House of Commons
Monday 5 March 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Sports Clubs (Children)
As part of the national school sport strategy, we are supporting links between schools and clubs. We have exceeded our target to increase the percentage of five to 16-year-olds from school sport partnerships who are members of, or participate in, accredited sports clubs from 14 to 20 per cent. by 2006. The 2005-06 school sport survey shows that 27 per cent. of young people from school sport partnerships are now participating in clubs linked to schools.
I very much welcome that response, but does the Minister agree that to build on that excellent record and to provide a fitting legacy for the 2012 games it is important to develop amateur sports clubs that provide services for children? Will he therefore agree to support proposals to extend gift aid, or other financial support, to amateur community sports clubs, specifically for the work that they do for children’s sports?
Our work to strengthen sports clubs includes community amateur sports clubs grants, and gift aid can generally be accessed by such clubs. I hope that more amateur sports clubs will apply for CASC grants and the 80 per cent. managing rate relief that goes with that, because currently only about 4,000 have done so out of a potential 40,000 to 50,000 clubs that are entitled to do so, and those 4,000 that have applied for it are now receiving some £15 million. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that there are other areas in which we could bring in fiscal incentives, to incentivise young people in particular. I have no doubt that my colleagues at the Treasury will be taking suggestions on that very seriously indeed.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to the unanimous view of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that Sport England’s ability to support sports clubs will suffer if there is any further diversion of funds from the national lottery? Given the Chancellor’s new-found enthusiasm for supporting sport for young people, will the Minister press him to protect the national lottery from any further raids?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges—as, I have no doubt, do all members of the Select Committee—that Exchequer funding for sport has risen by 30 per cent. since the last spending review. That shows the commitment not only of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who gives great support to sport, but of the Government in general. I have no doubt that they will do nothing to undermine that continued investment in sport.
As secretary of the all-party rugby union group, I receive regular briefings from the rugby world on the progress being made by the Government in putting money into sport and the community. If the Minister cannot give me the answer to the following question now, will he respond to me through the Department? How many new participants have been recruited by sports clubs that have received community club development funding since that programme began?
I cannot give the exact figure. However, I can say that in the group that I referred to—five to 16-year-olds—there has been a 27 per cent. increase, and there is no doubt that the Government and the governing bodies have recently put considerable investment into strengthening the club structure, which was weak. We are now reaping some of the benefits of that investment in the numbers of those young people who participate and in the numbers of those who will get on to podiums in stadiums around the world in years to come.
The 350 children who are members of the Beavers swimming club in Wootton Bassett in my constituency are delighted that, after the Minister’s intervention—among other things—this time last month, the Liberal Democrat district council has decided to reverse its decision to close Lime Kiln leisure centre in Wootton Bassett, but the 250 children whom I met at Cricklade last Friday and whose sport centre is now closing, and those in Calne down the road whose sport centre is also closing, are asking me if the Minister will not bring special pressure to bear on the Liberal Democrats to keep their sport centres open, too.
Fifty-seven per cent. of people in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) are classified as obese. Does the Minister recognise the importance of working in partnership with the Department of Health, as well as local government, to increase participation in sport, especially for young people, because of its long-term impact on health in the country?
Very much so. We have a very productive dialogue with my colleagues at the Department of Health and, indeed, at the Department for Education and Skills on that very subject, because we think it important that we start to factor physical activity into young people’s lives in particular. That is why we are committed to providing two hours of quality physical activity or sport for every child every week from the age of five to 16, and a further two to three hours beyond the school gate. That is important not just for the sake of sport itself, but for the sake of health, social inclusion and education, because it is clear that where that happens, academic attainment levels go up and truancy and exclusion levels go down. It is a win-win situation, and one of the most successful policies of this Government.
One of the barriers for existing sports clubs seeking to do more for children is their rising cost base in other areas. A good practical example is Headcorn football club in Kent, whose licensing fee has risen from £25 every five years under the old system to a staggering £900 every five years under the new system—an increase of over 3,000 per cent. That money could otherwise be spent on youth development. Given that the Government are entirely responsible for creating that problem, what do they intend to do to sort it out?
I do not know about the situation regarding that club, which I will look at, but all I can say is that if it has a licensing fee of £900, it must be making considerable profits from bar takings. We have heard about these situations before and I have answered such questions. The Central Council of Physical Recreation will distribute a paper to Back Benchers that unfortunately cites racquet clubs that use halls for banqueting purposes. If that is true, they are in competition with other private sector organisations in their area. It is a question of fairness. If the money is going directly into grass-roots sports, we will take that into account, but if it is a commercial organisation that is taking on the rest of the leisure industry, that is a different matter. I will consider the specific problem.
All-weather Sports Pitches
Access to a wide range of good quality sports facilities, including all-weather sports pitches, is an essential part of enabling people to lead healthier lives and to participate in sport. That is why we have invested over £1 billion in more than 4,000 sports facilities. As part of that, there has been unprecedented investment in all-weather pitches, including £58 million from the lottery and £50 million from the Football Foundation, creating a new generation of such facilities across the country. There are now 1,535 public sector all-weather pitches in England, just under 70 per cent. of which have been built or refurbished since 1997.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for opening the Denhale recreation centre in my constituency in November. We very much appreciated his being able to be with us. The district of Wakefield has five third-generation pitches, but none of them is in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend and his officials work with me to ensure that the people working so hard to provide out-of-hours sporting activity for young people—in football, rugby league and rugby union—can do so whatever the weather?
Some £50 million of funding for more than 260 sports projects has been invested in Wakefield local authority. I understand that that is not necessarily coterminous with my hon. Friend’s constituency, but we will look into that.
It is important that all Members contact their local authorities about planning. One major issue is the lighting and noise associated with third-generation and artificial pitches, which means that we cannot open them for as long as they ought to be open. One or two nimbies are stopping us using sports facilities by imposing planning restrictions on the use of lights, for example. I hope that all Members will raise this issue with their local authority’s planning department and get their local paper to campaign for the maximum use of such weather-proofed facilities.
Macclesfield rugby union football club boasts an all-weather pitch, which is hugely useful and much used by young people. The club has a thriving mini rugby section, which plays every week. What additional help can the Minister give to clubs that go out of their way to provide facilities for young people, particularly in respect of the use of all-weather pitches?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the club that he represents. We want more of those facilities, but every time we build an artificial pitch on a grass area that was used for sport, it is classed as the closure of a sports field. That is a weakness in the way we compile statistics in the Department. Yes, we need more floodlit, third-generation artificial pitches that can be used 24/7, if necessary. We want to maximise their availability for our young people, along with the quality coaching that we are providing alongside those pitches, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge.
My right hon. Friend has yet to visit the fabulous athletics track at Ellesmere Port that was opened by Tanni Grey-Thompson in 2005. That is a wonderful, Olympic-standard facility, but, unfortunately, the school where it is located may be earmarked for closure in the near future. Will he liaise closely with the Department for Education and Skills and Cheshire county council to ensure that that valuable resource is properly protected?
It would be remiss if we did not put on record our thanks to Tanni Grey-Thompson, who retired last week. She was a fantastic role model in disability sports in particular, but in sports in general. She also coached me for the marathon, but I shall not go into that story. She was obviously successful—[Laughter.]
It is great that hon. Members on both sides of the House are congratulating the Labour Government on what they have done for sports facilities. That is heart-warming. My hon. Friend knows that we have introduced tough planning regimes, so that any closure of any playing field has to be referred to Sport England, which has a tough remit to preserve and extend facilities. I have no doubt that we will look carefully at the case that my hon. Friend raises and will continue to increase the stock of good sports facilities up and down the country.
Regional Museums (England)
The renaissance in the regions programme has revitalised museums across England, enhancing their role in education, access and social inclusion. Last year, 1.2 million school children participated in activities supported by renaissance hub museums.
Is the Minister aware that under the renaissance programme, outreach activity has increased by more than 7,000 per cent. in the north-east alone? Will he assure me that the programme will continue to receive full funding, so that the fantastic educational resources provided by our museums will not be put in jeopardy?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for championing the renaissance programme. She will know that we had a very good event in the House last week, in which we celebrated the contribution that museums in the north of England, in particular, are making. I know, because I was up there a few months ago, that the Tyne and Wear museums are making a fantastic contribution, particularly because they use members of the community to provide oral history, as well as having items on display. That has led to an increase in participation, especially among young people, more of whom are attending museums across the north-east. As the spending review is ongoing, it is too early to give an assessment on that, but renaissance in our museums is a key part of what the Department has been doing in the past few years.
All that is very fine, but will the Minister acknowledge that the really important point that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) made was about funding? Will he also acknowledge that we cannot have flourishing provincial and regional museums unless the great national museums are also flourishing, but they are seriously underfunded at present?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed these matters in great detail in the past few months. I refer him to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council report, which does not say that our national museums are underfunded—on the contrary. I know that he is concerned about acquisitions, but, partly because of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, they hold up incredibly well in comparison with many of our European partners with their museums. It is right to say that free museum entry has brought an increase in the popularity of our national museums, and because of the investment in our regional museums we have seen an increase in access and participation there as well.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate the north-east museums service not only on raising the profile of museums in the area, but on raising to record levels the number of school visits to north-eastern museums, especially to Beamish museum in my constituency?
Absolutely. Some 115,000 school children have visited museums in the north-east hub over the last period. When I spoke to the museums service, I was told that previously, due to underinvestment, it was unable to reach schools in the area, so the number of visits was less than half what it is now. There has been a huge explosion in the number of young people involved in our museums, which does not mean merely that they visit for a day, but that they are actually involved in understanding who they are and where they are from in their community, thereby tackling the problems of social cohesion and antisocial behaviour that preoccupy us all on both sides of the House. Our museums play a key role.
The renaissance programme is welcome, but of course the more people who go to our museums and the more television programmes that are made, the greater the profile of archaeology and the bigger the problem of storage, especially of archaeological finds. I would be grateful if the Minister assessed that problem in the coming months, as many museums and county archaeology services are completely at their wits’ end about what to do with all the finds that have to be dug up because of planning permissions and so on. It is becoming a serious financial burden on local authorities and independent regional museums.
It is right that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the huge success of the portable antiquities scheme, which has meant that many local finds go to our local museums, but it is probably also right to say that for most museums only between 10 and 20 per cent. of their collections are exhibited. A lot can never be exhibited because our museums play a key role in the academic study of artefacts and contribute to our knowledge base for those artefacts and their history. We are exploring with the MLA how we can increase touring, especially, in dialogue with our colleagues in Europe, to eastern Europe. I hope that that, in particular, will increase people’s access to all that wonderful treasure.
Arts Council England research estimates that the annual economic impact of UK theatre is £2.6 billion. Research from seven of England’s biggest publicly funded regional producing theatres shows attendances rising by almost 40 per cent. between 2000 and 2006.
The statistics are dry, but all the evidence shows that the British theatre is one of the main reasons overseas tourists visit this country. It is the cornerstone of our film and television industry, and the crowning glory of our cultural life, so is it not vital that we make sure that there is a proper subsidy for British theatre? How ferociously will my hon. Friend fight the Treasury to make sure that the next settlement is just as good as, if not better than, the last?
It is largely because of that increase, as well as the history and inheritance of our regional theatres, which were on their knees, falling apart and not providing quality performances, that we are where we are now. In Sheffield, Nottingham, Brighton and Chichester—across the piece—theatres are making a huge contribution to the life and soul of their communities. As my hon. Friend knows, the spending review continues and we are discussing those issues across Government.
British theatre is clearly a showcase for British arts and culture. When I went to see Alan Bennett’s production of “The History Boys” last year, it was selling to packed-out audiences in the theatre here. It then went to New York with the same British cast and was playing to packed-out audiences there, too. It is the same when American actors come to the British theatre here in that they act as magnets for people who would perhaps otherwise not go to the theatre. We certainly get bums on seats in British theatres because of them. Will the Minister ensure that the fair exchange of artistic people, actors and actresses from the US to Britain—and from Britain to the US—carries on? It is good business and very healthy for Britain and America.
The hon. Gentleman is right. In fact, “The History Boys” received six Tony awards, including best director and best play. We have seen from the recent success of Helen Mirren, who spent a lot of time working in subsidised theatre, just how important it is for actors and actresses in this country. We will, of course, continue to explore with the Arts Council those touring opportunities.
May I first strongly endorse the trenchant remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? I also strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement this week that state funding for the arts is of fundamental importance. Although the Minister has said that funding has increased under Labour—and there is no question about that—we are still well behind the continent of Europe in that respect. Will he look further to those comparisons and fight for higher funding for the longer term?
We are not behind continental Europe in terms of quality. It has always been the case in this country that there is a partnership between subsidy for the Arts Council, revenue that individual theatres can make—we have seen an increase in cafés and other facilities—and corporate investment. It is important that that partnership continues so that we see real health in the sector. When I have spoken to theatre directors and others, they have said that some of our friends in continental Europe are not seeing quite the quality that we have here, which is why we are picking up the awards. I hear what my hon. Friend says about public subsidy and our investment. He is right that we in government are very proud of the investment that we have been able to make in regional theatres.
The Royal and Derngate theatre in Northampton has recently faced a financial crisis, which I am happy to say has been resolved. However, the crisis stemmed from the subsidy provided by the local authority to the theatre. I recognise that there is Government subsidy for the Arts Council, but what recent discussions has the Minister had with his opposite number in the Department for Communities and Local Government to look into the threat to local theatres posed by the growing pressure on local authority budgets?
Spending on the arts by local authorities is £3 billion. I have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who also raised this issue with me. It is an issue and it is a great shame, because I have to say that the money that the Arts Council has put into the theatre—and the new investment, which is only months old—has been absolutely at the centre of regeneration in Northampton. It is a matter of great regret that the local borough has decided to withdraw funds in the way that it has suggested, but I know that discussions are ongoing, particularly with the county council. The Arts Council continues to support that theatre, which has been in receipt of many millions of pounds in the last few years. I hope, particularly for the people of Northampton and the wider east England area, that we can reach a satisfactory outcome.
Will the Minister take a look at the missing middle strand of theatre in Birmingham? We have excellent professional productions and a thriving amateur dramatics sector, but a definite lack in the middle. More arts centre space needs to be devoted to theatre, so that people are not reliant on the enthusiastic vicar and the kindly teacher for the sort of infrastructure that we need if we are to give access to theatre for future generations of the kind of people who do not necessarily go to the big productions or get involved with am-dram.
I will discuss that with the regional team at the Arts Council. The creative partnerships in the midlands are important in taking into the community the work of the obviously very successful theatre in Birmingham. That work is going on, but I am happy to look at it further.
I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate our athletes who performed so well at the European indoor athletics championship. I am particularly sure that my hon. Friend will want to congratulate Phillips Idowu, his constituent, who won the gold medal in men’s triple jump, together with Jason Gardener, Nicola Sanders, and the men’s 4x400 relay team, Robert Tobin, Dale Garland, Phil Taylor and Steve Green. In a way, that is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question. This time, we topped the medal table in the European championships; two years ago, we finished sixth.
An elite performance is going from strength to strength. Why? Because of the extra investment—the extra £300 million that is being promised—and the outstanding training facilities, such as the Lee Valley athletics centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which he opened with me only a short time ago and which was built on time and on budget.
I thank my right hon. Friend for stealing all my thunder, but I will obviously add my congratulations, specifically on the 10 medals won by our team over the weekend. Of course my right hon. Friend mentions the fact that, in January of this year, she came to my constituency to open the new high-performance centre at Picketts Lock. That is the only six-lane indoor facility in the south of England, so when will she expand that facility? More importantly, when will we see facilities of a similar nature in other parts of the country?
As my hon. Friend knows, a large 80,000-seat stadium will be built just down the road from the Lee Valley athletics centre at the heart of the Olympic park for the 2012 Olympics. On the strength of that, he will also be aware that in the nine regions of the country, under the auspices of the English Institute of Sport, facilities are being upgraded and improved. We have already had a list of some of the great centres in Bath, in Sheffield and in the sports city in Manchester, all of which offer specialist facilities to improve the performance of our best athletes. That shows that, if we combine investment with top-class facilities, we get gold medals.
Although I welcome the Government’s programme to trawl for Olympic talent in many of the deprived and poor areas of the country, the Secretary of State will be aware that world-class talent is, in itself, class blind. What reassurance can she give to the House that any child or any young person who lives anywhere in the country who might have the ability to win a gold medal at future Olympic games will have their talent picked up and nurtured?
Of course, much of the attention is on the Olympic games, but not so much is on the Paralympic games. I wonder whether the Minister could think about creating a fund for local authorities that have no disabled facilities, such as Kent county council, which is the largest authority in England. One of the ways of doing that would be to challenge the Treasury on the 12p in the pound tax that it takes from lottery tickets. What we need most of all is to get our disabled athletes to be as good as the Chinese disabled athletes, or better than them, for 2012.
I take seriously what my hon. Friend says and ask him and the House to note that, in the run-up to Beijing, the funding available for Paralympians has doubled. For the Beijing games, UK Sport is supporting 23 Paralympic sports. That is an increase of eight over the number supported in Athens. It is that fundamental commitment to make sure that the Paralympics, Paralympians and disabled athletes have every equal opportunity with able-bodied athletes that will produce the results that we all want.
I thank the Secretary of State for the much-deserved praise of the sporting facilities in Bath. I join her in welcoming what the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced last year: additional funding for elite athletes. But does she recognise that part of that announcement by the Chancellor was for £100 million to come from private sponsorship? Does she accept that little or no work has been done in preparing to raise that money, and will it not be particularly difficult, bearing in mind the National Audit Office’s recent comments, that private sponsorship for sport will be increasingly difficult given the uncertainty over the Olympic budget? When are we going to have a finalised budget for the Olympics?
It is categorically not the case that, as the hon. Gentleman said, not very much if anything has been done. There are discussions in train between potential private sector partners and UK Sport. I also remind him—[Interruption.] If he would like to hear the answer, I remind him that the money does not come on stream and will not be required until after the Beijing games. As with every other aspect of Olympic planning, this aspect is on time, taking account of the fact that we all have to be ready for the opening ceremony in five years’ time.
My right hon. Friend is quite right about continuing. I hope that she will continue the pressure to ensure that our elite athletes can get to the Olympics and win recognition. Surely she recognises that the prize is not just a gold medal; it is what the athletes do for the status of the clubs that they come from and the part that they play in their community as role models. They send a signal back to every youngster that, with determination and support, they too can get there.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right. That is why one of the important developments of recent years has been the willingness and the enthusiasm of so many of our lottery-funded athletes to go into schools, work with local clubs and provide precisely the kind of leadership and powerful role modelling that young people want.
I associate the Conservative side of the House with the Secretary of State’s remarks regarding the success of our athletes in the indoor championships. She has just confirmed that no progress at all has been made in raising the £100 million of private money of the £300 million that the Chancellor alluded to more than a year ago. Can she further inform the House what kind of progress is being made in those negotiations, or is this just another case of press-release politics?
The hon. Gentleman fails to listen and then thinks that he can assert his view as fact if he stands at the Dispatch Box and shouts. With great respect, I have just given the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) an answer to that question and I made it absolutely clear that there are discussions between potential private sector partners and UK Sport and that all that is timely, because the money is not needed until after the Beijing games. When it is needed, it will be in place.
Is that not yet another example of the Chancellor’s incompetence when it comes to money and the Olympics? It was the Chancellor who signed off the Secretary of State’s budget, which is now two or three times the original figure. It was the Chancellor who announced in the Daily Mail that he would get the nation fit for the Olympics, but who has not produced an extra penny to fund them, and the Chancellor who is now contemplating another devastating attack—
The Chancellor is contemplating another raid on the lottery to pay for his incompetence. Surely it is not the performance of elite athletes in 2012 that we should worry about, but the performance of the Chancellor, which is seriously undermining the credibility of the Olympics.
Mr. Speaker, you were very kind to the hon. Gentleman, who needs as much help as he can get. The House should beware when he starts shouting, because there was no substance whatever in what he had to say. The plan to raise money for elite sport from the private sector, agreed as part of the elite sports funding agreement, is under way. It will be negotiated, and will be in place when it is ready.
Ticket Touts (Sporting Events)
Ticket touting is a serious issue affecting sporting events and other major cultural events. We are working closely with the industries in a series of summits, and with the public, to achieve a clampdown on touting.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but ticket touting in sporting events has been going on for practically as long as I can remember. Given our application to host the World cup, and given that we have secured the Olympics, it has become a very serious issue. Is he aware of what happened last Thursday, when concert tickets for Take That went on sale? Before they even went on sale, websites were advertising tickets at twice their face value, and within 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale, they were being sold on eBay for well over double their value. Is it not time that the Government did something about ticket touting, and made sure that the people who do it end up in jails—the new ones that we are going to build?
My hon. Friend makes some very important points, but it is also important for hon. Members to consider the consumer evidence that we received recently, which asked the Government to be proportionate in their interventions. That is not to say that there should not be good practice. As a result of that evidence, we have been working with both the primary industry and the secondary industry, and at the end of the year there will be additional EU legislation clamping down on the practices about which my hon. Friend is concerned. Our dialogue is ongoing, and we are intent on clamping down on gross ticket touting.
This year, the T in the Park festival has had to limit ticket sales to two per person to try to beat ticket touting, and I understand that Michael Eavis is considering photo ID registration to try to beat the ticket touts at Glastonbury. Why is it being left to the music industry to try to address the problem? Surely the Government should be doing more to protect music fans from touting.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is also important to remember that, in their evidence, the public told us that they want the reaction to be proportionate, and they do not want the Government to over-intervene. Where it is fair, members of the public want to be able to sell on tickets themselves. He mentioned Glastonbury and the photo experiment taking place there, and we will look into that. However, on the selling of T in the Park tickets, he should be aware that there were 80 items displayed on eBay, and that is out of the 40,000 tickets that were sold. We condemn the practice where it is wrong, but it is important to get a grip on the proportions of the problem, because it is only a minority who are involved in touting, albeit a minority whom we condemn.
The Government have an active policy to promote local radio and local communities, through both local independent radio and community radio.
Given what my hon. Friend says, is he as concerned as I am that the centralisation of the provision of news and music is becoming much more widespread, to the detriment of a local focus, particularly in news? That has certainly been the case in my constituency; because of centralisation, Rock FM in Preston has just lost 20 per cent. of its jobs to north-east England.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He has worked hard to bring jobs to his constituency and, indeed, to keep them there, so I know that he takes the loss of those jobs at the radio station personally. It is important to bear it in mind, however, that those are commercial decisions made by radio stations. The definition of localness for commercial radio stations is a matter for Ofcom. Its guidelines state:
“Where a station is required to provide locally-made programming, its studios should be located within its licensed area.”
Ofcom will, however, consider requests for co-location on a case-by-case basis. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend, and I am happy to follow it up if he wishes to write to me.
The live music forum will produce its analysis in the next few weeks. Current evidence is anecdotal, but it none the less suggests a broadly neutral impact.
According to the MORI research commissioned by the Minister’s Department, only 60 per cent. of smaller venues that previously offered live music were given licences under the Licensing Act 2003, many of which have expensive conditions attached. Will the Minister tell the House what proportion of that group implemented the conditions? If he cannot do so, does that not render the statistics worthless, and what is the value of the Department’s boast that the Act is good for live music?
As the hon. Gentleman knows—he takes a keen interest in this area, which we welcome—the research published in December looked at 2,000 small establishments. It discovered that in only 3 per cent. of cases the new licensing requirements were a deterrent. From the anecdotal evidence, however, the impact appears to be broadly neutral, although it may be better than that. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are conducting a detailed analysis, which we will publish later. He should remember that the new process means that there is only one application, one fee and no renewals. The additional bonus is that local residents, who were seriously affected in the past by live music, now have a say, which is important.
I wonder whether the Minister is aware that over 38,000 people have signed the Downing street petition on live music. What comfort can he give that ever-growing body of people? Does he agree with the person who was recently reported in the press as saying that whoever dreamt up Downing street petitions was—and I quote with apologies, Mr. Speaker—“a prat”?
We absolutely agree with the 30,000 people who rightly do not want music and dance to be restricted by burdensome licensing regulations. If the hon. Lady looks at the changes, she will see that there is one application process and one fee, with no renewals. Inconsistent fees, which were often excessive, and the standard book of conditions have been removed, and the fact that 63 per cent. of venues have either obtained a music licence or put on live music via other means shows that the Act is working. In a survey, 55 per cent. of people said that they found the process easy, although I admit that 25 per cent. found it hard. We will work to improve the system—we believe that it has already been improved—and we will take very seriously the evidence submitted in the next few weeks to see whether there are more improvements to be made.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Electoral Returning Officers
The Electoral Commission informs me that it has not undertaken any specific research into the consistency of decision making by returning officers. However, it issues guidance and advice to returning officers, and it has recently been given a power in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to set and monitor performance standards in electoral services.
I am grateful for that answer. My hon. Friend will have seen the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in January this year that called for tougher controls to prevent the misrunning of elections by errant EROs. What will the commission do to implement those recommendations?
There is much to be said for giving returning officers a degree of flexibility to enable them to respond to individual circumstances in their areas, but in the dispute about whether they should be independent or whether there should be central control, my hon. Friend will be pleased to note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has urged that there should be further monitoring of returning officers, and recent legislation has responded to the thrust of my hon. Friend’s comments.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for consistency in decision making about the way in which counts are carried out, particularly in general elections, where among constituencies of similar geographical size, similar distribution of population and similar numbers of polling stations, one is able to declare within two hours or so of the close of voting, and another is still counting at three or four o’clock in the morning? Surely it is in everyone’s democratic interest that there should be a faster count. A model method of achieving an early result would therefore seem to be necessary in some constituencies.
As a late countee, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point. The new legislation gives the Electoral Commission the opportunity to impose performance standards and to identify differences in performance and approach taken by individual returning officers, with a view to raising the general standard.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s costs were £2,094 and the Archbishop of York’s were £2,866. The cost of the supporting staff was £5,128.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the reason for the visit was so that the archbishops could meet other bishops from around the world to discuss the situation in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Is it not particularly depressing, however, that the two British archbishops chose to side with the fundamentalist bigots from some other parts of the Anglican communion, rather than represent the ordinary faith of most Anglicans in this country, which is entirely tolerant and decent?
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. The costs were well invested and well spent. If I may say so in contradiction to my hon. Friend, if he wished to talk about bigotry and extremism, he could have done no better than his choice of language today. In relation to the costs and the conference, I would say blessed are the peacemakers. The meeting concluded with an agreed communiqué, contrary to the expectations of all those who predicted schism. Perhaps this good result came about because the Church of England has two archbishops brought up in other Churches of the Anglican communion, who may therefore appreciate its continuing value more than most. The Church is grateful for their achievement. As I said, blessed are the peacemakers.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York should be congratulated on saving the Anglican communion from itself, with remarkably good value for money, and that those of us who have our travel expenses funded by the taxpayer should be careful about throwing stones at other organisations that raise their funds internally?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the agreed communiqué specifies practical steps to address the tensions surrounding the recent actions of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address to General Synod last week gives a full account of the significance of this outcome. Members can find the address via the archbishop’s website.
Listed Places of Worship Scheme
The Church welcomes the listed places of worship grant scheme which, at the end of January 2007, had paid out over £55 million to churches across the United Kingdom. Over £44 million of this was paid to listed places of worship. By way of a statement, and to put these figures in context, we believe that about £378 million worth of repairs are still needed in the Church of England alone.
I thank my hon. Friend for that response. May I draw his attention to churches such as St. Margaret’s in Rainham parish, which is part of my constituency, where the congregation is valiantly trying to raise more than £1 million to save the roof of the Norman building, their having been turned down bythe listed places of worship scheme on a number of occasions? My concern is that churches—St. Margaret’s is no exception—are still an important cog in the community working on agendas such as antisocial behaviour, the respect agenda and helping communities. What steps are the charity commissioners taking to ensure that the Churches are not unduly burdened by the need to save heritage, which thereby displaces their social and community roles?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for describing the work that goes on in St. Margaret’s church, Rainham. I know that my hon. Friend is heavily involved with the churches in his constituency and that he works tremendously hard to support fundraising, on which I congratulate him. I know that St. Margaret’s church, Rainham, faces the great challenge of raising £1 million to save its roof from decay, and I wish the community well in its fundraising efforts. On how we can get other bodies involved, I am sure that he wants to work with us to help us persuade the Government of the need for a more symmetrical balance between the contribution that churches and cathedrals make to their communities, such as that made by St. Margaret’s church Rainham, and the contribution that they receive from public funds.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of my ongoing campaign to reduce VAT on church repairs. I am particularly concerned that lottery funding for church repairs may be reduced this year because of the Olympic games. Does he share my concern that church repairs may not enjoy the same support in the coming financial year as they have done in the past three financial years?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who knows that I raised that matter at the previous Question Time, when I said that I am concerned that the Olympic games will drain money from the various schemes to assist our churches. Hon. Members should be aware of that danger, which has been repeated on the Floor of the House, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be aware of our concerns.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the two are not mutually exclusive—I do not want to give him a legal definition of mutual exclusivity. I warmly welcome the new memorials grant scheme, which came into effect in November 2005 and which has paid out £330,000 for the construction, renovation and maintenance of memorials in England. We continue to press the Government to assist in providing more money for the renovation of churches, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will continue his campaign on that point.
public Accounts commission
The Chairman was asked—
National Audit Office
The NAO target of securing £8 in savings for every £1 funded by Parliament was set in 1999. The NAO has achieved that target in each year since then—it generated some £555 million in savings in 2005 alone. The Public Accounts Commission recently endorsed a proposal to increase the savings target to 9:1 from 2007. The NAO will therefore aim to secure additional savings of £74 million from its work in 2007.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has always given to the NAO. The NAO is now involved in supplying secondees to the Select Committees, and it also provides briefings and evidence. At the moment, it is leading a five-yearly review, which I established, into the resources that are available to our Select Committees. In any one year, the NAO deals with nearly 100 inquiries from individual hon. Members. It is very approachable and responsive, although hon. Members must recognise that it cannot comment on policy and that it is there to analyse facts.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is the difference between the savings proposed by the NAO and those that are delivered by the Departments concerned? Does he further agree that we need long-term strategy in those Departments in order to deliver the NAO’s recommendations?
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
We welcome the recent announcement of the foundation’s partnership with English Heritage and its commitment to match, until 2010, the £1 million per annum in English Heritage’s grant scheme for repairs to Church of England and Roman Catholic cathedrals. This restores the grants available to pre-2004 funding levels. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, we have had no direct discussions, but the commissioners are following these events with great interest.
This has created a useful precedent because, as the hon. Gentleman says, it has brought the level of funding back up to £2 million. He will be aware, however, that the cost of running a cathedral such as Lichfield is in the order of £2 million per year anyway, and that the money has to be spread among more than 40 cathedrals in England and Wales. What can the commissioners do to try to encourage more partnerships, not only with the Wolfson Foundation, which is to be congratulated, but with other organisations, to try to expand funding to beyond the £2 million level?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he will know, I do not have the exact figures for Lichfield cathedral, but I know that it does a very good job of welcoming visitors. He is perfectly right that cathedrals are centres of cultural and community activity. Some £11 million per annum was spent on the constant round of repairs and maintenance for our English cathedrals.
By way of an aside, at the previous Church Commissioners Question Time the hon. Gentleman sensibly suggested that knowledge might be shared between churches and cathedrals so that they can benefit from each others’ good ideas for welcoming visitors. I have looked into that and can tell him that the Pilgrims Association enables those responsible for the care and welcome of pilgrims, tourists and visitors to exchange ideas and solutions to common problems. I welcome his intervention.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
The Electoral Commission informs me that its report, “Understanding electoral registration”, published in 2005, found that people living in rented or rent-free accommodation were on average up to five times more likely not to be registered than owner-occupiers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Is it not therefore somewhat surprising that the registration of voters in rented accommodation does not appear in the recommended indicators put forward by the Electoral Commission? Would it be a good idea to look at that again to see whether those indicators might be amended to provide information on the registration of people in those circumstances?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. The figure that I gave conceals a number of discrepancies. For instance, 27 per cent. of those living in accommodation rented from private landlords or letting agencies are unregistered and 11 per cent. of those renting from a housing association are likely to be unregistered. The commission’s research identified several reasons for under-registration. Some people are unintentionally unregistered, while others are deliberately unregistered. He makes a useful proposal, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission will wish to consider it.
In December, I commissioned David Freud to conduct a review of progress on welfare reform to analyse the future challenges that we face and to make recommendations. David Freud has published his report today. Copies are available to right hon. and hon. Members in the Vote Office and on the Department’s website.
The report is a substantial contribution to the debate and I should like to put on record on behalf of the Government and, I hope, the House, my thanks to David Freud for his work. Freud concluded that we have made strong progress on welfare reform in the past 10 years. Nearly 1 million fewer people are on benefits, 2.5 million more people are in work, 300,000 more lone parents are in work and the numbers of those on incapacity benefit are falling for the first time. Freud concluded that, by any measure, the Government’s programme of welfare reform has been a success.
Freud’s view is that welfare policy now needs to focus on those furthest away from the labour market, especially those on incapacity benefit and lone parents, and that the new focus should be on job retention as well as placement. Progress on all those matters will be essential if we are to fulfil our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate and of eliminating child poverty by 2020, thus ensuring not only a strong economy but a strong society.
David Freud has made four principal recommendations. First, in recognising the success of Jobcentre Plus in helping people get back to work quickly, he believes that we should maintain it at the core of the system, but focus it on helping those who are unemployed for short periods, potentially expanding the approach over time so that it provides a one-stop front end for all benefits.
Secondly, Freud recommends that, once claimants have been supported by Jobcentre Plus for a period of time, back-to-work support should be provided through outcome-based, contracted support, drawing on the innovation of specialist providers from the private and voluntary sectors. The contracting regime would set a core standard that everyone would receive, but beyond that there would be freedom for providers and individuals to do what works for them, rolling up the existing patchwork of public, private and voluntary provision in favour of a more flexible approach focused on the specific barriers that face individuals rather than the specific benefits that they currently claim.
Freud suggests that payments to providers could be made over a three-year period from when an individual client moved into work, with contracts offering rewards that are proportionate to the value to society and the taxpayer of moving that person into work. That approach would work as a public-private partnership to deliver up-front investment to realise savings over the life of the contract. Payments would create incentives to develop programmes across the spectrum of clients to avoid cherry-picking the easiest clients to help.
Thirdly, in return for offering that help, Freud proposes that we should expect work-related activity from those on benefit. The report suggests introducing stronger conditionality in line with the jobseeker’s allowance for lone parents with the youngest child aged 12, and, as wrap-around child care becomes more widely available from 2010, to consider whether further reductions would be desirable. He also recommends—over time and as further help and support becomes available—extending the requirement to undertake work-related activity to those already on incapacity benefits who migrate to the new employment and support allowance.
Finally, citing international evidence that complexity in the benefits system can act as a disincentive to entering work, today’s report recommends that we should consider in detail the potential for greater simplification of the benefits system, moving towards a single system or, ideally, a single benefit.
The recommendations represent the opportunity for a step change in the nature of our welfare system in the United Kingdom. The publication of today’s report marks the start of the debate, not its conclusion. The Government will consider the proposals carefully and come back to the House with a fuller response later this year.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. However, given the importance of the report, I am surprised that he did not make it voluntarily but came here under sanction.
Does the Secretary of State agree that David Freud has done an excellent job in nine weeks in reviewing some of the challenges in the benefits system? Will he accept our support for a large part of the Freud proposals? However, does he agree that it is odd to produce such a set of proposals in the middle of the passage of the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill? Do not the proposals make the Bill appear rather feeble? Would it be sensible to have a pause after the Lords stage of the measure to consider—on a cross-party basis if necessary—whether any of the proposals in the Freud report should be introduced early into legislation rather than waiting for the next welfare reform Bill? In that regard, will he also comment on some of the inconsistencies between the existing Bill and the Freud proposals, which will be debated in the House of Lords in the next few weeks?
Does he agree with David Freud that Jobcentre Plus, rather than the private sector, should have the sanctioning power in relation to benefits? If he does, will he agree to amend the Welfare Reform Bill, under which the private sector could have those sanctioning powers?
Does the Secretary of State agree with David Freud that “intensive, individualised support” for the hard-to-reach groups is very expensive? Freud has come up with some interesting ways of funding that, but does the Secretary of State feel confident that there is in his Department, in the Department for Education and Skills and in the Department of Health, the other financial resources necessary to support David Freud’s ambitious plans?
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Freud proposal, which seems extremely sensible, that Jobcentre Plus should become a one-stop shop not only for the existing benefits, but for tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit? On prime contractors, is the Secretary of State minded to accept Freud’s recommendations on regional monopolies or does he want more choice in the system?
On lone parents, we welcome Freud’s measured proposals to move this country closer to the benefit rules that we see in most of the rest of the developed world. However, does the Secretary of State see the need to take any action on child care availability and for those lone parents with disabled children to avoid some problems that could otherwise arise?
We think that the report from David Freud is important, which is why we are surprised that the Secretary of State did not want to trumpet it himself. We hope that Freud’s proposals will be taken further, and we note that, in nine weeks, he seems to have made more radical and ambitious welfare reform proposals than the Government have managed in the past nine years.
May I deal first with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the nature of today’s announcement? Back in December, we asked David Freud to do a piece of work and he produced his report today. It was very much his desire to get the report out today, of course, and we wanted to reflect that. That is why we made the announcement today. There was no manoeuvring or complicated announcement.
As to why I did not make a statement, the record will show that I have made a great many statements in the last few months, so there is no discourtesy, by any means, intended to the House. Far from it. We made a written statement today, and I felt—obviously wrongly—that that would be adequate. I am happy to expand on our thinking today.
On the four or five specific points that the hon. Gentleman made, I should point out that David Freud has expressed his strong support for the Welfare Reform Bill and the establishment of the new employment and support allowance. If we were minded to take up the changes that he proposes in relation to conditionality for ESA, I understand that further primary legislation would not be required.
On the provisions in the Welfare Reform Bill that would allow private contractors to carry out some of the benefit sanctions, we have always made it clear—my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform in particular has done so—that we intended in any event to pilot those arrangements before deciding how best to proceed. That remains our view.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the capabilities of the Department for Work and Pensions. I accept that it needs to improve its ability to manage contracts if we are to deliver the new model that David Freud has proposed. We will obviously need to reflect carefully on that. On regional contracts, which are a reasonable concern for the hon. Gentleman to raise, Freud himself has recognised that there might be circumstances in which we might not need to go down the path of creating those large regional monopolies. Again, that is an issue that we need to reflect on.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, which was probably the most important, if we are to go down the path of expecting more from lone parents in return for the additional help that we intend to make available through these proposals, Freud has made it clear that we should not do that, and that it would be wrong to do it, unless we are quite sure that we have overcome the barriers that stop lone parents working and that we will not put lone parents in the untenable and unfair position of being asked to take up work when the impact on their families would be serious and retrograde.
We must match the increased obligations with the increased provision of child care. That is Government policy; that is how I think we should proceed.
My right hon. Friend will recognise much of what David Freud has put in his report from the excellent Select Committee on Work and Pensions report published two weeks ago, and we look forward to the Government response to it.
May I raise two issues? The first is the notion of three years’ benefit rolled up into a package. That is too long by one year. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that? Secondly, the particular issues as regards London and single parents and child care tend to get glossed over in David Freud’s report, but there are particular pertinent factors in London. Does my right hon. Friend have any comment on that?
I certainly acknowledge my hon. Friend’s first point: the Select Committee recently produced an excellent report on how we might make progress on reaching our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment target. We will respond fully to that report in due course.
With regard to the three-year proposal, we will have to study the Freud report carefully. Were the arrangement to work, however, it would allow us to make real progress in achieving one very important thing: ensuring that we do not just succeed in finding a job for someone but that we focus in future on helping them to stay in the job. In that regard, the difference is between a job and a career. Increasingly, Jobcentre Plus must focus on that. A three-year period would be challenging, and we will have to study the proposal carefully.
I agree that there are specific problems in London in relation to making work pay for people on benefits, especially for those in the social rented sector with large families. That issue is being considered separately by the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, as part of our refreshed child poverty strategy. We hope to make announcements on that shortly.
I, too, hope that the Secretary of State will implement the proposals in the Freud report, but why did he find it necessary to commission it? Why did he not simply adopt the similar proposals set out in the James review and put forward by the Conservative party at the last general election? Unfortunately, his predecessor, now the Education Secretary, described those proposals as “dangerous”, and said that they would mean
“massive cuts in front-line services and less help to get people into work”.
Will he now apologise for his predecessor’s inexcusable scaremongering in respect of what he now acknowledges to be perfectly sensible proposals?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to re-fight the last general election, and we are certainly keen to re-fight that one with him if he would like that to be arranged. Freud’s proposals bear no resemblance to those in the James report, and the view taken at that time was right. I hope that, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, he will support us in taking Freud forward.
We welcome many of the report’s recommendations, and join the Secretary of State in thanking David Freud.
The report identifies and seeks to address some of the principal weaknesses in the new deal approach: the revolving doors effect; the excessive focus on placing people in work, as the Secretary of State has just said, rather than encouraging them to stay in work; and the inability to extend the reach of some of those programmes into the existing stock of long-term benefit claimants.
The focus on transferring risk to the private and voluntary sector and incentivising longer-term support reflects much of the Opposition’s thinking and some ideas that we have put to Ministers during the progress of the Welfare Reform Bill. We therefore welcome the thrust of the proposals. As a result of the work that we have been doing, one or two questions arise immediately, and I want to put those to the Secretary of State.
It does not seem easy to reconcile the suggested approach of sending all new claimants through Jobcentre Plus for a year with the now fairly well-established principle that early intervention is the key to placing more difficult-to-place candidates. Does he think that those who have, for example, a history of health problems, or a broken work record, should be referred immediately to the more intensive form of support that Freud recommends? Can the Secretary of State reassure many of the smaller players in the private and voluntary sector that the regional lead-contractor model will not squeeze out the little platoons that are so important if we are to have a community-based solution to this problem? Does he envisage the reforms being implemented against a backdrop of benefit and tax credit changes that will reinforce the incentives for people to work and for families to stay together?
The Government have been in office for 10 years. Will the Secretary of State make an early start on the agenda by confirming that, in line with Freud’s recommendations, the roll-out of pathways to work will now be implemented as a 100 per cent. private and voluntary sector programme?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for much of what he has said, although I think he is wrong to suggest that the report implies that the new deal has failed. I know that that is his view, but David Freud said of the new deal programmes:
“By any measure, these programmes have been a success.”
It is worth reminding ourselves that 1.7 million people have been helped into work through the new deal, including 480,000 lone parents. It is clear that that programme in particular has more than paid for itself.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will drop his ideological opposition to the new deal, because it is not helpful.
I agree with one thing that the hon. Gentleman said. It is explicit in David Freud’s report that if we are to tackle some of the deep-seated problems, the benefits system should provide more individualised and tailored support services for the long-term unemployed, whether they are on income support, incapacity benefit or jobseeker’s allowance. We should, for instance, aim for better screening at the point at which a claim is made, especially in the case of repeat JSA claimants. David Freud recognised the importance of that.
I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the role of specialists and smaller providers. We must ensure that they have an opportunity to be part of the new landscape.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, tax credits are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Given that the number of jobs has increased by 2.5 million since 1997, does the Secretary of State accept that the reduction in the number of people on welfare has been modest? Is he aware of the changes that have occurred in America, which has experienced a similarly strong job growth? President Clinton increased the availability of child care and the value of working tax credits while time-limiting benefits. David Freud reported on the Secretary of State’s brief in record time; will the Secretary of State give him this brief on which to report next?
I do not think we should lose sight of what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said about welfare reform in the United Kingdom. It has described our progress in the last 10 years as outstanding, and a worldwide example of good practice. As for my right hon. Friend’s point about time-limited benefits, I have told him on previous occasions that we are not minded to take that route, and David Freud did not include it in his recommendations for the future. Jobseeker’s allowance is a time-limited benefit, however, and in that context the appropriateness and success of the approach have been confirmed.
In view of the report’s welcome emphasis on flexibility in job search, will the Secretary of State consider some of the inflexible and rigid practices of Jobcentre Plus, such as the requirement to attend one-size-fits-all training courses that are often inappropriate and may often involve abandoning job interviews and part-time work search?
We will certainly do that. David Freud clearly stated that we should provide a more flexible, individually tailored support system. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific examples of what he has described, I should be grateful if he brought them to my attention.
May I take up the flexibility theme? The longer people are away from the labour market, the more difficult it is for them to return to work when the time is right. May we see cross-Government consideration of how we can keep, for instance, single parents or people who become sick or disabled more closely in contact with the labour market through training or part-time work?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. If we are to achieve everything to which we aspire, a cross-Government response will be required. The Departments of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education and Skills will have a particularly important role to play. The Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the Leitch report, which appeared during the past few weeks and which made a number of important recommendations about skills. We must take account of all the issues, but that, I think, is the best way of ensuring that we can sustain the progress that we want to make.
I, too, welcome the Freud report. How soon does the Secretary of State think he will be able to return to the House with legislative proposals to give effect to its conclusions? When he does so, will he pay particular attention to the report’s comments about the complexity of the current benefits system, and negotiate with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor with a view to minimising that complexity so that people know that it is worthwhile to go out to work?
We will make a further announcement later this year. Freud has recognised that benefit simplification is a substantial and long-term challenge, and the Department will be involved in a significant amount of work on that. After 70 or 80 years of having the welfare state we have arrived at a certain point in respect of it, and no one is suggesting that there is a magic wand that can be waved over the system to make it as we would like it now. That will take a lot of work.
In relation to Freud’s recommendations about employment and support allowance, we will not need primary legislation, but the hon. Lady is right that if there are any further substantive proposals on benefit simplification, that will require primary legislation. However, I cannot give her a timetable for that.
I welcome the acknowledgement of David Freud—and of my right hon. Friend today—of the importance of affordable and accessible child care. Will he therefore liaise with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills to look at two special areas where there are particular problems for lone parents: child care that is appropriate for children with disability, and child care for older children in the 10 to 14 age range for whom parents often have great problems in obtaining suitable care?
We will certainly pay particular attention to those problems, and I appreciate the work that my hon. Friend has done as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on all such issues. In relation to the suggestion in Freud’s report about additional requirements expected from lone parents, it is important that we are clear that we will set those as and when barriers can be removed that prevent lone parents from working in the current circumstances. The approach, which is not punitive but enabling, is fully consistent with the approach that we have taken in relation to the new deal, for example. In return for additional help and support—that is now the promise on offer—we expect lone parents to engage with us and to plan a more rapid return to work. Work is good for their health and for the general well-being of their families. We in this House have an overall responsibility to do all that we possibly can to help lone parents back into work.
The Secretary of State said that the report was published today, that the debate would start today and that he had made a written statement today. I cannot, however, find that written statement listed on the Order Paper. The Secretary of State also knows that the debate started yesterday—all the media were aware of the report yesterday; it was covered by all the networks. Why were Members of Parliament the last to know, as usual?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the debate has been going on for a considerable time. I tabled a written ministerial statement because I felt that that was the right way to inform the House about what was going on. However, in relation to the urgent question, we felt that it was more appropriate to come before the House. I have tried to make it clear that there was no suggestion of any discourtesy to Members, and I am happy to make that clear again now.
There are no specific proposals yet, but the Freud report clearly suggests that, there will be an important and central role for Jobcentre Plus.
The Freud report talked about simplifying the massive complexity of the benefit system. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most pernicious examples of that complexity is the variation in the earnings disregard? It can be just £5 a week for someone on income support, rising to £10 or £20 a week after a year, but it is £84 a week for someone on incapacity benefit, on a contributory basis. Therefore, the poorest people are the most disincentivised by the earnings disregard from looking for work. Will the Secretary of State look into simplifying the earnings disregard system across the range of benefits so that everyone knows exactly where they stand and no one is disincentivised from looking for work?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform has already made it clear that that is what we are doing.
May I raise with my right hon. Friend an issue at the interface between the Freud report and the Lyons report into local government finance? I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that low-income families in work with children generally start paying their council tax at a much lower level of pay than they start paying income tax. That is clearly a disincentive to work. I realise that the issue is very complex, but will he at least consider doing something to align the point at which council tax benefit starts being withdrawn with the point at which income tax starts being paid? That would do an awful lot to remove disincentives to work, and to take thousands of children out of poverty at the same time.
Yes, that is a very important issue. In terms of pensioner poverty, there is a clear link between council tax benefit take-up and financial hardship, and we must look at that issue carefully. However, my hon. Friend’s specific point is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has twice told the House that he tabled a written ministerial statement today, but we cannot see reference to it anywhere on today’s Order Paper. Could you clarify the situation, Mr. Speaker?
Orders of the Day
Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2006-07, Second Report, Legislative Scrutiny: First Progress Report, HC 263; and Fifth Report, Legislative Scrutiny: Third Progress Report, HC 303.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome at least some of the Bill, which was generally well received in the other place. The Government have listened and responded to the thoughtful debates there, and I hope that we can attain equal levels of thoughtfulness and responsiveness in this House.
The Bill reflects three key principles in the Government’s legislative programme: institutional reform, extending opportunity, and protection for the vulnerable. The Bill aims to improve the experience of the public in their dealings with legal and quasi-legal problems by improving access to justice and the administration of justice.
The Bill makes far-reaching reforms in a number of areas. Part 1 delivers significant reform of tribunal institutions—the most significant changes to the system for 50 years. In part 2, we change the eligibility requirements for appointment to judicial office, thereby widening the pool of potential applicants. In part 3, we create a consolidated code of enforcement law and introduce increased regulation of enforcement agents, while part 5 will offer greater help to those who have fallen into debt and need assistance with their problems. Taken together, those measures will offer greater protection to the vulnerable. Part 4, by way of contrast, sets out more effective powers to pursue irresponsible judgment debtors who have the means to pay but choose not to do so. In addition, the Bill provides a regime to allow cultural artefacts to come to this country for exhibition without undue risk of seizure.
Tribunals deal with more than 500,000 disputes a year, often involving very vulnerable people. That includes people who have been victims of crime, persecution, discrimination or unfair treatment, or who are involved in disputes over benefit entitlement, tax or employment. Tribunals are an important means of resolving disputes between the individual and the state. They originally grew as attachments to the individual Departments with which the dispute occurred, and they grew in a disparate and unstructured manner over many years.
I pay tribute to Lord Irvine for perceiving, when Lord Chancellor, the need for a thorough and independent examination of tribunals, and to Sir Andrew Leggatt for his independent review of tribunals, published in 2001, which was the consequence of that referral. He found many faults with the system, and he recommended one that would be independent, coherent, professional, cost-effective and user-friendly: a system that he said would be
“fit for the users for whom they were intended”.
We agree. We have already brought the administrative support for tribunals together, having launched the Tribunals Service agency last April. The service’s aim is to provide the best possible support to enable tribunals to resolve disputes quickly, fairly and economically. The Bill reforms tribunals with a similar aim in mind. It intends to optimise the use of all tribunals with the user in mind. Its watchwords are openness, fairness and impartiality.
I am sure that there will be much discussion about that in Committee. The need for flexibility makes this an appropriate framework at present. If there are serious concerns that matters that we propose to deal with in secondary legislation should be in primary legislation, that will have to be discussed.
The Minister and I have had other conversations about legal aid, and I want to ask her about it in the context of this Bill. She knows that detailed factual and legal issues come up before tribunals, but what is the Government’s position on whether legal aid should and will be available in any, some or all such cases? Do they have any proposals to make the immigration and asylum judicial process the same as other such processes, because it appears to be exempt from the two-tier system of a first hearing followed by an appeal, which the rest of the tribunal service will have as a result of the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman is certainly correct regarding his second point. There are no plans to incorporate the system beyond the current position. As for legal aid, if the changes that we are introducing—putting lawyers on to fixed fees for standard cases, with exceptional cases being paid for by the hour—have the desired effect, the legal aid budget will level out and become predictable. The reason for the changes is partly so that we can move legal aid over to the welfare benefit sector. I am not putting any particular tribunal as a first likely recipient of that impact, but it is key that we move money by introducing the fixed-fee regime now. I urge the hon. Gentleman, who I know is extremely interested in legal aid, to support those moves. Legal aid is available for the Lands Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and legal help is available for all preparatory work up to, but not including, representation at all tribunals.
That is a big question. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that there has been an attempt to ensure that only the best calibre asylum advice is given. The steps that we have taken to ensure that change have reduced the supplier base. A new set of legal aid fees for asylum advice was published on Thursday or Friday, which I hope will boost the confidence of current suppliers as to the profitability of that work.
I am grateful. On employment tribunals, when the last changes were made, there was quite a lot of concern about costs and wasted cost orders. It was clear that they cannot be made against non-profit making representatives such as the citizens advice bureau and trade unions. Will the Minister reassure me, regarding clause 29, that there is no intention to change that? Will she confirm that people who are acting in a voluntary capacity to assist others at employment tribunals will not be affected? There appears to be a contradiction, and I would be grateful if the Minister put my mind at rest on that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that beforehand, because it enables me to confirm that there is no intended change in clause 29.
First and foremost, chapter 1 of part 1 puts it beyond doubt that the tribunal judiciary are independent of the Executive, and that the tribunals themselves are independent of the Departments that make the decisions that the tribunals will review. It is right that that has happened, and it strengthens our commitment to increasing public confidence in tribunals.
Chapter 1 creates a new judicial office. The senior president of tribunals, who will be the leader of the system, will hold a distinct statutory and independent office, and will be the voice of tribunals. I would like to say how pleased I am that the president designate is Lord Justice Robert Carnwath.
Chapter 2 of part 1 creates a new statutory framework for tribunals, which will be a two-tier system. The first-tier tribunal will deal mainly with first instance appeals from Departments and local authorities. The upper tribunal will deal with appeals on questions of law from the first tier. It will also be able to deal with judicial review cases in the specialist areas covered by tribunals when they are transferred by the High Court or the Court of Session.
Chapter 3 of part 1 will allow the Lord Chancellor to transfer to the new two-tier system the work of the tribunals listed in schedule 6. We envisage that that will occur between 12 and 18 months after Royal Assent. It will bring tribunals dealing with, for example, social security, tax, mental health and special educational needs into the new structure.
Because of the special nature of their work, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal will retain their existing legal frameworks, being separate pillars of the new structure, but they will still enjoy the benefits of the overarching Tribunals Service’s single administrative structure. The tribunal reforms will create a single pool of tribunal judges and non-legal members. Judges and members will be able to sit in more than one jurisdiction, provided they have the appropriate skills or experience, and want to do so.
Chapters 4 and 6 of part 1 set out ancillary matters. Chapter 5 replaces the Council on Tribunals with a new Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, which will have a wider remit to look at the administrative justice system as a whole, ensuring that relationships between the courts, tribunals, ombudsmen and alternative dispute resolution routes satisfactorily reflect the users’ needs. It was pleasing that Lord Newton of Braintree, who is currently the chair of the Council on Tribunals, appeared to be ready for and pleased with that broader role in the administrative law arena. Again there will, of course, be a specific component to look at users’ needs.
Finally, the Bill makes it easier for those who are awarded compensation by a tribunal or who are subject to an ACAS-brokered settlement to have that award or settlement enforced. We believe that will further increase confidence that justice can be delivered effectively.
Part 2 deals with judicial appointments and amends the minimum eligibility requirements for judicial appointments, which will comprise three elements. First, applicants will have to be suitably qualified as a barrister, solicitor or, for some appointments, as a legal executive, patent agent or trade mark attorney.
Secondly, they must have held that qualification for seven years or five years, depending on the post. That is a reduction from the current 10-year and seven-year qualification periods—thus, the qualification for circuit and High Court judges will be reduced from 10 to seven years, and for district judges it will be reduced from seven to five years. Tribunal appointments will match.
Thirdly, during the qualifying period they must have gained post-qualification legal experience. That would include, for example, practice or employment as a lawyer, acting as an arbitrator or mediator, carrying out judicial functions, or teaching or researching law.
The changes will increase the pool of those who are eligible for appointment, particularly by enabling fellows of the Institutes of Legal Executives, Patent Agents and Trade Mark Attorneys to become eligible to apply for judicial office. The changes will also ensure that those in the pool have actually been engaged in legal work after qualifying and before becoming eligible.
Overall, we think the numbers in the pool will increase. Of course, all appointments will continue to be made on merit, and merit alone. That remains the test of suitability, and the Judicial Appointments Commission will continue to apply it rigorously. The larger the pool of people qualified to apply to be judges, the higher the quality should be of those who are appointed.
The jurisdiction that obtains in England and Wales is much sought after around the world for various dispute resolutions and it is a considerable source of foreign earnings for this country. I am concerned that the provisions in part 2 might dilute that reputation, so will my hon. and learned Friend reinforce what she said just before she kindly gave way to me—that there will still be a process of rigorous scrutiny to ensure that the wider pool of applicants are thoroughly investigated so that we retain high standards in our judiciary?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance entirely. It is a very odd notion that widening the pool will dilute the quality. The usual understanding is that widening the pool of appropriately qualified people will inevitably enhance the quality of the people chosen from that pool. The selection process will be on merit and in every way compatible with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which was recently brought into force.
Many people have the concern that this is not widening the pool in order to gain a higher calibre of people, but widening it in order to meet some politically correct target to get more women or people from ethnic minorities in as judges. Unlike the politically correct consensus in this place, I do not want more women judges; I just want the best people to be judges—irrespective of whether they are women or men or from ethnic minorities. Will the Minister explain why she is giving up on selecting people by merit when the number of women judges appears to be about the same proportion as the number of men in the Equal Opportunities Commission? Why is it such a big issue?
If a magistrate obtains a legal qualification or was previously legally qualified, or if an academic is a solicitor or member of the Bar, or if someone in the commercial sector has a legal qualification, would they after a certain number of years’ service in those three areas of work be eligible—if they were suitably competent and passed the other merit tests—to be appointed to the bench?
I am sure about the magistrate and the commercial lawyer, but I am less sure about the academic who had not practised. I think so, but I will shortly provide the hon. Gentleman with an answer to that specific question.
I move on now to deal with part 3, which is about enforcement by taking control of goods. Chapter 1 of part 3 provides a comprehensive code for the enforcement of civil debts, judgments and criminal fines by the seizure and sale of goods.
My office has had several run-ins with bailiffs and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend can provide some answers this afternoon to my concerns about them. We have had cases of bailiffs turning up at houses to collect goods, when the previous householder who owed the debt has moved. We have had two cases of large companies pursuing debts against householders whose identities had been stolen, and we have had many cases of bailiffs turning up to collect debts when the company or the local authority have had the debt paid but failed to communicate that fact to the bailiffs whom they instructed. While the Minister is discussing part 3, will she give me some assurances about providing safeguards for such innocent people?
I know of even worse problems with bailiffs than that. Sometimes it is not just about them turning up at the right place, but about how they behave when they get there, which has often been a cause of concern. I will come on to setting out the particular provisions shortly, but the intention is that there should no longer be any bailiffs who are not certificated by a county court judge. There should be no such people at all, so that should get rid of those who make those sorts of errors or behave in a disreputable way. I will come on to the specific powers in the Bill a little later, if I may.
Will the Minister make it clear that, during the Bill’s progress, she intends to heed the advice of the advice agencies and the bailiffs themselves that there should be no question whatever of physical force and restraint being empowered, since it appears that only High Court enforcement officers are seeking that power, and they already have powers of arrest? Will she rule out completely any provision in the Bill for the use of physical force and restraint?
The hon. Gentleman is right that High Court enforcement officers already have the power to use force where necessary. There is a debate about whether it should be extended to other certificated bailiffs. We are consulting on that issue, and it will be discussed if the view from the consultation is that the power is necessary. However, the Government have a fairly open mind about whether there should be any such power, and there is nothing in the Bill to permit it. Schedule 12 says that there shall be no use of force, unless regulations provide for it.
The hon. and learned Lady has been very generous, as she always is on these occasions. She refers to the consultations. Clearly, groups such as the citizens advice bureaux have made their understandable concern known to hon. Members, but one of my constituents is chairman of the Enforcement Law Reform Group and he tells me that it is the view of the bailiffs’ representative organisation that the
“Government is turning a deaf ear to almost everyone with a legitimate interest in bailiff law.”
So I am sure that the Minister will understand that there is concern, now that we are overturning 400 years of accepted legal practice in this country, about the Government’s consultation process. Will she share with the House what the vested interested groups are? As far as I can see, neither the citizens advice bureaux for consumers nor the bailiffs themselves are entirely happy with what she is proposing.
I think that the topic has moved on from the one that was raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). I assume that the hon. Gentleman’s cogent, if not pungent, reference to 400 years of history relates to any right to enter property using reasonable force, so I shall now turn to that provision. It is very important that the Bill provides a comprehensive code for the enforcement of civil debts, judgments and criminal fines by seizure and sale, because it has been a very confused, overlapping and interwoven picture so far. I understand that some elements of the law go back as far as 1267. An enforcement agent’s powers to seize and sell goods when enforcing judgments, civil debts and criminal fines have been set out in different places, with different rules applying to different debts—for example, depending on whether the debt is a tax debt or relates to a county court judgment. That does not make much difference to the recipient of the visit from the bailiff, but the various powers have been set out in different places—very confusing.
Clauses 57 to 60 and schedules 12 and 13 will replace innumerable common law rules and repeal various statutory provisions and replace them with a single comprehensive code for enforcement by taking control of goods. Everyone—creditors, debtors and agents—will benefit from clear, modernised enforcement law. Given the reference to 400 years of history, let me set out the position of bailiffs and the right to enter using reasonable force. First, the power to use reasonable force to enter premises to recover money without any specific prior judicial authority was introduced in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. So there is an existing right to use reasonable force to enter premises to recover money without specific, prior judicial authority—that is, on a case-by-case basis—and that power is not widened or extended at all in the Bill: it is reiterated in paragraph 18 of schedule 12. I am told that the power has been used rarely, even in situations of fine enforcement.
The change proposed in the Bill will permit an application to a judge in a specific case, to permit an enforcement agent to use reasonable force to enter premises to recover a civil debt. That is, in a sense, a change of principle, so I pause to make it clear that the change proposed relates to an individual’s civil debt, rather than a debt owed to the state by a fine defaulter. The debt may be to an individual or to a state Department. There are all sorts of moral possibilities. The debt may be owed by a one-parent family, about which there has been much talk in the press today; by the owner of a big business who is refusing to pay, although he obviously has the cash or possessions to do so; or by a small sole trader who would go out of business and put his family on to benefits if it is not paid soon. It is the state, though, through the mechanism of the courts, that will totally control the use of the power, in that its use will involve an application to a judge and there will be guidance, which is currently set out in a detailed policy statement, in delegated powers as to what he must have regard to before granting the application.
My biggest concern is not what will happen to big companies that are forced to deal with the contracts; it is the fact that the most vulnerable people in our society will be the most affected by the legislation. I am curious to know how the hon. and learned Lady will deal with the sensitivities involved in dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society.
All right. I am happy to share the hon. Gentleman’s concern for the most vulnerable in society; there would be few in the Chamber who would say that they did not.
As I have said, it is proposed that, in specific cases, there will be an application to a judge if there is a need to permit an enforcement agent to use reasonable force to enter premises. The judge will have to have regard to a whole catalogue of criteria before making his or her decision. For instance, it is intended that the court’s power will be used only as a last resort. The judge needs to be satisfied of that. All relevant other methods of enforcement, such as attachment of earnings, peaceable entry, and walk-in possession—now to be called controlled goods agencies—should have failed. The property should be inhabited by the debtor. Normal entry attempts—peaceable entry—should have been unsuccessful. There should be reason to believe that there are suitable goods on the premises to satisfy the debt and there should be evidence to support that reasonable belief. The enforcement agent should have considered the likely means required to gain entry and should be able to—and will—leave the property in a secure state. We would urge judges to take into account other factors, such as the size of the debt, the type of the debt and any other information about the debtor’s personal circumstances. He can put conditions on the power if he chooses to grant the application.
As the Minister will be aware, one of the concerns of Citizens Advice is the fact that disreputable bailiffs may misrepresent their powers. Some 39.5 per cent. of its bureaux report that bailiffs are misrepresenting their powers of entry. Will she confirm the likely time scale for the introduction of the codified powers and what she has described as a change of principle? How will that interrelate with the new registration process, which is subject to consultation? The consultation period expires at the end of April. How will those two issues be interlinked, given the concerns that have been expressed?
The simplifying code of procedure is in the Bill, so it will be available to be introduced on Royal Assent. The process of certificating all bailiffs can also commence as soon as the Bill comes into force. As the hon. Gentleman perhaps knows, and as I will come on to say, this is intended to be an interim solution until there can be proper regulation by, probably, the Security Industry Authority. By introducing a coherent code and simultaneously requiring that all bailiffs be certificated, we hope that we can dovetail the two things that are causing difficulty at the moment.
Would it not be better to wait for the full solution of regulation before introducing the powers, or at least before implementing them? Grave concerns have been outlined by Citizens Advice and others. Is the Minister really happy with the way the process is working?
The powers should not, in my view, be used by anybody who is not a certificated bailiff; it would be necessary for that certification to have been attained before anyone could use the powers. We urgently need to bring in a coherent code, because the abuses to which various people have alluded are taking place.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that answer, but I was referring to the fuller system of regulation of bailiffs, on which she is consulting. Given that it is obviously the Government’s view that a full system of regulation is required, should it not be put in place before strong extra powers are implemented?
As the hon. and learned Lady has made plain, she does not think that any bailiff who is not certificated should be able to be involved in the procedures. Would it not be sensible, and reassuring to Citizens Advice and others, to delay the implementation of the part of the Bill that we are discussing?
As the hon. and learned Lady will know, we are discussing the most controversial part of the Bill, and the part that gives rise to the greatest concerns. I absolutely share the view expressed by the hon. Members for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). Will she tell us whether there is any remedy for somebody who believes that their goods were taken wrongly or inappropriately, either in the current guidance or in the Government’s proposals for developing that guidance and putting it to the regulatory authority? Often, one of the issues is that when something is taken there is no recourse, even if that enforcement was wrongly done. Is there an available remedy, or a holding time—a time for putting right what may have been done wrongly?
I cannot say that there is a holding period, or that it would be practical to provide one. There will be remedies, both of a penal kind and of a recovery kind, for people who act without certificates and for wrongful enforcement. In fact, there is a course of action for wrongful enforcement now. The hon. Gentleman asked me earlier whether magistrates, commercial lawyers and legal academics were eligible under the judicial appointments system. All would be eligible if they met the qualifying period requirements, assuming that they were suitably qualified as solicitors, barristers, legal executives, trademark attorneys or patent agents. I am sorry that I could not give him a comprehensive reply earlier.
What safeguards will there be, either in the Bill or in the secondary legislation, to protect people whose identities have clearly been stolen? In one of the cases to which I referred earlier, it took us a week to prove to a large multinational company that it was pursuing a gentleman who clearly was not responsible for the goods for which it accused him of being responsible.
The reassurance that I can immediately offer is that the judge will have to be satisfied that the action is a last resort, and that all other relevant means of trying to recover judgment have been used. It would be pretty extraordinary if a whole course of conduct had been gone through to try to enforce against a particular individual, yet it had not become clear that it was not the right individual. The last resort position is helpful in that respect, but if my hon. Friend can envisage something more specific that is likely to give people further reassurance, of course we would be ready to consider it. As I say, the warrant to enforce fines is used very rarely, and we anticipate that the measure will be a last resort. There will have been many dealings and attempted dealings between the court and the debtor before we even arrive at a situation in which the power could be used, so a situation such as that described by my hon. Friend ought to have been clarified by then.
To return to the issue of forced entry, I listened carefully to the conditions that a judge would consider before granting a warrant, and I applaud all of them. My hon. and learned Friend concluded with the catch-all expression, “any other…circumstances”. Does that refer to financial circumstances or to personal circumstances? Other hon. Members have mentioned, vulnerability—a generic term that covers advanced age, disability, recent bereavement, young children whose welfare could be put at risk, serious long-term or acute illness, and properties that are classified as sheltered housing. Would such conditions be considered by a judge, too, before granting a warrant?
Yes. My hon. Friend set out very clearly the considerations we intend to include under a heading that, I accept, was a catch-all, as it refers to any other information about the debtor’s personal circumstances. The decision will be made by an experienced county court judge, who must have all the facts before them, so that it will be a reasonable one. It is a big step for anyone to be authorised to take, and I do not doubt for one minute that it will be taken only in the rarest circumstances, when every other possibility has been exhausted.
Independent regulation of bailiffs was suggested in the White Paper “Effective Enforcement”, in 2003. If the Government decide after their current consultation to make the Security Industry Authority the independent regulator, when is the earliest possible date at which that decision could come into effect?
It is hard to be specific. An affirmative resolution would be required to bring bailiffs within the Private Security Industry Act 2001. That necessary step could be taken before the summer recess, and it would then be a question of putting training in place. Indeed, increased training is an important consideration.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for giving way; she has been generous in accepting interventions. On the question of training, concern has been expressed that private bailiffs, who will be properly trained and can exercise reasonable force, can take other people under their direction on to the premises. Who will those people be, how will they be trained, and what safeguards will there be to ensure that they do not behave unsatisfactorily?
Reasonable force can be used to enter premises. Bailiffs are not entitled to use reasonable force against people at all. The plan is that the locksmith should come with the bailiff to remove the lock from the door—that is the best way of getting in—and to put another lock on the door afterwards to secure the property. Training will be available for people who have a supervisory role in the security industry, and under the new system they will be responsible for those whom they take with them. In the model at which we are looking, the locksmith is needed for practical reasons to support the bailiff’s activity.
No doubt it is self-evident after that analysis, but any condition can be imposed by a judge on the warrant for entry. It may be appropriate, for instance, to ask a constable or a police community support officer to go along, or to ensure that a woman officer is present if a woman is likely to be the person in a premises. That would be an entirely reasonable and probably desirable condition for a judge to consider putting on such an order.
That is the nature of the new proposal, and given everything that I have set out, it is far likelier to be used, if it is used, against the “won’t pay” rather than the “can’t pay”. Is it a necessary power? The alternative is to say that whatever the debt, whatever family distress may be caused by non-payment of the debt, and however clear it is that someone can pay but will not pay, even if attachment of earnings has failed, and judges have made orders of all kinds to try to enforce, someone can avoid recovery against his goods if he simply keeps his front door shut. That is not satisfactory for judgment creditors, for businesses that require bills to be paid to keep going, or for a belief in the administration of justice. Is there any point at all in people going to court if, in the end, all someone needs to do is to close their front door to prevent enforcement?
I have experience of complaints about bailiff abuse. We will regulate—I will come to that. We cannot allow a continuation of the present situation, which gives rise to visits to our surgeries because some bailiffs who do not have the right to enter through the formal channel use force. They stick their foot in the door, go in through an open window or a skylight, wait till the garden is open and so on. Such appalling, scary behaviour cannot continue. We believe that the regulation that I shall describe will stop that, and that this carefully and finely tailored procedure is the way forward.
The changes should control the actions of enforcement agencies, determining, for example, when the agent goes in—between fixed hours, not at dead of night. The changes introduce a simplified fee structure applicable to enforcement agents when seizing and selling goods, an aspect that has been open to abuse in the past. If they are paid an up-front fee for what they do, they will be less desperate to get their cut through enforcement.
Coupled with these changes, clauses 58 and 59 introduce greater regulation of enforcement agents who are not Crown employees or constables. Currently only certain enforcement agents hold a certificate under the 1888 legislation. The Bill extends and modifies certification to cover any enforcement agent who is not exempt and who wishes to seize and sell goods for the enforcement of judgments and fines. The certification process is set out in regulations made under clause 59.
In order to qualify, agents will have completed suitable training, which will include an understanding of vulnerability, diversity training, how to mediate heated situations, and an understanding that they represent the public interest and are the officers of the court, not solely the fee-earning agent of the creditor—an important realisation. They will be subject to strict criminal record checks. It is possible, and indeed likely, that judges will take evidence in court from individuals to ensure that they understand their role and their powers, and a bond will need to be deposited. I hope that even in this interim proposal, pending the advent of full regulation by the Security Industry Authority, there will be a strong guarantee of better quality in bailiffs. The level of fine for acting without a certificate will be increased from a derisory £200 to £5,000.
This is, however, an interim solution. The Government remain committed to regulating all non-Crown employed enforcement agents through an independent regulator. A consultation document was issued on 30 January seeking views on options for regulation, with our clear preference being regulation by the SIA. Such a change can be effected through secondary legislation under the Private Security Industry Act 2001 and does not require a change to the Bill. Any non-departmental public body would take longer to set up than this transition to give the responsibility to the SIA, which is beginning to prove itself.
Before the hon. and learned Lady goes into more detail about the SIA, may I ask her about the magistrates courts guidance on search and entry powers, which was brought in under the 2004 Act to which she referred? That is the guidance to bailiffs as to how they should conduct themselves and what they may do. I understand that part of the guidance has been published, but 15 of the 31 pages have been redacted—that is, blacked out. Is there any possibility of our seeing the full text of the guidance? In the context of her remarks, it is important for us to know what guidance there is to bailiffs.
I am aware that there have been applications to see the full text, but the rationale for leaving out part of the guidance is that if people are told how bailiffs are to go about their business, they can put defence mechanisms in place to stop them. I will make inquiries to see whether parliamentarians on a particular footing may be entrusted with the information. I imagine that that will be possible, but I will have to take advice.
May I ask the Minister the simple real-world question that she, I and others will have faced in surgeries? How does an ordinary member of the public know that somebody who is not a police officer or dressed to look like a police officer has authority to require them to open the door, and to go in? Most people naturally say, “I’m not opening the door, because I’m not certain that this person has any authority to come into my house.”
Bailiffs must carry their authorisation with them, and they must display it on request either before admission or, if necessary, after admission. The guidance might be better if it simply said that they must show it as they arrive. I would have no personal problem with their wearing uniforms, which has not been suggested but which is worth considering.
I suggest that the police should be informed. There was a situation involving one of my constituents in which someone, who rejoiced in the alias “Mr. Colorado”, showed up and effectively stole a digging machine, which was not the subject of court proceedings. The owner of the digging machine called the police, who said, “This is a bailiff. You must let him have it.” Neither the digging machine nor Mr. Colorado have been seen again, and my constituent came to see me because, unsurprisingly, he had had a barney with the police officers who allowed that rogue to disappear with his digging machine. Is it possible to let the police know about the proper certification procedure, to ensure that that does not happen again?
The police must know the proper procedure. My hon. Friend has raised a powerful point.
Chapter 2 of part 3 also abolishes the common law right of distress for rent and replaces it with a new, more limited power of commercial rent arrears recovery, which will apply only to the seizure and sale of goods in the enforcement of commercial rent arrears. That procedure will not apply to residential premises. Taken together, that package of measures will help to protect the vulnerable from the over-zealous or illegal pursuit of debts.
Part 4 concerns the enforcement of judgments and orders. By contrast, it aims to tackle those who have the means to pay their debts but who choose not to. Clause 86 will simplify and streamline the arrangements for deducting payment of a judgment debt directly from a debtor’s salary. In future, deductions from salary will be made according to fixed rates, as they are for council tax debts and magistrates courts fines, rather than setting a specific rate for each debtor. A further difficulty is the lapse in orders where debtors change employers but fail to notify the court or the creditor. Clause 87 will allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to provide the court with the new employer’s details in such cases.
Clauses 88 and 89 make changes to the law governing charging orders. They close a loophole in the current law that prevents the charging of a property, if the debtor is maintaining payments under an instalment order. That means that if a debtor with large judgment debts is meeting their regular instalments, they can sell assets such as a second home or shares without paying off those debts in full. That loophole will be blocked, but it will not be possible for the creditor to obtain an order for sale as long as such an individual is paying the instalments. There will also be minimum thresholds below which a creditor will not be allowed to apply for a charging order to introduce some balance.
Part 4 will also help the civil courts track missing judgment debtors. It cannot be right for those who owe money and who have a judgment against them to avoid payment by going to ground. Clauses 90 to 97 therefore include measures to allow the courts to seek information from Revenue and Customs and a designated Secretary of State about a debtor. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is likely to be designated for those purposes.
The courts will also be empowered to request information from other bodies designated in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor to assist in the enforcement of judgments. We anticipate that banks and credit reference agencies are likely to be designated. Safeguards have been built into the process, including the new offences in clause 97, to ensure that information collected in that way is not abused.
I want to make two brief points. First, clause 90(1) is infelicitously worded. After the word, “information”, it should say, “to assist that creditor to make an informed decision”. Secondly, clause 92(4)(d) refers to “prescribed information”, but I cannot find an indication either in the explanatory notes or on the face of the Bill as to what that is. When I was an articled clerk doing such work about 20 years ago, such cases would go to what was known as “an oral examination as to means”—I think that that involved form N39—to consider matters such as whether the debtor was employed. In such cases, the debtor answered questions under oath. I wonder what prescribed information a court would seek from a Ministry on application.
My hon. Friend has bought himself an opportunity to serve on the Committee. I will take advice on the point that he raises about clause 92(4)(d).
Part 5 is about debt management and relief. It affords greater protection to those who should be able to pay their debts but cannot deal with their financial problems, or require temporary protection to enable them to get back on their feet. It also deals with those who cannot pay their debts and are unable to access current debt relief procedures. It introduces a package of targeted measures that improve and extend the range of solutions available to help debtors with low incomes and debts. Those solutions seek to promote financial inclusion and are targeted particularly at those who are disproportionately affected by debt and are generally least able to deal with competing creditor demands.
Chapter 1 of part 5 updates and amends the system of county court administration orders, removing the statutory limit on debts, which is currently set at £5,000, and allowing the Lord Chancellor to set it at a more realistic level so as to be helpful to more people.
Chapter 2 introduces an enforcement restriction order allowing the court to make an order to protect a debtor from enforcement by their unsecured creditors for up to 12 months. That is likely to cover a sudden and unexpected deterioration in a person’s financial circumstances—for instance, through losing their job or sudden illness—and where there is a realistic prospect of their being able to repay their debts within a reasonable time scale, through recovery, for example. That is an important provision.
Chapter 3 introduces a new individual insolvency procedure called the debt relief order for those who owe relatively little, are on low incomes with low levels of assets, and who have no realistic financial prospect of paying their debts within a reasonable time frame. Bankruptcy would be disproportionate for such people, who are financially excluded from the other debt solutions that are available because they have no money to pay their creditors and cannot afford the £325 required to present a petition for bankruptcy.
Chapter 4 will let the Lord Chancellor approve debt management schemes. Many organisations negotiate with creditors on behalf of debtors and set up debt repayment plans, but those depend on voluntary creditor participation, and one unco-operative creditor can block the creation of such a plan. The Bill will allow that to be addressed.
These measures strike an appropriate balance between the rights of the creditor and the needs of the debtor. They provide clear incentives to encourage debtor compliance for the lifetime of an order, including powers to tackle abuses. At the same time, orders that include a repayment element will offer creditors potentially higher returns than provided by the current system. Details of orders made under the new measures in part 5 will be available on public registers so that creditors can make better-informed decisions on future lending. In conjunction with the Bill, the Government are committed to encouraging responsible lending through a range of actions, including implementation of the reformed consumer credit licensing regime introduced by the Consumer Credit Act 2006.
Part 6 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects that are lent to the United Kingdom for temporary exhibitions to the public at an approved museum or gallery. We currently have no anti-seizure legislation, and foreign lenders are becoming reluctant to lend works of art to the UK. The problems that that may cause were illustrated by the seizure in 2005 of 55 Russian impressionist paintings on loan to an exhibition in Switzerland, under a court order obtained by one of Russia’s creditors. This places us at a disadvantage compared with other countries and will ultimately limit our museums’ ability to stage major exhibitions. Apparently, problems have already arisen. An important Chinese exhibition planned by the British Museum for 2004 was cancelled after a major loan from Taiwan could not be secured because the lender could not be assured that the material would be protected from seizure while it was in the UK. The measure is particularly important for London as it becomes the centre of the world stage in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, at a time when many of our leading institutions are planning major exhibitions to coincide with that.
This part of the Bill has received a widespread welcome, particularly from directors of museums and galleries. Does the hon. and learned Lady agree that it is very important that it should be implemented as soon as is reasonably possible, because London has already slipped down the league table of major exhibition cities?
Does the Minister accept that, although I understand and sympathise with the point that the museums and galleries and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made, there are two interests to consider? One is the ability of museums and galleries to loan and borrow works, and the other is the interest of people who have a claim to works of art that may have been illicitly traded or looted, especially by Nazis in the second world war. It is not impossible to reconcile both interests, but despite the constructive changes that have been made in the other place, I do not accept that we are quite there yet. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will retain an open mind, because it is possible to reconcile the interest of the museums and galleries with those of putative owners, but we are not there yet.
I note my hon. Friend’s comments. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton has worked hard in the House of Lords to try to reconcile those interests. We owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Janner, who has also worked hard on the matter. I had hoped that we were there, but doubtless the issue will arise again in Committee.
The immunity will provide protection only from seizure. It will not protect museums in the UK or lenders from being subject to a claim in conversion. The specific restitution of a work of art being claimed is only one of the remedies that the court can award. It can also award damages. The lawyers present will know that that means that all that is being protected is the picture, not its value. The immunity will be given only to museums and galleries approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, or, for institutions in Wales or Scotland, Welsh or Scottish Ministers.
We have listened to concerns expressed in the other place and added an extra safeguard to the Bill in clause 131, which lists the factors that must be considered before a museum or gallery can be approved. In particular, to be approved for receiving immunity, institutions will have to satisfy the relevant Minister that their procedures for checking the provenance of an item that they intend to borrow are satisfactory and comply with Department for Culture, Media and Sport guidance on due diligence. If museums do not maintain high standards of due diligence, especially if they do not follow the guidelines, they risk the withdrawal of that approval—and the protection given by the provisions.
Museums and galleries will have to publish specified information about objects that they intend to borrow, in advance of bringing them to the UK. That will enable anyone to raise questions about an object’s provenance before it arrives. When a query is raised, the institution will need to examine the evidence carefully before taking a final decision on whether to borrow the object.
Parts 7 and 8 deal with miscellaneous provisions, including measures to allow the High Court in judicial review proceedings to substitute its decision for that of a court or tribunal when the original decision is quashed on the ground that there has been an error in law. Part 8 contains general stuff, including extent and commencement.
The proposed reforms will have a profound effect on the lives of many people. The Bill will improve access to justice—
My hon. and learned Friend suddenly accelerated through part 7. I want to ask about clause 137, which is entitled “Recovery of sums payable under compromises involving ACAS”. Will she briefly explain the need for the provision, given that the majority of signed compromise agreements never go near ACAS and are enforceable in the civil courts?