House of Commons
Monday 6 November 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [31st October] as relates to the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill be now considered.
That the Promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill which was originally introduced in this House, in the previous session, on 25th January 2005 should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.
London Local Authorities Bill [lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [31st October] as relates to the London Local Authorities Bill [Lords], be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—[The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means]
Transport for London Bill [lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [31st October] as relates to the Transport for London Bill [Lords] be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—[The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means]
Whitehaven Harbour Bill [lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [31st October] as relates to the Whitehaven Harbour Bill [Lords] be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—[The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means]
Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Thanks to the Government’s support for the renaissance in the regions programme, museums across England are working with schools in greater numbers than ever before. I am pleased that, as a result of our investment, every school in Durham will benefit from educational access to museum collections.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in pressing the British Library to move the Lindisfarne gospels on a permanent or temporary basis to the north-east, so that local people, including schoolchildren and visitors, can better appreciate their significance to the cultural heritage of the region?
There is no doubt that the Lindisfarne gospels are one of our greatest national treasures, and are certainly a great source of pride in the north-east of this country. My hon. Friend will know that it is important that Ministers at the Dispatch Box always maintain the independence of the British Library and the decisions that its board feels that it needs to make about the gospels. However, I am pleased that I will meet her this week to discuss these matters in greater detail.
As I am sure the Minister knows, the chief executive of the British Library appeared before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport last week. Can the Minister therefore assure us that the British Library will not face cuts under the comprehensive spending review? He knows that we have been told that if that happens, it will have to cut its opening hours and some of the other things that it does, never mind be able to take its collections and share them with schoolchildren throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the British Library has done much in the last few years to ensure that it takes its collections into schools across the country. It has completed a successful modernisation programme and many of its collections are online. It is also in conversations with organisations, such as Microsoft, to ensure that its collections, many of which only it has, remain at the forefront, so it has an obligation not only to this country but to the rest of the world. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot undertake to say what the results of the spending review will be. The review is in the mind of one person—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and I do not think that he has yet completed his deliberations on those matters.
In his speech in Oxford last week, the Prime Minister encouraged us all to become more scientific. He said that we must become a more scientifically literate society and make the subject popular again. Does my hon. Friend agree that science centres and science museums have an important role to play in that respect? In particular, I would mention the national marine aquarium in the city of Plymouth. Will he consider the balance of funding and how it might be made more favourable, to enable such centres and museums to share their expertise and help us all to become scientifically literate?
My hon. Friend is right. There is no doubt that a key part in making young people not just want to take an interest in science but become scientists themselves is the work that our museums are doing. Both the national marine aquarium and the Science museum are doing a huge amount to make science accessible to young people and in getting through the doors to work with schools and with parents. As she would expect, we are looking at all these issues closely as we enter the comprehensive spending review.
Will the Minister congratulate the director of the Macclesfield silk museum, which was recently visited by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, on involving junior schools and their curricula with the textile history and tradition of Macclesfield? Will he go a little further and assure me and the House that small museums will not be neglected in respect of funding? They are critical to the history and tradition of our country and, in particular, of Macclesfield and the textile industry in the north-west.
The hon. Gentleman is right to attach his museum to the social cohesion that is no doubt important in Macclesfield. The museum in Macclesfield has benefited from the renaissance in the regions programme, which has £147 million for our regional museums up to 2008. That money was not there before. Our regional and local museums were in a dire state prior to that funding. In the House last week, I was pleased that so many people, and so many Members, were able to attend an event at which we celebrated the success of that programme, which Macclesfield has benefited from.
I am sure that the House would like to congratulate Alex Ferguson on 20 years at Manchester United as one of the nation’s most successful managers—and he is a really nice guy, as well.
I have no immediate plans to meet representatives to discuss the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I know that the fund has launched a well-received £50 million community buildings programme to benefit projects across England. In addition, the national lottery has already awarded £258 million to villages and community halls.
Is the Minister aware that although a number of village and community halls in my constituency have received lottery grants, for which they are grateful, many others have been refused grants, much to their dismay and disappointment? He mentioned Sir Alex Ferguson. I was not going to mention him today, but is the Minister aware that Manchester United, one of the richest football clubs in the world, recently received £30,000 from the lottery to run yoga classes and fitness sessions for its staff? What is going on? Why are Ministers and the lottery so against rural areas?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his supplementary question. To answer the first part of it, there are a number of applications from village halls which, because the right information has not been given, have not been granted. It is right that there is that prudence with public funds. The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter a number of times on behalf of his constituency—particularly in relation to Terrington St. John, which he also raised last time. That will be looked into, and has been looked into.
As far as Manchester United and many other employers are concerned, we are trying to get corporate UK to be active—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with this—in making our nation much fitter. We are spending billions of pounds in relation to obesity. Through Sport England and the north-west regional sports board, that initiative is being tried. I congratulate people on that.
Kenfig Pyle Community Youth, which serves three village communities in my constituency, was recently awarded £300,000 to continue its work offering alternatives to drink, drugs and antisocial behaviour. That work is appreciated by the police and there is great acknowledgement of the benefits that that lottery money will bring to the community. May I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her support in meeting the group from Kenfig Pyle Community Youth, and may I urge the importance of providing—
I am pleased that my hon. Friend made those comments. They clearly show how the Big Lottery Fund can add real value to a number of funding streams. When the legislation was going through Parliament a few weeks ago, the wide consultation throughout the whole of the United Kingdom showed that there was a desire to make sure that the lottery money was used positively to add real value to many funding streams.
Rural communities have been disadvantaged by post office closures, they have been infuriated by community hospital cutbacks, they have, in many cases, been driven into poverty by the single farm payment fiasco, and they have been infuriated by the hunting ban. Will the Minister accept that rural communities feel abandoned and betrayed, and will he play a personal role in ensuring that our village halls at least get an investment in their social capital, which he otherwise preaches so much about?
I understand the points to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I have already said that the lottery has invested £258 million in village halls. When we were in the process of winding up the Millennium Commission money, we noticed that considerably more village halls had been supported in Scotland and Wales than in England, because those in England had not made applications. The hon. Gentleman can read the minutes of the Millennium Commission: Lord Heseltine and I were concerned that many of the village halls in England had not made submissions, which was regrettable.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that a load of village hall applications are in the pipeline. When he meets representatives of the Big Lottery Fund, will he stress the importance of supporting the over-60s at Croston village hall, and others in Chorley? Will he point out the benefits that supporting them would bring to Chorley?
I make it absolutely clear that all the lottery funds, including the Big Lottery Fund, operate at arm’s length from the Government. My strong advice to my hon. Friend is that he help his constituents to ensure that they make full applications. I have no doubt that the various lottery distributing authorities will give such applications a very good hearing.
Of course, the correct answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is that there is less money for village and community halls as a result of the Government having absorbed—shall we say?—£3.2 billion of national lottery money since 1997. It is only thanks to pressure from the Daily Mail and the Conservative party that money has now been found for the armed forces memorial. Will the Minister agree to re-examine the criteria to ensure that applications such as that made by the armed forces memorial fund, which has overwhelming public support, are able to attract lottery funding without needing to obtain the support of a national newspaper?
First, may I say that there is no doubt that the memorial is an excellent idea? There has been considerable investment by the lottery: there has been £45 million to commemorate and preserve the experiences of those who lived and fought through the second world war; 39,000 veterans of world war two—and their widows and carers—were funded for the journey back to the battlefields; and 11 million people participated in the veterans unite programme. By any standard, I do not think that anyone could say that there has not been investment, and rightly so.
When the armed forces memorial trust made this application, it was told that unfortunately, anything below £10 million would not meet the criteria. The amount came in at £4.4 million. On Friday last week, my chief executive from the Millennium Commission phoned me to find out whether it could assist to ensure that the application was met. After I had consulted the trustees and those of the Big Lottery Fund, at 4 pm on Friday, Lord Heseltine and I cleared the £2 million that was subsequently released. The outcome was not pushed by the Daily Mail or any other body. The application went through in the normal way. As you know, Mr. Speaker, there are politicians—
Cut off in his prime, Mr. Speaker.
Will the Minister confirm or deny reports that Treasury officials intend to make another hit on the national lottery to pay for Olympic overspend, which would mean that even less money would go to community groups and the original good causes?
The hon. Gentleman knows that there is a joint agreement among the three funding partners—and that is what we are sticking to. If he could start thinking a little for himself, instead of being informed by the journalists of the Daily Mail, some original thinking might actually come from the Conservative party, rather than their pathetic attempts at the moment.
The Government are doing a lot to promote participation by young people. Some 80 per cent. of both primary and secondary school children are doing at least two hours of sport and physical activity a week, which is up from 25 per cent. in 2003. By 2010, every child who wants to, will be able to do four hours a week. We have reintroduced competitive sport in state schools, and there is record investment in elite athlete development. I place on record my particular thanks to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport for his work on establishing the UK school games. We are also seeing a net increase in modern sport facilities. London’s promise at Singapore was to inspire a generation of young people through sport, and we are proud of the progress that we have made. I am especially proud to commend the efforts of my hon. Friend. She and the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) have brought together community organisations in Northampton to ensure that Northampton and its young people get the maximum benefit from the possibilities of the Olympics.
When will the information be published on the regional games, which will be extremely important in the run-up to 2012? Will that focus not only on elite sport but on wider participation, so that all the 10-year-olds who are starry-eyed about the Olympics get a chance to take part? May I make an early bid to have one of the regional finals in my county?
My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate for Northampton’s hosting of the UK school games. Next year’s games are to be held in Coventry. I think that 11 cities around the country are bidding—including Bath, I must add, before the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) rises to make that point—and the decisions on the remaining cities will be made next year.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the chief executive of the Central Council of Physical Recreation told the Select Committee two weeks ago that the hiving off of an additional £340 million from the main lottery to the Olympics will leave Sport England without the resources necessary to generate the legacy of participation which was a main plank in our successful Olympic bid? Will she put in place the national strategy and the necessary funding to ensure that we achieve a successful legacy right across the country, which is what we all want?
Yes, of course we are determined to do all we can to ensure that the whole country has the opportunity to benefit from the Olympic legacy. The hon. Gentleman refers to evidence, and it is correct to say that £340 million from existing sports lottery distributors is part of the lottery contribution to funding the 2012 games, but it is misleading to portray that money as being taken away from wider work to promote participation and grass-roots sport. Some of the money from Sport England, for example, is being used to fund the new aquatic centre, which will be designed specifically to promote community use as a legacy; the velodrome is being treated similarly. Other spending by lottery distributors will go to Olympic-related projects, not only in London and the east end, but around the country. Both the hon. Gentleman and I are determined to make sure that the whole country benefits from the Olympics, and the comment to which he refers is unnecessary scaremongering.
Will my right hon. Friend put into the public domain the criteria on which cities can bid for the UK youth games and the regional games? Will she consider, as part of the Olympic legacy, an Olympic sports day for the nation?
The Secretary of State knows that the national lottery provides financial support for many of our grass-roots sports initiatives that encourage young people to participate in sporting activity. Will she therefore rule out any further raids on the national lottery to pay for overspends on the London Olympics?
No, I will not—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am not in a position to do that. As the hon. Gentleman—indeed, the whole House—knows, provision has been made in the joint venture agreement so that in the event of further funds being needed to support the Olympic games, there is a formula, unspecified in its detail, to enable sharing between London and the lottery. It would be irresponsible of me to give the House the undertaking that he asks me to give.
My right hon. Friend will, I know, be as proud as we are in Crewe that we have two disabled children going to Beijing as part of the Paralympics team. Will she do everything she can to encourage disabled children and children with special needs to prepare for the Olympics in 2012, and to make them as proud as we are of our existing team?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I know how strongly she has argued for that. I can assure her that the elite programmes being established for our young athletes to take part in Beijing and in 2012 and beyond make no distinction between able-bodied athletes and young disabled people.
But is not my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee, right: is not Sport England, the Government quango responsible for these matters, widely regarded as a failing institution in need of urgent reform? The last eight chief executives of sport governing bodies whom I have met have all complained about it. Is it not the case that the Big Lottery Fund has no money earmarked in the 2006-2009 period for mass participation payments, and that the Government have cut the amount of lottery funding going into sport from £397 million in 1998 to a paltry £260 million last year—a cut of one third? When will they make proposals to deal with mass participation sport in this country?
I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would come to the Dispatch Box to congratulate schools throughout the country on exceeding the target for getting young people to do two hours a week of high-quality sport and PE, and that he would congratulate the local authorities and community clubs that have made such heroic efforts to improve their facilities. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] To deal specifically with the hon. Gentleman’s point, I am proud to be part of a Government who, since the launch of the school sport programme in 2000, have seen investment of £3 billion in sport. I am proud to be part of a Government who have overhauled Sport England and given it a clear focus on two things: first, boosting participation, ensuring that another 400,000 people a year are getting active and taking part in sport; and secondly, overhauling the outdated facilities that are the only resort for too many people who want to exercise. We have a remarkable story of success—
But what the Secretary of State does not answer is why the amount of money going into sport through the national lottery, according to a parliamentary written answer that she gave me, has been cut from £397 million to £260 million. Key components of the Olympic bid are the mass participation benefits that will arise from the post-games use of the stadiums. The Secretary of State gave me a personal assurance that VAT would not be levied on their construction. The organisers were clearly given the same commitment, because they made no allowance for VAT in the budget. Will she confirm to the House that a possible VAT bill of a quarter of a billion pounds will not be levied by the Treasury on the 2012 Olympics?
Perhaps the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) would like to listen to the answer. Let me deal first with the VAT point. The candidature file did not include VAT on construction of venues for 2012 because at that time the position of the unspecified delivery body, which had not been legislated for or given effect, could not be anticipated. A cross-Government group signed off London’s plans and agreed that it was the right approach not to anticipate at that point the VAT status. The issue was not raised by PricewaterhouseCooper, who advised us on the costs, nor were issues in relation to VAT at that point identified by the Treasury or by departmental accounting officers—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] However, what I did do when we won the bid was to initiate an immediate review of the costs and funding needs of the games. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the costs of the Olympic park have been significantly reduced. The funding needs of the games—including VAT, the need for security and so forth—are a matter of continuing discussion within Government. That is the position, delivered to the hon. Gentleman on the Floor of the House rather than in corridor conversations.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have a new deal for communities in my constituency called “New Heart for Heywood”, which is part-funding a new sports village complex? I know that she has both eyes on the Olympic games at present, but could she move one of them towards Heywood to keep up to date with progress on that development, whereby my local young people may well play a part in the Olympic games in 2012?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clearly, our participation ambitions for young people will be met only if they are playing sport in modern facilities. Every Member of the House should be an advocate of that in their communities, as is my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate.
The issue of VAT on the Olympic buildings is of crucial importance to everyone in this House. If the Secretary of State is unable at present to confirm whether VAT will be paid on the buildings, given that £1 billion is at stake, will she at least agree to come before this House as a matter of urgency and make a statement on that issue?
I am a subject of this House on any matter to do with the funding of the Olympic games, or any other aspect of them. This is a large and complex project and a major issue that we are working through. The International Olympic Committee has expressed its utter satisfaction with the progress being made in the planning of the games. I will answer to the House at any point on the issues as they arise.
Schools in my constituency are generally fortunate in having their own sports fields, but some schools in inner-London boroughs such as Hackney do not have a single blade of grass. Will my right hon. Friend consider working with the Department for Education and Skills, local education authorities and the Olympic partners to install playable surfaces in inner-city schools so that their pupils have a dowry from the Olympics right away?
My hon. Friend is right. However, I would point to the London borough of Lambeth, which, although it does not have acres of open space, has a participation rate by young people running at about 90 per cent. Yes, the facilities have to be there, but so too does the determination to get young people involved.
Premium Line Competitions
Regulation of premium line television competitions rests with independent regulators Ofcom and the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that last month ICSTIS announced a review of the quiz television sector, including premium line competitions.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but is it not clear that many of the so-called competitions on programmes such as “The Mint” are nothing other than crude money-raising scams designed to replace lost advertisement revenue? Is he aware that it is possible to make up to 150 calls a day at 75p each, so that someone could spend more than £100 making futile calls to such programmes yet not even get on to them? Is it not time that ITV should be forced to publicise how much profit it is making from these lines, and will the Minister urge it to do so in time for the investigation by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the review that was announced by ICSTIS last month will look into a number of issues, including the transparency of the service, on-screen statements, concerns about excessive use, prize fulfilment and free web entry offers. It is important that the review be undertaken properly. Of course we are aware that some people have made representations about these particular programmes. Equally, it is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that ITV has stated categorically that it meets all regulations, standards and codes of practice. We agree, however, that we need to ensure that these services are trusted. For that reason, it is important that the review should take place. I am sorry that it cannot be hurried to produce its findings in time for inclusion in the Select Committee report, but it is important that it do its work properly.
While my hon. Friend is having his discussions with Ofcom about the continuing dumbing down of ITV, will he take the opportunity to raise the real worry that digital switchover could well result in the end of regional news programmes on ITV?
Does the Minister agree that it should be made crystal clear to people before they ring in that they might be confronted by a premium rate tariff, and that all they might get at the end is a message saying, “Your call has not been selected for answer”? Is it not important that Ofcom should come down tough on some of these schemes for making money?
We could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman about Ofcom coming down tough in such circumstances. As he knows, the code of practice provides for ICSTIS, when it finds that a breach has occurred, to issue a formal reprimand, to bar access to the services or to impose fines. The right hon. Gentleman should also know that those fines can be as high as £250,000.
The Minister was talking about quiz programmes; indeed, he mentioned the word “programmes” more than once. However, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was referring to the single quiz questions that appear in advertising slots. It is those advertising slots that have given rise to the suspicion that they are a revenue stream for the ITV companies, in place of the advertising that would normally be in those slots. In these cases, however, it is the viewers who have to pay for them.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I believe that the ICSTIS review will look into these issues. It also has to be said, however, that despite the feelings of Members of Parliament, there are many people out there who enjoy playing these games. Whether my hon. Friend would wish to take part in them is another issue. However, we should be careful about telling people how to lead their lives.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for digital television, he will be pleased to know that take-up in the Central region is among the highest in the country, with more than 80 per cent. of first sets now converted. The digital switchover help scheme will provide support with equipment and installation for those who are over 75, have a serious disability, or are partially sighted. Those who are eligible can also opt for a different platform, such as cable or satellite, and receive a contribution towards the cost of equipment.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer. She will know that this is to be funded out of the licence fee, which is borne by everyone who watches television. She will also be aware, however, that digital switchover will result in the analogue spectrum being sold off, and the Treasury taking all the money. What representations will she make to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that some of that money is brought back in to the BBC so that the licence fee can be lowered?
That is quite a rich mix that the hon. Gentleman has created. Yes, the Communications Act 2003 provides for the technology-neutral auction of the spectrum that will be released. Yes, discussions are going on at the moment about the licence fee. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is the established policy of the Government that, as switchover is a broadcasting cost, the cost will be borne by the broadcasters, and principally by the BBC.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that appliances left on standby are producing 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. That is enough to heat the homes in the whole of County Durham. Will she take the opportunity of digital switchover to consider introducing regulations to control the sale of wasteful standby televisions?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the sort of point required to demonstrate how climate change and environmental sustainability are, in part, a function of changing our own personal behaviour. That is a very good and practical example of the contribution that we can all make by being more vigilant about ensuring that we do not leave our sets on standby. I do not think that regulation is necessary.
The Secretary of State has explained the mechanism for support in respect of digital switchover, but what people want to know—in my area, they will shortly be going through the process—is exactly when they get help and where it will be available.
Help will be available through the telephone or in people’s own homes. The Select Committee placed great emphasis on the importance of elderly, vulnerable and isolated people receiving a personal service and individual help with fixing the equipment or providing whatever advice they need. It is interesting to note that the trials showed that one of the most difficult choices that people, particularly elderly people, have to make is deciding on the right kind of remote control. A personal service is appropriate, because it will be a difficult and worrying transition for some people.
Creative Partnerships Programme
Creative partnerships is a real success story. It has reached more than 300,000 young people and 1,600 schools. The evaluation of the programme, particularly the recent Ofsted report, has shown that it is having a real impact in the communities that it serves.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I, too, was impressed by what Ofsted, BMRB, BOP and NFER said about children doing better and the creative industries and their workers succeeding as a result of the programme. What will happen next? It has done so well thus far, so can we have more of the same?
Creative partnerships have been such a success that we will, of course, have more of the same. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to press the point. We are seeing more in respect of extended schools, more in our mainstream arts organisations being engaged in schools and more specialist schools choosing the arts option. That is where creative partnerships move from existing only in some schools to existing across the country. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the success of this particular scheme. Contact with schools from a range of artists is not just for a day or a week; we are talking about prolonged contact with some of our most deprived children. I thought that the most impressive report was the one from head teachers, 70 per cent. of whom said that creative partnerships had driven up attainment across the curriculum. That is why my Department supports the programme and is working closely on it with the Department for Education and Skills.
I may not be alone in understanding none of the acronyms to which the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) referred. I am sure that it is a brilliant programme, but I ask the Minister in all seriousness how it is promulgated, who may apply for it and how.
The programme has existed for some years now. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) used those acronyms because she is well informed about the programme. This is creative partnerships, serving schools in our poorest and most deprived areas and bringing young people—sometimes including those in pupil referral units—together with a range of artists. Poets, actors and visual artists, for example, are involved over a prolonged period to help drive up standards in schools. They seek to find new ways of bringing the arts and creativity into schools while having a positive impact on the rest of the curriculum. The programme is in its third phase, so I am rather surprised that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) is not aware of it.
Responsibility for the regulation of television and radio media campaigns is a matter for Ofcom.
Just as it is right for the BBC to show the problems that children face through its Children in Need appeal, surely it is right for organisations and campaigns such as Make Poverty History to show us through TV adverts the problems that young people face in Africa. Does the Under-Secretary agree that it is disgraceful that the TV advert was banned because it was too political? Will he get his officials to meet Ofcom to ensure that anything similar in future is considered more sensibly?
My hon. Friend raises an issue about which several hon. Members have been concerned. The Communications Act 2003 is critical because it prohibits radio and television advertisements being broadcast on behalf of political organisations that would
“influence public opinion on a matter of controversy”.
The key issue is impartiality. Of course, all hon. Members support the work of Children in Need, which is clearly not a campaigning organisation for political change. I appreciate that many hon. Members, including me, support the work of Make Poverty History, but Ofcom found that the advert directed viewers to the Make Poverty History website, which encouraged them to lobby the Prime Minister and the Government directly to make the campaign a high priority on the political agenda. The organisation therefore strayed on to the ground of political partiality, and I believe that is why Ofcom made its adjudication. I know that several hon. Members regret that and find it difficult to understand, but the matter was carefully considered in the House during the passage of the Communications Act.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
The National Audit Office has been involved in correspondence to look into the Environment Agency’s expenditure, planning and preparatory work in the Cuckmere estuary in Sussex on whether to breach the river banks and allow the sea to flood the valley. To date, the NAO has reviewed Environment Agency papers that are relevant to its inquiry, interviewed a range of interested parties, discussed matters with Environment Agency staff and is currently considering its response. It is worth noting that it is an unusual topic for the NAO to consider, in that the Environment Agency has not decided on the action that it will take on the estuary as part of its shoreline management plan for the area.
I am glad that the Environment Agency has not decided yet—perhaps I can influence it. May I welcome the NAO’s work on the matter and express the considerable public concern in my area at the fact that the Environment Agency has run up a bill of almost £500,000 on a highly controversial scheme that has no planning permission and lacks public support in the area, where both district councils oppose it? Does not the NAO need to take steps to make it clear to unelected bodies such as the Environment Agency that they can proceed with schemes only with public support, not in the face of public opposition?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission has no current plans for such a review. Its recent recommendations on the variation of election expenses for candidates at UK parliamentary elections came into force on 4 March 2005. The commission also recommended a more fundamental review of the candidate and party spending limits. That is now being considered as part of Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of party funding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful reply. We have only to look across the Atlantic to realise what happens when there are no effective limits on national party expenditure. However, although the limits for national expenditure may be too high, all candidates for and Members of Parliament could make a clear case for increasing expenditure limits for local candidates somewhat. At the moment, £7,000 or £8,000 barely covers one direct mail shot to all our electors. Will the hon. Gentleman consider urging the Electoral Commission again to examine the matter more fundamentally?
The hon. Gentleman will know that when the commission carried out a review in 2004, it took the view that higher limits for candidates’ individual expenses would enable them to run more effective campaigns, ensuring that their messages reached more voters. Coupled with a lower limit for national party spending, the commission believes that that would encourage parties to channel more of their funds into local campaigns. Of course, that is one of the issues being considered by Sir Hayden Phillips, whose review is expected shortly.
When Sir Hayden Phillips has finished his review, which we understand may be at about the turn of the year, does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that the Electoral Commission and the Speaker’s Committee will examine not just whether we ought to reduce the total limit of campaign expenditure, which the public want, and whether the official election campaign should have a slightly larger limit, but whether to stop the huge expenditure in support of an individual candidate before the general election begins? The public have shown no appetite for that activity, which seems to be wasteful of public expenditure and party funds. It would be a service if the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues recommended strongly that that expenditure should be capped at a pretty low level.
Further to the comment made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), perhaps the Speaker’s Committee ought to consider the activities of the midlands industrial council, which, prior to the 2005 general election, pumped enormous sums of money into a range of midlands seats, all of which, coincidentally, happened to be Labour marginals, and all of which had a bigger than average swing. As a part of that covert and shady activity, some fine Members were lost.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is strong public opposition to elections being more heavily funded by the taxpayer and the Government? I am happy to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in respect of reducing dramatically the amount that parties spend nationally, but perhaps greater funding of local expenditure to enable candidates to put out better literature might be considered.
Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, is not it an important principle in this country that no British person should have a better chance of election either because they are wealthy or because they have wealthy friends? If so, it is important that we consider expenditure not only during elections but in the year preceding, when many people pump tens of thousands of pounds into certain constituencies—particularly those which are potentially Conservative-leaning—so as to gain an unfair advantage.
The Electoral Commission informs me that, for the financial year ending 31 March 2006, the total amount spent on promoting public awareness of electoral and democratic systems was £7.1 million. For 2006-07, the current forecast expenditure on public awareness is £6.3 million.
The Electoral Commission was created by the House, and one of the duties laid on it was a statutory one to promote public awareness of electoral systems and systems of government. As the commission set out in its evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, it is considering focusing its efforts more heavily on promoting voter registration and information about elections and democratic institutions, and less on seeking to encourage voter turnout. I suspect that that would inevitably result in some reduction in expenditure by the commission. The commission will consider the matter further once the Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported.
The commission informs me that since January 2006 it has distributed about 13,200 overseas voter leaflets, and that more than 8,500 overseas registration postal and proxy forms have been downloaded from its website. During elections in which British citizens resident overseas are eligible to vote, it runs campaigns which include newspaper advertising, public relations activity and online information.
But the number of eligible overseas voters who register is very small by comparison with those who could. Part of the problem is that very little of the £6.3 million being spent is ever spent on publicising overseas voter eligibility. Could my hon. Friend have talks with the Electoral Commission, which might be able to exert some influence on the Foreign Office? Perhaps our high commissions and embassies could be used to distribute literature on eligibility to overseas voters, and perhaps those who renew their passports abroad could be sent literature in the post with their new passports.
My hon. Friend’s first point is absolutely right. Some 13 million United Kingdom citizens are resident overseas, and we do not know how many of them are eligible to register to vote by reason of having been registered. Only about 17,000 of those 13 million or so are registered. Although that represents an increase of nearly 50 per cent. in the last couple of years, the figures are extremely small.
The Electoral Commission does use the facilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through embassies. It has also recently discussed with the Department of Work and Pensions the possibility of a further list of people whom it could contact.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking a fair and important question.
The commission informs me that it has had significant success in increasing young people’s interest in politics through activities such as its advertising campaigns, educational resources, workshops and grants programme. An independent survey of people aged between 18 and 24 found that 52 per cent. claimed to have seen the commission’s 2006 local elections campaign, and 24 per cent. claimed to have voted because of it.
I welcome the recent reduction in the age of candidature to 18. Indeed, I hope to be able to pass on the title of youngest Member of Parliament sooner rather than later as a result. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree, however, that we should try to build on that move, and reduce the age of voting and candidature to 16 so that young people can participate in elections as citizens in the fullest possible way?
Having conducted a comprehensive review of the matter in 2004, the Electoral Commission concluded that in the short term the voting age should remain at 18, but that it should be reviewed again when the citizenship programme in schools was more established. Interestingly, a recent survey of some 1,000 people showed a majority in favour of retaining the voting age of 18, both among older age groups and among those aged between 15 and 19.
Would the hon. Gentleman consider sending advice to hon. Members? I conducted a survey of people who attend my surgery and found that, sadly, up to 40 per cent. of the young people who come to see me are not on the electoral register. I have been trying to sign them up, and wonder whether some guidance could be issued.
That is an alarming statistic. It is of course for local electoral registration officers to maintain the register and ensure that it is as accurate as possible, but recent legislation passed by the House gives the Electoral Commission powers to involve itself more closely in the work of individual electoral registration officers. I hope that that will have some effect in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Most youth worker posts are funded not directly by the diocese, but by parishes or clusters of parishes. Two youth workers are currently employed in the Hereford diocese and 20 in the Lichfield diocese, and there are plans for more to be employed.
I am not entirely clear whether I can enter the domain of public funds, but in recent years there has been considerable growth in the number of young workers employed by local churches, and the commissioners and the general Church welcome and support that.
Will the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the bishop’s growth fund in the diocese of Lichfield, which has been used to encourage new youth workers and leaders who in turn encourage young people to take part in church services throughout the diocese?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the bishop’s growth fund. In fact, part of that funding comes from the parish mission fund set up by the commissioners and the archbishops’ council to resource all kinds of innovative parish work. I am glad that Lichfield diocese is using that money so wisely and increasing young people’s attendance. That is a very good model for others to follow.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The chairman of the Electoral Commission, like the other commissioners, is appointed by Her Majesty, following an address from this House. The appointment of the current chairman, Sam Younger, expires on 18 January 2007. I can announce that on 18 October Mr. Younger was offered a further period of office, to expire on 31 December 2008, subject to the statutory consultation required of the registered leaders of certain political parties and the agreement of this House. Mr. Younger accepted that offer on 27 October and the statutory consultation of party leaders was initiated on 30 October.
I am heartened by that reply and to learn that Sam Younger’s appointment has finally been sorted out. It is in the interests of all of us that such appointments are made in good time, and I was a little concerned that this one might not have been. Will the Committee consider examining the procedure for appointing the chairman with a view to ensuring that such appointments are made in good time in future?
Approaching first reappointments on the basis of a satisfactory performance appraisal reflected the approach of the code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies and Cabinet guidance on making public appointments. You, Mr. Speaker, invited Sir William McKay, a former Clerk of the House, to carry out an appraisal and consulted the Speaker’s Committee. As a result, it was unanimously decided that Mr. Younger should be invited to accept a further term. I note the other points that my hon. Friend has made.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask for your help as the guardian of the rights of this House against the Executive. Earlier this year, I asked a parliamentary question of the Department of Health, which was answered by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who is in his place. I asked specifically about the amount that the Department and its constituent units were paying under the EU emissions trading scheme. I was told that the figures were not held centrally. A subsequent freedom of information inquiry showed that the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency had that information. An e-mail revealed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 said:
“In light of the above we…have a complete picture of the exact amount of carbon emitted in 2005.”
That was the year about which I asked. Can you help, Mr. Speaker, when inquiries under the Act reveal that the Government have given misleading answers to the House?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has become expert at raising points of order about late parliamentary questions. If information is available under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it should be made available to this House. I hope that Ministers will take note of that point.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to assure the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), through you, that I will look into how the information was supplied in that written answer and get back to him with a full and complete reply.
I thank the Minister for that.
NHS REDRESS BILL [LORDS] (PROGRAMME) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6)(Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the NHS Redress Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 5th June 2006 (NHS Redress Bill [Lords] (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Message
1. Proceedings on consideration of the Lords Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
NHS Redress Bill [Lords]
Lords message considered.
Proceedings under scheme
Lords amendment: No. 4A.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment, insists on Commons amendments Nos. 5 and 16, and proposes amendment (a) in lieu.
I think that it is with some surprise that we find ourselves discussing this amendment. I say that not with any sense of arrogance but because I genuinely feel that the House had a good-natured and constructive debate on the matter. We adopted a reasonable approach in response to concerns raised in another place and in this place in Committee and, as the listening kind of Government that we are, we proposed changes to the Bill, which responded to those concerns and which were passed by a considerable majority of the House.
For the avoidance of doubt, I shall set out what we believe we are trying to do in the Bill and the NHS redress scheme. We want to create a fast-track settlement scheme that provides a better experience for patients—that has the patient at its heart. We want to facilitate a learning culture at local level where complaints are dealt with openly and transparently. By doing that, we want to bring down the costs to the NHS of clinical negligence claims and create a better culture for the handling of complaints and claims. I am clear that our policy is both workable and right, but I readily acknowledge that the process we went through helpfully focused the Bill for the benefit of patients, and I pay tribute to Opposition Members who helped in that process.
May I take my hon. Friend back to a point that was put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), his predecessor as Minister of State, when she appeared before the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs during its proceedings on the Bill? We asked that the Government encourage local health authorities to settle matters locally. Many problems arise because local people do not understand the nature of the procedure and in the initial letter of reply there is no clarity about how matters can be resolved. Resolving matters locally is much better than litigation.
I quite agree. It may be helpful to explain again the point that my right hon. Friend raises. In parts of the NHS, there is an unsatisfactory culture for the handling of complaints, so because patients do not receive a satisfactory response when they first make a complaint, they are pushed towards considering options such as a second stage complaint to the Healthcare Commission, or even legal action. However, as I have said before, I do not believe that anybody who makes a complaint does so with the intention of taking the NHS to the cleaners, or to make significant financial gain. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the reason why people pursue complaints is “to stop it happening to somebody else”, as they tell us in our surgeries. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has heard that in his surgeries, as I have in mine. If the NHS was better at engaging with the patient at the point when the complaint was made, the outcome would be better all round. It would certainly be a better outcome for the individual but, ironically, also for the NHS, in that it could learn from patients’ experience and try to improve it, from the point at which a complaint was received. However, I entirely take my right hon. Friend’s point that the process should be clearer and simpler for the patient.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Will the Government be issuing fresh guidance about how to deal with complaints, to accompany the new statutory provisions for local health authorities? Practice varies according to local health authorities, so if the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Minister were to give guidance locally, it would help the process.
The Bill deals with complaints of negligence where there is a liability in tort and when—as we hope—it is passed, secondary legislation will underpin it, setting out the structure under which we envisage that the scheme will operate. I feel strongly that a rethink is needed about how the NHS handles complaints in the round—not necessarily only complaints where there is a liability in tort. On Friday, I visited a trust that has adopted a much more interventionist approach, by engaging with the individual bringing the complaint to improve the patient experience and so that the trust can learn quickly what is not going right.
In an era when there is more choice in the NHS, and patients can move around the system, the clever trusts are those that engage with complaints in that way. They are looking closely at the quality of the patient experience and using every bit of information they can get hold of to improve it. I very much go with the grain of what my right hon. Friend says. The scheme will facilitate a better culture, but I want to build on it, so that complaints are handled better.
I was describing how we improved the Bill, and I was paying tribute to Opposition Members. I should particularly mention the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who made some very helpful suggestions during the Bill’s passage through the House. To take one example of the improvements made, we included a measure that allowed investigation reports to be provided to individuals on request. It is partly on account of that amendment that I am surprised to be back discussing the Bill today; it does not appear to have been appreciated in the other place. Earl Howe spoke about the measure in the other place:
“What have we got? We have a scheme that will see a patient’s application for redress disappear into a closed process, one that is the very opposite of transparent. The patient has no idea whether the facts of his case have been looked at fairly or fully.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 1240.]
Earl Howe is a reasonable and fair-minded man, but on the basis of that comment, I am not sure that the import and effect of the amendments agreed to in the Commons were fully appreciated by their lordships. At the instigation of the hon. Member for Romsey, we made a concession and allowed full investigation reports to be made available to the individual, so it seems impossible that such comments could be made.
We want a scheme that has transparency and accountability built into it, so today we have tabled an amendment that will further improve the accountability of the NHS redress scheme by allowing the naming of the responsible person who could be answerable if a further complaint was made to the health care ombudsman. They would have to be a person of experience and seniority, and that provision will further strengthen the scheme. Not a great deal separates the Government from the Opposition on the Bill, but our differences seem to come down to the issue of independence and independent investigation.
Will the Minister confirm that the responsible person that he describes may be of senior rank, but will nevertheless be from within the trust that is being investigated? An investigation into a trust will be carried out by the trust itself, and that cannot add to the credibility of the scheme.
I will deal with that point later, but I tell the hon. Gentleman that we have built into the Bill elements that will strengthen the transparency and accountability of the process for the patient. There is genuine disagreement between the Opposition and the Government, but it is important that we see the scheme for what it is—an in-house, first-stage process. Under the scheme, trusts need not go through the long process to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) alluded, but can rather engage with the complaint from the first. They can learn from what happened to the patient, and can then provide speedy redress, thereby improving the experience for the patient and saving the organisation a great deal of time. That is the right thing to do. If the first stage of the scheme included an independent investigation, the scheme would have the same qualities as the process that is available to patients who choose not to pursue their complaint through the redress scheme, or who proceed to litigation because they did not receive satisfaction through the scheme. That is a different proposal, and it would make the scheme entirely different.
I have to turn the subject back to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). The ideas on independence put forward by the Opposition Front Benchers, both in this House and in another place, have varied considerably during the parliamentary passage of the Bill. When the Bill was first sent to the Commons from another place, it required the Secretary of State for Health to make provision for the appointment of patient redress investigators. There was to be a panel of independent investigators, who were to conduct investigations. The Healthcare Commission was to maintain a list of those investigators, and to oversee them. That model gave rise to problems of cost and practicality, with the Department’s own economist estimating a cost of £41 million a year.
On Report, the hon. Member for Billericay pointed out some of those problems and presented a variation in which the person overseeing the investigation was independent of the scheme member in question. We were told that there would be the same administration, but it would operate under the direction of an independent person, so there would be no new bureaucracy.
The Minister is slightly disingenuous, as I tabled probing amendments. The principle remains the same—we believe that whoever investigates the facts should be independent of the trust under investigation. That has been a constant theme throughout. I tabled a probing amendment on redress investigators, but it was never pressed to a vote—it was simply a question of exploring alternatives. We want independence—that is the bottom line—but the Minister has admitted that he will not provide it.
I agree that the Opposition have called for independence throughout the passage of the Bill, and various models have been submitted to suggest how that independence could be achieved. On Report, I asked the hon. Gentleman who would employ the independent individuals who would provide oversight. Would they be employed within or outside the NHS? In another place, Earl Howe made it clear that he did not wish to be prescriptive, saying that
“as one idea, I would propose that where the actions of a particular trust were the subject of a redress claim, a non-executive director of a different trust could be brought in to provide the necessary element of independent scrutiny and oversight.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 1241.]
We simply do not believe that that is a workable model. Non-executive directors could not be expected to have the necessary skills, experience, investigation techniques or time to provide a meaningful overview of investigation under the redress scheme, particularly if required to review investigations by a neighbouring trust.
We are puzzled by the Government’s refusal to engage with the proposal to introduce more independence, as are many outside bodies. We have tabled many probing amendments and proposals, but it is the Minister who is backed by thousands of civil servants and the Government machine. Has he genuinely tried to find a workable, cost-effective way of introducing more independence? The current scheme does not have the confidence of Opposition Members or many outside organisations.
As I explained, we amended the Bill to improve openness, transparency and accountability for the patient concerned. Let me make it absolutely clear, however, that we do not favour an independent scheme, as we would lose the benefits of an NHS trust owning up to, and being open about, mistakes that have been made, learning from them and making changes to prevent such things from happening to other people. That is preferable to a process whereby a third party is engaged to look at the trust and its performance, which would not foster the culture that we are trying to achieve. The right to an independent investigation is not affected by the scheme, as people still have the right to pursue independent legal action if, after receiving the investigation report, they are not confident that their case was adequately investigated. They retain the right to progress to an independent stage. To pull independence into the scheme would create something different, as it is a first-stage scheme. The hon. Gentleman will know that any organisation that receives a complaint conducts a first-stage investigation itself before moving to the second stage, where independence comes into play. Opposition Members have confused the two notions.
In Committee, the Minister said that the process would be quick if it was carried out by someone involved in the case. We fear that quickness, because the investigation would be conducted in the interests of an organisation investigating itself. We are still at a loss to understand why the patient who has been wronged should have confidence in the investigative report, even though we are glad that the Minister agreed to allow one to be made. Without independence, that patient will not trust the report.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party feel that the scheme should be independent, but we are proposing something different. We are proposing that when the NHS receives a complaint, it take ownership of it and engage positively and constructively with the individual concerned, rather than passing them from pillar to post, or, as often happens—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can give examples of this from his constituency—for the shutters to come down and people to be forced away. It is much better to encourage a local investigation, and for local learning to take place, and for there to be engagement with the reasons why an individual has presented with a complaint under this scheme. It is a different model entirely to suggest that that should be done independently.
There have been various different suggestions, such as having redress investigators or an employed third party—although we did not find out more detail about that—and now we have the idea of having a non-executive director, perhaps from a neighbouring trust. Those options would be extremely costly and they would also not be workable.
All we are suggesting is that the person who oversees the investigation should be independent of the trust. That is not an expensive option; it is certainly not as expensive as the Government believe—a figure of £41 million has been mentioned. It is absolute nonsense to say that what we are suggesting—that someone independent should come in and head the investigation and oversee things—will create a vast increase in cost.
On the point about various options, I repeat to the Minister that this is enabling legislation; the detail will be in the regulations. We have put forward suggestions by way of probing amendments, but the principle has been the same: simply that the trust being investigated should not investigate itself. We have tabled probing amendments, but the principle has been absolutely constant: it is a question of independence.
The hon. Gentleman says that that does not make it right, but that is what matters in our parliamentary process—and if he has plans to change it, I would be interested to hear them. As there was a majority of 95 in favour of our proposals, having made amendments such as we did and having listened throughout the progress of the Bill, I am surprised that we are still debating it.
Do the Opposition really think that, if a neighbouring trust looks at a complaint involving another local trust, that will give the independence that patients are looking for? As far as I can see, that would still be the NHS investigating itself. However, beyond that I am not persuaded by the Opposition’s principal point. I am persuaded by a scheme where the NHS handles such situations better itself.
I am sure that Members of all parties are united by a wish to see a better culture at the first stage when a patient brings a complaint. I am sure that we all find that patients end up in our offices because they do not receive a satisfactory response at that stage from the trust concerned. The only way to change that is to have a system in which trusts engage with complaints in a more constructive way. I fail to see how having independent investigations, where people come into the trust concerned who are not employed by the trust or are non-executive directors of another trust, would foster a better culture in handling such matters.
Let me put my point to the Minister in another way. This Bill is a wasted opportunity, as is suggested by the Government’s amendments, because there is nothing in it that cannot already happen now. Trusts can investigate themselves now, and the NHS Litigation Authority can make an offer now. The point of introducing independence is that that introduces something new that will give credibility and thoroughness to the fact-finding stage.
I believe that the amendments that we have made to the Bill give precisely that. Because patients will be able to read in full their investigation report, they will decide for themselves whether or not that investigation has credibility. If they are not persuaded that it has, their statutory rights are not affected—to use the phrase. They can pursue that case further, because they have been provided with a full copy of that report. That is why I was disappointed to read the comments of Earl Howe, who seemed not to appreciate that we are providing the full details to patients. There is not a closed process, as he described it.
An amendment was made, in response to pressure from the hon. Member for Romsey, which is a material change to the Bill that strengthens the patient’s ability to pursue their legal rights if they are not persuaded by the quality of the investigation. Such an investigation, carried out locally by a trust, would be assessed by the scheme authority—the NHS Litigation Authority—before any assessment of liability or quantum was made. It would assess the quality of that investigation and examine whether it had analysed sufficiently the questions that needed to be checked, so there would be a check on the process.
To be honest, there is no major disagreement between us, and I do not believe that the hon. Member for Billericay—hand on heart—really thinks that there is. The scheme has been improved because of parliamentary scrutiny, but if the investigation were independent, that would create a very different scheme, and I hope that he appreciates that.
Meaningful independent oversight will require additional resources in the form of increased staffing and additional bureaucracy to support those undertaking such oversight. They will need support staff to administer the flow of cases, and reciprocal arrangements between scheme members will need to be put in place. We should not forget that the scheme goes wider than NHS trusts and foundation trusts.
There are many unanswered questions about how the arrangement would work in practice. During debate in another place, Lord Warner asked a range of questions:
“Does he or she”—
“sit on the shoulder of the investigator? How far do they follow through the investigation? Are they a duplicate investigator?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 1247.]
He was right to ask those questions, but there are further questions. If an investigation is carried out by the scheme member but overseen by an independent person, will the scheme member’s staff be answerable to their employer or to the independent overseer for the report’s content? What if there is a conflict? What if the member carrying out the investigation and the independent overseer do not agree on the facts in the investigation report? Who resolves the conflict? All sorts of potential problems could arise. How can we possibly agree to amendments tabled and suggestions made by the Opposition when there simply is no workable detail to support the claims being made?
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. How do he and the Government plan to measure this culture change in the NHS? Are there means in place that will enable the House and those outside to see whether the Minister is right, and that the culture change has indeed been effected without the introduction of our kind of independence?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. We are clear that we want the establishment of this scheme to lead to a much improved experience for the patient and to a reduction in the costs paid by the NHS in fighting clinical negligence claims. I am happy to give a commitment at this Dispatch Box to reviewing whether the scheme achieves the aims that we are setting out for it, and whether it does indeed promote a better culture in the NHS at local level to enable engagement with patient safety issues, because ultimately, that is what we are talking about. This is about clinical governance and patient safety: whether the scheme promotes a learning culture within local organisations, whether it provides a better experience for the patient seeking redress, and whether it enables trusts to reduce the amount that they pay out in fighting lengthy and often difficult legal cases.
However, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), which is a fair one. We should review the scheme to see whether it achieves the objectives that I have set out. If it does not, perhaps other options could be followed, but I have been over this ground many times in preparing for taking the Bill through this place, and I am confident that we are doing the right thing. Many trusts are already adopting a very different agenda because of issues such as patient choice and the need to look more carefully at patient satisfaction. I am confident that a change is already being effected on the ground, but I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be an ongoing review of whether that meets the stated aims.
The Minister said that one of the outcomes that he seeks is a reduction in the pay-outs made by trusts. Even if he is right and the Government’s proposed system effects a cultural change, is it not possible that there may be an increase in pay-outs because of an NHS that better recognises the mistakes that it has made? I am grateful to him for being so frank and laying out possible measures, but I wonder whether the one that he has described is the right one.
The hon. Gentleman is right. My predecessor acknowledged that this scheme might, by facilitating access to redress, lead to more people bringing forward cases and fewer people abandoning cases. As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he was on the Standing Committee considering the Bill, a high proportion of cases are abandoned.
The measure is not principally a cost-cutting scheme. What we want to do is reduce the money that is spent on fighting lengthy processes. That may lead to more money being paid out in redress to those patients who deserve that redress, but it should lead to a reduction—the hon. Gentleman has helpfully given me the opportunity to be clearer about this—in the costs spent in fighting a legal process. As he knows, they can be considerable.
I was putting on record some of the complicated questions that have yet to be resolved. Someone has to have the final say, and that person has to be knowledgeable about the facts of the case and how the investigation has been undertaken so that they are able to take decisions. It must be someone who has been involved throughout the investigation process, not simply someone who reads the final report.
The arguments about costs and bureaucracy will not go away. We were told in another place that surely the cost implications were de minimis, but members will still have to carry out their own investigations so there will be duplication and therefore extra costs. Members will not hand over responsibility to another trust.
I have described the improvements that we have made to the Bill as it has gone through this House. I again pay tribute to colleagues who helped us in that process. As a result, patients will be given their investigation report—let me be absolutely clear about that—and they will also be given a report on the action to be taken to prevent the same mistake from happening again. That, in my view, is overwhelmingly what patients want. It will be a transparent process; patients will know full well whether the facts of their case have been looked into fairly and fully.
We agree with Opposition Members that the scheme will be given credibility by an open and robust investigation, but we have already provided for that. Credibility will not be given by one scheme member investigating another. We have also tabled an amendment that specifically enables a scheme to provide for investigations to be overseen by a person of a specified description. That overseer will not be independent, but the amendment demonstrates further our commitment to ensuring a thorough local investigation. The scheme can specify the qualifications and experience that the person who oversees the investigation by the scheme member at the local level must have. That will benefit patients. They will know who has overall responsibility for the investigation into their case and who to contact about their investigation.
I believe that I have been over most of the ground that we have covered and I hope that I have put before the House some of the areas where we have made changes and have sought to be reasonable. I am concerned that the amendments that we passed on Report were not fully appreciated by another place and I urge it to consider the fact that they were passed by a significant majority in this House. I hope that, following today’s proceedings and the amendment that we are making to improve further the accountability of the NHS redress scheme, the scheme will now move forward and do what we want it to do—get on with the job of building a better and more responsive complaints-handling process at local level in the NHS and provide a much more satisfactory outcome to patients who bring forward the complaints that we, as Members of Parliament, have to deal with.
As the House well knows, the NHS Redress Bill returns, having been amended in the House of Lords. This is the second time that the House of Lords has rejected the Government’s proposal. More than 30 Cross-Bench peers voted for our amendment, whereas only one voted against it. That sends a clear signal that our amendment was passed because it is right in principle. It is about patient interests, not party politics.
As we all know, clinical negligence procedure is a mess. We can all agree on that. It is complex, unfair, slow, costly and wasteful. We welcome the Government’s attempts to address those problems but are concerned that the balance between the interests of patients and the health service, as envisaged by the Government, is not right. The redress scheme proposes a genuine alternative for the high volume of modest-value cases. We fully support those good intentions and want the Bill to succeed, but the Government’s proposals are fundamentally flawed and do not best serve patient interests.
Time and time again, patients tell us that they want an explanation of what went wrong and an apology if appropriate. They want to ensure that lessons are learned for the benefit of others. Compensation does not necessarily rank high in people’s priorities. The Government’s amendments do not, in our view, best meet those priorities. As the Minister has highlighted, the reason for that revolves around the issue of independence. The reason why the Bill has been sent back to us by the House of Lords is that their lordships believe that the investigation of facts under the scheme ought to be independent of the trust in question, whereas the Government believe that it ought to be a completely in-house process. Their lordships are right. Patients will not have confidence in an in-house system. That is why we shall oppose the Government’s solution.
Opposition Members believe that the investigation should be overseen by someone who is independent and unconnected with the trust and with the NHS Litigation Authority. To us, independence is a fundamental principle of natural justice that is enshrined in the rule against bias: no man should be judge in his own case or cause. That avoids a conflict of interest. That is the one common concern of the many organisations outside this place that we have consulted. Even within this place, the Constitutional Affairs Committee, in its report, “Compensation culture”, last March, stated:
“We are concerned that if the organisation which is responsible for defending trusts and hospitals is also charged with running the scheme, there may be a perception (whatever the reality) of a conflict of interest.”
That is terribly important. We can all agree that the interests of the patient must come first, but the best way of guaranteeing those interests is to ensure that the investigation is independent so that it has credibility.
The Minister is going back on himself in one respect, because the whole point of the scheme is that it should provide a genuine alternative to litigation. One key reason why people go to court is that they want to establish the facts in an independent manner. If this scheme is meant to be a genuine alternative to litigation, we should introduce that concept of independence in the scheme itself. Most organisations outside this place would agree with that. It is important to recognise that, if the scheme is an alternative to going to court, we should have regard to that basic need. Patients go to court because they want an independent assessment of the facts. I am afraid that the Government’s proposals fail to recognise that basic point.
I suggest to the Minister that independence is important for another reason. We all want to help to bring about a cultural change within the NHS towards greater openness and transparency. What could be more open and transparent than inviting someone who is independent of the trust to oversee the investigation into all the facts? To most objective observers, a trust investigating itself will not necessarily lead to a cultural change. After all, that can happen now without the Bill: trusts can already investigate themselves and the NHS Litigation Authority can already make an offer of compensation. The Bill does not change that, yet the Government suggest that we need the scheme to encourage such a cultural change.
By contrast, what seems to be more important to the Government—the Minister has been honest enough to admit this at the Dispatch Box, as he has before—is the ownership of the process itself. They freely concede that the scheme is not independent. As the Minister clarified, the amendment in lieu would not introduce the concept of independence in any way. The Minister argues that, if trusts have ownership, they will somehow be more likely to bring about a cultural shift in openness and transparency. Most people will find that entirely contradictory. The Government are trying to put the cart before the horse. NHS ownership of the scheme might be appropriate for a health system that is characterised by openness and transparency, but it will not in itself get us to that point, as history has shown.
As we have heard, the Government wish to introduce elements of independence, rather than to embrace independence itself. It might be worth while for the House to scrutinise quickly those elements of independence. The Government suggest that legal advice will be available prior to any offer. We are happy with the concept of legal advice being made available at the time of an offer because legal rights would be considered at that point, but giving legal advice prior to an offer will not make the investigation of the facts independent. Such legal advice will introduce adversarial elements, even though legal rights are not being determined. It will cause a replication of the cost and complexity of litigation.
The Government also argue that the scheme will make available expert advice, but such advice should be independent anyway. We do not need a scheme to make medical expert advice independent. Meanwhile, it is not clear whether medical reports will consider fact, fault, causation and condition, or whether they will be disclosed.
The Government suggest that the fact that patients will be able to complain to the ombudsman is another important aspect of independence. However, that applies to complaints of maladministration, rather than substantive investigations of the facts. The Government also point out that, if patients are not happy with the findings of the scheme, the courts will be available. Perversely, that shows the failure of a scheme that purports to provide a genuine alternative to litigation. Advancing such an argument almost defeats the purpose of the scheme itself.
Unless an investigation of the facts has a badge of independence to reassure patients, the scheme will add nothing whatsoever to what can already happen. As we have mentioned, NHS trusts already have the ability to investigate themselves and the NHSLA has the power to make an assessment of liability and, when appropriate, offer compensation. I put it to the Minister that, unless the Government concede on independence—I do not expect that they will—the Bill will be a wasted opportunity in many respects.
I wish to touch briefly on separation, because I think that it is relevant to independence. The scheme must be a two-stage process with a strict separation between the functions of fact-finding and fault-finding. An investigation of what happened should not be contaminated by considerations of who was to blame. There is ample legal authority for the rationale of such separation—the principle behind the Inquiries Act 2005 and the coroners’ courts—so it is happening throughout the country.
There is also ample case law of the Court of Appeal that recognises the rationale for the separation of fact-finding from determination of legal liability. We envisage a wide-ranging inquiry that may consider matters of medical professional practice, but does not consider issues of legal liability. That limitation is appropriate because the inquiry is not a court: legal rights are not being defended or asserted.
The Government appear to concede that there is, in practice, a two-stage process in which fact-finding and fault-finding are separate. In Standing Committee, the Minister said:
“The scheme, as envisaged, would separate fact-finding from fault-finding in that, locally, it is for the NHS body to carry out the investigation into the facts, and it is then for the scheme authority to consider whether there is liability and, if so, what it should be.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 13 June 2006; c. 67-68.]
The Secretary of State made a similar point in this Chamber on Second Reading.
Does the Minister stand by those remarks? Will he guarantee that there will be a separation of functions between the trust investigating what happened and the NHSLA considering issues of liability? Will he confirm that the body responsible for defending the NHS against claims—the NHSLA—will have no role in determining the facts of the case? I invite the Minister to respond now to those questions.
I am happy to do so. I do indeed stand by what I said in Committee, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has in mind a more rigid separation than we do. As I described in my opening remarks, we believe that there will be discussion between the scheme authority and the local trust on the quality of the report and of the investigation, on whether there are gaps and on whether further information needs to be provided. I have in mind a more iterative process and more exchange of information between the bodies. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to confirm that it is principally the trust’s responsibility to carry out the investigation and the scheme authority’s role to advise on liability and quantum, I am happy to do so.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. For the record, I am not suggesting a rigid structure—far from it. All I am suggesting is that the function of fact-finding should be confined to the trust investigating at the fact-finding stage. That should not prevent correspondence, liaison and communication between the NHSLA and the trust, as long as the NHSLA plays no part in determining the facts of the case. It must be absolutely clear that the trust determines the facts. Can the Minister confirm that?
It is because we have in mind a unified, coherent scheme wherein trusts work closely with the scheme authority to ensure both that thorough and detailed investigation reports are produced and that, based on those reports, correct offers of settlement are made. We have in mind a single scheme, not a multiplicity of schemes once the investigation stage is complete, as the hon. Gentleman seems to envisage. We propose a coherent whole so that we might avoid the need for the legal process and thereby improve the patient experience and reduce the cost to the system as a whole.
I suggest to the Minister that his remarks are somewhat contradictory. He has made it clear at the Dispatch Box that he accepts that the fact-finding stage will remain just that—a process to determine the facts—and it will then be up to the NHSLA to assess liability. I therefore cannot understand why that clear separation of the two functions cannot be spelled out on the face of the Bill.
I ask the Minister to turn his attention to the investigation reports. Clarity about what the report covers is important. Will the report made available to the patient cover only the fact-finding stage, or will it include the fault-finding stage as well? That is important. Any offer will, presumably, be made on a without prejudice basis—in other words, it cannot imply liability—but the reports will not ordinarily be disclosable if they include the fault-finding stage, because they might imply liability. The reports should therefore be restricted to the fact-finding stage only; otherwise, the scheme risks being functionally incoherent. Will the Minister clarify that point for the House?
The intention is to make the report available to the patient at the point of an offer being made. I stress that it is the trust’s report—the local investigation carried out by the trust—that will be made available. The intention is that that would be made available simultaneously with an offer being made, so the two documents would be read together by the patient.
I clarify again that the report would be the product of the local investigation carried out by the trust. I would encourage trusts to go further than simply laying out the facts. If they wanted to make an apology to the patient at that stage or explain what process changes have been made to prevent the same thing from happening again, it would be right and proper for them to do that. I would encourage them to do so, rather than delivering a mechanistic report dealing solely with the facts of the case.
I am happy to agree with the Minister. I do not think we have ever disagreed on that point. The trust’s role is also to give an explanation and an apology, if appropriate. I thank the Minister for clarifying that the report will cover the investigation undertaken by the trust into the facts. That is extremely important.
I know that others wish to speak, so I shall touch only briefly on one or two related issues. We all agree that legal advice should be available at the point when an offer of compensation or settlement is made, since legal rights may be determined if they are waived as part of a compromise agreement. However, in an attempt to bolster the independence and credibility of their scheme, the Government have proposed that free legal advice should be made available before legal rights are determined.
That, in our view, will merely encourage confusion between fact-finding and fault-finding within the scheme, for it is the job of lawyers to assert or defend legal rights. Our concern is that accusations of blame will contaminate the fact-finding process. That will lead, in contrast to what the Minister suggests, to a more closed and defensive culture among NHS staff. As a result, important lessons may not be learned. Such an approach contradicts the Secretary of State’s opinion on Second Reading that lawyers should be kept out of the investigation.
In our view, lawyers are not required during the fact-finding investigation, since legal rights are not being asserted or defended. Much has been made of the contribution of so-called specialist lawyers. The Minister referred to
“a specialist quality mark in clinical negligence.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1563.]
Policy and decision making must be based on evidence. I am not aware of evidence of better success rates of specialist lawyers.
The evidence that I have seen tends to show that their success is comparable to non-specialists. Action against Medical Accidents—AvMA—makes the following statement in its promotional literature:
“The evidence shows that specialist solicitors are much more likely to make an accurate assessment of the chances of success in claiming compensation for clinical negligence”.
I have asked AvMA to produce the evidence, which it has been unable to do. It should make it clear in its promotional literature that there is no evidence to substantiate its claims. I believe it will eventually be required to do that. That is important, because if the Government seek to bolster the independence and credibility of the scheme by involving specialist lawyers, the performance of such lawyers must be measurable and stand up to independent scrutiny.
I declare an interest as a trustee of AvMA. In the hon. Gentleman’s view, do non-specialists with no particular knowledge or expertise in a subject have knowledge and expertise as good as people with many years of in-depth knowledge and expertise in that subject, and are they therefore likely to be as successful?
I can understand why the hon. Gentleman asks that question as a trustee of AvMA. However, whenever we have asked AvMA to provide evidence to substantiate that claim, it has been unable to so; eventually, it will have to address that point.
We share and support the Government’s good intentions as regards providing a genuine alternative to litigation, but the issue of independence is of such crucial importance that their lordships were right to send the Bill back for further consideration. Independence will make the scheme more credible in the eyes of the patient and will promote a culture of greater openness in the NHS. I therefore invite the Minister, even at this late stage, to agree with the Lords about the importance of independence and the separation of fact-finding and fault-finding; I think that he has done so on the latter. If he does not agree with the concept of independence, patients will be the poorer for it, and we will therefore have no alternative but to ask the House to oppose the Government’s amendment.
I support the comments made by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who has gone into the issues in some depth. It is a good job that I did not prepare such a lengthy and in-depth speech, because I would not have had time to deliver it.
There is broad agreement on the general principles of the Bill, which has been welcomed in all parts of the House. It is right and proper that patients are encouraged to complain and that trusts are engaged proactively in that. However, throughout the Bill’s passage, Liberal Democrat Members have tried hard to establish two clear principles: a clear separation between fact-finding and fault-finding, and the independence of the process. It has become gradually more apparent that the Government intend that investigations should be thorough and that all the facts should be established before an inquiry is handed over to the next stage. We would prefer a slightly more rigid separation, but we can broadly agree that everything is moving in pretty much the right direction. However, there remains a problem with the NHS Litigation Authority taking over at that stage, because its job is, in effect, to protect the NHS from over-large claims and often to challenge such claims. Rightly, part of its remit is to protect the public purse, but that seems counterintuitive as regards the stated aim of the Bill, which is to be on the side of the patient. Many patient groups perceive the NHSLA to be on the side not of the patient but of the NHS. However, this is not the place to rehearse those arguments at length.
In the time that I have left, I want to concentrate on the outstanding point of difference—independence. During the Bill’s passage, there have been numerous attempts to introduce different mechanisms for dealing with that problem that the Minister could accept. He has been generous in other parts of the Bill, so I hope that he will forgive me for saying that he seems to be bogged down in those mechanisms and has found fault with each idea without recognising the broad principle. When we saw the Government’s amendment, our first thought was that it could represent a concession whereby the Government could introduce independence if they so wished, but sadly that has proved not to be the case.
If the Minister will not listen to Opposition Members on this matter, perhaps he will be more persuaded by others. When the Bill was introduced, the Patients Association said:
“The Government has shied away from the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendations, only two years ago, and wants to introduce a system that is unfair, is not independent and less rigorous.”
Dr. Gerard Panting of the Medical Protection Society made a slightly different point when he said that, for the NHS redress scheme to command the confidence both of the public and of health care professionals, it is important that independent advice be available. Most of the patient groups that I have spoken to have expressed concern that an in-trust investigation would not be independent.
People with real expertise have been involved with this Bill in the other place, including my noble Friend Baroness Neuberger, who said:
“The Minister will forgive me if I go back to an earlier time in my life, when I was part of the advisory group that worked up the previous complaints system. We all, in good faith, believed that an in-house complaints investigation system could work. He will also know, because this will have landed on his desk now and in previous incarnations, that we were wrong. As an NHS chairman, like the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, I chaired a community health service NHS trust and had to sign off the letters responding to complaints. Very often, I felt that the trust investigated itself fairly. Sometimes I did not. Either way, it was equally clear that the punters outside—the patients and their families—were dissatisfied because no one outside had had a proper look.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 1243.]
Clearly that is something that we want to avoid. I believe that the Minister is well intentioned, but I hope that he will learn from the experience of others that this provision is potentially flawed.
An independent overseer would be in a better position to identify the organisational dysfunctions that we must acknowledge occur in some organisations. I am pleased that the Minister has said that he will review the issue. Will he describe the time scale involved? Will he also consider introducing either a pilot scheme or enabling legislation so that trusts may choose whether to have an independent overseer? Alternatively, there could be a few experimental areas in which independence is tried out, so that when the system is reviewed, we can make a full comparison to determine which method works best in the interests of patients.
Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—
national health service bill [lords]
Read a Second time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 58 (Consolidation Bills),
That the Bill be not committed.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.
national health service (consequential provisions) bill [lords]
Read a Second time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 58 (Consolidation Bills) and Order [26 October],
That the Bill be not committed.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.
national health service (Wales) bill [lords]
Read a Second time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 58 (Consolidation Bills),
That the Bill be not committed.–—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.
ANIMAL WELFARE BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6)(Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Animal Welfare Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 10th January and 14th March 2006 (Animal Welfare Bill (Programme) and Animal Welfare Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Liz Blackman]
Question agreed to.
Animal Welfare Bill
Lords amendments considered.
Docking of dogs’ tails
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 9 and 52.
Let me first take the opportunity to thank those in the other place, particularly Lady Byford, Lady Miller and my colleagues Lord Bach and Lord Rooker, for their hard work on the Bill after it left the House of Commons. I also thank all Members of this House.
It is especially nice to see some doughty animal welfare champions present today, including the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and—in his old place on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). On the Labour Benches, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove). My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon must have just dashed out; she was here a minute ago. Both my hon. Friends played an important part in Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon can take credit for some of the improvements in relation to circus animals. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who is also present, does sterling work as chairman of the all-party animal welfare group.
It is incumbent on me to thank the public and all the animal welfare organisations that have had such an important—
Such an important input and role, yes. I do not quite recall my right hon. Friend playing such a large part in the Bill’s passage, but it is very nice to see him in his place.
I thank the animal welfare groups and the public, who responded to our consultation in record numbers. Last but not least, I thank my excellent officials from the Department, who have done a terrific job working across the parties to try to secure what I hope will be an important, historic measure that will receive Royal Assent shortly. It might help Members to know in advance that the Government will accept all the Lords amendments.
As my hon. Friend will know, a number of aspects of the Bill, especially the holding of pet fairs, will be subject to the making of regulations. In the light of a recent judgment and my hon. Friend’s statement on it, will he guarantee that there will be extensive consultation on the detail of regulations to ensure that such events are organised only by hobbyist and interest groups? Will he guarantee that the regulations will be cast-iron, and that—within reason—there can be no breaches?
I am happy to give that reassurance. I will say a little more about pet fairs when we discuss the time scale for regulations, but my hon. Friend is right. There are three issues in relation to which matters of substance have shifted somewhat since they were last discussed in this House. As he says, the issue of pet fairs is one of them because of the legal judgment; the other two are circuses and greyhounds. I will say a little about all three later.
This group of amendments deals with tail docking, which, as hon. Members will probably recall, was debated at length in this House. Following a free vote, an offence was created of docking a dog’s tail other than for medical treatment unless the dog is a certified working dog. The amendments made in the other place do not in any way deviate from that policy, but they are necessary to give full and proper effect to it. Several amendments agreed in the other place are technical, to address an oversight in the drafting of the delegated power, which did not completely allow us to achieve the policy that I described in the debate before the free vote.
Will the Minister address amendment No. 2, which mentions dogs “of a type”. What will be the position for dogs that are not pure bred—half breeds or mongrels—but have, for example, a spaniel-like tendency?
I shall come on to the issue of specific types, but I specifically committed, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will remember, to restricting the types of dogs that can be docked to spaniels, terriers, hunt-point-retrieve breeds and crosses of any of those types. The amendments are necessary to allow us to achieve that very restriction.
A further set of amendments was agreed on Report in the other place.
How far down the pedigree will the authority allow vets to go? Some dogs have spaniels two or three steps down the generational ladder. How is the vet to be satisfied that the dog meets the definition of a working dog? I have some difficulty in understanding that.
That is why we are leaving it up to the discretion of vets. They will generally take their responsibilities seriously and they will require a certification that the dog will be used for shooting in some way. It is better for vets to be able to make a decision about whether a dog belongs to one of those breeds or is a mix, provided the evidence is given to them by the owner. It is not up to us to second-guess how they will arrive at that decision.
My concern is that the amendment could drive a coach and horses through the provisions in the Bill. If my hon. Friend recalls the position, vets should not—ethically speaking—be docking tails, but some are doing so. My fear is that those vets who are prepared to dock tails will accept any dog as falling within the definition.
If they did so, they would be in contravention of the Bill. I do not want to revisit the long debates we had on the issue. My hon. Friend lost the vote when we had a free vote, and those of us who advocated an exemption for working breeds won the vote. We have worked hard to try to make the process as easy as possible. If one looks at the animal welfare provision in countries that have the blanket ban that he advocates, it is apparent that it does not work in many cases, because they do not have the accompanying ban on showing, for example, or they have not tightened the regulations in the way we have. My officials and I are confident that this is probably the best we are going to get, given the will of the House as expressed in that free vote. At this late hour, it is not even possible to revisit that.
A further set of amendments was agreed in the other place, prompted by concerns raised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. It was worried that vets could be accountable if they had been misled into docking a dog illegally and that assessing a dog as “likely to work” from evidence provided was not within their professional expertise and training. Instead, the amendments will allow a vet to certify that he has seen the evidence required by regulations to demonstrate that a dog is likely to work.
I echo the thanks from the Minister to those who have worked so hard on the Bill to ensure that it is as good as it is, including those in the other place, officials and the RSPCA and other animal welfare charities and groups. I am also pleased that the Bill has returned from the other place with the working dog exemption, for which this House voted, still in place.
As the Minister said, tail docking and the debates it sparked in Committee and in the Chamber have been the most emotive and controversial parts of the Bill, but we have reached a rational and reasoned position. The amendments, which were originally suggested by Lord Soulsby and then taken on by the Government, offer a sensible way forward. The RCVS has expressed concerns about veterinary surgeons being responsible for determining whether a dog is a working dog and the legal liabilities that would entail. When vets are docking the tail of a working dog they want proof of the need to dock the tail to lie with the dog’s owner or handler; otherwise they will be reluctant to carry out the procedure. The amendment resolves those concerns.
We remain uncertain, nevertheless, about which breeds of dog the Government will permit to be docked, as well as about what evidence will demonstrate that a dog is to be used for working purposes, although the Minister touched on that point in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I was a little surprised to read the comments of Lord Rooker, who stated that he did
“not specifically know how the animals will be identified”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 998.]
Although I hope that will be detailed in the forthcoming regulations, it would be helpful if the Minister made things a little clearer. Will he let us know when he plans to publish which breeds will qualify as working dogs, and when he will indicate the form of evidence that will be required to prove that a dog may work?
On Report in the other place, also at column 998, Lord Rooker was asked whether some form of micro-chipping would be used to identify working dogs whose tails had been docked when they were puppies. Is the Minister any closer to deciding whether micro-chipping will have a role to play in identifying working dogs?
I am not against the docking of the tails of working dogs; indeed, in many cases it is wholly appropriate, but I want to say a few words about amendment No. 2. I would prefer to leave the question of identifying types to the discretion of the veterinary surgeon. However, that will not be the impact of the amendment.
As I understand it, the authority will, by regulation, determine whether a dog is capable of falling within the classification “working dog”—that it is of a type. That may not be particularly difficult when one is dealing with pure breeds, but it becomes very difficult when dealing with crosses, especially when somewhere down the track the grandsire or the grandmother is a spaniel.
The proposed procedure is curious, because I do not see how the regulating authority will be able to define a dog, other than a pure-bred animal, as a type capable of falling within the classification “working dog”. That is not leaving things to the discretion of the veterinary surgeon, as the Minister suggested; it gives the definitional function to the authority and it is not easy to perform that function other than in relation to pure breeds.
Like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), I accept that a problem will inevitably occur if exceptions are made. The House has decided to make an exception to allow some tail docking so a definitional problem must automatically follow.
I normally agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his analysis of such matters, but in this case it depends on the regulations. Flexibility for veterinary surgeons could be built into the regulations—indeed, it would be extraordinary if it were not—so we should wait until they are published before making a judgment. However, although I agree that it is important that such matters should be as clear as possible, it is also important that we do not end up with bad law, so that a vet could regard an animal as a working dog but would not be allowed to make that judgment due to the drafting of the regulations. In a sense, this discussion is about what the regulations might say, and the Minister and his officials will no doubt take it into account when they are drafted.
I should like to respond to the Minister’s opening remarks. He has dealt with the Bill in a welcome manner, and the measure is better for the open response that he and his officials showed.
In answer to the questions posed, the list will have to be published alongside the regulations, and that will coincide with the implementation of the Bill in spring 2007. Let me respond to part, if not all, of the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) about how a vet certifying a dog could be sure of whether it was descended from a dog that had been cross-bred several generations ago. I am advised by my officials that a veterinary surgeon who certifies a dog must see the dam—that is, the mother—which would have to be of a recognisable type. The mother is likely to be a pure breed in most cases. That is the advice that I received from our vets. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), the regulations will specify that a dog must be identified by micro-chip.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 9 agreed to.
Administration of poisons etc.
Lords amendment: No. 10.
With this we may discuss Lords amendment No. 11.
Lords amendment No. 10 will ensure that there is consistency in the Bill, and addresses an anomaly that resulted from an amendment made to the Bill earlier, in this House. Clause 8 was amended on Report to clarify the defences available for certain elements of the offence of animal fighting. Those defences are “lawful authority” or “reasonable excuse”. Lords amendments Nos. 10 and 11 were proposed to ensure that the defences in clause 7, which is on the administration of poisons and other matters, were consistent with the approach taken in clause 8. On that basis, I commend the amendments to the House.
I was slightly surprised to see that Lords amendments Nos. 10 and 11 had been made to the Bill. If the Minister casts his mind back to Committee in January, he will remember that we debated the issue while considering an amendment that I tabled on liability for incidents of accidental poisoning. During that debate, he assured me that the clause covered accidental poisonings. He said that
“it reflects the original 1911 Act offence, which employed a test of reasonable cause or excuse.”
He went on to state that he believed
“that that is a perfectly reasonable standard to set and that it is adequate”.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 17 January 2006; c. 87.]
Given his previous satisfaction with this clause, will he explain to the House how the addition of the word “reasonable” will make a difference, and can he give some examples?
Order. Technically, the Minister must ask the leave of the House when he responds.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond to that point. One example would be the case of a journalist who was present at an animal fight. It would not be possible to say that that journalist had “lawful authority” to be present, but he could have a “reasonable excuse”. The amendment allows us to make sure that there is consistency throughout the Bill, by ensuring that the word “reasonable” is included in clause 7, as it is in other parts of the Bill.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 11 agreed to.
Licensing or registration of activities involving animals
Lords amendment: No. 12.
With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 13 to 19 and 53.
The Lords amendments deal with the making of regulations, and give right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to raise any concerns about the proposed time scale for the laying of regulations under the Bill. I urge the House to agree with all the Lords amendments, which were made by the Government on Report in the other place, and reflect commitments that my colleague, Lord Rooker, gave both in Grand Committee and in the House of Lords Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. Lords amendments Nos. 12 and 19 introduce a duty to consult before introducing any licensing or registration schemes under clause 13, and before revoking a code of practice under clause 17.
Lords amendments Nos. 13 to 18 are minor drafting amendments to bring the wording of the duty to consult under clauses 15 and 16 into line with the wording of the duty in clauses 12, 13 and 17. Lords amendment No. 53 responds to concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee that if a code of practice is revoked and not replaced there is no parliamentary procedure governing that decision. In practice, we do not think that that will often happen, if at all, but because it would be an exceptional occurrence, we agree that parliamentary scrutiny of the decision is appropriate. On that basis, I urge the House to accept the Lords amendments.
The subtle changes to the wording of the provisions for making regulations under the legislation are important, as they appear to widen the scope for consultation. The Opposition have pushed for similar measures throughout, especially in Committee, when the Minister reassured us that such technical amendments were not necessary. It is important when drafting regulations and codes that everyone with an interest in those matters should have their say and not be excluded. Members with a keen interest in this Bill will have been lobbied on various provisions by a wide range of people and organisations, and by considering all those views we have managed to produce a better Bill.
I wish to sound a note of caution, however, about the amendments and the question of whom the Minister chooses to consult. The Bill is improved by the requirement that the Secretary of State consult individuals
“appearing to him to represent any interests concerned”,
as opposed to consulting
“such persons about the draft as he thinks fit” .
I would be grateful if the Minister reassured us that he will consult individuals who do not necessarily represent a specific organisation or interest, too, and consider their views. If the Lords amendments shift the emphasis from individuals to delegates and representatives, someone who wants to be heard must be backed by a group. That is fine, unless individuals are prevented from participating in the consultation, because they are not part of a group. I am sure that the Minister can reassure me on that point.
It is important to conduct a thorough consultation on the future codes and regulations on which much of the legislation depends and on which owners, inspectors, prosecutors and the courts will base their decisions. We must wait for the individual animal codes to see how we can ensure that our cats have enough mental stimulation and are not too fat or too thin. We must wait to see the status of animals in circuses and the definition of pet fairs. We must wait, too, for the codes and regulations that govern the welfare of racing greyhounds. There is tremendous pressure on the Minister to produce those codes sooner rather than later, and I am pleased that he has already prioritised greyhounds. There is a need for action now, as the stories in the newspapers over the summer about the killing of tens of thousands of dogs demonstrated. I hope, however, that the extra time will be used wisely for a thorough consultation and scrutiny by Parliament.
It would be helpful if the Minister updated us on the progress of the production of those codes and regulations, and told us which working groups he has established. In Committee, he could not tell us how many codes of practice he intended to introduce. Will he sketch out his ideas for pre-legislative scrutiny of the codes, which are subject to negative resolution? I hope that there will be no need to pray against them. Will he explain how consistency will be maintained across Great Britain in producing regulations and codes, as Scotland has a different Act and Wales can produce its own secondary legislation? With regard to his earlier responses, different definitions could apply to the docking of working dogs in Wales. I hope that we will have an opportunity for helpful pre-legislative scrutiny before the codes are introduced in statutory instruments, and I hope that he can reassure me about the importance of allowing individuals to take part in consultation.
The Animal Welfare Bill is a landmark Bill. It is tremendous; anybody who is involved in animal welfare will applaud it. In the future, when the Minister looks back following a long ministerial career, he will take pride in the fact that he took it through the House.
I wish to say something about the regulations on racing greyhounds. As has been pointed out, earlier this year in The Sunday Times there was an horrendous story about the slaughter of up to 10,000 greyhounds in County Durham. There is obviously an urgent need to address the issue. Can the Minister give us an idea of what the timetable will be for that, and what attention will be given to non-regulated tracks?
I shall concentrate on two issues. First, regulations are usually designed to give effect to a Bill that has been agreed to by the House and the measures contained therein, but in respect of pet fairs, the Government have radically changed their position from that which they set out when they initially brought the Bill before the House, and the banning of pet fairs is not in the Bill. Therefore, in many ways we are completely at the mercy of the Government in respect of what they do with regulations on this matter, because there is nothing in the Bill to guide them.
I have been very concerned about the Government’s attitude towards pet fairs throughout. I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who said that this is a most important Bill and that people with an interest in animal welfare will welcome it. Those of us with an interest in animal welfare were baffled, however, at the original decision that pet fairs would not be banned. We were further concerned when the current situation was tested to the limit in June of this year when the Parrot Society UK—apparently acting on the advice of somebody in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who it is said has been involved in the drafting of this Bill—organised a one-day public bird sale to test the state of the law and proclaimed that the birds were not pet birds, but were breeding birds.
When there are such ways of getting around the law—or of attempting to do so—I am somewhat dubious about the whole of this business being left to regulations, although I accept that I am now faced with a fait accompli. As I understand it, the Minister is proposing that new measures will be laid in regulations permitting occasional private and non-commercial sales between hobbyists. I think that most of us could say, “Yes, that is perfectly reasonable.”, but we should look at the way that the law was circumvented—or the way that an attempt was made to do so—with that parrot fair. Thousands were in attendance; it was not a hobby fair at all. Therefore, we need to be assured that these regulations will be extremely tight, and that there will be a good opportunity for this House to examine them before they just get relegated to being statutory instruments, when it will all become a fait accompli.
The second thing that I am particularly concerned about is the codes. I have looked at the draft code: I have looked at it, I have blinked in disbelief and I have read it again. Apparently, I, as a cat owner, who has had cats that have lived to be 23 before now—
I thank the hon. Lady. I, as a cat owner, who has had cats that have lived to be 23 before now and who regularly takes them to the vet and deeply attends to their welfare, am now being told that I commit an offence if I cannot say—which I cannot—how much my cat should weigh in order to keep me within the law, relevant to its bone structure, its size and its breed. I do not have a clue about that.
Furthermore, I am informed that I commit an offence—if this code of practice informs the law—if I do not provide for due privacy for my cats when they visit the litter box. The code actually says that we must take cognisance of an animal’s preference for privacy. Do the people who wrote this code have any experience of animals’ preference for privacy? They do not have any preference for privacy when they are discharging their natural functions. They will walk out during a barbecue and do it there and then, in the middle of the lawn. However, I commit an offence in law if I do not have regard for the animal’s “preference for privacy”.
That may sound entirely humorous, but it genuinely is in the code of practice. The more serious point is that we all know what happens when codes and regulations get too detailed and the implementers get too zealous: ordinary citizens who cannot get the police round when they have been burgled find that they are on the wrong end of the law for what most people would consider entirely silly nonsense. We have to know that this code of practice, with all its silly detail, will be applied only with an exceptionally light hand and only in the spirit of the legislation, which talks about neglect, cruelty and indifference to welfare, and that it will not penalise some poor owner who cannot say how much her cat should weigh. I will of course make a point of asking the vet about that when my cats go for their annual boosters, and I will write the information down and carry it round in my pocket, so that I can pull it out if I am ever asked for it. I say that only slightly sarcastically, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that law has a habit of growing its own legs.
The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) rightly said that this is a good Bill which is welcomed in all parts of the House, but ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have taken on trust promises from the Government to introduce codes on a range of matters that are of great concern to Members in all parts of the House, and we have not disbelieved the Minister’s integrity or his intention to introduce them. We were told, cliché notwithstanding, that this was not going to be a “Christmas tree Bill”—a phrase used regularly in Committee and even on Second Reading. However, we must ensure that these codes are introduced quickly and as a matter of priority, as people would wish—I agree that the issue of greyhounds also needs to be dealt with speedily—and, to pick up on the point just made by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), that they are well written. I have no idea how much my cats weigh, either, and I have no intention of finding out.
We must press the Minister this afternoon for some indication of what he is doing about these outstanding matters. He was good enough to say in his introductory remarks that he would give such an indication, and I assume that, as we are discussing codes, he feels that this is the appropriate time to do so. Although we have made welcome significant progress in a number of areas, even at this very late stage in the Bill’s consideration—at five minutes to midnight—there remain unresolved issues on which it is not quite clear where the Government are going. For example, the situation regarding circuses has, if anything, become less rather than more clear as a consequence of the Bill’s passage through the Lords. Lord Rooker said that
“we have given a commitment to ban the use of certain non-domesticated species in travelling circuses”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 1002.]
But between Report and Third Reading, he wrote to peers saying,
“It is not correct to say the remit of the group”—
the group being set up by the Government—
“is to examine which species should be banned from performing”.
Those two statements could be read as being slightly contradictory, and it would be helpful if the Minister clarified the position this afternoon.
Can the Minister also say whether, ultimately, the codes will consider issues such as training and performance, which the circus working group appears not to have taken on board? It is a question not simply of the winter conditions in which animals are kept, but how they are performed—or otherwise—and trained. The Minister will know that there are significant concerns about the training methods used in circuses; indeed, that is one reason why many of us feel uncomfortable about animals being in circuses in the first place. I hope that the Minister can offer some clarification.
The Minister will also be aware that minimum display pen sizes are an issue. I hope that they will feature in the regulations, notwithstanding the light touch that, in theory, I endorse. Those of us who advocate a light touch also want some detail on issues such as pen sizes, given the current significant variation between the average circus pen size and—if we are comparing zoo licensing conditions with circuses, as the Minister has considered doing—the average zoo outdoor pen size.
The Minister has still some way to go to achieve the conditions that I would like to see, which, with the possible exception of dogs and horses, is an end to performing animals in circuses. There is even more need to provide clarification of the Government’s intentions, which are still not entirely clear even at this late stage of the Bill.
In common with the Minister and the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), I should like to mention greyhounds. I hope that the Minister will confirm that their welfare is a priority for his codes and that the matter will be dealt with sooner rather than later, particularly given, as the hon. Member for Leominster said, some of the terrible stories that appeared in the national press over the summer. I do not know whether I should declare an interest, but my brother breeds greyhounds—[Interruption]. He does; one cannot be judged by one’s family. My brother tells me that he is concerned by the existing loopholes and he wants them closed. I know from someone I know in the industry that there is concern about those matters. Those who act responsibly in the industry, as much as those outside it, want the provisions tightened up.
Does he give you any tips?
He has not given me any tips, but if he does, I shall communicate them in due course.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to pet fairs. We should be grateful that the Government have moved on this issue as their position was unsustainable in the early stages. They have listened, but there are still problems with the types of events that are referred to and there are gaping loopholes. It is all very well to say that the commercial sale of animals will be prohibited—we can all agree with that—but what is and is not a commercial sale? Who is going to police the provision and who will determine what is such a sale? We need a law not only that we agree with philosophically, but that can be understood and enforced by the enforcement agencies and can be interpreted by the courts. I am not sure that we have got that for pet fairs.
We have the unsatisfactory position by which the Pet Animals Act 1951 is subject to varying interpretation by local authorities. This is the opportunity to sort that out once and for all and arrive at a position with which people agree. I fear that we will not do that.
We could, indeed, end up with that, but I suspect that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order if I went on about devolution in too much detail. We will have problems, but it is an inevitable part of devolution. It is not a reason not to have different rules by which the Scots and the Welsh are entitled to express their opinions and form their own legislation. For England at least, I hope that we have a clear answer from the Minister that gives us confidence not only that the will of the House is being met but that codes will be drawn to be enforceable.
Although I did not have the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee considering the Bill, like the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I was one of those who spent many happy and sometimes fraught hours a couple of years ago on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee considering the draft Bill and making proposals about the legislation. I am therefore pleased to be here today to consider the last stage of the Bill’s passage through the House.
Like others, I welcome the Bill as landmark legislation of which the Government and all those involved in its framing can be proud. Although I welcome the Minister’s comments about the scrutiny of regulations and the written announcement on the Government’s attitude to pet fairs that he made on, I believe, 10 October, following the Stafford pet fair judgment, I wish briefly to echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker).
I assure the Minister that there will be many Members of the House, and many organisations and individuals outside it, who will look carefully at the regulations in relation to pet fairs. I am one of those who wish that the Government had taken the opportunity to interpret what many of us felt was the existing law in the way in which some local authorities have been interpreting it for years: that is, to say that pet fairs are against the law and should not be licensed. Unfortunately, there was inconsistency. Now we have a kind of consistency in the Government’s proposals in that commercial pet fairs and markets are not to be licensed, but those organised by groups of hobbyists and specialist societies concerned with a particular breed or species of animal might well be able to find themselves with a licence.
I am afraid that the sad history of pet fairs leads me to believe that there will be many people who will do their utmost to circumvent those regulations. Many people with informed views on the subject believe that not only would that bring the law into disrepute, but it may have sad consequences for animal welfare itself, because of the conditions at many pet fairs that have taken place in the past. I welcome the fact that the Government have changed their position during the course of the consideration of the Bill.
Like my hon. Friend, I spent many an hour on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. It is interesting that the Government basically stopped all shows during the time when there was a big threat of avian influenza. In these days when animal diseases are much more prevalent, the issue is not just animal welfare, but its interconnectedness with the fact that there is a threat if there are large numbers of birds or animals together. Does he agree that the Government ought to bear that in mind?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. At an earlier stage in the consideration of the Bill, I drew the Minister’s attention to many people’s concerns about the potential for the spread of avian flu as a result of the conditions in some bird fairs.
I emphasise again that, although I welcome what the Minister has said and will listen with interest to what he has to say in answer to the hon. Member for Leominster about the consultation on and scrutiny of the regulations, I assure him that many of us here, and outside Parliament, will look carefully at the detail to ensure that the more unscrupulous elements involved in the so-called care—more often the trading—of birds and animals do not get their way.
I rise simply to support the determination of the Government to consult, as reflected in Lords amendment No. 12. I have two comments that I hope may reinforce the Government’s commitment to consult effectively. First, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) said. [Interruption.] I am sorry if I mispronounced his constituency. The phrase “to represent any interests” is a narrowing phrase, because it confines itself, on the face of it, to those who represent interest groups established by association or institution or whatever.
It would be a great pity if the consultation were limited to such persons, especially when one sees the scope of the activities to which the regulations extend, as set out in subsections (5) and (8) of clause 13. They are activities in which many members of the public have a wide interest, even if they do not belong to one of the recognised interest groups. For example, I possess a dog, I ride, shoot, fish and all the rest of it, but I belong to no association other than the Countryside Alliance. However, I undoubtedly have a range of interests—loosely defined—and I would like to be one of the people to be consulted. I thus hope that the consultation powers will be widely interpreted.
Although we do not often agree on such matters, I think that I will echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on the nature of the consultation. In this instance, as in so many, the Government will rely on statutory instruments. We all know that statutory instruments are an imperfect way of legislating because they are either approved or rejected in whole. I would like the Government to be willing to lay before the House the regulations and the code—in so far as it is different from a regulation—in true draft for comment, before they are laid before the House for approval. That would enable the Government to take account of the views of right hon. and hon. Members on the draft, as opposed to the measure for approval, and allow members of the public to comment on the original draft. The Government would thus be able to test the acceptability of their proposal and amend it in time so that the House would not approve an imperfect draft.
As many hon. Members have said, the Bill is a major step forward for animal welfare, because it updates 100-year-old legislation. We should be proud of that, but as others have said, we will be relying on regulations, which causes me some worry. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, if there is concern about a regulation that has been tabled, there is little that we can do about it. I was thus also going to suggest that drafts of such regulations should be produced before they are finally tabled, to allow comment and consultation. That would allow the organisations involved in discussions to point out possible flaws and problems with the regulations.
I am worried about circuses, although I will not make a lengthy speech on the subject. Contradictory comments have been made about the pathway of the discussions that are under way. I know that there is worry about the discussions on drawing up the regulations, so it would be useful to see regulations in draft before we finally approve them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the working party that has been set up to discuss the arrangements for circuses should be called to account? It should give a clear definition of what it is doing and explain the way in which it carries out its discussions before bringing forward recommendations, because that is not clear to me, at least at the moment.
I certainly agree that it would be useful to know the terms of reference of the working group, which will influence the regulations that are finally approved.
I am trying to reflect the mood of the House on Second Reading. At that time, we did not wish to go down the road of banning certain species, but that appears to be the direction in which the discussion group is moving. If anything, there should be a prohibition on performing animals. Any circus that wished to have performing animals—dogs, or perhaps a horse—could then apply for an exemption from the prohibition. Such a scheme would be a better way forward and would reflect the mood of the House on Second Reading.