Wednesday 8 June 2011
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Wild Animals (Circuses)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
I am disappointed that I had to ask Mr Speaker for this morning’s debate, disappointed that the Minister has had to come to the House to try yet again to defend his position and disappointed that the Government are all over the place on the question of wild animals in circuses.
I am grateful for the support of Members from both sides of the House, and I know that many loyal Government Members will be saddened that they should have to raise the matter. I thank those Members who are here today and those who have sent apologies for not being able to attend; this debate clashes with other business of the House and some Members who wanted to attend cannot do so. However, the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for St Ives (Andrew George) and for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) and others are present, and I am grateful to them for attending.
I realise that after the forestry U-turn, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs cannot see the wood for the trees, but are Ministers really saying that the thousands of people who have signed The Independent’s online petition are wrong, that the 94.5% who responded to the consultation are wrong, or—dare I say it—that the vast majority of the British public are wrong? I understand that the Secretary of State has said that most people would prefer not to see wild animals performing in circuses. The British Veterinary Association has said that
“the welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus; especially in terms of accommodation and the ability to express normal behaviour. A licensing scheme will not address these issues.”
Despite all those people saying that 21st century Britain is no longer willing to allow wild animals to perform in travelling circuses, we have a Government and a Department that are dithering and scrabbling to find the flimsiest of arguments to avoid a ban. The Secretary of State is looking to implement a licensing scheme. It is likely to cost £1 million, but it will not resolve the issue—and I thought that the Government were opposed to new regulations and wanted to save money.
Why can DEFRA find time to bring in a new licensing scheme and £1 million to underwrite it, but it cannot pursue a ban? It cannot still be awaiting the consultation results, because they were available more than a year ago. It cannot be starting from scratch, as I understand from the Minister responsible for animal welfare in the last Labour Government that all the paperwork was in the Department’s red box last March. Is it that the Minister does not know his Annies from his Nellies? No; I think that he has learned that lesson. Perhaps it is because a huge number of circuses and animals are involved. No, only four circuses are involved—not 40 or 400, but four—and about 40 or so beautiful wild animals. At least, that is how many there are now, but under this marvellous licensing scheme it could well become 60, or 100 or more.
Are someone’s human rights being violated? The Minister of State seemed to think so, given his answer to an urgent question in the House on 19 May, yet DEFRA’s impact assessment, which was undertaken as part of the consultation, states that there are no human rights aspects. The thought that someone’s human rights could be infringed by banning wild animals from circuses would make a mockery of all rights.
Is there a reason why the previous Labour Government failed to address any of these issues in 13 years of government?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but he is not correct. When the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was going through the House, we debated banning the use of wild animals and concluded that a report—the Radford report, which I shall come to in a moment—should be commissioned. Indeed, by March 2010 a ban was on the cards.
On the cards?
Does the hon. Gentleman wish to take part in the debate or just sit and heckle all morning?
Is the problem that the European Circus Association may—or could, or is thinking about, or is sabre-rattling, or has thought up a good ruse, or just might—take a case to the Austrian court? Is Parliament now bound by the whims of a lawyer acting for a European association?
The hon. Gentleman will know that Governments have been given legal advice saying that it would be impossible to ban the import of cat and dog fur, and the same was said of seal fur, yet when Governments challenged that so-called legal advice they were able to make those bans happen. Does he agree that we should challenge the legal advice in this instance, thus ensuring that we ban this cruel practice once and for all?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. Indeed, I was coming to that very point.
How long does the Minister intend to wait to see whether that hypothetical court case actually starts? If the legal advice from DEFRA officials is so overwhelming, I am sure that the Secretary of State will be only too pleased to publish it. Does the Minister have a copy with him, or will he place it in the Library later today? Legal advice supplied to me suggests that the UK is entitled to make its own domestic legislation on this matter.
The hon. Gentleman may recall that, on the day of the urgent question, I asked the Minister if he would publish the legal advice that he had received. I am pleased to advise the House that I received a letter from the Secretary of State yesterday; the Minister has followed through on his commitment to discuss the matter with her. However, I am disappointed and frustrated that, in line with practice elsewhere in government, the Secretary of State has declined to publish that advice. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we cannot see the advice from Government lawyers, it places a greater burden of responsibility on the Minister to argue the merits of that position?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman; it does indeed place an extra burden, an extra duty, on the Minister. I repeat the point that, if the legal advice is so overwhelming, we should be able to scrutinise it.
I shall take a step back and set out our recent journey to this point. Circuses existed long before wild animals became a feature. Indeed, it is often said that the Roman circuses were the foundation for what we know today. The use of animals in circuses probably dates back to the early 18th century, when exotic animals were put on display. The year 1833 is often cited, as that was when big cats were first seen in a cage act at a circus. Interestingly, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in that year, as was the Factory Act that limited child labour—a connection that is slightly ironic.
During the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it was agreed that the use of wild animals in travelling circuses should be banned, subject to there being sufficient scientific evidence. The circus working group, chaired by Mike Radford, concluded that there was not sufficient scientific evidence to justify a ban. However, on a closer reading of the 2007 report, the conclusion seems to be that there is almost no evidence to consider—no evidence to support a ban, and no evidence to support the status quo. My reading of the Radford report is that there is no scientific data for either side to rely on.
There is another argument, however. Do we really need a report to tell us right from wrong? Does a report that says there is insufficient evidence override our moral sense of what is or is not acceptable? In the 20 years leading up to 1833, did Wilberforce say in the face of so-called evidence against him, “Oh well, that’s okay. I’ll give up now.”? No, of course not, and neither should we. I do not suggest that the owners of travelling circuses are cruel or that they mistreat their animals, but I fail to see—and looking around me, I note that colleagues who are here in support of a ban, fail to see—how keeping wild animals in mobile cages as they travel around the country, even with some respite in exercise areas, is for the best welfare of the animals concerned. Perhaps it is me, but I find it plain wrong that wild animals should be used in travelling circuses.
As an important aside, I believe that it is wholly unacceptable for circuses to be targeted for vandalism and worse. We should not descend to that level but should win the argument instead.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is absolutely right to push this issue. The Government should re-examine the legal case, so that we can move towards a ban as speedily as possible. Does he not think that a further Back-Bench debate, which many are pushing for at the moment, would give us the opportunity to re-examine the legal argument and the apparent legal impediment to a ban? We need to ensure that the Government are given the tools and the encouragement to move towards a ban as quickly as possible.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Radford report suggests that, because of the lack of scientific evidence, the legal impediment comes from the use of secondary legislation. It says that the ban could be implemented if Parliament passed primary legislation. Having not seen the legal advice, I can only speculate that that is the problem and that the Ministry is unwilling to go down the route of primary legislation.
I was referring to the EU services directive and the debateable position of the Austrians. If we can learn lessons from that, we could ensure a smooth passage towards a ban.
Indeed, but coming back to the European services directive, the legal advice that I have seen suggests that that was not an issue. The complaint against the Austrian Government was made in 2008. The European Circus Association took Austria to the European Commission and made a complaint. The case was folded and no further action was taken. The ombudsman looked into the matter and felt that reasons should have been given. Ultimately, though, he found that the European services directive did not apply in this circumstance and that it was up to nation states to bring in their own legislation. Again, I come back to my initial point: if the Secretary of State made available the legal advice, it would be far easier to mount a challenge and for lawyers on both sides to determine whether or not it was robust. If there was a problem, they would at least be able to see it in the open.
The 2007 Radford report noted that circuses have hesitated to update cages and facilities because of the uncertainty. It said then that the status quo was unsustainable, and that was getting on for four years ago. It says that we cannot continue in this way. The Government’s own impact assessment says that human rights are not an issue and legal advice says that the European services directive is not an issue, so what is the issue?
As Members already know, circuses are exempt from the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 and the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. The Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925 does not address the welfare requirements of performing animals, and as I have mentioned previously, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 can be hard to bring to bear when circuses are travelling around the country. Where does that leave us? In my view, it leaves us quite rightly pushing for a total ban on wild animals in travelling circuses.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. This issue has been of interest to me from my time at Belfast city council when we banned animal circuses from using council property. I am interested in one of the challenges that is presented by exotic animals being permitted in circuses. Under regulation, or self-regulation, people are required to go through constant retraining as new species are introduced into circuses. Is there not a chance that that is just impractical in protecting animal welfare and that a complete ban on all species would be better?
The other thing that that raises is a widening of scope. If it was difficult to use a type of wild animal because it was mentioned in regulation, would circuses effectively be encouraged to start looking at other species to get round the cumbersome and burdensome regulations? All this leaves us pushing for a total ban on wild animals in travelling circuses, as discussed during the passage of the 2006 Act and as proposed at the end of the previous Government. Although the lack of scientific evidence for or against the ban would seem to preclude using secondary legislation, it is for Parliament to use primary legislation to give weight to the ethical issues, the will of the British public and the rights and needs of wild animals themselves.
In conclusion, we have a situation in which DEFRA is once again in disarray and out of touch with the public. The Minister has been given another chance today to get this right. I hope that he will announce today that his Department will introduce a ban without further delay and that the use of wild animals in circuses will be another Victorian legacy that can be properly assigned to the past.
Does any other Member want to speak? Members have to stand if they want to speak.
I did not realise that there would be so little competition for the opportunity to enter the debate. I have already thanked the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for securing it for us. My timidity was purely because I thought that it would be ill-mannered of me to seek an early speech in the debate given the fact that I will need to leave before it concludes, but as I do not seem to be preventing others from speaking, I will proceed.
I mentioned earlier that by asking the Minister to bring out the legal advice that supported his position, I seek only to aid him. It would certainly shed a lot of light on the situation for many Members. It is a matter of disappointment to me that that will not be possible, but I am sure that we all look forward to the Minister’s comments as he tries to explain his position.
Various legal impediments have been presented to the case for bringing an end to the use of wild animals in circuses. Some people have spoken about human rights issues, but the Government, in their consultation, made it clear that they did not believe that was an impediment. Others have looked at the European services directive, which is an interesting case but not one that prevents the UK from legislating as it sees fit on the matter of animal welfare; I recognise that it would require primary legislation.
Given that a ban is in place in Denmark and that Austria has taken measures, we would not be standing alone in that respect. We are not in the position that our views are wholly out of line with those elsewhere in the European Union. Forming public policy to protect animals from cruelty is certainly a legitimate ground for taking legislative action. We have yet to see the legal advice that has prompted this case. It is not for me to claim to be a legal expert on the matter, so I look forward to hearing further clarification.
The key issue about taking action, which has emerged from our discussions both here and in the main Chamber, rests on the potential exposure of the UK to a legal challenge. That is clear given what happened to the case in Austria. I urge the Minister to keep the situation under constant review. If the facts and the threat of legal challenge change, we want the Government to be able to take action. Will the Minister tell us if he is willing to look at the issue as events unfold, or indeed fail to unfold, in other parts of Europe?
At the end of the day, for many of my constituents, this is not a matter of legal nicety. It is about expressing our values in our society. We are prepared to do that on other matters of animal welfare, and there is no reason why circuses should not come under such concerns.
Like my hon. Friend and doubtless many others, I would have liked to contribute further to this debate but unfortunately I too have to be elsewhere shortly for another meeting. Nevertheless, I wish the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, who secured the debate, great success in advancing the cause.
I want to respond to the point that my hon. Friend has just made. Leaving aside the legal debate around the issue, there must be a debate across all Departments about whether a policy of working towards a ban on wild animals in circuses can proceed. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful for DEFRA to say, in due course, whether it is minded to introduce a ban if all the other impediments to imposing a ban can be overcome?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree that a statement of intent—of desire—by the Government would be helpful, so that our constituents would be in no doubt that the refusal so far to countenance the introduction of primary legislation to end the practice is not a political judgment but a practical one, in light of the legal impediments. A statement from the Government to express that view would certainly be very helpful.
However, in response to the urgent question that was put last month in the main Chamber on this issue, we had a somewhat more laissez-faire piece of encouragement from the Minister, when he said:
“If people are really so opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses, I suggest that they do not go to the circus.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 499.]
I am happy to take the Minister’s advice, but to be honest I do not think that his response is sufficient. That type of response has certainly not been considered in relation to many other issues of animal welfare. For example, when it comes to the regulation of practices within abattoirs, it would not be sufficient simply to tell people not to eat meat. People who eat meat expect good standards and I know that the Minister’s Department is keen to ensure that good standards are upheld. In recent months, concerns have been expressed about other animal welfare issues, for example in horse racing, and it would not have been sufficient for people simply to have turned off the television set that Saturday afternoon in April.
There are other examples of animal welfare issues when such a response would not have been sufficient, for instance in relation to the fur trade. Yes, consumers, members of the public and society as a whole can take a stand and make their views clear. However, to do that alone ignores the fact that we are all part of one democratic society where we want to be able to set standards that we should all have confidence in, regardless of our personal choices, as I said just now in relation to the meat industry.
I hope that the Minister will accept that there is widespread support for action on the issue of wild animals in circuses. In the Government’s consultation, 94% of respondents wanted an end to the use of wild animals in circuses. In addition, 26,000 people signed the petition that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South referred to in his speech. That petition was also supported by many respected organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association, the Born Free Foundation and the Captive Animals Protection Society. I hope that we can find a way through the current impasse.
Like others, I have a meeting to attend shortly. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing the debate. I want to reiterate the European experience. When I was an MEP and we were trying to progress animal welfare issues in the European Parliament, we were always told to go back to member states and galvanise them. When a number of member states are calling very strongly for action on something, that is precisely what enables the EU position to be much easier. If there is any suggestion that the EU is somehow preventing us from moving on the issue of wild animals in circuses, I reiterate that if we look, for example, at the action that was taken, first, on dog and cat fur, and then on seal fur, on both occasions it was action by member states that enabled the EU to say, “Yes, go ahead”, and then the bans on those types of fur could go forward. There really should be nothing stopping us from moving on this vital issue of wild animals in circuses. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I certainly agree. It is my view that this matter is not controversial and it is not one on which we stand alone. There is support for us from citizens not only in our own country but in other countries in Europe, and as a consequence we should not be timid about expressing our views.
In fact, there have been many other areas where regulation and action by Government has been far more controversial than in this case, whether in relation to the endless debate—as it was—about hunting or to the delicate balance that must be struck between competing interests around animal experimentation. Certainly there is an argument to be made about the use of animal experimentation for medical purposes but action has been taken to outlaw animal experimentation for the use of cosmetics, where there is much less justification for such experimentation. Indeed, even in relation to some of the issues that we discuss in this place about farming practices, there are much more complex and difficult matters to weigh up when we are considering action to protect animal welfare than in the case of wild animals being used in circuses. It seems to me that the argument for banning wild animals in circuses is very much about protecting animals and we would miss an opportunity if we did not take that action. I hope that the Minister will give us some encouragement in that respect in his response to the debate.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing the debate.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), I had not intended to make a speech because I am unable to stay in Westminster Hall until the end of the debate. However, given the fact that everyone else here this morning seems to be in exactly the same position, I will briefly take the opportunity to say a few words.
The debate is timely and I am pleased that as part of Back-Bench business, we may have an opportunity to vote on the issue. My impression is that across the House, in all parties, a majority of people probably want a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, which is in line with the view of the general public; as has been said, 94% of people seem to be in favour of a ban. I very much hope that we will get the opportunity to debate this important issue in the main Chamber, with the opportunity for a vote in the Chamber, so that Back-Bench MPs can express their views and the Government, hopefully, can listen to those views, because I think we actually represent the views of the vast majority of the general public.
My real concern is that the action proposed by the Government might inadvertently legitimise the use of wild animals in circuses. Over a number of years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of wild animals used in circuses. However, by proposing some sort of licensing scheme, there is a real danger that we might legitimise the use of wild animals in circuses. Indeed, it may actually be extended. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South suggested that we might end up seeing more wild animals in circuses if the Government’s proposals go ahead and I do not think that anybody wants that to happen.
In the Minister’s closing remarks, will he give us an indication exactly where the decision has come from? It has been suggested that it was actually a decision from the top—from the Prime Minister—and that DEFRA would have been quite happy to go along with a ban but unfortunately the Prime Minister seemed to be strongly in favour of not introducing one. Perhaps the Minister can clarify whether that is indeed the position of DEFRA and whether the Prime Minister has had personal involvement in this case.
For me, a ban is a no-brainer. I recently went to the cinema to watch the film, “Water for Elephants”. I am quite happy to plug that film, because I thought it was great. I accept that the conditions in which the vast majority of animals in circuses are kept are very different from those in the film, but I do not believe that wild animals can be looked after appropriately in the sort of cages and the kind of environment where they have to live in circuses. Although there have been massive improvements over the decades, I think that we would all generally agree that that environment is not appropriate.
I would also like the Minister to explain why the decision was made not to publish the legal advice. As a coalition Government, we have argued that we are more open and transparent than previous Governments, but I am afraid that refusing to publish the legal advice gives our opponents the opportunity to argue that we must have something to hide.
Finally, I want to plug the organisation 38 Degrees, which contacts all Members of Parliament. It has recently been asking them for suggestions about what its next campaign should be. I think it should concentrate its efforts on the campaign to ban wild animals from circuses because the vast majority of people support it—it is a no-brainer. I urge the Minister to reconsider the decision about the advice and bring it to the Floor of the House. Let us see what MPs think and let us ban wild animals in circuses.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing the debate. I should apologise for referring to him earlier, I think, as my hon. Friend. Members may not know that we recently spent a week together in a tent in the Falkland Islands, where I became friendlier than I had perhaps intended—[Interruption.] That is reflected in his comments.
I am not here to make a speech in favour of wild animals in circuses. Such spectacles hold no great attraction for me—I would not go to one myself or take my children to see one. However, I have always been fundamentally opposed to the politically tempting prospect of abolishing things because it suits a particular political narrative. We have seen that total bans do not necessarily result in actual total bans and do not necessarily produce the welfare benefits that some passionate and articulate advocates suggest. Having listened to the debate so far, I am concerned that we are confusing two things which, to my mind, are absolutely different—the welfare of wild animals in circuses and the legality of abolition.
It is right and proper that we should debate the welfare of wild animals, and part of that debate should be about separating cruelty from suffering. Something that has beset animal welfare debates in this House for some time is the fact that we sometimes complicate the emotive description of the treatment of animals in the context of cruelty, which is not a scientific measurement, with that of suffering, which is or can be. We should perhaps put ourselves in a position to legislate on the back of reports and debates on the issue of wild animals in circuses, but that is entirely different from the debate on the legality of abolition.
It is absolutely proper that any Government take the legal advice that they are offered. We simply cannot go around ignoring legal advice on the basis that using expressions such as “total ban” plays to our popular instincts. People will sue us, and the taxpayer will pay if we get it wrong.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it would be far better for the Government to publish the legal advice, so we can all have a look at it?
I am sure that the Minister will come to that. There is always sensitivity when it comes to the publication of legal advice, particularly when cases are, or are possibly, in play. I do not think that there is necessarily anything to be suspicious about; I do not necessarily smell a conspiracy just because a Department fails to publish advice when we demand it. I am sure that the Minister will, as usual, give a compelling answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
The Department is absolutely right rigidly to stick to principle and evidence when it comes to decisions on legislating in favour of abolition or of regulation. In many debates on animal-related issues in this House over the years, Ministers have stood up and thumped the table, stressing their commitment to evidence and principle, and have then promptly gone and legislated in the absence of both. That has had long-term consequences for the animals concerned, which have failed to benefit from the legislation, and also for the taxpayer, who has been forced to pick up enormous legal bills—several of which I have been unashamedly responsible for—as the process is challenged in every court in the UK and further afield. It is absolutely proper that the Department should avoid getting itself into that particular pickle.
I can see us moving to a situation, over a period of time—a time scale with which I would be entirely comfortable—in which we no longer see wild animals used in circuses but neither do we subject the taxpayer to undue expense as a result of our over-enthusiasm to do something that is simply popular on the back of an electronic campaign that might catch the mood of the day.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the taxpayer. The taxpayer comes in a variety of forms, one of which is the council tax payer. The scheme that DEFRA has proposed would place an additional burden on council tax payers, because it would fall to local authorities to license and to inspect but, ridiculously, they would not have the power to prosecute.
I am grateful for that contribution, but I am not entirely sure that I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s position. The local authorities are in a more powerful position than he suggests in that they have the ability, presumably, not to regulate or not to license. Despite what the Government may say, that is, to some extent, a local authority decision. I do not want to steal the Minister’s ground on that issue as well, because he will almost certainly deal with it himself.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I was into my final gasp, but go on.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way at such a late stage in his speech. He has said that he wants to move to a situation in which wild animals are no longer used in circuses. It is hard, however, to see how regulation would bring that about, because its use would almost be an acceptance that it is appropriate to have wild animals in circuses and that the only issue is the regulation of welfare. My argument is that it is inappropriate for wild animals to be held in such circumstances, because the circus environment is by its very nature not an appropriate place for them.
The hon. Lady’s point is fair, but it goes back to my earlier comment about having to separate the moral, ethical argument about the appropriateness of wild animals in circuses from the legality of abolition legislation. Those things are entirely different; they always have been; and there is nothing particularly new about that. I am fundamentally not an abolitionist—I dislike banning things. I happen to dislike abolition not because I am a 1960s liberal but because I often see examples of the consequences of legislation not being the same as the intention of those who proposed it in the first place. It would be fine for me if we moved to a situation in which the circuses—I think there are only two or three—that use wild animals were not using them in five years’ time without our having to go through various legal challenges. Hon. Members and the Minister might take a different view, but that is my position, which I think strikes the right balance between trying to attain the highest possible welfare standards and not compromising the taxpayer’s interests.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will never finish at this rate, but of course.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I have great sympathy with what he has said about finding a pragmatic solution that is good value for the taxpayer, but does he accept that even if the legal advice is correct, a legal challenge might be unlikely? I have a unique perspective on the issue, because I used to be a magician’s assistant. That was my first job, before I gave up that sensible career path for this crazy world, and I am happy to report that the only creature harmed in the shows in which I was involved was, frequently, me. I have some knowledge of the sector, and I think that a legal challenge would be unlikely. We have a pragmatic opportunity. Fewer than 40 animals would need to be rehomed. A ban seems to be the most pragmatic way forward.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting contribution, particularly regarding her downward career path from magician’s assistant to politician. I must confess that I am not overly sympathetic to the process, for the reasons that I have given. Part of me is hugely resistant to the theory that the most pragmatic approach is simply to strike a red pen through an activity, because it suits our political agenda to do so. History is littered with examples of our having fallen for that temptation only to regret it at our leisure and expense.
I will finish on this point. I do not like making cheap political observations too often, but I will make another one now. We cannot ignore the fact that we have lived through 13 years of Labour Administrations who made a lot of noise about such subjects yet failed to do anything about them. Nothing much changed over those 13 years as far as wild animals in circuses were concerned. I hope that my south Atlantic colleague the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will forgive me for saying that it is a little rich to come here and lay the blame fully at the foot of the current Administration, when his party had such an opportunity to deal with the matter itself.
I was not expecting to be called so quickly, Mr Betts. I was also not planning to speak, as I believe the debate finishes at 11 o’clock and I cannot stay. I hope that you will forgive me for leaving before the debate finishes. I will make a few brief remarks.
Order. I accept that Members have other, pressing engagements, but the hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about coming in halfway through a debate and leaving before the end. It means that he is not really engaging in the debate, but simply coming to make a speech by himself. I am giving him a bit of advice for the future on that point.
I will take that on board and will stay as long as I can. I think that the debate finishes at 11 o’clock, and there is a chance that I can stay until then; I will do my best.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and congratulate him on securing this debate. I have had a huge number of letters from constituents, and the issue clearly resonates with the public at large. I do not believe that there are any circuses in my constituency that use wild animals, but nevertheless the issue has caught people’s imagination. Like previous speakers, I put on record my support for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.
I am confused by the Government’s position. I do not see any real arguments against the ban, other than abstract ones. It seems to come down to an argument about the vague threat of a possible challenge by the European Union at some point in the future. That seems to be what the arguments boil down to. Alternatively—I do not want to paraphrase or caricature the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart))—it boils down to an in-principle opposition to the very notion of prohibition. I share my hon. Friend’s antipathy to the use of bans—we have had far too many bans over the past 13 years that could rightly and usefully be repealed—but there are situations in which a ban is the most clear-cut and straightforward solution, and I cannot offer a better example than this one.
I will not rehearse the arguments for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, partly because they have already been laid out clearly but also because they are blindingly obvious. The public have an overwhelming appetite for the clear-cut solution of a ban, and the law should reflect the general wishes of the public. If the opinion polls are accurate or even half accurate—92% or 93% of people say that they favour a ban—surely the law should adapt to reflect the interests of that vast majority of people.
I also suspect that if the issue were put to a vote in the House, irrespective of the various positions taken by different parties, Members of Parliament would overwhelmingly support a ban. It would be interesting to see what would happen. I understand that moves are afoot to negotiate a votable motion with the Backbench Business Committee, and it would be interesting to see the result. I suspect that if the Government were to maintain their position, they would lose that vote, although they would probably realise that in time and reverse their position. I wish the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South all the luck in the world in achieving that opportunity, because the debate would be fascinating.
I encourage the Government to rethink their position, which does not make any sense to Members of Parliament, our constituents or those involved in the campaign for a ban. It seems totally illogical. I will do my utmost to remain here for the rest of the debate in order to hear the Minister’s substantive points in favour of the current position, which seems extraordinary.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this debate. It is evident that he speaks for thousands of people up and down the country. We have heard from Members from various parties in support of a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. I thank them for showing interest, attending this debate and making such a strong case, which is valuable.
Members’ support reflects the views of the country at large. As we have heard, Labour’s public consultation last year found that close to 95% of the public want a ban. More than 25,000 people have signed The Independent petition calling for one, and every one of us will have had constituents write to us to support taking that strong, simple, pragmatic, clear and logical action.
The Minister’s answer to those concerned individuals—I am sure that he will regret it—was:
“If people are really so opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses, I suggest that they do not go to the circus.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 499.]
From the moment when this Government took office, their record on the issue has been weak and ineffective. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has said, proposals were in the red box of the previous Government’s animal welfare Minister, ready to go after the election, so the work and heavy lifting have been done, but for more than a year after the end of the consultation, the Government have dithered and delayed in the trademark fashion of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They suggested in answers to Members that they were carefully deliberating, but a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) confirmed that they had not held a single meeting with animal welfare groups or circus representatives since July last year.
The process went on. Finally, in April, the Secretary of State leaked to the Sunday Express that she would be introducing a ban. It appeared that the Government had at last listened to the public and to common sense, and Members from all parties welcomed the news. Unfortunately, as the public are beginning to realise, we made the mistake of thinking that this Government do what they say they will do.
A month later, in another answer, repeated in oral questions and in a written ministerial statement, the Secretary of State claimed that the Government could not implement a ban due to an ongoing case in which the Austrian Government had been taken to court over a breach of the EU services directive. Wrong again; there is no ongoing case against the Austrian Government’s ban on wild animals in circuses. That has been confirmed by the Austrian constitutional court, the European Court of Justice and the European Circus Association.
Will the Minister apologise for misleading the House? I hope that he will take this opportunity to do so, but I doubt it. The hasty statement rushed out by the Secretary of State said that she
“would like to avoid any misunderstanding”—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 27WS.]
and pointed out that the Government had got their information from a European Circus Association press release. That Government policy should be determined by a circus press office is unbelievable.
The Minister will now claim that although the Austrian Government might not have been taken to court, they are about to be, which is why the Government cannot introduce a ban, much as they would like to. The issue, however, has already been decided at European level. The European Circus Association submitted a complaint against the Austrian protection law to the European Commission, but the Commission closed the case in 2006, categorically stating that
“animal welfare questions are better left to Member States”.
The circuses looked to the European ombudsman to overturn the decision, but instead, just last year, the ombudsman upheld the Commission’s decision. The Commission, responding to the Government’s announcement against a ban last month, again stated:
“The EU rules ensure services can be easily provided across borders. But there are of course valid reasons for exceptions to the rules and restrictions are allowed”.
Since Austria’s ban in 2005, other countries, including Luxembourg, Hungary and Greece, have introduced similar arrangements without challenge. The answer is therefore clear: Europe is no reason not to introduce a ban. What other excuses will the Minister provide for the Government’s failure? Will he repeat his assertion that a ban requires primary legislation? That is not true. DEFRA’s own impact assessment states:
“Section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act allows the Minister/Secretary of State to make such provisions as he thinks fit for the purpose of promoting the welfare of animals for which a person is responsible. Under this legislation a complete ban on wild animals in travelling circuses could be introduced.”
That is pretty conclusive. It is no wonder that that assessment is no longer available on the DEFRA website. Instead, it has been hidden away in the National Archives.
The very same impact assessment dispels the other myth suggested by the Minister, namely that a ban would somehow contravene our obligations under the Human Rights Acts, an argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has already put to bed. Without hesitation or ambiguity, the assessment states:
“There are no human rights issues raised by these proposals.”
That is a black and white rebuttal of the Minister’s ludicrous suggestion from his own Department.
What are the Government proposing instead of a ban? A strict licensing regime that is so strict that the Minister claims it will be as strict as if a ban were in place. If that is going to lead to the same outcome, why not have a full ban? This is absolutely baffling. This is the world of DEFRA today. The Minister must explain why he did not follow his own Department’s advice from its own impact assessment, and why DEFRA will not publish the legal advice.
The Minister claims that a licensing regime can be introduced quickly, so that animal welfare can be improved as quickly as possible. However, in the Secretary of State’s statement to the House outlining the policy, she proposed further consultation on the nature of the licence. More consultation means more delay. It is hardly a speedy resolution or a prudent use of taxpayers’ money.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the regulatory approach would not only fail to solve the problem to which the public are demanding a solution, but be far more bureaucratically cumbersome and expensive than a ban? Given that there is no real public demand for wild animals in circuses, does he agree that a ban is the cheapest, cleanest and simplest solution?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He makes the case succinctly, logically and clearly. The situation is precisely as he has described it, and I agree entirely.
Animal welfare organisations, which we must listen to, are absolutely clear that it does not matter what strict rules would be established under a licensing regime. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinary Association agree that a licensing regime is unworkable. They are joined by Animal Defenders International, the Born Free Foundation and the Captive Animals’ Protection Society in supporting a ban. Not a single animal welfare organisation supports a licensing approach; the only ones that do are the circuses themselves.
A licensing regime would be practically unenforceable. Even if inspectors were appointed by the Department, the regime would still be overseen by local authorities, if the system continues to be based on that used for assessing welfare standards in zoos. Circuses, unlike zoos, move around, making it impossible for councils to enforce the strict welfare standards that the Minister says that he wants to see introduced.
Even if local authorities wanted to take action, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has just closed a consultation on burdens on local authorities, where he proposes to remove their powers to prosecute for animal cruelty. Not only has DEFRA been forced to implement the biggest cuts of any Department, but it is now being sidelined and ignored by other Ministers. DEFRA has become a laughing stock, an embarrassment and a figure of fun. For every stakeholder and everybody who cares about the DEFRA agenda and environmental politics in this country, it is a disaster.
It is no wonder that DEFRA has been sidelined. We have already seen the humiliating debacle over the sale of our forests, delays to the water White Paper, cuts to the flood defences and confusion on waste, and now we have this excuse for a policy. DEFRA is a Department in special measures and I am not surprised that the Prime Minister has intervened. However, he needs to get a grip and stop treating this Department as the political equivalent of the mad woman in the attic. Intervening to prevent a ban is a mistake. Animal welfare organisations want it; Members in all parts of the House want it; and the public want it in overwhelming numbers. It has been implemented successfully in Europe. There is no need for new legislation, and the Human Rights Act certainly does not have anything to do with it.
The Minister knows this, so I urge him to stop digging and to print the legal advice, or risk accusations of there being none. If he will not print and publish it, why not? Would it be, as has been suggested, because of the hidden hand and influence of No. 10? Is this not more about saving face than animal welfare? This is an opportunity for the Department to do the right thing, to begin the climb out of special measures and to implement the ban. It is what the House wants; it is what the country wants; and I suggest that the Government get on with it.
I am happy to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Betts. Surprising as it may be, I am happy to welcome this debate, because it allows me to put on the record a lot more information than I was able to in response to the urgent question a few weeks ago. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing the debate, but his introductory speech was full of innuendo and somewhat puerile humour and did not really address some of the key issues that I want to address. I am sorry that several Members have left the Chamber after asking me to discuss particular things in my wind-up speech. Nevertheless, I intend to address their comments, and I hope that they will read my words in Hansard.
The whole issue of animal welfare is extremely emotive and creates huge public concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has said, it can sometimes lead to mistakes or unforeseen consequences, but we cannot and should not ignore the fact that it is a matter of huge public concern. We also have to recognise that Governments, like everybody else, have to operate within the law, whether it is law that they themselves have passed or international law to which they are signatories. As I will explain in a moment, it is European law that is significant to this issue.
I have a little more time than is usual in such debates, so I will try to address fairly and squarely all the issues that have been raised. The timetable between primary and secondary legislation has been mentioned. Using secondary legislation to introduce a licensing regime—I will discuss that regime in more detail later—would enable us to consult informally with all the animal welfare and interested groups over the next few weeks and months. A formal public consultation would start at the end of the year, and the regulations would be in place well before the end of next year. It is not feasible to expect primary legislation to be fitted in and to go through the parliamentary process in anything like that time. We would, moreover, also have to allow a period of grace before that primary ban could be put in place, for the animals to be re-housed or for any further action to be taken.
The second issue that I want to raise is that about numbers. I do not think that there is much disagreement that the number of animals concerned is in the order of 39. I saw some figures yesterday that might indicate the number is considerably less than that, but it is in that region. We believe that only one circus is using the big cats—tigers—and that the others have zebras and camels. However, of course, a ban on wild animals full stop would include reptiles and everything else. I think that the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) referred to Denmark, where only certain species have been banned and there is no complete ban on wild animals. That raises the issue of licensing and regulation.
The debate is about whether the matter of animal welfare can be accommodated within a circus. I fully understand those people who believe that the interests of a big cat cannot be accommodated in those circumstances, but that might not apply to everything that comes under the heading of a wild animal. We take the definition of a wild animal to be the one used in the Radford report:
“a member of a species that is not commonly domesticated in the British Islands; that is to say, a species whose collective behaviour, life cycle or physiology remains unaltered from the wild type despite their breeding and living conditions being under control for multiple generations.”
It is worth emphasising that we cannot be absolutely sure, but we believe that all the animals concerned come from several generations of domestic captive breeding. However, they are still wild animals.
A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, have referred to the previous Government’s work on this matter, the Radford committee and so on. As he and other hon. Members will know, Ministers of this Government are not allowed to see the papers of a previous Administration, but the impact assessment was, of course, published and is a public document. It was based on an initial view of the legal powers available to impose a ban. However—this is the key point and why I am afraid the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) is somewhat adrift in his criticism—the impact assessment does not give any legal advice at all because that was provided separately. I will return to that issue of openness. As he rightly says, the impact assessment makes the assertion that, under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it would be possible to introduce the legislation to impose a ban, but it does not then provide advice on whether that ban would be upheld if it were challenged in the courts. I will return to that point. The impact assessment should not be seen as being the same as the legal advice, which I obviously have not been able to see.
We should remember that the Radford report summarised the issues as follows. It stated that the scientific evidence that welfare was being compromised was not compelling and, as I said, that although section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 permits legislation to “promote animal welfare”, it does not enable legislation to be made on the basis of ethical or moral judgments about the acceptability of using wild animals in circuses. The welfare argument is given by many people, but—this is the critical bit—the report stated that a ban imposed on welfare grounds would be disproportionate in the absence of evidence that welfare was compromised and that an outright ban might be beyond the powers in section 12 anyway, even if the welfare case was made. Radford concludes:
“it is submitted that to introduce a ban on the use of any type of non-domesticated animal presently in use by circuses in the United Kingdom…by way of a Regulation made under the authority of section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 would be vulnerable to legal challenge”.
That is printed in the advice given to the previous Government.
It is worth making the point that, during the debate on the Animal Welfare Act 2006, for which I served on the Bill Committee, attempts were made by hon. Members—I have not checked who they were—to introduce a ban through that primary legislation. Labour Ministers at the time—the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) was the Minister responsible then—clearly opposed that. In the House of Lords, Lord Rooker spoke for the Government and clearly stated that any measures would have to be based on science. Labour Ministers endorsed the approach that Radford subsequently supported in his report, which was commissioned after the 2006 Act.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South raised the issue of human rights. I will not resile from the point that it is perfectly correct that the impact assessment stated that no human rights issues were raised by the proposal for a ban. For the reasons that I have given, no Minister in the present Government can see the legal advice that led to that statement in the impact assessment. All that I can tell hon. Members is that that is not the legal advice that we have now received.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South referred to advice that he had received. He did not attribute it, but I guess that it was from Animal Defenders International. We also received that advice yesterday and our lawyers are considering it. Obviously, our lawyers need to take time to consider that advice, but it seems on first examination that it concludes that, in principle, England—I stress that it is just England and that this is an English measure—could ban wild animals in circuses if it were a proportionate measure. However, the advice does not appear to provide any idea about whether it would be a proportionate measure. It does not refer to the Radford report, proportionality or, indeed, the ombudsman, to whom I now come.
I will take a few moments to consider the ombudsman, because it is important that hon. Members fully understand the sequence of events during the mid to late noughties, as they are called, in the European context. That issue was raised in the urgent question, and I am afraid that some of the assertions made were just incorrect. The ban in Austria came into force on 1 January 2005, following which a circus association submitted a complaint to the European Commission on 25 May, arguing that the ban was a breach of the principle of the free movement of services. The Commission wrote to the Austrian Government on 12 October, expressing concern that the ban might infringe the principle of the free movement of services and asking Austria to explain why a ban was a proportionate response to the problem. At that point, the Commission did not regard the question of how to protect wild animals in circuses as one to be left to individual member states, otherwise it would not have asked that question.
Austria replied that a ban was the only way to deal with the issue, and it is perfectly correct that the Commission subsequently decided not to pursue the matter. However, the complainant asked for an explanation and received a letter from the Commission in October 2006, purportedly explaining why it had taken such a decision. That letter restated the general principle that restrictions on the provision of services need to be justified, but it concluded that, because animal welfare was so important, the question of how to protect wild animals in circuses should be left to member states.
The matter was then referred to the European ombudsman. In a letter of 19 February 2008, the ombudsman sought a more detailed explanation of the very limited reasoning in the letter, particularly in the light of Austria’s failure to provide any detailed explanation of why more limited measures might not be sufficient. On 3 June 2009, the ombudsman made the following draft recommendation:
“The Commission should evaluate the proportionality of the Austrian law. In light of its analysis, if it considers that Austria has not demonstrated that it complies with all the conditions set out in the Gebhard test”—
the conditions that are now in the services directive—
“the Commission should a) pursue its infringement proceeding against Austria or b) provide valid reasons for dropping the case.”
In September 2009, the Commission replied in vague terms and the ombudsman therefore made a final decision on 8 March 2010. It is really important that hon. Members read these reports, rather than just taking the selective extracts that we have heard this morning.
I will read out what the ombudsman said. He concluded:
“The statement used by the Commission in order to justify its political stance in the present case, that is, that ‘animal welfare questions are better left to Member States’ appears to be tantamount to acknowledging that, in all matters concerning animal welfare, the Commission is ready to abdicate from its role as guardian of the Treaties. Such a statement does not comply with the duty to provide correct, clear and understandable reasons to justify the exercise of the Commission’s discretionary powers to close an inquiry on an infringement complaint. This was an instance of maladministration.”
I therefore suggest that there is ample reason to believe that although that case had to close—the ombudsman could do nothing more than make that finding—in a further application the Commission may well find itself in a very different position.
On our recent legal advice, I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Chippenham has returned to his seat, as he challenged me on this issue. I am pleased that he has received the Secretary of State’s letter, which stated that we will not publish the advice itself. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Chippenham has not long been a Member, but it is a convention, under all Governments going back over a long period, that legal advice is not published any more than any other advice from civil servants to Ministers. Indeed, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, passed by the previous Government, ensured that that remained exempt, so that is the principled reason. I am, however, happy to share an element of detail with the Chamber, with your forbearance, Mr Betts.
Our advice is that any ban on travelling circuses would be vulnerable to a legal challenge both from a circus in another member state on the basis that it contravened the services directive—it is worth emphasising that although I referred earlier to the number of circuses that have their own animals, we believe that circuses buy-in or hire acts from other circuses for part of the season, so that could apply to overseas circuses—and from both European and UK-based circuses under the Human Rights Act 1998. Without strong evidence that a ban is needed for welfare reasons, it is likely that a challenge would be successful. Radford concluded that we do not have that evidence on the welfare reasons.
Article 16 of the services directive requires that we would have to meet three legal tests for a ban: non-discrimination, necessity and proportionality. A ban would meet the non-discrimination test, but we believe that it would fail the necessity and proportionality test because there are means of protecting animals other than with an outright ban. A ban based solely on ethical grounds would be difficult to justify under the services directive, for public policy reasons. A ban can only be used if there is
“a sufficiently serious threat to a fundamental interest of society”.
That is not met when we are considering approximately 39 animals in three or four circuses. Under the Human Rights Act, circuses could mount a challenge under article 1 of protocol 1. Any limit on the use of a person’s possessions must be proportionate to the aim of the action being taken. It is difficult, on the basis of the welfare evidence, to justify a ban as a proportionate response.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue of licensing. I do not intend to take all the time available to me, but I want to place a number of points on the record. As has been repeatedly said, there are only a few circuses involved in this situation, and a limited number of animals. We will, therefore, not need the kind of big inspection regime that we have for zoos. This is not an issue for local government—I have to emphasise that to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who raised that point earlier. We will use appropriately qualified Government-appointed veterinary inspectors who are independent, obviously, of industry interest groups. It is conceivable that there may be some local involvement in the inspection process, but they will be DEFRA inspectors. The clear basis of the whole scheme—obviously, we are yet to develop the detail—is that it will be self-funding and that there will be no cost to the taxpayer, contrary to assertions made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. Licence fees would be charged on a full cost recovery basis. We will, as I said, publish proposals, and having had informal conversations with relevant parties—
I apologise for my late arrival to the debate. As part of those discussions, has the Minister spoken to the devolved Governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?
The answer is no, because the issue does not affect the devolved authorities. As I said a few minutes ago in my speech, this is an England-only measure.
The Minister indicated that there have been no discussions. I am aware that the previous Minister with responsibility for agriculture and rural development in the Northern Ireland Assembly contacted DEFRA about this issue, because I raised it with her. Her officials had been advised that consideration of the issue was ongoing. It is being followed closely in Northern Ireland and in Scotland.
I am happy to correct my statement if I am wrong. As I said, this is an England-only matter. [Interruption.] I have just been informed that, incorrectly, I said that there had been no contact. We have kept them informed of what we are doing, but in terms of discussions about structure and so on, the answer is no.
The Minister mentioned zoos earlier, and I seek a point of clarification. Do we keep solitary elephants, camels or big cats in small enclosures in zoos, or is that something that only happens in Scotland? Do we keep solitary animals in zoos?
I have to confess that I cannot answer that question off the top of my head. The zoo licensing regime stands alone from the subject of circuses. As I think the hon. Gentleman appreciates, that is not my responsibility in the Department, so I am afraid that I am not familiar with the detail of the zoo licensing regime.
I am pursuing this because, if it is not appropriate to keep solitary animals in small enclosures, surely that is the same with a circus.
That is a perfectly reasonable presumption to make. I have to come back to the point about how animals are kept, which was raised by the hon. Member for Copeland, and the comments that he attributed to me from an urgent question. In the informal consultation that we are now embarking on, which will lead to draft regulations for formal consultation, we clearly need to take the advice of all interested parties—not just the circus community, but welfare bodies, a number of which have been mentioned today—on what would be appropriate arrangements to ensure the welfare of the animals in a circus, species by species. Obviously, that will vary. We will have to listen to that advice and, presumably, take it. Whatever that advice will lead to will go into the final regulations.
It is quite possible—I can say no more—that the proprietors of circuses, rather than facing the licensing regime, may say that they cannot provide those facilities and stop keeping the animals. I think that the hon. Member for Copeland was trying to ridicule that point, but it is perfectly valid. It could well be—we do not know, because we have not got to that stage in the consultation—that some, if not all, proprietors may say that the costs of licensing, facilities and the area of ground or size of the pen or enclosure are such that they cannot provide them at a reasonable cost and will stop doing so. I cannot pre-judge the outcome, but that is quite possible. What matters—we must not forget this—and what is right at the core of the debate is the welfare of the animal. It is about how we can move, as quickly as possible, to ensure the best welfare for those animals.
I return to my references to the Radford report. Following Radford, the then Government asked two zoo inspectors—I stand to be corrected, but certainly two experienced people—to visit I am not sure how many circuses but at least one to see whether a licensing system could deal with welfare in circuses. They reported that it might well be possible, which is why such a system was considered.
I have no more knowledge of what was in the Minister’s red box before the election than anyone else, but if the then Government were proposing a ban, it is for those Ministers to defend why they wished to override the Radford report and the two inspectors. All that I can say is that our advice is that a serious challenge under two pieces of legislation would be likely. I have tried to be open with the House today, and as helpful as I can be, given the constraints.
We can bring in a system of regulation and licensing that would not cost the taxpayer and would swiftly improve the welfare of wild animals in circuses, and that might well lead to a reduction in animal numbers. I find it difficult to believe the suggestion that such a system could lead to an increase in numbers, certainly of the types of animal that we are discussing—camels, zebras, big cats and so on. Someone used the phrase “no-brainer” earlier, and it is clearly a no-brainer that the conditions that we lay down will be pretty rigorous and robust, and therefore expensive to provide, so expecting them to lead to more animals in circuses I find very difficult to understand.
I have taken a little more time because, fortunately, it was available. I have tried to respond to the various points made by Members in all parts of the House. I fully understand that the subject is highly emotive and that the public are seriously concerned about the welfare of animals, as well as about the ethics and morals. As I have tried to explain, however, that alone cannot provide a basis for legislation because we and Governments of all persuasions must accept the legal conditions in which we operate, whether under legislation previously passed by the House or to which we have become signatories as part of international law. We therefore remain of the view that the quickest, best and most effective way of dramatically improving the welfare of animals in travelling circuses is by the system of regulation and licensing announced by the Secretary of State.
UK and Georgia
It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr Betts.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia. I have just returned from Georgia’s European week, which I attended with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and the shadow Europe Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David). Other friends in the Georgia group, from other parties, were in the country earlier this year.
It is also a pleasure and honour to have the Chairman of the Georgian Parliament, Mr David Bakradze, with us. He has already met Mr Speaker, and we will be meeting the Foreign Secretary this afternoon.
I have a series of questions to put to the Minister, and I hope that he will write to me if he cannot deal with them in his speech.
Ninety years ago, Georgia was a peaceful, social democratic nation, which had escaped the clutches of imperial Russia. Schools, trade unions, co-operatives and votes for women were all established on the Black sea, but that was intolerable to that son of Georgia Mr Stalin, who sent in the Russian army to crush the spirit of freedom and to re-colonise Georgia.
Fast forward eight decades, and Russia looked unhappily on the rose revolution in Georgia, just as it looked unhappily on the orange revolution in Ukraine and on efforts in the other Baltic nations once occupied as Russian colonies to establish their freedom fully. In 2008, matters came to a head with the invasion of Georgia by Russian land, sea and air forces. The tiny Georgian forces fought valiantly and actually shot down a number of Russian aircraft.
However, having occupied large swathes of Georgian territory, Russia did not seek a repeat of 1921. One reason was the courage of the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, who flew to Georgia in August 2008 with other European leaders to show personal solidarity. At the time, the Prime Minister told the “Today” programme:
“One of the most important things we continue to do is stand by Georgia, give Georgia support—support in terms of rebuilding the infrastructure that’s been smashed and broken, support in saying ‘You will be welcome as members of the EU and NATO.’”
I believe that the Prime Minister was speaking for the broad mass of the British people in 2008, when he referred on the BBC to the
“alternative of appeasing Russia and saying, ‘All right then, Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states, these are your backyard, you can do what you like there and we’ll just turn a blind eye’. I think that would make our world far less stable, far less secure. Russia has to understand that she has lost an empire, just as we lost an empire. You have to come to terms with that and it does take time.”
I am not sure whether, during the remainder of this Parliament, I shall again quote at such length and with such agreement the words of the Prime Minister, but he was right then, and his comments remain right today. Will the Minister repeat the Prime Minister’s words, and confirm that the Government’s view is still that the presence of Russian troops and the de facto annexation of the territory of a sovereign UN member state—Georgia—is not acceptable?
The Prime Minister will be aware that two small countries, which were no doubt offered suitable inducements, have offered to recognise the occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. One is Nicaragua, which is currently seeking to negotiate an EU association agreement. Will the Government make it clear to our good friend, Baroness Ashton, that the UK will veto any such association agreement while Nicaragua maintains its recognition of the illegally occupied sovereign territory of Georgia? Might is not right, and the fate and future of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia require careful handling and a new approach. It cannot be right, and does not serve the interests of the people who live there or the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, notably from Abkhazia, who are keen to return home, to maintain the fiction that these are independent states.
There will soon be elections in both Russia and Georgia. On past visits, the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, told me that he would not seek to stay in office or imitate Mr Putin, who seems to alternate between being President and Prime Minister of Russia in the time-honoured way of pre-1989 Russian rule. I hope that Mr Saakashvili maintains that principled decision, because one of the curses of the post-Soviet political space is the failure to understand the need to have what the French call alternance—a change of Government and a change of leader. The desire of leaders to stay in power for ever debilitates all democratic politics.
There is a genuine problem with the lack of coherent opposition in Georgia. Many are opposed to Mr Saakashvili, but even the most diehard of his opponents would find it hard to disagree that the opposition spends as much time in opposition to itself as to Mr Saakashvili. It seeks short cuts to power, such as staging street protests with windy claims that Mr Saakashvili will be ousted.
Last year, I was in Georgia when the opposition created a tent city around the Parliament, and stopped Georgian MPs attending to their parliamentary business. I listened to the speeches then, just as I saw with hon. Friends the demonstrations last week. I gently pointed out that it is a denial of democracy to try to prevent elected parliamentarians from attending their Assembly, Congress or Parliament. The demonstrations 10 days ago turned nasty when a handful of opposition militants covered their faces in cagoules—we might call them balaclavas—which are the symbol of the extreme right throughout Europe’s political history, and used sticks to attack people and the police. The police certainly overreacted and tragically there were deaths, just as there was a death at the London G8 demonstration three years ago.
The Minister for Europe rightly called for an investigation, and there must be no effort to brush what happened under the carpet, but equally the message must be that deliberate provocation aimed at inducing an overreaction with a view to destabilising the country is the antithesis of democratic European politics. I should be grateful if the Minister will write to me with details of the serious allegations that the people who were arrested in Georgia, some of whom were carrying explosives, were apparently sent on the order of forces outside the country to plant small bombs as part of a deliberate strategy to create tension and destabilisation in Georgia.
My right hon. Friend referred to the demonstration in Tbilisi some 10 days ago, and to elements of the demonstration who were intent on causing trouble. Will he confirm what I saw there: individuals with sticks, weapons and balaclavas who were clearly intent on making trouble rather than having a peaceful demonstration?
My hon. Friend is right. He never misses a good demonstration if there is one to witness or take part in, and his witness statement is an important correction to the view that the violence came only from the state security services, even if in my judgment—I have spent too much of my life at too many demonstrations—there was an overreaction by the state authorities.
A strategy of deliberate tension will not help the people of Georgia, who need bread and roses, jobs and freedom, and the patient establishment of democratic norms and values. This morning, Mr Speaker did his opposite number, the Chairman of the Georgian Parliament, the honour of receiving him, and I hope that the Minister will tell the House today that the Minister for Europe plans to visit Georgia shortly. We must not forget the sacrifice of Georgian troops standing side by side with our own in Afghanistan. Five have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aldershot, has recently paid a visit. As we approach the third anniversary of the Russian invasion and the Prime Minister’s solidarity trip to Georgia, I hope that he will go there again soon. Will the Minister say something about the plans that the Foreign Office might have for a ministerial visit?
Georgia is a loyal friend at the United Nations, and when I met President Saakashvili 10 days ago, I urged him to recognise Kosovo because, for understandable if mistaken parallels, Tbilisi is on the same wavelength as Moscow, not its Euro-Atlantic friends. It would be an important diplomatic step for Georgia to line up with this country, and the bulk of the European Union and the world’s democracies, by offering diplomatic recognition to Kosovo.
Mr Saakashvili has insisted that Georgia will never be the first to use force in the event of further military aggression or pressure from Russia. He has said that he is willing to meet President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev in any place and at any time to negotiate a settlement. Will the Minister assure us that when the Prime Minister goes to Moscow in September, he will urge the Russian leadership to meet Mr Saakashvili and negotiate on a Government to Government basis, instead of continuing with the highly ad hominem abuse that Moscow directs towards the Georgian leader in a manner that demeans the honour and dignity of a great nation such as Russia?
Will the Minister speak to coalition Members of Parliament who serve on the Council of Europe? Many members of the Council were shocked to find that Conservative MPs sit in the same group as Kremlin-controlled Russian MPs, and thus failed to support moves to hold Russia to account for its invasion and occupation of Georgia. As the Minister is a Liberal Democrat, perhaps he will have a word with one or two—at least one—of his Liberal Democrat colleagues at the Council of Europe who take a similar position and seem keen to get into bed with Russia.
Will the Minister confirm that the installation of S300 missiles in Abkhazia is in violation of the ceasefire agreement that was signed with President Sarkozy on behalf of the European Union in August 2008? Will he confirm that the EU, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and other international monitors, are denied full access to Russian occupied territories in Georgia, in violation of the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement? I have seen the new internal line of occupation and European division deep in Georgian sovereign territory. How sad to look through sandbagged bunkers over barbed wire, at Russian soldiers under a Russian flag glaring down their gunsights at me. Surely that is not the Europe in which we wish to live two decades after Soviet communist tyranny came to an end.
In case the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks suggested that there are differences between the parties on this matter, let me say that a few months ago I went to Georgia with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I, too, visited the internal border with South Ossetia and saw the Russian troops through binoculars. Admittedly, they were standing around looking rather bored, but I agree that it is wholly unacceptable that such a throwback to the old Soviet empire exists today, with Russian troops occupying part of an independent sovereign state.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I wish that more people could see that Russian occupation, and the sandbags, barbed-wire divisions, checkpoints and full-scale occupation that we thought had disappeared 20 years ago. It is a shocking sight in contemporary Europe.
Will the Minister convey to the Minister for Europe my request, and that of many hon. Members, that he goes to Georgia to see the situation for himself, and will he ask the Prime Minister to reaffirm UK support for Georgia? Why has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cut the grant to the British Council in Georgia by nearly 50%? Surely we need more contact with Georgian civil society, not less. The Georgian economy is doing well and growing by more than 6% a year. As Professor Neil MacFarlane of Oxford University noted in a recent paper for the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, on whose council I have the honour to serve:
“Economic performance since the 2008 war has been better than expected.”
That, he argues, reflects
“the Government’s improvement in economic governance since the rose revolution. The Saakashvili Government did a very impressive job of stabilising the political situation after the war.”
There are opportunities for UK business, especially in tourism, education and services, and I am seeking to establish contacts between the scrap metal industries in both our countries. It may be little known in London, but Britain and Georgia are experts in the business of scrap metal. Due to great demand, more steel was produced last year than in most of the previous century, so there is some economic opportunity for the northern regions of the UK and Georgia.
Georgia is wisely opening its borders to investment and abolishing visa requirements for its neighbours, and it is time that Britain liberalised its visa regime. In the current issue of The House magazine, Members can read an article by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston about the visit she went on with me and our hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly to Europe week in Georgia. She states that the EU should offer a type of European Free Trade Association deal to Georgia. It is for the four remaining EFTA member states to decide who can join them, although EFTA countries have to accept most EU directives and regulations, which may not be appropriate for Georgia at this stage of its development. My hon. Friend is right, however, to underline the need for Georgia to develop good relations with the EU. As ever, it is strange to go to a small nation such as Georgia and hear positive words about the EU, and then come home to listen to the whine of Europhobic comments from the Conservative party and the Europhobic media. Luckily, the Minister is a Liberal Democrat, so we will hear no such nonsense from him.
Russia’s policy is clear: Russia up, America down, and Europe out. I want to see a common EU policy in the Black sea region, and a common EU policy towards Georgia that aims to bring the country fully into the community of European nations. I hope that the Minister will instruct his officials to work towards that end.
Thank you, Mr Betts, for the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate; it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on introducing the topic with his customary panache and considerable wisdom; it is an important opportunity for hon. Members to consider our relationship with Georgia. We all benefit from the right hon. Gentleman’s long-held interest and active approach towards Georgia, and I am pleased to join him in welcoming the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament to this short debate. I am also pleased that the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament has had the opportunity during his time in London to meet the Speaker of our Parliament, and that he will meet the Foreign Secretary this afternoon.
Georgia matters to Britain, and its stability, democracy and prosperity are important. The Government are keen to build on our excellent bilateral relationship and help Georgia to become a leading example of a country that has made a successful transition to democracy and an open market economy. Georgia is a key energy transit route and provides a corridor from central Asia to Europe, which importantly bypasses Russia. That makes Georgia an important partner and offers good prospects for United Kingdom trade and investment. The right hon. Gentleman also touched on existing economic opportunities, and the Government are alert to those opportunities and are working to develop them.
Since the rose revolution, President Saakashvili’s Government have embarked on an ambitious reform programme that combines modernised law enforcement bodies, market liberalisation and the building of democratic institutions. Georgia has made a great deal of progress in a relatively short period of time.
Does the Minister agree that one of the most impressive changes to have occurred in Georgia is the transformation of the police force? The Georgian Government have acted speedily in that area to bring about not only change but a transformation in a short space of time.
I have not had the same opportunity as the hon. Gentleman to see those matters at first hand, but I am delighted that he feels that important progress has been made. Such progress is a key trait of a country that is increasingly embracing those values to which we in Britain attach importance.
On that point, I concur with the hon. Member for Caerphilly. As the Minister may know, I am chair of the British-Ukraine all-party group. One of the greatest problems afflicting all former Soviet states is corruption. I am hugely impressed by the progress that Georgia has made in stamping out corruption, which is the greatest barrier to the development of industry and trade with those countries.
I am further reassured by that piece of expertise. It is important to have police forces which are not corrupt, which the public have confidence in and which strike the right balance in maintaining law and order without inappropriately extending the power of the state.
Although considerable progress has been made, I am sure our Georgian friends will readily agree that Georgia must keep up the pace of economic and political reform to realise her Euro-Atlantic aspirations. With parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, Georgia will be stronger for vigorous debate between the Government and the democratic opposition.
We are saddened by the loss of life and injuries caused on 26 May, when a demonstration in Tbilisi turned violent. The right hon. Member for Rotherham has given his analysis of that situation. The British Government are concerned about allegations of excessive force used against some protesters and journalists, and we urge the Georgian Government to ensure that there is a prompt and transparent investigation.
Equally, we are concerned by reports that some protesters were more interested in violent confrontation than peaceful protest. As the Minister for Europe has said, there is a place for legal protest and demonstrations in a democracy, but there can be no place for the organised violence that some, including the right hon. Member for Rotherham, believe was the characteristic feature of the protest on 26 May.
We strongly support Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity and its continued progress towards European Union and NATO integration. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David). As we can also see in the Balkans, there are many countries around Europe that are not members of the European Union but aspire to be members, which is an important lever for ensuring progress in those countries. We should bear that in mind during our internal debates in Britain. We are arguing Georgia’s corner strongly in negotiations on closer integration with the European Union, and in NATO we are backing Georgia’s efforts to meet the standards required for eventual membership.
We stand firmly with Georgia in its ongoing dispute with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When the Prime Minister, as the then Leader of the Opposition, visited Tbilisi in August 2008 in the immediate aftermath of the conflict with Russia, he highlighted the importance of holding Russia to account for its actions. More than two and a half years after the conflict, we continue to press the Russians to comply fully with the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreements that ended the fighting in 2008—in particular, by allowing access for the EU monitoring mission to Georgia’s breakaway regions and withdrawing troops to pre-conflict positions.
May I reiterate the importance of making the position clear to Nicaragua? Vanuatu, wherever that is—it may still be above the sea somewhere—has also recognised South Ossetia. But in the case of Nicaragua, which is a serious country, it cannot expect to have full agreement with the EU while it is still playing these childish games of interference in the Black sea region.
Perhaps I will gloss over the right hon. Gentleman’s observations on Vanuatu. I accept that Nicaragua has a foreign policy that is occasionally erratic. I will ensure that his points are understood and that the people in the Foreign Office who consider Latin American policy do not do so while divorced from considerations about Georgia and, more widely, European issues.
The British Government work hard to keep the unresolved conflicts on the EU’s agenda and continue to fund the secondment of UK personnel to the EU monitoring mission. That mission has played a crucial role in promoting stability and preventing renewed fighting in the region. However, Russian pressure on Georgia is persistent and persistently provocative. We remain concerned about the Russian military build-up in Georgia’s breakaway regions. Georgia has shown admirable restraint, and we encourage it to continue to do so as a solution is sought.
Georgia’s conflicts will not be resolved overnight. Resolution will require patience and engagement from all sides in the long term. We continue to encourage the Georgian leadership to engage the South Ossetians and, in particular, the Abkhaz. Direct dialogue with the breakaway regions is the only way to prevent their de facto absorption into Russia and to lay the foundations for a negotiated solution, however distant that prospect may appear at the moment.
The United Kingdom has worked alongside other international partners to encourage a policy that does not isolate the breakaway regions but gives them incentives to maintain links with Georgia. We will continue to support projects that provide people-to-people contacts that help to improve understanding between Georgians, Abkhaz and South Ossetians; support confidence building and conflict resolution; and improve the human rights and welfare of the affected populations. Again, we recognise that that will not be easy, but we will encourage Georgia to take a pragmatic and flexible approach to engagement that will help to persuade the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that they stand to benefit from co-operation with Tbilisi.
The United Kingdom continues to support fully the Geneva talks, which remain an important tool for conflict resolution. They remain the only regular forum at which all parties to the conflict meet. The regularity of the meetings, combined with the local-level incident prevention and response mechanism meetings, helps to manage tensions among Georgia, Russia and the breakaway regions. Despite the slow rate of progress, we believe that it is very important to continue the talks, thus keeping open the prospect of building on areas of common interest—in particular, human rights and internally displaced persons.
The British Government believe that the European Union plays a crucial role in preserving stability in Georgia through the presence of the EU monitoring mission, an EU special representative and a comprehensive package of financial assistance. The UK continues to offer strong political support to the EUMM, currently providing 17 monitors and headquarters staff. The presence of the EUMM has been a crucial stabilising factor, helping to defuse any potentially serious situations along the administrative boundary lines. With the demise of the United Nations observer mission and the OSCE mission in Georgia, the EUMM is the only remaining international observer mission on the ground, although it does not have access to the breakaway regions. We continue to raise that with Russia.
The prospect of greater integration with the European Union, particularly on trade and visas, remains a key driver of Georgia’s reform programme, as I have mentioned. Negotiations on an EU-Georgia association agreement started last year. We look forward to further progress on that and towards achieving a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, while encouraging and assisting Georgia to meet the necessary technical requirements. Progress in those areas will help to improve trade and prosperity and bring about closer ties through culture and education.
On that note, I acknowledge the points made by the right hon. Member for Rotherham with regard to the British Council. I value the work of the British Council. It is very important that Britain’s values, if I can put it in those terms—I am talking about our soft power—are extended through the work of many institutions, of which the British Council is one. Georgia’s culture and traditions are part of the European heritage, and the younger generation in particular are attracted by what we might describe as broad European values. There is a particular interest in learning English, which is now officially the second language of Georgia. It is obviously in our interest that that interest is encouraged. I am pleased to note that the British Council is working to take advantage of that demand, building on its strong reputation locally. I hope that the British Council will be able to continue to exercise a strong presence in Georgia.
I reiterate the United Kingdom’s strong support for Georgia. The Prime Minister underlined that when he met President Saakashvili at the Lisbon summit last November. Only this week, the Minister with responsibility for international security strategy, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), was in Tbilisi to discuss Georgia’s NATO aspirations and to thank Georgia for its invaluable support for our joint efforts in Afghanistan. The right hon. Member for Rotherham rightly recognised that, and the Minister for Europe—the right hon. Gentleman also asked about this—plans to visit Tbilisi later this year.
All that adds up to a strong bilateral relationship, which we hope to develop even further as we continue to support Georgia’s desire for deeper European Union integration, assist the Georgian reform process and work to enhance trade links. Again, I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham for the opportunity to discuss these issues. I also thank other hon. Members who take an interest in Britain’s relations with Georgia and matters in Georgia more generally, and I encourage them to continue to take an interest.
In conclusion, I again extend a warm welcome to our Georgian friends who are here in London. I know that the Foreign Secretary is very much looking forward to meeting the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament here in London this afternoon.
[Mr Lee Scott in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the support for victims in the judicial system. Many Members are interested in the subject, and some might wish to take part in the debate. I made it clear to both the Minister and the shadow Minister that I wish to focus on the tragic case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson, which I raised more than 10 years ago in a parliamentary debate on 8 January 2001.
I have been working on the case with Joanne Bryce and her family, who come from my constituency in St Ives. We have pursued a number of issues that have arisen from the killing of Claire Oldfield-Hampson in 1996. Unfortunately, those issues have never resulted in any kind of closure for the family and many remain unresolved. I am pleased to say that my constituent was able to visit me in Parliament today and will be monitoring this debate.
I wish to bring this issue to a number of general conclusions that may be relevant to other cases in today’s debate. I have given the Minister advance notice of the background to the case and the issues that arise that are relevant to his portfolio. A range of concerns fall under the broad umbrella of victim support. No doubt, Members will find that a number of those concerns differ from the ones that they want to raise, but some will be similar.
We are debating this issue on a day when the consultation on the Government’s sentencing policy has come to a close. Although that is not directly relevant to the issues that I raise, there are some indirect references to the manner in which the cases are dealt with. In this instance, the case was mounted in mitigation. In other words, the convicted was prepared to accept a manslaughter charge rather than a murder charge.
I come to this issue in support of my constituents. I have no legal training or any experience of the court system, particularly the criminal justice system. Looking at the issues that have arisen from this case, I have to say that I was overwhelmingly shocked at what I considered to be an absolute travesty of justice. As I said in the debate more than 10 years ago, this is the case of an innocent victim who was treated by the judicial system as if she were the perpetrator of the crime and her husband the victim: the trial primarily dealt with the case in mitigation and did not address any of the points that would have challenged that.
The people whom we are talking about today are the victims of a series of events, which, if their case gets to court, could be described as life-changing, life-defining or, tragically in the case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson, life-ending. The justice system uses as a metaphor the image of the scales—the scales of justice—which have to be balanced. Yet the debate that takes place is often remote from the events themselves and can be conceptual and intellectual. Those engaged in the system never wish to appear to prejudge any case. None the less, the case that I wish to present today shows that victims are often treated in an imbalanced manner by the system itself.
Let me explain the background to the case. According to the courts, Claire Oldfield-Hampson was unlawfully killed by her husband with a hammer on 25 September 1996. He buried her body in a shallow grave in the garden in the early hours of the following day. Within two days, he was using her bank accounts and leading a life of deception involving their seven-year-old child, Felicity, who provided excuses for her mother’s absence.
The deception was perpetrated for two years. Calls in person and by telephone were received by Hampson and further excuses were given. Regular contact was maintained between Felicity and her grandmother, Mary Oldfield, who became a constituent of mine, but who sadly died a few years ago. At that time, she lived only five miles away. Mary met the child on a fortnightly basis. She baked cakes to send to Claire, knitted for her and exchanged Christmas, birthday and wedding anniversary cards. They had been very close. Mary Oldfield gave a cheque for £3,000 to David Hampson to give to Claire to help them through some difficult times and she offered them a car. The family was supportive to the Hampsons in many ways.
The deception continued until the family—Joanne Bryce and her husband, Alex—became increasingly concerned and encouraged the commencement of police investigations in December 1998. Hampson confessed to killing his wife only when it became absolutely clear that there was no other possible explanation for her absence.
Hampson was tried at Northampton Crown court in October 1999. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility because he alleged that he was depressively ill as a result of his wife’s constant nagging.
Judge Francis Allen concluded by accepting that Hampson’s wife behaved in a way that was calculated to impact on his mind. The judge gave Hampson a six-year prison sentence that was then reduced to four years on appeal in July 2000. He was released in December 2000, only 14 months after the original trial.
During the two-year deception, Hampson plundered Claire’s bank account, shares and insurances to the tune of £11,000 and fraudulently claimed benefits. The intention of seeking a conviction for fraud was dropped on the grounds that Hampson would ultimately be tried for a more serious capital offence. Four days before the original trial, the Crown Prosecution Service accepted a plea for manslaughter. No witnesses were called; there was no jury; and the trial took under an hour. If anyone wishes to read an example of what I consider to be injustice, they should read the transcript of that trial, which was purely a case in mitigation.
Claire Oldfield-Hampson was killed by her husband in 1996 and then she was exhumed by the state from the garden that she had been buried in, dragged along to the court and slaughtered again in public—verbally. It was a travesty, frankly. I urge people to look at this case. If it is an example of what our judicial system does, we should be ashamed of what we do in the name of the victims of capital offences, such as murder and manslaughter.
In fact, there were several travesties in the court, beginning with the opening words of the defence counsel. The defence counsel said that Hampson was
“a man of good character”.
Hampson killed his wife; buried her in the garden; took her money from her; deceived her family and the world; involved a child in that deception; attempted to defraud the benefit system; fraudulently accepted money from his mother-in-law; and he only accepted his guilt at the 11th hour. In addition, he had a less than impressive—in fact, it was rather dubious—employment record. Apart from all that, perhaps he was a man of good character, but the rest of it does not look very good, does it? Nevertheless, we were told that he was
“a man of good character”.
We were also told that Hampson was depressively ill and that there was a causal link between that illness and the killing. Two years after the killing, he was seen by two psychiatrists. Basically, the case for prosecuting him for manslaughter rather than murder was based on what I described at the time and still describe now as the flimsy science of retrospective psychiatry. Somehow, it is thought that a psychiatrist can determine the state of mind of someone two years previously—someone who, as the evidence shows, was known to be very successful at deceiving people—yet Hampson was able, in my view, to deceive everyone involved in the whole system into believing that he had taken those actions and killed his wife as a result of her constant nagging, which we were told had impacted on his mind. In fact, we were told that the nagging was calculated to impact on his mind. So we were told that Claire was constantly nagging Hampson, making him depressively ill. Once again, however, there was little corroborative evidence and no opportunity for proper cross-examination.
Perhaps what was most hurtful of all were the claims made in the case that Felicity, Claire’s seven-year-old daughter, had
“received very little love or affection from her mother”.
The transcript of the case continues, saying that Felicity
“turned very much more to her father, who was a warm, kind and loving parent to her.”
I sent the Hansard report of the 2001 debate in Parliament on this case to the then Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, and subsequently I met him to take him through what I considered to be some of the inadequacies in the system. We went through some of the issues and indeed he wrote to me again in August 2001 to try to contradict some of the claims that I had made to him. The claim that Claire’s daughter received very little love or affection from her mother might sound like a rather subjective assessment, but I felt that it was very significant and that I should say so. Joanne Bryce and her husband demanded a police investigation, which was undertaken by Bedfordshire police, as a result of the complaints that were made about the way that Claire’s family were treated.
Then David Calvert-Smith wrote to me out of the blue in December 2002 with a letter of apology, which I thought was very noteworthy. In that letter, which is dated 24 December 2002, he said:
“Specifically, in my letter of 7 August 2001 third paragraph I asserted there was no evidence on the prosecution file to support the statement “that Claire loved her daughter very much”. At the time of the prosecution and indeed at the time I wrote to you that was correct. What has now become apparent from the Bedfordshire enquiry is that had other witnesses been seen and interviewed during the original investigation and other sources of information examined and revealed to the CPS, then that assertion (that there was no evidence that Claire loved her daughter) should not, and would not, have been made. Although not directly privy to the Bedfordshire Police enquiry, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Cambridgeshire and his staff have been assisting that Force’s investigation in every possible way. I do not know and cannot anticipate what the eventual outcome of that enquiry will be”—
etc, etc. He continued:
“My statement will understandably have caused distress to Mr and Mrs Bryce. I am sorry that you and they were given what has now been revealed to be wrong information.”
The fact is that one of the fundamental arguments in mitigation was the charge that Claire was an uncaring and unloving mother and a nagging wife. Of course, just a small amount of additional investigation proved that charge to be untrue.
Quite apart from what, in my view, was the travesty of justice meted out to the memory of Claire Oldfield-Hampson by two courts of law, a number of other issues need to be addressed. Some of them have been addressed by the Government since the trial. The Crown Prosecution Service at Huntingdon had said that the charge would never be downgraded from murder to manslaughter, yet Claire’s family were told only five days before the trial that the charge would be manslaughter rather than murder when the CPS phoned to let them know, giving them no opportunity to have a discussion or to challenge why.
My constituent, Joanne Bryce, points out:
“There was no trial only a hearing with no jury and no witnesses, and no-one to challenge the information that had been taken from Hampson.”
Only Hampson’s argument was heard. Joanne also pointed out:
“There was a complete character vilification of Claire – 9 out of 11 national newspapers ran with the headline “Nagging Wife killed by husband”. It seemed that nagging was the capital crime and the killing just a minor incident. All this went unchallenged…Claire’s personal diaries must have evidence of family relationship”.
There was certainly a lot of material in Claire’s diaries that was never made available at the time or shown to the court. There was also video evidence about Felicity’s relationship with her mother and Joanne notes that
“there were 66 exhibits which had there been a trial would have been in the public domain.”
I have already mentioned the flimsy science of retrospective psychiatry. The police failed to provide a Home Office information pack; they did not provide a family liaison officer and there was a failure to identify the senior investigating officer, so Claire’s family were never told who that officer was. There was a failure to provide information about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme in respect of the funeral expenses; there was a failure to obtain evidence of Claire’s character; there was a failure to investigate fraud and theft; and the family were denied access to Felicity, who had been placed in the care of the murderer’s family.
There are other issues that have arisen that I want the Minister to address, particularly the fundamental right of a murderer to remain the next of kin of their victim. As a result, the murderer still has the right to access the estate of the person they have murdered, in the case of a domestic killing such as this one, so my constituent, the sister of the woman who had been killed, had no right of access to the house, whereas the murderer’s family could go in and help themselves to what they wished. She had to plead with the murderer for access to the death certificate to proceed with the funeral. The murderer had full access to all the family heirlooms and to Claire Oldfield-Hampson’s records from way before they first met, but all of that was denied to the blood relatives.
I think the Minister knows the question I wish to ask today. Is it not right that someone charged with a capital offence, but not yet convicted, should have such rights at least suspended, if not removed entirely? I cannot understand how this kind of situation can occur in this country, with a murderer having control over the estate and life memory of the person they have murdered. Should we not be addressing ourselves to these issues?
There was a swathe of other failings in the case, many of which were identified by the Bedfordshire police investigation. The report of the investigation was submitted in December 2002, but even now, nearly 10 years on, the family are seeking to gain access to the full version, which contains more than 100 redactions.
Before today’s debate, I sent the Minister my notes, and I urge him to look carefully at the case and address the issues that I have outlined. I had hoped that the Claire Oldfield-Hampson case was a one-off, but since then other people have contacted me about similar ones. Recently, Angela Geddes of Carnoustie in Angus contacted me. She spoke out after her father Roger admitted killing his wife Ann at the couple’s home there. She gave me a newspaper cutting, which states:
“The daughter of a woman killed in a horrific axe attack by her husband has hit out at a decision to allow her father to plead guilty to a reduced charge of culpable homicide. Speaking after her father Roger Geddes admitted killing wife Ann, the couple’s daughter Angela Geddes said: ‘The family are devastated at the lack of justice and the charade we have seen in court’.”
That case is in the different legal context and judicial system of Scotland, but the killing took place only last year and the same argument applies. Angela Geddes says:
“I do believe he has managed to deceive the psychiatrists who do not know his true colours and only hope he shows them before he is released and becomes a danger to my family and the wider public.”
Again, just last year psychiatric evidence was used to mount a case in mitigation.
It is a good thing that this Government and the previous Government have committed resources to Victim Support and other advocates for victims. There is also the code of practice for victims of crime, but even Victim Support has contacted me to complain that although the code covers most of the issues,
“Local Criminal Justice Boards have now been asked to stop reporting on it to the Ministry of Justice, meaning it’s now essentially not being enforced. This bodes very badly for victims”.
The hon. Gentleman paints a very vivid picture of the trials of his ongoing fight for justice for his constituents. I was interested to read the extract from Hansard that he sent us, of a speech he made in the House in 2001:
“First and foremost, our justice system should consider the victims and their families. After all, it is primarily on their behalf that our society seeks to uphold the law and administer justice. Victims are already grieving and aggrieved parties. The process should not leave them more aggrieved.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 852.]
In my constituency, James McVey, a young man of just 18 years of age, lost his life to what is sometimes termed “a one-punch assault.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at times far too much emphasis is placed on the rights of the perpetrators of acts of violence and not on the rights of their victims?
Although I say it myself, I could not have put it better myself. The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely right. The conclusion that we draw from these kinds of cases is that the perpetrators appear to be treated with a great deal more respect than the victims. I do not think that we have the balance right; the scales of justice have tipped over too far in some cases.
I am aware that many other people wish to take part in the debate and I apologise for having spoken at such length, but I feel very passionately about this deeply concerning matter. I have these questions for the Minister. Does he agree that the issues raised by this case and by the difficulty that we have had in trying to secure justice, clarity and closure, would benefit from a departmental review? What progress has been made in the 10 years that have passed since I first raised the issues, and what progress still needs to be made? Although the introduction of victim statements has helped, they have been rather intermittent and not widely used, so what further proposals are there to ensure that victims and their families receive fair treatment? Does the Minister agree that it is appropriate to suspend the rights of people charged with murder and manslaughter, including their entitlement to be next of kin, hold the death certificate and handle the victim’s estate, and finally, does he agree that claims made in mitigation should be open to challenge in court by victims and their families?
My constituents have been unable to achieve what they seek: closure. In fact, the further they look into the case the further they appear to be from closure. We would certainly welcome an opportunity to meet the Justice Minister to ensure that lessons are learnt from this and the many other cases in which we believe justice has not been served.
This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Mr Scott, and I hope that I do not disappoint. I assure both you and Members who are hoping to speak that I intend to make only a very short contribution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George)on securing the debate, and I am afraid that with my contribution I shall further demonstrate that his constituents’ experience was not a one-off. This is a very timely debate because yesterday one of the men convicted of murdering Russell, the son of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Crookes, was released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence. The murder of Russell Crookes by Graham Wallis and Neil Sayers was brutal and sent shock waves through the local community, but it is the experience of the victim’s family, who have lived the past 12 years at the mercy of the criminal justice system, on which I wish to focus this afternoon.
As I read the Hansard of the debate secured by the hon. Member for St Ives a decade ago, I was struck by his words:
“I simply want to make the case for greater consideration in the courts of victims and their families, especially in cases involving capital offences in which victims cannot be present in person to defend themselves against accusations that may be made against them.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 848.]
Russell was a victim who could not defend himself. In the blink of an eye, his family lost their son. They will grieve for ever, but they lost more than their son; they lost their faith in a system that has, in their view, consistently put the rights of the perpetrators before their own. That system promises on paper to protect and support victims, but sometimes fails to do so in practice. The charities that do an excellent job of supporting victims’ families emotionally are being undermined by mistakes that could be avoided easily if the system were improved.
I do not have time to discuss in detail all the errors experienced by the Crookes family, but Mr Crookes has been left in no doubt that the victims of crime and, in his case, murder are treated with little or no thought whatever. It is clear from my constituents’ experience that communication and co-operation between the various units working within the criminal justice system are poor and need complete overhaul. In his case, the left hand and right hand did not always know what the other was doing. Unfortunately, as a consequence, the Crookes family lost the opportunity to provide a victim personal statement to the parole board reviewing Mr Wallis’s conditions, an incident that a previous Justice Minister called “unacceptable”.
As the family of the victim, they have experienced additional trauma due to communication failures and have often been left feeling that the system is loaded in favour of the perpetrator of the crime, with little or no understanding for the victim. A recent example occurred when the Crookes family requested that a particular London borough be included in the exclusion zone when Mr Wallis was released, as a member of the Crookes family regularly works in and visits the borough. Their request was not granted, as the perpetrator has family of his own in the borough, which would apparently assist greatly with his rehabilitation into the community. The decision has left the Crookes family feeling as though asking for their views was merely a tick-box exercise. Although they recognise that their natural desire for the men who killed their son to stay in prison for ever is an impossible one, they feel that it is unjust that their rights should appear secondary, and that is what makes them angry.
Finally, I turn to the financial impact on victims’ families. The issue has been in the news recently, and I know that the Government and the victims’ commissioner are considering it, which is welcome. Understandably, the families of those who are murdered can be left severely traumatised during difficult periods such as parole boards or release dates and may need psychiatric assistance. It is an expensive service that they would not need if it were not for the actions of others. Yet again, it is the victim who is punished. I hope that when the Government and the commissioner consider victims’ financial losses, they consider counselling costs.
The Crookes family have suffered from a system that they think has not served them well. Over the years, they have made useful suggestions through my predecessor and me for reform to increase equality for victims. They include proper consultation and listening exercises with victims rather than tick-box exercises; better training for those involved in offender management and victim liaison so that victims know, for example, that they are entitled to submit statements in advance of parole boards; and a system that makes it apparent to the panel in cases when no victim personal statement is made that it is because the victim has decided not to submit one, rather than because a mistake has been made in the process.
We must gain some sense of justice for victims. Mr Crookes said to me in an e-mail yesterday that
“we miss Russ greatly but as victims his and our human rights are being violated all the time to suit the criminal”.
If that is how a family feel at the end of the process, the system has failed, and the Government need to recognise and reform that failure before they let down the family of another murder victim.
I apologise for the hoarseness of my voice, Mr Scott. Hopefully, with the help of a glass of water, I will be able to proceed.
This debate is on support for victims of crime. I want to raise the issue of a group of British victims who have received no material support from their Government—British victims of terrorist attacks overseas. Those victims deserve support from their Government not only on the practical level—travel insurers are usually unwilling to cover the costs associated with death or injury resulting from a terrorist attack—but, more fundamentally, because British citizens remain British citizens wherever they may be, and particularly because of the context of Britain’s central role in the fight against global terrorism.
For those reasons, British victims of overseas terrorism deserve the state’s support, yet British victims of attacks in Bali, Sharm el Sheikh, Turkey and Mumbai have received no material support from their Government. They have been left to struggle with the costs of repatriation of dead or injured loved ones and the costs imposed by serious injury and disability. That is wrong. Our Government’s obligations to citizens do not cease outside our borders, and it is fair to say that Britain’s central role in the global fight against terrorism creates added risk for British citizens. The Mumbai attacks are one example. As I am sure that hon. Members are aware, the Mumbai terrorists specifically sought out those with US and British passports. British citizens must not be intimidated out of travelling the world freely by the threat of terrorist attack. We, as a state, and our Government should do everything in our power to minimise the risks associated with terrorism overseas.
The absence of Government support has been deeply frustrating for victims and their families. In the aftermath of attacks in Turkey and Egypt in 2005, survivors and bereaved relatives were initially told to look to the perpetrators of the attack for damages, or to the Government of the country where the attack occurred. Neither of those options is credible. One can imagine the difficulties in trying to receive compensation from the terrorists themselves, and although we have reciprocal agreements with some foreign countries, particularly within the EU, we have no such agreements, or no effective agreements, with many other countries. Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey and India are but a few of those countries, and threats in those countries to British and western tourists are growing.
Since 2005, groups of families have run sustained campaigns to change the situation. The families have worked with Members past and present from all parties to bring the issue to the Government’s attention. Those Members include Ian McCartney, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who as Minister with responsibility for the issue set up the previous Government’s humanitarian assistance unit.
After many false starts, the previous Government instituted a victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme in January 2010. Sections 47 to 54 of the Crime and Security Act 2010 made full provision for the Secretary of State for Justice to introduce the scheme. Compensation would have been payable to all victims of overseas terror attacks occurring from 18 January 2010 onwards. In addition, the previous Government promised one-off, ex gratia payments specifically to survivors of the Bali bombings. Many terror survivors received letters informing them about their compensation signed by the former Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and the former Cabinet Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. We know that the practical and legal obstacles to a terror compensation scheme can be overcome. It is possible to give British victims of overseas terrorism the support that they deserve.
Of course, with a change of Government, the landscape often changes. After an election, families are forced to go back to square one with a new Government—one cannot complain about that, because that is what happens in a democracy. However, families have had to ask for an explanation of the new Government’s position on the statutory scheme and the ex gratia payments to survivors. They were told to wait first until after the comprehensive spending review and then until after the current review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. As hon. Members will understand, that was a real blow to survivors and families when they felt that their battle had been won.
MPs of all parties have been pushing the Government on this issue. In a recent Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), the Minister signalled that the review of the CICS would be completed by the summer recess, and that is welcome news. However, that leaves many unanswered questions, which survivors would like the Minister to address, so let me put them to him. First, what aspects of the overseas terror compensation scheme will be covered by the review? Secondly, will the Government make a decision on the implementation of those clauses of the Crime and Security Act 2010 that relate to this issue? Thirdly, will they make a decision on ex gratia payments to existing terror victims in the course of their review? Fourthly, if they are unwilling to fund compensation, what work are they doing to persuade insurers to extend their coverage to include acts of terror? Finally, what contact have they had with British victims of recent terror attacks in Morocco, Israel and Russia, who would have been eligible for compensation had the previous Government’s legislation been acted on?
I hope that the Minister can throw some light on those and other issues. I know for a fact that the families of British victims of overseas terrorism will be delighted if the Government can push forward on this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. He set out the tragic case of his constituent, Claire Oldfield-Hampson, which he has clearly pursued relentlessly over the past 10 years.
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention, and possibly that of other Members, to a number of issues. For example, when the defendant attacks the victim’s character or reputation, the victim or their family should have the opportunity to defend it. Defendants should also be made fully aware of the fact that if they accede to a guilty plea, any claims they make against their victims will be open to full and proper scrutiny. My hon. Friend also made a number of points about who can control the estate. All of them are strong points, and I am sure that the Minister will give them detailed consideration when he responds. Incidentally, it is one of the strengths of this Chamber that Members have time to raise such issues in detail, given that the time to do so is often not available to us on the Floor of the House.
I welcome the steps that the Government have taken so far to support victims, such as their proposals to ensure that the victims fund is supported through deductions made from prisoners’ earnings while they are working in prison. At the beginning of this year, the Secretary of State also announced funding that organisations such as Victim Support could bid for, and that is very welcome.
I want to raise a couple of cases that are relevant in general terms. They involve victims of crime abroad, although not victims of terrorism, which was the issue raised by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont). I understand that this is the responsibility not of the Minister, but of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I hope that he will be able to respond, because the issues are pertinent to victims. There are also issues about whether UK victims of crime abroad could access victim support services here, so these things have a UK bearing.
I shall refer to two cases, which I have raised previously in this Chamber, most recently on 3 November 2010, when the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), responded. The first involves Robbie Hughes, who is a British citizen. He was on holiday in Malia, in Crete, when he was allegedly attacked by a group of British tourists, and left severely brain-damaged as a result. The second involves Neil Juwaheer, the son of a constituent, who died in suspicious circumstances in a Brazilian police station. According to the autopsy carried out by the family, he had been bound with cable and had suffered serious injuries, including head injuries. The police allege that he had drugs on him, but the evidence they say they had went missing and suspiciously turned up a number of months, if not years, later. The family have been trying to have DNA tests made on the package of alleged evidence, about which they are very suspicious, to see whether it was ever inside Neil Juwaheer, as the police allege, or whether the police in fact produced it subsequently because they thought they needed evidence to substantiate their allegations about what happened, which seemed to be in direct contrast to the family’s autopsy.
I know that at least one other Member is seeking to get into the debate, so I will make just two points. First, the Minister may not be aware that work is going on at European level on victim support systems. The European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, is looking at new laws to require victim support systems in every EU country. This is the sort of thing the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) might be inclined to intervene on, so before he does, let me just say—he might be surprised to hear this—that I do not support the initiative. I do not think the EU should set EU-wide laws on the victim support systems that should be required in every country. However, the EU may have a role in trying to ensure that other European partners learn from best practice here. As I understand it, victim support in the UK is indeed very good, compared with virtually anything else that is happening in Europe.
The Minister may want to take the issue up with the FCO to see what discussions have taken place on the initiative. It has been pushed by Maggie Hughes, the mother of Robbie, my constituent, and it has received a lot of interest around Europe, including in Germany, where it is likely to feature shortly in a television programme. As a result of Maggie’s work, the victims commissioner in this country has looked at the support that could be provided to UK victims of crime abroad, and the FCO website has certainly been improved as a result. I hope the Minister will want to pursue that matter with colleagues.
On the second case, undertakings were made in a previous debate in response to a number of queries that I raised. I asked about the information that can be provided to UK victims of crime abroad, the support that can be given to them and members of their family and the help that can be given to ensure that crimes are properly reported. One of the biggest problems for victims of crime abroad is getting the crime recorded in the first place. If the police abroad are not willing to register the crime, the FCO might need to ensure that it is properly registered. I also mentioned the need to tackle police corruption, as and when it is encountered, and the need for additional support for victims of crime who are seriously injured.
The Government are improving services for those who are killed, which I welcome, but they are not improving them for those who are seriously injured. In the Neil Juwaheer case, the Government could argue that he was, perhaps, a criminal and therefore not entitled to support; but, first, that has never been proven in the eyes of the family and they are pursuing the matter, and, secondly, even if it were true, the family need support, because there is no suggestion that they are involved in any criminal activity and they are UK citizens.
Those are the two points that I leave with the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives made some very strong points about support for victims of crime in the UK. Equally, we heard about victims of terrorism abroad, but the Government could be more proactive in supporting the large group of UK citizens who experience other crimes abroad.
It is my intention to call the shadow Minister and the Minister to speak at approximately 3.40 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) for securing this much-needed debate on the support available for victims of crime.
I want to raise two separate points. The first relates to victims of car theft. BBC “South Today” recently contacted me about a constituent of mine who had had his car stolen. When the police informed him that the vehicle had been recovered, he was obviously pleased, and he agreed to the police request to fingerprint the car in an attempt to find the perpetrator. When he had managed to recover his vehicle from the police, one can well imagine his surprise when he, as a victim of crime, was also presented with an £80 parking charge and a release fee of £150. That is not an isolated incident—it is Government policy and has been since 2005. Victims of crime are treated as if they had parked incorrectly or abandoned their vehicles, which have then been towed. In this case, Sussex police responded that it acts in accordance with the law. I am sure that hon. Members agree that such a policy merely adds insult to injury for the victims of crime and needs to be re-evaluated. I ask the Minister to review the guidelines urgently.
My second point is rather longer and relates to issues that have come to my attention in my capacity as chair of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on retail and business crime. I will focus on victims of crime in a business context, with particular reference to the small business sector, which is disproportionately targeted and for which less support is available. The APPG inaugural meeting on 29 March was attended not only by an impressive number of hon. Members, but by business representatives who sit on the National Business Crime Forum, whose members collectively represent hundreds of thousands of businesses across the UK, and by the press, including representatives from Crime Reduction Partnership News, Retail Newsagent and Retail Express.
At the meeting, we heard that the trade magazine Retail Newsagent carries weekly stories about shopkeepers who have been victims of crime, ranging from systematic shoplifting to assault, robbery and murder. Many of us remember the high profile murders last year of convenience retailers for little more than the cash in their tills, cigarettes and candy. Indeed, Retail Newsagent reported:
“It is now true that running a corner shop is statistically more dangerous than joining the police force when it comes to losing one’s life in the course of the working day”.
The Sentencing Council needs to recognise the vulnerability of shop workers to assaults by establishing clear guidance, which does not exist now, to protect retail workers. Retailers rightly feel that their cases are relegated to the realms of victimless crime by the justice system.
We heard from Crime Reduction Partnership News that crime and disorder reduction partnerships incur nominal costs to operate—it can cost £350 a year to gain the necessary professional indemnity and public liability insurance coverage for a village or town. In some cases, towns and villages find it hard to raise that sum, and Crime Reduction Partnership News reported that if the Government underwrote CDRPs, as they do neighbourhood watch, it would be a huge help. The challenge would normally be developing appropriate insurance models, but such models already exist for neighbourhood watch. The precedent in underwriting neighbourhood watch schemes can realistically be applied as the model for underwriting CDRPs. It would have a huge impact on levels of crime for a relatively negligible cost, so the Government should look into doing so.
The increasing devolution of power to local authorities carries its own problems. Issues exist with a lack of standardisation from one police authority to another in reporting crime. That has an impact on businesses that work nationally or across several local authorities, and the lack of a joined-up approach manifests itself in a difficulty in meaningfully tackling organised crime. When the Localism Bill is enacted, we will all have to be vigilant to ensure that the unintended consequence in our communities is not that victims see bureaucracy getting in the way of a collaborative approach to bringing organised criminals to justice.
Who is most at risk? A recent Federation of Small Businesses report shows that community-based, convenience retailers are significantly more vulnerable than any other category to high-value robberies, with 41% of the total sector losses, and almost double the value is stolen from them as is stolen from supermarkets. That is unsurprising considering that independent businesses are likely to be open at unsociable hours with fewer staff and fewer sophisticated security measures than supermarkets. A discussion needs to be had with police representatives across the country to build a strategy specifically to address the disparity in vulnerability to crime of large and small businesses and how that disparity can be combated.
One huge concern is the under-reporting of crime. Businesses often fail to report crimes as they feel an inadequate amount is done to justify taking the time to respond. Retailers report that crime is often lost in crime reporting figures and there is little practical recourse to bring criminals to justice.
It is not all bad news though, because there is some support available to victims of crime provided by both the private and the public sectors. In the case of the former, there are instances of industry providing solutions in the spirit of the big society, such as Facewatch. That initiative is designed to help victims of low-level crime and create an online partnership between premises, such as bars and shops, and the police. Using Facewatch, a victim can not only get an instant crime reference number from the premises, but can also call CPP card protection, which will arrange for the cancellation and reissue all of their cards for free, even if they are visitors to the UK, with just one call.
I referred to the reluctance of businesses that have been victims of crime to report it, and that is not just anecdotal. Victim Support, which does tremendous work supporting victims of crime on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, concedes that it has trouble connecting with victims, and the way in which crime is recorded often lets victims fall through the support net. For example, if a shopkeeper lives above their shop and a crime is committed in the premises below, it is recorded as a business crime, whether or not the retailer has been assaulted, but the premises is also their home, and in any other circumstance the victim’s details would be passed to Victim Support to give the appropriate advice and assistance. That is but one concrete example that demonstrates that more needs to be done to bring police representatives, organisations such as Victim Support and business representatives together to discuss how police reporting can change for the better, so that existing resources can be adequately utilised.
Unfortunately, victims of crime have few statutory rights within the criminal justice system, and what rights they have are under threat. Victims of crime have the right to receive a basic level of service from each criminal justice agency under the code of practice for victims of crime. Everything victims are entitled to under the code is pretty basic—the sort of things that one would assume victims would receive automatically from the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the code is under threat as part of a Ministry of Justice review of support for victims and witnesses. The Government have already removed the duty on local criminal justice boards to report on their compliance with the code, which means that no one is monitoring compliance with it or holding agencies to account where they fail to comply. There is a danger that the Government will downgrade the code or abolish it altogether, which would mean that victims of crime would have no statutory right to receive a decent level of service from the criminal justice system. Abolishing the code would be a serious retrograde step and would turn back the clock on victims’ rights.
The issue is not only about how we deal with crime and its victims, but about the perception of crime, which is paramount. It has a huge detrimental effect on the confidence of people who enter or remain in the independent business sector. Following the murders of Gurmail Singh and Jashbhai Patel in Huddersfield last year, a survey of retailers’ perceptions of crime by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents gathered some startling results: 51% of respondents stated that they expected crime to increase; a staggering 31% were unsure as to whether their business could even survive the next two to three years; and 57% thought that the police could do more to deter crime. However, the report demonstrated a high level of contact with neighbourhood policing units, which is a positive indication of the big society at work.
I draw attention to the work of Baroness Newlove, the Government’s champion for active safer communities, and her report, “Our vision for safe and active communities”. She says:
“The report calls for a change of culture on the part of communities, no longer seeing crime and ASB in their neighbourhoods as ‘someone else’s problem’; and on the side of services, going beyond simply asking communities what their problems are, to seeing them as equal partners in dealing with them.”
My hope for the newly formed all-party group is that it becomes the bridge that fosters the necessary dialogue that business is so desperately calling for. I welcome every colleague present to come along to our next meeting to discuss the experiences in their own constituencies.
There will be a statement later today about the national crime agency, which will have, among other things, a command that will look at economic crime. What expectations, if any, does the hon. Gentleman have of how that may be able assist the businesses that he is talking about?
Businesses, as I have been explaining, have a real problem with crime, but the justice system does not seem to address that in the same way as it recognises individuals. I look forward to the statement and will review it with interest to see how it can assist.
I will close my remarks with three key questions to the Minister. First, what are the Government’s plans to re-evaluate the manifestly unjust policy whereby police treat victims of vehicle theft as if they had been irresponsible in abandoning their cars by charging them parking and release fees? Secondly, what measures do the Government propose to put in place to mitigate the impact of reduced provision of services to victims of crime, with particular reference to Victim Support’s recent appeal to the Department for transitional funding to oversee the period of restructuring to ensure that services are not drastically or adversely affected? Thirdly, will the Minister attend and perhaps address an upcoming meeting of the all-party group to discuss how the Government could support victims of crime in non-domestic cases, where support is even more lacking?
I begin with an apology to you, Mr Scott, and to the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello). I may not be able to stay until the very end of the debate, because I have to meet some constituents. I apologise for that discourtesy. I will keep my remarks brief, because some excellent points have been made. I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) for securing this debate, which deserves as much time as possible, so that the Minister can address the points that have been made.
I want to focus on a few areas that may not have been brought out by the debate so far. One of the main areas that we should surely focus on is how we prevent people from being victims in the first place—how we prevent future victims of crime. Different things are important to victims: prevention from being one in the first place, and if someone is a victim of crime, they want the person responsible to be detected, punished properly for the crime that they have committed and not go on to commit further offences. I am worried that, on most, if not all those issues, the Government are in danger of heading in the wrong direction.
On preventing people from being the victims of crime, one of the things that I am most concerned about is what happens when people are released from prison before the end of their sentence. I might not be present to hear the Minister’s closing remarks, but I hope that he will be good enough to tell the Chamber how many people are victims of crimes committed by people let out early from prison before the end of the sentence that was actually handed down. We now know that people are, at the very most, released automatically halfway through their sentence and that some are even let out before that. It would be interesting for the public to know how many crimes are committed by people who have been released from prison at a time when most people would consider that they should still be in prison serving the full sentence handed down by the court.
It is perfectly reasonable that the police cannot prevent crimes when people who are unknown to them commit them for the first time. It seems, however, that our criminal justice system is creating so many unnecessary victims of crime by releasing people early from their prison sentence, only to see them go on to commit further offences. If we want to stop people being victims of crime, we should focus on that first.
What about the things that people want when they are the victims of the crime? Presumably, the first thing they want is for their crime to be detected by the police. Two of the best tools that the police have for detecting crimes are CCTV and the DNA database. An enormous number of crimes are solved by using CCTV footage, technology and the DNA database.
We have also heard recently that the Government are concerned about preventing victims from having to go through the trauma of giving evidence in court. That was supposedly the genesis of the idea to give people a 50% discount on their sentence if they pleaded guilty early. I say to the Minister that I do not believe that the reason for giving a 50% discount to people who plead guilty early had anything to do with trying to prevent victims from having to give evidence in court. It was simply a way of having fewer people sent to prison or fewer people in prison at any one time. That was the motivation. The view that it was a benefit to victims was a positive bit of spin to put on it.
If we want to prevent victims of crime from having to go through the trauma of giving evidence in court, one would have thought that the Government would be anxious to use the benefits of CCTV and DNA. CCTV gives an unbiased account of what happened for a court to see, devoid of anybody’s spin, recollection bias or mistake. Often, when CCTV is viewed by defendants and their solicitors, it leads to a change of plea from not guilty to guilty. That certainly happens when defendants were drunk or on drugs at the time of committing a crime. It not only saves courts time and money, but prevents witnesses from having to go through the trauma and stress of giving evidence in court. The Government, however, appear to be trying to make it as difficult as possible for the police to use CCTV. They are trying to introduce extra regulation for the use of CCTV. If the victim is our top priority, surely the Government will rethink that and make it easier for the police to use CCTV evidence.
CCTV actually prevented Richard Whelan’s girlfriend from having to testify against his murderer, Anthony Joseph, who brutally stabbed Richard on a bus while he was attempting to defend his girlfriend. The attack was caught on camera and Joseph was jailed.
DNA is also one of the main ways in which the police can find the perpetrator of a crime, yet the Government are hellbent on taking people off the DNA database, and that will presumably make it harder for crimes to be detected. In fact, there have been 150,000 cases in which a DNA sample has been taken from the crime scene but there has been no match on the DNA database. Obviously, if everybody was on a DNA database, all those crimes would be solved at a stroke. Will the Minister explain why the Government are going out of their way to try to make it as difficult as possible for the police to use such technology to find the perpetrators of crime in the first place? I am sure that victims of crime do not understand it, and neither do I.
What I want to know most of all is why so many repeat offenders are not sent to prison, because that is the one thing that creates more and more victims of crime. Last year, 3,000 burglars and 4,500 violent offenders with 15 or more previous convictions were not sent to prison. If somebody goes before a court with more than 100 previous convictions behind them, they are still likely not to be sent to prison. Those are the things that really irritate the victims of crime.
My final point is about the role of the Crown Prosecution Service. I think that the hon. Member for St Ives touched on the issue—he certainly implied it—of the CPS undercharging people by charging them for a lesser offence that they did not commit, rather than prosecuting them for the more serious crime that they did commit. That is one thing that particularly infuriates victims.
The calibre of the CPS is also an issue, and I will end with a tale of what I think is the most depressing day that I have ever spent, sitting in Bingley magistrates court watching the day’s proceedings. I saw CPS lawyers reading cases for the first time—they clearly had not read them beforehand—while the defence solicitor was briefed up to the nines. On one occasion, the CPS lawyer did not have the file in front of him and prosecuted the case from the file handed over to him by the defence solicitor. This is British justice in 2011. We should be ashamed of ourselves. If the victim of that crime had turned up, they would have been horrified to see what was going on. The Government really need to get a grip and put the victim—not the criminal, as happens now—at the heart of the justice system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Chamber, Mr Scott. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing today’s debate on an extremely important issue that has troubled him for more than a decade. Even though it is some 15 years since Claire was murdered, I should like to take the opportunity to express my condolences to her family for the ongoing pain that I am sure still results from her death.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of very good points. Certainly, his concern is not lost that, in circumstances such as those that he described, rather than the scales of justice being blind, they are weighted against the deceased. Indeed, how can it be correct that a murderer remains in all circumstances the next of kin? I find it incredible and horrifying that, where a prima facie case exists, those rights are still in existence and are not suspended. The point made that the criminal justice boards no longer need to file certain reports is also very worrying.
The relevance of today’s debate is heightened even more in the light of the Government’s review into the criminal injuries compensation scheme and the role of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. In the time available, I should like to bring to the discussion the issue of financial support for the victims of crime and the wide-ranging financial consequences that a crime can have on victims and victims’ families.
The impact of crime affects each person differently and can have various wide-ranging emotional, physical and financial implications. As we have heard, organisations such as Victim Support play a fantastic role in providing victims and witnesses of crime with both practical support and varying forms of emotional support. The valuable support and advice that Victim Support and others provide victims with should not be understated. Victim Support contacts more than 1.5 million victims of crime each year, but it and other voluntary organisations cannot provide the financial support and compensation required to help victims recover from the financial impact that crime can have on them and their families. The effects of crime can take many forms and, as I said, crime impacts on each individual differently. Victims can become isolated and suffer from anxiety, depression and amnesia. They are scarred and can become scared or reluctant to leave the house.
Victims of crime can also find it difficult to take pleasure in activities and social events that they previously enjoyed. That can have a damaging effect on a person’s family and social life and can therefore have a harmful effect on their relationships with family and friends. Many victims of crime develop anxiety or depression, which can lead to dependency on alcohol, tobacco or even precipitate drug use. Although crime rates have fallen significantly in recent years, one in five people is still likely to be a victim of a form of crime. Of course, for those people who are victims, the overall decrease in crime does not make their own experience as a victim any less traumatic. Given the wide-ranging emotional and physical impact that crime can have, it is imperative that financial support is provided to cover its direct financial impact—for example, as we have heard, the costs of counselling and other remedies such as emotional support therapy and health costs for any rehabilitation.
The commissioner for victims and witnesses, Louise Casey, recently revealed ahead of the publication of her policy review that families bereaved through murder, manslaughter or culpable road death face costs of an average of around £37,000. That includes costs for trials, legal fees, court proceedings, counselling and loss of earnings. Figures from a specific survey of 36 bereaved families show that legal costs range from between £280 and £150,000, with the majority of families meeting the costs themselves and only one family receiving legal aid. The survey found that the total estimated costs incurred for the 36 families were £1.3 million, which rises to a higher figure if loss of earnings is included. The annual figure of costs incurred is around £37,000 or, indeed, £113,000 if loss of earnings is included. Counselling costs for those surveyed averaged around £2,500, and 35 out of 36 of the families surveyed experienced loss of earnings.
The majority of victims of crime were unable to work, in some cases because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some people lost their jobs; some had to leave work; and some got unpaid leave from their employer. Bereaved families also have the costs of child care to think about when a parent or guardian is murdered. One example of how a bereaved family can suffer a loss of earnings is provided by the situation of Barry Mizen, whose son Jimmy was tragically attacked and killed in a horrific attack in London, with which all hon. Members will be familiar. Barry Mizen was a self-employed shop owner. He had to shut his shop in the wake of his son’s murder and therefore had no money coming in for a substantial period.
Freedom of information requests made by the Daily Mirror show that the average amount of compensation received by the families of the 12 people shot by Derrick Bird, the gunman who murdered 12 people in Cumbria, was around £12,250. The figures highlighting the costs incurred by victims and victims’ families put into context the financial compensation awarded and shows how it would be, to say the very least, regrettable—indeed, it would be a severe blow to victims—if the Secretary of State for Justice approves cutting the Government’s payment awarded to victims and victims’ families, as is feared will happen. That would be highly regrettable and, as we have heard, says much about the Government’s attitude towards the victims of crime, particularly when they have still not implemented the compensation scheme proposed in the Crime and Security Act 2010, which had cross-party support.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) said, although British victims of terrorist attacks in the UK are eligible for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, that does not extend to the victims of overseas terror. Hon. Members will also be aware that travel insurers in the vast majority of cases do not pay out to victims of overseas terror attacks. The victims of overseas terrorist attacks are all still to be compensated by the Government—for example, Will Pike who was paralysed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, the victims of the Bali bombings and the victims of the 2005 Sharm el Sheikh bombings.
It cannot be right that, when the rights of prisoners and criminals appear to be enhanced all the time and the Lord Chancellor constantly has to defend his position, British victims of terrorist atrocities overseas are still waiting for compensation promised to them by the Government. If a terrorist attack should happen somewhere in the world tomorrow—heaven forbid—UK citizens and their families would be ineligible to receive Government compensation. The Government must re-evaluate how they treat victims of crime both here and abroad. If they cut the financial support offered to the victims of crime and do not compensate the victims of terrorist attacks abroad, it will have a devastating effect on the well-being of both victims and victims’ families, as well as sending the message that helping the victims of crime is not viewed as important by the Government.
I should like to take a moment to comment on a few of the speeches that have been made so far today. Hon. Members from all parties have made very good contributions. In the few moments remaining, I shall mention the speech of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I find it extremely worrying when I agree with much of what he says. I am not sure whether I find it more worrying than he does—I suspect he finds it more worrying than I do. The use of closed circuit television and the DNA database is extremely important. When we were in government, we were great advocates of those systems, and it is surprising that the Government do not seem to be continuing with that. On the 50% discounted sentence, perhaps sometimes through gritted teeth the 33% discount is there, but the push to make it 50% seems very strange indeed. Victims will see an extremely worrying trend.
Overall, the Government must finally put the victims of crime at the heart of their justice policy. They cannot prevaricate any longer; they must take action to do so. The rights and well-being of victims and victims’ families should always come before those of the criminal. Sadly, that is something we are not seeing and have not seen for a while.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing this timely debate about the wider topic of support for the victims of crime and the narrow case he raised. He is a doughty champion of his constituents and for a decade he has worked on their behalf on the case he mentioned. We should respect the determination with which he represents his constituents.
I begin by making it absolutely clear that the Government are committed to placing victims and their families at the front and centre of the criminal justice system. I view my remit as the Minister responsible for victims and for the wider issue of offender management through the prism of victims. Let us consider the system changes we are trying to deliver around, for example, work in prisons. What are they for? They are to generate the resources for offenders to compensate their victims and to create more resources to assist the victims of crime. One proposal in the Green Paper is to make it a duty for sentencers to consider a compensation order as the first point of departure in their sentencing. Hon. Members will have to wait until we formally respond to the consultation and introduce the legislation, but I do not see anyone demurring from strengthening that duty. That is the direction of policy—to ensure that victims are our consideration.
The future victims of crime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made clear, are absolutely at the centre of concern. That is why we are advocating a rehabilitation revolution and a complete step change in how offenders are dealt with and managed by our system. If we fail to effectively rehabilitate them while they are in our system, they will go out and reoffend again, and we have to address the dreadful reoffending rates. I suspect that he and I are in the same place on that. The Government face the constraint, of course, of the legacy of the financial position we received from our predecessors.
We are committed to ensuring that criminal justice agencies work to help families through the process of the investigation and trial, and afterwards. We are committed to providing families with a voice in the criminal justice system. We are committed to providing them with the support and the help that they need to deal with the consequences of crime. It is deeply unfortunate that the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives was mishandled. I understand the pain that such a traumatic experience can cause for bereaved families, but I accept that as much as I might understand the pain, it is beyond the power of any Government or Minister to repair that trauma. All Governments, however, will want to do their reasonable best to continue to improve the service to victims.
Support to victims and their families has improved dramatically since the case described by my hon. Friend. He referred to the work of Joanne Bryce, which, over a prolonged period, has contributed significantly to that improvement. Many of the things that she identified in association with the case have led to direct improvements, which I will cover if I have time. Constantly improving the system will continue.
During the debate, my hon. Friends made some suggestions that I will want to look at. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) suggested that there should be a positive duty to explain the absence of a victim impact statement to the parole board hearing. I undertake to look at that extremely good suggestion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) drew attention to an anomaly concerning retailers who live above their premises, the recording of crime and the sort of support triggered by victim support in cases of assault. We will constantly look at such suggestions, with the objective of improving the system.
I want to be clear to the Chamber that the law is on the side of the victim and the victim’s family. In the case of homicide, there are safeguards against the offender benefiting from the crime. Under the rules of forfeiture, any person found guilty of murder is automatically disqualified from inheriting property from their victim. In the case of manslaughter, they are disqualified unless a specific court order is granted in their favour. The bereaved family can make an application to the court to ensure that the killer is not responsible for the administration of the victim’s estate, under section 116 of the Senior Courts Act 1981. I understand fully that people who have just suffered such a tragic loss are likely to find the process confusing or complicated. That is one reason why the improvements in support are so important, and why, since October 2009, the Ministry of Justice has supported an advice helpline to provide legal advice to relatives who have been bereaved by homicide, and advice on associated personal and social issues.
That is an encouraging reply. Will the Minister clarify whether those rights were in place at the time of the trial that I referred to today? If so, do victims now get a level of support and advice, through those procedures, to ensure that their rights can be enforced and that the perpetrators of homicide are not entitled to determine the outcome of the estate of victims, as happened in the case I raised today?
That is the case. The right to apply to the court is in the Senior Courts Act 1981, so the right was in place. As my hon. Friend pointed out, however, the family were in ignorance of it. In the spirit of constantly trying to improve the service we provide victims, there is now an advice line for bereaved people in such situations to draw their attention to their rights under the law.
Since the mid-1990s, there has been a great deal of work to improve the experience of victims and their families in the criminal justice system. Criminal justice agencies are more victim-focused and more readily able to take account of victims’ wishes and needs at every stage of the justice process. The courage of victims in coming forward to report crime and giving evidence is central to a strong, fair criminal justice system. Coming forward can sometimes be daunting for victims, especially those who are vulnerable or intimidated. It is therefore right that there are protections for victims in the system and that there are services to which they are entitled and safeguards against further victimisation. We are not complacent, however. There is more work to do and I am currently reviewing the support that victims are given at each stage of the process—investigation, prosecution, trial and beyond.
In 2006, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service worked together to introduce witness care units in every police force area in England and Wales. Witness care units are dedicated teams that keep victims and witnesses updated and informed about developments in a case from a suspect being arrested to an offender being sentenced. They provide victims with vital information on bail conditions, court dates and outcomes. In the same year, the code of practice for victims of crime was introduced. It sets out the services that criminal justice agencies must deliver for victims of crime. It specifies how victims should be kept updated, how often the police and other agencies should contact them, and ensures that the criminal justice system as a whole recognises the central role of victims in the delivery of justice.
I am conscious, Mr Scott, that I will not be able to do justice to the debate in the time that I have available. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me.
Other individual agencies have their own initiatives to help to ensure that victims are kept informed and engaged and, above all, kept safe. The police provide bereaved families with specialist support and a single point of contact through nominating a family liaison officer—a specially trained police officer who will explain the criminal justice process to the family, and act as their first point of reference for any questions. I should point out that in 2008-09, the last year for which we have figures, victim satisfaction with the police was 83%.
The CPS has introduced the victim focus scheme for bereaved relatives. Under the scheme, the prosecutor will write to the bereaved family through the family liaison officer, and offer to meet them to explain the role of the CPS, the court process, the charges faced by the defendant and the role of the victim personal statement. If I have time, I will say more about victim personal statements in a moment.
Under the victim focus scheme, prosecutors will meet bereaved families again if a defendant is convicted, in order to answer further questions. Meeting relatives when there has been an acquittal, which can be equally traumatic, is also being piloted.
The National Offender Management Service operates the victim contact scheme. Victims are eligible when an offender is sentenced to 12 months or more in custody for a violent or sexual crime. The scheme makes sure that victims of serious crime are kept informed if there are developments or changes in the offender’s sentence, and that they have an opportunity to submit evidence to parole board hearings and request licence conditions.
Throughout the criminal justice process, there is support for victims that did not exist in the 1990s. Criminal justice agencies have embedded consideration for the welfare of victims in their ways of working and in their internal procedures. A good example of how that works across the full range of victim contact with the system is the victim personal statement, which was introduced in 2001. It is the determination of this Administration to ensure that the victim personal statement will count for more than it does now. Governments of either colour will want to continue to improve support to victims of crime.
I am conscious, Mr Scott, that I have not been able to respond as fully as I would like, but there is much more to come from this Administration regarding support for victims of crime, making sure that offenders are the ones who will be held accountable; the burden of dealing with victims of crime will fall more on them. Victims will be receiving appropriate support from the state as well.
Single Payment Scheme
It is an honour to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Scott.
I will keep my remarks shorter than normal, because several of my hon. Friends wish to intervene and comment on the subject, which is important. It is a great pleasure to see the Minister, who is such a doughty champion for agriculture.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity today to debate this important subject, which is vital not only to farmers in my constituency and throughout the country but to ensure that food is on the table of every person at an affordable price. Food production has long been taken for granted in this country and elsewhere in the world, at least since the green revolution. Until recently, it has not been the subject of much political debate in Europe, but it is no coincidence that this year President Sarkozy has made food a top priority at the G20, which is particularly appropriate for a Frenchman.
Recent headlines from around the world highlight the importance of food production: “Devastating food shortage said to be looming in Kenya”—all these headlines are from the past week or two—“Tanzanians debate rising food prices”, “Drought affects rice production in two central China provinces” and “Regional bank warns Caribbean of impact of rising food prices”. At last, we are waking up to the importance of food security, and it is about time, too.
In our own country, according to the Office for National Statistics, the population is expected to reach 65 million by 2018 and 70 million by 2028. With 7 million more people to feed in the UK alone over the next 15 years, we must act now to ensure that we can meet our needs sustainably. We cannot consider our own needs alone. Another 2 billion will be added to the world’s population in the next 40 years, yet uncultivated land is perhaps as little as 10% to 12% of what is currently cultivated, leaving little room for manoeuvre. That presents a huge challenge, which will only be met by better yielding crops, irrigation, fertiliser and so on. It also brings opportunities for the UK.
The UK has a competitive advantage in food production. We have a temperate climate, excellent yields, efficient farmers, high standards and a strong food manufacturing industry.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to focus on food production, which it is appropriate to discuss in the light of reform of the common agricultural policy. We need to focus on our profitability and the production of food, as well as, correctly, on protecting the environment. We have to strike the right balance. Does he agree?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to that in a moment.
The strong food manufacturing industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the country and a vital customer for our raw materials. My own county of Staffordshire, along with Gloucestershire, Devon and many other counties represented in the Chamber today, views agriculture and food production as a business of the future and not of the past. Whereas other counties have sold off much of their farm estate, Staffordshire has largely retained its own, and continues to invest in it.
I have to declare a local interest, as about half of the county-owned farms—some 50—are in my constituency. They provide a start for the many young people who wish to farm but do not have the land or capital to do so. South Staffordshire college recognises the need for training young people on the land, and I welcome its application to establish a land-based academy at Rodbaston in my constituency, along the lines of the excellent JCB academy for technical subjects in nearby Rocester.
Last year, UK food and non-alcoholic drink exports topped £10 billion for the first time. If ever we needed a reminder of the importance of Ireland to our economy, it lies in the fact that Ireland is our No. 1 customer, followed by France, the Netherlands and Germany. Our recovery depends substantially on export growth, and agriculture is making a strong contribution. We also import £31 billion a year in food and non-alcoholic drinks, leaving plenty of room to increase market share at home. Food is also of increasing importance to the cost of living, in particular for those on low incomes. As with fuel, the more we produce ourselves, the less we depend on sources of supply over which we have no control on price, quantity and, I must say, quality.
Given the apparently rosy outlook for agriculture, why am I concerned about the single payment scheme or direct payments to farmers? Surely agriculture can survive on its own, without support. I have no doubt that it will, eventually, but that day has not yet come.
If my hon. Friend can see a future without subsidy, can he outline how that would happen in a global context? It is one thing for the European Union to withdraw subsidy to agricultural food production, but that can only happen if the rest of the world follows suit. It would be unfair for European farmers to be disadvantaged by an American system that subsidises its farms.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I entirely agree with him. I will come on to how I see the future and how we can eventually get to a stage at which no subsidy is required. However, that day has not yet come. As the National Farmers Union has stated:
“while we are looking forward to the day that farmers no longer need state support, this is unlikely to be within the next few years and it is vital that we maintain and develop the industry now.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On subsidies, does he agree that hill farmers in particular represent a special case, given their incomes relative to those of lowland farmers? If we are to encourage young people, to whom he has referred, to get involved in farming in such a context, it is important that we do more.
I entirely agree. That is a particular concern in my hon. Friend’s constituency in Devon. I do not have hill farmers in my constituency—I do not have enough hills—but in nearby Staffordshire Moorlands we do. If I understand the statistics correctly, hill farmers have suffered the greatest decline in income in recent years—the decline is greater than for any other form of farming. The problem with the single payment applies in particular to smaller farms in the livestock sector. It has been estimated that in 2009 59% of all farms would have been loss-making without their single payment; in the livestock sector the figure was even higher at 87%.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Staffordshire county show in my constituency. At the same show, some years ago, I met the Minister for the first time—he kindly came along and showed his support for Staffordshire farmers, as he does for farmers up and down the country, which all of us welcome. Talking to farmers at the show, many of whom have smallish holdings, it was quite clear that without the single payment they would eventually go out of business.
The single payment is essential for the short-term sustainability of agriculture. In the longer term, one might argue that farmers should look to diversify their income so as to reduce and eventually eliminate the need for support, and that that continuing support somehow makes them put off that evil day—or that day. However, no hon. Members who have farmers in their constituency agree with that. Farmers are constantly looking at ways of diversifying their income away from food production. They are taking matters into their own hands, and they do not want to rely on subsidy, in the same way that any other private business man or woman does not.
In any case, the single payment is not simply a subsidy. The payment recognises the vital public functions carried out by farmers: the management of the land in a way that provides an attractive and diverse landscape for those who live in the countryside as well as for visitors; and sustainable production, which meets the highest standards of food safety, traceability and animal welfare.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but does he not agree that the direct single payment is also a buffer against volatile commodity prices? While commodity prices except for milk are reasonably buoyant at the moment, there could come a time when they are in decline, which would be difficult for farmers to sustain.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He speaks with vast experience from his own Brecon and Radnorshire constituency which is one of the largest, if not the largest, in England and Wales. I ask the Government to recognise the importance of maintaining direct payments to farmers at the heart of the common agricultural policy after 2013. I recognise the importance of environmental management, but it is vital that the primary need to produce high-quality, safe food is kept firmly in mind. Schemes must be flexible and practical to operate for smaller farmers, as well as large landowners.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has touched on food security, and I agree entirely with him on that. He has said that farming is going through a rosy patch at the moment, and that is certainly so in arable farming, but not in livestock farming. Does he believe that, despite the need for subsidies, certainly in the short term, supermarkets will play a key role in driving up incomes for farmers and how they are dealt with in future?
I agree that livestock farmers have been going through a difficult time for many years. Arable farmers, particularly on the eastern side of the country, are seeing better incomes, but that is not so for all farmers. I will address my hon. Friend’ comment in a moment.
We must ensure that markets work more efficiently, so that there is less need for support. Increasing demand from Britain and around the world will do much of the heavy lifting in the long term, as it raises prices.
As my hon. Friend’s neighbour, I know that Staffordshire farmers appreciate his work to raise their profile and their issues. We have heard about the problems for arable farmers and livestock farmers, but we have not yet mentioned the terrible situation of dairy farmers, which has been an ongoing problem for many years, driven particularly by the supermarkets forcing down the price of milk as a loss leader to tempt people. Does my hon. Friend agree that we desperately need to do something to support our dairy farmers if we are to have a sustainable industry going forward?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the Bill that proposes a supermarket ombudsman is welcome, but we need that as soon as possible, because in some parts of the dairy industry, despite recent small improvements in prices, there is a crisis, with people going out of business every week.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is surprising that only Government Members are here today to support this debate?
I thank my hon. Friend, but I will not comment on what he has said. This is an extremely important matter, and I am sure that many hon. Members who would have loved to be here are not in their seats because they are otherwise detained.
I shall conclude, because I know that at least one other hon. Member wants to speak, and I must rightly give him time. The discussions about the future of the CAP after 2013 are critical for Britain. If the outcome is right, British agriculture will thrive and deliver high-quality, fairly priced food to the British people and to the world. There will be increasing employment in rural areas, with increasing exports and a narrowing of the trade gap. We will also ensure our own food security and that of those to whom we are net exporters of cereals, as we are in many years. Essential to getting the CAP right, in my view and that of many others, is the maintenance of direct payment to farmers, which keeps so many of them in business through the ups and downs of farm-gate prices.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this debate and on all his work for farmers in Staffordshire and more generally throughout Britain. I shall speak briefly, and begin by saying that the issue is enormously important, as my hon. Friend has emphasised. Not only does it make all the difference to lifestyles, to communities and to preserving farms through price volatility, but it is a good long-term bet in terms of food security.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I have little to add to the brilliant exposition by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford of why single farm payments are so vital to everybody. We see that every day in Cumbria, where such payments are vital for the support of our hill farms; in some areas, about 93% of farms would go bust if they did not receive the single farm payment. The entire agricultural economy depends on those payments and, as my hon. Friend suggested, they stretch into every area including the governance of agricultural colleges. The fight in my constituency is to protect Newton Rigg, our agricultural college, from having its assets stripped in a takeover.
I do not need to emphasise the problems faced by all farmers. There is no need to talk today about the horrors of the Rural Payments Agency, but all strength to the arm of the Minister for the steps that he has taken to sort it out. The system is totally unacceptable and debilitating for so many of our farmers.
On the RPA, farmers in my constituency constantly complain about bureaucracy and red tape. Does my hon. Friend welcome Richard Macdonald’s recent review on cutting red tape and its 200 recommendations, and will he urge the Government—as I will—to take up those recommendations with some vigour?
Absolutely. The second area connected with red tape is, of course, the effects of these environmental schemes. Whether we are talking about cross-compliance or stewardship schemes, we exist in a world often of craziness, of indigestible tufts of grass emerging, of self-seeding oak plantations that never self-seed and of floodplains that never flood, because of a lack of local flexibility, so I again congratulate the Minister on pushing for more local flexibility. However, the short point that I wish to make is about our diplomatic initiative.
The really big game in the end is not the red tape; it is ensuring that we get 2013 right, that we team up with the right partners in Europe, that we are there with the Germans, that we understand the French position and that we are winning that diplomatic fight. That will not be done just by the NFU or by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; it will be done by the Foreign Office. We must invest in our embassies. We must invest in ensuring that the European countries are not ahead of us in that game—in ensuring that we get the best deal possible for British farmers through diplomatic enterprise in Europe.
I endorse what I have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart).I also very much approve of the line that my right hon. Friend the Minister has been taking on agriculture. We must ensure that we get the kind of farming that is needed. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on his approach to the matter. To add one other note, I want to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border whether he thinks that it is important that the badger population is kept properly under control, because that is vital in areas such as my own.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is vital that we deal with tuberculosis. We have just had our first incident in Penrith and The Border—a shocking incident. Much of it seems to be about the movement of cows from areas that are already TB-infected. That infection then can get into the badger population. Any measures, including proper control of badgers, must be taken. TB in our cows is completely unacceptable.
I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Scott, and to have the opportunity to respond to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). I am sorry that it has been only a brief and an interrupted debate, because the issues that he and other hon. Friends have raised are central to a huge part of Britain’s rural economy. The debate comes at a time when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said, a range of issues are before us. There is no doubt that there is an emerging global challenge as to how we will feed the world in the future.
The Foresight report produced a few weeks ago by the Government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, considered all the challenges and how we can deal with them. It went through the statistics relating to population growth in the UK and the world that my hon. Friend referred to in his excellent speech. We are talking about something approaching a 50% increase in the world’s population by 2050. The report identified hunger and environmental degradation as key problems that we face.
Last week, DEFRA published the national ecosystem assessment, which began for the first time a full analysis of the environmental challenges that we face and how that feeds through to our natural capital and ultimately to our ability to exploit that natural capital for the production of food.
For all the reasons that have been given, we should all be able to agree that a do-nothing approach is not an acceptable option. There will be far more people in the world. Many of them will be much wealthier. In the emerging economies, people are demanding better and more extensive diets, often involving more animal protein. Competition for water, energy and land will increase as economies grow. All that is compounded by the impact of climate change. Water will be a particular issue, but some of the projections show that in addition a lot of current global arable land could be taken out of production. When we remember that one third of all the world’s arable production land is within 1 metre of sea level, we realise just how little sea levels have to change before we face serious problems.
In the meantime, we already have the price volatility to which a number of hon. Members have referred. I am delighted to say that the French Government have seized on that as a key issue during their presidency of the G20, which, as hon. Members probably know, meets in a couple of weeks’ time. We are wholly behind the French Government in their efforts to find ways of reducing the risks of international food price volatility.
There is no option but to change. Equally, there is no option but for every country to do its bit. For the last 13 years or at least for the first 11 or 12 of them, we had a Government who basically said that British food production did not matter and we could import it all. It is fair to say that in the last year or so, they changed tack, but far too late—a lot of damage had already been done. Our self-sufficiency—the proportion of the food that we consumed that was produced domestically—had fallen by some 10%, which is horrendous. We have moved on from the days when we worried about self-sufficiency in terms of every egg, every apple and every piece of wheat, because trade is so much more important and our modern diet is so much more international. However, the position does mean—my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred to the trade deficit and so on—that there is huge potential for our food and farming industries, which after all are part of the same industry, to do a great deal more for our economy.
There are issues to do with research. I am thinking of the development of precision farming for better use of resources, the phrase “sustainable intensification” and the concept of producing more from less. All those things are relevant, but my hon. Friend focused, as I will now, on the single farm payment and CAP reform. There is no doubt that that gives us a great opportunity, but it has to be seen against the background that my hon. Friend and I have described. There are those who advocate a return to the coupled payments that existed until six or seven years ago. Although production needs to increase, I do not believe that turning the clock back and simply linking payments to production is the best way to encourage efficiency, leaving aside the fact that that would be outside the World Trade Organisation agreements.
There might be slight dissent among my hon. Friends and me about the single farm payment. The Government believe that the CAP should provide a framework that enables farmers to raise their competitiveness and produce food, while rewarding them for their role as stewards of the environment. My hon. Friend referred to the single farm payment as doing some of that work in rewarding farmers to care for the environment. He also mentioned a number of other issues. If we look at it in those terms—of course, cross-compliance exists—it is an extremely blunt instrument. It does not focus on any form of outcome. That is why the Government take the view that reward for public goods, whether environmental or otherwise, is better achieved through what is currently pillar 2—the rural development programme for England—rather than being achieved much more bluntly and less effectively through the single farm payment.
The reform that we seek of the CAP must involve a twin-track approach. It must build the competitiveness of the industry—the ability of the industry to respond to the challenges that my hon. Friend and I have described in relation to both domestic production and increased exports—but also reduce its reliance on subsidies over time to ensure that it can better deliver the food and environmental goods that we need. The competitiveness issue is at the heart of our efforts on CAP reform. We want to be able to focus more of our resources on assisting competitiveness, which is why we believe that pillar 2—the rural development programme money—is the more effective way. As a result of the abolition of regional development agencies, we are bringing that money back in-house as of July this year, so that we can focus it more effectively on industry competitiveness.
I need to deal next with what I hope was not behind my hon. Friend’s speech but which is clearly a myth in some circles. It is that the Government are somehow calling for the abolition of the single farm payment. We are not, and I cannot over-emphasise the fact. The Government recognise, as my hon. Friend said, that the single farm payment is critical for today’s farmers. The figures that he gave were correct, and I would not dream of countering them. However, the background that my hon. Friend sketched out, and to which I have added, provides us with the opportunity to develop a trajectory for beginning to phase out the single farm payment.
The NFU is right to say that farmers cannot live without it today. However, although it is reasonable to say that, over time—I do not mean over the next seven years, but over a longer trajectory—we should be looking at how to phase out that direct form of support against the background of world shortages that will inevitably lead to higher prices. That is how we want to achieve it.
I share entirely my hon. Friend’s view that the industry needs to be more highly regarded and to have a higher reputation both here and abroad, not only because of its ability to produce our food but because it is an important part of our economy. Food manufacturing is the biggest sector of our manufacturing industry, and farmers also act as carers and managers of our natural environment, rather than assailants of it, as they were sometimes painted in the past. I emphasise that we are not calling for the scrapping of the single farm payment tomorrow, nor over the next seven years of this CAP period, but we do want genuine and far-sighted reform.
The Commission has published its early proposals. After much discussion and consultation, it will produce regulations later in the year, so we do not yet know what will happen. For the first time 26 member states are now involved, and for the first time the European Parliament is a co-decision maker, so the crystal ball is extremely murky on what will happen. However, I have absolutely no doubt that the single farm payment will be continued. Whether it is a straightforward payment, whether it will include the Commission’s proposal for a green element, whether there will be further cost compliance, whether the payment could be construed as simply paying for something that is already being done or whether it will provide real added value for the taxpayer, I do not know.
I turn quickly to some of the other issues raised during the debate. They were all relevant. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride)—I think that it was him—mentioned dairy farming. Only yesterday, we spent an hour and a half in this Chamber debating that subject, so I do not wish to repeat myself other than to emphasise that the Government are fully persuaded of the crisis affecting the dairy industry. There is obviously a limit to what we can do. We cannot force up the price of milk; but as has been said, we shall introduce a supermarket adjudicator as soon as we can.
Hill farming was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Central Devon and for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). The payment is most important in those areas. Indeed, it is important to our whole livestock industry. Again, however, we believe that the right way to support it is through the use of pillar 2 payments, as targeted support for the benefits that hill farms provide the nation. Those farms are important to the social structure of rural communities in our uplands, but there are other factors. They store carbon and water in their peat and are marvellous centres of biodiversity, and the ecosystems assessment to which I referred provides us with the tools to recognise that fact.
Finally, on the question of TB, all that I can say is that the Government intend to make a full announcement on the matter before the House rises for the summer recess.
It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott.
I believe I have the privilege of being the first Member to raise the matter of machine-to-machine communication in Parliament. Interestingly, the internet was first mentioned in the House in February 1990 by Emma Nicholson, a Conservative MP. At that time, only 3 million people worldwide had access to the internet, mainly academics and the military, three-quarters of them living in the United States. Twenty-one years later, there are an estimated 2 billion regular internet users, only 13% of whom live in the US and 44% of whom are Asian. Those figures will grow.
The internet has revolutionised our world. Machine-to-machine communication is the next stage in the internet revolution. Having connected people, we shall move on to connecting machines and things.
The hon. Lady speaks of having connected people. May I remind her that 30% of people in this country do not have good access even to a 2 megabit connection? Currently, for only 90% of the time for 95% of people is there decent access to mobile communications. Without infrastructure investment in good fixed and mobile broadband, it will be very difficult to deliver the things that the hon. Lady so rightly mentions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right. He does well to remind us that although we shall be connecting machines, we have not yet connected everybody. Given the limits that have been set on mobile spectrum availability, he would not want to share it with trillions of devices, as I shall explain.
Machine-to-machine communications enable the internet of things. Ericsson estimates that by 2020, 50 billion things will be connected to the internet. Other analysts put the number of connected devices in the trillions. What will these devices be doing? Some will be doing what they already do; there will BlackBerrys and iPads, but we will also see, for example, lamp-posts with sensors that detect the level of light and save energy by turning themselves off. We will see smart fridges telling our chosen supermarket that more vegetables are needed. We will see water heaters monitoring the water temperature and deciding that it could be a little less hot for a few minutes because we are stuck in traffic and the national grid is overstretched. We may even see cholesterol monitors embedded in our bodies telling the doctor that it is time for another check-up.
As a self-confessed technophile, I see the internet of things helping to take the dull and the difficult out of our lives so that we can get on with what human beings do best—whatever that may be.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I commend her for raising this enormously important subject in Parliament for the first time. Does she agree that the development of machine-to-machine communication raises profound questions about security and privacy? Firm and effective standards on both will be needed if industry and the wider public are to embrace this revolution, which will clearly be of advantage.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is right that machine-to-machine communication raises a number of important questions about the way we live our lives, which I shall talk about later. We should be aware across Government of what the issues are, so that we give ourselves an advantage in addressing them.
The question today is whether the Government are doing all they can to ensure the UK economy will benefit from this trillion-pound market of the future? Why is spectrum not being made available, as it was recently in the US, so that UK companies can get on with innovating in this hugely important area and ensuring we reap all the rewards? I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government aim to ensure that the UK benefits from machine-to-machine communication, because we are in danger of being left behind.
In some areas, the UK leads in machine-to-machine communication; it is otherwise known as M2M, which sounds rather like a pop group. Ofcom, my previous employer, has worked hard to ensure that spectrum is available for machine-to-machine communication. M2M can be divided into three broad areas: near field, home and personal, and wide area. I shall describe each in turn.
Near field means near or short-distance communications. Probably the best example is the Oyster card system. Every morning, at Westminster station, I see commuters holding various purses, wallets, gym cards and, occasionally, parts of their body up to the readers. There is no direct contact with the Oyster card. The reader operates it using radio frequency identification—RFID—over very short distances. Oyster saves us the time and trouble of carrying money, queuing and purchasing tickets for every journey. A few months ago, my local transport authority, Nexus, launched the north-east’s very own Oyster-type system called Pop. We will all be “Popping” about the north-east without having to wait at ticket machines.
We can increasingly expect to see RFID used in many other applications. Oyster has already been extended to support contactless payments for small purchases. In 2008, the St Louis-based Somark Innovations tested an RFID tattoo on cows to monitor stock movements, and RFID devices are being implanted in salmon, so that we can track how they are responding to changes in the environment.
Exciting innovations are possible in the area. In 2005, Ofcom deliberately chose to make spectrum in the 865-868 MHz range available for RFID applications on a licence-exempt basis. Licence exempt means that companies do not have to pay to use it, which means that small companies can think of exciting new ideas without having to pay out huge amounts to buy spectrum. That is why innovative businesses can try out new applications, and we can expect to see UK companies playing a big part in the RFID revolution. Therefore, when it comes to near-field communications, the UK is good to go.
The next area of machine-to-machine communication is home and personal, which is still over short distances, but more than a few millimetres. It enables personal area networks, which are networks around the human body, as well as home networking.
We all now think that it is a basic human right to be able to browse the internet from the garden thanks to wi-fi. There are other protocols that enable communications between devices in the home and in the office. For example, many of us use Bluetooth headsets, which wirelessly enable us to go hands free. There is also a protocol with the lovely name of ZigBee, which has been developed to enable wireless lamps. Increasingly, it might also be used by our fridge to tell our smart meter how much electricity it is using and whether it would be okay to turn the freezer off for a few milliseconds so that we do not have to bring on another gas power station every time “EastEnders” finishes.
ZigBee, wi-fi and Bluetooth all operate in licence-exempt spectrum. There are challenges in home and personal networking. In some cities, people are finding that the wi-fi is often congested. Interestingly, that is not because there are too many people uploading photos on Facebook. It is caused by people using wi-fi to transmit satellite or cable programming around their home, so that can be a disadvantage of licence-exempt spectrum. Some new application can come along and hoover up all the bandwidth. None the less, in general, we have a home environment with innovative applications competing to improve our lives.
Unfortunately that is not the case for wide area communication, which is everything from down the street to across the world. Mobile broadband, smart meters and the global positioning system are forms of wide area communication. Wide area applications are really where the huge innovative potential is. Smart cities need wide area machine-to-machine communication. I want to live in a world where the traffic lights on the Tyne bridge going into Newcastle can respond to traffic conditions on other bridges in the city so that we avoid gridlock. I would like to know exactly when the Number 10 bus will get to the bottom of Kenton lane.
It would be progress indeed if people with chronic illnesses could lead more independent lives because their condition was constantly monitored, and help was immediately on hand through telemedicine applications. I want a smart national electricity grid, where sensors in turbines on wind farms in the North sea calculate our energy production moment by moment and change the level of usage in homes across the country as a result. That is the obvious big win. Every form of energy production now has big costs and risks associated with it. We have the technical complexity, cost and unpredictability of wind and solar power; the emissions associated with coal and gas power stations and the potential dangers and long-term costs of nuclear power.
We need to ensure that we are using as little energy as possible. Machines use a hell of a lot of energy—whether in industrial processes, all the kettles switching on every time a soap ends, electric cars and transport or the giant server farms around the world that support cloud computing.
By using machine-to-machine communications to reduce the amount of energy being used, we reduce the number of power stations we have to build. To a certain extent, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is aware of that. It acknowledges the importance of smart meters and ultimately of smart energy grids.
My concern is that in this area, unlike in the others I have spoken of, we have no suitable licence-exempt spectrum and no well developed plans to bring it about. One reason for that is the very success of mobile telecommunications, which are everywhere—though not so strongly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). Everyone has a mobile phone; many people have two. Given that, why would we possibly want more wide area communication? Have we not got enough? The answer is no, and I hope that the Minister will be good enough to acknowledge the reason. In fact, I hope that he will acknowledge all my points, but on this one, I specifically expect a response.
The Minister is not a machine. He does not look like a machine. He does not carry out his duties like a machine and he certainly does not communicate like a machine. Why then should he think that machines communicate in the same way as he does? Machines do not get annoyed when there is a busy tone. They do not become upset by congestion, or infuriated by delay.
Putting billions of machines on to mobile networks designed for people is an incredible waste of valuable infrastructure. That is why we need spectrum, which allows machines to communicate with each other. We need some of that spectrum to be licence exempt so that we have innovation.
Will the Minister tell me what assessment he has made of the potential economic benefits of machine-to-machine communications? Does he agree that it is important that there should be licence-exempt spectrum to support them? Does he agree that we urgently need clarity from Ofcom about when spectrum will be made available?
The Minister may say that it is not for the Government or Ofcom to determine the use spectrum should be put to, but for the market. He has said that before in response to questions that I have tabled, but the market cannot determine the use spectrum should be put to if it is not made available.
Given the enormous importance of these machine-to-machine communications, surely the hon. Lady agrees that we should not exclude large parts of the country and millions of people from accessing all the incredible benefits that she has listed. Surely, it is about not just making spectrum available to machines but making it available to people in those areas of the country, otherwise we will have real social exclusion.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Once again I agree with him; access to the internet will be an important part of enabling humans to reap the benefits of M2M communications. He is absolutely right that discussion of M2M communications is part of a wider argument about ensuring that the benefits of technology are available to all our citizens.
The Minister may claim that Ofcom should not intervene to support particular technologies but, as I have already suggested, I argue that M2M communication is not one technology but a huge market—in fact, it is a range of markets—and that the purchase of spectrum is a huge barrier to entry by small innovative firms. The Minister may also say that he does not have a stream of people coming to see him to ask for this spectrum, but the small innovative firms that I talk to do not have that kind of access to Departments.
Personal and near-field communications have licence-exempt spectrum in which to innovate, so why is there none for wide range applications? I yield to no one—not even the Minister—in my praise of Ofcom. Under the Communications Act 2002, Ofcom is required to encourage investment and innovation, and specifically to use spectrum for that purpose, so I would like the Minister to tell us and Ofcom about the importance that he places on that requirement to encourage innovation, especially given the cross-party consensus that innovation will help to secure the recovery. Will the requirement to encourage innovation be retained and indeed strengthened in the new communications Bill, which is currently being drafted?
I am sure that the Minister shares my view that M2M communication is a very important area and I look forward to hearing how he will encourage the innovation and the economic benefits that it will bring.
I am grateful to you, Mr Scott, for giving me the opportunity to speak. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and it is a great and significant honour to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this debate. She knows, from remarks that I have made about her before in the House, that I am not surprised that she is the first MP to raise this important issue. She has referred to the last innovative MP, Emma Nicholson, who raised the issue of the internet for the first time in Parliament. I only hope that the career of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central does not follow that of Ms Nicholson and that she does not end up as a member of the Liberal Democrat party. I say that with all due respect to the coalition, of which I am a full and supportive member.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central is an expert in the House on this issue—she had a distinguished career in Ofcom. I mean it as a compliment when I say that this debate has perhaps been more like a seminar than the type of rambunctious debate that we are used to in this Chamber.
The hon. Lady has discussed machine-to-machine communications, or M2M. As she has rightly said, M2M sounds almost like a pop band, perhaps one that was competing in the Eurovision song contest. We also talk about M2M as “the internet of things”. It is an incredibly important subject and in some ways it is the “new new thing”, if I can put it that way, of the internet. It is something that people are now starting to talk about. As she elaborated on in her excellent speech, the possibilities of the internet of things are almost limitless, and they will transform how we live our lives. However, as both the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) have rightly said, the internet of things will also bring complex social issues that will attract the interest of politicians, notably privacy issues but also other important issues such as social exclusion.
Today the hon. Lady has shown that she has another string to her bow. She managed to secure this debate, and we know how difficult it is to secure a debate in Westminster Hall, let alone a particular timing for a debate. However, she has secured this debate on M2M on IPV6 world day. For those MPs who do not know what IPV6 is, it is internet protocol version 6. Effectively, sitting behind the internet addresses that we all use is a string of digits, like a telephone number. At the moment, we use internet protocol version 4, or IPV4, and we are about to run out of IPV4 addresses. I do not want anyone to panic about that for a moment, but this autumn the wholesale sale of internet addresses in Europe will come to an end and in the next two years we will experience a shortage. Consequently we need to move to IPV6, which is a longer string of digits.
I held a seminar this morning with key figures in the UK who are involved in this transformation to IPV6. One of them described the transformation to me in a very clear way, by saying that moving from IPV4 to IPV6 in terms of increased capacity is like moving from a golf ball to the sun. We might not need all the capacity that the sun would bring, but we will certainly need significantly greater capacity. Given that IPV4 only has 4.3 billion internet addresses, the increase in capacity in the future will be driven by the internet of things. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, that will include things such as smart homes, smart meters and connected cars. For example, I learned today something that is pretty obvious once you are told it, namely that every new car that is sold has its own internet address, to allow it to communicate with computers. There will also be e-health, smart cities and many other variations of things.
As the hon. Lady indicated, a number of companies have made predictions about the number of internet addresses that we are going to need. Ericsson has said that we will need 50 billion internet addresses by 2020 to cope with the internet of things. Some people talk about trillions of devices or connections. The debate is very fast-moving, and nobody can be certain what will happen. To be frank, predictions are fairly pointless, except to say that we will need a lot more internet addresses.
I want to use the opportunity that this debate provides briefly to speak out to those watching, particularly companies and businesses, and ask them to start preparing their websites and information systems for IPV6. Although that change is not an immediate issue for them, they will need to be on top of it in the next few years. In fact, the slogan that I came up with this morning, which I thought was rather neat, was, “Don’t panic, but do start to prepare”.
The hon. Lady has asked me whether I have estimated the economic value of the internet of things. I have not done so, and as far as I am aware Ofcom has not done so either. However, as one might imagine, various estimates are knocking about. Some people have estimated that the value of the internet of things is about €200 billion a year. Again, however, I say with some caution—given that we are, as it were, in the “known unknown” territory—that it is impossible to put a realistic value on the internet of things. As she has indicated, however, virtually any device that business or consumers use will be internet-enabled in the coming years. For example, the most immediate example that right hon. and hon. Members will probably be aware of is the idea of smart metering, which the hon. Lady has discussed at length. Other examples include radio frequency identification, which relates to the near-field issues that she has discussed.
The thrust of the hon. Lady’s speech was about whether or not we should make spectrum available, particularly for entrepreneurs to take advantage of the growing internet of things. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has rightly reminded us of the need to set in place proper infrastructure for the internet of people. Both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend will be fully aware of the Government’s plans to support broadband roll-out and that we have set aside about £500 million for that programme. Our objective is to bring superfast broadband to 90% of homes and businesses, and a minimum of 2 megabits per second broadband to all other premises, by the end of 2015. My hon. Friend is also making firm representations about the forthcoming spectrum auction and the need to increase coverage in that respect. As the hon. Lady has indicated, wireless will also be an important part of M2M communications, and, as she knows, we are well on track to get that spectrum auction up and running at the beginning of next year.
As the hon. Lady has said, spectrum is absolutely vital for the future of the internet of things, and it is incredibly important that we make as much spectrum available as possible. As I am sure that she knows, we have committed to releasing a significant amount of public spectrum to the private sector. In March, just after the Budget, we published our detailed plans to release 500 MHz of public sector spectrum below 5 GHz by 2020. That will be a complex task, bringing together a number of Departments. We must also ensure that the spectrum that we make available is internationally compatible and that we make it available with the minimum of disruption to the public sector, be it transport, security or defence.
As the hon. Lady has predicted, although I believe that much of this spectrum will be suitable for M2M communications, it is not for me, nor indeed, in my view, for Ofcom, to decide how best to use both the spectrum and the infrastructure available to meet the demands for communications. That is for the market to decide. She is right to point out that the United States is making advances in this area, but I think that we are keeping pace.
The hon. Lady is well aware of the duties of Ofcom and of its light-touch approach to regulation, and those duties include encouraging investment and innovation in relevant markets. In addition, the European Union’s radio spectrum policy programme, which we debated at the Telecoms Council last week and which is currently generally under discussion, also includes the principle of promoting innovation in telecoms. Ofcom is the independent regulator charged with managing spectrum in the UK, using licences when users want rights and unlicensed spectrum when rights are not needed. The use of wi-fi is a very good example of successful unlicensed spectrum use.
The hon. Lady made it very clear in her speech that Ofcom has made spectrum available for M2M use, such as that which allows intelligent transport systems to operate without licence in a European harmonised band, aiding the development of those systems. Ofcom is also considering whether the 872-+876 MHz spectrum paired with the 917-921 MHz one might be suitable for M2M communications, and it is working with the European Commission and European regulators to see whether such services could operate without interference to adjacent bands. We also have, of course, the so-called white space spectrum, which might be suitable for machine-to-machine communication.
Ofcom frequently consults on spectrum matters. I absolutely take the hon. Lady’s point that a lot of the small entrepreneurial businesses that could make use of this spectrum are not necessarily in a position to lobby Ofcom, but I assure her that there are many organisations out there that bring their thoughts about spectrum availability and how it can be used to the table. I hope that this debate will also highlight the fact that this is a very live issue and that it is perfectly possible to contact me or the hon. Lady, or indeed Ofcom, to make points. In my experience as a Minister, small and entrepreneurial businesses are often the ones that come forward with radical and interesting thoughts, so I encourage businesses engaged in this issue to make their views known not only to me but to Ofcom.
It is absolutely right that we should be ahead of the curve, aware of what is coming and looking beyond the horizon regarding how this spectrum could be used, but as well as first-mover advantage there is potentially first-mover disadvantage with spectrum. We, as the United Kingdom, have to align ourselves with our European partners, and being the first to make a band available for unlicensed spectrum use could end up being costly, if decisions are then made to harmonise different bands. I do not want to give the hon. Lady the impression that we are complacent; we are absolutely not—this is a very live issue. I do not, however, want to be in the position of rushing forward with decisions that we later regret. Our planned release in 2020 of the 500 MHz is a very good example of that, because we are pushing ahead our plans but are very conscious of the fact that we have to keep in step with our European partners, while at the same time pushing European member states to move on spectrum decisions.
I am confident that Ofcom’s approach to innovation and to spectrum management will continue to take account of its duties and will be both proportional and appropriate. It is important to recognise that machine-to-machine—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).