House of Commons
Friday 27 April 2007
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.
FINANCIAL SERVICES AUTHORITY
That there be laid before this House a Return of the Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of a review under section 12 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. —[Kevin Brennan.]
Points of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There will be some surprise, I am sure, that the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is not to be debated today. It was due to be the second item, as you know. There is a feeling that it has been withdrawn. Will you confirm that the Bill has not been withdrawn, and that it has been deferred to 18 May? Many of us believe that that is just a ploy to bring the troops in on 18 May so that there will be more than 100 Members present to try to pass the private Member’s Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean). Those of us who are opposed and consider that it would be a disgrace if the Bill were passed will be here on 18 May.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is entirely proper that Members can use the procedures to move the date for a private Member’s Bill. There are two Bills in relation to which that happened yesterday: the Housing Association (Rights and Representation of Residents) Bill, which was put back to 15 June and, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which was put back to 18 May. I have no objection to that. However, will you ask the appropriate authorities to consider whether, when a Bill’s debate date is changed by any process, there is a way of making that generally known, other than by Members going to the Table Office? People other than Members who are in the House on the day have an interest.
I can confirm that, as the hon. Gentleman says, nothing irregular or improper occurred in changing the date for those Bills to be debated. It is incumbent on Members who have an interest in a particular Bill to keep in regular contact with the Table Office to find out when it is to be debated.
Orders of the Day
Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Bill
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The consideration in Committee was not particularly long, but it was comprehensive. The Bill was altered quite substantially, not in its objectives, which remain the same, but in the legal basis of the clauses. The Bill was an extremely complex matter. It meant changing a large number of existing areas of legislation, and the way in which they interacted was complex, hence the comprehensive redrafting of the Bill since Second Reading, and also its change in name to the Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Bill. That was needed to bring greater clarity to what the Bill was intended to achieve.
I pay tribute to the work of all who were involved in the Committee stage, in particular to the groups of lawyers who worked hard together to come to a conclusion. Without the diligent efforts of the Treasury solicitors, that would not have been possible.
There is one remaining area of the Bill that we were unable to cover in Committee: the position of mutual insurers. It was felt that the Bill as drafted could contravene European Union company law. The remedy that was chosen to enable the Bill to proceed quickly was to remove mutual insurers from the transfer arrangements that apply to all the other mutual societies. That is not a particularly happy situation, and—the Minister confirmed this in Committee—both sides of the House would prefer them to be included, if that is possible.
I understand that the Royal London mutual instructed solicitors to consider how the situation could be remedied. It instructed Herbert Smith, which has come up with some ideas that are now being discussed with the Treasury solicitors. Between them, they may reach a conclusion that would enable mutual insurers to be included in the scope of the Bill. If the Bill is passed today, that can be achieved only by an amendment in another place, which would mean the Bill coming back here again. I would not be unhappy with that procedure, if I was sure that time would be made available to consider the amendments. I understand that there is a possibility that the Government might be prepared to assist in that matter, and no doubt the Minister will confirm or deny that information shortly.
I thank everybody who has been concerned with the Bill.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that credit unions, which are mutual in character and crucial to coping with financial exclusion, fall within the scope of the Bill? I was unable to understand that point from reading it, and his confirmation would be exceedingly helpful.
I cannot help the hon. Lady, because credit unions are not in the scope of the Bill. Their activities are peculiar to that particular group of mutuals. They understand that it is not possible to include them, and I gather that they are perfectly happy with the situation.
In conclusion, I am grateful to the Government and the Treasury solicitors for their assistance. I am also grateful to Mutuo, which gave me a great deal of help in the initial drafting of the Bill and subsequent discussions with the Government, and to Members of all parties in this House, who have been extremely supportive. I therefore trust that we can deal with the remaining stages of the Bill in the course of this morning.
As chair of the all-party group on building societies and financial mutuals, I am pleased to see the Third Reading of the Bill, even in its adapted and modified form.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) on taking up the issue and navigating it through some tricky waters where there were plenty of obstacles, some of which were below the waterline and had not been seen. On Second Reading, I said that we were lucky to have somebody who had already achieved the objective on other occasions with private Members’ Bills and who is well versed in the art of navigation. When I said that, I did not realise how important those skills would be, given the problems that have arisen.
I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the support and co-operation of both the Minister and the Treasury team in ensuring that the Bill, even in its modified form, has arrived where it has today. Its gestation started with the Miles report in 2004, which made what appeared to be a simple recommendation about changing the wholesale funding restraint. The subsequent Select Committee inquiry with the all-party group adopted that particular recommendation and added to it the need for building societies to be able to transfer engagements to another mutual. Again, that appeared to be a simple and logical step to take through legislation. However, when the complexities of financial regulation are merged with the complexities of corporate legislation, all sorts of problems arise, which is why the Bill has had such a difficult passage, albeit that everybody has tried to overcome the legal and financial complexities.
I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments about insurance companies—again, that point was not foreseen. I hope that the good will and commitment behind the other provisions in the legislation will prevail once again, and that the problem will be overcome by the commitment and expertise of those involved.
On Second Reading, I commented that in my locality, the black country, we are blessed by having a number of the smaller mutuals—the West Bromwich building society would call itself a medium-sized mutual—that represent the historical root of the building society movement. The Tipton and Coseley and the Dudley are small building societies, and they have provided a service to local people in one of the most deprived areas of the country for many years. The Bill will enable them to continue to offer the sort of service that they provided for the community in the past.
When the all-party group investigated the relative competitiveness of the banking and building societies sectors, it became quite obvious that the advantage that mutual organisations have in not having to pay out dividends to shareholders enables them to provide better value and cheaper products to local people. In an area such as mine, where incomes are still low—historically house prices were low, but that is changing—the ability of local financial service providers to offer good-quality, low-cost products to people who may have lower incomes is absolutely essential and complements the Government’s desire to ensure that areas of this country are not financially excluded.
Building societies have the advantage of having trusted brand names, and because of their historical root in local communities, they are well known and understand the communities that they serve. By passing this legislation and removing the wholesale funding restraint, or at least modifying it so that building societies can borrow more money, we will enable building societies to produce products that are even better tailored and suited to the needs of their local communities. Despite its complexity and its rather arcane nature, the Bill could have a significant part to play in helping people in lower income communities to develop their quality of life and get on the housing ladder.
From the perspective of the all-party group on building societies and financial mutuals, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West for taking up the Bill, which could have quite profound long-term consequences. I also thank the Treasury team again for being prepared to embrace it and the principles behind it.
I should like to say a few words in support of the Bill, of which I was one of the original sponsors, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) on taking it through almost to its completion. I have apologised to him and other members of the Committee for not being here on Second Reading. There are a few comments that I would like to have made then, and would like to make now, but not at inordinate length.
Like several other colleagues in the House, I was a little shocked when I saw the Order Paper this morning. I had been prepared to discuss the Bill at rather greater length than I now propose to do, and had a long disquisition prepared. Indeed, I was going to try to describe to the House an algebraic model of the funding structure of mutuals, which I thought would have supported the debate. However, it is probably no longer necessary, so I shall save it for another occasion. I also had a new clause, which has not been selected by the Speaker, so I do not need to speak to that at any length. More seriously, however, I would like to pass on to the Treasury the substance of that new clause, which can no longer be moved formally, in the form of a thought.
The point that I was endeavouring to make, which has some validity, is that we need a proper system of reporting on the progress of mutual institutions in a factual, statistical way. One of the points that has struck me throughout the debate is that much in the story about mutuality is of a qualitative kind. I have read the excellent report of the all-party group, of which the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) is the chair and which is the largest in the House. The group has done sterling work and has made the case for mutuality, but there are no tables in the report. There are a few facts and anecdotes, but there is not a great deal of back-up. If I am asked what share of the British economy is accounted for by mutual transactions, I have no idea. Is it 5 or 10 per cent., or 30 or 50 per cent.? Is it growing or is it contracting?
The specific point that I wished to make about the Bill was that, in order to monitor its progress and implementation, we need a stronger statistical base than the current one, which is very fragmented. Under clause 1, for example, it is necessary to have information on the funding requirements of building societies. In preparing for this debate, I looked through all the basic data to try to find out where that information was. There is a wonderful book compiled by the Building Societies Association called the “Building Societies Yearbook”, which is a real labour of love. Among its many tables, there are none that describe the funding ratios for building societies, unless one looks into the balance sheet summaries for each individual society. If we were trying to monitor the progress of the Bill when it became law, particularly the requirements of clause 1, we would not have a readily available source of material, so somebody somewhere should be collating it.
Similarly, the consolidation element provided for under clause 3 requires some idea of the progress that different segments of the mutual movement are achieving. Are they growing or contracting? How many of them are there? The data on that are very poor. For example, the only source of information that I could find on friendly societies was the annual report on them, which is a very good document. At the back it describes in some detail everything from the Liverpool Victoria, which is the biggest friendly society, right down to a wonderful institution that I would love to know more about, the Grand Order of Israel and Shield of David friendly society, whose total funds are zero. There is quite a range of institutions, but if we were trying to monitor the progress of the legislation, and mutuals legislation more generally, it would be helpful to have more background information.
Finally, on that specific point—I shall move on to more general considerations—there are very little data on the industrial and provident societies, which are the most numerous of the mutuals. I have discovered a fine Library paper, drawn up in 2002, giving a breakdown of all the different segments of industrial and provident societies, based on registration information, but I have not seen anything since. The Financial Services Authority, which is the source of the data, does not seem to have published any updates. We therefore just do not have any basis for judging what is happening in the mutual movement, with respect to consolidation and the other issues in clause 3.
I should like to leave the Minister with that thought. Quite apart from whether something could be formalised in legislation, it would helpful if the Government could think of a way of presenting regular reports on the progress of the mutual movement, to which he as the relevant Minister—he has described himself as the Minister for mutuals—has dedicated himself, so that we can assess its progress.
I should like to say a few words that I would have said on Second Reading about my personal interest in the subject and why I agreed to become a sponsor of the Bill.
I fully accept and understand your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not entirely sure what the distinction is, because in summarising our review of the Bill in Committee we are, in a sense, going over some of the basic arguments. I am happy to proceed from them, but—
In that case there is no particular reason for me to continue discussing my point, so I shall say a little about the three major components of the Bill as amended. As I understand it, the key component is clause 1, which enables some relaxation of societies’ funding requirements and updates the Building Societies Act 1997, following the publication of the David Miles inquiry.
There are two issues connected with that, which probably need to be spelled out a little. The first is the greater freedom for building societies to grow and to draw on wholesale markets. In following some of the discussion, I was a little troubled by the potential implications, although I do support the move. The argument seemed to be that it was important that building societies should expand as rapidly as possible into mortgage lending. The model cited was Northern Rock, which is the one demutualised society that has been able to expand, because it no longer has a funding limit, which is the essence of clause 1.
What worries me slightly is the assumption that rapid expansion into mortgage lending is intrinsically desirable. I suspect that we are reaching the point at which former societies such as Northern Rock are in danger of experiencing serious difficulties as a result of being over-extended in the housing market. It may be that very rapid expansion is not desirable. For example, Northern Rock may well find itself with a great deal of bad debt and having to pressure many of its borrowers into repossession. I therefore have slight doubts about the desirability of unlimited growth.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a slight problem, with which the Minister may be able to deal in his reply, as clause 1 now includes a one-way ratchet—the percentage may only be moved in one direction by the Treasury—but in the light of experience, a different policy may be needed at a later date?
That is right. To be fair, the Bill is not prescriptive. In fact, it gives the Treasury power to intervene if circumstances change. The position at the moment is that building societies do not use anything like their funding requirements. I had a look at the ratios: the highest is currently about 35 per cent., but some of them are down virtually to zero. The issue that my hon. Friend raises is logically valid, but I do not think that it is a pressing one in practice. I fully support the purpose of clause 1, but I would enter a slight caveat about the dangers of simply encouraging building societies to borrow from wholesale markets to expand their mortgage business.
I am not quite sure that I agree with the hon. Gentlemen. First, I do not think that there is a one-way ratchet. The Bill gives the Treasury the power to make orders, and presumably those orders could go in either direction. Secondly, the Bill enables the Treasury to move quickly if circumstances demand. Again, that does not imply that there is going to be a sudden rush to increase access to the wholesale markets. It will simply enable the Treasury, using its considerable discretion, to make the rules and, through the Financial Services Authority, ensure that there is compliance.
I was not in any sense trying to criticise the Bill, which I support as a sponsor, because it is not prescriptive. Indeed, it builds in the flexibilities that the hon. Gentleman described. I was simply trying to address the building societies over his head, as it were, and suggest that a rush into wholesale markets to expand mortgage lending may not be wise.
I do not want to labour the point, because I accept what my hon. Friend said about the Bill’s practical effect not being as pressing as one might think at this point. However, there is a one-way ratchet in new subsection (6C), in which the Treasury’s power to make an order
“may not be amended so as to reduce the percentage in the order”
“may not be revoked, unless it is replaced by another such order specifying the same or a greater percentage.”
That is a one-way ratchet, and there is a policy question to be considered.
Yes, I take my hon. Friend’s point, except that in practice that does not require building societies to increase their funding requirement. It gives the power to do so should they wish—that is the whole purpose of the legislation.
Finally, under this broad heading, the other piece of reasoning behind the key provision—clause 1—is that following the Miles report, the Bill will enable building societies to become more active in the fixed interest lending market. The assumption behind the Miles report is that there will be a transition over time to more long-term fixed interest lending, which would be facilitated by the greater use of wholesale markets. That is entirely sensible and it is a good reason for the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West to introduce the Bill.
Again, I would sound a slight cautionary note not just about whether that will happen but about whether, indeed, it is desirable. I have vivid memories of the mid-1970s, when I first bought a house in London, and of coming down from Glasgow and being offered a fixed interest long-term loan by Richmond council at what, at the time, was the almost ridiculously cheap rate of 14 per cent. That was a negative rate of interest, as we were in the middle of a financial crisis, and I was tempted, as it was much lower than what the building societies were offering, but I would have crippled my family if I had taken it. Past experience of long-term fixed interest lending suggests that we need to be careful before encouraging people to go down that road. However, despite those two caveats, the basic provisions of clause 1 are important. The way in which they have been modified by the Treasury is helpful, and I fully support them.
Just a sentence each on the two other basic provisions in the Bill. Clause 2 creates a level playing field for different kinds of claims on a building society should it unfortunately be forced into insolvency. That is an important corrective, but it was emphasised several times on Report that on no occasion since the second world war has a building society failed, so we are dealing with a hypothetical circumstance that is unlikely to arise. It is a necessary provision none the less.
My final point about the Bill was not discussed very much in any of our earlier proceedings, but it is important and in the long term it will probably be the most significant aspect, as it concerns the scope that it provides for the consolidation of different types of mutuals to merge with one another in a way that is not possible at present. Under current legislation, mutuals either have to demutualise to expand and diversify, or find an identical type of mutual institution. The Bill will permit much more diversity of operation. If a friendly society wishes to go in with a building society, or if a football supporters club wishes to link up with a friendly society, that is now possible. That is an important provision in the legislation which, in the long term, will probably have far more far-reaching repercussions than clause 1.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for indulging my attempt to make a rather more extended Third Reading speech than is allowed.
I shall keep my remarks brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, conscious not only of your guidance to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) but of the fact that the Second Reading of the Bill introduced by my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), is coming up next.
First, may I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) on steering his Bill successfully through the rocky waters of financial mutuals to Third Reading? This is his fourth Bill to reach that stage, and I suspect that it will reach the statute book in due course. It is the product of a collaborative—co-operative, even—relationship with the Treasury, and I spoke to Mutuo last week about the support that it received from the Treasury in discussing some of those issues. I welcome the Treasury’s support in ensuring that the Bill reached this stage. I read the report of Committee proceedings in Hansard, as I was unable to participate on Wednesday. Sensible changes have been made to the Bill, and I welcome the way in which clause 1 in particular has been amended to clarify both the procedure whereby applications can be made for increases in the amount of funding from wholesale markets and the process for granting approval. That is an important freedom for building societies that will enable them to respond more appropriately to the growing demands from consumers for good-value mortgage products.
I wish to comment favourably on another change to the Bill. Opposition Members, particularly Front-Bench spokesmen, are often quick to criticise Government Ministers for evading further parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, so it would be churlish not to congratulate the Treasury on introducing the affirmative procedure in the Bill and ensuring that there will be debate on the regulations when they are drawn up. It is important, given the complexity of the issues that this—albeit short—Bill has raised, that there be further debate. I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments about the fact that the amendments made in Committee exclude for the time being the mutual insurance company sector. While there are relatively few companies in that sector, they are important players, and I hope that time will be found, if a satisfactory conclusion can be reached, so that universal provision is put in place to ensure that mutuals in different categories can merge without losing their mutual status. It is in the interests of every financial mutual that that relationship exist across all such mutuals.
I hope that the amendments to the Bill enable mutual societies to continue to flourish. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) referred to the West Bromwich building society. Having met its chairman and chief executive, I know the important role that that society plays in the community, and I hope that the Bill enables it and other financial mutuals to continue to go from strength to strength. Finally, may I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West on his success and the way in which he has steered the Bill to this stage.
I echo the comments by Members on both sides of the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) on his achievement and saying how pleased and relieved we are to have reached this stage this morning. I echo especially the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), the chair of the all-party group, as the Bill has benefited from all-party support and co-operation in reaching this stage.
The Bill’s amendments to building societies legislation regarding the wholesale funding limit and changes to the position of members in the event of insolvency, as well as amendments updating other mutuals legislation to make it easier for one type of mutual society to transfer to the ownership of a different type of mutual society as a subsidiary company, will strengthen the ability of building societies to compete in modern financial markets. They will make the playing field more level and continue to allow mutuals and building societies both to serve their communities—often their local communities—and in some cases to compete on the international, global stage, and to continue to innovate in doing so. Those are the characteristics that make mutuals work so effectively in our financial services arena.
Following the comments of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West will know that the West Bromwich building society has built on the leadership that mutuals and friendly societies have shown on the child trust fund. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) may be interested to know that the vast majority of child trust funds are being provided by mutuals, and I could provide him with the exact statistic if he so wished. The West Bromwich building society is now also delivering a sharia-compliant child trust fund to meet the needs of British Muslims, in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in the other constituencies that it serves. That is an example of a mutual innovating in the best interests of the whole community, but in a way that is particularly attuned to the needs of its local community. To allow that kind of innovation and local leadership to continue, the Government were very happy to support the Bill.
As the hon. Member for Fareham and others said, the Bill would not have got to this stage without the leadership of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West, who has a fine legislative pedigree in the House. We are confident that the Bill will be a fourth strike for him. Nor would the Bill have progressed without the support of his advisers, especially Mutuo, which has also been helpful in discussions with the Treasury. I also pay tribute to the Treasury officials who, with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West, have gone into great detail to make the Bill work.
After a thorough, wide-ranging Second Reading, the Bill went through a detailed and intensive Committee stage to ensure that its principles and intentions could be made to work within the complex and detailed technical arena of mutuals and co-operative legislation. I hope that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West agrees that the amendments agreed in Committee deliver his intentions for the Bill. As the hon. Member for Fareham also pointed out, the changes also preserve the House’s ability to debate through the affirmative procedure details of the orders that the Bill enables the Treasury to introduce in due course. Those will follow further consultation on the details of raising the funding limit in particular, and on other changes.
I will not go through all the details of the amendments introduced in Committee; suffice it to say that they were debated thoroughly in Committee, and consensus was reached on the right way forward. I will, however, deal with some points arising from this debate, and with a specific one that arises from discussions with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West in Committee and subsequently.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for Twickenham asked whether the legislation would apply to credit unions. As he surmised, the answer is no: credit unions are not within the scope of the Bill. Under the Credit Unions Act 1979, credit unions are forbidden to transfer into companies or have subsidiaries. We are separately reviewing the credit unions legislation, and formal consultation will follow an announcement of our intention to consult in the autumn. I have some concerns about the amendments on reporting that he might have introduced on Report, but did not do so, because regulation in the sector is for the Financial Services Authority, and an important part of the flow of information to the regulator is that which is commercially sensitive and cannot be revealed. However, on his broader point that it would be advantageous both to the sector and the House for a detailed statement to be laid before us on the position and role of mutuals, credit unions and building societies in our economy and society, I can see the advantages of bringing that data together in one place. As we prepare our consultation, I will consider whether we could try to co-ordinate the provision of that information. I will report back on that matter.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) also made an intervention, which might better have been made in Committee, but that is by the by. The Liberal Democrats have attended for most of these debates, but have had a slight tendency to want to have the Second Reading in the Committee stage, and the Committee stage debate on Report and then on Third Reading. I hope that they are catching up—[Interruption.] I do not want to labour that point—
For the benefit of the House, however, I shall answer the point about the ratchet. As the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out, there is not a requirement for building societies to fund up to the limit to be set in the order—it is an upper limit, which we will set after consultation. But we do not want to be in a position where a building society has funded up to that limit, and then the Government suddenly reduce that limit, as that could be deeply destabilising to the liquidity and balance sheet of a building society, which, up to that point, had been operating within the law and the regulations. While the Financial Services Authority, within its powers under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, can reduce the limit for a particular institution for supervisory or regulatory reasons, the House sets the overall framework for legislation and regulation. It would be a mistake to introduce a power to do something across the sector that would be so destabilising. In drafting the Bill, a deliberate decision was made to avoid the Government putting building societies in that situation.
Will the Minister confirm my understanding that although the limit may be raised from time to time, by order, and an individual society may at some time reach that new higher limit, there is no reason why the building society should not of its own volition reduce that amount of borrowing if it feels, particularly after consultation with the FSA, that it is too much? It is not an inevitable ratchet whereby borrowing at that higher level must continue.
The hon. Gentleman once again reveals his detailed knowledge of the subject and why the Bill has been framed properly. He is right. We expect only a few building societies to move towards the limits that have been discussed, but we are creating a freedom that will allow that to happen. It is for individual societies, within those limits and on a day-to-day basis, to choose how to fund themselves. The important point is that legislation at the moment is restrictive and many building societies fear that it hampers their ability to compete and to raise appropriate funds in the wholesale market. That is what we are addressing.
As I know from the depth of my postbag and from the many letters that I have signed in the past month—once again, a tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s experience in organising legislation of this type—there is widespread support from building societies and their supporters for the Bill and for allowing that freedom. I have been able to confirm our support for it in writing many times in recent weeks.
The hon. Gentleman raised one point that we have not been able to address satisfactorily. I explained in Committee that it is difficult precisely to define mutual insurers for the purposes of the Bill. Those that are friendly societies are covered by it, but those that have their own statutory basis cannot be covered in a public Bill. The remaining mutual insurers are companies limited by guarantee. We have considered whether the Bill could be extended to cover companies limited by guarantee that are also insurers, but because insurance is regulated on a Europe-wide basis, we would have to allow the same procedures to apply where the transfer is to a subsidiary of the body corporate in another member state which is similar to a company limited by a guarantee. As we discussed in Committee, that causes us a great deal of difficulty in properly specifying UK legislation which would work in that European context. For that reason, and despite our efforts, we were not able to include mutual insurers in new clause 3 in Committee. I told the hon. Gentleman that we would endeavour to see whether we could make further progress.
I hope that you will allow me to make a final point about what might become part of the Bill in due course, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We are continuing to work with our advisers from Mutuo. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman yesterday, saying that we were happy to work further on the definitions of mutual insurers, but that it would take us days or weeks to know whether we could make progress on that. In conversation with the hon. Gentleman yesterday, on receipt of his letter, I reassured him that even though the Bill was programmed for Third Reading today, that work would continue and that if, in the time available, we could find a solution that would enable mutual insurance companies to be included in the transfer arrangements, we would consider with the appropriate authorities whether it would be possible to table appropriate amendments when the Bill is in the other place. I cannot, however, make a commitment that that will happen, because it has proved difficult to include them up to now, although I understand that in recent days the possibility of making progress has opened up. If we can, we will facilitate amendments in the other place, but we will not allow anything to occur that would destabilise the Bill or slow up its passage to the statute book.
We want, as the hon. Gentleman does, the Bill to be on the statute book at the earliest opportunity. With that caveat, we will continue to work to see whether a solution can be found. If it cannot, we will continue to see whether other opportunities arise, perhaps when he has another chance to bring a private Member’s Bill before the House.
What the Minister suggests is sensible. It will involve making time available in this place for us to consider a Lords amendment, but I understand that that may be possible. I also fully understand that it may not be possible to find a solution. However, I am grateful to him for his efforts and I pay particular tribute to his contribution in getting the Bill to where it is today.
The hon. Gentleman is generous. It has been a collective co-operative effort from hon. Members on both sides of the House. His leadership in particular has made it happen. We are on the verge, with consensual agreement, of taking an important further step forward for the building society and mutual sector in our economy and society. As I said, once the Bill reaches the statute book, with the Government’s full support, it will strengthen further the position of building societies and mutuals. They play a crucial role in innovating, serving their local communities and competing nationally and internationally in what is a fiercely competitive global financial services market. I am happy and proud to commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Electric Shock Training Devices Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am conscious of the huge privilege of having the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill given my relatively short time in the House. I must express my surprise at having that opportunity today, because I did not expect it.
I thank the Bill’s cross-party sponsors and all those on both sides of the House who have shown support. I also thank those who have signed my early-day motion 592 on electric shock training devices. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who tabled amendments to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 along the lines of the measures set out in the Bill. I also thank the Kennel Club which, along with other charities, has worked tirelessly on this issue and which has helped me to introduce the Bill. At this point, I also want to pay tribute to the Government for all the good work that has been done for animal welfare, including the 2006 Act, which came into force on 1 April. However, it does not go far enough on electric shock training devices.
There is a lot of support for the Bill, not just in the House but across the country more widely. I have received far more messages in support of it than I have received in opposition to it. I have also received a petition in support of it.
I was not aware of electric shock training devices until I was alerted to them by the Kennel Club last year, and I was horrified. The most well known of the devices is the electric shock collar, which in my view and the view of many others is cruel and unnecessary. For those who are not familiar with the concept, let me explain that the mechanics of the collar depend on the particular device chosen, but they are usually battery operated and the dog is subject to an electric current when she or he misbehaves. The idea is that that should be done to discourage negative behaviour.
I contend that there is an inherent and needless cruelty in that approach to training, and it is entirely unnecessary when there are plenty of positive training methods on the market. While some may say that a short sharp shock is worth it for an improvement in behaviour, I would argue that the shock is not short but repetitive, that it is not sharp but painful, that it does not always result in improved behaviour, and that there are alternative, painless methods to achieve that improved behaviour.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent Bill, which I support as far as it goes. I also supported her early-day motion.
Will the hon. Lady add to her list of problems with those devices the fact that they can be used on animals not just for training purposes but in an abusive manner? That happens all too often, and is yet another reason why we should ban them.
I agree. The potential for misuse of the collars worries me greatly, and I think that it adds to the weight of the argument against them.
Electric shock collars teach an animal to respond out of fear rather than an actual willingness to obey. They do not address underlying behavioural problems, and may leave the causes of barking or aggression suppressed. Training a dog on the basis of fear poses the risk that at some time in the future it may turn on its owner or, God forbid, on an innocent child.
There are a number of positive alternatives that allow dogs to be trained more quickly and reliably, without the potential for abuse or ill-treatment. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred to misuse, and indeed the potential for misuse is great. I have heard of some dreadful instances in which those devices have been deliberately misused to cause harm or discomfort to animals. There is even anecdotal evidence from the United States of a parent using one on a child.
Of course there is potential for misuse in anything, and it would not be practical to ban everything that could possibly be misused. I know that the new duty of care provided by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 should prevent deliberate misuse of those devices. In my view, however, those arguments hold only if there is a positive benefit in using the devices in the first place. I would argue not only that there is no positive benefit, but that there is not even a neutral position. Those devices cause harm.
That is not the experience of my wife’s cousin, who had a dog that would persistently jump up at people. She was at her wits’ end: in fact, she was on the verge of getting rid of the dog. She tried one of these collars, and within about a week the dog stopped its behaviour, which was not only dangerous to small children but, in muddy weather, caused her deep embarrassment when other people’s clothes were soiled. She has not needed to have recourse to the collar again.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it seems a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Are we really saying that it is acceptable to administer an electric shock to an animal to prevent one’s clothes from getting muddy? I do not buy that argument.
I do own a dog. It is the Heinz 57 variety—a good old-fashioned mongrel. It is typical of such dogs—there are all sorts of problems with it—but I would not dream of using an electronic training device to deal with some of those problems, such as jumping up at people. Owning a dog requires a huge time commitment if it is to be trained to behave properly. The problem I have with those devices is that people may think they are a quick and easy way of training a dog. “Let us just zap it with an electric shock,” they may say. “Then we need not take the time to train it properly.”
I should point out at this stage that my Bill contains a special exemption for electric proximity fences following representations from farmers and others in the rural community. I am more than happy to accommodate that exemption, as the fences work on a different principle in deterring an animal from leaving a fenced-off area. In the case of shock collars and other such devices, it is not possible for the animal to escape the restraint. However, I am not persuaded by the argument sometimes advanced in the rural community that the devices can be used to train dogs to stop them chasing sheep.
It is virtually impossible to use an electric shock collar to train a dog not to chase sheep. The theory is that the dog will believe that the sheep gave it an electric shock, and will not chase sheep again. However, it is impossible to know at which level the collar should be set when the dog is near sheep. For the dog to think that the sheep had shocked it, the trainer would have to wait until the dog was very near the sheep, or the dog might think that the shock had come from something else in the vicinity. Moreover, under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, dogs being exercised near livestock must be kept on leads or under close control. Similarly, dogs in urban environments do not need shock collars to stop them from running on the road; they merely need to be kept on a lead.
The hon. Lady has clearly stated that she opposes the use of electric shock collars for training. She has also referred to the duty on dog owners to train them properly. Does she approve of the idea of imposing additional duties on breeders and people who sell dogs, and on those who buy them, to ensure that steps are taken so that the dogs are properly trained, are not a liability to others, and are safe among people and when they are out in public?
That is an important point. One of the problems, particularly in the case of dangerous dogs, is that people take on dogs with absolutely no appreciation of the time and commitment that will be required, and of what it takes to own a dog. If breeders and anyone who sells a dog made that clear when the dog is sold, or given in the case of rescue dogs, it would make people understand what they are taking on.
It has been argued that the devices are a method of last resort for dogs that do not respond to any other form of training. Indeed, I have received a letter from someone who assures me that without the use of an electric shock collar her dog would have had to be destroyed, as nothing else worked. But are we really saying that it is appropriate to torture animals to get them to do what we want them to do?
I have heard of many examples of so-called untrainable dogs being trained through intensive therapy with an animal behaviourist. I admit that such methods take a great deal of time and commitment—much more than zapping with the remote control of an electronic device—but, as we have all agreed, owning a pet involves a great deal of time, commitment and responsibility. What worries me is that because of the way in which the devices are marketed and because they are freely available, many responsible dog owners are led to believe they are a normal way of training an animal.
The problem with the argument that the devices are a method of last resort is that that is how they started out in the USA. Now they are routinely marketed as training devices for all dogs and puppies, and their use has grown exponentially. At present sales of electronic shock collars in this country are still relatively low, but they are growing. That makes it all the more important to ban them now, before they become the “normal” way of training a dog. They are not a normal way of training a dog, and they are unnecessary. Dogs are highly reactive to learning experiences and have a strong bond with humans, so it is possible to utilise their natural instincts to train them easily.
While the hon. Lady has been speaking, I have been thinking about the training methods used by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I think it relevant that certain breeds are much more susceptible and co-operative than others. It is notable that guide dogs tend to be retrievers and Labradors. It is also notable that when puppies that have been selected as being suitable are being walked, they always keep all four feet on the ground at the same time and do not jump up. Clearly there is a way of training them not to do so at a very young age. People, too, must be taught to bend down when they want to speak to a dog or pet it, so that the dog does not need to jump up. Lessons could be learnt from those methods.
Exactly. It is also important to note that the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is not in favour of using electric shock devices to train dogs. There are numerous examples of dogs being trained in other ways to achieve the benefits that the hon. Lady has described.
All animals, ourselves included, learn through experience. If an action brings a positive outcome it will be repeated, as it is beneficial. However, dogs also have a natural, in-built “fight or flight” response when put in a situation that causes pain or fear. As a dog will have no idea what has caused the pain, it is far more likely to associate it with something in its immediate environment than to connect it with its own behaviour at the time. That something could be an area, an object, another dog, the owner or even a child, and the dog could become afraid or even act aggressively as a result.
Some people believe that it is okay if the collar is used only at a low-current setting. The difficulty with that approach is that the shock level may be too low to influence behaviour, thus the owner would have to increase it. The problem is that the dog can become accustomed to the gradually increasing discomfort. Carolyn Menteith, who is a dog trainer affiliated to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, has said:
“An electric shock collar hurts. It has to. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t work.”
There are a number of models to choose from; there are a number of anti-bark shock collars, which emit an electric shock of about 6 V to 9 V every time that the dog tries to bark while wearing one. By way of comparison, I should say that a Black and Decker drill also requires a 6 V battery. For about £270, one can get a remote control shock collar, which delivers a shock of about 3 V to 9 V via an owner-operated remote control. Incidentally, some of those devices do not come with instructions unless one pays extra.
I deliberately used the term “devices” in my Bill, because not just collars are available now—other such remote control devices exist. Electric shock leads are designed to stop a dog pulling on the lead; the level of shock increases in line with the amount of pressure that the dog puts on the lead. The most horrifying of all are electric shock mats, also known as wireless crates, which are designed to keep a dog in one place at home. They detect a dog’s weight and emit electric shocks, via a collar, to the dog when it is within a 6 ft radius of the crate and until it returns. One can imagine the scenario involving a dog left unattended, possibly while the owner is at work. Should the owner misjudge the distance, the dog would be unable to go out to the toilet or to get to its food without receiving an electric shock.
Those devices are readily available via mail order and over the internet—they often come with poor instruction manuals—to people who have little or no idea of how best to use them. A quick Google search pulls up devices that have a range of 1 mile, four days’ continuous use facility, an option for up to three dogs to be controlled individually from one handset, with a selection of three different modes, and a timer-controlled charging dock. Another website features a model that can deliver 16 levels of shock stimulation intensity. It makes one wonder to whom the devices are designed to appeal. Who needs the facility to zap three dogs from the same device?
To return to the point that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) was making, some of the best trained dogs, including assistance dogs, are not trained using electric shock training devices. The police and the armed forces have banned the use of electric dog collars for training, and the collars are also condemned by the German Shepherd Club, the Kennel Club and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
As long ago as 2000, the Association of Chief Police Officers urged police forces not to use electric shock collars after it had heard evidence from the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups. Furthermore, the armed forces dog unit has also prohibited the use of electric shock collars. If we can train dogs to a high enough calibre to be used in our police and armed forces without resorting to electric shock training, why should we need to use such devices on household pets?
The primary purpose of any training programme should be to improve the relationship and communication between a dog and its owner through compassionate, reward-based training. The best way to have a well trained pet is by teaching one’s dog to respond because it wants to respond, not because one has successfully managed to scare it half to death.
I should like to quote from correspondence received by the Kennel Club from people who have had bad experiences with these devices. A gundog trainer from Worcestershire noted:
“I had the misfortune to see a dog, which due to a fairly minor training problem, received the electric shock collar treatment, from a ‘professional’ gundog trainer. The shock treatment did not solve the problem and turned a reasonably biddable dog into an aggressive, non-compliant animal that is no longer able to obey any command...and distrusts most human beings”.
The owner of a bearded collie reported the following:
“I know of two bearded collies (brothers) that lived happily together for more than three years. The owner had a problem with one who was a ‘barker’ and was advised to buy an electric shock anti-bark collar. However, when the dog received a shock, it turned on its mate, as it did not know where the shock had come from. On the third day his mate turned on him and a fight took place. The owner took the collar off but every time the dog which had worn the collar barked his mate turned on him and fights continued to occur”.
The collars can also have a damaging long-term effect on a dog’s well-being, as has been documented in the August-September 2006 newsletter of the UK Leonberger Association.
The hon. Lady may not be aware that I have bred bearded collies. They are most exuberant and very intelligent dogs. The way to train them is through love and care, by trusting them and by building trust and a relationship with the dog, as with other dogs. This weekend, I shall be going to see Daisyfield Jessie, a racing greyhound, at Romford. She may retire at some stage, and when that happens, I hope to take her over. There is no more loving animal or no more easy pet to have than an ex-racing greyhound. They are wonderful dogs. We do not need to use electric shock devices to train these wonderful animals. Some people seek a short cut and an easy way, and that is symptomatic of society today. Everyone wants to find an easy way.
I certainly do. The love that people have for their dogs comes through; genuine responsible dog owners are horrified by the thought that anyone would use these devices.
I return to the newsletter of the UK Leonberger Association, which stated:
“At a recent event one of the participants put an electric shock collar (anti-bark collar) on a dog to stop it barking. The dog screamed in agony and panic. As the collar was noise activated, the more she screamed, the more the collar administered shocks. Within a few days the dog had lost all the fur from her neck.”
My final case study is a very sad case that was reported in the The Argus, a Brighton evening newspaper, a few years ago. A woman used an electric shock collar on her dogs, but the first time she did so it was by mistake when a small dog was walking past. For ever after, her dogs associated the shocks with small dogs and became afraid of them. One day when she was out with her dogs, an old lady walked past with a little shih tzu and her dogs became scared and attacked the little dog. It was taken to the vet but had to be put down. Her dogs had not shown aggressive behaviour before, and she was convinced that her dogs connected the pain of the electric shock with little dogs and that that had driven their uncharacteristic behaviour.
I am aware that those case studies are anecdotal, but considerable scientific research has been done on this. During the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would not consider a ban on electric shock collars, partly because it had not commissioned its own research and partly because of concerns regarding the validity of some of the existing research. When this was followed up, it transpired that just one particular study was causing concern, and on investigation, it was found that the concern was down only to how the research had been written up.
The research was referred to Dr. Stephen Wickens from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, who, after clarifying the research, was able to address these concerns. He then re-evaluted the findings and concluded:
“I certainly feel a lot happier that the conclusions of Dr Schilder’s paper are justified”.
Those conclusions stated:
“Shocks received during training are not only unpleasant but also painful and frightening.”
I understand that DEFRA still believes that we require further research on this, but when a call went out last summer asking for universities to undertake this research, only one response was received. It could not be followed up, because it was a proposal for a study that would not have involved actually testing shock collars on dogs. On looking into the reasons for the poor response rate, it transpired that, in many cases, this type of study would not have got past the given university’s ethics committee because it considered there to be enough research to prove that electric shock collars were cruel.
Rachel Casey and Emily Blackwell, who are both from the department of clinical veterinary science at the university of Bristol, have stated:
“Given the wealth of peer reviewed research currently available on the physiological and behavioural effects of aversive stimuli, such as electrical shocks, on a range of different species, as well as the peer reviewed work done on dogs by Schilder et al, Beerda et al and Christiansen et al, we feel that there is a sufficiently robust scientific argument for the banning of the use of electronic shock collars in dog training.
We would reiterate that we are unable to conduct a direct experimental study on the effects of shock collars on dogs, as such a study would not be viewed positively by the University ethics committee. In addition, such a study would require us to obtain a Home Office Licence, which is contrary to the ethos of the welfare charities that fund the majority of our research”.
Another call has recently gone out, and it has elicited one response. That has got past the ethics committee, because the research is on dogs that are already used to these collars. I am struggling to see how this research can be valid. These dogs may already be conditioned, so surely there would need to be a control group. But of course that would not get past the ethics committee, so we have a Catch-22 situation. Meanwhile, the devices continue to be available for sale. The time scale envisaged for that further research is also very long: it is at least two years, during which time I am concerned that we will see an exponential growth in the use of such devices in this country.
Leaving all that aside, there is a precedent for banning a cruel and unnecessary practice on animals without needing extensive scientific research. I refer to tail docking, which the House voted to ban with no exemptions and for which there was far less scientific evidence to support a ban than is available for shock collars.
We have another precedent in that both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament propose to start consultation later this year on banning electric shock training devices, without needing any further scientific research. The Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie, said in response to a recent parliamentary question that the Executive favoured banning the collars in principle and would launch a consultation on that later this year. The Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside in the Welsh Assembly, Carwyn Jones, announced in December last year that he intends to introduce legislation to ban electric dog collars and associated restraints.
I know that my Government are committed to animal welfare, and I am sure that the Minister does not want to inflict unnecessary pain on dogs. I understand the need for a sound evidence base, but I hope that he will take on board my arguments against the need for further research and heed the example set by our devolved institutions. I know that there is little chance that the Bill will succeed, but I ask him to undertake to follow Scotland and Wales and to start a consultation process with a view to bringing in secondary legislation under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to ban those cruel and unnecessary devices.
I am happy to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I shall be rather briefer than I was at this stage last week. It is a peculiarity of this place that I came prepared to make speeches on two Bills—the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) and the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)—and have ended up making a speech on an entirely different Bill. However, I am happy to do so. I have been reinstated on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench temporarily for that purpose.
I give my support and that of my party to the Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on her success in the ballot. There is no doubt that this matter needs to be dealt with. It is disappointing that it was not dealt with in the otherwise helpful Animal Welfare Bill, which displayed foresight, which is now law. During the discussions on it, I represented my party, and I served on the Committee with the Minister who is present.
I wrote to the Minister on 27 July 2005 following representations that I had received about electric shock collars:
“The use of electric shock collars to train dogs is a very unpleasant and unnecessary practice. On top of causing stress to the dog through an unpleasant stimulus, I suspect that it does not build up the sort of trainer-dog relationship of trust that is desirable.
Electric shock collars train dogs to respond out of fear of further punishment rather than a natural willingness to obey. Both myself and the Kennel Club believe that positive behaviour by dogs is best encouraged by the use of positive training methods. Furthermore, it is of great concern that these devices are readily available to anybody, regardless of their experience in training dogs. This then increases the scope for their misuse, either through ignorance by owners untrained to use them, or through malice by those intent on deliberate cruelty.”
I also expressed concern and disappointment that the Animal Welfare Bill, as it then was, did not outlaw the use of electric shock collars. I can tell the hon. Lady that I, and others, raised that during the Committee stage.
The Minister cares about these issues—I have no doubt about that. He demonstrated that in Committee, so it is disappointing that the issue has had to take the private Member's Bill route to be raised again. I hope that when he responds he will say that on reflection, having considered the matter and seen the strong views expressed across the House—Members from three parties so far have supported the measure—he will be inclined to give the Bill a fair wind. After all, the Government gave a fair wind to a Bill to exempt MPs from expenses. Surely they can give a fair wind to a Bill to stop torture and pain caused by humans to animals.
How do shock collars work? They work only by inflicting pain on animals, causing them distress and such a traumatic experience that they will avoid a particular form of behaviour in future. If they did not cause pain and trauma, they would not work. By definition, the shock collars have that effect on the animals.
In this day and age we should be finding more humane ways of training dogs. More humane ways exist, as the hon. Lady clearly set out. Some people say that there are people who can use shock collars responsibly, but that fails to take into account the fact that many people will buy those collars without proper training and use them irresponsibly. However we look at this matter, the Bill has highlighted an issue that deserves the support of the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and to speak in support of the Bill introduced by my friend and hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry). She ended her excellent contribution by saying that she doubted whether her Bill would have success. Even if it does not, the points that she raised may come back in another form of legislation that the House will approve. It is important that the points that she raised be given a proper airing.
May I say, by way of introduction and in case there is an intervention to ask this question, that I do not own a dog. I never have.
I am asked whether I have owned a cat, and I have, for many years.
The points that I seek to make have been raised with me by constituents who own dogs, by those who do not own dogs, and also by experts. They have raised some important points, which have been echoed in the contributions by the hon. Member for Lewes and by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North. Some of these points are worthy of being heard on the Floor of the House. It is worth remembering that, for a country that is known to love dogs and pets, we do not have the best track record in passing legislation concerning dogs. We all remember the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and some of the repercussions of that.
Some of the points that have been raised by animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club, have been referred to by my hon. Friend, are worthy of being given a proper outing. Some important points have been raised about why the Bill should be passed.
As someone who in a previous career spent his time interpreting legislation, I applaud the fact that the Bill has only nine clauses. If only all the Bills that we discussed in this place had nine clauses, life would be a lot more bearable for many of us.
The arguments in favour of banning electric shock collars are ample. There is pressure to ban. It is mostly directed at operator-controlled devices, on the ground that the dog has no means of escaping the stimulus. As has been said, they operate by inflicting fear and pain. There are more positive ways of training animals successfully. Those devices are capable of misuse, whether deliberate or unintentional. If used inappropriately, they can do more harm than good to the animal by, for example, provoking an aggressive reaction. Like any automated device, the collars can malfunction and inflict burns on dogs.
I have to confess that it seems that none of the people who work in my office owns a dog. I will need to ensure when I recruit next time that that is one of the questions that I ask interviewees. When I was preparing my speech on the Bill and I mentioned that I was coming to discuss electric shock training devices, they could not believe that such devices existed. That is one of the reasons why I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. She has made people aware that there are in existence things that one can buy lawfully, whereby dogs have electric shock collars placed on them and their owners, who claim to be dog lovers, use the button to elicit pain and control their pet. It is worth reminding ourselves—the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) raised the point—that the use of those devices can lead to laziness. Rather than training their dog and showing them compassion, people can be lazy, press the button and inflict pain.
The fact that the USA and some of our European partners allow the use of electric shock collars is not a reason for us not to outlaw them. They are of course banned in Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, and there are restrictions on their availability and use in most Australian states. Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland have better legislation on this issue than we do, and Austria and Italy are considering introducing bans.
I suspect that that is so. We all know that children imitate the behaviour of adults. If they see someone whom they love—their mother, father, uncle, auntie, grandmother or carer—using these devices on pets, what message does that send to them? It concerns me that adults—people in positions of influence, power and control—are using these devices on pets in the sight of their children.
I know that animal welfare is a core and passionate belief of my hon. Friend the Minister, as was demonstrated by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is now law. We have a track record of which we can be really proud, and I am pleased that his Department is making sure that proper research is undertaken; we may well end up with legislation based on evidence, rather than simply on the anecdotal experiences described to us by experts and constituents. The issues being raised today are extremely important not just because they were first raised by constituents and experts, but because they demonstrate our commitment to the welfare of the huge number of pets that are owned in this country.
The 2006 Act provides for the introduction of secondary legislation once proper research has been undertaken. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been listening thoughtfully to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North and the hon. Member for Lewes, and those made in the excellent interventions of other colleagues. It is really important that such research be undertaken as soon as possible, and that if the evidence shows the Minister—as we suspect it will—that electric shock training devices are an oxymoron, and cause much more harm than good, he will swiftly introduce secondary legislation to outlaw such collars.
The Government have a good track record on animal welfare, and I know that they are committed to ensuring that all such legislation is evidence-based, and that they take seriously the recommendations and research of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The Companion Animal Welfare Council is a very important advisory body that carries out independent studies of the use of training devices, and I am sure that it will help DEFRA to form policy, and that such studies will complement any separate research that DEFRA might commission. However, will my hon. Friend the Minister also examine overseas research, and consider the rationale behind the reasons why the countries that I mentioned earlier decided to ban electric shock training devices? It is worth looking at that evidence.
The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to gratuitous acts of cruelty to animals, and I am sure that he is aware that RSPCA statistics show that the number of incidents of such cruelty, particularly by children, is rising alarmingly. The RSPCA is not sure why, or what effect that might be having on other forms of violence in our communities; however, the idea that shock collars could be part of that syndrome is extremely worrying, so he is right to raise the issue.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. There is clear evidence that when people torture and harm their children, it can lead to their children torturing and harming others when they become adults. We must also consider the important issue of the imitation of behaviour.
The gratuitous abuse of animals is clearly to be abhorred, but we know that many dog and other pet owners do behave responsibly. A trial is taking place this week that has highlighted the issues that have been raised. One concern that colleagues have mentioned—it led to the 2006 Act, which comes into force this month—is the lack of prosecutions hitherto. That is one reason why my hon. Friend the Minister, who has an excellent track record on this issue, consolidated the 20 various pieces of such legislation reaching back to 1911. The Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it clear that to cause unnecessary suffering to a domestic or captive animal is unlawful. However, this legislation, which is now almost 100 years old, has not led, so far as I am aware, to any prosecutions of pet owners for the misuse of electric shock training devices. I am surprised not by the lack of prosecutions for their use, but by the lack of prosecutions for their misuse. I am pleased that the 2006 Act provides for the introduction, if necessary, of secondary legislation in England and Wales regulating equipment harmful to animal welfare. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to the points that have been made and will take them seriously.
As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, Wales and Scotland are ahead of England in this area, as is often the case. Wales’s Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside has said that he proposes to undertake a public consultation on banning the use of electric shock training collars for dogs in Wales, under the 2006 Act. The excellent Scottish Executive coalition, which will continue to exist after the elections on 3 May, will make an order banning these devices under the 2006 Act, which was enacted on 6 October last year. They are committed to undertaking a public consultation on banning the general use of certain types of electric shock collars.
I am looking to my hon. Friend the Minister to give in his response the same commitment, and to show the same compassion. I want him to show that the welfare of dogs and other animals is at the heart of what DEFRA does, and to ensure that if this Bill does not reach the statute book—although I still live in hope that it will—he will use the spirit and sentiment of it, taking into account the issues that have been raised today, to ensure that research on this issue is expedited. I hope that if those who carry out that research recommend a ban, he will come back to this place as soon as possible with secondary legislation to outlaw this outrageous behaviour.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) had to say, and I agree with him entirely that any legislation on this matter should be based on scientific evidence. We are open to evidence the Minister might bring forward at a later stage. It is nice that a cat owner and a dog owner should agree, because traditionally they have somewhat differing views of life in general and of animal welfare in particular. However, I have a confession to make to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), whom I congratulate on introducing this Bill: I am not a dog owner, although I was until my dog was put down just before Christmas. She had had a good life, and I am afraid that it was necessary for her own welfare.
I was particularly impressed by the hon. Lady’s speech. She and I are on entirely common ground on the need for responsible dog ownership. On this issue, it is irresponsible dog ownership and the welfare of dogs that concern me more than anything else, which is why I believe that, to a certain extent, this Bill somewhat misses the mark. On Merseyside not so long ago, a child was killed by an irresponsibly owned dog, if I might put it that way. There was a not dissimilar incident in Leicester last summer when a child was savaged and I believe killed—it did not happen in my constituency—by two rottweilers that were guarding a pub. That concerns me much more than this issue.
Electric shock training devices issue an electric shock to a dog’s neck and are used for training and protection purposes. They have different strength settings, depending on the size of the dog. I would contend that there are occasions when the use of such devices is beneficial to an animal’s welfare. The hon. Lady mentioned sheep worrying. I own and live on a farm, and sheep worrying is a real concern. Her arguments against using these devices in cases of sheep worrying were not necessarily scientifically based. Dogs may not mean to be malicious, but the sheep are worried by them and run away. A quick burst of electric shock will stop a dog chasing the sheep. Farmers can, rightly, shoot dogs to stop them worrying sheep, so if the device restrains a dog from doing so, or from running out on to a road, it can be argued to be beneficial to its welfare.
The hon. Lady has exempted proximity fences from the Bill, although I would point out gently that that is illogical. Either it is cruel to give an animal an electric shock or it is not. If the dog does not realise that it is running up to sheep that causes the electric shock, why will it realise that it will get a shock from a fence? To answer that requires scientific experiment, instead of relying on our feelings about it.
The point about electric shock devices is that they are not designed to be cruel. If animals suffer cruelty as the result of their use, it is the fault of the owner, rather than the device itself. We have discussed other methods of discipline. I am appalled by the way in which people ill-treat animals, both domestic and wild. Dogs are starved, flogged to within an inch of their lives or have burning items tied to their tails. One does not need an electric shock collar, which actually costs a lot of money, to ill-treat a dog. That is where the Bill misses the point slightly.
Last year we had the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which already makes provision for acts of cruelty and unnecessary suffering. I was not on the Committee that considered the Bill, but I suspect that this issue was discussed. I further understand that the Minister has agreed to look into the matter and commission further scientific research, so the Bill may not be very timely. Section 4 of the Act states:
“A person commits an offence if…an act of his…causes an animal to suffer”.
So the animal is already protected from unnecessary suffering, as is right and proper.
That is a valid point, which is why the issue needs further examination and discussion, rather than the feeling that it seems cruel to use an electric shock on an animal. Others might argue that it can be beneficial to the animal’s welfare.
Section 4 of the Act also has regard to whether
“the conduct concerned was in all the circumstances that of a reasonably competent and humane person.”
The hon. Gentleman’s point has validity there also. In the wider context of the treatment of animals, minor electric shocks—and they are minor—are not necessarily that cruel. With my last dog, I used to run through a field that had an electric fence in it and she would run joyously along it until she came into contact with it. That did seem to be cruel, and she did not like going through that field. However, the siting of the fence was reasonable, and as the hon. Lady might argue, I should have perhaps kept my dog on a lead so that she did not come into contact with the fence.
We rightly allow the castrating and neutering of many domestic and farm animals. If we did not castrate bulls, the problems would be huge. It is not pleasant, but I have seen it done and the young bull calf did not seem to be in terrible discomfort, although I cannot say so definitively as I have never—I am glad to say—been a young bull calf.
Where it can be proven that those using electric shock devices are abusing animals and where the balance is not weighted in favour of animal welfare benefits, it is clearly already an offence. It would therefore be premature to impose a blanket ban. We could also say that smacking a dog should be illegal, and many people might. I would argue that that is taking anthropomorphism too far. I loved both my dogs and I am very keen on animal welfare, but I smacked them from time to time and it improved their behaviour. They are not human beings—although smacking children also improves their behaviour, in my opinion. However, I shall not pursue that line of argument—
I could, believe me.
The greater concerns are dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership. Anything that improves responsible dog ownership should be applauded. However, by banning the use of a training device, this measure could further restrict the ability of dog owners to act responsibly and train their dogs well. I am not generally well disposed towards the Bill, therefore, but I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on her Bill and on the way in which she has approached the issue. We have had several detailed and civilised conversations about it, and she has had discussions with my officials. I also congratulate the other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to this welcome debate.
I completely understand and sympathise with the motives behind the Bill. I appreciate that the issue arouses strong feelings in people, as I know from my postbag and the lengthy debates that we had on the subject during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I am also grateful that hon. Members have recognised that Act as a major step forward for animal welfare. Indeed, it is probably the most important such step for nearly a century. I am also grateful for their recognition of my commitment to improving animal welfare. I was proud to be able to take over responsibility for that legislation from my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).
While we have much sympathy for the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North raises, we do not believe that primary legislation on this issue is appropriate or timely. We need a stronger evidence base and more research before we consider further the request that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) have made to take action against the devices through secondary legislation. She is right to say that many animal welfare organisations are concerned about the use—and indeed misuse—of the devices. Any misuse would already be covered by the welfare and cruelty offences in the Act. It will always be difficult, whether one is talking about the use of such devices, a stick or even the hand of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), for courts to determine whether a cruelty offence has been committed, but that is why we have the Act. As with all legislation, the Act will have to be tested in the courts, but I am confident—as was discussed at some length during its passage—that it will give the courts powers to come down hard on people who can be shown to be abusing such equipment.
Of course, but the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we should ban devices that many responsible dog owners—who love their animals no less than he and other Members love their dogs—have told me they find useful as a last resort. The use of such a device prevents their dog from causing accidents and distress to other people, and also stops the dog behaving in a way that could lead to far greater suffering for itself, because it could be shot by a farmer or injured by running in front of a car.
I was given a couple of examples of such use by loving, decent, kind animal owners who live near my constituency, in the Devon countryside where, as the hon. Member for Blaby pointed out, there are many sheep. In one case, the problem was that the animal chased sheep, even though the owner had taken it to dog training classes and dog clubs. In the end a friend recommended that she try an electric shock collar. She used it only once, but the dog never again chased sheep. If she had not used the device, the likelihood was either that her dog would have been shot or that she would have had to have it put down.
The second example is similar, but relates to perimeter fences—although I realise that the Bill has an exemption covering them. The loving owners of the dogs discovered that the only way they could prevent the dogs from escaping from the garden and chasing sheep was by erecting a perimeter fence. Such fences can be modified so that after one initial shock, a whistle sounds on subsequent occasions, which prevents the dog from running away. After installing the fence, those owners, too, never again had a problem with their dogs running away.
We are keen to understand more, however, and to find out about practice in other countries. When I met my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North a few weeks ago, I undertook to ask the chief vet to write to her counterparts in every other EU member state, and we are starting to receive replies. The situation is quite patchy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting pointed out, one or two countries have banned the devices but the majority have not, although they regulate them. Like us, they have animal welfare legislation that prevents the misuse of such devices. We are still waiting for information, but so far the majority view in the EU seems to be that Governments have concluded that the best thing is to regulate the sale and use of the devices rather than to ban them.
In New Zealand, which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North and I discussed when she came to see me, the devices are not banned, but their use is covered by a dog code. We shall continue to examine what other countries do and learn from their experience. When Governments are considering legislation, it is important that they consider best practice in other countries, and I have tried to introduce that principle in my Department since I became a Minister. We can often learn both from how other countries draw up legislation—so that we avoid making mistakes—and by adopting their good practice.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the research that has been carried out in other countries, and we shall look at it. To respond to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, we recently set up the Companion Animal Welfare Council, which is the companion animal equivalent to the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which has provided us with extremely valuable independent research on animal welfare issues. We have asked the Companion Animal Welfare Council to carry out an audit of research and practice in other countries and make a report. In addition, we are actively commissioning our own further research, which we hope to begin later this year and which could supply the evidence base for us to proceed down the secondary legislative route—as my hon. Friend would like us to do.
I shall outline why we think secondary legislation is more appropriate than spending time in the Chamber passing primary legislation. The Animal Welfare Act is an enabling measure, as I repeatedly pointed out during its passage, not least in discussions with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The Act is an umbrella piece of legislation, which guarantees for the first time that the welfare needs of animals must be met—its most advanced step forward. However, we have made it clear, before, during and since the passage of the measure, that most of the nitty-gritty, such as electronic training devices or the other contentious issues discussed—circuses or the welfare of greyhounds, for example—would in time be dealt with through regulation and secondary legislation. There will be consultation on those issues and they will be discussed by Members in the House.
To pick bits out of the Act and give them special primary legislative treatment would not be a sensible approach and could open the floodgates to every interest group. Different groups have more enthusiasm for certain elements of animal welfare. The hon. Member for Lewes will remember that in Committee I said that the Government were under great pressure to introduce secondary legislation quickly after the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Some organisations are pushing us urgently to legislate on greyhounds, and others on circuses, pet fairs and so on.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North will accept that we are genuine when we say that primary legislation is not the appropriate route for bringing in a ban or restriction on electronic devices, but that we are committed to deal with the devices through secondary legislation, should the evidence emerge and should parliamentary and public consultation point to that route.
There are one or two technical problems with the Bill. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, it exempts perimeter fences, but the advice from our lawyers is that it could catch other electronic devices such as ordinary electric fences at the margins of fields, to which the hon. Member for Blaby referred, as well as the electric goads used—for example, in slaughter houses—to prevent worse animal welfare problems, because the animal might hurt itself or thrash about in panic.
I hope that my brief response has satisfied my hon. Friend that we are committed to further examination of the issue, because we need to listen not just to the animal welfare organisations that have been campaigning for a considerable time for a ban on the devices. I completely accept what she says about some of the new devices that are coming on to the market, particularly the so-called cat mats, or animal training mats. I am not aware that they are yet on sale in the UK, but if that were to be the case I should have strong concerns.
Although I can understand the arguments made by some owners that electronic training devices are useful as a last resort to prevent animals from straying or worrying sheep, I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody would require an electronic mat in their home that delivered a shock to a cat or any other animal that moved off it. That would seem to me to have absolutely no justification whatever. I am aware that Members are concerned about a number of other devices—citronella sprays, for example, which, although they do not deliver a shock, could be regarded as just as unpleasant in respect of the smell offence that they give to animals that have a far higher sense of smell than humans.
We are committed to spending a considerable sum on further research. As far as possible, we want to base our decisions on good evidence and we will continue to examine the issue very closely. On the basis of what I have said, I am afraid that the Government cannot support the Bill.
Question put and negatived.
Health and Safety (Offences) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time. This is a small, but important, Bill. Some 25 years ago, I worked for the Workers Educational Association, when one aspect of my job was to teach health and safety courses for the Trades Union Congress. I stressed then what I believe is still true today—that health and safety is in everyone’s interest. It is obviously in the interest of the workers, but it is also of interest to the employers. Good health and safety practices are in the interest of the profitability of firms and the safety of the people employed.
That was back in 1974, but when I began to take an interest once again in health and safety, I was surprised by the fact that we have not seen any recent changes in the level of fines for health and safety offences. The most recent fines were introduced in 1991 and 1992 and since then there has been no change. That is why I agreed to put forward this small but important Bill.
The Bill does three things to modify the framework of the maximum penalty set out in section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. First, it proposes to raise the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences. At the moment, fines for some offences have a maximum of only £5,000. Secondly, it makes imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences in both the lower and higher courts. Thirdly, it is designed to make certain offences that are currently triable only in the lower courts triable in either the lower or the higher courts.
Let me say at the outset that I support the Bill. If the Bill is successful in its present form, will the maximum fine increase annually with the rate of inflation, or will we have to go through this exercise again at some point in the future?
There is nothing in the Bill to allow increases to rise according to the rate of inflation. In all fairness, what we need to do is keep the issue under constant review, which has happened in the past, but it has been some time, as I said, since we have had an opportunity to propose changes to the legislation along the lines that I have outlined.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on introducing this measure. I think that I can support it as a good measure. The hon. Gentleman’s reasoning for it is sound, as was his reasoning in response to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I am concerned about one matter. By increasing the fines from about £5,000 to £20,000 for a range of offences, may we be losing the discrimination in some way between very serious offences that cause harm to individuals and others that do not, which in my view makes them less serious? Contravening requirements in ports, in relation to public inquiries or special investigations, for example, is a much lower level of seriousness than offences under section 33(1)(a), which are very serious indeed. Is it right to remove that discrimination or does the hon. Gentleman believe that, at some stage, the more serious offences should merit a fine even higher than £20,000?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very constructive and sensible intervention. There are a range of penalties available, including imprisonment in certain cases, which I shall come on to in a few moments. However, the important point about health and safety legislation in this country is not necessarily just that people who transgress the law will be fined a certain amount of money. More important, I would argue, is the principle of proportionality, so that we impose proportionate fines in accordance with particular offences. They must vary and be kept under constant review.
Another important principle, however, is that of deterrence. Nobody wants to go through the process of increasing the number of health and safety trials. As things stand, we are talking about a relatively small number of cases being brought a year. In 2004-05, for example, there were 712 cases and a 95 per cent. prosecution of cases leading to convictions. Only a small number of cases are brought forward and I do not envisage an increase. The important thing, however, is to focus people’s minds on the issue of health and safety—and on the element of deterrence, which is part of it. Focusing minds is entirely positive.
To reinforce that line of argument, I would like to cite two important reviews of recent years. First, there was the Hampton review, “Reducing administrative burdens: effective inspection and enforcement”. That review was extremely forceful in the arguments that it advanced, not just on the issue of fines, but on the matter of reducing administrative burdens, as its title implies. There was also the Macrory report entitled “Regulating Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”. Those two reports strongly supported the line of argument set out today and embodied in the Bill. I would also stress the fact that the Bill is the result of joint consideration by the Health and Safety Executive, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office. I believe that there is a consensus in favour of the changes that I am outlining today.
Some of the most powerful arguments in favour of the Bill were put forward by judges when they made certain remarks in the process of sentencing—and I would like to quote some examples of that. For example, in 1995, a prosecution arose from the deaths of two students by carbon monoxide poisoning in the rented accommodation that they shared. The landlord was charged under section 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and regulation 4(3) of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1984.
After the jury returned guilty verdicts on each count, the judge asked the prosecution counsel if the matter had been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of more serious charges, namely manslaughter. Counsel explained that the police had investigated and passed the papers to the CPS, which had decided not to press charges for manslaughter. The Health and Safety Executive had held the prosecution back until that had been decided.
The judge fined the defendant on each count, and ordered him to pay prosecution costs. The defendant was given 12 months to pay with a warning that he faced two years’ imprisonment if he failed to do so. The judge opened his sentencing remarks by saying, significantly:
“These offences do not carry imprisonment. If they did I wouldn’t want you, nor the public, to be under any delusions that I would sentence you to prison and I would send you to prison for a substantial period of time.”
A year later, in 1996, there was a prosecution following a methane gas explosion underground at a coal mine. Two workmen were badly burnt. The mine manager was found guilty on five counts concerning management of the mine, ventilation and explosives use. The judge, in concluding, said that he was surprised, considering the seriousness of the offences, that fines were the only available penalty. The judge sought advice on the matter from the Health and Safety Executive through counsel before passing sentence.
If I may, I will quote one further example in support of this aspect of the Bill. In 1996, again, the defendants—a company, one of its directors and a manager—were prosecuted for illegally employing young children to pack food products in a factory. All pleaded guilty. The company was convicted of seven charges of illegal child employment and fined. The director and manager were also fined and made to pay costs. The judge said in his concluding remarks:
“These matters are so serious that I should consider imprisonment. But Parliament has given no such power to the courts to pass such a sentence.”
He also said:
“Such abuse of young children is wholly unacceptable.”
Those are some examples of where imprisonment was, in the considered view of judges, something that should have been on the statute book.
Another change that I propose to section 33 of the 1974 Act is a change in the level of fines available. In support of my proposals, I want to quote excerpts from the Hampton review report that explain the case clearly. The report stated:
“In 2003-04, the Health and Safety Executive prosecuted 1,756 cases, with an average fine on conviction of £4,036 in magistrates’ courts, and £33,036 in Crown Courts. The deterrent effect of such fines is likely to be low. For any company other than the smallest, a £5,000 fine is likely to be an insignificant sum.”
It went on to say:
“Fines set at such low levels are no deterrent—indeed, a rational company in any of the cases highlighted”—
a number of examples were quoted in the report—
“would have been acting to its economic advantage by breaking the law. The elimination of gain from law-breaking is essential if businesses are to be allowed to operate on a level playing-field, but neither regulators nor businesses believe that appropriate fines will result from most prosecutions.”
That is an important and objective statement. The report went on to say:
“The penalty regime should aim to have an effective deterrent effect on those contemplating illegal activity.”
Are not the majority of businesses in this country small businesses? It would not surprise me if there was widespread ignorance of the levels of fines. If the fines were doubled, quadrupled or multiplied by 10 it would not have any impact on those companies that are not aware of the fines that they face if they breach the regulations.
It is important to put the issue of fines in a broader context. I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest that health and safety legislation is based solely on deterrents and threats. It is important to recognise that health and safety legislation in this country has put the emphasis on prevention and on putting measures in force to raise awareness of procedures and so on. It is important to see my proposals in that broader context. What is being suggested is not a fundamental change in the way in which we approach health and safety matters, but simply a change to one element of the health and safety regime to ensure maximum compliance and maximum awareness.
I would suggest, too, that most employers in this country—including small employers—are responsible, reasonable, fair-minded, health-and-safety-conscious individuals. All the evidence suggests that. Nevertheless, unfortunately, a small minority, when looking at their competitiveness and weighing up the pros and cons of investment, take into account the result of not complying with heath and safety legislation, and cut corners to increase profitability when making their plans for the future. The Hampton report focused its remarks on an attempt to tackle that, and that is one of the arguments behind my proposals today.
I want to quote from another report, which I mentioned in my opening remarks: the Macrory review report. It stated that
“lack of an effective deterrent compromises the effectiveness of the regulatory relationship.”
The word “relationship” is important. It went on:
“Without credible and meaningful sanctions, regulators are forced to pursue a more burdensome and bureaucratic enforcement policy.”
It also stated:
“When prosecutions do take place, it is reasonable to assume that they are for the most serious offences and offenders. Sentencing should also reflect this level of seriousness”—
that goes back to a point that was made earlier—
“and be a strong deterrent signal for others in the regulated community.”
The report went on to state:
“Effective sanctioning is an important signal in achieving deterrence. If criminal prosecutions sent out a strong signal of deterrence, then regulators would be able to impose less onerous burdens on legitimate business by conducting fewer inspections.”
That, too, is important. The number of inspectors and the number of inspections that take place are an obvious consideration, and it is a powerful argument that the costs to the Health and Safety Executive and the administrative burden on employers would be reduced by this new regime.
However, the report went on to state that
“currently legitimate businesses see their unscrupulous competitors cut corners, and gain competitive advantage, without facing serious financial or other consequences.”
That point, too, was made earlier. Not only do we need this change to prevent such unscrupulous behaviour, but we need to recognise that the situation is unfair to the vast majority of reasonable and fair employers. They abide by the rules, they ensure that things are done properly; why should a small minority, for competitive advantage, unscrupulously get away with it?
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on the Bill. Is that not just the point? The Bill would place no additional requirements on good businesses. All that it would do is ensure that the small number of bad businesses were punished and deter others from following their example.
That is a good way to put it. The 1974 Act is an extremely powerful and effective piece of legislation, but it might need to be fine-tuned and updated from time to time, so that we have the appropriate fines in place to ensure the deterrent element. No extra costs, burdens or responsibilities whatsoever will be placed on employers.
I hope that the House will agree to approach the Bill in a consensual manner, and that all parties will agree that the proposal is reasonable. It builds on the fine principles of the 1974 Act, reflects the good consensus on both sides of industry and would result in health and safety being taken more seriously and made still more effective.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) for introducing the Bill. I would guess that he is pleasantly surprised that we have had the opportunity to debate it this morning, and I suspect that the fact that there was widespread speculation about what we might have been doing today had we not been discussing the Bill has meant that people who have a real interest in the subject are not here. It is a great shame that we have not had the opportunity to debate the issue in Government time, as it would then have received the attention that it deserves.
I am sure that everyone in the workplace—the management, the workers and the customers—are interested in maintaining the highest standards of health and safety. My family’s involvement in my industry, agriculture, goes back three generations, and agriculture does not have a good health and safety record. Construction, too, is a dangerous industry. Unfortunately, many small businesses that do their best to maintain the highest levels of health and safety occasionally have accidents, but it is not because they do not show the necessary duty of care, but because that is the nature of the industry, and that is my concern. Towards the north of my constituency, there is a potash mine, probably the biggest mine in the United Kingdom, which employs 1,000 people. Sadly, there have been accidents there in recent months, but that is not because the employers are negligent; they do everything that they can to make sure that the mine is as safe as it can be, but sadly the nature of some industries means that accidents take place.
Recently, I was discussing how I could improve health and safety on my farm. I note that the requirement placed on employers is to do all that is reasonably practicable. Our biggest concern on my farm is that there is no mobile phone signal, so if my tractor driver had an accident in a far-flung field, he could not summon help. We identified that as the health and safety issue that most concerned us. Unfortunately, that is out of our hands. I suppose that if we were to do everything that could be reasonably expected of us, we could buy some sort of short-range radio system to put in the tractors, but sadly, one has to decide to stop somewhere.
I am a landlord, and the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned the cases that occasionally hit the headlines of people being poisoned by carbon monoxide in holiday homes or on domestic premises. As a landlord with three small properties on Teesside, that is something that I worry about, because the properties have gas central heating. Although we do everything that is required of us—we have annual CORGI inspections and issue the certificates to the tenant—how do I know that the tenant will not put something over the flue of the boiler? How often should I check? Perhaps it would be reasonable to do so every week. What happens if he takes the battery out of his carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen and puts it in the remote control for the television? How many people have been killed because they have taken the battery out of a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide detector, just so they can change the channels without getting out of their chair? We read about such cases in the paper.
Yes, I accept that good employers and landlords already comply with the legislation. My concern is that, by and large, the level of the fines is not widely known. We all know that if we get caught speeding, we will get three points and a £60 fine, and we all know that if we get caught drink-driving, we will lose our licence for a year. Everyone is aware of those fines. The point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Caerphilly during his excellent opening speech was that there is no widespread knowledge of the level of the fines, so increasing the fines is unlikely to have much effect. Putting more effort into inspections might be the way to target bad employers and landlords.
Would the Bill reduce serious infringements? I suspect not. What we need are deterrents, which include a good inspection regime and good trade unions in the workplace that are not frightened to draw problems to employers’ attention. I am also concerned about how courts will interpret the reversal of the burden of proof. It is always said that we are innocent until proven guilty, but in cases in which we employers have to prove that we are doing everything that is reasonably practicable, the burden of proof is reversed. As I said in relation to the inspection of smoke detectors, how far should one go? What is reasonably practicable? That is a point on which the courts would have to rule, and not something that could be put in this reforming Bill. When I looked at the Bill, I was amazed at how wide the net can be cast. I was very surprised to read that the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot during an anti-terrorist operation, has been brought under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. That legislation not only applies to the workplace, but covers the issue of showing a duty of care.
It is the big cases that hit the headlines that bring home to people how important it is to maintain high levels of health and safety. There have been big pay-outs in recent years. The engineering firm Balfour Beatty and Network Rail were fined £13.5 million for breaches of health and safety at Hatfield, where four people were killed in 2000. Many people in Scotland remember the Larkhall gas blast in 1999, in which a family of four died when a leaking pipe exploded, destroying their house in Larkhall, south Lanarkshire, a few days before Christmas. The blast was so powerful that their fridge was projected on to the roof of a neighbour’s home, and the scene was likened to a war zone. After a 27-week trial, utility firm Transco was found guilty under health and safety legislation of failing to maintain the corroded and leaking gas main that ran through the family’s garden. It was fined £15 million in August 2005, which at the time set a UK record for health and safety prosecutions. It is that type of case that brings home to people how important it is to comply with health and safety legislation, not the fact that someone was fined £4,000 instead of £2,000, or the fact that somebody’s penalties were increased marginally.
The Ladbroke Grove train crash on 5 October 1999, in which 31 people were killed when a Thames Trains commuter service smashed into a First Great Western train after going through a red light at Ladbroke Grove in west London, resulted in a £2 million fine for Thames Trains for two breaches of health and safety regulations. Six people died and seven were seriously injured when a steel pin holding together a passenger walkway came loose as hundreds of people were boarding the Prins Filip ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend. That resulted in a £1.7 million fine for two Swedish firms that admitted errors. The Port of Ramsgate, which managed the port, was fined £200,000, and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, which certified the walkway, was fined £500,000. That brings home to companies how important it is to comply with the legislation.
I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate the Bill, but I think that this is the right place, but not the right time, to make such changes. I wonder why a private Member’s Bill has had to be used to bring forward measures that should be in Government legislation. The measures need proper scrutiny in Government time. I hope that the Government will reflect on that, and will allow the measures the more intense scrutiny and the full procedures that accompany proper Government legislation, so that the measures can have a much better passage through the House.
It is a privilege to speak in favour of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). I do not know how he managed to swing it so that his Bill received a Second Reading on the day before workers memorial day; he must have influence in some very high places. Today, I am speaking from my experiences as a trade unionist and as a solicitor who has acted for the victims of injury in the workplace and for their bereaved families. In fact, some of the cases to which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) referred were cases in which the firm that I co-founded acted on behalf of the bereaved families, or of those who had been injured.
When one speaks to victims of incidents at work or their family members, one finds that what they are really after is not compensation, but justice. They want to ensure that no death or personal injury takes place again, and that we are not put in a situation in which we can say, “Oh my God, not again.” That is the motivation for using the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and looking to the Health and Safety Executive to bring a prosecution.
It is worth considering the micro impact—that on the individual—and the macro impact. The cost of work-related accidents and ill health to society has been estimated at between £11 billion and £18 billion—the equivalent of 2 to 3 per cent. of the UK’s gross domestic product. Those vast costs crudely suggest the waste of productivity and the scale of human suffering that stems from health and safety offences.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked why the Bill had to come from a Back Bencher. I remind him that we recently commemorated a measure that a Back Bencher introduced 200 years ago—it began the outlawing of slavery. I therefore have no problems with a Back Bencher promoting the Bill and I fully support my hon. Friend’s measure.
The hon. Gentleman, who is the king of interventions, made a good intervention, as usual. I suspect that he did that because he promoted the Act to which he referred. I will not hold that against him. It is an example of why we should not criticise the Government for not thinking of the idea first.
The Bill does not criticise the Health and Safety Executive or local authorities, which do all they can to bring successful health and safety prosecutions. The Bill is not about changing the requirements on business. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby made several good points that are worth a response. He asked about the burdens on landlords, employers and businesses. The Bill would not add further burdens. He spoke of his concern about the reverse burden of proof, but the measure complies with article 6 of the European convention on human rights. If he believes that more money should be spent on having more HSE inspectors and on advertising and making people aware of sentences for breaches of health and safety, he can table an amendment to the Finance Bill next week to increase expenditure so that more money can be spent on those matters.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the long sentences that courts pass. It is worth bearing in mind that none of the sentences in the measure is mandatory. They simply give the judges further tools if they believe that a higher penalty should be imposed on somebody who breaks the law.
The Bill has three clauses and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly on making it so short. I am especially pleased with two aspects of it. First, it provides that magistrates courts and Crown courts can imprison people when appropriate for health and safety offences. Secondly, it provides that some cases that were previously triable only in the magistrates court can be sent to the Crown court. That means that a magistrate could send a case to the Crown court.
I do not foresee loads of extra people going to prison. I expect the Bill to be used as a more effective deterrent, especially to directors and managers, whose influence on securing good health and safety practice is critical. Let us be clear: most health and safety breaches are not the fault of an individual director, but due to systemic failures. The idea that the Bill will mean directors queuing up to go to prison is not borne out by the facts.
As I said, I welcome the excellent measure and I congratulate my hon. Friend again on promoting it. I believe that it will lead to a change in the behaviour of those few employers, landlords and businesses who have been guilty of flagrant disregard of health and safety legislation, leading our judges to demonstrate frustration in some cases. It will give judges the right tools to punish adequately the guilty landlord, employer and business. I commend it to the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on promoting the Bill and the excellent case that he made for it. I also congratulate all those involved in drafting the measure because it appears to be a good Bill.
Canvey Island is in my constituency and I therefore have knowledge of control of major accident hazard—COMAH—industrial sites. My constituents have to live with the danger that the site represents. They want to know that I am in this place ensuring that they have the maximum protection and that the law enables judges to make proper decisions and thus deter people from taking safety short cuts on industrial sites. Indeed, my constituents are deeply concerned about industrial hazards, given the incidents at Flixborough and Buncefield, as well as accidents in the USA and Canada on sites similar to the one that is proposed for Canvey Island and the one that already operates there.
My constituents want us to realise the vision of my right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party of being a caring party that does not simply have the knee-jerk reaction of protecting the interests of big business but takes account of the interests of the community and business employees. I am sure that Conservative Front Benchers want to do that.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) made an excellent speech. I agree with him that we do not anticipate many more people being sent to prison. We want to give judges the ability, which they do not currently have but say that they want and need to use prison as an ultimate deterrent so that people do not take short cuts but take a little more care to prevent the accidents that cause so much human suffering and loss, as well as loss of productivity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made an excellent point when he said that prevention is much better than dealing with such matters in the courts after the event. Perhaps the opportunities for prevention would be better if the number of health and safety professionals had not fallen in the past three years by approximately 25 per cent. I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 1320 on Health and Safety Executive job cuts, which points out the lack of resources being made available for maintaining health and safety for UK workers, and the fact that staff numbers have fallen from 4,282 in April 2004 to 3,225 in March 2007.
No, I would not be shocked, because a further good point was made by my colleagues on the Conservative Benches about the need for further scrutiny to ensure that this excellent Bill, or a Bill similar to it, achieves everything that it should achieve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby on making that excellent point about prevention. As he said, this is the sort of Bill that could benefit from proper scrutiny in the House in Government time. I wait to hear the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), from the Front-Bench, before deciding how I will vote on the Bill.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on bringing the Bill before us. There cannot be a Member in the entire House who does not acknowledge the importance of the subject. Although it is probably impossible for us to make life entirely accident-free and safe for everybody under every circumstance, we should do everything we can through the legislative process to move towards that goal.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) congratulated the hon. Member for Caerphilly on making the Bill brief—it contains only three clauses—but it could have extensive consequences. I echo the comments of several of my colleagues that the subject is so weighty that the Bill deserves Government time and proper scrutiny, so it should proceed through Parliament like any normal Bill, to ensure that every aspect of it is taken into consideration and it does not have unintended consequences.
I have no doubt that the Bill is full of good intentions, which we would all echo. Its main purpose is to increase fines for health and safety offences, and to increase the potential for custodial sentences in certain circumstances and the options for trial in lower or higher courts. We would all support that, but we need to consider every possible circumstance before we can be sure that it is the right thing to do.
My first thought was about the financial effects of the Bill. The explanatory notes point out that it would lead only to a minimal increase in the prison population. That is a topical concern because of the crisis in prison capacity. A range of offences which most of us would consider to be deserving of custodial sentences are being excluded because of the lack of prison capacity, rather than the gravity of the offence. The notes also claim that the Bill might lead to a few additional cases being heard in the higher courts. It would have little financial effect on the public purse, but it would have a serious financial effect on offenders. That is its main purpose.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly spoke of proportionality—that is, relating the gravity of the offence to the level of the fine. That is an extremely important consideration because the level of offences encompassed by the Bill varies widely.
The hon. Lady expressed some support for the broad thrust of the Bill, but argued that more time needs to be spent examining it in Committee. Can she explain to the House how examination in Committee would add to the Bill, bearing in mind that the issue has been discussed for a number of years already?
I imagine that one of the hon. Gentleman’s intentions is to bring the level of fines up to date. The range of circumstances in which offences under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 can be committed is very wide. I have been jotting down a selection, which I am sure is only a small selection of the potential list that could be covered. We need more in-depth scrutiny to examine all the potential circumstances, and the way in which the new level of fines and the opportunity for custodial sentencing could affect employers, Government Departments and the range of bodies which would be subject to the Bill.
I would like scrutiny in Committee in Government time, which would allow the Bill to be scrutinised by a larger number of hon. Members. As is sadly the case with private Members’ Bills on Fridays, the audience is rather sparse. The subject will interest many colleagues on both sides of the House, who will want to be involved in scrutinising the legislation, which is why I feel that the Bill deserves Government time.
The explanatory notes refer to the European convention on human rights and include the intriguing phrase:
“‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, often referred to as ‘SFAIRP’”.
That is a new one on me, although perhaps it is common knowledge among hon. Members who spend more time than me reading Bills. I wonder what a judge would make of it. I know that we have gone a long way since the days when a judge would ask, “And who are the Beatles?”, but it would not surprise me if a judge were to ask what SFAIRP means. Our scrutiny should consider the wide range of circumstances, and the position on whether people have taken every reasonable step to make sure that health and safety requirements have been complied with.
The Bill is compatible with article 6 of the ECHR in that it strikes a fair balance between the fundamental rights of the individual and the general interests of the community. On human rights issues, the clash is always between the human rights of an individual and the human rights of the wider community. In particular, case law in that area has established that before any question of whether the reverse burden of proof applies, the defendant must be proved to have owed a duty, which is a relevant point, and it has be established that the matters that need to be proved in order to establish a defence are matters within the defendant’s personal knowledge.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the Hampton review, because when we consider not only this Bill, but any legislation, we must ensure that we are not introducing excessive regulation on business and organisations that are already overburdened. In our efforts to make sure that every aspect is covered, we must ensure that the legislation is not excessive or unnecessary, and that it does not duplicate existing legislation.
I am particularly interested to know the hon. Gentleman’s view on intrinsically dangerous occupations, such as the police, the armed forces, sport and certain areas in health, and whether what is reasonable and health and safety regulations can sit comfortably together. We need to scrutinise such matters more closely.
Health and safety is a minefield for a large range of public buildings. The House of Commons is an obvious example, because all the time it is full of people, such as people who are employed here, and the general public who are visiting. I am not sure which category hon. Members fall into; we probably have a foot in both camps. The opportunities for transgressing health and safety regulations are wide with regard to Departments, and in particular to local government. Our town halls experience a very heavy footfall of members of the public, and local government must be mindful of health and safety regulations.
With the greatest respect, the hon. Lady has fundamentally misunderstood the Bill. The Bill does not widen the scope of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974; it simply increases the tools at the disposal of the judge vis-à-vis sentences. Why does she believe that the Public Bill Committee procedure cannot scrutinise a three-clause Bill in the normal way?
The point is that the landlords, employers and businesses would still be guilty of the same offence as they would now, except that the tools at the disposal of the judge would be wider, so he or she could impose a heavier sentence. He or she could also decide not to impose a heavier sentence, because of the ignorance of the employer, landlord or business. The sentences are not mandatory; they are optional.
One of the things that we could be considering is how to ensure that everybody who is subject to the legislation is aware of the offences that they might be committing. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) touched on that subject. A lot of employers and organisers of sports events, for example, might not be absolutely aware of the detail of their liabilities, or the levels of fines.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way, but all the points that she is making would extend the Bill considerably. We are all in favour of more publicity and awareness, but those matters can be considered in other ways. Her comments are not really focused on the proposed legislation before us.
The legislation would increase the level of fines, which is hugely important to anybody who might be liable to them. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the effect of the higher fines is fair, reasonable and right. The great test of any law is whether it is reasonable.
One of my daughters is an environmental health officer. Indeed, if I had known that the Bill was coming up so soon in the programme this morning, I would have done well to have an in-depth conversation with her. One of her powers is to close down restaurants. Restaurants are a minefield for health and safety, not only for the staff, because of the potential for burns and cuts and so on, but for the customers, because of potential problems with hygiene. That is an example of where it is important to ensure the spread of information, not only about the levels of fines and what might happen to organisers or employers, but about the effect on the people who are subject to them.
Reference has already been made to the construction industry, in which cranes, machinery and scaffolding are involved. A lot of smaller building firms and contractors might not know exactly where they are liable. The spread of information about the danger of increased fines and the potential for custodial sentences, which could put a small building firm out of business, would not only increase attention to the detail of the legislation, but increase health and safety standards, by highlighting the penalties of not adhering to them.
There are so many industries in which health and safety must be extremely difficult to comply with—transport and the fishing industry, for example. There are obviously extensive and detailed health and safety requirements for owners of trawlers, but I imagine that it must be extremely difficult to comply with them out at sea in a storm.
The hon. Lady seems to be coming close to saying that it is all right for employers to disregard health and safety legislation if the fine is low. Is she aware that tomorrow is workers memorial day? I shall be unveiling a plaque to two people who were killed in a crane accident in Battersea last September. She mentioned cranes, and a crane contractor is an example of the kind of employer who would be affected by the legislation. In view of the fact that two people died in that accident and another has died in a crane accident since then, perhaps it is time there were higher fines in health and safety legislation.
The hon. Gentleman has entirely misunderstood the point that I was making. If the information is distributed to all those contractors in the construction industry and any other organisation or industry where there is potential for accident—we are talking about an obvious example—there will be greater knowledge of the detailed requirements of health and safety regulations that apply to each company or sphere of the construction industry, so there will be greater understanding. That is how health and safety standards for employers, employees, members of the public and anyone present in those circumstances are pushed up, and that is obviously the purpose of the Bill and of previous Bills on the subject.
Once again, with the greatest respect, may I suggest that the hon. Lady may be confusing liability and publicity? Nobody who is not liable before the Bill is enacted will be liable after is enacted. The core of the past 15 minutes of her contribution has been about the lack of publicity. However, she believes that more employers, landlords and businesses must be aware of the penalties, and that is a different point. The Bill’s three clauses are not in breach of the publicity point that she is making.
The point that I am making concerns the need for greater understanding by everyone who might commit an offence under health and safety legislation as a result of ignorance or lack of attention to the detail of the regulations in their particular sphere. That is how accidents happen, and that is why employees’ health and safety is worse than it should be. The level of awareness created by increased publicity and information will improve safety standards for employees by making them aware of the fact that fines, or the opportunities for custodial sentences, have increased. We all hope that that will make all those employers look in much greater detail at their responsibilities, and scrutinise them to make sure that they are put in place.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) mentioned the proportionality of fines and the severity of offences. Has he considered proportionality as it relates to the size of the organisation? In other words, how do multinationals and large companies deal with health and safety regulations, and how do small employers employing two or three people tackle vexatious complaints made under health and safety provisions? A genuine accident occurs if someone trips or falls in an office, shop or small organisation. If the employer is found guilty and given a heavy fine, it could cause the organisation to close, so proportionality needs to be taken into account to prove intention.
The hon. Lady put that question to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), but may I be so bold as to answer it? Yes, the Health and Safety Executive found that more than 6,000 businesses merited enforcement action, but it thought it worth while to prosecute only 1,000, because it took into account things such as the size of the business and whether it would close down as a result. The sentences passed by judges on the businesses that were prosecuted took into account the size of the business, profitability, the number of employees, whether they had contravened the regulations before, and whether they were aware of the risk. Again, with the greatest respect, I think that the points that the hon. Lady is making are flawed.
We all want to protect very small businesses from the effects of excessive regulation and legislation. It is essential that we are fair; time and again the “reasonable” test is applied in court hearings. The court considers what is reasonable and practicable, and whether businesses have made every possible effort to comply with restrictions and provide protection for their employees. There is, however, such a thing as a genuine accident. It is not the case that everything that happens in life is someone’s fault. The more legislation there is, especially measures offering the potential for compensation, the more we encourage some people to make vexatious claims against employers. We must make sure that legislation is watertight; there is a difference between a vexatious claim by someone who has stubbed their toe and a claim by someone who has suffered serious injury as a result of a lack of compliance with health and safety regulations, which will affect their future employability as well as their health for the rest of their life.
The hon. Lady is straying into areas that are not related at all to the legislation under consideration. Does she accept that all the evidence—two reports have been cited—indicates that a very small minority of unscrupulous employers are aware of the legislation, but have calculated that, given the fine that they are likely to receive for breaching it, it is to their long-term competitive advantage to ignore and flout the legislation?
Yes, I do accept that, and we need to distinguish between those people and the well-intentioned employers who have made what they thought was every effort to comply with the legislation or relevant regulations, but have found that they have transgressed in some small way and laid themselves open to large fines.
The Conservative party has committed itself, as have all Members, to the highest possible standards of health and safety—[Interruption.] Let me explain the Conservative party’s position to the Minister, as he seems to be expressing some doubts about it. The Conservative party believes that a healthy and safe work force is a productive one, good for business and good for the economy. We want health and safety enforced in an efficient and effective manner, which burdens business no more than is necessary. We have recently secured a debate in the Commons on health and safety regulations in the construction and design industries—a debate that would not have taken place had we not called for it—to question Ministers on the best way of implementing such regulations.
We are concerned, however, that the effects of the Bill could be more extensive than intended, or, as often happens with new legislation, that there could be unintended practical or financial consequences. The level of fines and the custodial sentences proposed could have a serious impact in certain circumstances where negligence may not have been deliberate, or employers may have misunderstood or not kept up to date with regulations. There is a difference between wilful negligence—knowingly exposing employees to danger—and not having kept up to date and been aware of the latest instructions and regulations. The flow of information is therefore important, so that employees are aware of their rights and personal responsibilities to take proper precautions in their job or career, and employers ensure that the circumstances in which employees carry out their tasks are as safe as possible, in accordance with the regulations.
The hon. Gentleman says that the process already happens. If it was already happening, and everything was working perfectly, the hon. Member for Caerphilly would not have found it necessary to bring in the Bill to increase the penalties with the level of fines and threat of custodial sentence proposed. We would like every employee to be able to go to work every day knowing that their best interests were being cared for. We all know, however, that there are circumstances in which that is not the case.
Does the hon. Lady accept that without any wilful negligence on the part of a company, it may nevertheless factor the level of fines into the level of maintenance that it carries out by doing a cost-benefit analysis? If the cost of neglect is not so great, the company will not pay so much attention to it. One clearly cannot pre-empt the decision of the Health and Safety Commission on the accident that I referred to, but the fact is that the small contractor whose crane was involved in a double fatality in September was also involved in a fatality in Liverpool in November. It is important for such companies to know that the level of fines is such that it will not pay them to neglect the maintenance of their cranes in any circumstances.
There is no doubt that there are serious circumstances, such as those described by the hon. Gentleman, when a higher fine is deserved. It is important that employers know about an increased level of fines and the threat of a custodial sentence, so that there is an incentive to ensure that every possible regulation has been covered to protect crane users, or anyone else using heavy plant and machinery, in the construction industry and elsewhere. Their jobs should be made as safe as is humanly possible.
I shall take the Bill to a Division. It should have further scrutiny in Government time, because the measures are too important to put through in a private Member’s Bill, and I want them to be scrutinised properly by the House. The implications of higher fines and custodial sentences are serious.
So much for caring conservatism. The test was set by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who mysteriously had to make a screeching U-turn at the end of his speech and find a procedural reason why he objected to the Bill, which was not evident when he began.
The interesting thing about the debate is not so much the case made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), which was wide of the Bill, but why she objects to it. She speaks from the Conservative Front Bench and has obviously received orders from the Conservative leader to object to it. We have the privilege of having the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in the House—at one point, I thought that the hon. Lady was filibustering his Bill. I believe that he is the shadow spokesman for trade and industry. During the course of my speech, it is possible for him to make a phone call to his leader to discover whether the ridiculous position taken by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman can be overturned so that finally, after four attempts, we can get this moderate but important increase in fines, which has been asked of us by judges, on the statute book, rather than having the procedural objection that she is hiding behind. I encourage him to make that call.
More and more mysterious! We now have freelancing from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman against the wishes of her leader. The phone call is becoming ever more important. We need to know, before the end of the debate, whether there has been a total collapse of collective responsibility. I do not know whether the hon. Lady is a member of the Cornerstone group or the No Turning Back group—or perhaps both—but the right wing of the Conservative party is showing that the professions of caring conservatism from the party’s leadership are totally hollow.
The Minister would not wish to be disingenuous, so I shall allow him to correct the record on my activities in the debate. He will recall that at the start I intervened on the hon. Member for Caerphilly and explained why I had doubts about the Bill as drafted, although I support the intention to protect workers and provide greater deterrents. The reasons for my doubts included the provision of the same level of sanction for very serious offences as for much less serious offences, and I gave a couple of examples to support my view. I am sure the Minister will accept that explanation.
I would accept it if the hon. Gentleman were keen for the Bill to proceed to a Committee stage. All those matters could be debated in Committee. I rather suspect, given what he said about his constituency, that he knows his constituents are worried about the Bill, and that his Front Bench has put him in the rather awkward position of having to object to it.
It is clear that an order has come down from the Conservative party leadership, for we know that the Front Bench would not be operating in such a way without such an order. An order to object to the Bill has come down for some mysterious reason. That reason must, in fact, be that the professions of caring conservatism that we hear are not genuine. It must be that when the Conservatives see the words “health and safety”, they think “regulation” and “burden on business”. They do not think about the people who have been affected by these issues, and they are not committed to health and safety in the way in which the hon. Member for Upminster claimed that they were.
The Minister ought to know that the reason for my stance is that we care so much about the Bill that we do not consider it sufficient for it be passed as a private Member’s Bill. We believe that it should be dealt with in Government time, and given proper scrutiny by the whole House.
That is a ridiculous argument. Does it mean that the Conservatives, including the hon. Lady, will not be tabling any private Members’ Bills during the remainder of the Session? Of course not. There is a reason why the Conservatives are objecting to this specific Bill. They are disingenuously hiding behind a procedural reason for doing so, but the real reason is that while they like to talk about caring conservatism, when put to the test they do not believe in it, and default to the right.
I am not the health and safety Minister. The health and safety Minister is my colleague Lord Hunt, who, I am sure, consults the Opposition on a regular basis. But if we are to judge the Opposition on the basis of the stance that they have taken today, they are clearly not committed to the Bill’s objectives, so I wonder whether any such discussion would have been worth while.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady has read what some judges have said about the current legislation. Let me begin with the case of Paul Regan, a cowboy gas fitter who put customers at risk from deadly carbon monoxide fumes. The judge said
“The family were put at risk of death by poisoning or explosion”,
and declared that he would not allow the man within 150 miles of his house. He also said that the man
“should go to prison for 18 months”,
but that as things were he could only fine him. Does the hon. Lady think that that is justified, and does she feel proud of the action she is taking by not allowing the judge to have the greater power for which he has specifically asked us?
We are not trying to prevent the judge from having that power—[Interruption.] No, we are not. It is right that that option should be open to him. However, the Bill should be dealt with in Government time. It is an important Bill, and the whole House should be able to be involved in it.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the abolition of slavery began with a private Member’s Bill. We have race and gender equality in this country, and that too was initiated through private Members’ Bills. If the hon. Lady thinks that race and gender equality is less important than this she can say so, but the fact remains that it came about as a result of private Members’ Bills. It is perfectly appropriate for this matter to be dealt with by means of a private Member’s Bill, and the hon. Lady knows that full well.
The Minister has been very generous in giving way. Indeed, I wondered whether he was filibustering on the Bill himself. However, he is not addressing himself to the Bill but playing political games. Does he not accept that while we all agree that judges should have powers to imprison people in certain circumstances in which currently they have no such powers, that is not the only thing that the Bill would allow? It would allow many other things to be done, and they require proper scrutiny. For instance, it gives the same level of sentencing powers, including imprisoning people, for minor, less serious offences that do not cause harm to any individual. I am talking, for example, about offences under section 33(1)(d) of the current Act. That provision deals simply with contravening a requirement imposed in relation to a public inquiry. That matter can be dealt with without sending someone to prison or giving them a £20,000 fine. Will the Minister address the specific technical issues in the Bill, so that we can do the job that we are supposed to be doing this afternoon?
I would be happy to do that in Committee, but the hon. Gentleman is about to object to that. I would accept his professions of good faith if he were to vote with us, but I suspect that he will not do so. He knows full well that a judge would have discretion about whether to use imprisonment or whether to impose a fine of less than £20,000. The problem is that a fine of up to £5,000 only may be given now.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to talk to the parents of the children who were illegally employed by a company in whose case the judge said:
“These matters are so serious that a court should consider imprisonment. But Parliament”
—that is the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench team—
“has given no such power to the courts to pass such a sentence.”
We have the opportunity to do so in the next few minutes.
If the hon. Gentleman is serious about his professions, he will vote for us, as I hope he will. I also hope that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is starting to think about whether he should make that phone call to his leader, because otherwise we shall pursue the Opposition with this issue. It is yet another illustration of the hollowness of their claim to have changed the Conservative party—this shows that it has not changed.
I shall give the hon. Member for Upminster one final example. The case involves a gas safety installation where people’s lives were put at risk. Guilty verdicts were returned, and the judge opened his sentencing remarks by saying:
“These offences do not carry imprisonment, if they did I wouldn’t want you, nor the public, to be under any delusions that I would sentence you to prison and I would send you to prison for a substantial period of time”.
By voting against this Bill, the Conservatives are preventing judges from having that option, and are making it more likely that these things will happen again. It is clear that the Government welcome the Bill, which has been promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly. There have been plenty of opportunities to discuss this. A Bill was introduced in 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2004, and on each occasion it fell on Second Reading. We could debate the matter fully were we allowed to take the Bill into Committee: if the Leader of the Conservative party had an 11th-hour change of heart. It appears that we will not have that opportunity.
The proposals are entirely consistent with the Hampton and McCrory reports. We are satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities are doing all that they can to bring about the right level of prosecutions and to have the light touch for which the hon. Member for Upminster was asking. However, it is clear that in certain extreme and serious cases where people’s lives have been put at risk—I have made it clear that we are talking about child working, asbestos being badly removed and gas fitting that puts people’s lives at risk—the fine available should be greater than £5,000.
The majority of the hon. Lady’s case rested on roving rather widely across health and safety legislation. She started to make hypothetical comments about what might happen were health and safety legislation liability extended. I can reassure her that the Bill does not do that; it makes no difference to the liability, changing only the level of the fine and imprisonment. Either she has concerns about the existing legislation, in which case she should object to it, or she is happy with it, in which case she should have confined her argument only to the issue of the fine. If she agrees with the current health and safety legislation and if she agrees that proper fines should be available, she should vote for the Bill, rather than object to it.
The hon. Lady started talking, at one random point, about whether people in this House might fall over. I can give her the reassurance, should she want it, that the Government have Crown immunity, thus I believe that it applies to this House.
I notice that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has not left the Chamber. He may be using telepathic communication, or trying to communicate with the Leader of the Opposition by secretly texting him. I hope that he has not done so because that would be against the rules. We know that the Leader of the Opposition does text; perhaps he has.
We are about to find out whether the Conservative party will pass the test set by one of their own, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and whether it is genuinely a caring party.
Including all parties. I am genuinely disappointed because, as the Minister mentioned, the debate in its latter stages focused on issues that are not in the Bill. It proposes a modest change to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. That legislation has been widely accepted as a huge step forward and a path-breaking measure not just in this country but in many others. This Bill suggests a modest and limited modification to that Act in terms of fines and the potential for custodial sentences. Unfortunately, the debate in its latter stages has tended to go well beyond that, which is extremely unfortunate. I again urge hon. Members seriously to consider whether they want to be depicted outside—
I again urge Conservative Members seriously to consider whether they want to be depicted outside the Chamber as being against fair health and safety standards and against reasonable fines being introduced. Inevitably, that will mean a reduction in health and safety standards.
It is not for me to say to Conservative Members how they should be projected outside the Chamber, but in all common sense and reasonableness I urge them to support the Bill.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.
Streetscape and Highways Design Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is an unexpected and happy surprise to have the opportunity to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is a Bill that attempts to introduce a complete change in the climate and culture of local government highway authorities’ decisions about the implementation of the regulations and directions that govern how our road signs are located and what they look like. Most areas of public policy require budgets and targets, and most address clear cases of need, such as teaching the young or treating the old. On issues such as taxation and spending, the battleground is well established across the divide of the House, but there are some matters that are shaped by Government and cause intense irritation while rarely figuring on the political radar. One such issue is our streetscape and the design of our roads.
Local councils are measured by the National Audit Office against all sorts of vague criteria to assess their performance in the likes of social services, housing and education, but nowhere are they held to account for the desecration they inflict on our roads. Highways officers are the monsters of local government, who for too long have got away with appalling practices and almost no accountability. They have become a law unto themselves and they need serious reining in.
Britain’s roads are better than most; their basic design is sound, central reservations are well designed, directional sign posting to show the way to this or that town is good and practical, and their safety record is strong. However, that is where the good news ends. The bad news is that throughout Britain our streetscape is in serious decline and it is entirely the fault of local highways officers.
Existing legislation, if properly implemented, presents no obstacle to good design, yet its interpretation by highways officers invariably converts well intentioned guidelines into brutalist schemes. When we travel down any road in the UK, we encounter millions of metal poles and bossy signs where just a few would suffice. Most of them are wholly unnecessary but no councillor dares challenge the erroneous advice of the highways officer who says they are essential if the council is to avoid legal liability.
Every pelican crossing tends to have two banks of lights where one would suffice, and the greatest abomination of the 21st century so far—Kettering’s new business park junction—has 118 metal poles and more light bulbs than Heathrow. The officers who countenanced its design should hang their heads in shame.
Aesthetics matter. Our built environment affects our quality of life; it requires good design, good taste and good management. Each is rare on the streets of most of our councils. Highways officers shape our streetscape with almost no accountability and, more often than not, poor aesthetic judgment. They cover all their imaginary risks with excessive over-building and nobody stops to say, “No”.
The list of sign crimes is endless. Signposts such as “No Entry” roundels should be on the back line of the road, yet increasingly they are planted right on the edge of the kerb. New signs are placed where they obscure existing ones. Temporary signs such as “New Junction Ahead” or “New Layout Ahead” remain in place for years—one in Leicester has been there for more than a decade. Most triangular signs, such as those alerting a driver to a road junction, are optional, yet in many cases highways officers wrongly advise that they are obligatory. Needless bollards and chevrons are built into roundabouts. Councillors are often told that signs have to be illuminated when in fact most of them do not.
When new signs are erected, old ones are not removed. There are often two signs—or even many more—where just one would do. Schemes for clearways, weight restrictions or, increasingly, cycle paths never properly assess the blight of the signs that accompany them. On cycle paths all over the country, we have seen the proliferation of little blue roundels; in one example, there was one every 50 yards. I am all for cycle paths, but we do not need all the metal signs that go with them—a little painted diagram on the tarmac would be enough. Instead, there are millions of blue signs on our streets, most of them directed at passing traffic, which is utterly irrelevant to the message being conveyed. If the signs are to be there at all, they should be 3 ft high and on the pavement, to advise cyclists and pedestrians that it is shared space.
One of the greatest abominations is the red route in London. As a result of Transport for London’s handling of the issue, if we go down the end of the A1 or Finchley road, we find a red route “no stopping” sign on almost every lamppost or every 20 yards, so I think that people have got the message. At the end of the A1 in the last two-mile stretch where it begins to come into a more residential area, one can see 30 signs within about 20 square yards in some places. That is absurd: it does nothing for safety; it makes everything look ugly; and, in many cases, because of the confusion that ensues, it makes our driving and our roads less safe.
As things stand, certainly no voter and, in most cases, no elected councillor has much of a chance of getting anything changed. The problem is exacerbated by a total lack of expertise among contractors about what is necessary and what is not. They just do what they are told and are mostly concerned with the tarmac and the route of the road: they never think about the finish. A newly built bypass in Rutland in my own constituency was, I am pleased to say, within a month of opening able to have three quarters of its signs removed—and it now looks good.
Councillors need to learn to be firm with highways officers whose interpretation of the road signs regulations is often simply plain wrong. Both our urban and our rural streetscape are in serious decline. Council officers, particularly the highways officers, are the serial offenders, and most of them require the firm leadership that is being so effectively displayed nearby in Kensington and Chelsea, where this issue has become a high priority under Deputy Leader Daniel Moylan.
In the absence of a revolution in officers’ culture, sadly, I have to say, the only practical solution lies in legislation. My Streetscape and Highways Design Bill is an attempt to address that infuriating deficiency in the public realm. It will empower and embolden councillors to take highways officers to task, enable them to challenge on the basis of proper expertise, and equip those councillors to take command over highways decisions rather than rest, as they do now, when highways officers take brutalist command of decisions over them.
I am certainly supportive of the Bill. I recall that when I was trying to reduce the number of signs in Cambridge, the Cambridgeshire county council did not even know how many signs it had—and one of the Bill’s provisions will deal with that. However, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that sometimes the problem does lie with central Government and that sometimes the central Government have odd regulations about what kind of signs have to be used? For example, there appears to be a regulation stating that we are not allowed to have a sign saying “No entry except for cyclists”, so we have to have a very complicated set of other signs instead. Sometimes, as I say, the problem does lie with central Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point. When I was shadow Secretary of State for Transport, I tried to get to grips with a telephone directory-sized manual of traffic signs, directions and regulations. By and large, a lot of the content of the book was pretty good, because some sort of consistency in respect of signposts is helpful to establish understanding and promote safety on our roads.
What I have since discovered, however, is that many highways officers completely misunderstand what those regulations require them to do. Many aspects of signposting are voluntary or optional, but the highways officers often tell councillors that the rules state that they are compulsory. The Government or the Department for Transport can always amend those regulations—that is not the problem—and they did so, I believe, in 2002, when they did a pretty good job of it. The real problem lies in the practical application on the ground within highways authorities. Highways officers have power over councillors in a way that even planning officers in some ways do not. These highways officers have the power to say, “Oh, councillor, you must have that; otherwise the council might face legal liability”. Much of that is stuff and nonsense, but no councillor dares to say, “Well, I don’t believe that.” They hide behind the risk and do not want to do anything about it. I want to try to establish a culture change whereby councillors can find out the truth so that they can take good decisions and we end up with safe roads that look good.
The Bill is not expensive—if anything, it is cost-cutting. I am not aware of a single council other than Kensington and Chelsea that has a written highways policy against which subsequent planning decisions are measured. Councils have never stopped to think, “How do I want my highways area to look?” or “Do I want to go for the highest number of signs possible or the lowest?” As soon as they are made to stop and think, they say “Well, I’d rather have fewer.” Under the Bill, every council would be required to publish a highways policy, which could be three or four pages—it does not have to be a glossy publication. Invariably, any such considered policy would reflect the council’s desire to see fewer road signs, less metal and far less visual pollution. Within the community of local government, best practice would emerge and that model, which would most likely be a minimalist policy, would be adopted.
For instance, the Government—I am full of admiration and praise for this measure—working with English Heritage, the Department for Transport and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have published “Streets for All”, which has also had regional editions. It is a really good document that evidences how streets can be made to look better, with advice such as using wood instead of metal. It asks what kind of paving should be used on the pavement and whether the colour matches the environment. It asks what kind of traffic lights should be used and whether pelican crossings have to have great big gantries with the traffic light, as they invariably do, or whether there can just be a little button on the pole by the pavement with a green man and a red man—it could be a woman; a green androgynous figure—to tell people that they are safe to cross the road. All those examples of best practice have been well researched and well documented and they are used, but highways authorities do not embrace them sufficiently. I want to see best practice emerge, and if councils had highways policies there would be a yardstick against which officers’ advice would have to be tempered and tested.
Crucially, there is also the Audit Commission. In my constituency a few years ago, a contractor put in signs for a 7.5 tonne weight limit. Almost every sign was in the wrong place according to the advice and guidelines given by Government. Instead of being set back on the hedge line of a nice country lane, they were right up on the corner where inevitably passing traffic—horseboxes, mowers and so on—would dent them and knock them down. They looked disgusting. Even when there was a tiny country lane with two stone houses 5 m across from each other, two signs were put up when one would have done. These people are morons and they are not following the rules. The trouble is, when I went to the Audit Commission with an assessment of what the contractors had done, the money that they had spent and the standards of their decisions, the Audit Commission said, “We have no scope within our remit to hold them to account.”
Unless a council has real leadership, there are problems with highways officers, bad design, poor practice and even wrongly sited signs that are just left there, and no one has any form of redress. There is a great vacuum in terms of setting good standards in local government. If we have to take such a measure—in many ways, I regret that we do—I want the Audit Commission to embrace the built environment in its assessment of a council. I want to see the Audit Commission’s remit revised.
The Bill would require councils to audit their sign population, and it would compel the Department for Transport to offer professional advice to any councillor who wished to question the validity of his local highway officer’s interpretation of the rules. It is important for an audit of signs to be held. It would not have to be done very often, but the problem is that it has never happened. When a new sign is put up, no one stops to think about what signs are already there, and no one tries to balance more modern signs with the older ones.
As part of that audit procedure, does my hon. Friend think that note should be taken of safety implications, particularly as regards highway signage? The plethora of information and signage is often a distraction to drivers, and it can be detrimental and dangerous when people are trying to look at carriageway markings, at whether there are variable speed limits, and at all sorts of information right across the spectrum of their windscreen. That plethora of signs can actually do more harm than good.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Any pilot could tell us of the well known phenomenon of the danger of having too many lights on a runway. My bête noire is Kettering business park junction, which needs a stick of dynamite. It is very dangerous; there is a great deal of rubber on the road, because there are two junctions right next to each other, each with 30 or 40 traffic lights. Drivers look at the lights ahead, rather than the set of lights that they are approaching. The authorities have so overbuilt the junction that instead of making it safe, they have made it dangerous.
The same applies to many other roads. Let me give an example: we do not need always need a triangular sign to tell us when there is a road joining from the left. These days, at such points, there is usually an illuminated bollard, and one can normally see whether a car is waiting to turn out of the road. That is the most helpful visual aid to safe driving. Having too many signs is an impediment to safe driving, and it looks horrid, so it is less safe and less attractive. Highway authorities ought to have to audit the signs, so that they know what is there. If some of the signs are attractive and old-fashioned, the council may want to keep them, because it may think that they add to the environment. When councils undertake the audit, they will suddenly find milestones and other features of our streetscape that they will want to preserve and maintain.
It is important to have an audit of signs, a written highways policy, and somewhere councillors can turn to when they feel that they are being bamboozled by highway officers. I am not saying that everyone should be able to phone up the Department for Transport, but I phone it from time to time, and the expertise in the Department is very good. There are some very good people there who know the issues inside out and who roll their eyes in despair at some of the things that are done by councils. I ask them, “Will you please visit my constituency and explain to these people why what they are doing is wrong, and is not even required under the regulations that they think they’re enforcing?” Understandably, people at the Department answer that they just do not have the people to visit all the councils. Frankly, they would need an army if they were to try to stop councils doing all the bad things that they do. A councillor needs to be able to pick up the phone, explain the issue and ask an expert in the Department for Transport whether a sign is really obligatory or not.
I can give another example. A councillor wanted to make a lovely little country back lane one-way, because it was a bit of a rat run in peak hours. She was told that all the signs would have to be illuminated, that 20 signs would be needed, and that it would cost £100,000. It could have been done for £3,000, and I do not like well intentioned councillors being misled by professional officers. My Bill tries to ensure that in the future, councillors will no longer be bamboozled by tasteless philistines.
I estimate that as many as half of what I call non-directional signs, or warning signs, could be uprooted for the better. I would like many of them to be uprooted. I want a change in the culture of road design, for which the expertise exists. Britain has got some good roads. The paradox is that some rural areas are covered in signs, yet when I go to Newcastle—I am shadow Minister for Tyneside—it has minimalist street furniture on roundabouts. That urban area is an example to many rural areas.
I would like us all to become clutter busters. I would like more than half our signs to be uprooted. Most clearway signs are unnecessary. If they are put up on a main road, two further “end of clearway” signs have to be erected on every road that leads into the main road. That is unnecessary and visually ghastly.
If the Bill gets a Second Reading, we will have less confusion, less maintenance, less visual pollution and a much better and safer built environment. Securing the Second Reading debate today was unexpected but I hope that the Government do not object to the Bill. If they destroy the measure, the danger is that we shall have more dangerous roads and that all our constituencies will end up looking less attractive.
We all love our constituencies and feel strongly about local issues. The Bill has implications for every hon. Member and presents an opportunity to do something in our constituencies that makes life happier and pleasanter.
My hon. Friend knows that London local authorities receive parcels of money for specific uses from Transport for London. For example, a London local authority will get a parcel of money for red tarmacking a carriageway or speed bumps, and because the money cannot be used for any other purpose, the authority will look for somewhere to put speed bumps when it possibly did not intend to have them. That takes away decision making from local authorities.
My hon. Friend is right. One of the problems of a stream of Government money for specific purposes is that it can have perverse outcomes. I had a similar experience in my constituency, where a lump of money was given for safer routes to school. To my great dismay, red paint was applied all over a country lane where kids had walked for centuries perfectly happily with their satchels or ridden on their bikes. It indicated where children were supposed to walk on their way to school. I cannot imagine a more moronic scheme or use of money. Kids will walk where they want to walk and not follow expensive red paint, even if it has desecrated my nice rural constituency.
My Bill tries to secure a culture change and I hope that the Government will let it go into Committee. Why do we not thrash it out in Committee? If the Government want to destroy it later and introduce a their Bill on the subject, that is fine. I ask the Whip what the point is of destroying a well intentioned Bill, which is not party political. It affects every constituency and will make our constituencies and roads more attractive and safer. I hope that the House will give me leave to take the Bill into Committee so that we can raise the profile and significance of an issue about which many people have never thought. Now that they have, they will say, “Yeah, he’s got a point.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) on his idiosyncratic Bill, which I support because it touches on an important issue. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that I encouraged my county council a year or two ago to identify and remove unnecessary signage in my constituency, of which there is plenty, not least for the reasons that he gave. There are signs where, for example, speed limit termination points have changed and the old poles have been left, with the signs removed. There are signs warning of cattle where farms are no longer operating. There is plenty of signage like that, which brings the system into disrepute, can be a danger and creates clutter in rural areas.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the signage itself is, by and large, correct and useful. I would offer one caveat: the sign that supposedly bans pedestrians, which is a red circle with a human figure in it. Pedestrians, who may not be familiar with the highway code, see that as an invitation to walk along that route, rather than as a prohibition, as the sign is intended to convey. I wish the Department for Transport would deal with that sign, although I do not suppose it will.
Signs are sometimes used by highway officials, to use the hon. Gentleman’s term, as an alternative to providing proper road safety measures. Pressure comes from a councillor, a road safety group or residents who point out a problem that may require a change to road layout or some other expensive remedy. The solution provided by highways officers is to erect a sign as a means of showing the people concerned that something has been done. That achieves very little, but it demonstrates that the council in question has done something. Many signs have been erected to get residents groups off highway officers’ backs, rather than to achieve a road safety objective. There are too many signs that say the equivalent of “Do not throw stones at this notice”, and very little else.
There is a growing tendency towards the inclusion of advertisements on highway land, which is encouraged by some highway authorities. That is regrettable. We see advertisements on roundabouts, for example, which adds to clutter and, as well as disfiguring the environment, presents a potential hazard for motorists, who have to take in those signs as well as relevant ones on the highway.
I agree that the Bill should be subjected to scrutiny. If the Government have something against it, they should set out their objections in Committee. The hon. Gentleman’s argument has been undermined slightly by his colleague, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who argued exactly the opposite on the previous Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) on securing a Second Reading of his Bill. That gives me my first opportunity to speak from the Dispatch Box, but I expect that it will be short-lived.
There can be few people who have not noticed the plethora of signs that seem to proliferate around our cities, countryside and villages. In my village in north Yorkshire in recent months electricity poles have been removed, which has enhanced the rural environment, although British Telecom has erected additional telegraph poles for lines that were previously carried by the electricity poles.
Two weeks ago, I spent a day in Scarborough in my constituency with people from the Scarborough blind and partially sighted centre. I experienced what it is like to be blind. I wore glasses which almost entirely prevented me from seeing anything. The first 10 minutes were quite a novelty, but after that it was very difficult to get around. I was fortunate to have a lady holding me by the arm. The problem was not just the pavement cafes with their tables and chairs, cars parked on the pavement, or dog dirt, which blind people often have to contend with. The problem was also all the signposts that seem to sprout up from the pavement and cause blind people such difficulty.
In Scarborough we have non-drinking zones, or rather, zones where police can ask people to desist from drinking and, if necessary, confiscate drink. The problem facing Scarborough borough council when it brought the zones into force was that nobody noticed the signs. There were so many signs already that people did not notice the new ones. The council had to come up with a fluorescent green sign, which it hoped would be more noticeable. That has been only partially successful because there are so many signs around the town—advertising signs, road signs, parking signs and so on.
When a local authority advocates the common-sense approach suggested by my hon. Friend, it often finds that it becomes tied up in bureaucracy, rules and regulations. The Minister knows that Scarborough borough council has put in an application to decriminalise parking in the town. When it put in signs to remind people which zones are residents’ zones and which zones are disc zones, it thought that in many cases it would make sense to use an existing pole—if there is a street lamp standard or speed limit sign, why not put the parking sign on the same post?
Unfortunately, that common-sense approach was undone by two enterprising former police officers with tape measures, who managed to overturn a number of fines for people, including members of their families, because the signs were, for example, 30 cm too far apart. Scarborough borough council has therefore had to put up new signs, despite nobody having been misled about the parking regime. Nobody has written to me saying, “I have been done. I did not realise that it was a two-hour disc zone. I did not realise that we had to pay to park.” The regulations are so prescriptive that they do not allow local authorities to show a degree of discretion in putting up signs. If the Bill becomes law, I hope that we will examine co-ordinating the erection of street lighting and signs and the maintenance of parking regimes.
Scarborough borough council has done a lot of work, and although this matter may not be at the top of the Minister’s in-tray, I hope that it is successful in getting its decriminalisation through, which will restore a little bit of sanity in Scarborough, where people are parking on yellow lines willy-nilly and there is a feeling that the parking regime is not being enforced. This may not happen today, but I look forward to the Minister letting me know that she has managed to look at the improvements in Scarborough.
I hope that we can use a bit of common sense. We already have bi-party support in the House, and perhaps the Minister can make that tri-party support. I think that people up and down the country would be pleased to see a little bit of common sense on the statute book for a change.
I omitted to say—I hope that this adds weight to what my hon. Friend has just said and persuades the Minister to support the Bill—that the Bill has the enthusiastic support of English Heritage, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the RAC Foundation, which is very thoughtful on road matters. I hope that the Government do not want to defy that good sense.
I assure the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) that there is plenty of common sense on the issue. I have no doubt that the principle behind Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) is good, and I share his wish to see greater progress. I note that a range of organisations has expressed enthusiasm, which is understandable, but I respectfully suggest that that enthusiasm relates to the principle, the issue and the practice that is already in place, rather than a wish to see new legislation.
The Bill is unnecessary; it duplicates existing legislation; and given the drafting, it lacks the teeth to do the job. I understand why the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton wants to do the job, but the Bill does not make the right references. To the credit of the hon. Gentleman, he has paid tribute to a number of actions taken by the Department for Transport, for which I am grateful. However, I assure the House that action to improve and sustain highway design and the streetscape is absolutely a Government policy objective, and I shall be very happy to explain what we are doing about it in practice.
Surely the whole point of the Bill is to remove swathes of legislation that place restrictions on the discretion of local authorities. The problem with parking is that the book is so thick that many local authorities do not always manage to comply with every letter of the law.
The Bill is about signs in local areas. I believe, as I presume the hon. Gentleman does, that local matters are best dealt with locally.
Good design of roads and streets is a fundamental issue. We support the principle of avoiding unnecessary roadside clutter and minimising the environmental impact of traffic signs, as far as that is safe and reasonably practicable. The challenge at the national and local levels is to promote and deliver good practice. It is true that it is not unusual to see unnecessary or badly designed traffic management measures, traffic signs or other street furniture. However, improvements will not be delivered by the proposed legislation.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton implored us to put the Bill through Committee, but I note that he just voted against that for the Health and Safety (Offences) Bill.
Then I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. There are certainly many hon. Members on his Benches who did do that, but I hope that he will forgive my error.
Streetscape and highway design have been rightly devolved to local authorities, other than on roads for which the Secretary of State is the highways authority, such as motorways, which are the responsibility of the Highways Agency. We have concerns that the proposed Bill has the potential to confuse practitioners, because of ambiguities about its application and duplication of existing legislation and guidance. The Secretary of State already provides guidance on streetscape and highways design, which is aimed at, and readily available to, highways authorities. We do not need new legislation to continue doing that. The Department for Transport provides guidance on a wide range of design issues through documents such local transport notes, traffic advisory leaflets, the “Traffic Signs Manual” and other good practice guides and manuals, including the recently published “Manual for Streets”, to which I shall make further reference.
The proposed Bill would extend to Wales as well as England. However, the matters covered in the Bill are almost entirely devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. The Highways Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Transport, designs and maintains roads in accordance with its “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges”, which provides detailed design advice and standards. The advice is reviewed periodically to ensure that it is consistent with best practice. Further updates and chapters, including landscape and townscape assessment, are scheduled for publication over the next few years.
What the Minister is saying is absolutely accurate and I do not deny it for a second, but can she point to elements of guidance that encourage minimalist rather than brutalist designs? There seems to be no downward pressure in those guidelines, and that is what I am seeking.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen it, but I would refer him to the “Manual for Streets”, which makes the exact point that he has just made.
Volume 10 of the “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges” includes urban design elements. Environmental design considerations have been an integral part of scheme development in the Highways Agency since its inception. The agency seeks to mitigate potentially adverse impacts and to take opportunities to enhance the environment, while of course taking account of value for money. The Department for Transport works with many other organisations to produce guidance on highway designs and improve the quality of highways and their surroundings. We heard earlier about the excellent work by English Heritage in “Streets for All”, which has been applauded by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, who was good enough to write to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, last year, making the same comments.
We accept the need for improvement, and we continue to develop further guidance. The House will wish to be made aware of three key projects that have a direct, positive impact. I have already referred to the first—the “Manual for Streets”, which I launched at the end of March 2007 with the Institution of Highways and Transportation. It was drawn up with the full co-operation of stakeholders, including local authorities. It encourages a fresh approach to residential street design, and it demonstrates the Government’s commitment to introduce changes to current design criteria to ensure that the designing of streets as attractive places in their own right is a priority. It gives guidance on the use of traffic signs and the importance of minimising street clutter.
The second project underpins further good practice guidance, specifically to address the concerns that have been expressed today about traffic signs, signals and the paraphernalia of local traffic management schemes, which may be excessive and detract from the streetscape. The new guidance is expected to be published in autumn this year. The third piece of work is advice covering the installation of pedestrian guard railing which, again, will be published later this year. All the guidance produced by the Department for Transport and its partners is aimed at, and is readily available to, local authorities and others. Publications are widely publicised and described on the Department’s website. A number of them are available free of charge, and others are available for purchase from the relevant publisher, usually The Stationery Office.
Clause 2 requires highway authorities to publish
“in such manner as they consider appropriate, a policy on the…design of traffic signs and highway developments (‘a design policy’).”
The requirements in the clause are unnecessary, because local authorities are responsible for designing schemes to fit local circumstances, making important assessments—and this is all about balance—about the level of risk and the balance of social, environmental, economic and safety requirements. They already have a range of powers and duties under which they can maintain and improve the road network, manage its use and the activities that take place on it. We have a range of legislation, from the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and the Traffic Management Act 2004 to the new Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007 which, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will be interested to know, came into force on 6 April this year. The skills of designers in that area have been called into question, and the Department is working with the Institute of Highway Incorporate Engineers Institute to promote a new qualification in traffic signing skills. The Department has also recently endorsed new computer software which, it is hoped, will help sign designers to use and understand the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 more easily.
If, for instance, a council has poor aesthetic judgment and appears indifferent to a contractor putting signs in the wrong place—perhaps on the edge of a kerb instead of on the back line of a road—to whom, under the guidelines, can people turn for redress?
Clearly, the local authority is the responsible authority, and it is accountable to its electorate. In the debate, the hon. Gentleman expressed a wish that authorities or elected officials should be able to seek support. Obviously, they can do so. The Department for Transport is freely accessible to people who wish to call it, e-mail it, write to it, or look at its website, to offer the advice required. We must understand, however, that this is a local authority matter, and many of the hon. Gentleman’s comments concerned the quality of the running of local authorities, so he may wish to pursue the matter elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman raised, too, the accountability of highways officers, who are accountable to elected members of local authorities because they are local authority employees. One could make that comment about any local authority, so I do not think that it is necessary for the House to legislate in that regard.
Local transport plans also include a section on the importance of addressing quality of life issues, including the quality of public spaces and better streetscapes. The guidance specifically mentions the need for careful consideration to be given to the design and use of traffic management equipment. It makes it clear that local authority proposals should not just minimise adverse impacts on the physical environment but actively enhance it. It states that local authorities should ensure that their local transport plans minimise the impact of clutter on the street scene, and encourages the use of local street audits.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred to revising the Audit Commission’s remit, which is not contained in his Bill. He also referred to the Rutland bypass and said that three quarters of signs were removed soon after its opening. That is why it has been included in the Department’s streetscape project, leading to good practice guidance later this year. We are pleased that we have been able to play our part, and that Rutland has been so helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for thanking Rutland. In turn, may I thank her and her Department for letting aspects of that design, such as minimalist street furniture on a roundabout, be part of a specific Department for Transport study? I hope that the contribution of my little county has been helpful in formulating the policies that will now come from her Department.
That is something on which we are all in agreement.
The Bill is unnecessary, an over-regulation and a duplication. Under existing powers, the Secretary of State already provides guidance and advice on design of streetscape and highways, which is widely used by local authorities. Government planning policy already states that local planning authorities should publish local design policies. The Department for Transport’s local transport plan guidance to local authorities explains the importance of better streetscapes and minimising street clutter, and encourages street audits.
I emphasise that local authorities are responsible for designing highway schemes to fit local circumstances, and already have a range of powers and duties to do so under existing legislation. As I have said, we should never forget that local authorities are accountable, and are encouraged to consult locally on new schemes. The challenge is for authorities to apply legislation and guidance through local policies in such a way that they contribute to the quality of public spaces, through good design, using street signs as and where appropriate and maintaining streets and highways. I therefore ask the House to oppose the Bill.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.
BA Flight 149
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
It is good to have a marginally elongated time for the Adjournment debate, although I assure you that I have no intention of occupying all the available time, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Such a tactic is perhaps best reserved for other occasions.
It is good to see that the duty Minister is present. The happy coincidence is that, as a defence Minister, he dealt with some of these issues in a different capacity earlier in his ministerial career. This is a serious matter concerning British Airways flight 149, which landed in Kuwait when it was on its way to Kuala Lumpur. It took off from Heathrow on 1 August 1990 at 6.15 pm, having been delayed for a couple of hours. The captain blamed an air conditioning problem, but has subsequently said that he was hoping that the flight would be pulled. However, the plane did take off at 6.15 pm and arrived in Kuwait City at 3 am the following morning.
As a consequence of the decision to land, the plane was subsequently destroyed, and the crew and passengers were captured by Iraqi troops. They were held for weeks in pretty awful conditions. However distant we are from those events, all of us can recall the terrible picture that filled the newspapers of that poor five-year-old lad, Stuart Lockwood, being patted by Saddam Hussein while clearly traumatised.
I shall discuss what some of the crew and passengers suffered in due course. The official version of events is that the situation could not have been foreseen, that it was unhelpful and unfortunate for those involved, and that the plane was landed before the invasion of Kuwait had taken place. The Prime Minister at the time, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, said:
“The British Airways flight landed, its passengers disembarked, and the crew handed over to a successor crew and went to their hotels. All that took place before the invasion: the invasion was later.”—[Official Report, 6 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 739.]
Already at that time—within 24 hours—significant doubts had been expressed in senior circles about whether that was the case.
I give credit to the present Deputy Prime Minister, who I believe was the Labour party’s shadow transport secretary, for investigating that matter and pursuing it over a couple of years. He raised the matter in the House and in letters to the next Prime Minister, John Major.
In a reply dated 2 October 1992, Mr. Major said the following:
“It was clear immediately before the invasion that Iraq was massing troops on its border with Kuwait but the Government had no firm evidence that Saddam Hussein would invade, still less occupy, the whole of Kuwait.”
I shall show that that is not the case. He also said:
“The British Government did not attempt to influence BA’s decision to operate flight BA 149 on 1-2 August.”
I shall show that that is not the case. He continued:
“It was not until approximately 0300 GMT that we had clear evidence of a full-scale Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.”
I shall show that that is not the case. In addition, he said:
“I can confirm, however, that there were no British military personnel on board the flight.”
Unless semantics are brought into play, I can show that that is not the case.
A further letter from the then Prime Minister to the present Deputy Prime Minister, dated 5 April 1993, pulled back slightly from that position in accepting that the sound of tanks and gunfire had been heard at an earlier point than had been implied by the previous letter. It is worth pointing out that the crew and passengers said that when the planed touched down, they heard the sound of tanks and gunfire. That is evidence that the invasion was well under way by that point, and did not take place some hours later, as Mrs. Thatcher, as Prime Minister, had suggested.
There has been an investigation into this matter on and off by a journalist called Steve Davis. The Minister may, or may not, have seen an article in The Mail on Sunday last year. There was also a documentary on the matter which was put on at a ridiculously late hour by the BBC. That referred to the views of what might be called special forces.
I have here today copies of affidavits signed by members of special forces to the effect that they were on that plane and were put there to carry out a mission at the request of the British Government. It is not my intention, as you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to give the names of those particular individuals. That would be irresponsible. However, because the Government have continually denied that this took place, I do want to read out the relevant sections that demonstrate that, in fact, the version of events is as the journalist has said, rather than Ministers have continually suggested.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is displaying commendable restraint in suggesting that he would not read out publicly the names of suggested members of United Kingdom special forces, but presumably he is going to ask me to investigate those allegations. Therefore, I hope that he will make those names available to me at any rate.
That is a perfectly reasonable request. I need to check that with those who have signed the document, but the Minister is right to make that request and I will reflect on it.
I will read out the relevant sections, which do not reveal any sensitive details, I hope. Soldier A, let me say, for lack of a better expression, says:
“I submit this affidavit/statement of truth as my final correspondence on the matter regarding my involvement with Flight BA 149. That details…are true and accurate accounts of events as recalled by me to the very best of my memory and ability as per my direct involvement in the covert operation flown into Kuwait on flight BA 149, and the subsequent gathering of intelligence material of Iraqi troop strengths, positions and unit identification in 1990. That Operation Iscariot was an INC organised and executed operation. That I was on flight BA 149, as a member of INC and the subsequent mission/operation as outlined.”
A further affidavit, from someone who I shall for the purpose of the debate call Soldier B, says:
“That entire operation…was…authorised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. That ‘the party’ only agreed to supply basic facts surrounding operation to help bring out the truth.”
That refers to the affidavits.
“That ‘Iscariot’ was an INC operation, INC standing for ‘Increment’. INC was formed shortly after the Iranian embassy siege of 1980 when Margaret Thatcher authorised the set-up and operation of INC due to increased media attention being focused upon the Special Air Service after ‘Operation Nimrod’ was screened live worldwide that ended the siege. Members are/were drawn mainly from ex forces and even serving forces personnel.”
The Minister will understand that I have been given some information. I have had to try to make a judgement in my own way, as best I can and as responsibly as I can, as to what I should say in open session and what I should not say. Let me just say this, which I hope is acceptable. The information that I have been given is that the use of INC was designed to provide Ministers at the time with perfect deniability, that members of INC were paid from secret overseas bank accounts and, crucially, promised immunity from prosecution for any alleged crimes committed while overseas. That deniability is at the heart of the letters that the then Prime Minister, John Major, wrote to the present Deputy Prime Minister saying that there were no British serving personnel on board. There were no British serving personnel on board, but only because serving British personnel were not used. Instead, others who had resigned were used in an arm’s-length capacity. Therefore, the impression given is not consistent with the action that was taken.
There is also external corroboration of those statements, or at least of the events of those days. Corroboration has come from Nate Howell, the then United States ambassador in Kuwait, who has confirmed publicly on the record that such an operation took place, and from Ed Ciriello, who has declared himself as a CIA agent working alongside MI6 in Saudi Arabia at the time of the invasion. It has also come from Captain Lawrence Eddingfield, captain of the USS Antietam, who rescued two of the mission team. Richard Tomlinson, the former MI6 agent—the Minister might want to give less credence to this—e-mailed me to confirm that he was aware of the operation and that it did take place. He gave me details consistent with the affidavits that I have referred to.
In the letter to which I have referred, the former Prime Minister John Major said that “no firm evidence” was available to suggest that an invasion was to take place. We know from public historical records, which are now open, that the head of the CIA told the then President Bush a week before the invasion that the Iraqis would invade, and that this warning was passed to both Washington and London. We are told that there was no attempt to influence BA’s decision to operate flight 149. Given that we know that the invasion started when the plane was four hours’ flying time from Kuwait, the decision not to inform the captain clearly suggests that a decision was taken to allow the plane to land.
I am not making a judgment as to whether it was correct to put those special forces in on that occasion; there was clearly a danger to passengers and crew, but there may well have been a calculation that it was in the national interest to do that. I am not in a position to make that judgment, and I do not make that accusation. Nor am I in any way criticising the individuals who took part in the operation, who doubtless showed considerable dedication and heroism in a difficult situation. What I am criticising is the failure of successive Governments to tell us the truth subsequent to those events, and their failure to understand the legacy for the crew and passengers, which cannot be dealt with satisfactorily until there is closure on this matter. That is the issue that I want the Minister predominantly to address when he replies.
It is also clear from evidence in sworn affidavits submitted to the US Court that the Government of the day advised British Airways that it was safe to fly. In particular, BA had been briefed by the person described as the MI6 head in Kuwait, whose name I also have, that there would be no invasion, so BA appears also to have been misled. With 200,000 troops and tanks gathered on the border very close to Kuwait, and given the general background noise from Iraq at the time, I suggest that it was a reasonable assumption that there might well have been an invasion, even if there was no detailed intelligence to confirm that.
The plane touched down, moreover, at a deserted airport. Every other flight from every other airline had been cancelled for hours, there were no staff, and the one or two individuals who were hanging around were considerably surprised when a plane touched down. We are asked to believe that Britain—with all our expertise and intelligence, and with people on the ground—was the only country in the world not to realise what was going on, and to be unable to cancel our flight into the country. That stretches credibility.
I also point out in support of my proposition that the time of invasion was known. An unlikely source, Mrs. Thatcher’s memoirs, “The Downing Street Years”, gives a timeline significantly different from the one that she gave to Parliament—one which corresponds to the timeline that I believe actually occurred. So even the Prime Minister of the day herself changed her mind about the version of events given to the House of Commons, but no correction of the comments made at the time has been given to the House.
There is a human aspect to this issue, and that is the experience of the hostages. I have met some of those who were held in Kuwait and subsequently in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Many of them bear the scars to this day in terms of how they feel and the effect that it has had on their lives. Even if they did not experience physical abuse, they are still scarred. Plenty of them did experience physical abuse and there are eye-witness accounts of murder, mock executions, serious assaults, rape and other sexual assaults. The Minister will know that a dossier of the full horrors was compiled. Some 1,868 people were interviewed on the instigation of the then Defence Secretary, Tom King, but the dossier has never been released. The Minister was asked, when he was Defence Secretary, to release that document by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). When he refused to do so, I understand that she reported him to the parliamentary ombudsman under the open Government rules. I am not clear what became of that complaint: perhaps the Minister will tell us.
One of the major demands of the crew and passengers, for whom I am speaking today, is that the dossier compiled in Operation Sandcastle, as I believe it was called, should be put in the public domain. If it contains sensitive security details, such as the names of individuals, they can be redacted before publication. However, it is not acceptable to those who went through so much for the issue to be swept under the carpet, as appears to have been done.
Those who were present witnessed some horrendous examples of brutality by the Iraqis on Kuwaiti civilians. They could see them from where they were staying. Those people came from the normality of Britain and were catapulted into that situation, for months on end. They had to live in terrible conditions, often with no running water, and it is not surprising that the legacy of their experiences has remained with them for many years.
Those to whom I have spoken, both crew and passengers, have genuinely not been motivated by a desire to obtain compensation. However, they are angry with the Government—not this Government in particular, but the British Government as an entity—that French passengers won more than £3 million from British Airways in compensation, and that US passengers were paid off when BA settled in secret rather than have the matter exposed in a Texas court. I shall say no more on the issue of compensation, because I am aware of its sensitivity.
The plane, BA 149, was destroyed by, as I understand it, a US fighter plane, to prevent its falling into the hands of Saddam Hussein. That may have been a sensible military decision, but it meant that BA got a huge insurance payout, unlike the passengers on the plane.
This Government’s response has been disappointing, and I hope that the Minister will go some way towards redressing that this afternoon. I am not making a political issue of this. The events to which I refer took place under a different Administration back in 1990, and insofar as they were challenged, were challenged effectively by the present Deputy Prime Minister, who made it his business to do so as the then shadow Transport Secretary.
Naively, I thought that when information was brought to the attention of the present Government action would follow—after all, to put it crudely, righting a wrong from the past was no skin off their nose—yet I am disappointed by the response I received. I wrote to the Prime Minister on 16 October 2006 to ask him to do three things. I make the same requests of the Minister for Europe.
I asked the Prime Minister if he would meet a small delegation of passengers and crew to hear their concerns, which has not happened since their return from Iraq. I asked if he would arrange for the release, subject to the removal of operationally sensitive material, of the internal review papers relating to the episode, which I understand goes under the name of Operation Sandcastle. Finally, I asked him to instigate an inquiry to consider all aspects of the episode and what might be learned from it.
I am sorry to say that the Prime Minister did not reply, so I wrote a further letter on 20 November asking him to do so. In December, I received a reply not from the Prime Minister but from a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose substantive comment was:
“Regarding BA flight 149, the Government of the day made its position clear and I have nothing further to add.”
That is far from helpful, given the concerns that have been expressed.
I received a letter from Downing street, but it was written by somebody as far away from the Prime Minister as possible, so given the strong feelings of the crew and passengers, I wrote again to the Prime Minister, on 10 January, to ask for his response,. All I received in return was a further letter from the Foreign Office Minister in which he said:
“I have, however, suggested to Ann Clwyd that passengers and crew might like to take the opportunity to meet the FCO’s Director of Consular Services, Rob Macaire, so that he can hear of their experiences and perhaps seek their thoughts on how we could further develop our consular support to British Nationals caught up in traumatic events overseas.”
In so far as that is an offer, it is better than nothing, but it is not much.
I am pursuing the issue for two reasons. The first is that I do not like cover-ups. I do not like the fact that the House was told something that was subsequently shown to be incorrect and that no correction was made to the House. As a matter of parliamentary democracy, there should be a correction.
Most of all, however, I am pursuing the matter for the crew and passengers who suffered weeks or months of hell under Saddam Hussein. After all, in recent years the Government told us that Saddam Hussein had to be dealt with because he was a threat to human rights. That was apparently part of the justification for the Iraq war.
The individuals held in Iraq deserve better treatment than they have received from this country. Through no fault of their own, they ended up in a terrible situation and were treated appallingly by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The least they should expect from this country is an explanation, so that they can finally achieve closure on an important matter.
I thank the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) for giving me this opportunity to try to answer the various questions he has raised about BA flight 149 on 1 and 2 August 1990.
The House will be aware that the hon. Gentleman has alleged on several occasions, in the House and elsewhere, and—as he has made clear—in correspondence with the current Government, that the British Government of the day in 1990, knowing that the invasion was about to take place, negligently allowed British Airways flight 149 to land in Kuwait after it had been invaded by Iraq. He has also alleged that the Government did that to facilitate the entry of UK “special operatives” to Kuwait, and as a result endangered the passengers and crew on the flight.
The hon. Gentleman has linked two issues. The first concerns the treatment of the passengers and crew. No one is in any doubt that they were treated appallingly, as were many people—not least the people of Kuwait. I say that, speaking as someone who was a regular visitor to Kuwait—both as a Foreign Office Minister and subsequently as Secretary of State for Defence. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity of visiting Kuwait, but a significant proportion of that country’s small population disappeared during that period and I regularly visited the museum that was established by the Government and met many people who had lost—
It being half-past Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
I regularly met quite senior members of the Government, the royal family and people at all levels of Kuwaiti society who lost family and friends during that period. No one on behalf of the Government is in any way going to underestimate the appalling treatment of people from this country and from Kuwait at the hands of what was a brutal and appalling regime. There is simply no doubt about that and I am not going to enter into a debate with the hon. Gentleman about it. I hope that he will accept from me that the Government take those matters every bit as seriously as he does.
The real issue—and the real challenge that the hon. Gentleman makes—relates to how all that came about. His suggestion is that there was a deliberate effort to take advantage of this flight in order to place Government operatives in this position for whatever reason—if I may paraphrase what he described—knowing that in all likelihood the passengers on the plane would effectively be taken prisoner.
I am not going to go through the various allegations, not least because the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he has further evidence to substantiate them. I am perfectly willing to look further into that, but I want to repeat what he fairly set out as the then Government’s position. He quoted the then Prime Minister’s statement of 6 September 1990. I apologise for repeating it, but it is important to set out the then Government’s view fairly. She said:
“The British Airways flight landed, its passengers disembarked, and the crew handed over to a successor crew and went to their hotels. All that took place before the invasion: the invasion was later”—[Official Report, 6 September 1990; Vol. 177, c. 739.].
The Government were satisfied that there was no negligence or oversight on their part. As the hon. Gentleman has quite properly set out, in both 1992 and 1993, the then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, replied to letters on this particular issue from my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The letters emphasised that those serving British military personnel were on board the flight. Again, the Government of the day were satisfied that there was no negligence or oversight on their part.
I have studied some of the material that the hon. Gentleman relies on. I have read at least two newspaper or magazine publications about these allegations. I hope that he will accept from me that nothing that I have heard today—so far, at any rate—has taken the matter much further forward. He will understand, I hope, the point I made about the identities of the people involved. I praise him for his responsibility in not naming the individuals publicly, but he will understand that I have means of verifying whether these people are, in fact, who they say they are.
I am not aware of that, but it would be possible for me to verify, for example, whether the antecedents are as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. I am certainly willing to do that, but it obviously depends on my being given their identity. I mention that simply because there are those who sometimes believe that they have been involved in events of this kind, but sadly it sometimes turns out not to be the case. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have looked at the evidence to date and I have personally asked both the relevant Departments with responsibilities in this area whether the outline allegations are in any way justified. I am going to read out some words very carefully, which go beyond what has been said before, and should not be capable of misinterpretation. I want to make it clear that I have been told that the Government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever.
The hon. Gentleman has criticised previous statements as ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. On the evidence that I have seen so far and the investigations that I have caused to be set in motion, there is no justification for suggesting that the Government of the day sought to take advantage of the flight for any of the reasons that he suggested. However, I am perfectly willing—as I always am—to look at evidence, but that means facts. It means specific affidavits, if he has them.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept, in the spirit of friendly parliamentary debate, that simply saying that there are affidavits and not producing them is not particularly helpful for a Minister who is willing to consider matters and to check whether they contain facts that might allow the matter to be taken further. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman waves the affidavits at me, and I can see that they are pieces of paper with writing on them, but that does not take matters much further unless I have the opportunity to see for myself what they contain, as well as the identities of the people who have supposedly sworn them, so that I can check them. I am willing to do that. I approach these matters with an entirely open mind.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that neither this Government nor I were in any way responsible for the events, but, as he says—I agree—if there are allegations, it is important that they should be subject to investigation. However, at this stage, because there is no new evidence before me, I am not prepared to launch an inquiry or to act on his request until I have had a further opportunity to consider matters in more detail. I assure him that I will approach matters in an open-minded way, as long as I have the facts before me. I hope that he will accept that in the spirit in which it is offered. So far, I have seen nothing today or during my investigations that would cause me to revise the views of my predecessors or previous Governments.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Three o’clock.