Tuesday 28 February 2012
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Women in the Church of England
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Dunne.)
I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate in the first instance. It is an important and timely debate and has attracted a lot of interest. My hon. Friend sends her apologies for being unable to attend, but as someone who has been asking questions of the representative of the Church Commissioners on the Floor of the House of Commons on the issue of women bishops for some time, I am very pleased to be deputising for her today, with Mr Speaker’s permission.
I pay tribute again to the women and men who have been fighting for justice and equality in the Church of England for many years: first with the movement for the ordination of women, and now with the organisation called WATCH—Women and the Church. In particular, I have had a number of dealings with Sally Barnes, who is very involved in WATCH. It is a great pity that we are still having battles in the Church of England about equality in 2012. Many people might be quite shocked to realise that the established Church of this country has been allowed to opt out of equality legislation. It has been able to opt out of its duties under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and under the Equality Act 2010. I believe that if we have an established Church of England, that Church should have regard to and follow the laws of the land as well.
It is good that we are having this debate close to international women’s day on 8 March and at a time when we are looking back to the suffragette campaign, which was reaching its peak 100 years ago. The campaign for women bishops follows the campaign for women priests, which reached a successful conclusion in 1992. I have been reflecting on that, because before the legislation was passed, I was involved in the campaign. I was a student and very involved in my chaplaincy. I remember that one morning my dad, who did not share my politics, rang me in a rather irate state. He had opened his morning copy of The Daily Telegraph to find a big picture of the scene outside Church House as the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was going into Synod. A group of women was standing there with placards saying “How long?” and “We’re waiting,” and my dad realised that one of them was me. He was quite taken aback that his daughter was in the Telegraph to start with—I did not share its politics; but he then got the picture from the Telegraph and I have it framed in my office as a reminder of one of the things with which I am very proud to have been associated.
The legislation in relation to women priests went through in November 1992, but it specifically said that women could not become bishops. The reform of 1992 has been a huge success. There are now 3,000 women priests. The talents and abilities of both women and men are now being recognised and utilised by the Church. There are four female deans of cathedrals and many others in senior roles. Despite many predictions to the contrary, that has not led to the collapse of the established Church or to any other existential disaster befalling mankind—or even womankind.
The same would be true, I believe, of moving forward to having women bishops. Women priests have entered the mainstream culture of our country, far beyond just spawning “The Vicar of Dibley”. Like many great progressive reforms, it has put new wine into old bottles. I want to celebrate and build on that success. We know that being a bishop is a very difficult job to undertake and the Church needs to choose bishops with a wide range of gifts, skills and experience. It is inconceivable that those gifts and skills and that experience will be found just in the male sex. The Church could benefit greatly from having the opportunity to select from both men and women. That is right and fair.
The argument, the theological debate, about women bishops is as it was for women priests. It concerns the interpretation of women’s role in the great Christian teachings. Those against equality believe that God created the man to lead and that the woman was there to be his helper. Some hold that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. They believe that women should not be in a leadership role over men. Therefore women are somehow seen as secondary to men. Those in favour of women bishops more commonly draw inspiration from the arguments that both men and women were created equal in God’s image.
When I was looking at the arguments, I found a familiar theme about the God-given role of certain individuals or groups. I read carefully the debates on the abolition of the slave trade and I shall explain why. William Wilberforce fought very hard in the House of Commons to champion that cause. The discussion at that time was about how a Christian could defend slavery. There is symmetry with the idea that there are preordained roles that people have to play. It is striking when we look back and then look at the issues of equality and justice that the Church of England should be at the forefront of championing today.
The role of women in the history of Christianity, from the time of Jesus, has often been painted out of the picture, just as happened with black people and the tremendous role that they have played in our history. However, if we look at the Bible, we know that Jesus treated women fairly. He spoke to them as equals, and of course it is always recognised that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection. In the early Christian Church, until about 400 AD, female priests and congregation leaders were very common.
Those who draw on the literal interpretation of the Bible apply it word for word to the modern world. That can be dangerous, but they also do it based on a selective interpretation of the text—one that I think is based on worldly interests and prejudice. Whatever happens in the politics and obscure committees of the Church of England, the real world and the United Kingdom have changed enormously, especially during the past century. The real world looks like leaving the Church of England behind. Women are now far more educated, are more likely to have a job outside the home, can vote equally with men and are no longer the property of their fathers and passed to their husbands on marrying.
There is much further to go on equality issues. There is a need for more women in Parliament—as I am sure all hon. Members recognise—in our local authorities, at the Bar and in the boardroom. However, women have broken through as leaders in society. We are no longer there just to make the tea. In 1979, we had the first woman Prime Minister; and Margaret Thatcher duly proved that a woman could do the job of leader in society as badly as any man.
We are looking at a process of change. God was said to have created the earth in seven days. It is taking a great deal longer for the tortuous internal machinery of the Church of England to introduce the simple reform for women bishops. The draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure is currently in its final legislative stages. It was considered at the February General Synod after recent consultation among the 44 dioceses saw 42 come out in favour of women bishops. Only two—London and Chichester—narrowly voted against. Thirty-three voted explicitly against any provisions for those who did not accept women bishops. Nine voted for some provisions.
I want to concentrate on the Manchester motion, as it has become known. Synod debated the motion, which asked the House of Bishops to use its powers to amend the Measure by incorporating co-ordinate jurisdiction—there are a variety of interpretations as to how that would work in practice—in clause 2 and removing the words “by way of delegation”. That was the substance of the Archbishops’ proposed amendment of July 2010, which Synod rejected by a small margin in one house, but this time, after a thorough debate, all three houses of the Synod clearly voted not to ask the bishops to take such a course.
In an earlier debate on the results of the diocesan Synod voting, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened to ask Synod to allow the bishops one last look at the Measure. It was unclear whether he meant he wanted Synod to support the Manchester motion, and members interpreted his words in both directions. Essentially, however, he has paved the way for the bishops to amend the Measure slightly.
Almost all members of Synod, including both archbishops, are convinced that the Measure must be passed in July for the sake of the credibility of the Church of England. An unknown factor is whether there is a sufficient majority in the House of Laity, and in the light of that the Archbishop of Canterbury is keen to see whether there is a way through that will enable more laity to support the Measure, while not alienating those on the pro-women bishop side, who already find the Measure a huge compromise.
A known factor, however, is that if the bishops amend the Measure, shifting it towards the views of opponents, all the indications are that it will lose support in the House of Clergy and will not gain a sufficient majority there in July. It would also be somewhat peculiar if the House of Bishops used its powers to change a draft Measure about its own reform in the face of the overwhelming support given to that Measure by the wider Church membership through diocesan Synod voting.
As I said, the draft Measure goes to the House of Bishops in May, and it can amend the reforms as it sees fit. If it does, that would be unacceptable to WATCH and most senior women, because it would change the episcopacy in ways that would undermine the Church’s integrity and mission, as well as limiting female bishops’ ministry too far.
When I looked at this issue, I was struck by the fact that women have actively engaged with the bishops in the discussions that have been held so far. In June 2008, senior lay and clergywomen attended a meeting of the College of Bishops to discuss proposals for women bishops. Since then, no women have been part of the discussions in the House of Bishops. It is inconceivable to anyone engaged in equality and diversity work in other contexts that the Church would make the decision about consecrating women as bishops without seriously engaging during this last phase with those who will be most directly affected by that decision.
That is where we are at the moment. If the changes the bishops make to the Measure are small, it will come back to General Synod in July for final approval, which will involve further debate and voting. If the changes are major—I have explained how the Measure could be changed in a major way—the whole process will go backwards, with another consultation among the dioceses and more debates and voting.
If we get to the stage of final approval, it will require a two-thirds majority in each house—the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. That sounds a bit like Labour’s electoral college for electing leaders, which is complicated and rather challenging, with the constituency Labour parties, unions and MPs all having to have their say. The process around the Measure certainly seems to be more about worldly politics than about the great doctrinal principles that opponents of modernisation argue over.
If the two-thirds majority is achieved, and the interests of the minority who can scupper it are overcome, that is still not the end of the process. The Measure then goes before the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, which can refer it to both Houses of Parliament for a vote. In that respect, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who will be responsible for taking the proposals through the House of Commons, was quoted in July 2010 as saying,
“be under no illusion about one thing. A difficult task could well become impossible if I had to steer through the House of Commons any measure which left a scintilla of a suggestion that woman bishops were in some way to be second class bishops.”
That is a helpful quote.
We now know that only a tiny minority of parishes oppose women bishops. Under the current legislation, only 3% have asked to be looked after by provincial episcopal visitors, commonly known as “flying bishops”, which is quite a challenging idea. The idea of someone swooping in to provide whatever people need sounds like the Church of England’s version of “The Sweeney”—the attitude to women that underlies that certainly belongs more to the world of “Life on Mars” than to 2012.
People who know change is coming are now looking at any way of delaying it. They are looking at whether there can be more restrictions and at possible ways of avoiding change. Obviously, some members of the Church of England—some priests—have accepted the Pope’s invitation to join the Roman Catholic Church.
However, more than enough has been done to cater for those who have rather challenging attitudes, shall we say, to the world we live in and to the commitment the Church of England and Christianity have always shown, and should always show, to equality, justice and fairness. That group perhaps sees the Church as a monument, rather than as the movement it really should be. To bend any further to the opponents of progress would mean stopping change. Indeed, they would like to reverse the progress that has been made so far.
There is an idea that we are moving far too fast. There are those who claim to support the cause of women bishops, but who believe that we should not proceed too far or too fast. With them, the decision always has to be taken in the future, and decisive moves forward always seem to be a few years ahead.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. St Augustine established the Church in England in 597 AD—1,415 years ago. Discussions about women’s ordination have been going on since the Church of England’s Lambeth conference in 1920. The issue of women bishops was first raised in the Church Assembly in 1966. There is, therefore, quite a background to the issue, and no one could say we are rushing into making this change. It has been formally debated in Synod since 2000, so the accusation that we are moving too far and too fast on gender equality really does not hold water.
The Church of England is a broad Church, and we want it to go forward as a broad Church. I certainly want it to be relevant to the society we live in. I want it to promote faith, decency and good work in the wider community. It is obviously important to respect its past, but we should not live in the past; we should look to how the Church can develop and serve the needs of the community now. We need to serve the people of today and tomorrow, but we are perhaps being held back a little by some of yesterday’s people. A broad Church should not be held back by narrow interests, and there is now broad support for the Measure to go through all its stages.
I hope we will see the first woman bishop very soon. I will certainly persist in putting my questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury, to ensure that progress continues to be made. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does; he is a real champion of equality and fairness in the Church.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Chope. I commend the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who set out carefully and clearly the reasons for the debate, and what, perhaps, should come out of it. It was pleasing to hear, for once, that on the issue in question we are not moving too far and too fast, although clearly the Opposition think that we are doing that with many other issues.
Faith matters have been prominent in recent weeks, with debates about prayers in council meetings and Parliament, and about same sex civil marriage. My view on prayers in council meetings or Parliament is that it is not right for them to be an integral part of the proceedings. I have no objection to their happening immediately prior to the meeting or proceedings, but those who do not participate should not suffer any detriment for that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that semi-serious intervention.
The Government are consulting on how to introduce same sex civil marriages, and I hope that eventually we will introduce legislation to allow those faiths that want to celebrate same sex religious marriage to do so. Clearly, however, we are not at that point. The Government’s consultation is about same sex civil, not religious, marriages. If in the future same sex religious marriage is considered, as with previous measures, compulsion would not operate, but there would be flexibility and scope for faiths that wanted to proceed down that route.
I am not convinced that, as a man and an atheist, I am the best placed person to comment on the issue of women bishops. Indeed, as I walked up the steps to this debate, I tripped quite dramatically, as if there were some sort of intervention, seeking to restrict my comments. However, I welcome interventions from Church leaders on political matters, and I think it is therefore legitimate for politicians to comment on faith matters.
On 8 February the Synod voted clearly for women bishops to have full autonomy, without co-bishops. I welcome that—it is not a party position. However, I recognise that it will send shock waves through some sections of the Church of England. It is a brave decision, which—if it is ultimately passed—would not leave women bishops as second-class citizens in the Church. My view is that it will happen in the near future anyway. Given that 290 women and 273 men were ordained in 2010, at some point this decision will be taken. The Church of England is at a crossroads. It can go down a more liberal route, with the risk, highlighted by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, that that will lead more followers of the faith to leave. However, there is an inevitability about these things. Following a traditional route will lead to the same sorts of challenges, and as more and more women are ordained, pressure will grow for women bishops to be able to operate independently and in exactly the same way as male bishops, and it will happen eventually.
I welcome the decision taken at the Synod and hope that the House of Bishops, the clergy and the laity will accept that there was a strong vote in favour of allowing women bishops into the Church as equal partners with their male colleagues.
First, I apologise for intervening in both the speeches made by my colleagues. I came here with a self-denying ordinance, during Lent, not to intervene in others’ speeches, but I failed.
The first thing to remember is that the Church of England has got this matter sorted. It is now a question for the Government, which is why my hon. Friend the Minister is here, and for Parliament. As a member, still, of the Ecclesiastical Committee, I look forward to a debate, when the matter comes to us, in which the Committee will look as if it is on the side of the Church of England and Parliament, rather than confronting the Church. There has been a tendency in the past 10 years or so, for too many people to say that anything that comes from the Church of England must be suspect and treated with disrespect. We should treat the efforts of the Synod with respect, and remember that our present system is a change from when ecclesiastical canon law had to go through all stages of Parliament, with First, Second and Third Readings. We now have an abbreviated system, which is to be preferred.
Our responsibilities to the Church of England are perhaps the reverse of what happened in 1297, when there was a declaration that Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest had to be read out twice a year in all cathedral churches. Anyone who did not do that was excommunicated. The penalties were rather greater in those days than they are now.
I went through my shelves this morning to see what I had on this subject. I will not read everything out, but it is worth trying to set a context. In a book called “Women of the Bible” by H. V. Morton, which was published in 1940, the author talks about a female gallery unmatched in the world of literature, starting, obviously, with Eve, and working through the women of the Old and New Testaments; but not as ministers. That is something that I found covered rather better in the 1981 PhD thesis of Ben Witherington, which became the book “Women in the Ministry of Jesus”. I have got the paperback copy from 1987. He sensibly takes the reader through how we should view women in the context of their roles in Palestine—in marriage and the family, in religion and as witnesses, teachers and leaders. He goes on to describe women in the teaching of Jesus, in chapters about the physical family, women in the parables of Jesus, women in female imagery in the judgment sayings, and Jesus’s attitudes towards women, reflected in his words. There are then two more substantive chapters, “Women and the Deeds of Jesus”, including “Stories of Help and Healing” and “Jesus’ Attitude Toward Women Reflected in his Actions”; and “Women in the Ministry of Jesus”, including “Mother Mary, Jesus’ Disciple”, “Mary and Martha”, “Women Who Followed Jesus” and “The Place of Women in Jesus’ Ministry”. Then the book goes on to conclusions.
It is clear from what Ben Witherington has to say, and from what is known by scholars, as well as the campaigners, that Jesus had a rare view, for his time, of what women could and should do. We should keep that in mind. Most of what we have began, I think, with the western version of St Luke’s Gospel, in which the translator toned down much of what Luke directly said. There has been a natural tendency, including among some of my friends in both Houses of Parliament, to suggest that everything must suffer from the historic negative: things cannot be done in a new way, because they have never been done that way before. The old law of custom is also rolled out. In the Old Testament, as we know from some of the Bedouin histories, even though someone had done something terribly wrong, if it was customary to do it, they could get away with it. Whether it was murder, taking others’ goods, or slaughtering members of another tribe, custom was a sufficient defence. I think that we should look for challenge, and say that custom is no longer a sufficient defence for perpetuating what is clearly ineffective, and in many senses unjust.
I want briefly to consider the relationship of Church and state. F.D. Bruce’s book, “The Legal and Constitutional Relationship Between Church and State in England”, published in 1910, sets out clearly the role of establishment. It is not the Church of England propping up Parliament; it is Parliament’s role in making sure that the Church serves the nation. That applies to the UK Parliament as it is now just as much as it applied to the English Parliament, before the unions that created Great Britain and the United Kingdom. A rather good book that is relevant is from the Royal Historical Society “Studies in History”: “Representatives of the Lower Clergy in Parliament, 1295-1340” by J. H. Denton and J. P. Dooley.
Let me now turn to “Women and Holy Orders”. In 1928, Charles E. Raven, who was Canon at Liverpool and Chaplain to the King and later became the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge university, wrote a book that effectively epitomised what the suffrage movement meant in the Church of England in terms of getting the vote, which was established when Royal Assent was given to the suffrage Act—the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928. It was then that the League of Church Militant, which had offices at Church House, Westminster, was dissolved because it was thought that the job had been basically done. However, from 1928 to now, we have had arguments over the ordination of women as deacons rather than deaconesses and the decision, eventually, to ordain women as priests. Now we come to the decision—this could have been taken at the same time as the decision to ordain women as priests, but out of kindness to the last ditchers it was deferred—about women being ordained as bishops.
My hon. Friend the Minister may say that this matter does not have a great deal to do with the Government, but, to the extent that Government determine parliamentary time, it does. The matter of the ordination of women as bishops should not be left to the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that the Government will accept that they have responsibility for providing parliamentary time if the Ecclesiastical Committee decides that it is expedient to put the Synod’s Measure to both Houses of Parliament.
I pay tribute to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who in his first series of questions in that role uttered words equivalent to the ones that he later gave in public and to the Synod. He said that Parliament will not stand for backsliding, significant delay and discrimination, and that is right. I also pay tribute to the Synod for the decisions that it has made, even though it did not follow what the archbishops had indicated that they would find expedient.
Lastly, let me reflect on Margaret Hebblethwaite’s “Six New Gospels” in which, in a fictional way, she has New Testament women telling their stories. We have an image of Jesus through the eyes of six different women. She says that this can be looked at metaphorically and literally. The metaphorical question about whether women are fully capable of doing anything that a man can do has been settled for two millennia. The question of whether we can translate that into practice will, in the end, come down to whether the Church of England can act by itself or whether it has to wait for more of Christendom to join us.
One of the great things about the Church of England, for whatever reason it was established, is that it actually has the freedom to make its own decisions and we are part of that process. It is about time that we took that decision. Please, Synod, pass this legislation on women bishops to us. I hope that the Ecclesiastical Committee will not make a fool of itself: I trust it to do what is right. When it comes to being debated and decided on in the House of Commons—I cannot speak for the House of Lords; I leave that to my wife, because a woman’s place is in the House…of Lords—I hope that we will make a decision that will allow women bishops to join the House of Lords and then help decide what the future of that institution will be as well.
I start with an apology: I am due to chair the Committee that is considering the Civil Aviation Bill very shortly. That may take me 50,000 feet closer to God, but it will not allow me to hear the winding-up speeches in this debate, and for that I apologise to colleagues.
I am a fully paid-up reactionary. This is not part of the debate, but it has been raised, so I will make my own comment. I happen to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman and anything else is a partnership and should remain as such.
On the issue that we are debating this morning, I have a very strong view indeed. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and others have referred to equality. However, this is about not equality, but the right person for the job. As with the House of Commons, so with the Church of England and others; we need the best people in the job. Simply, ladies who have been ordained have proved that they are very good. There may be some bad women vicars, but I can think of one or two bad male vicars as well. In whatever walk of life—whether in the House of Commons, the Church of England, industry, medicine or education—we need the best people in the job. Some of those best people will be men and some will be women. If there are more best women than there are best men, there should be more women bishops than there are male bishops. If that is a counter-reactionary point of view, I apologise to my hon. Friends who might expect me to take an alternative view.
To conclude, in the final line of “Saint Joan”—I know this because as a schoolboy I was required to utter the words—George Bernard Shaw said:
“How long, Oh Lord, how long?”
This has been going on for far too long. The moment is not with us; it is way past and the decision should have been taken by now. The bishops will be doing the Church, of which I am proud to be a member, no service whatever if they duck this issue. It is time to move forward, and I hope very much indeed that we in the House of Commons and our colleagues in the upper House will be given the opportunity to vote for this Measure and to see women enjoying the episcopacy as soon as possible.
I hope that it will be of some help to the House if I am allowed to make a contribution in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. If I read this debate correctly, it will not miss the point. The debate, which was introduced excellently by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), has had contributions from an avowed atheist, the churchwarden of St Margaret’s and a resolute reactionary, and they all supported the Measure to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England and want it passed as soon as possible.
We have a Church of England that is subject to parliamentary statute, and has been ever since the first Act of Supremacy, when we broke with Rome. However, in 1919, Parliament decided that the Church of England should have its own legislature, the Church Assembly then and the General Synod now.
As the hon. Lady pointed out, the General Synod is made up of three houses: the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. Resolutions from the General Synod—Measures—have to come to Parliament.
May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) that I hope that the General Synod will agree to adopt this Measure in July? In anticipation of that, I have met Lord Lloyd, the Chair of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which is made up of a number of Members of this House and a number of Members of the House of Lords, to discuss the Committee meeting in October to consider and approve the Measure.
Leaving nothing to chance, I have already had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons. Using the precedent of what happened in respect of the Measures for ordaining women as deacons and priests, it is deemed to be appropriate to consider this Measure on the Floor of the House, rather than upstairs in Committee. The understanding that I have reached with the Leader of the House is that we will set aside half a day—we hope, some time in November—to approve the Measure in this House. It has to be approved separately in the House of Lords, and I hope that it will do similarly. If the Measure is approved by General Synod in July, it is my ambition to do everything possible to have it pass all its legislative stages before the end of this year. We would therefore hope to see the first women bishops appointed as early as 2014. I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) that that would be significant in terms of the timetable relating to reform of the House of Lords.
The other day, the Queen was at Lambeth palace to meet faith representatives, and at the conclusion of her visit she made a short but very powerful speech. With the leave of the House, I will just quote two paragraphs from that speech. Her Majesty said:
“Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives and for the way in which we treat each other. Many of the values and ideas we take for granted in this and other countries originate in the ancient wisdom of our traditions. Even the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible… We should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.
It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”
It is always important to remember that the Church of England is, as Her Majesty pointed out, the established Church and as such it has very specific responsibilities to be a national Church. This year, we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, but it is worth recalling that the Book of Common Prayer is itself an annexe to the Act of Uniformity. Indeed, later this year, the Parliamentary Archives will display the original Act of Uniformity, with the original Book of Common Prayer, which, as I say, was attached to the Act as an annexe. So Parliament has always had an important role in the life of the Church of England and the Church of England has had a responsibility in our nation’s life to be a national Church.
Regarding the concerns that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North expressed about the Equality Act 2010, it is important to recognise that any Measure from the General Synod must come to both Houses of Parliament to be approved. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for quoting my comments at the General Synod shortly after I was appointed as the Second Church Estates Commissioner in July 2010, when I made it very clear to the General Synod that I did not think there was any prospect of getting through Parliament any Measure that gave the impression that women bishops were second-class bishops. I have made it very clear that if the Church of England is to have bishops, women bishops must be just like male bishops, regarded and respected as male bishops are, and with the same roles, responsibilities and rights.
It is also important to remember that we are dealing with a Church and that, as is set out in the Preface to the Declaration of Assent:
“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”
Therefore, the General Synod and the whole Church have been grappling with issues that are of genuine concern—indeed, heartfelt concern—for large numbers of individuals, and the General Synod and the whole Church are absolutely right to have taken time to ensure that those issues are thoroughly debated and resolved. It is a fact that every deanery in every diocese in England has had the opportunity to debate them at length and, as the hon. Lady pointed out in her opening comments, 42 out of 44 of the dioceses have voted firmly in support of the Measure to enable women to become bishops.
I very much hope that, when the House of Bishops considers the resolution from the February Synod, it gives it careful consideration. However, given that a majority of the members of the February Synod voted in favour of women becoming bishops—in other words, they supported those resolutions that enable that prospect to move forward—I would be extremely surprised if the House of Bishops did anything other than to enable the Measure to move forward, and I have every confidence in the good sense and good judgment of the House of Bishops.
When we come to the Church of England’s General Synod in July, I very much hope that even those who have been opposed to women becoming bishops will recognise the overwhelming support within the Church of England for the Measure to go forward. In fact, if 42 out of 44 dioceses have voted in favour of women becoming bishops, it would look very perverse—indeed, it would look ridiculous—if the General Synod in July was to use its convoluted voting mechanisms not to allow that Measure to move forward. Between now and July, I hope that everyone will search their soul and I also hope that, if people are opposed to the Measure, they will recognise that there comes a point when it is necessary to acknowledge that, in the interests and well-being of the Church of England, the Measure must make progress.
We have always wished to continue to be a broad Church, maintaining space for all those who wish to remain within the Church of England. However, there must be a recognition that this issue has been deliberated for a long time and that it has been considered carefully, with everyone in the Church of England having had the opportunity to make a thoughtful and deliberative contribution to the debate, and that—as demonstrated by the votes in the dioceses during the last year—the views of the members of the Church of England are very clear.
I hope, therefore, that by the end of this year Parliament will have passed a Measure that will enable women to become bishops. Of course, although that parliamentary business would be dealt with in Government time, it would not be capable of being whipped business. Consequently, I will look to all those who have urged and exhorted me on this issue during Church Commissioners questions and elsewhere to be in the main Chamber to support the Measure when it comes to the Floor of the House. Wherever that support comes from—whether from atheists or resolved reactionaries—it is very important that the House of Commons demonstrates its support for women bishops. In due course, I hope that I and others here will be able to be at Westminster abbey or St Paul’s cathedral when the archbishops consecrate the first woman bishop.
There are of course women bishops elsewhere in the Anglican communion. I am glad to say that some of them were present at the February Synod, and I was very glad to be able to entertain two of them, the Bishop of Rhode Island and the Bishop of Nova Scotia, here in the House while they were at General Synod in February. It was interesting to hear them talk about their experiences as women bishops and how quickly they had become fully recognised in their leadership role as bishops within their own provinces, countries and communities. And why not?
As has been said, we now have women in leadership roles throughout the Church of England in every position other than as bishops. There are now as many women as there are men coming forward to be ordained as priests. I am sure that it will be the same in other hon. Members’ constituencies. In my own constituency, the vicar of Banbury is a woman. The vicar of Bicester is a woman. The vicar in my own parish, from whom I take communion each Sunday, is a woman. They are all excellent examples of leadership within the Church, but my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West makes a good and important point. I hope that I will be present when the archbishops consecrate the first woman bishop within the Church of England.
Sorry, I hoped that I had made that clear. If General Synod approves the Measure in July, with God’s good grace and the help of Members of Parliament, I hope that we can get it through by the end of this year and that we will see the first women consecrated as bishops in 2014. Obviously, that depends on a whole number of variables, including the work of the Crown Nominations Commission and so forth, but I hope that we will see such a timetable.
At the consecration service, the archbishop addresses the ordinands. I will conclude with a piece of text, because it is a beautiful piece, but it is also worth reminding ourselves what function the bishops actually perform. If one considers this text, there is absolutely no reason why women should not perform any of these responsibilities just as well as men:
“Bishops are called to serve and care for the flock of Christ. Mindful of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, they are to love and pray for those committed to their charge, knowing their people and being known by them. As principal ministers of word and sacrament, stewards of the mysteries of God, they are to preside at the Lord’s table and to lead the offering of prayer and praise. They are to feed God’s pilgrim people, and so build up the Body of Christ. They are to baptize and confirm, nurturing God’s people in the life of the Spirit and leading them in the way of holiness. They are to discern and foster the gifts of the Spirit in all who follow Christ, commissioning them to minister in his name. They are to preside over the ordination of deacons and priests, and join together in the ordination of bishops. As chief pastors, it is their duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church, speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation. With the Shepherd’s love, they are to be merciful, but with firmness; to minister discipline, but with compassion. They are to have a special care for the poor, the outcast, and those who are in need. They are to seek out those who are lost and lead them home with rejoicing, declaring the absolution and forgiveness of sins to those who turn to Christ. Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles, they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice, and work for righteousness and peace in all the world.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on taking up the baton after our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), was unable to start the debate today. She has done it admirably. I think I am the only ordained person in the Church of England speaking today, unless anyone is hiding something from us. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) sounded remarkably ordained as he delivered his final intonations.
I remember going to Ripon College Cuddesdon in the 1980s. I arrived in 1983. The year before, there had been one woman in training at Cuddesdon, which was generally known as the bishop-making college. In the year I arrived, there were 13 women. It was the first time that the college had had to make real accommodation for women. Cuddesdon was a strange place, with 72 people living in the same space: eating, drinking, worshipping and studying. It was very intense, and I think it was difficult for many women. Frankly, they were given a hell of a time by some of the men. I have to confess that, in some regards, I think that was because some of the men were gay and did not want women intruding in their world. That is not true of the vast majority of gay men in the Church, who are supportive of women’s ordination and ministry, but it was certainly true at the time. Indeed, the Church was going through a difficult period because it did not know what to do about inclusive—or not inclusive—language. Should it refer to “all men” or “all men and women”, especially in the creed and much of the liturgy? Some of us ostentatiously refused to say just the word “men”. In retrospect, some of that feels a little childish, but the role of women was hardly respected or honoured at all in the Church, and there was a real conflict for many women. There still is in many parts of the Church, where the role model for a woman is as a virgin and a mother at the same time. Not many will be able to achieve that.
In the Church hierarchy, which had the vicar and curate, both of them men at the time, few women were allowed to be lay readers, and some churches refused to allow them to give communion. It felt as though women were fine for making cups of tea, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned. They were fine for ironing the linen for the altar and for mending the cassocks, the albs and the humeral veils and so on. They were even fine for polishing the silver, and obviously for arranging the flowers, but when it came to the serious business of running the Church, that had to be reserved for men. I know that this has changed in many places, but it feels as though the work is not yet complete. As people were talking about the time that the change is taking, I was reminded of Longfellow’s brief poem:
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.”
In other words, I think we will get there, but it is taking a long time. It feels as though those who are not prepared to step outside the Church because they are frightened are none the less trying to die in the ditch of dilatoriness. They are just trying to delay, making it far more difficult for the Church to embrace its historic mission.
There is a sad history of some people in the Church, including senior leaders, not understanding how grossly offensive they have been at times. Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London, said that a woman was no more ordainable than a potato. That was a man who was meant to be providing spiritual leadership, not just to the men in his diocese but to everybody else as well.
I once asked Graham Leonard why he did not oppose the ordination of women as deacons, although he opposed their ordination as priests and bishops. I asked, “Does it come down to the fact that you believe women were ordained as deacons before, but not as priests or bishops?” He said yes. That is a plain example of the historical negative, let alone his other remarks.
Yes. It rather reminds me of Cardinal Martini—a fine name—who was asked in 1998 or 1999 whether there would ever be women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. He said, “Not in this millennium.” Obviously, the millennium was about to come to an end, so I hope that he was anticipating change swiftly, and not within 1,000 years.
Senior clerics have sometimes not realised what bruises their supposedly theological utterings have inflicted on many women in the Church who have felt seriously called to work for God, but have not been allowed to due to some flippant remark by a bishop or an archbishop. When it seems to be solely about manoeuvring and whether there are two votes above two thirds in each of the three houses, it feels as if humanity has been lost and it has become a political game rather than anything else. That is when the Church loses adherents, members and the passionate, loving support of those who want to be there with it.
A key argument that many people advance against the ordination of women, particularly as bishops, relates to the fact that Jesus supposedly chose no female disciples. We do not actually know that. If asked how many disciples there were, most people would probably say 12, but we have no idea how many there were. In Luke 10, Jesus sends out 70 in pairs, but the chapter does not say whether they were men or women. It says that there was a large crowd, and that the group was in addition to others that he had already sent out.
People say, “All right, but there were only 12 apostles. We must know that.” Again, it is difficult. In Romans 16:7, St Paul refers to two apostles, Andronicus and Junia. There is only one instance in the whole of classical history where Junia is a man, and I suspect that it is not this one. Those two people, probably husband and wife, were in prison with Paul, and he described them as apostles.
Likewise, in Matthew 10, Jesus appoints 12 apostles and sends them out. I suspect that there were 12 in Matthew’s account in particular because he wanted to say that they were going to the lost sheep of Israel; it is about the 12 tribes of Israel as much as anything else. However, if hearty adherents of the Church were asked to name the 12 apostles, I bet that most would not be able to. It is also difficult to be precise about who the apostles were. The gospel of St John names Nathaniel, who is not included in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Mark and Matthew both name Thaddeus, who does not appear in Luke. Instead, Luke names Jude the son of James, often referred to as Jude the obscure—as opposed to Jude the extremely not obscure: Iscariot—yet Jude the obscure is one of the apostles most frequently cited.
My only point about all that quibbling is that I do not think the whole decision whether women should be bishops can rest on the idea that Jesus supposedly called only men. He undoubtedly had many women followers, who certainly considered themselves disciples. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North referred to the scene in the garden on Easter Sunday morning, where it was a woman who first experienced the resurrection, and women undoubtedly played a significant role in the early Church.
People sometimes have too light an understanding of the Bible and use it flippantly. I remember, many years ago, somebody complaining to me in a letter that we kept producing new Bibles. He said, “King James wrote the Bible in the 17th century, and I don’t see why we have to keep on translating it.” King James was an interesting person, but I do not think that he wrote the Bible.
People often refer to the story in Genesis. Genesis does not tell a creation story; it tells at least two stories. In the first, in Genesis 1:27, man and woman are created at the same time:
“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
It is absolutely, point-blank clear that it was all done in one fell swoop.
Genesis 2 gives a completely different story. Interestingly, God decides that man is on his own, so He first decides to give him the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky, then creates woman out of man’s rib, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North said. I do not think that anyone thought when those stories were initially recounted that someone would be standing in Parliament today saying, “You cannot ordain women bishops because God decided it,” and that that was a historically accurate version of events. I leave aside the tiny point that in the Bible, Adam and Eve had two sons. How that could lead to the rest of humanity, I do not understand.
Interestingly, of course, in nearly all the Old Testament creation narrative, the word used for the Holy Spirit is “ruach”, a feminine word. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is clearly female. In many interpretations in the later history of spirituality, beautifully recounted in Rowan Williams’s splendid first book “The Wound of Knowledge”, the spirit is female. The overlay of history has often made spirituality seem extremely masculine—martyrs and all the rest of it, and an authority structure left in the hands of men—but the spiritual insights of women in our history have been every bit as significant as those of men. Our own country gave us Dame Julian of Norwich, although a lot of people think that Julian of Norwich was a man. Her spiritual insights are profound, and one need not look far, to Teresa of Avila and many others around the world, to see the same thing.
The hon. Member for Banbury, who should at least be right hon. by now—it must be imminent; I feel grace falling upon him—asked whether the Church of England can do it alone. For a start, it is not doing it alone. Other Churches have had women as bishops and in prominent roles for many decades, particularly some Lutheran Churches, to which we are allied. In addition, as has been said, every single diocese in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America now has women priests, and ECUSA has had a woman primate—“primate” is always an odd word in the Anglican communion. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and even the Anglican communion in Cuba have had women suffragan bishops. We are not on our own.
Secondly, I thought that one of the fundamental teachings of the Anglican and Catholic Churches and, for that matter, the whole Orthodox communion, is that the sacrament does not depend on the person. That is to say that even if the person who is giving communion, who has stood up and recited, “who, in the same night that He was betrayed, took bread” and all the rest of it, is a filthy, evil, horrible and nasty person—indeed, many of them in the history of the Christian Church have been so—that does not mean that the sacrament does not work. That is absolutely essential. Anyone who believes that the personality of an ordained woman somehow means that the sacrament that she presents does not work is living in theological cloud cuckoo land.
When I was at theological college, I remember clearly that Michael Ramsey, perhaps one of the greatest archbishops, was asked a question by a high Church Anglican trainee ordinand at St Stephen’s house in Oxford—the very high Church college. What should someone in a poor parish do if they had just bought an expensive new altar carpet costing several thousands of pounds, and some consecrated communion wine was spilt over it? I think the high Anglican lad thought that the correct answer would be that since the wine had been consecrated, the carpet would have to be burned. Michael Ramsey said, “Well, first of all, why a church in a poor parish would buy an expensive carpet, I do not understand. Secondly, and much more importantly, I am sure that if God knows how to get into it, He knows how to get back out of it.” I am absolutely sure that if we were to make a mistake with the consecration of woman bishops, God would none the less somehow know how to make sure that we were all still receiving valid sacraments through them.
Several articles need a little bit of reform. When I was a curate, my cassock had 28 buttons, and I did not do them all up for that very reason, but I have always been a little heterodox. I feel a bit disturbed when the hon. Gentleman refers to me as reverend; I think that is over.
The Church of England surely offers something different. Plenty of other Churches do not have women bishops or allow women to perform a full ministry, but I believe that the Church of England developed not just because of Henry VIII’s licentiousness, but because it had something genuine to offer—a middle ground between Protestantism and Catholicism, and a belief that the rational can inform the spiritual and that disciplinary autonomy in this country was important if there was to be a mission to everyone in this country, regardless of whatever the Pope might say, do or insist upon from over the seas. That was an important mission, and I think it survives today. I have a terrible fear that some people want the Church of England to become a sect and not be a Church at all, and I hope that that will be put behind us.
A bishop has to be the centre of unity in the diocese. That is why all the proposals, including those from the two archbishops, have completely misunderstood the theology of episcopacy. If someone is not the centre of unity, surely they cannot be the bishop. Any proposal that parishes should be able to opt out of a bishop because the bishop is a woman is not only fundamentally offensive and demeaning to the ministry of women—we should either do it or not do it—but will simply create a new style of wholly inappropriate schism in the Church. We were wrong to have flying bishops, and we would be wrong to advance similar proposals.
I hope that when the bishops meet, soon, they do not make any changes at all—certainly no changes of substance. I also hope that the Government will not shilly-shally about providing time for us to get on with it. The Ecclesiastical Committee should not have to wait until October. I am sure that it will take just one day. Why can it not meet in July, during the Olympics, or whenever?
We will make all speed, but the reason is simply that various pieces of legislative drafting have to be done. General Synod does not meet until mid-July, and the House rises quite early this year because of the Olympics, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the work will be done with all possible speed.
It did not sound like it. I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman—he has said some sensible things on the matter and I know that he is on the side of the angels—but please do not use all that language; just get on with it.
In the end, the only words on the issue that matter to me are in Galatians 3:28, which I am sure all the people down the other end of the Chamber could repeat verbatim with me, but we might be using different translations of the Bible, so let us not try:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. Sadly, the Minister for Equalities, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) cannot be here today, as she is on other important ministerial duties at the United Nations in New York, but she would have very much liked to reply in person. I hope that you will find me an agreeable alternative.
I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for originally securing the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on taking up the baton, as has been pointed out. I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who has given a lot of clarity on the Church of England’s case. It has been enlightening to hear about the parliamentary process that we may see in the future.
The Church forms a vital part of our culture and heritage, and the fabric of our nation. Today’s debate is about women in the Church of England. Women already play a vital role at a number of levels, from the top to the bottom. Some of the best vicars in the UK are women. Taking a totally random example—from Southend—Louise Williams, the vicar of St Andrew’s church, does an excellent and inspirational job, not because she is a woman, but because she is good at her job. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) described himself as a reactionary, but went on to say that the issue is about getting the right person for the job. That does not sound reactionary to me. I was heartened to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury say that 50% of people in training now are women.
Moving from Southend, another, somewhat different, example is that of Her Majesty the Queen—a woman at the head of the Church of England. From top to bottom, there are already women operating successfully in the Church of England.
Just to give an anecdote, when the Lord Bishop of London took up his post in November 1995, he was presented to the head of the Church—the Queen—by the Secretary of State, who was also a woman. Of those three, the only one who was allowed to be a bishop in those days, if otherwise qualified, was Richard Chartres, because of his chromosomes. It seems absurd that he could be presented by one woman to another woman for a job that both women were disqualified from.
We are in Lent, and my hon. Friend has his own self-imposed rule. I am rather glad he broke it again; that was a good intervention. He also talked about history. If we look back at the decision-making process, it will seem even more ridiculous than it does now.
I would like to pay tribute to all the men and women in the Church who have been involved in invaluable work. The Church of England and those who serve in it have a special place in this country and in this Parliament, particularly through the representation in Parliament of the 26 senior bishops and archbishops. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) worried me a bit by turning up with a book on the period 1295-1340. That is not something the Minister for Equalities had familiarised me with in my briefing. I will speak to her about that on her return from New York.
As a consequence of the special relationship between the Church and the state, all our citizens, whether members of the Church or not, have a legitimate interest in what the Church says and does. Therefore, it is very appropriate for us to debate such issues here in this Parliament. It is good that my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) has contributed to the debate, because that demonstrates the issue is not only about the Church of England and Christianity; it is about people of all faiths, and people of no faith or no defined faith.
One of the key issues surrounding the place of women in the Church today is the question of women bishops, which we have discussed significantly. Although I want to say something on that specific question, I would like to point out that just because we have a special place for the Church within the state, it does not mean that the state should on a daily basis be quick or eager to involve itself in every single internal debate of the Church—or, indeed, that it should comment on its doctrines and practices. That very much applies to the question of who should or should not be bishops, and the associated questions of pastoral care for those who take a contrary view to that the Synod appears to be taking.
As we have heard, the direction of travel seems to be one way. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that we will get there in the end. The debate is about the timing of that travel, not the direction. As we have heard, the Church of England is moving forward and away from a position whereby only men can be appointed bishops. I understand and appreciate that the Church wants to consider the feelings of those who disagree strongly with that move, including those who consider it is not possible as a matter of doctrine for a woman to be made a bishop.
That question—how best to provide the appropriate support and pastoral care for those in the Church who cannot accept or are having problems accepting this change—is vital. I recognise that dealing with it is a difficult and sensitive task, but it is not one on which it is beneficial for the Government to intervene. It is for the Church itself to decide whether it will appoint women bishops. We have been given examples by various hon. Members of women bishops elsewhere—Nova Scotia, Rhode Island and, indeed, Cuba. We need to consider what arrangements should be put in place to support those who cannot accept the change.
As has been explained, once the General Synod has finished its work, the matter will come before the Ecclesiastical Committee and then the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury for explaining the conversations he has had with the Leader of the House about providing time when necessary on the Floor of the House to deal with the matter appropriately. I will do anything I can to facilitate that process, both from the Leader of the House’s perspective, the Whips’ perspective and the perspective of the Government Equalities Office. We will provide any assistance we can to ensure that things are not unnecessarily delayed.
I do not think that it is a Government Bill in that sense, so I would not expect it to be mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. However, I am not privy to that speech.
I shall turn to the specific points that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North made so ably in picking up this brief. She drew comparisons with the Labour electoral college. I genuinely hope that she is wrong in that comparison, given the problems that there have been.
I am genuinely sympathetic and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always nice.
On the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, he used his own words to repeat the underlying point that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North made: if there is a scintilla of deviation from what originally went through the General Synod, it might be slightly more challenging to get things through Parliament. A number of people involved in the process—the Synod, the bishops and the laity—will listen very carefully to the words he has chosen today and the words the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North chose. They will reflect very carefully on that because it is my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who will take the Measure through. My hon. Friend has been in detailed discussions with everyone about the subject, whether they are a reactionary, as he mentioned, or they are on the other side of the argument. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North said that my hon. Friend will be held to account because parliamentary questions will be tabled to the Second Church Estates Commissioner. That is pretty much a polite parliamentary threat—his card is marked.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West failed to give up making interventions for Lent, although I am somewhat surprised he did it so early. I hope that he has more success later. He raised a number of very interesting points. He will have to invite me to his library because it must be incredibly extensive if he has such a detailed knowledge on the subject.
I will not predict when the first woman bishop of the Church of England will be appointed. However, I was interested to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury was firm in his view that it could be as early as 2014. I, too, hope to attend such an event; it would be a great privilege.
The hon. Member for Rhondda was very entertaining in his speech. I think we would agree that my biblical knowledge is not as good as his. However, I think I can go out on a limb—although it does not say so in my briefing—and say that the King James Bible was not written by King James. We do have some commonality. His speeches are always amusing, but I was worried when he mentioned Cardinal Martini because I thought we might have a seedy “any place, any time, any where” joke. I am glad that he steered us clear of such things. I think my local priest who took me through Sunday school and the confirmation process would be somewhat shocked to know that I am responding on this matter for the Government. If I had known when I was 14 that I would be responding—
As the hon. Lady said, I would have paid an awful lot more attention.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda for not probing me on a number of deeply theological questions because that may be a slight chink in my armour. Given I have a young family, on Sundays, I occasionally do things other than attend church. He gave us a very interesting tour de force on the apostles and, at times, I found that I was engaging in the debate and listening, which is always an unwise thing to do as a Minister and will no doubt worry the civil servants. He will have to explain to me at some point his rebellious streak. He is always very entertaining in the House of Commons, but not doing up one of his 28 buttons is not as rebellious as he has been on a number of other things.
It is not an unknown fact that a lot of clergy in the Church of England do not subscribe to all the articles of religion that we are meant to sign up to when we are ordained. In fact, on the night before I was ordained, when I had to give my oath of allegiance, the bishop who ordained me said, “It’s all right; I crossed my fingers as well.”
I note that with interest. It was fascinating to understand the issues surrounding training, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in some detail. I look forward to finding out more. In conclusion, I genuinely wish the General Synod and the Church every success in their endeavours to sort out this very sensitive issue. I will follow the progress of the matter very carefully.
From the sublime to the corrupt. First, I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I believe that a free press, a free Parliament and a free society are intrinsic to one another. Investigative journalism, campaigning journalism and, yes, even on occasion mischievous journalism are absolutely vital. They are the best medication for our political sanity, both in the Palace of Westminster and in society generally. Of course, the press and the media entertain, but they also shine a light into the darker caves of modern life. We should never be naive—if we shine a light into the darker caves, we sometimes get wrapped up in the darkness ourselves.
Many people have told me in the past two years that I have become a bit obsessed with News International and that surely this cannot possibly have gone on only at News International. I am absolutely sure that the problems that we have seen at The Sun and the News of the World may well have been replicated at the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror—all the national newspapers, in particular those trying to pursue what I call celebrity gossip, which was often where this kind of journalism was going on.
There are three distinctive things about News International’s contribution. First, there is hard evidence of what went on at News International. If there were to be hard evidence on any of the other newspapers, I hope the police would investigate with the full thoroughness with which they are now investigating News International. Secondly, there was a major cover-up at News International, which stretched right up to the very highest levels of the company—as we know, even up to James Murdoch. In the end, I suspect that that will prove to have been the biggest crime. Thirdly, News International is owned by News Corporation, which has the largest holding in BSkyB. That makes it quantifiably and qualitatively different from any of the other newspaper holdings in this country.
It is important to remember some of the background to the debate. Some 10 journalists at The Sun, and, as I understand it, 24 employees of the News of the World, have been arrested. They are all on police bail. Police and other public servants have also been arrested. The culture of mass corruption was intrinsic to The Sun’s modus operandi. One public employee received bribes of more than £80,000. One journalist at The Sun had more than £150,000 to disburse in illegal cash payments. So far as we have been told, they were not for grand projects of investigative journalism, but to pursue salacious gossip. A series of private investigators were used, probably not as private investigators, but as paid informants. For example, Philip Campbell Smith was sent to jail yesterday for obtaining private information for cash—another person caught up in this saga.
For a long time, News International maintained that there was one rogue reporter at the News of the World. We now know that that was a lie told on several occasions to Parliament. In an attempt to protect Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, News International said that the hacking started in 2004 and not before then. However, Charlotte Church’s phone was hacked in 2002, as were many others—another lie repeatedly told to Parliament.
News International also maintained that the contagion was just about one newspaper. It had to keep on maintaining that, because otherwise there was a danger that the whole thing would collapse around its ears. Now we know that it was not. The Sun on Monday, The Sun on Tuesday, The Sun on Wednesday, The Sun on Thursday, The Sun on Friday and The Sun on Saturday were in it up to their necks just as much as the News of the World, now renamed The Sun on Sunday.
There is then the illegal cover-up. We know for sure that senior figures at News International ordered the mass destruction of evidence—the clear, incontrovertible evidence of corrupt payments to police that News International garnered together, gave to lawyers and squirreled away, and revealed to the public only very recently. The authorities in the US should be investigating that, because I do not believe that a single member of the board of directors of News Corp took their responsibilities in this regard seriously enough to prevent the payment of corrupt officials.
Yesterday, it was revealed, though I have known for some time, that some of the people who were targeted by the News of the World were on the witness protection scheme—people absolutely vital to securing convictions against very dangerous people in society. They rely absolutely on the state to protect them, so that they can deliver justice for others. The only people who could have given those names and telephone numbers to the News of the World are the Metropolitan police, who are meant to be the there to defend us. That single fact—it is not helpful to know the names—is one of the most destructive of all.
We know from yesterday that Tom Crone, the News of the World’s head of legal affairs, wrote to the then News of the World editor Andy Coulson on 15 September 2006 outlining what Rebekah Wade, now Brooks, told him about the information relayed to her by the cops. That is like the FBI going to Don Corleone and telling him that it has a bit of information on what his family has been up to—an extraordinary thing for us to witness. I suspect that people are so punch drunk with all the different stories in the past two years that they almost fail recognise its significance. The e-mail states:
“They suggested that they were not widening the case to include other NoW people, but would do so if they got direct evidence, say NoW journos directly accessing the voicemails (this is what did for Clive).”
In other words, people right at the top of the News of the World knew in 2006 exactly what had gone on, and everything that they have said since has been a pack of lies. In total, I believe—my poor old researcher has had to count them—there have been 486 lies to Parliament between News International, the police and other organisations. The police effectively became a partly owned subsidiary of News International, with some people working at News International then going on to work for the Met and some people working at the Met then going on to work for News International.
We know also that the Met, in its strategy to deal with victims of Glenn Mulcaire’s activities, bizarrely got in contact with The Mail on Sunday to tell it that its journalists’ phones had been hacked—an irony there; clearly, there is no honour among thieves. However, the Met did not contact all the other victims, including the then Deputy Prime Minister. The Met was saying, right up until February last year, that his phone had not been hacked. We now know that Metropolitan police officers knew for certain that his phone had been hacked in 2007.
This is a problem for politicians, because every element of the regulatory regime failed. The directors of the company did not exercise their fiduciary responsibility, either in the UK or in the US. The Press Complaints Commission failed completely in its duty. The Metropolitan police were suborned. The courts provided justice only very slowly and at great expense and financial risk to those involved. Parliament failed to do its full duty. Let me start with the PCC.
The PCC, throughout all this, has proved to be a toothless gaggle of incompetent crones. At every turn, it has tried to defend the idea of self-regulation. Sir Christopher Meyer, whose period in charge of the PCC was probably one of the most dismal records of public service yet seen, has defended what went on during his time. He has even defended the PCC against the accusations relating to what the press did regarding Christopher Jefferies. Why the PCC did not intervene to say, “I’m sorry folks, it is quite clear what you are doing; you are compromising the course of justice. You must desist,” I cannot understand.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As weak, appalling and hopeless as the PCC has been, does he acknowledge that the PCC only applies to those newspapers that voluntarily opt in? Other newspapers do not opt in, which puts a big question mark over the self-regulation process.
The hon. Gentleman, whom I count as a friend in these matters, is right. That issue needs to be addressed and is one reason why the answer that the PCC is coming up with at the moment—a contractual arrangement—will not do the trick, because by definition a contract can only be entered into by two willing volunteers. I do not see how we can proceed in that way.
Let us not forget that Baroness Buscombe, when she was PCC chair, was so fatally compromised by having been appointed by her cronies in the newspapers and by the editors of the major newspapers that she far too readily leapt to the defence of the News of the World and News International, condemned The Guardian and ended up having to pay damages to a Guardian journalist and a lawyer because of how she conducted herself. I do not think that she did due diligence. She is now blaming the News of the World, saying that it lied to her. I do not think that she ever asked the serious questions that needed to be asked.
The new PCC chairman regularly criticises politicians for being politicians. I merely say to him that he is a politician. He is in the legislature and was a Minister and a Member of Parliament; he takes the Conservative Whip. He was questioned at the Leveson inquiry:
“Do you think that Parliament might seek to use any form of legislation, however it was cast, as a way of controlling the press?”
“Yes, and they have told me so, many of them in both houses.”
His comments are untrue. I do not believe that Members of either House of Parliament want to control the press. That should never be our business. He is making that up and should withdraw the comment. I note that he has gone native, because he is already using unattributed comments, which is of course what most newspaper articles these days seem to consist of.
I say to the PCC chairman that I have no desire to control, muzzle, undermine or enfeeble the press. I want a robust, even scabrous, press to hold the powerful to account and to probe and bring the truth to light with courage and determination, within the bounds of the law and common decency and without hubris. It is hubris, in the end, that has done for News International.
We need a new body—not the PCC dressed up in a new fur coat—imbued with different principles and on a different standing. It is clear that it must be independent of the Government, but it must also be independent of the newspapers, because otherwise it will not command the respect of the British people. It must have statutory teeth provided to it in statute law, so that it can enforce its decisions. It must have an independent chairman, not a member of the legislature and certainly not a journalist or someone who takes a party political Whip. It must have the power to enforce redress and, if necessary, to fine. For instance, it should be able to say, “If you’ve published a story on the front page attacking somebody and it proves completely libellous, the response—the retraction—must be on the front page, if the victim of that libel wants.” The new body, whatever it is called, needs to have that power. Ofcom is not that bad a model for us to pursue.
The Minister said on “Question Time” last week that a new body still had to be self-regulating. He slipped that in rather quietly. It is not the view of the Prime Minister, who has made it clear that the body needs to be independent of the Government and the press. The Minister is obviously on the edge of his political career at the moment in respect of that disagreement. Self-regulation is long past the last chance saloon; it has had its last gin and tonic. It is time for a new body that is completely independent.
I have some suggestions on how to deal with the problem in other areas. For me, the biggest problem relates to ownership. At one point, News International had nearly 40% of the newspaper share and the largest part of the single biggest broadcaster in this country. BSkyB is often not referred to as a broadcaster these days, because in most people’s minds it is the platform on which broadcasts are provided. The Communications Act 2003 needs radical surgery in this regard and must be amended to catch up and include platforms, which are often the most anti-competitive element of the business, in the ownership structure.
At the moment, the only restriction on ownership is that if someone owns 20% of the newspaper share they are not allowed to have more than 20% of ITV. We need to be far more radical and say, first, that there is a cap on the amount of the whole of the media world that people can have and, secondly, if they are to own newspapers and broadcasters there has to be a lower cap on how much of that they can enjoy. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has asked Ofcom to consider this matter in relation to news only. We need to consider that market, but we also need to consider the whole. We need to reform the language on the fit and proper person, on which Ofcom has to adjudicate.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that no matter what regulation or self-regulation emerges from the Leveson process, as long as individuals and individual corporations control such a large percentage of the news, it is inevitable—unavoidable—that Parliament and the democratic process itself will always bend beneath those interests?
Absolutely spot on. I agree. In addition, it is inevitable that political parties, craven as we are, will seek to influence somebody with so much concentration of media ownership and the relationship will become too close. Tidying this up is for the good of us all. It is not just for those of us who take a particular view about News International; it is about any potential conglomeration in future.
In relation to the fit and proper person test, one danger is that because so many members of the BSkyB board have been there for way in excess of the eight years that is now considered to be the maximum time that people can be considered as an independent director, to all intents and purposes none of that board’s members is now an independent director. That is bad for BSkyB. I could go on at great length about why BSkyB operates on a monopolistic basis. It uses its application programming interface, its operating system and its hoovering up of rights, in a way, to crowd out any new entrants to the market. Broadcasting is always intrinsically prone to monopoly, because it costs a lot to make a programme and relatively little to give it to 1,000 people, rather than to 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000. That is why statutory intervention is needed.
We need reform in relation to seeking redress. I have already mentioned the powers that a new body might have, but we also need legal redress through the courts that is cheaper than the present arrangements. Let me give figures in relation to myself. I was awarded £30,000 in a settlement. My legal costs came to some £300,000 and are being paid by News International because of the settlement. That is the normal proportion in such situations. The maximum that has ever been awarded in a privacy case by the courts is £60,000, yet if people go to court in a privacy case their costs will be between £300,000 and £500,000 and they may have to meet the costs of the other side as well, which might be in excess of that.
For the sake of both newspapers and ordinary members of the public, we need a cheaper way of doing this. We should set up some form of small claims court, perhaps limiting awards to £20,000 or £25,000. Such a process would not be heavy on lawyers—people would not need legal representation—and cases would be fairly simply and straightforwardly adjudicated, but they would go through the court system, which has true independence built into it.
We need to change some elements of the law. First, in relation to interception, it is clear in the law that if people listen to a voicemail message after the person for whom it was intended they are still intercepting it. Some believe that this matter is not quite as clear as crystal. Perhaps we should clarify that position. That is not to resile from the existing state of the law, which is perfectly adequate, but for the sake of clarity.
Similarly, we should take away the public interest defence for blagging. If someone is obtaining private information about someone else by deception, there should be no public interest. The corollary is that, just as the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service always have to decide, first, whether they are likely to obtain a conviction and, secondly, whether it would be in the public interest to prosecute, so we should give a specific power to the DPP to decide not to prosecute in media cases.
There will be times when a journalist will rightly break the law because there is greater criminality to be detected. I suspect that the journalists in the United States of America who revealed Watergate broke the law on many occasions, but no one prosecuted—wisely, because they were revealing greater criminality and levels of corruption. Such an option should, manifestly, be available to the DPP and CPS.
Let me say something about the public interest test. The PCC has its own test:
“The public interest includes, but is not confined to…Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety…Protecting public health and safety…Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation”,
“There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.”
That test, frankly, is riddled with holes. To say that there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself is a circular argument—that, basically, it is better to reveal whatever it is even if there is no other public interest at all. That idea is mistaken; we should not look at the public interest but at the public good. Many people—many editors—confuse the public interest with what the public are interested in, but the public can be made to be interested in absolutely anything.
One of the ironies of the past 20 years is that the tabloid newspapers in particular, seeing the collapse of their circulation, have ended up pursuing titillating, salacious stories about who is sleeping with whom and all the rest of it, thinking that celebrity would maintain their circulation. They have tended to do that in a pejorative, condemnatory and judgmental way, but we cannot have prurience and judgmentalism together—they just do not fit. If we are going to be prurient, we have to give up on the judgmentalism, which in practice is what has happened.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am listening with great interest, and he has brought up many relevant points. To dip my foot in the water a little, can we look further than newspapers and expand the discussion to all forms of media, including social media? I have worked in the media for 14 years and know how they shapeshift and move into different areas. Does he agree that regulation must capture that as well, because social media are currently more or less free from control? Anyone can go or could have gone in there to collect data, photographs and conversations, which could be used for the same purposes, but without redress because we are not dealing with giant organisations that we can have a Leveson inquiry into.
Social media are a vital part of news now. I sometimes say to people who worry about the future of the media in Wales that I get most of my news about my constituency not from the Rhondda Leader, the Western Mail—it was never from there, actually—or the South Wales Echo but from Twitter, which is by far the fastest newsfeed. I certainly learn things before they are announced by Ministers in Parliament, and that is true for most newspapers. I know that half of what I read on Twitter will be untrue, so it is fine for me to dismiss it, but something in a newspaper, supposedly, has the authoritative seal of truth.
The hon. Gentleman might know that 50% of what he reads is untrue, but when data are collected, added online and someone does a form of Google check on people and their history, anything found is taken as definitive. Does he agree that that, too, should come under the same form of scrutiny and exacting regulation?
Social media should not have the same regulation, but they should have the same exacting scrutiny so, yes, of course I agree. There is no point in us legislating for a world that died five years ago, which is almost always what happens with communications Acts, by definition. I remember one debate in the House of Lords on the Communications Bill in 2002, when two supposed experts talked about black and white television licences, which I think had already been discontinued. There is no point in having legislation that does not meet the future as well as today.
I wish to finish on the issue of lying to Parliament. Members will know that it is available to Parliament, through the Speaker or the Chairman of a Select Committee, under the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871, which was added to by the Perjury Act 1911, to insist that a witness providing evidence to the Commons do so on oath. It is difficult, if doing an investigation that goes on for six months, to decide suddenly that the one witness who is coming before the Committee on a particular day needs to give evidence on oath, because that would imply that they are the one person who cannot be trusted. I would prefer us to move to a model in which every person who gives evidence to a Select Committee does so on oath.
I am concerned that the Government want to introduce a new parliamentary privilege Bill which, as I understand it, will put into statute provision on oaths. The danger with that is that if someone lied to Parliament, the case would be decided in the courts, but the courts would almost certainly ask whether the Committee had the right to ask the question, as a judge in a court might ask whether a question was inappropriate and rule that it need not be answered. Was the witness being bullied? Was the witness having a question sprung on them to which they could not possibly know the answer? Were they being ganged up on, and so on? The danger is that we would lose control of our own proceedings.
We should act robustly in relation to those who have lied to us; they should be summoned to the Bar of the House and, as in the 1950s, we should not be frightened of telling people where to get off when they have manifestly, in effect, put two fingers up to Parliament. I am not convinced, however, that that element needs to be in statute law.
Many people think that we have heard the last bit of this story, but I suspect that we have just crept into act IV, scene ii, after being in act III, scene ii, for a long time. I hope that hon. Members will bear it in mind that although we might be punch drunk about the story, there are a lot more punches to come. So far, Leveson has completely avoided touching anything of a criminal nature—rightly, because no one wants to compromise the ongoing criminal investigations or the prosecutions that I suspect may follow. In the end, however, I think we will find that this has been the single largest corporate corruption case in this country for more than 250 years.
People in Westminster Hall have listened with interest to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I come with a slightly different perspective. I should declare that I have taken successful defamation actions against a number of newspapers, but they are not relevant to what I will say. I put on the record that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has a media self-regulation guide that I commend to all. It takes a perspective beyond this country.
Media regulation can be seen as what the media themselves should be doing, or as what people do to the media. On the whole, I am more interested in what the media choose to do themselves. I regret that the ways of holding print journalism to account basically disappeared when the Hard News programme with Ray Snoddy was dropped. We ought to be able to justify a weekly serious news television programme looking at what the media do. I recognise that the media pages of the broadsheet newspapers include serious coverage by people who have had a great deal of experience in the media, but the ability to use the power of broadcasting to hold people to account and to make available to all what is known to a few would be useful.
I do not stand here as a supporter of News Corp, or News International, or the papers to which the hon. Member for Rhondda referred, but I am not antagonistic to them in general. However, I recollect that when John Biffen was Secretary of State for Trade he did not refer to the Monopolies Commission the takeover of The Sunday Times and The Times, when The Sunday Times was profitable but The Times certainly was not. Two Government Back Benchers voted against the Government. One was Jonathan Aitken, and I was the other. I am not suggesting that the takeover would not have been cleared, but it should have been referred. Before that debate and vote, I asked Harold Evans whether he would let me have some information. He said he would, but he did not. When he later fell out with his proprietor, he asked me to join his campaign to expose the wrong that had been done, and I said, “You’re a bit late, mate.”
A programme this morning—I forget whether it was on BBC 1 or Sky News—had an excerpt on elements of the independent media in Russia, where some proprietors of independent television and radio channels are having great pressure put on them by powerful people. We should know more about what is going on around the world when people suffer such pressure, and there should be a way of providing international interest and pressure so that the sort of media dominance that former President Berlusconi developed in Italy can be challenged. If what is happening in the media in one country cannot be challenged, persistent and reasonably consistent international pressure and interest is necessary.
The only profitable paper that Rupert Murdoch and his media took over in Britain was The Sunday Times. The Times was not profitable, and what became The Sun was not profitable. He started his satellite television service from scratch, and it is arguable that by choosing analogue he stopped us having a world lead. Robert Maxwell’s competitor satellite service, which was digital, could have taken us further ahead, but one was commercially successful and one was not. That is the way the market goes.
I realise that the hon. Member for Rhondda and our current media have a great interest in what the News of the World and perhaps some of its fellow papers did, but we should not believe that they are the only ones to have caused casualties in some of their ways of operation. Mostly, they gather news and entertainment, putting it all together, and sell it commercially. There are times when it is possible to apply pressure. I remember being asked to go on Radio 4’s “Today” programme when The Sun had published a photograph of one of the Queen’s children, taken 16 years ago when he and various friends in Canada were jumping into a lake without clothes on. Crowns were drawn across their middles in the photograph. The deputy editor of The Sun was asked about that before I was interviewed, and he explained why he thought that was legitimate. I was then asked what I thought, and I said that if anyone was looking for naked bodies in the papers, there were more in The Guardian, but in the arts pages rather than the so-called news pages. I said that anyone who is frightfully worried about naked bodies should never have a bath, because all of us have one. I also said that if anyone thought that The Sun had made a mistake in publishing the photograph, there was no point telling it because it had explained why it thought it was all right. I suggested going to a branch of one of the 10 named advertisers who had full-page advertisements in The Sun and saying, “I’m not going to boycott you; I’m not even going to boycott The Sun, but if you talk to The Sun could you please say that I think it made a mistake.” Within 36 hours, The Sun had apologised. There was similar pressure when The Sun published the Queen’s Christmas message in advance, and it apologised for that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a powerful case on retraction? At the moment, when there is misrepresentation or a deliberate lie, it does not matter much to the people who perpetrate it because if they are eventually told that they must publish a retraction, they can do so, comfortable in the knowledge that it will be on page 36, somewhere between the crossword and the horoscope. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as my hon. Friend said, we should have like with like, and that we need teeth to do so?
I am not sure that we should be doing that; I think they should be doing that. As I understand it, the proposals for a revised system for the Press Complaints Commission, or whoever its successor might be, will require that any retractions and apologies that are negotiated or ordered will have to have agreed prominence, and not be tucked away in the middle or on the back pages. That problem is in hand.
I am not suggesting that we can have a perfect system. When my wife was a Minister, a senior person in another news group, not News International, said that if it was not allowed to have a significant share in a television company, it would get us. Fourteen days after she made the decision that it would not get what it wanted, it put a 14-year-old member of our family on the front page of its paper. I am not saying that the two were necessarily connected, but it seemed suspicious at the time. There will be casualties in an open society, and we must accept that people make mistakes and that people suffer.
There is value in the press undertaking investigations that others choose not to, and publishing information that the powerful do not want published, and on balance we gain far more by reducing the amount of externally imposed regulation. Most of us get most of our news from the BBC. Its news coverage and transmissions, from Radio 1 to Radio 4 and the amount of news and current affairs on BBC 1 particularly—copied well by commercial television and Sky News—are important. I do not envy editors who are responsible for judgments on how to obtain and check information, and then decide what to broadcast and how to broadcast it. The question then arises of how to regulate, how to control, and how to obtain redress, and those are the matters that we should keep in mind. If anyone asked me to vote for externally imposed regulation, which would reduce the opportunity for people knowing what journalists and other media workers believe should be made available, I would do so with great reluctance, if at all.
The regulation system for the BBC is wrong, but it is not enormously wrong. The BBC should have a chairman. Having a chairman of the trust who is not officially the chairman to whom the director-general is responsible as an individual is wrong, but that is what Parliament decided, and it may take another cycle of change at the BBC for that to change. Ofcom has done pretty well, but we should provide a forum where people who work in the media and feel that they cannot get important stories broadcast or published could put such information so that we know what is cut out. Too often, the inhibitions on editors and journalists are greater than we know from outside.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction to the debate. I do not believe that the Government necessarily have the answers to all the questions, and I do not believe that they should have. It is often for the public will or the public mood in which there are many activists. I commend to those who are interested Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, which has a rather more balanced approach than we have necessarily heard this morning.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. The issue is important, and as ever he made an excellent speech and a compelling case. I want to make an undeclaration, and to make it absolutely clear that I am not related to Clive Goodman.
Her Majesty’s Opposition are basing their perspective of the issue on two principles. The first is the importance of free speech, which is guaranteed in the European convention on human rights, and the Human Rights Act. From that flows the free press, which is essential in our open democracy.
The second critical perspective is that of the ordinary citizen. The phone hacking of the abducted and subsequently murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, led to public horror and was why the Leader of the Opposition called for a public inquiry. We were pleased to support the Prime Minister in establishing the Leveson inquiry and agreeing the terms of reference. My hon. Friend described the horrors of the phone hacking that have emerged before the Leveson inquiry, but I suggest, as everybody in the Chamber will know, that the issues run wider than that.
I have heard from a number of ordinary constituents who have been abused by the press. Such cases seem to have become a common occurrence, and I want to tell one story—although I have others—about a woman who had a double-page spread written about her and photographs taken inside her home. She was described as a person who could not keep a house—in truth, her house was a tip; the Aggie programme would have had a field day—or control her children. The newspaper did not say, however, that the woman was a victim of domestic violence, which was crucial to understanding her situation. This woman was extremely alarmed, hurt and upset by the coverage that she received, but she was the sort of person who did not know that she had any rights and would not begin to understand the notion of redress. We want a system that works for people like her: we do not have such a system at the moment.
The press is already subject to a vast number of laws. For example, on matters of content such as racial incitement, the press is subject to the same laws as everybody else, and as my hon. Friend said, there are also laws that relate to the process by which stories are acquired. The big issue currently under discussion around the country is whether the press should have any special legal privileges.
Before Christmas, the managing editor of The Sun argued that the press should have an exemption from the Bribery Act 2010. Following yesterday’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry, however, we are bound to think that such an argument may have something to do with The Sun’s business model. I do not think that the press should have special legal exemptions. I agree with the Lord Chancellor: everybody should be subject to the law. The Attorney-General has made a number of sensible statements to say that although a free press and free speech are vital, the press must respect people’s other rights, such as the right to a fair trial.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of whether the press should have a public interest defence when acquiring stories, and we look forward with interest to the guidance that the Director of Public Prosecutions has promised to produce. At the moment, the public interest test is applied by the DPP when deciding whether to prosecute a journalist.
Does the hon. Lady agree that a legal definition of the public interest would provide the flexibility that commentators in the press are asking for? Most of the corruption and the abuses that we heard about yesterday, and over the past few months, do not amount to the noble pursuit of truth but are actually pretty squalid. There are exceptions, however; Watergate, which was cited by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), is an example in which laws may have been broken in the pursuit of something valuable. A legal definition of the public interest would provide the flexibility that we need to ensure proper, genuine and useful journalism, and help to weed out the rubbish and abuse that we have seen over the past few years.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and we must distinguish between occasions when the press pursues the public interest or public good, and occasions when it does not. When the DPP produces his guidance, however, I do not think that he will define the public interest. If, for example, I were to say that the public interest includes uncovering crime and corruption, or demonstrating hypocrisy by people in high office, the problem is that it would be difficult to encapsulate everything. Therefore, if we were to go down that path, we would have to think about including everything else as well. I am not convinced that the public interest itself needs to be defined, although we do need greater clarity in the way that the test is applied.
The problem is that the press has ignored the law and the police have not enforced it. Another major problem concerns the inequity that exists in this country when people deal with the press. A person on a low income can go to the Press Complaints Commission, but it can offer them only a published apology or perhaps a letter. Wealthy people, however, can go to court, which is why we have seen them receiving big payouts. People have said, “There seem to be an awful lot of celebs at the Leveson inquiry”, but that is because celebs can afford to pursue their cases, and those are the stories that we know about. We do not know about the victim of domestic violence whom I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, or about the child involved in the criminal justice system, because they have not been able to pursue their cases.
People who do not have a lot of money—I do not have a lot of money—have been helped by the conditional fee agreement, which many would refer to as the no win, no fee arrangement. Such agreements worked particularly in cases of privacy and defamation because the amount that a person might eventually receive would be so low—£60,000 at most, and in many cases £20,000, £25,000 or £30,000—that they could not possibly pay all their legal fees. The danger with the Government’s changes to conditional fee agreements is that it will be the poor who are unable to get justice. Would it not make sense to have an exemption for privacy and libel cases?
I was going to ask the Minister whether he will go back to his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and address the clauses in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently before Parliament. It would be good if Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport took seriously their responsibilities and got Ministers from the Ministry of Justice to shift their position.
We have briefly discussed the fact that we need a free press that pursues the public interest. Just like books and magazines, newspapers have a VAT exemption which, I understand from questions that I have asked of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is worth £150 million. It seems to me that the public expect to get something for their £150 million—namely a responsible newspaper industry.
Everybody who contributes to this morning’s debate will say that they favour press freedom. There is, however, sometimes confusion about what we mean by that. I just want to tease out some distinctions in relation to that small phrase. Of course, everyone agrees that we need freedom of expression in a free society. If, after this debate is over, people want to say, “The Member for Bishop Auckland made a terrible speech and I didn’t agree with a word of it,” that is fine by me; they are free to do that. However, I do not think that that freedom of expression extends to a licence to ride roughshod over both the law and ethical considerations in order to pursue stories.
We need to be very clear about the distinction between freedom with respect to the content of what is written and freedom in terms of the process that the media use to acquire stories. If we take seriously that distinction between process and content—Onora O’Neill wrote a very interesting essay on this before Christmas—we will find it very helpful. I say that because when we look at the systems that apply—the PCC and whatever we would like to succeed the PCC—we are looking at systems that address the processes, not at systems that control what people write. No Opposition Member and, I am sure, no Government Member has any interest in standing in a newsroom with a big red pen. That is not what we are talking about.
I am glad that the Minister is nodding; we clearly have a consensus on that. However, if there is to be more discipline in relation to processes, that obviously requires the institutions, organisations and corporations themselves to have some proper internal management control.
[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]
I am pleased to welcome you to the Chair, Ms Osborne.
I have to say that it was pathetic to hear James Murdoch before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport saying that he did not know in answer to all the questions that the Committee was putting to him. I am leaving to one side the question whether all those answers were, strictly speaking, accurate and truthful. He seemed to think that not knowing was some kind of excuse, but in a well run organisation, the people at the top should know what is going on. It is not an excuse not to know. I have written about that in more detail, and people can see what I have written on my website. I now want to talk about the move to a new system and the criteria that a new system must fulfil.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) made a speech in Oxford last month, in which she highlighted three criteria. A new system must be independent, must be citizen-centric and must have 100% coverage of all newspapers. At the same conference shortly afterwards, and very helpfully, Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom, spelt out the meaning of independence. Independence means independent of political influence and independent of those who are regulated. The system needs to be independent of those who are regulated with respect to the decisions that are taken, the governance and the budgetary control.
Mr Richards went on to set out other qualities that a good system should have. He mentioned clear objectives, an investigative capacity, transparency of process, power to sanction and public accountability—something that we have not looked at enough in relation to the PCC, which is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or all the usual accountability mechanisms of bodies that are pursuing public interests. The system must also be accessible to complainants.
In the light of what has happened, I would like to add four further points. No one should be above the law. The financial compensation that people receive should be related to the wrong that they have suffered, not the depth of their own back pocket. We need to see competent management systems and proper audit trails in the media industries. As the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) said, we need to look across to the new media as well, because otherwise we could simply set up a system or see a system set up that made traditional newspapers completely uneconomic, with everything migrating to the net. We would then have the wild west on the net, which would not be acceptable, so the hon. Lady was right to raise that point.
Obviously, this is a difficult and complex area, and it would be good if the industry could produce some solutions that met the criteria that have been outlined. So far, we have seen some very positive and interesting ideas put forward to Lord Justice Leveson by Alan Rusbridger in relation to the Reynolds defence and the Omand principles, which show what The Guardian has done and how it has kept ahead of the PCC code.
We have also seen proposals from the current chair of the PCC, Lord Hunt of Wirral, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda reminded the Chamber, takes the Tory Whip in the House of Lords. Lord Hunt seems to be putting forward a convoluted construction of commercial contracts between press and regulator. I would like to ask a number of questions about that proposal. First, is it not the institutionalisation of agency capture? Secondly, if it is based on contracts between the regulator and the regulated, how can the regulator be truly independent? Will not the regulator always be looking over his or her shoulder to see whether membership or income might be lost? That does not seem to meet the criteria for independence set out by Ed Richards in his speech.
My next question is how the proposal can guarantee 100% coverage. Of course, it might guarantee 100% coverage in the short term. It might be that Lord Hunt, who is an extremely persuasive and plausible man, can get people to sign up now, but what guarantee is there that people will not subsequently want to leave such a system? Is it not really designed to maintain the existing “cosy club” style of regulation? Do other hon. Members really believe that those commercial contracts will satisfy the public, given everything that they have seen come out in the Leveson inquiry?
On Sunday, on the television, Lord Hunt claimed that he had the support of political parties for the proposal. I have to say that he does not have the support of Her Majesty’s Opposition for the proposal. Has the Minister met Lord Hunt? Has the Minister agreed the proposal? I believe that we should wait for Lord Justice Leveson to fulfil the inquiry that the whole House agreed it wanted him to undertake. We all agreed that that was important—that we needed the independence of a senior judge. I hope that the Minister will say that he, too, agrees that we should wait for Lord Justice Leveson to report, and that he does not accept the hysterical criticisms that were made of Lord Justice Leveson by the Secretary of State for Education.
It is a pleasure to finish the debate under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne, it having begun under the chairmanship of Mr Chope, whose name still appears in front of you, which could confuse—well, it certainly should not confuse anyone who is watching the debate either on television or in this Chamber this morning, which is about to become this afternoon.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on calling this timely debate on a subject that I think it is safe to say has been in the news for many months. He may or not may recall that I praised him—perhaps presciently—in my maiden speech in 2005 as a fine Back Bencher. I do not think that anyone gets bored with praise and I am sure that he is aware that many people in the House have admired the way he has fought his corner on this issue over the last few months and, indeed, years.
Each week, as the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will be aware, seems to bring fresh reports of questionable, and possibly illegal, activities at some newspapers, and witnesses’ statements at Leveson have further stoked the fires. That was why the Prime Minister announced an inquiry into phone hacking on 13 July last year, following revelations that the News of the World may have routinely paid private investigators to hack into the voicemail messages of celebrities and other people involved in high-profile news stories. I certainly welcome the support for the Leveson inquiry from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who is the spokesman for the official Opposition.
We all need to know what journalists and their agents were up to hacking into phone messages. We also need to know what the police knew when, what they did about it and how we might learn lessons for the future. However, it is worth noting, as we have been reminded this week, that the inquiry is not purely about phone hacking. It will also look into allegations that the Metropolitan Police Service’s earlier inquiries, although they resulted in two convictions, were not sufficiently thorough. That raised questions about the relationship between senior Metropolitan Police Service officers and News International.
The ongoing police investigations, which are being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers of the Metropolitan police, are making good progress, and they are thorough and well resourced. As all hon. Members will agree, we must let those investigations, which may lead to criminal charges, run their course. About 120 members of staff are working on Operation Weeting, which, as hon. Members will recall, is focused on phone hacking. Operation Elvedon is the investigation into allegations of corrupt payments to police by journalists, and it is supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. So far, those operations have seen 17 and 21 arrests respectively.
As the Minister may know, I asked Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson on 11 March 2003 whether they had ever paid police officers for information. They said that they had, but only within the law, even though such payments are obviously a criminal offence, and it is not possible to make them within the law. My anxiety, however, is this. Although there is an investigation into these issues in the Metropolitan police, I am pretty certain they have happened fairly extensively around the country. We only have to see how regularly the press turn up for the arrest of some famous person, having mysteriously guessed when it would happen. Will the Minister make sure that Operation Elvedon is not restricted and that each of our police forces cleans up its act?
Police operations are, of course, independent of the Government, as indeed is the Leveson inquiry, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s point will have been heard and taken on board by the respective police forces.
The Government are clear that we need to get to the bottom of this issue. We need to restore public trust in the regulation and activities of all our newspapers, and only an independent inquiry can do that. Let me also emphasise, however, that that should not be characterised as an attack on the press. As I said, the Government are equally clear about the importance of a free press and media that can challenge the Government and others.
To pick up one of the themes in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. In all the criticism we have seen of the press in the past year, it is easy to forget just how fortunate we are to live in a country where the media are not subjected to Government regulation and where the right to freedom of speech means that people can voice views that may be critical of, or offensive to, others. That independence from state intervention is fundamental to our democratic way of life.
Just a week after war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria, it is worth reminding the House and ourselves that, although she was American, many journalists working in Britain also deserve our respect and thanks for the work they do.
May I say through the Minister that any Member who gets a chance to go to the Amnesty media awards, which are held each year, will come away with the most incredible regard for the courage and suffering of many journalists in the countries they cover?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I am sure those listening to the debate will take note of those awards and attend them or look at what is produced.
With press freedom comes responsibility, however, and we have consistently heard reports that certain parts of the press have not lived up to their responsibilities. It will be for Lord Leveson’s inquiry to make specific recommendations on future regulation. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, we will not prejudge what those recommendations might be. We are satisfied that, with this inquiry, we are putting in place the means of establishing the correct regulatory regime.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the fact that my remark, albeit in shorthand, echoed the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend said:
“I don’t know whether legislation would form part of the solution or not…I would love the industry to come to me with their proposed solution, but what I would say to them is that whatever you propose must have the confidence of the public, because the public are not happy with what’s been going on.”
We all agree that we do not want statutory regulation of the content of the press. We want to hear what proposals the press have for regulation, and we have not ruled out statutory backing for a regulatory system.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently noted in the same interview, there is more agreement than expected on the tougher form of newspaper regulation that will emerge in the light of the phone hacking scandal. It is no secret that we would like a regime for regulating the press that is independent, but which has credible sanctions to deal with transgressors, to pick up on the points made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. It must also cover all the press.
Our preference is that there should be no direct statutory regulation of press content and that the press should be able to come forward with a new regime that is credible to the public. The press have already begun that process with the appointment of a new chair of the Press Complaints Commission—Lord Hunt. We wish him well in tackling the challenges he and the industry face. However, we have ruled nothing out at this stage, and we are certainly not in the business of pre-empting Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
I hear what Lord Hunt has to say, and my understanding is that he wants everyone to be members of the new body. He wants credible sanctions, he wants the body to be independent of the Government and the industry, and he wants the industry to come forward with credible proposals. As I say, however, it would be wrong for me to comment on the specific elements he is putting forward for debate ahead of the Leveson inquiry’s findings.
Let me talk a little about the Leveson process before I make the other point I was about to make. The inquiry will have two parts. As everyone knows, the first part looks at media ethics and will make recommendations for a regulatory regime to ensure we have ethical media. It is important to note that that part of the inquiry will report in October 2012. The second part will look at the extent of illegal behaviour by News International and other media organisations and at the police inquiry into that behaviour. That part of the inquiry is necessarily longer because of the difficulties of operating around live criminal investigations, as the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned.
The first part of the inquiry is made up of four modules. Module 1 dealt with the press and the public, and the hon. Gentleman will have seen the extensive media coverage of the witness hearings at the royal courts of justice. The evidence given has helped to raise the inquiry’s profile, and the continued coverage serves only to highlight the intense importance the public attach to the regulation of the press and to the inquiry’s outcome.
Hon. Members may have noticed that the hearings for module 2, which focuses on the press and the police, started yesterday. They will be followed by module 3, which focuses on the press and politicians. It is obvious, therefore, that media interest will continue right up until Lord Justice Leveson reports and that there is still a huge amount of evidence to be gathered and considered. Let me therefore repeat—I have said this almost ad nauseam—that it is important to wait for Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
There is, however, another opportunity to look at these issues. We will publish a Green Paper focusing, if I can put this in shorthand, on how to bring the Communications Act 2003 up to date. We hope the Green Paper will lead to a White Paper and then to a communications Bill. I say that in all sincerity because of the work the hon. Member for Rhondda has done on the issue and the position he has taken.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues this morning, and I hope that he does not feel I am being too much of a politician when I say it would be wrong for me to give a view on each of his points about a small claims court or amendments to interception rules, or, indeed, his concerns about the proposed parliamentary privilege Bill, which is still very much in the drafting stage, the fit and proper person test or the need to amend the Communications Act 2003. I hope that he will, perhaps in a personal capacity, submit evidence to the Green Paper.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I think he is being a bit too much of a politician, and not even a very good one, because his boss has already said that he will look at the idea of a small claims court; so I have got further with his boss than I have with him. The draft parliamentary privilege Bill is meant to be published in the next few weeks. I think the Minister could get a bit more up to speed with what is going on in the rest of the Department.
It is sad that our relationship has reached this stage, when the hon. Gentleman deliberately mischaracterises what I have said. If he is honest he will say that the Secretary of State has not reached a conclusion on whether the small claims court is the right way forward. My right hon. Friend said merely that it is an idea that should be considered, which is exactly what I said about two minutes ago: the hon. Gentleman put forward some interesting ideas and I would welcome it if he—I am treating him with a lot more respect than he is giving me—would put those ideas into the Green Paper. Is that all right?
I am sorry, Ms Osborne; I got slightly carried away, but it is a bit unfair when all we are saying is that the arguments being put across are perfectly valid and deserve consideration in a process that is being undertaken by the Leveson inquiry and the Green Paper.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous with his time. We were expecting the Green Paper to be published before the end of January, and it is now almost March. Does he have any idea about the timetable for the process, for which he is in fact responsible? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is an experienced politician, says that the conventional answer is “Soon”. As a Minister I have come up with a new conventional answer to any question like that, which is “in the spring”, because I have discovered that in Whitehall the spring season runs from February to November. Therefore, to say that something will be published in the spring covers all the bases. However, to be more accurate, and feeling the vibes of pressure about my performance coming from the hon. Member for Rhondda, I can say that the timing has changed from spring to imminent, which means that we hope to publish the Green Paper in the next few weeks. We wanted to tighten up a number of issues, not related to what we are discussing today, but on a wholly separate matter.
I hope that the Minister will not get wound up—it seems awfully easy to wind him up. Is it possible that some of the issues that we have been discussing will not be addressed at all in the Green Paper, and there may just be a great big hole? Is that the Government’s intention—a kind of hole, labelled “Please insert Leveson here”? Alternatively will there be an exploratory consultation as part of the Green Paper?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which is that the document is a Green Paper, not a White Paper. It is not a precursor to the legislation. The Green Paper is a consultation document, and it will raise a number of issues. It will, in some areas, give a clear view of the Government’s direction of travel, and in others it will simply raise an issue and invite comments. However, it is important to emphasise that a Green Paper is a precursor to a White Paper and is therefore not necessarily so detailed. It is designed to invite comment, ideas, thoughts and proposals. In that sense it is much more open minded, and is effectively a call for further evidence.
The hon. Member for Rhondda has raised a number of points during the debate, which although its title is “Media Regulation” focused on the issue that has exercised us for the past few months: the future of press regulation.
I intuit that the Minister may be about to sit down. Before he does I want to remind him of another issue raised in the debate: whether he has put any further pressure on his Ministry of Justice colleagues to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
It is worth making the point that the conditional fee arrangements could be interpreted as a restriction on press freedom. I hear what the hon. Lady has said about the Opposition’s case for a clear exemption in the relevant areas; but there is certainly an argument that conditional fee arrangements put the press under undue pressure. I hear what the hon. Member for Rhondda says about the sums of money involved, but there is evidence that newspapers might settle cases that they would otherwise be prepared to fight, on the basis of the legal costs that they are likely to rack up against a litigant. I will happily write to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Rhondda, setting out the position on that issue.
Some newspapers have advanced the argument that under the proposals they would not write things that they would otherwise write; but if the result is that they choose not to write things that infringe people’s privacy or libel them, that is a good thing, not a bad thing. If there is a chilling effect that means that they do not write lies, that is good, not bad. It is difficult enough, even if conditional fee agreements are allowed for privacy and libel cases, for ordinary people to gain access to lawyers. They just do not know how to go through the process. However, it will be infinitely more difficult, or almost impossible, for someone from, say, Soham to get justice, as it would be for someone involved in any of the big criminal investigations where the victims of crime have ended up in the newspapers unnecessarily and incorrectly, with their privacy traduced.
May I add to that intervention, and contradict it? The Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill has produced a report, to which we expect the Government to respond at some stage; perhaps it is as much for the Ministry of Justice as it is for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Anyone who has listened to the editors of Nature or the British Medical Journal, or the campaign “Sense about Science” or who has heard the saga of Simon Singh or Dr Peter Wilmshurst, would say that what matters to the public interest is to get more information out, especially if it challenges what other people are saying, or if what is claimed is incontrovertible.
I should like to take up both those last two points, although that was not originally why I wanted to intervene.
I edited The Ecologist for about 10 years. We were threatened every month with litigation. Were it not for the fact that I personally had deep pockets and could defend the magazine in a way an ordinary editor or owner could not, the magazine would have been thrown against the rocks, so I take my hon. Friend’s point; but that is entirely different from the point that the hon. Member for Rhondda was making.
There is a clear public interest in the issues that Nature, for example, wanted to explore. There is no public interest in the kind of industrial-scale but nevertheless schoolyard bullying that people such as Charlotte Church faced, and which served no public interest. A 16-year-old girl was mercilessly torn apart by newspapers, and I do not believe any decent person in this country would defend what the newspapers did to her. The fact that she is a celebrity is neither here nor there. What they did was inhuman, and there is no public interest defence.
I challenge any of the newspapers following the debate to come up with one example of a genuine public interest story that has not been published as a result of the so-called chilling effect of the Leveson inquiry. I ask the Minister to reassure people who are afraid of a chilling effect resulting from it—several people have made that point—by saying that none of the ideas being put forward in response to the crisis that we face would jeopardise a free press.
Index on Censorship, which has campaigned harder than anyone else for the kind of reforms that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West wants, has teamed up with Hacked Off, which focuses entirely on the kind of abuse we have been discussing. The fact that they have joined forces to come up with a solution shows that the proposed solutions are not designed to jeopardise a proper free press.
I ask the Minister to make that point and to add, finally, that even if a crazy idea were put forward—if Leveson lost his head and came up with a lunatic idea, which is highly unlikely—the ideas are just recommendations, and Parliament will take a view. There is no reason at all for anyone to fear the Leveson process. I hope that the Minister will echo those sentiments and make that very clear.
I just want to comment on the intervention made by the hon. Member for Worthing West. There are many things in the draft defamation Bill that will free the press, which the Opposition support. However, the Joint Committee report makes the point that the Jackson proposals should have been introduced rather than the things in the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
I hesitated for a moment, Ms Osborne, in case anyone wanted to make a further intervention. Perhaps members of the audience might wish to participate in this debate, which is, funnily enough, beginning to resemble “Question Time”. I was glad not to raise a point of order with you, Ms Osborne, during the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). Although it was a lengthy intervention, it was full of passion. He is another Member of the House who has taken a great interest in recent activities.
My hon. Friend said that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West was making a separate point, but what that illustrates is the fact that there are arguments on both sides—whether that in protecting the interests of a litigant, we are restricting press freedom, or whether we are protecting the interests of a litigant against the press. Inadvertently perhaps, he made an interesting point. It is not always the big media organisations to which we turn to expose corruption or wrongdoing. Often it is small media magazines or publications, which do not have large-scale resources to defend themselves against litigation, that can be silenced when the balance is tipped the other way. The hon. Member for Rhondda made a passionate point about conditional fees, and clearly he will want those points taken on board and responded to fully in the light of the legislation that is currently being considered. As has been said time and again, it is interesting that it is the Ministry of Justice that is taking forward those important pieces of legislation, which are nevertheless having an impact on this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I think that he will remind us to keep in mind that there are issues of libel or defamation and of privacy. There are also issues relating to people who are not journalists who may want to speak at some professional conference where reports of what they have said can occasionally and wrongly suffer challenge in the court on the grounds of privacy, but more often of defamation. That needs protecting. In terms of the media responsibility, I hope that my hon. Friend and his Department will engage with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that such points are not forgotten.
Certainly, we engage with the Ministry of Justice at length on many of these issues. Going back to the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda, his thesis was that the regulatory regime failed across the board, whether it be the directors of the company, the Press Complaints Commission, the Metropolitan police, the courts or Parliament. However, it is also worth remembering that where there was wrongdoing, there were mechanisms to stop it, such as a proper criminal investigation or a criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, we have quite rightly set up an independent inquiry into the future of press regulation. It seems that there is general agreement that whatever recommendations emerge from that, we need a system of press regulation that is independent both of Government and of newspapers.
The Minister correctly characterised my argument, but there is one other vital element to it that Leveson is probably not considering, which is ownership. Part of my argument is that it was actually the whole pattern of owning BSkyB and 40% of the newspapers that was the problem. It was what led to the sense of hubris about how News International and News Corp owned the Metropolitan police, the British Government, Parliament and politicians and could do what they wanted.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He has obviously raised the issue of the fit and proper test and it is frequently referred to in this context. As he knows, Ofcom, an independent regulator for which I have the highest regard, has an ongoing duty to ensure that anyone who owns a broadcasting licence is, and remains, a fit and proper person. It is frequently suggested by the hon. Gentleman and others that the revelations at News International mean that the owner of News Corporation is not a fit and proper person and hence BSkyB is not fit and proper to continue to hold its broadcast licences. I again emphasise that the regulation is independent of Government and is a matter for Ofcom. I understand that Ofcom has contacted the relevant authorities and asked to be kept informed of any information that might assist it in assessing whether BSkyB is, and remains, fit and proper to continue to hold its broadcast licences.
In the last five minutes, I wish to raise the issue of technology, which has not come up so far in this debate. It is worth looking at other systems of regulation. We now have the Authority for Television on Demand, which regulates broadcast-style services over the internet. It is interesting to see how that system of co-regulation is working; we have already had references to self-regulation, independent regulation and Government regulation. It will be interesting to see whether something emerges from Leveson and from our Green Paper about how to join up those different elements of regulation. Newspapers on the web do not currently fall under the regime of ATVOD because they are not pursuing broadcast-like services. That is an interesting matter for genuine debate about the future of press regulation.
We have had an entertaining and interesting debate. The hon. Member for Rhondda has put his case with the clarity and force for which he has become renowned in the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West for reminding the House about the importance of press freedom not just in this country but around the world where perhaps more oppressive regimes may exist. I am grateful for the support from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland for the Leveson inquiry and for her pertinent comments about the position of the official Opposition. The common position is that we must wait for the Leveson inquiry to reach its conclusions. I hope that people, including hon. Members with a particular interest in this area, will use the opportunity of the Green Paper to put forward their views on the future of media regulation.
Energy Suppliers and Prices
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Osborne. As co-chair of the all-party group on fuel poverty and as Britain’s first Green MP, I am very happy to have secured this debate on a cause that is very dear to my heart: how do we help the poorest in our society and deliver social and environmental justice at the same time?
The balmy weather of recent days cannot mask the fact that our newspapers have been filled with chilling stories of yet more excessive profiteering by Britain’s big six energy companies, coupled with stories of big pay awards for the companies’ top executives. Last year, EDF’s UK profits were up by 8.5%, on the back of a 15% rise in bills; just last week, Centrica reported overall profits of £2.4 billion; and Scottish Power has reported profits of just under £1 billion.
I have been inundated, as I am sure many other hon. Members have been, with letters and e-mails from constituents complaining about their energy bills and expressing their fears that they will be unable to afford to stay warm. Although a few energy executives are wondering what to do with their gigantic profits, the stark reality for many Britons in the difficult economic circumstances that we are currently in is that they are wondering how they will pay for this winter’s gas and electricity bills. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 5.5 million households in the UK are now facing fuel poverty, leading to an estimated 3,000 premature winter deaths. Average annual household bills for gas and electricity increased from around £600 in 2004 to around £1,200 in 2011, and uSwitch has predicted that such bills could rise to a massive £3,202 by 2020.
Of course it is not just households that are finding energy bills difficult to pay. Small businesses with tight overheads are also feeling the pinch from the increasing cost of energy. More than 94% of businesses have seen an increase in energy costs, according to the Forum of Private Business.
The energy regulator has said that although fossil fuel price rises—the wholesale price of gas, and so forth—are clearly the driving factor pushing up energy bills, on top of those rises the big six are increasing their margins on our bills. Although some people might argue that those margins have now been reduced slightly, given the gigantic profits that have been reported, it is clear that energy companies could comfortably reduce their prices even further and still make a reasonable profit. At the weekend, the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank, released a report that found that as many as 5.6 million people are probably being overcharged because of pricing policies by the big companies. The IPPR believes that such overcharging prevents new companies from gaining a foothold in the market.
Clearly, something is going wrong, and it is about time that we, as elected representatives, did more about it. That is why a number of organisations, such as Compass, which launched the new “End the big six energy fix” campaign a few weeks ago, Friends of the Earth and The Independent newspaper, alongside myself and many colleagues from all parties in the House, have been campaigning for fair energy prices, greater energy efficiency measures and a better deal for consumers.
We believe that it is time to tackle the predatory behaviour of the energy companies. By overcharging their customers, who include the most vulnerable people in society, those companies are driving people into fuel poverty. In addition, they are not fully meeting their social and environmental responsibilities and obligations, whether by investing in insulation and other energy efficiency measures or protecting the poorest and most vulnerable from the impacts of bill rises. That is why we are calling on the Government to stand up to the powerful vested interests of the big six energy companies and to act to end the energy rip-off.
I will set out three simple steps that could help to tackle this problem effectively. First, the Government could respond to the excessive profiteering of the big six energy suppliers by imposing a levy similar to the one imposed in the past on the North sea oil companies and the big banks. Such windfall taxation was used by the Conservative Government back in 1981 to claw back the excessive profits of the high street banks and in 1997 by the Labour Government in relation to the privatised utilities.
In 2012, nearly two decades after privatisation of the energy sector and despite the efforts of the regulator—Ofgem—to create a fully competitive market, the big six still control more than 99% of the retail market. Although we may not have a state-owned monopoly any longer, what we now have is an out-of-control private oligopoly that urgently needs to be reined in and better regulated.
While the energy sector remains an oligopoly, it is quite legitimate that the big six are made to pay a premium for their privileged market position. Indeed, a levy would be one way to address what is essentially a market failure. The revenues raised by such a levy should be ring-fenced to kick-start and support a mass programme of home insulation and energy efficiency measures, starting with the homes of the fuel-poor. That programme could be part of a genuine green new deal and it could help to create thousands of new skilled jobs in the process. There would be a win-win situation: the programme would help the Government to meet its commitment to eliminate fuel poverty by 2016; it would create many new jobs; and it would help to meet emission reduction targets. So a levy on energy companies is my first demand today.
My second demand is that, to prevent energy companies from passing the cost of any levy on to consumers and to make energy prices fairer, I want the Government to give the regulator more powers to cap prices and—crucially—to mandate Ofgem to actually use those powers. A number of options are available. The regulator already has the power to cap prices if it chooses to do so—it has threatened to use that power if the energy companies do not reduce prices—but it is simply no good to make empty threats. The regulator should have the confidence to intervene actively and to use its capping powers in the face of consistent overcharging by companies and persistent market failure.
May I give an example of such overcharging from the Heddon-on-the-Wall women’s institute, which is in my constituency of Hexham? The Heddon-on-the-Wall WI is being harangued by npower to pay more than £5,000 in back entitlements of power, dating from 2006. In other words, the company got the bill for the WI wrong, and demanding that money now will effectively put the local WI village hall out of business; it would have to go into administration. Npower has not answered my letter on this subject, which I will also raise with the Minister. Is this story not a good example of the sort of haranguing power of the big companies, which are overpowering individuals and small organisations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention, because that example clearly demonstrates the kind of power that the energy companies can wield. The implications of the story that he has just told are absolutely outrageous, so I hope the Minister will take on board that kind of story. As the chief executive of Ofgem concluded in October 2011, and I hope the Minister agrees:
“We do not have a fully competitive market.”
That was the phrase that Ofgem’s chief executive used.
Another option would be for the Government—working in collaboration with Ofgem—to legislate for new price-capping powers, potentially based on a new mechanism. Any price capping could be linked to the wholesale price of energy, to make energy costs fairer. It would be a kind of energy price escalator.
Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, has made clear its intention to cap the cost of BT line rental charges, in response to BT’s over-dominance of the land-line rental market. Why not apply the same logic and principle to the energy market? Perhaps we could suggest that Ofgem pick up the phone and call Ofcom to ask for advice; after all, we are always told that “It’s good to talk.”
Thirdly, the Government should now launch an independent public inquiry into the big six energy companies. In much the same way that we have had an independent commission on banking, led by Sir John Vickers, and an ongoing investigation into the media, led by Lord Leveson, we urgently need a public inquiry into the energy industry, to get to the root causes of the problems. To be crystal-clear, I must point out that I am not calling for a Competition Commission inquiry. Instead, we need an independent public inquiry with a broader remit than just to consider prices and competition, because more fundamental issues are at work here.
Those fundamental issues include trust. It seems clear to me, from talking to the constituents whom I meet when I go around my constituency, that many people do not trust the energy companies. Therefore, it would be in the interests of the energy suppliers themselves to ensure that these issues are fully addressed and that all the facts, figures and arguments are discussed in the light of day.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s argument that there is a market failure in the energy sector. If there is a market failure and therefore a de facto cartel is operating, that would be a very serious issue that would need to be fixed. However, what I genuinely do not understand—perhaps she can help me with this point—is why EU figures from November last year showed that UK gas prices for the consumer were 25% lower than those in Italy, France and Germany. Indeed, UK gas prices are the 21st lowest of the 27 countries in the EU. Those statistics do not imply that a cartel is operating in our country; alternatively, they show that, if a cartel is operating here, it is not operating very well.
I cannot help the hon. Gentleman directly on the figures that he has just quoted. The bigger issue is the amount of power that those players have in our markets. My constituents in Brighton do not much care about the price of fuel in Italy, but they care passionately about the price of their own fuel here at home. It looks as though the big six are coming together. A public inquiry would find out whether any collusion is going on. Even if there is no collusion, it is certainly the case that excess profits are being made off the backs of constituents who are struggling with very high fuel prices. When they are urged to swap tariffs, the whole process is so deeply complicated that it is not surprising that, essentially, they are mis-sold the energy that they need.
I completely agree that we need transparent energy prices, and I hope that the Minister will talk about how we will simplify the tariff structure and all that goes with it. However, my point is the same. I understand that the hon. Lady’s constituents do not care about energy prices in Italy, France, Germany or Sweden. My point is that if there is a cartel operating, it is surprising that our gas prices are so much cheaper than in those countries. I will leave it at that.
There are a whole set of complex reasons why energy markets are different in various member states. If everything is completely clean and above board, with no excess profits being made, that can be examined in a public inquiry. That is exactly why we need a public inquiry. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure that he knows from his own constituents, that that is not the perception of the vast majority of ordinary people who are faced on the one hand with rising energy bills and on the other hand with stories in the newspapers about rising energy company profits.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, irrespective of what is happening in other countries, the truth is that many ordinary working families and small businesses are finding it hard to survive, and the increase in energy costs is certainly putting some under?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way in a short debate. I know that she shares my concern that the average household now spends £1,345 on its dual fuel bill and that profits last year were on average £125 per household, which is why this issue urgently needs attention. I listened carefully to what she said about competition. Does she agree that one of the key things that we need to do to reform the energy market is to encourage and ensure that the big six pool their energy, so that we can increase competition and allow more entrants into the market?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. If I speak a bit faster, I will make that point shortly. We need more players in the marketplace. That is the way to drive down prices. It is also the way to ensure that we have individuals as co-generators of their own energy, rather than simply sitting back as consumers. I want to let the Minister know that, should he be minded to go down this route, he would have enormous support from the public.
A YouGov poll commissioned by Compass and Friends of the Earth found that 71% of voters support a levy on the profits on the big six; 77% support the money raised from such a levy being ring-fenced for home insulation and energy efficiency, particularly to remove people from fuel poverty; and an overwhelming 86% of voters support an independent public inquiry.
I am also encouraged that 70% of people support a move away from fossil fuel to renewables. That indicates strongly that we need to kick-start a national debate on energy that not only focuses on price and competition, but more fundamentally on the kind of energy industry that we want for the future, recognising that energy provision should be viewed not merely as a market commodity, but as a public service that we all rely on.
If we do not use less energy or successfully make the transition to renewable energy, bills will keep going up, because the cost of gas is projected to rise, even allowing for highly controversial shale gas extraction as well. We need to work hard to protect the vulnerable as much as possible from those price rises and ensure that the effects are not exacerbated by the greed of the energy companies. Instead, we need an energy industry that helps to deliver social and environmental progress, lifts people out of poverty and helps to bring about a good society.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), I am interested in drawing on best practice from countries such as Germany, where community ownership of the grid has played a pivotal role in allowing renewables and energy efficiency, for example, to flourish—unlike here in Britain, where the grid is privately owned and controlled. Many citizens in Germany see themselves as owners and generators of their energy, not simply as consumers. That is the kind of shift that I want to encourage, so we need to challenge the unacceptable power exerted by some of our big energy companies.
Local authorities potentially have a major role to play here, too, in relation to both insulation and to local, decentralised energy supply. The more we make it easy for communities and councils to generate their own, the less we rely on the big six. The more we cut energy waste and get off gas, the better protected we are in relation to bills. Of course, we urgently need to tackle the complex domestic rates and charging system that has been the subject of so many debates and motions in the House and that serves time and again to disadvantage consumers, especially those who use the least energy.
The hon. Lady referred to the big six main energy companies. Does she agree and acknowledge that the problem is also off-grid in terms of liquefied petroleum gas and heating oil? Millions of consumers up and down the country are affected and their position is just as bad.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because he is exactly right. Indeed, in many rural areas, people living in poverty are off-grid and therefore completely hostage to whatever the energy suppliers choose to charge. They do not have much option.
On the complex set of tariffs, we are sometimes urged to shift tariffs to another supplier or to shift within the same energy company if we do not like what we are getting. However, it is difficult to compare tariffs, like with like. It is so difficult to understand what kind of tariff we need to be on that it is not surprising that not many people take up that opportunity.
I will bring my remarks to a close, because I want to give the Minister time to respond. I will summarise three key points. First, will the Government start drawing up plans for a levy on energy companies in time for the forthcoming Budget in March? Secondly, will they instruct the regulator Ofgem to use existing powers to cap prices, or will the Government work with the regulator to introduce new powers in the forthcoming energy market reform Bill? If the Minister thinks that that might be too much to ask, my third demand is reasonable: will the Government commit to an independent public inquiry into the big six energy companies?
Irrespective of whether the Minister agrees with the analysis that I have presented this morning, we can all agree that this issue is the subject of much controversy in our constituencies. Many people feel that they are being ripped off by the big six. If that is the case, action should be taken. Let us look into it with an independent public inquiry. Let us learn the lessons so that, once and for all, we can move to a more sustainable and fair energy system without all the question marks that currently surround it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Osborne. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate. It is a shame that we did not have a longer debate—an hour and a half—because we have had an unusually large number of interventions, which shows the interest that the subject attracts. I hope that all hon. Members will understand that I want to use the remaining time available to respond to the debate, rather than take further interventions.
The hon. Lady has secured this debate at a time when we have started to see some prices coming down. In recent weeks we have seen price reductions, which will see around a 2% weighted average decrease in retail prices. Prices on wholesale markets are beginning to reduce and companies recognise that they can start to take some of the pressure off consumers. We all share the hon. Lady’s ambition that consumers should be supported at a time when they are inevitably extremely worried about the level of energy prices.
I will talk about some of the measures that we are taking to address the issues. First, it is important to state that we need a market that operates and functions better. Some of the measures that the hon. Lady has set out would make the situation worse. We need to get £200 billion of new investment in our energy infrastructure over the next 10 to 15 years. The more that we make this an unattractive place for people to invest—they are mostly international investors—the greater the likelihood that we will see energy and electricity being rationed, because of a lack of investment in new supply and a lack of investment in the other associated areas of energy efficiency. The consumer will therefore end up picking up the tab.
I was also disappointed that we did not hear any recognition of the global issues that must be addressed. We are having this debate at a time when oil and gas prices are at their highest levels in recent years. The increase in wholesale prices is being driven partly by instability in the middle east and partly by other geopolitical measures. We therefore cannot divorce the issue of energy prices from what is happening globally. However, we can do and are doing a significant amount to assist consumers in paying their bills.
I will not. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand. She has raised many issues, and I want to try to respond to them comprehensively. I am more than happy to meet her separately to discuss the ideas behind her initiative and campaign.
We are already requiring energy companies to provide help to 2 million of the poorest and most vulnerable households through the warm home discount, at a cost of £250 million this year, an increase of 40% over earlier arrangements. Over the next four years, suppliers will provide support worth £1.1 billion. Citizens Advice and Ofgem have received their highest level of funding yet from suppliers for the Energy Best Deal campaign, which helps vulnerable consumers shop around for the best deal. We have extended the carbon emissions reduction target until the end of the year, which we expect will benefit 600,000 of the most vulnerable low-income families, including those with elderly people and people with disabilities, and suppliers will be investing some £400 million in heating and insulation measures to help those households. In addition, the community energy saving programme, CESP, is expected to deliver about £350 million in energy efficiency measures to 90,000 households.
Looking forward, we are introducing the energy company obligation, which will include support to provide affordable warmth to low-income vulnerable households through heating and insulation measures. The ECO will provide £1.3 billion in support each year to householders who cannot achieve significant energy savings without additional support, and will have a specific target to provide heating and insulation to the low-income vulnerable households at greatest risk of fuel poverty.
We are also spending £110 million through Warm Front on heating and insulation to help households make their homes warmer. During the current winter, the winter fuel payment, worth £250 for households with members aged up to 79 and £400 for those with members aged 80 and over, will help 12.7 million older people in 9 million households with their fuel bills.
As I hope the hon. Lady will understand, significant support is going into measures to mitigate the effects of high energy bills, and particularly to ensure that we do not just help with this year’s bills but provide support in addressing the issue year on year in future through greater emphasis on energy efficiency, for which she called in her comments.
I thank the Minister for his response. He says that the Government are tackling the problem by, for example, providing the new ECO, but we know that the amount of money in the ECO is £1.3 billion and that by the time we subtract the money being ring-fenced for hard-to-treat homes, there will be far less money left for tackling fuel poverty than came from CERT, CESP and Warm Front. We also know that the money is being raised by a levy on all householders, which will push more people into fuel poverty, whereas Warm Front and the other programmes were funded by taxpayers’ contributions. In the rest of his remarks, will he address the issue of a public inquiry? I do not think that what he is saying addresses the key point, which is about profits, not prices.
I will of course address those issues, but it is important to provide the context of what else is being done. A tremendous amount of help is being given, more than ever before, to insulate hard-to-heat homes and direct support to people to pay their fuel bills. That is part of the overall energy picture, and it is important to take a holistic approach and understand the issue that way.
In addition, it is important to highlight the impact that the green deal will have. Through the green deal, we are determined to move this country from being one of the least energy-efficient in the whole of Europe to being one of the most. That is an extraordinary challenge, and one that we are determined to address. We recognise that we as Government should be trying to create an environment in which we can make lasting changes to our households so that people can reduce their bills over time.
To come directly to the points raised by the hon. Lady, I think that we all recognise that energy companies need to make a profit and invest in infrastructure for the future. They must also make a return for their shareholders. We have considered pricing here and elsewhere carefully. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) said, prices here for both electricity and gas are some of the lowest in Europe. However, that is not the same as having the cheapest bills. Our bills are often higher, because our energy efficiency is less good. Again, that reinforces the hon. Lady’s point that we need to make much more progress on energy efficiency in order to contain those bills.
It is also worth considering how suppliers’ profits here stack up against other countries. Their profitability in the United Kingdom is worse than in almost any other jurisdiction where they operate. If we want suppliers to continue to invest the £200 billion necessary, they must see the UK as a good economic area in which to invest. The more measures we put in place to make ours an unattractive investment regime, the worse we will make things in the longer term for consumers in this country.
This is not a case in which one must be on the side either of consumers or of industry. In the longer term, we can only be on the side of the consumer by creating an environment in which businesses want to invest. Through our market reforms and other measures, we are trying to make the UK an attractive jurisdiction and ensure that the regulator, Ofgem, takes strong action to prevent excess profiteering in the sector.
The hon. Lady discussed having new entrants into the market. We are absolutely committed to making that happen. One measure of the success of our market reform proposals will be whether we increase liquidity by bringing more companies into play in the market, but we should be clear that six is already an unusually large number, larger than in any other European country. Most other European countries have one or two dominant players and low levels of switching. Levels of switching here are three or four times higher than in countries such as Germany, which she held up as a good example. There are many aspects of our market that create better opportunities for consumers, and we must be determined to protect those aspects as we go forward.
It is essential for Ofgem to monitor the market closely. My concern about the sort of public inquiry that she suggested involves the consequences. The companies looking to invest in Britain are exactly the companies with the funding and expertise to invest in renewables, which she says—and I agree—are important. However, if we hold an inquiry, they will defer, making it much more challenging to get new investment during the two years of that investigation. Our scope for meeting our renewables targets will therefore start to slip away. The approach that she suggests would have consequences, and I believe that there are better ways to protect consumers in the short term rather than the long term, as her approach would do.
Part of our approach is boosting competition. We have already gone a long way to cut red tape for smaller suppliers, and have increased from 50,000 to 250,000 the number of customers that companies must have before being required to participate in environmental and social schemes. We are making it easier for small companies to get a foothold in the market.
In December, Ofgem published for consultation radical proposals to require suppliers to simplify their tariffs and billing information so that consumers can compare supplier deals much more easily in order to decide whether they will be better off switching. Currently, more than 400 different tariffs are available—that is the scenario that we inherited when we came into Government—which inevitably leads to great confusion and makes it much more difficult, as the hon. Lady said, for consumers to make an informed choice when they are looking for the best deal.
Progress is being made on simplifying the approach. British Gas and SSE have announced that they intend to simplify their tariff structures; SSE has pledged to reduce the number of tariffs that it offers from 68 to just four. Once we get into a world where people can understand much more clearly what they are paying for and see more effectively how it compares with what other companies are offering, consumers will be in a much better position to exercise choice. The big six still cover about 99% of the domestic retail market, so it is important to have additional suppliers and players in the retail sector to ensure that we get the best deal for consumers. I am pleased to see that significant work is happening.
I also welcome the move towards collective switching, an issue taken up by Which? in the past few weeks, which brings together a range of consumers to give them much more confidence and to buy on their behalf. There is more liquidity, more companies are coming into the market and the market will operate better. A tougher regulator is taking action to ensure that comparison between companies is easier and that profitability is not excessive. Above all, we are creating a market in which businesses will be keen to invest, in order to ensure, in the most affordable way, security of supply and low carbon in the longer term.
Jam Jar Bank Accounts
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Osborne.
For most of us, using a current account is as natural and normal a part of modern life as indoor plumbing, but it was not always so. Many hon. Members will remember their parents coming home with weekly wages in cash, in an envelope with little holes in it so people could count the money when it was given to them. On arrival at home, the cash would be divided into amounts for the rent, the bills, housekeeping and, hopefully, savings for an unexpected bill, school uniforms or Christmas. The sub-divided amounts would typically be kept in separate boxes, tins or jam jars, from which this debate takes its title.
Most households have changed a lot since then, and there are many advantages to that evolution. For most jobs now, people need a bank account to accept their salaries or wages, and people also need an account to pay the rent or the mortgage. People’s money is also safer in a bank than on the kitchen windowsill. As payments through direct debits and standing orders cost less for financial institutions to process, bank accounts give people access to better deals. A bank account also becomes a gateway to other financial services.
Much progress has been made over the last number of years on that front. The number of people without a transactional bank account, including a basic bank account, fell by about a half between 2003 and 2010 to just 1.5 million households.
As I said, there are many advantages to the transition, but there are also some drawbacks. For a start, there is loss of control, particularly with things such as direct debits. Although people set them up, they happen subsequently without people actively having to do anything.
My hon. Friend has secured a fantastic debate.
Our extensive research in my all-party group on financial education for young people highlighted loss of control as a particular problem. Some 91% of people who got into financial difficulty did so because they kind of lost control, and my hon. Friend has highlighted exactly why that is happening.
My hon. Friend goes right to the heart of the matter. There can also be a feeling of being rather flush on payday and a danger of people not making provision for unexpected, or sometimes even expected and known, subsequent liabilities.
Although most of us enjoy free in-credit banking, nothing in life is free; there is a cost to operating bank accounts. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) also goes to the heart of that issue. The provision of free banking relies on people making mistakes and incurring penalty charges. Research for the financial inclusion taskforce has shown that low-income families that move to have a bank account in order to save money through direct debits and so on found that those savings were entirely wiped out by penalty charges, which averaged £140 in the first year. That combination of factors, as my hon. Friend says, can lead to people tripping into debt, which can then spiral. I mentioned people who do not have a transactional bank account, but many choose to manage in cash even if they have a bank account.
My hon. Friend talked about people tripping into debt. He will also find that people trip into ill health, particularly mental ill health. I work with Advocacy in Wirral, and one of the main issues that it deals with is the sheer practicalities of life and not being able to pay bills, leading to a deterioration of mental health.
My hon. Friend’s point is, as ever, apt and to the point. She could also have mentioned the stress that debt and trying to manage one’s finances can bring to families, which is one of the key factors in family breakdown.
To address those points—at least in part—and a few other points, we have jam jar accounts. They mimic the jam jars on the windowsill; that is the whole point of such accounts. Louise Savell of Social Finance has identified three core features. First, when someone’s wages come in, the money is automatically distributed among different pots within the bank account—for rent, household bills, spending money, savings and so on. Secondly, the person would receive a low balance alert by text, if there is a danger of that person failing to meet one of their bills from the bills account. Thirdly, if the person does not act on that for whatever reason, there would be an auto-sweep from savings into the bill-paying account in order to avoid penalty charges or failing to make the payment.
There are a number of questions about product design, which can be done in different ways. One big debate is about budgeting support, which could accompany the accounts. Comprehensive budgeting support—helping people to decide how much goes into each pot and how and when to redistribute—would be a great bonus, but that is quite costly. The issue should have a separate debate, because we can have a lot of the benefits from jam jar accounts without fully comprehensive budgeting support, and we can have a lot of great benefits from fully comprehensive budgeting support without jam jar accounts.
A second question about product design is how easy we make it to raid a savings account. Jam jar accounts are in many ways a method for one to impose discipline on oneself. A customer might decide that it would be good to impose further discipline and say, “If I want to move money out of the savings account into the spending account, I should have to do something actively. Ultimately, it is my choice because it is my money, but I will make myself ask for it in writing or by e-mail.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more attention and help need to be given to those of a certain age? They could find bank accounts hard to deal with—it is taxing, as he has suggested—and they like to see what they have and manage it in that way. More help is needed for the senior citizens of our country.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. There is a generation that is more comfortable with managing such matters online, if they have access to a desktop personal computer, or, for those who do not have that, through smart phones, mobile phones and auto-voice recognition. However, there is a cadre of people for whom that is less appropriate.
The third question on product design is how to market such accounts, by whom and to whom.
Why would we want a great increase in jam jar banking? First, it would reduce the extent to which people trip into debt. Secondly, the poorest would pay less, both directly, through lower bank charges; and indirectly, because service providers would have a lower average cost of collection. Therefore, the poverty premium, as highlighted by Save the Children and others, would be reduced. Thirdly, and just as importantly, it would stimulate savings through a sort of a nudge. One of someone’s jam jars would automatically be a savings account, and they would have to say yes or no to put a few pounds away every week or month. We all know what a difference that makes; it can be quite transformational to have savings and assets.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am leading a campaign for the establishment of community-based local banks. Would one of the best custodians for jam jar accounts not be a community-based local bank? Such banks allow people to save locally with a local bank manager, with whom there can be a close, personal relationship. That would increase savings and the benefits of a jam jar account.
My hon. Friend makes a fine point, and I commend him on his leadership in the local banking movement. I will say a few things about credit unions, which I think share some characteristics.
I have talked about the “Why?” of jam jar accounts, and it is also fair to ask, “Why now?” There are three good reasons why the issue is particularly relevant at the moment. First, the Government and Members on both sides of the House are focusing, rightly, on the cost of living. We discussed heating bills in the preceding debate, and there are active debates about rail fares and petrol and diesel costs. Bank charges are also a significant part of the cost of living. The second reason why the debate is particularly timely is because of the introduction of universal credit, the move from fortnightly to monthly payments, and the move away from direct payments to landlords. The third reason is the sector modernisation fund of £73 million for credit unions that the Government are supporting. That presents new opportunities for development in that sector.
Of course I greatly welcome—as all of us here do—the universal credit, but does my hon. Friend agree that what is being offered protects not only those receiving the credit, but potentially the landlords and other people who are the recipients of bill payments? Those people also need protection.
My hon. Friend is right. Of course, there is a potential benefit for landlords and other service providers. There is a line of argument that goes: why not just keep the two-weekly payments and the direct payments to landlords? However, a key objective of universal credit is to make the receipt of benefit feel more like being in work, which usually means having to cope with monthly payments, not having money paid direct to a landlord and so on. The use of such accounts is a good way of helping people through that, which is a perfectly legitimate aim, while keeping the key features of universal credit.
We know that Ministers are interested in this area. Most recently, in answer to a written parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, which was published after I applied for the debate, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), confirmed that the Government are actively looking at the potential for low-cost budgeting accounts.
So why do they not exist already? Well they sort of do, just not on a particularly big scale. Last year, there were four providers of jam jar accounts, although three of them are not the household names that most of us would recognise. Until now, a key driver for the development and roll out of such accounts has been debt management companies wanting to have greater security of payment schedule, rather than consumer advertising. So although they exist, they do not exist at scale. Social Finance estimates that there are only about 150,000 such accounts in the UK. They do not exist through big brand institutions—by the way, the exception to that is the Royal Bank of Scotland. I know that it is not very fashionable these days to say nice things about RBS, but I commend it for having such an account, which it uses for its most challenging customers. However, that also means that the account is not actively marketed to the general public. Someone would struggle to walk into an RBS branch and open such an account, unless they are referred on to it.
In the interests of time, I will have to leave that question hanging—fascinating though it unquestionably is—because I must plough on.
The third important point is that such accounts are not available at an attractive price—with the exception of the RBS account. Typically, they cost the consumer about £150 a year. Why are such accounts not available at scale through big brand institutions at an attractive price? That is a very good question. Intuitively, such accounts seem like an attractive concept. In fact, many hon. Members here might reflect that, in our own personal finances, we mimic how jam jar accounts work. We might have a separate current account for household bills or a separate credit card that we use for car payments or something like that.
There is an attraction to such an idea, but the key stumbling block is economics. There is no reason to believe that the banks that do offer such accounts at the prices I talked about are making above normal profits, although at scale the cost should come down. Social Finance estimates that it should be possible to provide such accounts at between £5 to £7 a month, which is around £60 to £85 a year. The biggest sensitivity to that cost is the extent to which call centre human support on budgeting and so on is provided.
In any case, that is still a lot of money, so the question of how to pay for it remains. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West touched on some of those issues a moment ago. There is some reason to believe that people—consumers themselves—would be willing to pay something. In the credit market, if we think about how much consumers implicitly are willing to pay for the convenience and flexibility of home credit over cheaper sources, there is some evidence that people value and would pay for control. Some research suggests that maybe people would be willing to pay £1 a week—£50 a year. However, that still seems rather a lot. That could possibly be augmented with some other charges for ATM withdrawals and so on.
Some people might say, “Get the banks to pay for it. They’ve done all these bad things, so they should do it.” To be fair to banks, they do quite a lot in the corporate social responsibility sphere already, including with credit unions. We could perhaps get them to provide such accounts on a semi-commercial basis, forgoing their normal profit margin. What would not be a good idea is to suggest that other customers should cross-subsidise those with jam jar accounts. There are two reasons for that: first, for competition policy reasons and, secondly, because it is generally a bad idea in the interest of effective markets.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West mentioned, there may be a role for service providers, particularly housing associations and utility companies, who would benefit from having a more reliable payer. Particularly for the most risky customers, a housing association, for example, might even be willing to provide cash support for the costs. Perhaps more generally, one would be looking for softer support in terms of marketing and so on to reach scale.
We are talking about banks and consumers, but is there a role for the Government? There is certainly not a role for the Government in telling people what sort of bank account they should have. There is also not a role for the Government in telling banks what should be in their new product development pipeline. However, there is a real social interest in all these issues, as I outlined earlier. If it is a question of bringing together organisations that may all have an interest, some of which may not know about it yet, in developing this market, perhaps the Government are best or uniquely placed to do that.
In my final minute or so, I have three simple asks of the Government, to which I would love to hear the Minister’s response. The first ask is to prod the banks and continue to stress to them the benefit that may be had both to society and potentially to them in developing these products. There may even be a pure commercial case to be made for them. After all, I often remark that nobody knew until 3M brought it to market that the thing that was really holding back their office productivity was a little yellow square piece of paper that can be stuck to the wall. Sometimes products just have to get out there before we realise their potential.
The second ask is to consider having a pilot scheme in one area, working with a housing association and one or more utilities. It would then be possible to quantify the benefit that comes from security of payment and collection cost, as well as to assess the beneficial impact on individuals in terms of their budgeting behaviour, the amount of money they save and their propensity to start to make savings.
My third ask is to work with credit unions. This Government have been a great supporter of the credit union sector, particularly through the £73 million modernisation fund. If part of that were to be used to develop a robust, sustainable common banking platform, it would open up all sorts of possibilities, including this one. There would also be the potential to work with the Post Office, which would provide a great new source of revenue and business to post offices, which matter so much to all of us in our communities and constituencies.
We know that financial inclusion, helping people to make the transition into work and helping hard-pressed families with the cost of living are all things for which Ministers have shown a passion. They are also all things where jam jar banking could make a substantial difference. I hope very much that Ministers will continue to work with consumer groups, housing associations, utilities, banks and credit unions to help to stimulate such accounts into becoming an at scale reality.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate on the topic of jam jar accounts and low-income consumers. It is particularly interesting and timely, given the various reforms going on in the area, which I hope to explain a bit about in my remarks. In the absence of my colleague the Financial Secretary to the Treasury who leads on these issues, I am very pleased to be responding on behalf of the Government. Indeed, hon. Members may know that I have taken a long-standing interest in these issues in my constituency of Norwich.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made a number of relevant points concerning the potential role that jam jar accounts could play in helping to improve financial capability and inclusion, particularly alongside the introduction of universal credit. I should like to respond to the various points that he made and take this opportunity to set out briefly some of the work that the Government are doing in this area, which I am sure he and others will welcome.
Let me begin by dwelling on the progress made to date on the issue. Jam jar—or budgeting—accounts are a relatively new concept, as my hon. Friend mentioned. However, they are available in various places. As he has described, such accounts include various features that are aimed at helping customers to manage their money more easily. At the most basic level, that includes the ability for customers to divide their money between different pots. It may also include, as my hon. Friend said, a function that automatically moves money between accounts and access to support from a trained money manager who can provide advice or direction if necessary.
As hon. Members may know, the Financial Inclusion Taskforce commissioned initial research into the viability of this concept in 2010. It was carried out by Social Finance and was published in June last year. As I think my hon. Friend is aware, the report surveyed the demand and provision of jam jar accounts. It noted, as he said, that such accounts currently exist but tend to carry a monthly account usage fee that can put them out of the reach of those on the lowest incomes. The report also quantified the pool of customers who could benefit from such accounts if they were available at lower costs—up to 9 million. The report recommended that further research be undertaken, followed by a pilot study to explore the potential benefits of such accounts.
Certainly, the idea is extremely interesting. While no one financial product will suit every individual, some people may find these kinds of budgeting facilities useful, and far more useful than the methods that they use currently. The Government are committed to promoting a diverse and competitive financial services sector that provides consumers with access to a range of financial products such as jam jar accounts, which may form a part of those services, to meet consumer need.
If my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire will allow, I will refer briefly to a couple of points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). Ms Osborne need not worry—I will not veer into the scope of the Royal Bank of Scotland in this debate. The Government are committed to providing a diverse and competitive financial services sector, exploring options to expand the roles of credit unions, which have been mentioned and which have an important role in providing services to communities. I note the other points that were made about more local banks and housing associations. Hon. Members will be aware of the current opportunity, under the Big Lottery Fund, for housing associations to take an interest in financial capability, which is important and an issue that I am aware of at constituency level. The Financial Services Authority has made improvements to its authorisation process to ensure that it will not act as a barrier to entry for new local banks, if that is something that the good people of Hexham want.
It is relevant to consider this issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire has, in the context of the introduction of universal credit. The new benefit will simplify the existing complex system of benefits and tax credits, improve work incentives and make it clearer to claimants how the move into work will benefit them. As hon. Members are aware, it will be paid in a single monthly payment, with housing costs paid direct to the tenant. That will enable low-income households to overcome one of the traps of poverty relating to the responsibility of managing a budget and the impact that that can have on other things. The monthly payment of benefits will make it easier for households to take advantage of cheaper tariffs and make access to affordable credit easier through an increased financially responsible record.
The Government recognise that some claimants need additional help to budget, particularly during the transitional period. As my hon. Friend suggests, jam jar accounts could have a role to play in helping many universal credit claimants to budget, protecting their essential payments and supporting positive money management behaviours. For that reason, I am pleased to confirm that, in addition to working with the advice sector to ensure that claimants can access appropriate budgeting support services, the Department for Work and Pensions is working with a range of banking and financial product providers, such as banks, buildings societies, credit unions, pre-paid card companies and others, to explore options for delivering such services, and to make financial services more accessible and supportive to low-income households.
We have heard a good idea this afternoon, but high street banks cannot, or will not, provide such accounts at a cost-effective rate. Until that issue is fixed, we are just talking about an idea or a concept, and it will be very hard for it to be realised. Will the Government do more to bridge the gap between what the banks are able or willing to do and what the market is apparently willing to spend?
I shall, with pleasure, come on to some of the work that the Government are doing to encourage simple financial products, via explaining briefly the next steps for the DWP and via credit unions.
From June this year, the Government will run a series of housing demonstration projects in which we will pay housing benefit direct to tenants to test the support required to help claimants budget and manage their rent payments effectively. They will be an opportunity to consider what type of budgeting products—whether from the commercial sector or elsewhere—can be used to support universal credit claimants in the longer term.
Several hon. Members have mentioned credit unions. They play an important role in offering access to financial services—bank accounts, affordable credit, insurance and savings to name but a few—to people who may not be able to, or may not wish to, access those services through mainstream banks or building societies. They work within a local community ethos and often actively seek to help those most in need of support. The recent legislative reform order brings new and exciting opportunities to credit unions. It is now for the sector to respond to those opportunities by seeking new ways to reduce their costs, to improve the products and services that it offers and to reach out to new markets to become self-sufficient and sustainable. To support credit unions in making this leap, the DWP has carried out a feasibility study to look at options for expanding their role. That study has reported to Ministers and an announcement on its findings will be made soon.
On the point about how the Government can otherwise help consumers take responsibility for their finances and make better choices, jam jar accounts may be one useful tool, but consumers need access to both financial advice and an appropriate range of products. That is why last year the Government launched the Money Advice Service, which promotes understanding of the financial system and helps to raise financial capability across the UK. In particular, its financial health check is helpful to some of the citizens referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire.
Another part of empowering consumers is ensuring that the right products are available. They need to be straightforward, easy to understand and simple to provide consumers with a benchmark with which to compare products, make good decisions and make sense of an often bewildering marketplace. Earlier this month, the Government launched a steering group to design a range of simple financial products, made up of representatives from both industry and consumer advocates. The group will report to Ministers in July and has announced that it will focus initially on developing simple deposit savings and protection insurance products. This is an opportunity for industry to innovate and develop a range of simple products, and it comes at a time of exciting developments elsewhere in the industry.
Under the various developments that I have outlined today, it is clear that there is an appetite, in the Government and in the third and commercial sectors, to find a way forward. I thank my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for their remarks. I am sure that my colleagues, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will appreciate the insights that they have contributed and will continue to take them into account in the further development of work in this area.
Ms Osborne, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship. I am pleased to see so many of my colleagues attending a debate on an important subject: the economic potential of clean coal.
As a child in the 1970s I used the phrase, “taking coals to Newcastle”, to describe the silliest, most useless activity that could possibly be undertaken. I never really thought about the words behind the phrase, of course, except to note that it referred to Newcastle, the city in which I lived and which had been exporting coal since the 13th century. The region powered Britain’s industrial revolution. Recently, when I visited the port of Tyne and saw huge ships unloading coal, the full realisation of the extraordinary change in our relationship to coal was forced on me. Three million tonnes of coal per year are coming up the Tyne, instead of going down and out to the wider world. We are now importing millions of tonnes of coal per year to Newcastle and the same is true for Great Britain, once described as an island built on coal.
According to the Library, in 1920 there were 1.25 million miners in the UK. Today, the UK mining industry provides just over 6,000 jobs directly and supports a similar number in coal power stations and coal transportation, but demand for coal has not fallen to the extent that those figures might imply. In addition to the increased productivity of coal miners, we also need huge levels of imports to satisfy demand. In 2010, we produced 18.4 million tonnes of coal to meet demand of 51.4 million tonnes. What makes that all the stranger is that the UK has thousands of billions of tonnes of coal reserves, offshore and onshore.
Five Quarter, a company spun out of Newcastle university, has licences from the Coal Authority to exploit 2 billion tonnes off the Northumberland coast. Using new technologies and processes, in energy terms that is equivalent to 11 billion barrels of oil; and that is just one company. Yet in 2010 we imported 26.5 million tonnes of coal.
Let us be clear that by importing so much coal we are not reducing the global carbon footprint or improving the safety of mining. Nearly 10 million tonnes of coal a year is imported from Russia. Despite having improved somewhat in recent years, Russia’s mining safety record is still poor, although it is better than China’s. In the UK, we suffered the terrible tragedies of three mining deaths in 2010, the highest for several years. In the same year, 135 Russian miners died at work, including 66 in one explosion.
I applied for this debate because I believe there could be huge potential in exploiting the vast reserves of coal beneath our feet, and I am concerned that the Government are not doing all they can to realise that potential. I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s views on why we import so much coal when we have such vast reserves.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this important debate and I welcome her remarks. Will she push the Minister a little bit on clean coal, recognising that there are 300 years of energy need beneath our feet? The hon. Lady touched on that in her opening remarks.
I will come to that point. I shall consider it a pleasure to push the Minister, just as the hon. Gentleman describes.
Coal importation does not raise the same issues as gas importation. In terms of energy security, there is no vulnerable single coal pipeline and there is a wider supplier base and a more competitive market for coal, but transporting millions of tonnes of carbon around the world is hardly green and, more importantly, there is in this country the budding technical knowledge to exploit coal in a cleaner way than our competitors.
The first industrial revolution was fuelled by coal and we are now having to deal with the consequences in the form of climate change. Clean coal, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is any technology that reduces harmful emissions from burning coal or avoids the need for burning coal altogether to generate electricity in a more sustainable manner.
Carbon capture and storage and underground coal gasification are two areas where the UK has the opportunity to become a world-beater in clean energy production, but we cannot wait for ever. Underground coal gasification is the gasification of a deep coal seam to convert coal to a high energy synthetic gas, which goes by the lovely name of syngas. Both the technology and the gas produced are relatively clean, compared to coal-fired generation and surface mining.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the matter to this Chamber.
The potential for clean coal is estimated between £2 billion and £4 billion, perhaps with some 60,000 jobs as well. Does the hon. Lady feel that we should be embracing the technology in totality, especially as oil has reached its highest price in the past two years?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the north-east region could play a tremendous role in terms of the abundant reserves off its coast, from Durham to the top end of the north-east coast, underground coal gasification and deep-mined coal reserves? Does she agree that we should consider every opportunity to exploit that resource and, in the meantime, create thousands of what we would describe as clean jobs—clean energy jobs—in our region, which has suffered greatly as a result of the closure of the coal industry and shipbuilding?
My hon. Friend has a huge amount of experience in coal, to which I pay tribute. He raises important points about the north-east, with regard to our huge coal reserves, which he rightly mentioned, and the economic potential of coal, which I will say a little more about. I thank him for his intervention.
Like all new exciting, but as yet untried, technologies, carbon capture and storage and underground coal gasification require research, analysis and trialling to understand the risks, if any, and whether and how they might be overcome. However, I regret that I am yet to be convinced that the Government are fully committed to enabling the potential of clean coal technologies to meet our energy needs in the medium and long term and to bring to the region and the country the kind of jobs my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association estimates that by 2025 the market for clean coal could be worth £10 billion a year to the UK, with more than 50,000 quality jobs.
I agree with the hon. Lady’s remarks on clean coal. She mentioned 2025, which might be a realistic time for this technology to come in, because it is unproven. Does she acknowledge an issue that all hon. Members know about, given the dependence of regions on coal, which is that the previous Government signed the EU large combustion plant directive, which mandated that, by 2015, five of our biggest coal stations will come off-stream, way in advance of any realistic prospect of CCS working? I hope, eventually, that that technology will work.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports clean coal technologies. The previous Government made huge efforts to ensure that we were on track for sustainable energy to meet the appropriate emissions concerns. I will mention the timetable for carbon capture and storage, on which, as he rightly says, current coal generation capacity is dependent.
We have already seen how the Department’s muddled messages have damaged the solar industry and, this week, the wind industry, so it is now vital for the Government to set out a sufficiently detailed and long-term ambition for clean coal technologies in the UK, because the prize in terms of jobs and energy security is far too important for us to fumble.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that terminology is important? Using the words “renewable energy” all the time, rather than “low-carbon energy”, can muddle the debate. Effective clean technology, should it be proved to work, will be low-carbon energy, and that is the sort of descriptor we should be using, rather than “renewable”.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He is right that in meeting the emissions targets we have set ourselves, “low carbon” is a key term, rather than “renewables”. Low-carbon energy can be a transition to a future that might, in the longer term, be entirely based on renewables as differently based forms of energy run out.
My concern is the real possibility that if the UK does not act now, companies will not invest here; they will reprioritise their investments away from carbon capture and storage and away from the UK. The economic potential of clean coal extends further than the direct jobs created in the industry and the supply chain. As has been mentioned, it could bridge the gap to longer-term renewable energy and could keep energy costs down in the short and medium term, which will be a better deal for home consumers and for industry. In the north-east, that is particularly important, because we have many world-leading but energy-intensive industries such as chemical processing. Developing integrated clean coal processes has the potential to supply the energy needs of those important sectors in the north-east and elsewhere.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of clean coal and clean coal technologies to the north-east and to many regions in the UK, including the north-west.
Last year, in response to an oral question, the Minister told me:
“The Government recognise the potential of underground coal gasification, but the technology is still in its early stages...Our view is that as a carbon capture option it is not a priority to pursue at present. The Coal Authority has lead responsibility, as the freehold owner of our national coal resource, and we continue to monitor developments in the sector.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 1649.]
At a subsequent meeting, in January, the Minister and his officials appeared somewhat more positive and certainly supportive of carbon capture more generally. I was not filled with confidence, however, to learn that the DECC policy team that deals with clean coal is called the coal liabilities team. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but can the Department champion the potential of clean coal rather than the legacy of the past?
DECC’s continued delay played a significant part in the failure of the Longannet CCS demonstration project in 2010. In November last year, the Department promised that the money would be reallocated to other CCS projects, but in the autumn statement, the Treasury raided the CCS fund to spend on other projects. Coal-burning power stations still provide 28% of our electricity, rising to 50% in times of high demand. Many coal-fired stations are dependent on testing the viability of retrofitting those new technologies so as to be able to continue production past 2015, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat).
Globally, China mines three times as much coal as any other country, or more than 3,000 million tonnes of coal in 2010.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. She mentioned China, and it is important for us to look at what is happening on carbon emissions not only regionally and nationally but internationally. I was lucky enough to be in China only two weeks ago, with the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. The Chinese put coal production in 2010 at 3.24 billion tonnes; they forecast 3.9 billion or almost 4 billion tonnes of coal per year by 2020, and then they are looking to reduce production to a steady output of around 2 billion tonnes by 2050. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is really up to us to use our engineering and manufacturing skills to get carbon capture and storage on line in the UK, giving us a great opportunity to export our manufacturing to the likes of China, which will make a huge difference overall?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We might disagree about the speed at which the new technologies can be brought on line—whether 2015 or 2020—but what is absolutely clear is that the rest of the world is burning coal and that the new technologies will be needed to ensure that the energy required in the world does not bring about grossly increased emissions. We have an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new and expanding market. It could be a huge new market, but I fear that we might let it pass by without fully understanding it.
I welcome the recent announcement from DECC that takes us a step closer to the first CCS commercial demonstration project; it is long overdue. We are now told, however, that the demonstration will take between four and eight years. Does the Minister not recognise the importance of being ahead of the curve in demonstrating and scaling such technology? Instead of a programme of support and a stable policy environment from the Government, we continue to see confusion. I am sure the Minister agrees that a proper energy policy requires security and a diverse source of supply. How can he reassure the House that he is doing everything to ensure that we capture the benefits of clean coal? We also need certainty. What assessment have the Government made of the economic potential for clean coal, and when will he be in a position to make a long-term decision on whether the Government will support it?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on getting the debate, because it is timely.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in opposition, we can all have a go at what the Government did or did not do in the ’80s or ’90s. Everyone would agree that, if anything, the Government went too far in closing down the coal industry, which could still have been producing for this country today, but the truth is that the Labour Government also did not do particularly well by the coal industry.
Until the petrol price increase of 2007 and 2008, coal was a dirty word in this place. Thankfully, finally, in those years, because of the huge, uncontrollable expansion in the cost of petrol, people began to realise that we had to look for alternatives. The alternative could and should be coal, but since those days, we have become bogged down in discussions about where we go with it. There was a bidding process in Europe and in this country, but we have seen nothing but reversals, with projects at Hatfield, Longannet and Kingsnorth all going into reverse and being dropped. If possible—I am very aware of the limited time that the Minister has—can he tell us exactly where we are with the CCS process? Will we see anything done in the near or longer term? The debate has been going on for a long time, and we have had, in effect, little if any progress.
In particular, the underground gasification of coal is a huge issue and is being developed strongly in our region by Newcastle university and the Ramsay project. The technology was proven more than a century ago to access reserves of coal way beyond anything that has ever been reached by conventional mining, whether in the last 10 years or the last 1,000 years. Coal that is sometimes thousands of metres deep and cannot be accessed by humans, can be accessed by machinery, and that should be promoted. The last Government agreed that a strategic environmental assessment would be carried out off the Northumberland coast. Has that happened? If not, will it happen? If so, when will it happen?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Osborne. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this debate. She has raised some important issues. I am sorry that, to make a political point, she distorted the situation, but I will clarify how we are trying to take forward carbon capture and storage particularly, to ensure that Britain can lead global developments in the sector.
Let me say at the outset that we agree absolutely with the hon. Lady about the important role that coal can continue to make. We want it to have a significant role in our energy infrastructure for many years to come. It is valued partly because of its flexibility, and as we move to inevitably more intermittent generation from all sorts of renewables, the flexibility, or dispatchability, of the coal sector is valuable indeed. We recognise that to secure that long-term future, we must deal with carbon emissions. The clean coal technologies—the hon. Lady outlined two of them—can help to ensure that coal has a chance to play an important role in our energy mix.
We are keen to take CCS forward with all speed. The Department has created a new division called the office of carbon capture and storage. It is not part of the old coal liabilities group, which is dealing with the historic legacies of the mining industry, but a new dynamic team focused purely on developing clean coal technologies. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that in our message to the outside world we are already doing a great deal to signal a step change.
The hon. Lady referred to coal production and the volume of imports. In 2010, which is the last year for which we have full figures, domestic production was nearly 18 million tonnes from 16 underground and 35 surface mines, employing just over 6,000 people. We have seen a significant drop in imports in recent years, because of a range of factors, from 38 million tonnes in 2009 to 27 million tonnes, a drop of 31%, by 2010. There is a range of reasons for that, including pricing issues—it may sometimes be cheaper to import coal—but often the reason is the sulphurous content and other issues that are important in combustion uses for the different types of coal. Those are commercial decisions, but I want to ensure that we create a long-term viable future for the UK coalmining industry, and we want as much coal as possible to be provided from domestic sources.
On carbon capture and storage, the hon. Lady talked about confusion. At a CCS conference yesterday, Jeff Chapman, who heads the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, used the word “tremendous” to describe the Government’s position. He said that he was encouraged by the speed at which we are trying to move forward and our dynamism and much more comprehensive approach.
Last year, we had to accept reluctantly that the Longannet project would not work and that we could not get the 300 MW CCS output that we wanted for $1 billion. Some aspects of the old competition were part of that process. It ruled out some of the pre-combustion technologies that we believe have a significant role to play and oxy-fuel combustion, which is another technology that could be significant. It did not take account of the £100 million cost involved in putting in place the flue gas desulphurisation technology that an old plant needs to give it a longer-term future.
Since pulling back from that project, we have sought to put in place a new one and a new competition that is much more all-embracing. It will give the industry opportunities to identify more projects, and greater scope for collaboration between different industrial partners in that process. It will also provide the opportunity to find out whether we can use the funding to support infrastructure development. For example, would putting in place large, over-sized pipelines provide the opportunity for an industry to be created, rather than a few pilot projects?
Our ambition has moved on. It is not just about how to put a few projects in place, but about how to create an industry that is viable and competitive in the 2020s. That is why there is a real sense of excitement. There were 200 people at the CCS conference yesterday. Two hundred businesses attended an industry day last week, and 150 attended a previous one before Christmas. People around the world who know about the technology are looking at the United Kingdom as one of the places where they can take it forward.
We still have the £1 billion. The hon. Lady is wrong in saying that it has been raided. The Treasury said that we do not now expect it to be used in the current spending round, but it is still available, and if projects come forward more quickly, they can access it.
We think it unlikely that anyone could come forward for £1 billion in this spending round, but we have said that it is still available when it is needed. The likely expectation is that it has been knocked back to the next spending round, but the commitment remains.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with tremendous authority on these issues. We want a viable industry that is cost competitive with other low-carbon sources of electricity generation in the 2020s. We want the project work to be done now, and we are looking at a range of technologies and their contribution.
We have £1 billion of up-front funding. We want to run the project so that it links in with European funding— the new entrant reserve 300 funding—so that that can also be accessed. We have allocated £125 million for research and development, which is on top of that. Our electricity market reform measures are considering a range of other factors that can be used to incentivise long-term investment in full-scale plant. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are moving ahead with tremendous speed. During the next few weeks, we will launch the competition with a view to deciding how to select the best companies and the best projects as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady referred to underground coal gasification, and I was grateful to her and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for bringing representatives from Newcastle university to see me at the end of last year to talk through some of the issues. Underground coal gasification is a fledgling industry so far and has yet to be proven in the United Kingdom, but there is increasing interest in its potential. It has been suggested, as the hon. Lady did today, that it could be linked with carbon capture and storage, although that concept is still at an early stage of development and a lot more work will need to be done on the process. I do not want to go into the technology, but we think it may be a significant opportunity to enable us to access the extensive coal resources that remain in the United Kingdom. They are unlikely to be exploited by conventional mining, as the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said, and we must use different technologies to access the very deep mines, which cannot be done by men and women working in them.
As with any activity involving underground coal, potential underground coal gasification operators would have to obtain a lease and a licence from the Coal Authority. It is likely that the UCG process would also release native methane, which would require a licence from Department of Energy and Climate Change under petroleum legislation. However, given the incidental nature of any natural gas release, the Department will seek to minimise any administrative burdens in that respect.
To be acceptable in the United Kingdom, operators must be able to demonstrate that they employ processes that are sound from the environmental control perspective. A great deal of evidence has been submitted about this, and we look forward to working closely with the hon. Lady and her colleagues at Newcastle university to try to take the matter forward. She will be aware that the Coal Authority has issued 18 conditional licences, paving the way for potential exploitation of coal through UCG. I will follow the progress of the Newcastle team and other conditional licences with great interest.
I hope that in that brief response I have been able to re-emphasise our commitment to clean coal technologies and their contribution, and I hope that that strong message will go back to the communities that the hon. Lady and her colleagues represent.
Question put and agreed to.