with red tape, guidance notes and advice from Government agencies. The Bill will add to that general trend.

There is a twin requirement as regards the passing on of information. First, the Government will have to send guidance notes to businesses in Scotland. Secondly, businesses will be required to pass on to their employees information about their entitlements. All that has implications for administration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh pointed out, people often have to deal with such things in their studies late at night as they deal with their incoming and outgoing mail. That added administrative burden is not an issue that we take lightly.

I am grateful that the Minister recognised that we are simply asking for time for businesses to adjust, to realise their new obligations and to make allowances for that. Sunday working places a burden on family businesses, and Sunday is traditionally the day for family gatherings. In passing, it is fair to point out that that is not necessarily the case for people of other religions, but I would not want to tempt you to call me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by discussing issues that are outwith the amendments. However, it is worth pointing out, in fairness to the other religions, that the Bill does nothing to address the desire of those of other faiths who wish to exercise similar rights, in due course, on Fridays, Saturdays or other days. Although the Bill will make good law, it does not address all the problems of all faiths in the multicultural Scotland that we welcome.

Working on Sundays can place a burden on families, but businesses of all sizes often roster ahead for Sunday working. Businesses recognise that Sunday is the family day and, as a result, more attention is often paid over a longer period to rostering for Sundays. That is why we suggest that we should have more time to implement these provisions.

In previous debates, I have told the Minister of my experience in small business in the retail sector. In a small chain of retail branches, we rostered a long way in advance for Sundays, because we recognised that working on Sunday was an imposition. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous knows, Sunday opening represents an imposition on people's family day and perhaps their religious beliefs—although, sadly, it seems from yesterday's figures from the Church of Scotland that the number of people who hold such beliefs is declining. In my work, we rostered ahead, because we recognised the imposition. In fact, Sundays in December, which have a particular focus in terms of family demands, were actually rostered year to year.

The picture that I am painting shows that, whereas it is difficult to envisage that businesses will be hugely affected by the Bill, many of them will be affected to a significant degree. We want to recognise that fact by giving them slightly longer to adjust. Part of the reason for insisting on the extra time is the way in which the Government have enforced other regulations. I am afraid their track record on implementing regulations has left businesses poorly prepared.

11 am

Let me give an example of the sort of situation that we want to avoid. As the Minister knows, over the past six months, the Government have decided to regulate the sale and distribution of paraffin much more tightly. A business in my constituency that sells paraffin first received news of the new regulations with its VAT notes in the third week of February. The regulations were to be introduced as of I April but there was no guarantee that applications to register to distribute paraffin could be approved in time if they were received after 20 February. Although regulations are easy to introduce, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh pointed out, due cognisance is sometimes not taken of possible problems with their implementation. The Government's sad track record shows that they have implemented regulations that do not take account of the administrative difficulties faced by the smallest of businesses.

The amendment is also a response to concerns raised by those who were consulted on the Bill. The Scottish Retail Consortium in particular summed up the reasons behind the amendment when it said:
"Smaller retailers may have different issues concerning the implementation of this regulation, so issues surrounding the transitional arrangements may need to be clarified. Transitional arrangements is an area that needs to be clarified. How long would employers have to write to employees notifying of them of their new rights? What guidance would employers, particularly small businesses receive on the new legislation? It is often difficult to communicate changes to regulation/legislation to employers, especially in the SME sector, so assistance in this regard would be beneficial."
The Government all too often introduce new regulations without giving businesses sufficient time to implement them. The response by the Federation of Small Businesses concentrates on the effect of the Bill on smaller businesses. It says that the regulatory impact assessment
"suggests that 'employers within these sectors will be able to adjust staffing levels in a number of ways i.e. by re-allocating duties, by increasing the number of hours worked by part-time workers, by adjusting rotas etc.
We are concerned that this may not reflect reality for the smallest businesses, with only I or 2 employees"— the very businesses to which I referred when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh. The FSB continues:
"To say that 'scope must exist' to identify new employees willing to undertake Sunday working does not take account of those areas where there may be a shortage of suitable employees, for example, in rural and remote areas. In this respect, we believe that the impact of these proposals upon small businesses may have been understated, particularly in terms of time lost to the employer."
That is why we believe that more time is required for implementation and although the Minister will not accept the amendment, I welcome her undertaking to abide by our three-month suggestion.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) pointed out that some workers are recruited to work on Sundays, and it is certainly my experience that there are people who want to work on Sundays. That desire might be payment induced: the income earned in four or five hours on a Sunday afternoon is equivalent to that earned for several more hours' work during the week. Alternatively, the desire might be connected to lifestyle. One developing source of labour is made up of students who have to work to pay their tuition fees and who may only be available for work at weekends. That requires businesses to adjust their rosters and recruit new people, and the extra time offered by the Minister will be welcomed in that respect.

I shall reinforce my point in relation to remote areas. If businesses such as the garage in my constituency were faced with a person who did not want to work on a Sunday, finding a replacement for the opting-out employee might well take a considerable time.

Amendment No. 5 reflects the concerns expressed by businesses during the consultation. The Scottish economy, and the retail economy in particular, is dependent on the smallest of businesses, so we should give them more time to adapt.

I turn to amendment No. 7 and the Minister's comments on the regulatory impact assessment.

It will be easier for me to call it the RIA, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde suggests.

The RIA was released before the end of the consultation, as was noted by one of the respondents. It is arguable that it was not published early enough to inform the consultation, yet not published late enough to be informed by the responses to the consultation—perhaps one or the other would have been more helpful. I understand that timings had to be moved owing to the deliberations of committees, but the timing of publication was still unfortunate.

The RIA is deficient in several respects. For example, the word "rural" does not appear in it, and that is a surprising omission. That factor should have been taken into account, not least because it was cited in several responses to the consultation. The publication of another RIA would benefit the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said that the RIA examines the incremental effect of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh said that the measures represent only one small step, but it is another small step that must be taken. Estimates of compliance costs taken from the RIA—before netting off the effects of reducing unfair dismissals—range from £34.59 to £129.80 per enterprise. I should point out that those are the costs before net benefits are taken into account because I see that the Minister does not have a fond look on her face—she always gives a fond look to my hon. Friends but not to me.

Although the costs are small, they are further costs above and beyond the increasing number of costs, such as those incurred for processing data protection forms every month. Although registration costs only £35, all the costs are incremental and must be paid by real people running real businesses and struggling to manage their bank balance at the end of the week. The Federation of Small Businesses suggested that a balance should be struck between providing increased freedom and a genuine level playing field throughout the UK, and imposing administrative burdens on businesses of all sizes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham made a well-disciplined point—and kept well withinorder—on the tax credit chaos and the marginal effect on pension and national insurance liability for those who opt out of Sunday working. She has a long-held interest in the matter and knows much more about it than me. The current tax credit chaos has meant that 160 of my constituents have contacted my office in the last couple of days because their tax credits have not been paid. We need to examine the Bill in the context of a system that requires reform.

My hon. Friend makes, or rather reiterates, a valid point. These days, Government Departments regularly use computer systems and call centres to assess benefits. The software used is often bad at coping with anomalous situations. Anything that is slightly unusual and does not conform to the established norm throws the system. However worthy the anomaly, Departments may be thrown by it in calculating benefits such as tax credits. The Child Support Agency's attempts to calculate overtime also come to mind. That is just one example—

I saw the look you were giving my hon. Friend, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was certainly not the same as the look given by the Minister.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. People will not opt out in huge numbers. Those people at the margin, who hold beliefs like those of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire, who prize their family time at weekends are most likely to opt out—and who are we to argue with that? There will be an effect at the margin for those people who work full-time on Sunday and a few hours one day mid-week. If they opt out of working on Sunday, there is no obligation on the employer to offer them another day, but if they are able to work instead on, say, Tuesday and Friday that may have an effect on their national insurance and pension entitlement. Given the Government's record on advising people of the need to top up their national insurance contributions, we are concerned about the problems that that might cause. We do not think that they will have a cataclysmic effect on the British national insurance system, but as the benefit system gets more complex, the changes that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh mentioned will have an effect.

I want to flag up one issue to the Minister. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde said that marginal tax, pensions and national insurance issues will be dealt with separately. I do not know how or when that will be done. Perhaps he has received a guarantee or undertaking from the Government.

None, other than the guarantees that were given in the Chamber that people will be written to later in the year. However, the problem of national insurance is not germane to the Bill because it affects people who work in every sector.

I accept that. The way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his comments made me think that he may have received a particular undertaking from the Government. I know that he has strong links with people in high places. I thought that perhaps he had more to tell us.

We tabled amendment No. 7 because we thought that the regulatory impact assessment was deficient and did not do enough to address the issues that affect remote rural areas. We also thought that the timing could be better. The RIA was not early enough to inform the consultation nor was it late enough to be informed by that consultation, so we thought it reasonable to table the amendment. I accept that the Minister will not give way on that and we will not push the amendment to a Division. However, perhaps the Scotland Office could consider it in future legislation.

We will not press amendment No. 5 to a Division either. We accept the Minister's word that she will hold true to a three-month period before the measure is implemented. That will give our smallest and most vulnerable businesses that bit longer to adjust. The measure is not groundbreaking. For many businesses, it will not be a matter of life or death, but for some it will have a critical impact. Those businesses that it will affect need time to adjust.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

11.14 am

Given that it has been an interesting and illuminating debate, and given the general consensus that the Bill achieved on Second Reading and in Committee, I do not propose to dwell too long on Third Reading.

It has been the most enormous privilege to promote the Bill and to have steered it thus far. When I visited the United States last year with colleagues, we met the newly elected members of Congress. One of the ways in which they refer to themselves is as lawmakers, which is also what the press and the body politic call them. Perhaps we do not think of ourselves in that way. We certainly do not use that term when we describe ourselves. As a proud Back-Bench Member of a party that has formed an outstanding Government, the opportunity to initiate legislation is curtailed. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) is one of my friends in high places, but I welcome his support.

To play the role of a lawmaker in this small but important regard is the most enormous privilege any Member of Parliament can have. I am extremely grateful for the support of colleagues in every department of the House, including Members and the Clerks office. It has been invaluable. I shall refrain from making further reference to Celtic and Rangers. I believe that I have thrown the valiant souls in the Official Report into utter confusion because they do not appear to know what I am talking about.

Essentially, the Bill is simple. It extends the scope of legislation that was first enacted in 1994, consolidated in 1996 and applied to England and Wales. A separate legislative route was taken to apply similar measures in Northern Ireland. It was a quirk of history that the measures were not extended to Scotland in 1994, although as I have said throughout my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) predicted that we would have to do that at some stage. Unfortunately, his wise words were not heeded at the time, which is why we are debating the Bill today.

Should someone who works in the retail sector not wish to work on a Sunday, they should not be discriminated against for making that choice. They should certainly not lose their job for making that choice, which happened in one case last year. I have not laboured that point, and the company's name has not been mentioned today, because I am clear in my mind that the Bill's purpose is not to punish a particular company, however unwisely it may have acted. Instead, the Bill is about extending legal protection to all employees throughout the UK so that everyone enjoys similar levels of protection. Whether those levels of protection are brilliant or whether the law is being enforced as the lawmakers intended back in 1994 when they framed the legislation are relevant considerations, but they are for another day. The purpose of today's debate is to ensure that everyone starts from the same basis and the same level playing field.

I am pleased to inform the House that should it grant the Bill a Third Reading, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld has undertaken to steer it through another place. His experience, coupled with that of business and trade unions in that place, will ensure that its measures are probed, as the Opposition rightly did today to flesh out some of the issues that will arise.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, will he clarify one matter that I am not clear about? There have been many references to the fact that there is no obligation on an employer to offer hours other than those on a Sunday. Am I correct in thinking that if an employee starts a full-time, five-day-a-week job with a commitment to work Monday to Friday, and his employer later wanted to change that to include working on Sundays, the employee could effectively be forced to take a 20 per cent. pay cut if he refused the change, even though he had started out believing that he would have to work only Monday to Friday?

Order. That was far too long an intervention. If the hon. Gentleman wants to catch my eye later and develop an argument, that will be the appropriate time to do so.

As a non-lawyer, I will take refuge in the traditional lawyer's answer, which is that it would depend on the contract. The initial contract signed by the employee would say whether the employer had the flexibility to extend that person's hours. Ordinary employment legislation and the tribunals that implement it—as opposed to those that consider unfair dismissals—continue to apply, irrespective of whether we are talking about Sunday working.

The Minister made the case very well. If people choose not to work on a Sunday when that might be a reasonable option for them, they may have to pay a price. We cannot say that everybody will get consistent legal protection at absolutely no cost to them. There will be a cost, and people will have to make a judgment as to whether they want to pay it. Of course, the best way for employers to get people to work on a Sunday is to make it worth their while—to use pay to induce them to do so.

During the passage of the Sunday Working Bill amendments were tabled that would have imposed a statutory obligation on employers to offer time and a half for Sunday working. The amendments were not accepted because it was thought that such decisions were best left to individual businesses. We are not attempting to revisit that argument now. The case posited by the hon. Gentleman would really depend on the employee's contract, but I am not denying that some people may have to accept a reduction in their wages if they opt not to work on Sundays.

I repeat that it is fundamentally wrong that employees in Greenwich enjoy rights that those in Greenock do not. The Bill seeks to redress that wrong.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, which is important to many Scottish workers. Does he share my disappointment that the Scottish National party, which says that it speaks for Scotland, has not turned up for Scotland today, to help to protect those workers? This is a time when many SNP Members' ex-colleagues in the Scottish Parliament will be signing on and looking for a job, perhaps in a shop—or as a part-time worker, like their Westminster friends.

If I see Lloyd Quinan stacking shelves in Tesco, I will pass on my hon. Friend's best wishes to him. I once said that if there were a working MPs tax credit, SNP Members, with their rates of attending and speaking in the House, would not reach the qualifying threshold.

It is fundamentally wrong that employees in Wigan enjoy rights that employees in Wishaw do not. The Bill will redress that wrong, and I commend it to the House.

11.24 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) on his masterly handling of the Bill, and I wish it all success in the other place. It is unusual to find someone for whom we have changed the law to allow him to become a Member of this place rapidly thereafter managing to create his own law, and we congratulate him on that.

We welcome the Bill's intentions, but now that we are extending the protection of the law to employees in Scotland who may work on Sundays, I am waiting for English workers to ask whether they can work 24 hours, like those in Scotland, because we will have to have another private Member's Bill to accommodate that. In my part of the world there is significant demand for shopping on Sunday outside of the six hours that is currently allowed, and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I am sure that people will have that choice.

I congratulate everyone who has taken part in the proceedings on the Bill. I was about to make exactly the same point as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy). On Second Reading, the only contribution from the SNP was a suggestion that the Bill become a European matter, which was really relevant to the proceedings—about as relevant as the party is becoming, as we can see since the Scottish Parliament elections of a couple of weeks ago.

I congratulate and thank my hon. Friends the Members for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) and for South-West Bedfordshire, who took part in the Committee proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), who unfortunately is not here today because he is on constituency business, also did a sterling job in Committee. I thank all hon. Members from other parties who contributed to those brief proceedings and those who have spoken today to make sure that the Bill is properly scrutinised.

Both in Committee and on Report we have raised points that are worthy of further consideration. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale in thanking the Minister for accepting our argument about transition. It is important that there is sufficient time for everybody to adjust; that was argued by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and the Bill's promoter accepted the force of that argument. We are grateful to everyone who has, in the course of the debates, improved the Bill, even if there have been no amendments.

The interesting point that has emerged, particularly during today's discussions, is that there is a fundamental need for the Government to consider regulatory impact assessments. I entirely accept the argument of the promoter and the Minister that our amendment would have put greater burdens on employers. As Members are well aware, the amendment was purely a device to debate the subject. Although all legislation has an accompanying regulatory impact assessment, there is no reference—this may be an oversight—to the cumulative effect of such regulation as each assessment is made.

The Minister referred to the wide-ranging costs identified by this particular assessment. We can all cite the cost of other measures. During the proceedings on the Pensions Bill, we found that the cost of offering a stakeholder pension was £5 per employee. That is in addition to the cost to which my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale alluded. There is no assessment of the incremental effect of regulation that we pass in the House on so many occasions.

If nothing else results from the proceedings, I hope that the Minister, whose Government say that they are committed to better regulation, will pass on to the Better Regulation Task Force the message that there is a need to keep a running total of the costs posed to business by extra regulation. At the margin, those costs can make a huge difference. The Bill probably operates at the margin, in regulatory terms, and I was grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde for indicating how he thought the issues that we had raised would be dealt with. We hope that that will be so when the impact of national insurance changes on pensions and tax credits is considered more widely. We must make it clear that the Bill will have a marginal impact on regulation and will not have a huge impact on business, except at the margins.

I welcome the fact that employees in Scotland will have the same rights as those in England and Wales not to work on a Sunday. I believe absolutely that anyone who wishes to opt out should do so. I entirely accept the point made by the hon. Member for Moray—

My sincere apologies. How could I possibly accuse a long-standing member of the Liberal Democrats of being a Scottish nationalist. I apologise abjectly. I entirely accept the point, made by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, about people's lifestyle decision to work on Sundays if they wish.

The Conservatives welcome the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde. We look forward to his continuing contribution in the House, and we wish the Bill a speedy, if thoroughly debated, passage through the other place.

11.31 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) both on bringing forward the Bill and on gaining support for it across the House. It clearly was necessary; as I said on Second Reading, constituents of mine were directly affected by the lack of the protection that it provides. They will be grateful to him for bringing the law into line.

I suspect that this debate is part of a process of steps. There is, though it is not central to the Bill, an anomaly, so far as the rights of people to shop are concerned, between the law, as it applies in Scotland, where it is more liberal, and as it applies in England. The Bill equalises the rights of employees to decide not to work on Sunday, and to accept the consequences, while their employers must accept their right to decide, but that anomaly may well be revisited in a different way.

We have heard arguments, which may need further investigation, about how effective legislation is. In my view—not just a hunch, but formed on the basis of discussion with major, though not smaller, employers—employers have said that they can have two separate work forces and that that is how the law applies. That reduces the circumstances in which anyone can take a case to tribunal because the contracts are, as the hon. Gentleman said, entirely separate.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) used his personal experience usefully to highlight the fact that there may be problems of adjustment for some smaller businesses. I hope that he will none the less accept that if the law is about the rights of employees, it should apply to smaller businesses. Often, smaller businesses are the worst employers of all, because people employ themselves and their families, who voluntarily negotiate less favourable working circumstances than anyone would impose on a third party. That is the whole tradition of working all hours, and family businesses are about people working extremely hard for their own benefit. I certainly would not wish that to be prevented in any way, and the law should not intrude too much in that area.

The Bill, extremely usefully, clarifies and extends the law to create parity. I commend the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde not just for bringing the Bill forward, but for the dignified way in which he has done it and for his recognition that it must be confined to bringing the law into line. If he had stepped beyond that, he might have opened up a can of worms, and it would have been more difficult to obtain unanimity. We shall probably have to return to some of the issues that have been aired, but he was absolutely right to confine the Bill to what it does. In so doing, he has, I think, guaranteed its passage through this House and the other place.

11.35 am

I add my pebble to the great mound of congratulations that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) has already had for a sensible measure that brings Scotland's law into line with provision already in force in England and Wales. He told us that he is pleased that he is about to become a lawmaker, and I congratulate him on joining the tradition of great lawmakers such as Hammurabi, Solon and Moses, who made laws on this very subject. That is the single point that I wish to stress: since the dawn of time, this subject has been a fit subject for law.

One of the Bill's attractions, by the hon. Gentleman's own admission, is that it will not make much difference. It will not bite very hard on businesses or employees in Scotland, and that may be may be a good thing. In so far as it does make a difference, however, it will make a good difference, providing an important psychological condition. It will help to fix it in people's minds that there is indeed something special about our division of the week into seven days, and something special about Sundays. That hebdomadal structure, dividing into four the 28 days of the lunar calendar and allocating one day to be special, is an ancient thing, probably pre-dating the Hebrews, probably going back to the Sumerians. It was not only the Hebrews who had special days; every civilisation has always decided, by law, that some days should be special.

The House will be familiar with the introduction to Plato's "Republic", in which Glaucon and, I think, Socrates decide whether to go to Piraeus to take part in the pan-Athenaic procession, which was a regular festival, like the many that took place in ancient Athens that were times when the common people did not have to work and were protected by law from working. They could not be coerced into working in ancient Athens on those days, and those days were fixed in law.

The House will also be familiar with the fasti of ancient Rome, the days that were kept holy. Now, the fasti were controversial. Cicero, a good conservative, did not like any monkeying around with the fasti. Important businessmen and powerful lawyers in ancient Rome sometimes wanted to transact business on the fasti, and it was important to decide whether business could, or could not, take place on the fasti. There was a sort of "Keep Fasti Special" campaign in those days.

My point is that, since the dawn of human civilisation, some days, usually on some hebdomadal rhythm of the kind that we have in our Christian culture, have been reserved for holiday and have been kept special. The vital thing is that protections have been enforced by law. Since the dawn of time, those protections have not simply been cultural, but have been enforced by law and by politicians. In a way, Sunday, and the hebdomadal system, sanctify a human necessity. It is not just a question of devotion. In our culture we acknowledge that there must be at least one day when everybody can knock off and, above all, when our fellow wage slaves are not driven by someone else to try to get one over us on that day. Since the dawn of time, the importance of such measures have been commonly acknowledged as protecting people from abuse and oppression and preventing coercion.

I was interested to hear the case adumbrated by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). It was wrong and shameful of Mr. Copsey's company to make him accept a contract that forced him to work a seven-day week. It is right that we as legislators should extend the protection that Mr. Copsey enjoys in England and Wales to the people of Scotland, and I am glad that the latter-day Hammurabi who has introduced this Bill has chosen to do so. I listened with great attention to the speeches of my hon. Friends, and marvelled at the tour d'horizon from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who dealt dutifully with all the potential pitfalls of the legislation. I also admired the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). I share their concern that we must guard against the danger of excessive legislation, and I speak as a Member of party that is successfully opposing a Government who are barnacling the British economy day after day with more and more legislation and regulation. We have slipped in the competitiveness league from ninth to 16th and, according to the CBI, £1.5 billion-worth of extra regulation has been heaped on this country since 1997. The micro-economic measures that the Government have introduced will not serve this country well when the economy starts to experience a downturn.

It is right that we should draw attention to those risks now, and I salute my hon. Friends for doing so. Their amendments, of course, were probing amendments, and I am satisfied with the explanation from the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde of the way in which the Bill will apply. As he said, employers will continue to have the right not to hire someone who says that they do not want to work on Sundays—that essential freedom will be protected. As the Minister said, people who decline to work on Sundays must expect a lower pay packet. I may be traducing her, but I believe that that was the gist of what she said.

Suitably admonished by you earlier, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall make my intervention as brief as possible. For the sake of accuracy in the Official Report, Mr. Copsey is not a shop or betting shop worker, so he would not be covered by the Bill if he worked in Scotland. We therefore still need to go further in that area.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not mean to imply that Mr. Copsey's case was concluded. He deserves the fullest protection, and let us hope that a future lawgiver, perhaps my hon. Friend himself, will find the means to give him the protection that he deserves.

No one will be forbidden by the Bill from working on Sunday—that is an elementary point, but it is worth making. We should not forget that some people are only too happy to work on Sunday. We should provide protection for people like Mr. Copsey or fathers who want to stay at home, but many people want to go out and work on Sunday. Indeed, in my experience, many fathers are happy to get away from the house on Sunday and go to the office. The desires of those people are not impeded in any way by the new law.

In conclusion, I want to reinforce the point that I made at the outset and emphasise the status of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde as a lawgiver and lawmaker. It is an ancient and hallowed custom in all civilisations that some days are preserved as special. My hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale was prescient in pointing out that in a multicultural society we must acknowledge that other communities and groups will want to preserve other days as special days. Anti-discrimination measures are to be introduced that will oblige us to protect those days too, and I see no harm in that whatsoever. Those things were protected by law in ancient Rome and Babylon, and have been acknowledged since time immemorial. It is right that we, too, should protect them.

11.45 am

It is customary to thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being called to speak, and I do so. However, I am in the invidious position of following my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who was as entertaining as ever. You will have heard the term, "After the lord mayor's show", Mr. Deputy Speaker, and my offering will be somewhat more prosaic. However, I must say that I had difficulty following my hon. Friend's reference to abdominal systems.

Order. May I just tell the hon. Lady that her hon. Friend got away with it?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

May I add my congratulations to those already given to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) on introducing what he described as a small Bill? However, it must be gratifying for him to have introduced a Bill that will have such a happy sendoff to another place, and I am sure that we all share his pleasure. None the less, it with some regret that I support the Bill—as a Conservative I am a supporter of small or arms-length government, low regulation and minimal interference in people's lives. It is a great pity that the Bill will create more regulation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, but it is necessary to deal with the anomaly or loophole highlighted by the dismissal at Argos of 11 employees. It is therefore necessary to regularise the law on Sunday working in Scotland and bring it into line with the rest of the country.

The problem particularly affects the capacity of sole traders and small businesses, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who has experience of running a small business. Having to absorb yet another regulation will fall more heavily on the shoulders of such employers, but having agreed that it is necessary, we must move forward. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce has said that a voluntary arrangement has been working perfectly well for a long time, and regretted the need for a new law. It said:
"Scottish businesses have seen no evidence to suggest that there is indeed an issue requiring action".
There is therefore resistance from the body, which said that it would like
"greater explanation… as to why it is felt necessary at this time to pursue this additional bureaucratic burden."
However, having established that the measure is necessary, we must press on and look at the freedoms of businesses that we must protect, including their right to trade on a Sunday if they wish. There is enormous demand for a range of businesses to open on a Sunday. The matter of other religions has also been raised. Sunday is not a special day for other groups, including Muslims, Jews and people of many other faiths.

There is also the right of shoppers to be able to shop on a Sunday. For some people, Sunday is the only day that is available to them to get to shops or other trading places because they work during the rest of the week. However, we must protect the freedoms and rights of workers, and that is what the Bill is about. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, problems arise when an employer wants to change the terms and conditions of an employee's existing contract, or the employee, for various reasons, wishes to withdraw his or her availability on a Sunday. The necessary arrangements need to be regularised for the benefit of both parties.

Others have spoken about a trip down nostalgia lane. I hope that I shall be forgiven for a small trip down that lane, in saying how different Sundays are today from the Sundays that I remember as a child. I remember dreading Sundays because they were so quiet and boring. To me, nothing seemed to happen. The highlight of the day was to be allowed to go to Sunday school in the afternoon. During the rest of the day I was expected to play quietly indoors and not be a nuisance or cause any disturbance.

Sundays are very different now. The world outside is bustling almost as much as it is on every other day of the week.

I am a little worried by one phrase that both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) have used, and that is "the right to shop". I think that people should have the opportunity, not the right. Will my hon. Friend reflect on the philosophical difference between the two?


I think that it should be voluntary on both sides. I would not like to see anyone coerced into working on a Sunday against their will, but, these days, the opportunity to shop on a Sunday is needed because it is often the only day that people have on which to do it. Indeed, it often becomes the family entertainment of the week, because, given that it is the only day when the family can be together, the supermarket trip is used to combine shopping and leisure.

Lifestyles have changed almost beyond recognition, and not only in terms of working patterns. In most families both parents have to work; Sunday is often the one day of the week when one parent can stay at home to look after the children while the otherwise non-working parent can go out to earn a little extra to boost the family income. We must accommodate changes in lifestyle but at the same time we must protect everyone's interests.

People taking on a new job need to examine carefully their contract or the terms and conditions being entered into, so that they know without any doubt whether they will be required to work on Sundays. If they are not willing to do so, they can make it clear at that stage. If the employer needs to have people working on a Sunday for the purpose of his business, that also needs to be made clear. The two parties need to be absolutely sure that the terms and conditions will meet the requirements of the other so that future problems are not stored up.

It is a question of balancing the freedoms and needs of employers and employees while trying to minimise the burden of regulation on businesses, and protecting everybody's interests and ensuring that there is a fair deal for everyone.

11.54 am

I shall wind up the debate on behalf of the Government on this small but important piece of legislation. I advise the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) that they speak of nothing else in the streets of Bannockburn but fasti. He is definitely a credit to Eton education. He also saves us buying The Daily Telegraph or The Spectator when he speaks.

On a more serious note, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) for taking the Bill forward with dogged conviction, drive and determination. He has piloted the Bill in an exemplary way. He has co-operated with colleagues across the Floor, and has made sure that this significant but modest measure will, when it completes all its stages, change for the better the working lives of about 260,000 workers in Scotland in the retail and betting sectors.

I shall comment on the activities of other hon. Members because we have had a very good response to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) deserves a special mention—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde will not object to that—because he took the case forward initially. If my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde has shown dogged determination, so, too, has my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North.

I pay a special tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I think that many of us would have loved to be a fly on the wall when she had a conversation with the people from the company who breached the voluntary guidelines. Certainly she realised quickly that there was an injustice in that Scottish workers who thought that they had some protection under the current voluntary agreement had none. She made sure that the issue was highlighted.

I know that the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) contributed to the consultation early on. I mention also my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald). I am not sure whether you are aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that 5 per cent. of the population of the Western Isles signed a petition in support of the Bill. That may not seem a significant number because it comes to about 1,500 people, but it is of truly Chartist proportions. If we extrapolate that figure to the United Kingdom as a whole, it would mean that about 3 million people support the Bill. All credit to my hon. Friend.

The Bill will allow employees in Scotland who wish to opt out of Sunday working, for whatever reason, to do so in the safe and certain knowledge that that will no longer mean losing their jobs. I should have mentioned another Member, but given some of the ribbing that I have taken this morning, I am almost reluctant to mention him. Perhaps the hon. Member for Henley will whisper in the ear of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that I wish sincerely to thank him for the positive contribution that he has made to the debate. Perhaps later we shall have a duet with "Some Enchanted Evening". If the hon. Gentleman works his way through the words, he will find out what that means.

As we have heard, my hon. Friend's Bill will take its own place alongside Government policies aimed at ensuring fairness and dignity in the workplace. It is fair to say that we have had, on the whole, a very constructive exchange of ideas and information about Sunday working in Scotland and beyond, including the likely benefits and impact of the Bill. However, I should like to take this opportunity to remind the House exactly where the Government stand on the basic principles of this measure. As I think hon. Members will remember, the issue arose as a result of action taken by one company in Scotland that changed tack and breached the voluntary agreement to require its employees to work either regularly or occasionally on a Sunday, even where individuals had objected. Stores in north-east Scotland were especially affected, and, as I have said before, I pay tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North in bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

I make no criticism of the management of the company for seeking to arrange cover in its stores on a Sunday in a way that suits the needs of the business. Neither would it be appropriate for me to comment on any commercial considerations relating to its departure from the voluntary agreement that had existed in Scotland and prevailed until last year. However, the issue highlighted a difference between the rights of workers in Scotland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We have rehearsed the background to the legal position during this debate and in others Upstairs, but it is worth stressing that it was necessary to act because doing nothing would have meant that, as competitive pressures increased, more employers in the Scottish retail sector would have reviewed their Sunday working practices. There was a risk that shop workers and betting shop workers in Scotland would be discriminated against in comparison with their equivalents in England and Wales.

With those few words, I wish the Bill a fair passage in another place. I am delighted to hear that Lord Hogg will take the Bill through its various stages in the House of Lords. I was parliamentary agent to him when he served with distinction in this House, and I know that the Bill is in safe hands. I wish it well.

12 noon

With the leave of the House, I understand that it is the protocol for an hon. Member in my position to say a brief word of summing up and thanks.

I thank sincerely all hon. Members who came to the Chamber today and made this a well-informed, interesting and good-humoured debate, like those in Committee and on Second Reading. In particular, I thank the Front-Bench contributors, who spoke well and with conviction, and highlighted the need for the Bill.

I point out to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) simply that I wish to view myself as a lawmaker and not a lawgiver. There is an important theological distinction, which I shall not expand on here, but I do not aspire to become a lawgiver; a lawmaker will do.

It has been an immense privilege to play a part in putting this measure together. As someone who does not have any children, I suppose that I see my Bill heading off to another place as a parent might see their child heading off to school for the first time. I am sure that it is in very good hands with my noble Friend Lord Hogg.

I thank hon. Members who have come along today and supported the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has been tremendously supportive throughout, as has my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. As I have mentioned at every stage, USDAW has done a first-class job in representing its members and arguing very coherently that its Scottish members should enjoy the same protection as those elsewhere. I am immensely grateful to it.

For the last time, I hope, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Aviation (Offences) Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 1

Arrest Without Warrant

12.3 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 9, leave out "or".

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 11, at the end add

(c) a provision which prohibits specified behaviour by a person, being behaviour which is likely to endanger an aircraft, or a person in an aircraft,".

I am pleased to bring this Bill back to the House. I gave notice of both amendments in Committee. They seek to close a loophole in the Bill regarding police power in Scotland. Clause 2 amends the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to raise the maximum possible penalty to five years for the specific offence of endangering the safety of an aircraft or a person in an aircraft, thereby allowing a subsequent change to the air navigation order.

For England, Wales and Northern Ireland, raising the maximum penalty to five years carries the advantage of making the offence automatically arrestable, in accordance with section 24(1) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the equivalent provision in Northern Ireland. However, as there is no equivalent in Scotland, the offence would not be automatically arrestable in the north.

In Scotland, a police constable has a common law power of arrest, which must be justified according to the circumstances in a specific case. Although it may be possible to justify arrest for such a serious offence, I have been advised that it would be preferable for legal certainty to create a power of arrest in statute. The amendments achieve that by adding the penalty to the list of offences in clause 1(3), which is to be inserted after section 82(3) of Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. The offence would thus become automatically arrestable without a warrant in Scotland.

The amendments are technical and ensure that the police throughout the United Kingdom have the same enhanced powers to tackle the alleged incidences of disruptive behaviour that are most commonly known as air rage. Members of the Committee and the Under-Secretary were kind enough to say that they supported the amendments in principle. I hope that hon. Members will accept them today.

I support the amendments and I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) on his excellent drafting. Hon. Members will recall my declaration of interests on Second Reading, to which they will be pleased to know that I have nothing to add.

I sought assistance from the Library in preparing my response to the amendment. I want to record my disappointment that the annotated version of the Anti- terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 is not yet available. I am sure that that will be rectified as soon as possible.

The amendments are eminently sensible and, as the hon. Gentleman said, flow from discussions in Committee. He gave us notice of them and we support them.

We, too, support tightening the measure to ensure that it is effective in Scotland. Of course, we also support the principles of the Bill.

I indicated the Government's support for the amendments in Committee. Clearly, it is important that the police have the same power to deal with serious incidents wherever they happen in the United Kingdom. It would be unfortunate if an offence was tackled less effectively simply because an aircraft had landed in Scotland. I commend the amendment to the House.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 2, in page 2, line 11, at the end add

(c) a provision which prohibits specified behaviour by a person, being behaviour which is likely to endanger an aircraft, or a person in an aircraft,".—[Mr. Roy.]
Order for Third Reading read.

12.7 pm

During the Bill's passage, I have been gratified by the amount of support from hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom. The aviation industry has also given me much support. It recognises the need to tighten the law and that the phenomenon called air rage is a modern-day problem that will unfortunately continue to plague many aircraft passengers who are travelling on business or on holiday.

I tried to sum up the reasons for the Bill's importance on Second Reading. We have all witnessed incidents in pubs, clubs, streets or restaurants. For many people, the natural reaction is to stand back and get out of the way. That is easy in a taxi queue, restaurant or pub. However, it is totally different in a steel tube that is flying over 30,000 ft at more than 500 mph. The fear factor is vastly increased. There is nowhere to go or to take one's family.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) described how she had witnessed an incident and said how frightening it was for her and her family, simply because of the dangers associated with being on the aircraft. That shows why the Bill is needed: air rage can be traumatic for the victims, so we need to take action against it. Fortunately, serious instances are extremely rare, but even lower-level antisocial behaviour can be unpleasant for passengers. Many passengers have a natural fear of flying and are already nervous, so air rage and disruptive passenger behaviour is the last thing that they need.

It is important to acknowledge that cabin staff, by virtue of flying so often, are more likely to encounter air rage. The cabin staff unions support the Bill. People trying to earn a living as cabin staff should not have to put up with such behaviour. If they have to put up with it, they need to know that it can be dealt with as quickly as possible. When an aircraft lands, the police should be able to deal with offenders as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that is not happening now. Cabin staff have told me that they sometimes have to deal with offences in the air, only to find that, when the aircraft lands, the offender can walk away. If police investigations occur much further down the line, the action taken against the offender is often not serious enough. Cabin staff certainly welcome the Bill.

The police also welcome the Bill. As the law stands, the police can waste vast resources following up the sort of air rage incidents that we have all read about in the newspapers. On Second Reading and in Committee, I mentioned the example of what happened on 13 December last year when a plane load of Celtic football supporters were returning from a European game in Vigo. The day after the game, an incident took place on the plane and the cabin crew were worried that they were losing control. The pilot decided to send out a mayday and divert the plane to Cardiff airport. When the plane landed there, the police took some statements but the men involved were allowed to return to their homes in Scotland and the north of England. The Cardiff police then had to travel the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to take further statements from them. I am sure that the Cardiff police have enough on their plate without having to travel to the north of England and Scotland to take more witness statements about the incident. Three or four people were finally brought to court just a few weeks ago and found guilty. The case illustrates how much police time was wasted and the Bill should stop that happening for ever.

For the record, I do not want to be unfair to all the Celtic supporters on the flight. I have spoken to many of them, and they have read my remarks. This season alone, Celtic supporters have flown on aircraft to Basel, Lithuania and Stuttgart in Germany. They have even been to Blackburn and Liverpool, and, a few weeks ago, to see Celtic play Boavista. From today, they will form part of the biggest-ever exodus of football supporters from the United Kingdom, when about 50,000 of them travel to the UEFA cup final in Seville next Wednesday and I hope that they will be on their best behaviour. Indeed, I shall be there to monitor their behaviour—if for no other reason—like some of my hon. Friends whose names I shall not mention.

It has come to my attention that between 8,000 and 10,000 of those supporters will leave from UK airports on Wednesday morning alone to fly to Seville, Faro or Jerez, returning immediately after the game. We need to be aware of the problems that could be caused by such a massive number of people flying from, for example, Glasgow airport at 6 am, being in the centre of Seville during the day, attending the game at night and travelling home at about 4 o'clock the next morning. As hon. Members know, Glasgow people are not famous for partaking of tea and coffee when they attend sporting functions abroad—

Indeed. Many of those fans will take drink during the day and, unfortunately, some of them will be drunk by the time they get back to the airport. Regardless of how their team fares, they will have been out of their beds for 24 hours, they will be tired, they will have had a drink and could be intoxicated when they try to board the plane home. I suspect that when about 10,000 people are going through the doors of the Spanish airport in the space of three hours, they will be herded straight on to planes and returned to Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast or Glasgow. That could cause problems.

I have constantly raised such problems and will continue to do so. The football authorities must ensure that they keep a grip on things.

Of course, we want to crack down on drunken football hooligans, but how does the hon. Gentleman define "drunk"? I am worried that people who may merely have had a couple of glasses of the in-flight booze could be caught under the terms of the Bill, and that we are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

I should have made it clear that the flights will not be selling drink. All the football clubs and the football associations run drink-free flights, which I welcome. There is nothing wrong with people having a drink; I am certainly not anti-drink. I am talking about people who are obviously drunk and who would be incapable of escaping quickly from an aircraft in an emergency. Someone who has been up for 24 hours, who has been drinking and who has been waiting for several hours for a flight that leaves at 3 o'clock in the morning is likely to go into a deep sleep when they get to their seat. If they are intoxicated that can cause problems.

My fears about these problems began several years ago, when football supporters started going on away-days. Everyone—the clubs, the airport authorities and the travel agencies must ensure that fans are aware that they should act as responsibly as if they were going on holiday with their families or on a business trip.

To pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), we entirely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. He used the example of football supporters who are obviously drunk. One could give similar examples in respect of holidaymakers coming home after two weeks away. However, the Bill merely refers to a provision

"which prohibits a person from being drunk in an aircraft".
Theoretically, that could apply in all cases, so the definition of "drunk" is important. How, precisely, does the hon. Gentleman intend that word to be defined?

Before I came to this place, when I was a student, I worked in a bar at night, and I used to define people as drunk who were not capable of making intelligible conversation or who did not have their faculties about them. If you are a barman and someone who is drunk asks you for a drink, you say, "I am sorry. Quite frankly, you have had enough and you are not going to have any more. It is time to go home." The two situations are comparable, and I want someone at the airport to say, "You cannot board the plane because you do not have your faculties about you."

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is bearing it in mind, particularly in view of the news that we had last night of threats to flights to Kenya, that airport staff, aircrew and fellow passengers will have as their primary concern and anxiety the possibility that someone might have boarded an aircraft or be trying to board an aircraft who poses a security threat to that aircraft. In that situation it is very important that this legislation helps to deter anyone who, out of sheer irresponsibility, distracts cabin staff and has to have a lot of time and attention devoted to dealing with them, when there are serious threats from those who would imperil all the passengers on the aircraft. The legislation is important and valuable.

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he puts that point very straightforwardly. People need to realise that the behavioural patterns of those who travel on aircraft have totally changed and that we expect people to behave in a certain manner nowadays because, unfortunately, we live in changing and dangerous times. I hope that the Bill will signal that we realise that there is a problem and are determined to go some way to tackle that problem, as the airline industry and the police have said.

I do not want people to think that this is just a football problem; it is not. I highlighted that aspect because of events in recent weeks. The airline industry has told me that it is not only a holiday charter problem, or indeed an economy seat problem, because often the business man or woman in first class has proved thorny—and obnoxious, according to reports that I have had from the airline industry. The Bill is not aimed at just one section of the travelling public; the problem occurs on all types of flights, chartered or scheduled, and in business and economy class.

To recapitulate, the Bill would introduce automatic powers of arrest for the three most serious existing offences of disruptive behaviour—that is, air rage—on board aircraft: drunkenness, acting in a disruptive manner and endangering the safety of an aircraft. It would also allow an increase in the penalty for the latter offence—obviously the most serious of the three—from two years to five years. These are modest measures but they would undoubtedly make enforcement of the law far more effective. The Bill commands the support of all parts of the industry and, of course, the vast majority of the travelling public.

I place on the record my thanks to the hon. Members from all parties who have spoken in support of the Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and today. I thank the police for their help, and the airline industry—the companies and the trade unions—that helped me to prepare the Bill and gave me fantastic background information.

This is truly a United Kingdom Bill, and I am grateful to hon. Members from throughout the United Kingdom who have taken part in its scrutiny. I mention the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the hon. Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire), for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the hon. Member for the Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who spoke at length and very interestingly on Second Reading, and the other Opposition Members who spoke today. I also mention, from the Scottish constituencies, the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) from the north, for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) from the south, for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) and for Ayr (Sandra Osborne), the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) from the west coast and, from the central belt constituencies, my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) and for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). I also thank those hon. Members who have supported the Bill today.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials for their help in drafting the Bill. I was on the phone an awful lot, and they answered and got back to me very quickly. They were patient with me when they had told me the same thing two or three times and I asked them to tell me for a fourth time to make sure that I understood.

The Bill is much needed. We have all been on flights and we all know how traumatic such incidents can be, although many of us have never witnessed them. I am pleased that the Bill has met with universal support, and I look forward to it being passed in the other place.

12.25 pm

I should like to declare something of a constituency interest in the Bill: Southend airport—a regional airport—is near my constituency. It is in the neighbouring constituency—Rochford and Southend, East—and the boundary is only a few hundred yards from my own, so I am not the MP for Southend airport, but I am what is often called a travel-to-work MP because a number of my constituents travel to work from that facility.

Of course, as an Essex Member of Parliament, I wish to say that Stansted is in the county of Essex. I have sometimes heard Southend airport lightheartedly referred to as "Essex domestic" and Stansted airport as "Essex international". I simply enter that fact into the record.

Turning specifically to the Bill, I understand what the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) is attempting to achieve. Overall, the thrust of the Bill is laudable. The events of 9/11, tragic as they were, show us that an aircraft is not merely a mode of transportation any more. In the most extreme circumstances, a passenger aircraft can become a weapon—those people in the twin towers were on the receiving end of that—so this is an important measure.

The United States has taken airline security so seriously that it now deploys armed sky marshals on a number of its flights to provide protection. There is also some debate in the United States—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman suggests this in the context of the Bill—about whether or not cabin crew should be armed to allow them some defence against anyone who, for whatever reason, seeks to take over an aircraft. A propos all that, it is interesting that a number of pilots in the US are ex-military, and I understand that, funnily enough, they have requested the right to be armed, in ultimate defence of the cockpit. So we need to acknowledge that the Bill touches on a very serious matter. Incidentally, the Israelis have legendary experience in airline security, and I might return to that a little later in my remarks.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that bad behaviour on an aircraft can be antisocial, and he is quite right. I endorse his point, particularly about those who are nervous about flying. They find the whole experience difficult enough as it is, and they may even face that fear simply getting on an aircraft. Their fear is made worse if people on that aircraft behave in an extremely rowdy manner. Someone who is nervous can be made more anxious, perhaps even before the aircraft has left the runway.

I am currently serving on the Standing Committee that is considering the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, by means of which the Government are seeking to introduce measures that can curtail antisocial behaviour in a variety of circumstances. In the experience of those of us who are serving on that Committee—I believe that this is germane to the Bill before us—such matters involve some interesting and difficult problems of definition. When using certain terms in legislation, how do we define them, particularly if it might ultimately lead to a prosecution? The way in which we define an offence may be important when the Crown Prosecution Service ultimately attempts to achieve a conviction for it before a court. It is for that reason that I asked the hon. Gentleman in my earlier intervention how he would define "drunk". I assure him that I am not attempting to be obtuse, but if we are to prosecute someone for being drunk, as the Bill implies, it is necessary to define what constitutes drunkenness.

I take on board entirely the hon. Gentleman's point that if one has had his anecdotal experience of being a barman, one can tell quickly when someone has had one over the eight and ought not to drink any more. I see what he is saying, but in a pub situation a member of staff behind the bar can say, "You're obviously drunk. I'm not going to serve you any more alcohol." If one is trying to prosecute someone for being drunk on an aircraft, however, one will have to prove later in a court of law that that person was drunk. In that circumstance, my question to the promoter of the Bill—as I presume that one would want justice to play its part—is how would it be proven to the satisfaction of the court that the person had been drunk. He could say, "Well, I had had a few, but I wasn't actually drunk." It might then come down to the word of the captain of the aircraft against the word of the defendant. In relation to clause 1, therefore, it is important to ask the hon. Gentleman how drunkenness would be defined for the purposes of the proposed legislation.

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point, which was raised on Second Reading. An offence already exists in Scots law—I am not sure whether it is in English or Welsh law—of being drunk and incapable in a public place. In that case, the witness statement of the arresting officer is satisfactory to the court, and no measurement has to be taken of the blood alcohol level. I assume that a similar judgment can be made in this case.

That sounds to me to be a relatively practical suggestion. In a sense, I ask the question because I want clarification. The right hon. Gentleman has been of some assistance, and I see that the promoter of the Bill wishes to intervene.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question, I know that the Minister has a written definition of being drunk, and I know that he will say exactly what that definition is when he speaks.

In that case, I certainly look forward to the Minister's summing-up speech.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Minister could intervene on him on this matter? Clearly, alcohol is liberally available on most commercial flights, and, depending on the definition, we could find that half the passengers were drunk.

I know that my hon. Friend also has an interest in these matters because of the proximity of Manchester airport to his constituency. No doubt he has received correspondence on some of these matters, too. I would be willing to give way to the Minister if he would like to pop up and clarify this point beyond peradventure.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the point. I must say that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) sometimes looks as if he might be drunk on a couple of wine gums. Clearly, the hon. Members for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson) have led more sheltered lives than you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the legal context, in the Criminal Justice Act 1967 the words, "while drunk" have been held to mean,

"while deprived of self-control by intoxicating liquor".
I hope that that puts the lid on the issue.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. I hope that he understands why I sought to gain it. It would be important in the context of the Bill that people realised that there was a real deterrent. There would not be a deterrent if they felt that they would be likely to get off on a legal technicality when the matter came to court.

I said earlier that I would speak briefly about the experience of the Israelis in security screening. It is different from what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to achieve, but were one to plot such measures on a spectrum, for obvious historical reasons, the way in which El Al deals with some of these issues is absolutely at the furthest end of the spectrum that one could practically contemplate. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman wants to go that far.

People travelling on an El Al flight are normally required to arrive two to three hours before the flight departs. They then go through a physical search and an exhaustive screening process in which the airline's security officers put passengers into three categories of risk. They will interview them depending on the risk category that they assess the passengers to be in. The people in the highest risk category—they meet certain criteria which experience has shown El Al might make them more likely to attempt to do something to disrupt the flight—will go through an extremely intensive interview that almost borders on interrogation before they are allowed on to the flight. If there is any doubt at all in the minds of the security officers, they will refuse a person the right to get on the plane. Under Israeli law, they have the right to do that.

I do not think for a moment that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw is suggesting that the Bill should go that far. Having to triage and interview extensively everyone at terminal 4 at Heathrow on a busy Saturday morning before we allow them to board an aircraft would cause massive disruption. However, it is an example of how far one can go. The hon. Gentleman has come up with sensible compromises in the Bill that would allow for greater confidence for passengers and improve passenger safety without necessarily being over-restrictive

I commend the hon. Gentleman's efforts on the Bill; it is worthy. We may never know the overall effect of what he seeks to do. It is just possible that, in putting the Bill before the House of Commons, he may, in future, save the lives of people whom he has never met. He may have performed a valuable service. With that final word of congratulation, I shall conclude my remarks.

12.37 pm

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) on introducing the Bill. I was present at Second Reading, but did not have an opportunity to speak. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to contribute now. My hon. Friend joins a long list of lawgivers from King John and Moses to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns).

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw on the experience and knowledge that he brought to his description of the combined effects of alcohol and sleep deprivation on the human body. He obviously spoke with some feeling on the subject and from personal experience.

The Bill has clearly struck a chord not only in the House but among the wider public. When I worked as a reporter on the Paisley Daily Express between 1988 and 1990, one of my regular duties was to cover the local sheriff court. Almost every day I attended, cases were brought before the court from Glasgow airport, an area over which the court had authority. Day after day, business men and people from all walks of life were brought before the sheriff and fined and jailed for some of the most appalling deeds of misbehaviour that one can imagine. That was not bad news for me, because I regularly sold the stories on to the national newspapers and made quite a nice profit.

"Air rage" is one of the phrases much beloved of tabloid headline writers. It is made up of two very short words that fit into headlines. We seem to be complacent about the issue, but it has a number of causes. I understand and accept my hon. Friend's reluctance on Second Reading to introduce any ban on airlines selling alcohol on board flights. I completely understand the reasons for that. However, the House has to make a stand and make it clear to companies that if passengers who turn up to board a plane are clearly already inebriated and incapable of behaving themselves and of completely controlling their facilities, they should not be allowed to board.

I can speak from personal experience. The first time I ever flew on a plane I jumped out when it reached 3,000 ft, although that is not entirely relevant to the debate. I can confirm that I was wearing a parachute, and I mention that experience only because I suspect that few people have done it. However, my first experience on a commercial flight was on a journey from Glasgow to London. I was employed as a press officer by the Labour party in Scotland at the time and I had to attend a meeting in London during my first week in the job. On my return journey, I was seated in front of a gentleman and as soon as he entered the plane and sat behind me, I could smell the stink of strong alcohol on his breath. Being a novice of airline flights I said nothing until, at about 30,000 ft, he threw up—mostly on the seat, the back of the seat in front of him and the floor, but a good portion hit me on the shoulder.

That experience did not put me off flying, but it is ironic to note the response of the British Airways cabin staff. Although they first apologised and offered to clean my shirt and jacket, the compensation that they offered to try to cheer me up and to persuade me not to make a formal complaint was a large bag of miniature bottles of spirits—whisky and vodka. I did accept them, before anyone asks. Airline companies clearly have a failing because I could see that the man was clearly incapable of behaving himself as he walked down the plane corridor, so the staff must have been able to see that as well. We must ask airline companies why they do not prevent such people from boarding planes.

We have to accept that alcohol will be sold on planes. My wife would never get on a plane without having at least one G and T beforehand because she is not a good flyer. We travel separately, of course, so I do not know whether she has ever been involved in an air rage incident—she probably would not have told me if she had.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) talked about the type of passengers who cause such incidents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw referred to that today. My hon. Friend is right that such people are not only those who pay for economy seats. An incident occurred on a Virgin Atlantic Airways transatlantic flight a few months ago involving the rock star Courtney Love. According to all reports, her behaviour was truly appalling. She swore at, and threatened violence against, the staff on the flight. The owner of the airline, Richard Branson, treated the incident as a joke and offered her four free first-class flights on the same route in the hope that the pop star, who is presumably well known by hundreds of people, would continue to use the company. Given his standing as one of the country's leading business men, such complacency and such an irresponsible attitude to his staff is entirely inappropriate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw hit the nail on the head when he explained the differences between such incidents and a drunken fight in a pub in Glasgow or Lanarkshire. One may leave the area in which such a fight is taking place, but being involved in a situation on board a metal tube that is 35,000 ft in the air must be a truly terrifying experience. I have not had to deal with such an experience but I know that many people have.

The golden rule should be that passengers on any flight must do what they are told. They should not argue with the staff about whether using a mobile phone is safe or not. If passengers are told to switch off mobile phones, not to smoke in the toilets and to sit down when the seatbelt sign is on, they must do it. They should not enter into a debate with the staff on whether that is the most appropriate course of action. If a stewardess tells a passenger to sit down, he must sit down. There should be no question about that. The Bill kicks in if someone argues with the staff—and that is not before time.

I am disappointed that a matter of such importance to people in my constituency and throughout the country is nevertheless not important enough to persuade members of the Scottish National party to bother to attend on a Friday. That is a disgrace, but it is exactly what we have come to expect from members of that ever-diminishing party.

12.45 pm

I support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy). It is a useful measure.

I spoke on Second Reading and appreciate the fact that the Bill is making progress. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) rightly said, it deals with bad behaviour by people who drink too much and are disorderly. The Bill is not about terrorism and security, but at a time of heightened tension because of the security risks and threat of terrorism, people should understand that any disorderly behaviour that could cause other people alarm or make them feel threatened is a much more serious issue. Such behaviour is antisocial enough in its own right, but it adds another dimension to the problem because it could divert the crew, be frightening and, in some circumstances, lead to an overreaction.

I am slightly worried about the intrusion into the debate of the rights and wrongs of arming air crew. The idea of bullets flying around a plane does not enhance the prospects of security. That issue has to be addressed in a sensible, measured and practical way. The Bill has the merit of being specifically targeted at the type of behaviour that has received a lot of media coverage. Eager young reporters are clearly anxious to get such stories disseminated.

The hon. Gentleman picks up on something that I said earlier. For the avoidance of any doubt, I want to make it clear that I was not necessarily advocating that course of action. I was simply making the point that it is under active consideration in the United States.

I accept that. In many ways, the US has much to do to catch up with airport and airline security.

Like every other Scottish Member, I have an interest because we fly an awful lot. In addition, Aberdeen airport was in my constituency for 14 years. It is just outside it now, but will be part of it again under boundary commission proposals. People who fly are worried that they might confront disorderly behaviour.

The Courtney Love incident, which I mentioned on Second Reading, is worth repeating. I am not aware that Richard Branson has apologised or retracted his comments. He has not shown the slightest regret or remorse. Quite the contrary, in fact. He said, "I have made my money out of the pop industry and, frankly, I don't mind how pop singers behave on my airlines." Whether Richard Branson minds or not is not the point; what matters is whether the other passengers mind and feel fear, alarm and concern. To my mind, that shows a proprietor of a business who has a high disregard for the vast majority of his fare-paying customers. He offers the privilege to misbehave to a few celebrities. That is an appalling example and I should like Richard Branson, who is happy to take accolades for his supposed business acumen—although not all his businesses are equally successful—to acknowledge that that behaviour was appalling.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) said that rules are there to be obeyed and not argued about. He made it clear that when a plane is in flight, people should do what they are told by the crew and argue about it on the ground later. People must understand that if they are at all out of line, they face arrest or even imprisonment. That might make them realise that the regulations exist for a purpose.

I recall flying with Balkan Airways shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the plane was coming into land, I was more than a little astonished that people started to stand up, get down their bags and walk down the aisle to the front of the plane—we were still about 2,000 ft up in the air. The crew were remonstrating with them, saying, "Sit down. You shouldn't be moving about." Everyone was anxious to be the first off the plane, however, and they said, "We've had enough of these Communist regulations and we don't have to obey them any more." That demonstrated a lack of understanding that the rules were there for good reason, despite the fact that it was the bad guys who made the rules.

That illustrates the serious point that the number of incidents has increased in recent years, and the lack of punishment has made people feel that such behaviour is a joke, a bit of fun. Yet there have been incidents in which crew and passengers have been caused serious fear and alarm. Regrettably, many of these offences are committed by women—Courtney Love being a case in point—who seem to have the same capacity to imbibe and behave badly as the men. I suppose that that is just a matter of equality, but there is no apparent difference in the likelihood of misbehaviour.

Reference has been made to the fact that some people like to have a drink or two to calm themselves and to relax because flying is stressful. We must recognise that having a drink or two in that scenario is quite different from getting completely drunk, to the point at which, in the Minister's definition, one cannot control one's behaviour.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw has introduced a timely Bill that deserves the support of the House. I do not know whether it is by design or coincidence that we have a little package of Scottish-led Bills passing through the House today, but in those circumstances it is slightly surprising that the Benches behind me are completely empty. One would have thought that one of those Members could have found the time to be here, but that is a matter for them. Those of us who are here recognise that the Bill is worth while, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing it to the House.

12.52 pm

I, like other Members, rise in full support of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy). It is an excellent measure in so far as it is intended to crack down on louts and people who endanger the lives of others in aeroplanes. We have heard some vivid accounts of people who had clearly drunk too much, were the worse for wear and should not have been on the plane in that condition.

We are paid to be precise in our use of language, and I want to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) in turning to the question of what constitutes drunkenness, not because I think that it vitiates the Bill, but because the Bill would benefit from some refinement and reflection. The Minister intervened on my hon. Friend and said that he would define drunkenness as being a lack of self-control caused by taking alcohol.

We have to face the fact, however, that we are proposing to make it an offence for which one can be arrested, without a warrant, to be drunk—that is all on an aeroplane. We have to be very cautious about what we intend by that, because as I understand it, there is no intention to have any system of breathalysers on board aeroplanes, to verify a person's blood-alcohol level, or to demonstrate beyond peradventure that someone is drunk. No one seems to have thought about whether the airline itself will be accessory after the fact to making a person drunk on board a plane. After all, they ply you—not you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; they ply one—with alcohol from the moment of take-off.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point to which the Minister may wish to respond. If an airline or a steward or stewardess are aware that someone is drunk and continue to supply that person with alcohol, how will they be affected by the Bill? Will they be guilty, as my hon. Friend suggests, of being an accessory to a crime?

My hon. Friend amplifies the very point I sought to make. The legal position of the airline that supplies the alcohol to the passenger in flight is not clear.

We must accept that people have different susceptibility to alcohol, particularly when they have not eaten. It depends on their body size, and all the rest of it. People may, to all intents and purposes, become drunk under the definition in the Bill without drinking before they board the plane.

I recall a recent long flight to sub-Saharan Africa in the company of various representatives of UNICEF and a senior BBC figure, whom I shall not name.

No, I shall not. He is a nice, distinguished man, and a passionate smoker, devoted to nicotine. He used to rely on nicotine to get him through the stress of a long flight, but, there being no possibility of smoking on our plane, he was driven to have a few, which calmed him down a great deal and was highly beneficial. I put it to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw that one reason why people increasingly seem to be slightly the worse for wear for alcohol on board planes may be that so many flights are completely no-smoking flights. Might the Minister reflect on that, thinking whether, if there is to be a total ban on being drunk on a plane at any time, it may be necessary to consider some compensatory measure to bring back smoking sections on aeroplanes? Many people frankly find it difficult to put up with the rigours of a long flight without the sustenance and reassurance of a smoke. Indeed, one cannot even get peanuts nowadays on aeroplanes, because they have been banned. They will not serve me peanuts at all.

It is because of nut allergies. One cannot smoke, and one is now not to be allowed to be drunk, without there being any definition of drunkenness in the Bill.

I do not mean to say that that is necessarily, as my hon. Friend says from his sedentary position, an infringement of our civil liberties, but it may be. Without adequate definition, and without a more rigorous approach to the language, there is a risk that good people, who are simply trying to calm themselves down aboard an aeroplane, may find themselves caught by the terms of what is otherwise an excellent and well-intentioned measure.

12.57 pm

It gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate on behalf of Her Majesty's official Opposition. I remind the House of the declaration of interests that I made on Second Reading, and I offer my heartfelt congratulations to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) as promoter of the Bill. I commend the extremely hard work that he has put in on the Bill, which is a welcome one.

We have heard several excellent contributions today and at earlier stages of the Bill's passage. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) served in Committee, and he would have liked to be here today, had he not had to be in his constituency. The same goes for all my colleagues who spoke on Second Reading, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I very much enjoyed today's contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson), and the excellent interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne).

I do not want to intrude on private grief, but we lament the absence of the Scottish National party even as we welcome the humorous contribution made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce).

Our official position on air transport is that we want a fair deal for everyone. No passenger should be left behind and no plane held back because of air rage or any other condition. We enthusiastically welcome the Bill's creation of a serious, and potentially dangerous, offence, which needs to be tackled, not least in Scotland, which is why the amendments extending the provisions of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 to Scotland are so valuable

It would have been difficult if Scotland had been left behind, as the promoter of the Bill and many other hon. Members have connections north of the border. It is therefore timely to make that behaviour an arrestable offence by increasing the penalty from two to five years. However, at some date, we should explore the implications of the change.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is in the Chamber, as we enjoyed many happy hours discussing the Railways and Transport Safety Bill. He knows that I never miss an opportunity to ask why the provisions in the Aviation (Offences) Bill were deemed unworthy of inclusion in the railways measure. We obviously do not want to deprive the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw of his moment of glory, but these are pressing matters. Incidents reached a peak in the reporting period 2000–01, when there were 1,250 offences, up from 1,205 in the reporting period 1999–2000. Perhaps because not as many people are travelling by air post-11 September, the figure reduced marginally in 2001–02 to 1,055. It is noteworthy that 77 per cent. of incidents involve male passengers, and that figure has remained almost constant in the past three years. The majority of offenders are in their 20s, 30s or 40s, and about one third of incidents involve people travelling alone.

In the context of comments by the promoter of the Bill about people travelling to support football teams, I should specifically like to mention the fact that in the most recent reporting period, 21 incidents involved groups of 10 or more. I am sure that the Government will want to monitor that. About 5 per cent. of incidents occurred in business or first-class seating, in common with previous years. A huge amount of work has been done on the subject, largely because it was felt that some airlines and, in the past, the Government were not taking it seriously enough. I pay tribute to the impressive work in the field, not least by the Select Committee on Transport, on which I have had the honour of serving.

Before I get carried away with our enthusiastic endorsement of the Bill, I should like to highlight issues that have been brought to our attention by the industry. In particular, there is nothing in the Bill relating to passengers being under the influence of drugs, and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary would explain whether there is specific reason for that. Such a provision was not included in the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, which dealt successfully with other matters. Indeed, it is gratifying that a number of our amendments were accepted by the Government, for which I thank the Under-Secretary. When we were dealing with the level of alcohol in the blood of aviation personnel, why was it not deemed appropriate to include provisions now incorporated in the Aviation (Offences) Bill? Will the Minister tell us whether there is a specific reason for the omission of drugs from the legislation? As the Bill is about to go to another place, perhaps schedule 1A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 can be amended to include the following wording:
"a provision which prohibits a person from being drunk or under the influence of drugs in an aircraft, in so far as it applies to passengers".
Such an amendment would be welcome throughout the industry.

Like a number of hon. Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley spoke about the need for a definition. I note that the Minister helpfully gave us a different definition of intoxication. We discussed what constitutes air rage on Second Reading. I wonder whether the Minister is convinced that the Bill is clear on that.

I shall raise two or three other issues. One is the legal position, which was referred to this morning. of those passengers who take their own drink on board. About 40 per cent. of those involved in the offences that we are discussing do that. It is a rather alarming fact that 42 per cent. of passengers involved in aviation offences such as air rage were drinking alcohol heavily before boarding. The Bill remains silent on that, and we would like our disappointment in that regard to be noted. It would be welcome if the Government revisited the issue, given that the promoter has done so much excellent work in other regards.

The unions and the workers involved—I am sure managers as well—tackled the issue vigorously with the Deputy Prime Minister when he was responsible for the Department in the year 2000. They requested that there should be an international aviation treaty on air rage in a global context.

I welcome the fact that the House is legislating in respect of passengers boarding UK flights, or those flights departing from or arriving at UK airports. However, I have been asked to raise an issue, and I urge the Minister to take it on board so as to do proper justice to the Bill. The provisions in the Bill appear to solve the issue of passengers arriving in the UK or departing from it. However, the extent to which the Bill tackles the issue of passengers on UK-registered planes en route elsewhere is not clear. Presumably the Minister will be able to confirm that reciprocal arrangements will be available with other countries, or that the Govrtment are negotiating an international treaty.

I congratulate the promoter and thank everyone who has participated in an extremely interesting debate today, on Second Reading and in Committee, which I was unable to attend. With the proviso that we get some satisfaction on the points that we have raised, we wish the Bill a fair wind.

1.7 pm

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) on the way in which he has conducted the passage of the Bill through the House, on Second Reading, in Committee and today on Report. He has spoken with quiet determination and resolve. I am aware of the persistence that is needed to take a private Member's Bill through the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that he has done that.

It gives me considerable pleasure to speak in this debate. Sadly, because time was running out, I did not have much time to speak on Second Reading. If I do not bear down too much on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I might have an opportunity to make a few more remarks today.

The Bill would reinforce the message that disruptive or drunken behaviour on board an aircraft is unacceptable and will be dealt with severely. I hope that I did not upset the hon. Members for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) too much. It seems that they have left the Chamber. I beg the pardon of the hon. Member for Rayleigh, who is in his place. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is not present. It seemed from their boyish countenances that they did not know what drunkenness was. However, the hon. Member for Henley looks as if he has been about a bit, and seemed to be more familiar with the term drunkenness. In all seriousness, I think that anecdotally, and in an everyday sense, people might find it difficult to define the condition. However we all know drunkenness when we see it. To reinforce the point that I made in my intervention, it is held to mean that someone is deprived of self-control by intoxicating liquor. That would usually be combined with antisocial behaviour or behaviour that caused alarm or disturbance to other people, thus putting the aeroplane at risk. Equally, somebody who is drunk could be quietly sleeping on an aircraft and not drawing attention to themselves. I do not think that that would be a matter of concern. Indeed, some people might see that as a good thing and will have had a few jars beforehand to help them on their way. I appreciate that some people need that because they have a problem with flying.

The hon. Member for Henley mentioned smoking, which is a danger in itself on an aeroplane and is also injurious to the health of others. We certainly have no intention of introducing any measure that would encourage or allow people to smoke on aeroplanes.

The Minister implied that he appreciates that the definition is a relatively serious issue. What would be the legal position of somebody working for BAA in an airport bar who sold someone sufficient alcohol for them to become inebriated before boarding?

The position is akin to that of a staff member at a pub. Clearly, it is unwise to carry on selling or providing drink to somebody who is clearly already suffering as a result. Of course, the police exercise discretion in each instance, and I think that the same would apply to airport staff either on the ground or in the air. A steward on an aeroplane would be ill-advised to carry on providing drink to somebody who is clearly becoming out of control. I dare say that the airports and airline staff would be given guidance to ensure that that did not happen. It is sometimes a problem that disruption starts to happen when a person is denied access to further alcohol.

The issue rightly became the subject of increased public concern following a particularly nasty incident in 1998 in which a stewardess was attacked and injured on board a United Kingdom aircraft. Following that incident, the Government took action in two ways. First, we set up a disruptive passengers working group chaired by my Department and including representatives from the Civil Aviation Authority, the Home Office, the police, airlines and trade unions. The group, whose remit is to advise Ministers on measures to minimise the frequency and potential impact of disruptive behaviour on board aircraft, continues to meet regularly, and it supports the Bill.

Secondly, on the advice of that group, we introduced a standardised reporting scheme for incidents of disruptive behaviour on board United Kingdom aircraft. At the time, little hard evidence was available. It was agreed that statistics were necessary to establish the nature and scale of the problem.

United Kingdom legislation on disruptive passenger behaviour on board aircraft is already recognised as among the most comprehensive in the world. In addition to normal criminal law, which applies on board all United Kingdom aircraft—I hope that this answers the question that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked me earlier—wherever they are in the world, a number of offences in United Kingdom law relate specifically to behaviour in aircraft. Powers also exist to act against offenders on board non-UK airlines whose next destination is the United Kingdom—a point that we covered fairly thoroughly in Committee—provided that the act committed is an offence under both United Kingdom and the law of the aircraft's state of registration. We have taken steps at an international level to encourage more states to enact such laws where they do not already have them, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation has passed a resolution to that end. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Lady.

The Bill would complement existing legislation by ensuring that the police have the powers that they need to ensure effective prosecution of the offenders and that appropriate penalties are in place. The police have expressed concerns that their powers are not always sufficient with regard to some of the offences, and I can confirm that that sometimes prevents them from taking effective action. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, the cabin crew or passengers who have been victims of disruptive offences would find it unacceptable if the offender were not prosecuted because of difficulties in gathering evidence long after the incident had happened.

I reiterate that disruptive behaviour on aircraft is not as widespread a problem as media reports sometimes suggest. It is right that such incidents should be reported thoroughly, but it is important that the attention that is rightly focused on tackling the issue does not lead to exaggerating the problem or spreading alarm among the travelling public. We all agree that the last thing the airline industry needs is another reason for passengers to avoid flying. I therefore take the opportunity to place it on record again that the chances of any passenger encountering a serious incident or disruptive behaviour are slim.

By "serious", I mean incidents classified by the Civil Aviation Authority as threatening flight safety or personal safety or having the potential to do that if a situation escalated. In 2001–02, 52 of only 1,000 reported incidents on United Kingdom aircraft were classed as serious. That equates to one serious incident for every 2 million passengers, or one serious incident for every 22,000 flights. Figures for 2002–03 should be available next month and will be published on the Department's website. We hope that they will show such incidents becoming even rarer.

Although serious incidents are rare, that does not undermine the rationale for the Bill. If only a handful of incidents occurred each year, it would be important that the police could effectively follow up every one. Although drunkenness or being abusive to the crew may not be classified as serious, such incidents are more common and it is right that the police should follow up such offences.

The police have identified several practical difficulties that result from their lack of powers that can sometimes prevent them from taking effective action. That should be tackled as soon as possible. Any antisocial behaviour, however serious, on board an aircraft can be unpleasant and frightening for those affected. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said in his opening remarks, the cabin crew are at much greater risk of harm than the average passenger because of flying more frequently and the nature of their responsibilities.

Any sort of disruptive behaviour is unacceptable and we want to ensure that such incidents become rarer in the future. By allowing an increase in the maximum penalty for the most serious offences and ensuring that the police have the powers to prosecute offences more effectively, I hope that the Bill will deter such behaviour and lead to a reduction in the number of incidents.

I have not yet covered the point that the hon. Member for Vale of York made about people who are clearly drunk before they board an aircraft. When airline staff see such people, who could cause difficulties, trying to board, it is not unusual for them to prevent them from doing so. They have the powers to do that and I hope that they would use them effectively for the safety of the aircraft and the comfort of passengers.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the Bill and for all his work in ensuring its passage. It is eagerly awaited by the police and those who work in the airline industry, and I hope that it will receive a favourable hearing in the other place. I also want to place on record my thanks to the officials in my Department who have provided such effective help in preparing the Bill.

I commend the measure to the House.

Order. The hon. Gentleman needs to ask the leave of the House.

With the leave of the House, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all hon. Members who have turned up on what is normally a constituency day. The Bill is important and it has been a privilege to introduce it. I wish it a fair tail wind in another place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Marine Safety Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

1.20 pm

I am pleased to reach this stage of the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) and for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) on their success today, and I hope that my Bill will be similarly successful to complete the hat trick and give the other place some more work.

The Bill is greatly needed, as I shall explain. In the past 20 years or so, three major sea disasters have shaken the nation, resulting in the Government having to sit up and take notice and introduce legislation. The first was the disaster of the Torrey Canyon in the western approaches. The nation heard about that disaster, which polluted many beaches and caused havoc for a long time, for weeks on end.

That took place in March 1967 and was followed by a second major disaster, which involved another oil tanker, the Braer, in the Shetland islands in 1993. It resulted in a report by Lord Donaldson, which was followed by legislation. Various measures were taken, including the establishment of four emergency towing vehicles around the coast of Britain. Our coastline is 10,000 miles long: for a small island, we have one of the most extensive coastlines in the world. Following the Braer disaster, a key recommendation of Lord Donaldson's 1994 report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas" was the provision of year-round emergency towing vehicles for the UK coast. They were initially provided only for the winter months in some areas.

Following the subsequent report, "Review of Emergency Towing Vessel Provision around the Coast of the UK", published in 2001, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency now has four tugs on standby all the year round. The risk-based approach in the report identified the need for emergency towing vehicles in the northern isles, the Minches, the south-west approaches and the Dover straits, which, incidentally, is run on a joint management and finance basis with the French authorities. So ETVs are now on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to respond to shipping incidents in their areas.

The Sea Empress disaster occurred in Milford Haven sound in 1996. That led to a second report by Lord Donaldson—"Review of Salvage and Intervention and their Command and Control"—with many recommendations, which were taken up in successive legislation. The important legislation that ensued was the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997. One of the most important recommendations of Lord Donaldson's second report was to establish a Secretary of State's representative—SOSREP—based in Southampton in the offices of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Lord Donaldson had recommended that, when a major disaster occurred at sea, one person independent of the Government should take control, if it proved necessary, of the major incident, bringing under his control all the agencies that are involved in dealing with disasters at sea—the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, local authorities, ship owners and so forth. That post was established in late 1999. The first occupant, Robin Middleton, was appointed in October 1999 and is still in post.

Mr. Middleton has provided me with some data of incidents that he dealt with up to 31 December last year. The regions where those incidents occurred cover the entire British coastline. Obviously, in the south-western approaches and the main shipping lanes of the English channel, there are, pro rata, more incidents than round the rest of the coast. In the south-east region there were 42 incidents in the period of the SOSREP's report, in the southern region 34, and in the south-west region 33, out of a total of 262 incidents that he had dealt with up to the end of last year.

The SOSREP, independent of the Government, has the power to direct the ship's owner, the harbourmaster or whoever he needs to direct in dealing with the incident. There are various directions that he can give. In the 262 incidents with which he has been involved, he has given 30 directions. The incidents occur in both summer and winter. During the period that I mentioned, there were 134 incidents during the summer and an almost equal number, 128, in the winter.

The incidents put lives at risk, and can also result in pollution. All ships carry bunker oil, which if they are holed or otherwise damaged on rocks or cliffs can result in an oil pollution incident. Of course, oil tankers are at greatest risk of polluting the marine environment. Of the 262 incidents, 30 resulted in oil spillages greater than half a litre. The vessels involved include every type of vessel imaginable—53 general cargo vessels, 23 bulk carriers, 45 fishing vessels, 34 oil tankers, as well as aircraft carriers, factory vessels, salvage vessels, timber carriers and yachts. Almost every type of vessel that sails the seven seas has been involved in those 262 incidents.

The types of incidents included 52 groundings, the most recent being the Mulheim, which ran aground a few weeks ago off the coast of Cornwall, resulting in the spillage of plastic chips into the sea. Mr. Middleton has been dealing with the Mulheim incident for six weeks. There have been 38 collisions, 65 engine failures, 25 fires, 16 sinkings, a number of explosions, some steering problems and incidents of ships taking on water. The SOSREP has dealt with every kind of incident imaginable.

I shall give one or two examples. On 7 November 1999 the Dole America was carrying 10,000 tonnes of fruit cargo when it crashed into the Nab tower, which is a pretty big obstruction, and ran aground, prompting fears of heavy pollution as oil gushed from the stricken vessel. The vessel had 440 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 70 tonnes of diesel on board. Five tonnes of lubricating oil were lost from the vessel and the SOSREP had to establish a 500 m temporary exclusion zone, and all salvage and passage plans were authorised by him.

On 29 October 2000, the MV Havlys, a chemical tanker, was involved in an incident. The vessel was known to be leaking hydraulic fluid from her steering machinery and there was concern that that could lead to a reduction in her manoeuvrability. She was on passage from Houston to Hamburg carrying a cargo of propylene but in view of her problems she proceeded to Falmouth. The SOSREP instructed one of the coastguard emergency towing vehicles to stand by in case the vessel got into greater difficulty. As I pointed out earlier, there have been 262 incidents.

Clause 2 deals with fire risks, which can be especially great for oil tankers. In the 10 years between 1991 and 2001, a total of 340 ships have been involved in fires at sea, within the 12-mile maritime limit for which we are responsible.

The introduction of the post of SOSREP has met with worldwide acclaim. I have several newspaper articles on the subject. Hans van Rooij, the managing director of Smit Salvage, a major Dutch salvage firm, praised Lord Donaldson's recommendation that there should be a Secretary of State's representative. Britain is the only country to give such powers to an individual. So far, the SOSREP has dealt successfully with 262 incidents.

Most countries are keeping a close eye on what Britain is doing. We are setting a model for maritime safety that will, hopefully, be adopted by many other countries, resulting in a huge saving of life, as well as minimising the risk of pollution when ships are involved in collisions.

One could speak for two or three hours about the impressive performance of our Secretary of State's representative, Mr. Middleton and about the whole jigsaw with which he is involved. However, two small pieces still need to be slotted into place, and then our procedures will be excellent. That is what the Bill is about.

One difficulty for the SOSREP is that he has no powers over the riparian owners of wharves, jetties, piers and other items. For example, on the Thames—the closest navigable water to the House—all those facilities, from the estuary to the limits of navigation, are in private ownership. If a ship of any size got into difficulty in the River Thames, perhaps through catching fire, the SOSREP would have no power to park it at a wharf or at the end of a jetty without the permission of the owners who might not be readily available in an emergency. The same is true of harbours and along the entire 10,000 miles of our coastline.

Obviously, it would be preferable for the SOSREP to have power to instruct riparian owners to allow him to deal with incidents, especially a major disaster; for example, to bring an oil tanker with engine problems to a jetty and unload the oil, rather than risk the disasters that we have seen off the French and Spanish coasts. I refer, of course, to the Prestige.

Is it the hon. Gentleman's view that the Bill will not go far enough to prevent a Prestige-type disaster occurring in this country? Is he satisfied that the powers exercised by Mr. Middleton would be sufficient?

That is a good point. The master of the Prestige asked the Spanish authorities whether he could go to a place of refuge from the gale to unload the oil before a major disaster occurred. The wrangling that occurred between the Spanish authorities and the ship's master, and presumably the Spanish Government, did not enable the Prestige to berth in a place of refuge, so it had to go out to sea, where it split in two, shedding thousands of tonnes of oil, affecting not only the Spanish coast but the French coast. That incident is continuing. The SOSREP told me only last week that thick oil is still coming out of that ship and polluting the whole of the marine environment.

If my Bill is enacted, the Secretary of State's representative in this country could ensure that a ship of that kind could be brought into a safe place of refuge and dealt with, hopefully by unloading the oil and preventing a huge marine disaster. Clause 1, with its associated schedule, is an important clause.

There is also a difficulty with firefighting at sea. The legal limits for a fire authority are the county boundaries for that authority and the low-level mark of the sea. Beyond that, the fire authority has no legal jurisdiction. There have been one or two cases where a fire authority has been airlifted on board a ship and fought the fire successfully—one fire was on a passenger ferry crossing the English channel not that long ago, and that was dealt with by the Suffolk coastal fire authority—only to be unable to recover costs.

My hon. Friend has described clearly why the Bill is so important to the maritime industry and to seafarers, but is he aware that Kent fire brigade has a proud record of service for protecting not just the Dover strait but the whole area of coastal waters around it, and that only yesterday its chiefs were saying how appreciative they were of the Bill because it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain that flying squad of trained firefighters to protect our coasts?

My hon. Friend has much greater experience of the sea than I will ever have, and he is absolutely correct.

Because of the difficulty that the Suffolk fire brigade had in recovering the costs—it failed to recover its costs in court, because the judge ruled that it had been outside the limit of its legal jurisdiction—clause 2 extends that legal jurisdiction to enable coastal firefighting authorities that have dealt with major disasters of that sort to recover their costs.

Only 10 fire authorities around the coasts of Britain—my hon. Friend mentioned one—are willing to do that very dangerous work now, and I understand that without clause 2, their number is likely to decrease further, because the cost of fighting fires at sea is obviously much greater than on land. First, the men and women of the fire brigade must receive specialised training. They must be lifted on to the ship, which is extremely costly, with all their equipment—fighting a fire on a ship requires equipment specially designed for the purpose. That clause is desperately needed, to put in place the second of the two jigsaw pieces that will give the Secretary of State's representative in Britain—the first in the world, let us remember—the complete paraphernalia to deal with major disasters at sea. I hope that that will result in the saving of life and, equally, prevent major pollution disasters at sea, of which I have mentioned only three of many.

I commend the Bill to the House.

1.39 pm

The Bill has two factors in common with the Aviation (Offences) Bill, which we discussed a few minutes ago, from my perspective at least. First, again, this is an essentially laudable measure in what it seeks to achieve and, secondly, I declare that I have something of a constituency interest, which I shall explain for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the Member in charge of the Bill.

On the River Crouch, which is part of the northern border of my constituency, there is still a wharf in commercial operation. [Interruption.] If the Minister will allow me, I shall say why I refer to it. Ships still regularly come into that wharf to unload their cargo. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that those vessels are normally in the 500 to 1,000-tonne class, so I am not talking about major supertankers being brought into the River Crouch. I say that straight away to reassure my constituents.

Nevertheless, some commercial seafaring traffic comes in and out of my constituency by virtue of that facility, which is located at a place called Hullbridge on the southern bank of the Crouch. If one looks across the river into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), one sees Burnham directly on the other side. Burnham has powerful connotations to anyone in the yachting community, not least because of the wonderful festival, Burnham week, which is sometimes referred to as eastern England's answer to Cowes. So I have something of an interest.

Having looked at schedule 1, in particular, I am gratified to note that the hon. Gentleman has taken considerable care in drafting the Bill. He makes specific provision so that, if a direction is made that orders a vessel to come into a berth or a wharf, perhaps carrying some form of dangerous cargo, and damage is done as a result of that direction to the detriment of the wharf's owners, they can be compensated for any damage done, perhaps in an emergency. Even if the wharf's owners were reluctant to accept that vessel, they would have to comply with the direction that they were given. In such a hypothetical scenario, at least the owners or operators of that wharf would have a right to compensation when the emergency has died down and the dust has settled. That is a valuable provision.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I omitted to say that the Bill contains compensation rights for the riparian owners, to whom I referred. If an oil tanker came in and had to be dealt with for several days, that might prevent several other oil tankers from unloading. That would put the owner of that jetty or wharf at serious financial loss. My Bill will enable the Government immediately to compensate owners for the kind of incident to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and the Government would then deal with reclaiming the compensation from the ships' owners at a later date. I hope that that will encourage riparian owners to cooperate with the Secretary of State's representative.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. Given the way in which the maritime industry operates in the 21st century, he will no doubt be aware that a lot of ships, particularly tankers—the example that he uses—operate on tight schedules. Their operators want to transport and unload their cargoes and to turn round their ships as fast as possible, and then get straight on to the next contract. Therefore, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the scheduling times are quite tight, particularly for some of the larger facilities—larger than those in my constituency, I confess. If, as he posits, an emergency were to throw that timetable out of kilter for some unforeseen reason, the owner of the berthing facility or wharf could suffer considerable financial loss and therefore might, understandably, object to an order.

I highlight that part of the Bill because it is very important that the hon. Gentleman has included that compensation facility. I hope that, in an emergency, people would not quibble over money—to put it bluntly—and that they would do whatever was practical and necessary to try to alleviate that emergency as best they could, particularly if there were a risk of loss of life or an environmental disaster. Wherever a financial bottom line is involved, people sometimes tend to be a bit sticky—that tends to be human nature. So that provision is a very important.

Clearly, safety is paramount and the safety of people's lives is paramount, but we are also sent here by our constituents to protect the interests of taxpayers. Has my hon. Friend seen any analysis of the kinds of costs in terms of compensation that may be have to be forthcoming out of the public exchequer as a result of this Bill?

I have not seen such analysis, and my hon. Friend is correct that we have a responsibility to the taxpayer at all times. I should have thought, however, working purely from first principles, that this might be the kind of example in which the Government could compensate from the contingency fund—[Interruption.] I appreciate that that is still taxpayer's money, but this is an example of a contingency, almost by definition. I see that the promoter of the Bill wishes to intervene, and I suspect that he has an answer.

Those matters are indeed covered in the Bill, so the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) need not have any fears.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reassurance.

That leads me to the second area that I wish to explore. Clearly, the whole Bill touches on matters relating to insurance. I wonder whether there is some way in which the House can be given some feel for what negotiations and discussions have been undertaken, and in what depth, with Lloyd's, which, clearly, has an important interest. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not a member of Lloyd's or of a syndicate, but, clearly, it would potentially have a significant interest in this legislation. Its view and advice on such a technical matter would be important. I would therefore be interested to know what liaison or consultation there has been with Lloyd's of London in relation to this piece of legislation. That information might be valuable to the House.

The third area that I wish to raise relates to rescue and evacuation. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is talking about fire safety in certain clauses of his Bill, and also about the recouping of costs for fire authorities that are involved in fighting fires on vessels, either offshore or when they have been brought into berth in the United Kingdom. With all the other budgetary pressures that there are on fire authorities—I do not wish to stray out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—all Members will be aware that a number of our fire authorities, for various reasons, are not exactly flush with cash. Again, therefore, it is important that the hon. Gentleman has provided in the Bill that fire authorities that must undertake these perhaps unexpected tasks might be given adequate financial compensation.

There is also a related issue of rescue. Before I go any further, I declare an interest as a member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Has there been much consultation with the RNLI about whether the hon. Gentleman's Bill will have any implications for its operations? Those are the people who will, and who do, day after day and in all weathers, to their immense credit, go out to sea and rescue seafarers who are sometimes in the most tremendous peril. We must be aware whenever we touch on these matters, that there is a history of volunteers giving their lives for the cause of maritime safety. It is to the immense credit of the RNLI that it has that proud tradition, down the centuries. As it will be part of its business, sometimes, to go out to sea, perhaps at night, and in awful weather, to rescue people, perhaps from a ship that is on fire, what liaison and discussion has there been with the RNLI in terms of its input into this Bill? It occurs to me that it would have a legitimate interest in this area, and that it might have some beneficial experience to offer to the hon. Gentleman.

In summary, I welcome the point about provision, not least as it might one day affect a relatively modest operation in my constituency. I wish to reiterate the point about liaison or otherwise with Lloyd's of London, as it may have experience to offer. I would also be grateful to be advised regarding any liaison or discussion that may have taken place with the RNLI, as it has the potential to offer valuable experience. With those three points, I draw my remarks to a close.

1.49 pm

I rise to support the Bill. Several of my colleagues represent constituencies that could be directly affected by it, and I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) is a sponsor. The Isles of Scilly get a specific mention in the text.

One point about the recovery of the charges of fire services requires clarification. Under clause 2, the ability of fire services to charge will be confined to England and Wales. I take it that that is because provisions for such charges in Scotland will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Will the Minister clarify whether there is or is likely to be such a provision? If the Bill comes into force, fire authorities in Scotland might be disadvantaged. However, if it is just a matter of devolving the issue to the Scottish Parliament so that it can deal with it in due course, that will be fine. However, clarification would be helpful.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has provided a comprehensive record of the incidents that have happened over the years and that have damaged or threatened our coastlines with pollution. He specifically identified the role of the Secretary of State's representative and the unique value of that. In the hon. Gentleman's speech, he made it clear that the value of having someone with such power is that it will enable an immediate response to take place at times of crisis and will not require for negotiation with different Departments, agencies and authorities when a disaster is unfolding by the hour and by the minute.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Braer incident off the Shetland islands several years ago. We were fortunate that nature took care of the consequences of the incident rather better than we did and rather better than many people feared. The wind and the flow of the sea took the oil deep off the continental shelf and did not lead to the pollution that people had anticipated. Nevertheless, people recognised that that was a matter of good luck and not of good management given that the incident occurred at all and given the difficulties of dealing with it.

Some of our coastal areas are remote and extremely exposed, and the weather conditions there can be severe. I do not demur from the view that having someone to tackle such incidents is desirable, but the circumstances are often such that it is difficult to find a resolution to them. However, when there is a fire or the threat of major oil pollution, having the opportunity to mobilise all the available facilities to take a ship away from our waters and from where it can do damage or, alternatively, to bring it in to deal with the fire or potential pollution in a controlled manner has much to commend it. In that sense, the Bill adds a dimension to the existing regime to enable the Secretary of State's representative to operate with greater efficiency.

We have had a short debate on the implications for insurers and commercial interests. Although such markers should be put down—the Bill should deal with them directly—we must recognise that time is not on our side when incidents occur. The owners may not be available or face a clash of commercial interests. As long as they understand what the law requires of them and there is proper compensation, there will be recognition of the greater good.

I notice the reference in the Bill to the European convention on human rights. I have a particular interest in the issue, as I am a member of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. However, I am persuaded by the reference that the interference with the right of owners to the possession and use of their property—a fundamental right in article 1—can be derogated if greater good can be achieved by using their facilities to prevent damage to the wider community. On that basis, I commend the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on the detail addressed by the Bill. He has clearly thought through the implications of the provisions, no doubt in consultation with the Department for Transport and the Secretary of State's representative, and on the basis of experience over the years.

The Bill would increase our power to respond to the disasters that inevitably threaten the shores of an island community with so much coastline, much of which is exposed to severe weather and around which there is so much traffic. The Bill is not a definitive solution and I know that people who live in Shetland and other exposed areas would like more agreement among those involved in merchant shipping so that risks can be avoided. I must say, with regret, that too many ship owners operate to standards of seaworthiness and seamanship that fall well below what reasonable society has the right to expect. The incident involving the Prestige showed the problem of an unseaworthy vessel being compounded by the inability of relevant national authorities to respond quickly and appropriately, which led to an ongoing disaster of major proportions.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East does not pretend that the Bill is a definitive solution to such problems, but it would allow the United Kingdom to deal with the threat of disaster around our shores. The Bill would be practical and effective and deserves the House's support because it would save lives and avoid pollution.

1.56 pm

We, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on promoting the Bill and on stimulating such a genuine and timely debate. We heard interesting contributions from hon. Members this afternoon, in Committee and on Second Reading. I must note the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who cannot be present. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on their notable contributions.

The Bill would confer powers on the Secretary of State to give a direction to a person in charge of land next to, or accessible from, United Kingdom waters or to a person in charge of facilities used by ships such as berths, wharfs and jetties. That direction could require the person in charge to allow persons to land and/or make facilities under their control available, with the object of reducing or preventing risks to safety and risks of pollution. Secondly, it would allow fire authorities to make a charge for firefighting services at sea outside the area of every fire authority. We support both measures, and it is a tribute to the excellent work of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East that no amendments to the Bill have been tabled. However, I shall briefly raise several issues.

We welcome the implementation of Lord Donaldson's main recommendation that one person should take control of all incidents—an appointment was made in October 1999. I declare an interest in that I served for six days on HMS Cumberland as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Three lady Members made the visit, which was the first visit to such a warship made by any hon. Member. We were told that fire is the biggest risk faced by any merchant or naval ship. We were asked to dress into firefighting equipment, in its various shapes and forms, which took us a considerable time—I do not think that we managed it. If one thinks that a firefighter on a ship can do that in minutes and seconds, one pays tribute to firefighters and fire brigades serving throughout the country and at sea for being prepared to undertake such responsibilities.

I agree with my hon. Friend and enjoyed her recollections of her brief stint as a Wren. As someone who comes new to the Bill, can she tell me how it affects the Navy's military vessels, or are they covered by previous legislation? Do they have the right to dock at any facility if they are in trouble? If not, does the Bill include them in its scope? If she does not know the answer, perhaps the Minister could clarify that in his response.

It is an interesting point. We found a loophole in the Railways and Transport Safety Bill in a similar regard. I shall leave it for the Minister to respond to my hon. Friend's excellent question. If the Navy does not have such rights, the Bill will need to be amended.

I join the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East in recognising and paying tribute to the excellent work of the SOSREP, Mr. Middleton, who has powers to direct the ship owner, harbourmaster and others. I declare an interest in that I have close friends who were involved in the Prestige disaster, one of whom now runs the Spanish fisheries department. They have had a monumental task to recover from that disaster. In addition to the environmental damage to the coast and the effect that that had on wildlife, those who sustained their livelihood from fishing in that area suffered a dramatic, and regrettable, economic loss. There are serious lessons to learn from the Prestige disaster. I welcome the confirmation by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East that the Bill's measures will go far enough. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that if such a disaster occurs in our waters, the Bill closes any possible loopholes.

The British coast has a number of environmentally sensitive areas. Spillages and other pollution would have a devastating effect on the fish and birds in those areas. It emerged from the debate in Committee that there is a problem with the legal limits of the fire authority. I seek confirmation that those will be broadened and the jurisdiction extended. I also hope that the provisions address the difficulty of recovering costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge asked in Committee whether a vessel in French territorial waters could ask for the Kent or any other UK fire service to deal with a fire on board. Could UK fire brigades fight a fire outside our territorial waters, and would they be compensated for that? That is fundamental to the Bill's success. I am alarmed to read that in Committee the Under-Secretary said only 10 firefighting authorities provide a maritime service. We want that closely monitored. He also explained that from Essex to the highlands and islands in the north of Scotland, which covers my region, only two authorities—in Lincolnshire and Humberside—provide fire cover. That is very worrying.

Fire authorities have no duty to fight fire at seas. I do not know to what extent such a duty is imposed by the Bill. It would be helpful to find out. The Under-Secretary said in Committee that in light of the distances involved, the specialised training and equipment that is required makes it an expensive firefighting service. If it is increasingly likely, as he said, that fire authorities will not engage their brigades at sea unless they can recover the costs, does the Bill sufficiently extend the provision to recover those costs in full? If so, from which budget will the recovery of those costs be paid? Is new money being made available for that?

Further to that point, may I ask another question to which my hon. Friend may have an answer? If there were a fire on a boat in international waters, and the captain had to decide whether to take his stricken vessel to Britain or France, what would be the state of the law in that situation? Might we not, by our excellent law in this country, encourage stricken vessels to come to our walls and jetties, where we are enjoined to make provision for such incidents, whereas that may not be the case in France? Should we not find out the state of the law in other countries?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The Minister has chastised me on a number of occasions for seeking to perform not only the role of the official Opposition but that of the Government, so with the Minister's permission, I draw his attention to my hon. Friend's remarks and invite him to respond when he sums up the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on securing a place in the ballot, and I pay tribute to him for his hard work on Second Reading, in Committee and today. I repeat that we broadly welcome the Bill's main provisions and the role that it may play in complementing the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

Like my hon. Friend, I support the Bill's general provisions, but I have still not had a satisfactory answer about the costs that may flow from it to the public Exchequer. It has been made clear that in some cases, such as those mentioned in the debate, we may be looking at millions of pounds of compensation. Is my hon. Friend aware of any assessment by the Government of the possible impact on taxpayers?

My hon. Friend repeats a question that I asked earlier, and he reinforces my point. I am sure that the Minister would want to give us both satisfaction on that, so I welcome my hon. Friend's helpful intervention.

I recognise the tremendous role that shipping plays in this country; after all, Great Britain is an island nation. Ninety per cent. of our overseas trade and 7 per cent. of our internal trade is carried by sea. As the Minister is aware, I am particularly wedded to the concept of short sea shipping. That, too, may be worthy of mention in his summing up of the debate. [Interruption.] Indeed, in our fair deal for everyone, we hope that coastal shipping will not be left behind.

The Government must do everything possible to protect our environment from damage caused by pollution that falls within the terms of the Bill. Clause 2 will allow fire authorities to charge for firefighting services at sea, outside the area of every fire authority. I ask again which budget that money will come from and whether new money will be allocated. I pay tribute to the extensive, thorough work currently being done on the role of fire brigades in marine incidents. The Minister might have waited for the results of those research projects, and the findings, having become clearer, could have been incorporated in the Bill. He may want to give the House a brief overview of that research.

We must ask again why these provisions were not deemed suitable for inclusion in the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, which deals with certain maritime provisions. In the Minister's view, does this Bill sufficiently cover the problem of pollution that has reached the coast? A key recommendation of the Donaldson inquiry into the Braer disaster of 1993 and the inquiry into the Sea Empress disaster of 1996 'was that local authorities should have a statutory duty to plan to undertake shoreline clean-ups following marine pollution incidents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge made a positive, skilful contribution in that regard on Second Reading and in Committee. He also asked whether the role of the local authority in cleaning up after a maritime disaster will be recognised and what funds will be made available. I am mindful of the fact that the responsibilities of local authorities are increasing while their budgets seem to be reducing. There seems to be no recognition of additional responsibilities, and that is especially true for emergency planning—the so-called national contingency procedures. I recognise the role played by Hawkhills college, near Easingwold in the Vale of York, in that regard.

What will happen to emergency planning funding under the Government's forthcoming national contingencies legislation, particularly as regards maritime disasters? I understand that ring-fenced grants currently provided by the Government to local authorities will cease. How will emergency planning for marine disasters be financed by local authorities in future?

I pay tribute to SOSREP, welcome his appointment by the Secretary of State and welcome the fact that he can act independently. I also pay tribute to the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, whom I recently visited to receive an excellent briefing. He will shortly retire, and I pay tribute to all his work in many capacities, most recently as chief executive of the MCA.

I want, finally, to raise the role of the MCA. On what advice will the Secretary of State make the directions cited in the Bill? Will it be on the advice of the chief inspector of marine accidents or will it be on the advice of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? How will we know what directions have been issued by the Secretary of State? Will they be reported to Parliament, perhaps through the new tool of the written ministerial statement, and will they be subject to debate?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, and I wish the Bill a fair wind.

2.12 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on the way in which he has handled his Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and today. He spoke with considerable passion and commitment in prosecuting his powerful arguments. He has, I know, worked hard to secure the Bill's passage, and it is a tribute to him that it remains unamended from the form in which it was introduced five months ago. I am grateful for the positive and constructive support that the Opposition parties have given it.

The Bill is small but very popular. In certain instances, the changes that it brings about in our legislation may be significant. As my hon. Friend said, the United Kingdom has 10,000 miles of coastline, and it is adjacent to some of the busiest sea lanes in the world. For example, the straits of Dover lie off the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), who is present, where there are 400 vessel movements a day. Because of that, we have always placed maritime safety and prevention of pollution among our top priorities.

Ten years ago, we suffered the Braer incident in the Shetlands. The Braer was fully laden with 84,000 tonnes of crude oil when she went aground on the rocks of Garths Ness, off Shetland, after losing power. She also had some 1,600 tonnes of heavy fuel bunkers. Oil began to escape in large amounts as soon as she went aground. She eventually broke up a week later, spilling all her remaining cargo and bunkers. Nine beaches and other sites had to be cleaned, and one fifth of salmon farms were threatened with closure. Salmon from affected fish farms, even when healthy, were tainted, and they had to be destroyed.

After the Braer incident, we all saw pictures of dead birds covered with oil—in fact, 1,500 sea birds were found dead, and I am sure that many others were never found. Otters and seals were also treated for contamination. I give those details because we must not cannot underestimate the damage that incidents of that sort do to marine life and the environment. A pollution incident of such magnitude inevitably caused major hardship for many people. Some of the oil was blown off the sea on to houses. It is a tribute to the resilience of the people of Shetland—I had the pleasure of visiting it last year and talking to some of those who were affected 10 years ago—that they coped so well with the traumatic consequences of that devastating incident on their small community.

On the sad anniversary of the spillage 10 years ago last January, I made a written statement outlining all the measures that have been put in place since then. I will not run through them today, but they are available in the statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has previously outlined the provisions of the Bill in detail. At present, the necessary powers are significantly lacking—a damaged vessel may be directed into a port area, but if there is a refusal by private owners and facilities to offload the vessel or bring it alongside so that a fire can be fought from the shore, the risk presented by the casualty will remain. Such delays could result in precious time being wasted and the situation deteriorating, thus increasing the risk to the coast and the community.

There are two cases in which vessels have been refused access to port facilities in the past three years, one of which involved the MT Framness. Last July, she was refused access to her privately owned discharge facility in the port of Milford Haven, when it became known that her engines had stopped and may have needed repairs before they could be restarted. In that condition, she returned to sea in worsening weather, thus risking becoming a casualty and producing massive pollution. The SOSREP, to whom my hon. Friend referred, was powerless to prevent that situation, and had to rely on his powers to require the provision of tug support for the vessel so that repairs could be effected.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) who is now sitting on the Front Bench—he has promoted himself—asked about fair compensation for facility owners. The Bill ensures that in the first instance the Government pay compensation which, if necessary, will be reclaimed from ship owners through insurance. The hon. Gentleman also asked about Lloyd's of London. I can assure him that it was consulted in Lord Donaldson's review of command and control, on the recommendation of which the Bill was introduced. It is important to recognise that the cost of compensation for riparian owners is small in comparison with any pollution and loss of life.

No, because the hon. Gentleman was not here at the beginning of the debate.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) made an interesting point about Scotland. Merchant shipping issues are reserved in Scotland, but the legislation is UK-wide, as that is necessary for the international nature of merchant shipping. However, fire service issues are devolved, and the Bill's fire provisions apply only to England and Wales—the geographical area covered by the Fire Services Act 1947. I hope that is helpful for the hon. Gentleman. As for naval vessels—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is not listening to my answer, so perhaps he would break off his conversation with the hon. Member for Rayleigh. We do not give any directions to naval vessels, but harbours and riparian facilities could be directed to accept a naval vessel if that was deemed necessary.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked about extending the jurisdiction of fire authorities. UK legislation extends only as far as UK territorial sea and applies to UK ships wherever they are. The Bill does nothing to extend that jurisdiction or the statutory duties of the fire authorities, but it gives them an incentive to provide a service to fight fires at sea by allowing them to recover costs.

The hon. Lady asked also about budgetary provision. In any instance where money is paid out by the Government in compensation, we shall seek to recover that money from the ship owners or their insurers. We shall have to make provision available so that there are proper contingency funds, if necessary, for an emergency response. I would anticipate that most of those funds would come from the owners of the ships.

This has been a useful debate. It is a worthy Bill, and I thank the officials for their hard work and commitment in preparing the Bill and for giving advice to myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East in helping us to introduce the measure. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.20 pm

With the leave of the House, I wish to thank various people, including the sponsors, those who attended consideration of the Bill in Committee—it was an excellent attendance—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the representative of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has been very helpful to me, officers of the Department for Transport, who have also been extremely helpful, and the person who drafted the Bill. It has been drafted in an excellent manner because no one has found a significant loophole, and it has not been amended.

Finally, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have attended this debate. I hope that eventually the Bill will be enacted after its passage through the other place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Disabled People (Duties Of Public Authorities) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.21 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the time to debate this important Bill. I am thinking of adding to the modernisation process of the House of Commons a procedure whereby we slot in Bills in a 30-second or 10-minute slot at the end of each week.

I hope that the Bill has the support of all right hon. and hon. Members. It certainly has the support of my sponsors, the Disability Rights Commission and the organisations of and for disabled people who have involved themselves in this work. All the help that I have been given in putting the Bill together has convinced me that it is right to promote the Bill.

The Bill is not about political correctness, nor is it about individual rights for disabled people. It is intended to plug a gap in the Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Act 2002 and to tackle discrimination and equality of opportunity from a different perspective—at source.

The Bill is about a practical need to put and keep disabled people in the mainstream of the development of public sector policy and practice. It is about the needs of disabled people, making them part of everyday thinking, not just an afterthought. It is about tackling discrimination before it becomes an individual problem; improving the opportunities that are available to disabled people in the public sector, whether in employment or in the way that the public sector provides its services; reducing social exclusion and social isolation; and giving disabled people the confidence that, when they deal with the public sector, their needs and aspirations will have been taken into account.

I think that the Bill has the support of right hon. and hon. Members in many parts of the House. Will the hon. Lady give some practical examples for those of us who are not so familiar with the proposed legislation that she is introducing of how the laudable aims that she has talked about will work out in practice on the ground? How would the Bill affect people in their day-to-day life?

I am grateful for the opportunity to give the simple example of a local authority swimming pool. Blind and disabled people may feel a bit fearful if there are lots of other people in the pool, with children splashing about and so on. The local authority could, for example, organise a quiet time, when disabled and blind people could use the facility on their own. That is a practical example of how the Bill would work.

The general duties set out in the Bill have regard to two principles in the discharge of public functions: eliminating disability discrimination and harassment, and pursuing equalisation of opportunity for disabled people. Further progress on the Bill is important. It will show that this House and society at large believe in building a diverse and inclusive society in which Disabled people can participate on increasingly equal terms. That will be good for our credibility and that of our public services. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.25 pm

The Bill was introduced on 11 December 2002 by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), whom I congratulate on her efforts. It seeks to amend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 so that public bodies have a duty to have regard to these principles:

"unlawful discrimination against and unlawful harassment of disabled persons must be eliminated"

"equalisation of opportunity for disabled persons is to be pursued."
Her Majesty's official Opposition do not object in principle to the Bill. Public authorities should of course promote good practice and encourage the inclusion of disabled people.

I am pleased to hear that the official Opposition welcome the Bill. Will she therefore make a brief speech so that it can be given its Second Reading?

The Bill is welcomed by the Disability Rights Commission, which has done good work in this area. Of course, there will be cost implications for authorities within the Bill's remit, and they need to be explored. The Bill falls into two major parts. It deals with discrimination and harassment on the one hand, which are distinct and separate from equal opportunities on the other.

I should like to indulge in one brief personal anecdote relating to one of the first occasions when I ran a polling station for a local government election. I arrived at the hall that was to be used to find that the key holder was nowhere to be seen. I used up time that I had allowed for preparing the hall for voters in trying to find the key holder. By the time the hall was opened, there was a queue of voters. To my dismay, one of the first people to arrive was a lady in a wheelchair. One of my duties had been to set up a ramp to allow wheelchairs to enter the hall, but that duty had been overlooked and I was mortified to have been responsible. That is a small example of the sort of inconvenience that disabled people face in going about their everyday lives.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which the Bill seeks to amend, was introduced to the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who was Minister for Social Security and Disabled People at the time. Part I of that Act sets out the definition of disability under the Act and explains who is protected by it. Part II prohibits discrimination against disabled people in employment and requires the employer to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled person or employee if they are at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with a non-disabled person. The 1995 Act also makes it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods, facilities and services. Currently, discrimination occurs if a disabled person is treated less favourably for a reason that is related to their disability. Such treatment cannot be justified. Further stages will be implemented in October 2004.

Part IV of the 1995 Act relates to education, which was initially excluded from part III, with some exceptions. However, a new amendment will shortly be ratified and will include education under the Act. Part V deals with transport and gives the Secretary of State powers to establish minimum access criteria for new transport vehicles, which will be phased in over time.

Part III excludes transport vehicles such as buses, trains and aeroplanes, but covers infrastructure such as railway stations and airports. I have tremendous problems with my station at Upminster. I have been fighting for a lift there for as long as I can remember. The station has steep steps and people who need access to it have to phone in advance and ask a member of staff to be available to let them use the goods lift.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 13 June.

Remaining Private Members' Bills

Government Powers (Limitations) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Friday 13 June.

Equality Bill Lords

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Friday 20 June.

Council Tenants (Hammersmith And Fulham)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Jim Fitzpatrick.]

2.30 pm

I am pleased to have secured today's Adjournment debate to highlight an issue of great interest to many thousands of council tenants and leaseholders in my constituency. It relates to the publication of a report entitled, "Our Community—Our Homes—Our Choice", the launch of which I was delighted to host in the House of Commons on 8 April this year.

The report was produced by the Hammersmith and Fulham housing commission, which the council established in October 2002 to hold an independent inquiry into the future of the 14,000 council homes in the borough, including how best to achieve the decent housing standard. The commission, which comprises 19 tenants, one leaseholder, one councillor and an independent chair, has been a remarkable experiment in tenant participation. I am delighted that many commissioners are present to hear the debate.

Commissioners underwent intense training and spent an estimated 1,500 person hours between them gathering evidence, commissioning independent financial and legal advice, cross-examining in Select Committee style and agreeing their report. The commission studied in great detail. It considered comprehensive financial appraisals of the three main options for the future management of their homes. They were: retention under democratic management; an arm's-length management organisation, known as an ALMO; and a large-scale voluntary transfer and mix-and-match solution—LSVT.

Two important pieces of information are crucial to understanding the context of the commissioners' deliberations. First, Hammersmith and Fulham council's housing management and caretaking service has received the top Audit Commission award of three stars with excellent prospects for improvement. Only one other of the 32 London boroughs received the same award. Secondly, the council and its tenants have worked in partnership for many years to build a comprehensive management service and highly effective tenant participation arrangements.

After six months of consideration, the housing commission was unanimous in all its recommendations. The first, strongly held preference is retention under the direct management and democratic control of the local authority. I shall outline the principal reasons for that decision. First, the local authority provides an excellent service to tenants, as the independent award of the three stars for the caretaking and housing management service recognised. I repeat that that is the highest possible accolade for the service. Secondly, there is a clear, coherent and agreed plan and policy in place to achieve the decent housing standard, subject only to the availability of the necessary resources. Thirdly, it is the commission's clear view that the uncertainty and disruption of an unpopular and unnecessary change will inevitably undermine current focus on service improvement.

The tenants' view was not based on a dogmatic or doctrinal position. There have been direct and indirect stock transfers in Hammersmith and Fulham in recent years. However, despite constant Government soundbites and spin that tenant participation should be the key driving force behind policy, they will not allow tenants to follow that option, which the commission clearly and unanimously selected.

It appears, and this has been confirmed in a letter from Lord Rooker, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Regeneration, dated 8 May to the independent chair of the commission, that the Government have decided that councils keeping their stock without making use of an ALMO, LSVT or private finance initiative option will not receive any additional resources to allow them to meet the Government's own decent housing standards. Indeed, any council that cannot produce a plan showing how it will achieve that standard will be deemed to be failing.

Without those additional resources, it will be necessary to make cuts of 25 per cent. in service to provide enough spare revenue to finance borrowing for the investment required. In practice, therefore, the Government are in my view blackmailing the council and the tenants to go down a route of change in the management of their homes that I am convinced they do not wish to undertake.

So why did the commission reject the other options that were available? The housing commission argues that by far the least worst of the other options available to tenants, other than staying with the council as they wish, is to agree to set up an arm's-length management organisation—an ALMO. Although it is the clear view of the tenants that they will lose some democratic accountability, run the risk of unnecessary disruption to the high quality of service that they get, and spend money unnecessarily in setting up the machinery of an ALMO, it will still allow them to attract the necessary investment to meet the decent housing standards keep their homes in the ownership of the council, and preserve as far as possible the close relationship with the council and its wider strategic functions.

If, as it seems from Lord Rooker's most recent letter, the Government are not prepared to listen to the representations of the tenants, the ALMO is the commission's preferred option. The tenants rejected out of hand the option of a large-scale voluntary transfer, not least because it was their clear judgment, as experienced tenant representatives living locally for many years, that there was no prospect that their fellow tenants in Hammersmith and Fulham would vote for one in the ballot that is currently required by legislation.

The tenants believe that the set-up costs for an LSVT would be unacceptably high. They also recognise that new tenants would be granted an assured tenancy, not a secure tenancy, and that an LSVT would place a barrier between tenants and the council's renewal and regeneration strategy.

I had the privilege of giving oral evidence to the commission, as did 20 other witnesses. Tenants failed to understand why the Labour party, which the overwhelming majority of them have supported loyally in good times and in bad times, is treating them in such a fashion. Many of them feel betrayed and do not understand the reasoning behind the Government's policy and actions.

In their communities plan published in February 2003, the Government proposed new and bold policies for housing, especially in and around London. The plan set out the increased financial incentives—or bribes, as several commissioners have described them to me—for going down particular routes of housing management. In paragraph 1.3 of that document, the Government state:
"tenants must be at the heart of plans at all stages in the process, starting with drawing up options for investment".
In paragraph 1.5 they go on to state that authorities that do not use the option of the private finance initiative, LSVT or ALMOs cannot expect any increased investment in the stock above that from the housing investment programme. Commissioners believe that the policy set out in the communities plan is irrational and discriminatory.

The housing commission report points out that there are a number of reasons why the logic of the Government's own policy should allow tenants a genuine choice based on local factors where there is clear evidence of a high-performing council. The Government are constantly declaring their pragmatic approach to the provision of public services, characterised by the saying, "What matters is what works", yet in Hammersmith and Fulham it is beyond dispute that the current democratic arrangement for the provision of the management of council housing works well.

The Government constantly reiterate their policy of rewarding good performance. Through democratic management, Hammersmith and Fulham has achieved the highest possible standard, as evidenced by its being awarded the highest score in the country in its comprehensive performance assessment, as judged by the Audit Commission, an independent body.

No authority in the UK is better placed to decide for itself, having consulted its customers, whether to retain its housing stock under direct management or to go for an alternative option. However, the Government are, in effect, telling the council and the tenants of Hammersmith and Fulham, "It does not matter about your record on the quality of your service provision. It does not matter what local people want to happen to their homes and their communities. You will go down the route that we dictate or you will lose subsidy. If you lose that subsidy, you will not meet the standards for decent housing, and if you do not meet those standards you will be deemed a failing authority, with all the implications of that assessment."

In his 8 May letter to the independent chair of the Hammersmith and Fulham commission to which I referred earlier, Lord Rooker said that he was pleased that the commission had conducted an appraisal of the options available for the long-term future of council housing stock in Hammersmith and Fulham. He also said that he was pleased that there had been high tenant involvement in the process. However, Lord Rooker went on to say that he did not think that the meeting with him that the housing commission had respectfully requested would be helpful, as the Government were not prepared to consider any exception to the blanket policy set out in their communities plan.

Lord Rooker's refusal to consider the option unanimously agreed by the 19 tenants and leaseholders in the report and, indeed, his refusal even to meet a delegation from the commission came as a shock and confirmed the worst fears of the members of the commission. Local people undertook a huge exercise, in terms of time and commitment. They gave up their time freely and, as I said earlier, an estimated 1,500 person hours have been ignored by the Government. I should like to take this opportunity to thank all the members of the commission and to congratulate them on their hard work and commitment.

Even at this late stage, I ask the Government to think again and to agree to reconsider their position, based on the excellent report that has been produced by the housing commission.

On 3 July 2002, in a speech to the annual conference of the Local Government Association, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
"The most important performance assessment is, as we know, at the ballot box. The judgment of those we serve is the ultimate test for all of us."
I agree with those sentiments. I fear the consequences for my party at the ballot box if the Government fail to take seriously the clear and stated views of local people, especially when the matter involves one of their most precious assets—their homes.

Local people in Hammersmith and Fulham will not easily forget or forgive the manner in which they have been treated on this occasion. It must surely be right that the voice of the local community, so coherently expressed in this excellent report, should be listened to and respected, so I await with interest the response of the Minister.

2.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) for this opportunity to discuss the important issue of council housing, which is of great significance, not only to his constituents but to all social sector tenants in the country.

At the heart of the issue is the Government's determination to deliver major improvements in the quality of life of tenants throughout the country. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that there is a clear need to transform homes and communities blighted by years of neglect.

Of course, the challenges vary across the country. My hon. Friend represents the fourth smallest inner-London borough in terms of both area and population, but the fourth highest in terms of population density. I know that he represents his constituency assiduously and is one of the most hard-working and dedicated constituency MPs.

Much of the borough's housing stock was built in the 19th century and needs extensive repair. Like many inner-London boroughs, the larger, older council estates suffer from poor environments that exacerbate the social and economic problems of those who live there. The local authority owns just over 14,000 dwellings. A further 11,600 are owned by registered social landlords, and another 49,000 are privately owned, of which more than 31,000 are owner-occupied. More than 5,000 council homes were classified as non-decent in 2001. That is a significant problem—but a range of effective solutions is available.

As my hon. Friend has said, Hammersmith and Fulham has a very impressive recent record in housing issues. I am delighted that the borough is showing leadership and imagination as it faces up to the housing challenges confronting it. The borough was, as my hon. Friend said, rated excellent in the Audit Commission's first national comprehensive performance assessment—CPA—of local authorities, and scored four out of four for its housing service. Its housing management and caretaking service received a three-star rating from the housing inspectorate, which said that its service had a strong customer focus and excellent prospects for improvement.

If that is the picture in Hammersmith and Fulham, what is the picture nationally? At 1 April 2001 there were 1.6 million non-decent social sector homesa reduction of 700,000 from 1996. An analysis of the 2002 local authority business plans and information from the Housing Corporation shows that we are on track to meet the target of a one third reduction in non-decent homes nationally by 2004 but that we shall fall short of the 2010 target on current projections.

The Government carried out a review to improve the delivery mechanisms and put us back on track. The revised trajectory, based on expected implementation of the recommendations from that review, shows that we are back on track to meet the 2010 target, which was the purpose of the review. The question for all of us is how to continue to build on the success so far and take forward the outcomes of the review to ensure that we remain focused on our objectives of decent homes and sustainable communities.

The Deputy Prime Minister recently announced a communities plan, as my hon. Friend said, to map out how we can achieve a step change and ensure that we have quality housing in the right place, of the right type and at the right cost throughout the country. We are backing up our plans for improving social housing with cash—nearly £2 billion for arm's length management organisations and £685 million of private finance initiative credits over the next three years towards our target of making all social housing decent by about 2010. The communities plan makes it clear that the right strategy must be chosen for meeting the decent home target. By July 2005, every local authority with stock must produce for Government sign-off an objective and rigorous appraisal of invesment options for meeting the decent home target if it has not already done so.

My hon. Friend referred to the report by the Hammersmith and Fulham housing commission, "Our Community—Our Homes—Our Choice". As he said, I am more than aware that Professor Steve Hilditch, the independent chair of the commission, wrote to my colleague Lord Rooker on 4 April, seeking a discussion on that report. The commission's main recommendations support an alternative model for managing the borough's housing stock to those available under national policy and suggest that the Government should provide the borough with some additional funding that it would qualify for if it set up a high-performing arm's length management organisation.

As my hon. Friend has said, Lord Rooker explained why the Government could not accept that proposal. I have already mentioned the review of the ways of delivering decent homes. A clear recommendation of that review was that it was necessary to end uncertainty about the options available for delivering decent homes. This we did by setting out the options in the sustainable communities plan.

The plan made it clear that, as my hon. Friend said, local authorities seeking additional investment in their housing stock may choose from three options: stock transfer, PFI and ALMOs. Each option brings about a separation of the landlord function from the wider strategic housing responsibilities of a local authority, which is important in ensuring that each has proper attention. The options provide different devices, two of which leave the ownership of the stock with local councils but change the management arrangements.

We have made a number of changes to the way in which the options work, to make them more accessible to local authorities. Although authorities must undertake rigorous option appraisal to demonstrate which option or combination of options is most appropriate for their own specific circumstances, the plan also made it clear that authorities that do not pursue those options cannot, as my hon. Friend said, expect increased investment above that provided for in the housing investment programme.

That clarity has been broadly welcomed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that it is not possible to make exceptions for particular authorities in the context of a national and declared national policy.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I am grateful for the kind remarks that he made about me and about the borough. He says that he is sure that that I will understand why it is not possible to make an exception, but I am afraid that I do not, particularly in the context of a high-performing local authority, and particularly in the context of a report like this, when it is clear to everyone that the desire of the overwhelming majority of the tenants who have been consulted in relation to this—I have no doubt that the same result would be obtained in a ballot—is to remain with the council, which they have known for many years and with which they wish to remain. I do not understand why it is not possible to make that exception.

My hon. Friend will know that, in the context of national policy, the commission says very clearly in its review of the option that

"Retention under democratic control would fall a long way short of achieving the decent homes plus standard: unless additional subsidy was made available to support borrowing; or the government relaxed current rules, for example to allow the major repairs allowance to be used to support prudential borrowing; or",
as my hon. Friend has already said,
"there will be very major revenue cuts and reductions in service."
"ALMO would probably enable the council to achieve the decent home plus standard on the basis of current estimates of the likely availability of subsidy to support prudential borrowing".
The Government have to operate and to make such decisions in the national context, not on a borough by borough, housing authority by housing authority basis. So I am glad that the commission has taken a pragmatic approach in examining the options for delivering decent homes. I am pleased that the commission's analysis identifies the ALMO option as possibly suitable for Hammersmith and Fulham. I am glad that the commission recognises that the council should follow
"the ALMO route as the best obtainable means of improving homes and protecting services."
I fully accept that it takes that view in the light of no positive response on its first preference.

We must always remember that ownership of the stock remains with the council, that the tenants remain secure council tenants and that an ALMO would involve greater and more development tenant participation. Currently, 25 ALMOs are in operation and responsible for managing and improving about 360,000 properties—one in eight of all council stock.

I am aware that the commission met representatives of Hounslow Homes and, I think, Kensington and Chelsea council. Between them, those round 1 and 2 ALMOs are considering investing an extra £1.8 billion to bring all their stock up to the decent homes standard. That is a huge investment and, in many areas, tenants are already seeing the benefits: in physical improvements and, perhaps even more importantly, in an improved relationship with the housing managers.

We recognise the wider importance of community renewal—communities are more than simply homes—so from ALMO round 3 onwards, we will allow up to 5 per cent. of the funding to be used for environmental or other regenerative works not immediately directed to the decent homes standard. It is right that ALMOs should remain focused on the task that they have been given—making homes decent—but that must not preclude local authorities from taking every advantage of all the money and programmes available to ensure that decent homes sit in decently maintained and confident communities.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of tenant involvement in the decisions that will affect them. As I have said, the review made a number of recommendations, but perhaps the key one involved putting the tenant at the heart of decent homes. I am glad that Hammersmith and Fulham council has taken that on board and, again, I recognise its record. It is evident that there has been a high level of tenant involvement in setting up the housing commission and in developing the options to deliver decent homes. I very much welcome that and would encourage it to continue. An integral part of tenant involvement, which was recognised by the commission, is in having a real say in how their homes are managed, which is why we have tenant places on the boards of ALMO—I believe that the commission looked at the Kensington and Chelsea model of 50 per cent., minus one tenant on the board. Experience shows that when tenants are involved from the start and have a sense of ownership of a proposal, they will support it. I am pleased, too, that the commission's report recognises, on page 43, that under the first preference, or under the second preference of establishing an ALMO, the council and tenants will be able to consider whether and how far to extend the level of tenant involvement in the management of council homes.

What is the way forward for Hammersmith and Fulham? In one sense, it is in the borough's hands, within the context of national policy. The borough has been through a process in which it has worked closely with its tenants and other stakeholders and has analysed the options carefully. The commission's conclusion is that, of the options available within the national policy framework, it would consider looking further at the ALMO option. It is for Hammersmith and Fulham to put that into practice. If the ALMO is the most suitable route for Hammersmith and Fulham, I am sure that the Government office for London and the community housing taskforce will work closely with Hammersmith and Fulham on the further development of that option, not least in the context of the 10 additional points that the commission makes on page 39, which are items for discussion that Hammersmith and Fulham would like to pursue were it to take the ALMO route, to get the ALMO model as close as it can to its first preference.

In many regards, many of the 10 options that the council has put forward, which the council would develop further were it to pursue a bid, are more than worth talking about in greater detail with the Government office for London and the community housing taskforce. Given the borough's recent record in housing, I am sure that it will have no trouble in making a great success of that option should it be pursued. I would certainly wish any subsequent bid a fair wind.

As I said, the commission determined that the ALMO option was appropriate to pursue if the first option were not pursued, and I would strongly encourage the council to talk further with the Governtment office for London and the community housing taskforce in that regard. Ironically, I suspect, as we have found in other models as they have been developed, the strong record of tenant participation and involvement in the key area of their lives—their homes—has been all the more pronounced in ALMOs than in some other models. That will continue rather than lessen, and I look forward to seeing how Hammersmith and Fulham takes its housing plans forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock.