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Commons Chamber

Volume 548: debated on Friday 13 July 2012

House of Commons

Friday 13 July 2012

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Scrap Metal Dealers Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Whenever a Member comes high in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, he quickly realises how popular he is, but I had no doubt about what Bill I wanted to introduce, even though today is Friday the 13th. My concern over the scourge of metal theft started on a cold January morning in 2009, when the organist at Croydon parish church made a discovery of profound consequences. Melting snow was running through the roof, into the side chapels, choir vestry and straight on to the 19th-century Hill organ, causing serious damage. Not for the first time, bloody-minded thieves had targeted the grade I-listed church. On this occasion, they had stripped 200 square metres of lead from the roofs, causing more than £150,000 of damage—for metal worth little more than £4,000.

Everybody in the House has a constituency story about scrap metal theft, and to me the assault on Croydon minster highlights a common theme: the shocking disparity between the value of the stolen metal and the financial and emotional hurt and damage that the theft causes. My constituency has been hit consistently by metal theft. Public buildings, churches, schools and telecoms cables have been repeatedly targeted, and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) had the plaque stolen from his father’s grave. There was public outrage over the theft of two plaques from the Sanderstead war memorial that bore the names of 45 local people who sacrificed their lives in world war one. Two priceless plaques are lost to us for ever. Their scrap value was probably £50 but their value to the community was beyond measure.

Croydon has had the highest rate of metal theft in London. On average, London boroughs suffer five thefts a week, but in recent years Croydon has averaged 10. Twenty eight thefts were recorded in one week in April, and in May British Transport police conducted a high-profile raid on a scrap metal yard in west Croydon, recovering hundreds of crematorium and cemetery plaques. Since that raid, the number of reported metal thefts in the borough has plummeted by 38%. This backs up what the police tell us: that the scrap metal industry is the main outlet for stolen metal. It also exposes the failings of our current legislation, which was crafted more than half a century ago.

The House will be dismayed by the theft this week of a Henry Moore sculpture from the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham. Metal thefts are hitting people across the UK daily. Energy networks are now averaging 16 incidents a day, and last year British Telecom received 100,000 customer reports of faults that occurred as a direct result of cable theft. In the past six years, more than a third of churches have been robbed. Insurance claims connected with such thefts have gone up by 70%, and in 2011 they reached a record high of £4.5 million, with the total cost to the Church of England exceeding £10 million.

I will not delay the House; I want to make just a quick intervention. I am told that some churches have had so many thefts that they are paying to have any remaining lead on their roofs stripped and replaced with inferior materials, simply because they cannot afford to keep claiming on the insurance or having the work done. They are therefore going to the other extreme and almost becoming metal theft vandals themselves. Let me also flag up for the hon. Gentleman another problem that is affecting many ordinary folk. A constituent of mine was outside cleaning his fridge-freezer—it was almost brand new. He popped in to boil the kettle, and when he came out it had gone, on the back of a truck somewhere. That is the level that some of these people are stooping to.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his first point. Having to replace roofs causes heritage problems. The low level of much of this crime is a point I will come to shortly.

The cost of metal theft to local authorities has shot up by 26% in a year. The latest stats reveal that nearly nine out of 10 councils across England and Wales have been the victims of scrap thieves. Road signs and drain covers are regularly disappearing. The cost to the UK economy has been estimated at more than £750 million by the Association of Chief Police Officers. In all honesty, however, the real figure is probably much higher.

What cannot be overestimated, however—it is very hard to measure—is the devastating impact that a single theft can have on the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. The theft of £40 of copper can cause £500,000-worth of damage. Three times this year, thieves have taken BT copper cables from the same spot in Bexley. Each time they knocked out about 2,000 landlines for four days. An entire community of homes lost broadband, mobile signals and the internet. Pendant alarms on elderly people could not work. In an emergency, no one could call 999 or even a relative. One shudders to think of the consequences if a serious event had occurred. Llandough hospital near Cardiff suffered a similar attack in December, resulting in the postponement of more than 80 operations, including for eight cancer patients. Last August, thieves broke into a house in Hartlepool to steal copper from a gas boiler, which led to a gas leak, a fire and a huge explosion. More than 100 people were evacuated and bystanders were injured by flying shards of glass.

The incident the hon. Gentleman mentions in Bexley occurred in my constituency. One of the companies there—an old, established company—has been in touch with me three times this year because, exactly as he says, its phone and e-mail communications were stripped out. That resulted in the company losing thousands of pounds of orders, which puts jobs at risk, and that is in one firm in an industrial area. It is therefore hard to calculate how many jobs have been put at risk or how many firms on the edge might just teeter over because of metal theft.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I am sure we all share her concern about the events that took place in her constituency. She has illustrated the disparity between the scrap metal costs and the damage to society that results from such behaviour.

Metal theft has also had a serious impact in the transport sector. Last year, 36,000 rail services were delayed or cancelled in Great Britain as a result of cable theft. Two of Network Rail’s biggest delays ever were on key commuter routes from London, at Bermondsey and Woking, causing around 200 trains to be cancelled. Many thousands of passengers, including my constituents, were seriously delayed.

Cable theft is not only enormously disruptive to the travelling public, but incredibly dangerous to those trying to do it. Only on 27 June a man presumed to have been trying to steal electricity cables was electrocuted in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the ease with which people can sell the metal is encouraging quite a lot of people to put their lives at risk?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. In fact, I am reliably informed that 12 people were killed last year in the process of stealing electrified cables.

We are talking not about petty theft but about an industry, with criminals holding our society to ransom. Why? It is because they see metal theft as a soft target. The police tell us that metal theft is emerging as a new acquisitive crime. It is a low-risk enterprise, with plenty of vulnerable targets to plunder. Around 80% of people linked to cable theft live within six miles of the crime location. Clearly, they have no fear of being caught. The surge is driven partly by the low risk of detection. The lack of an effective framework to combat metal theft has a lot to answer for. We need new legislation to disrupt and then shut down the trade in stolen metal.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this important Bill. Does he agree that in rural constituencies such as Staffordshire Moorlands, police resources are being diverted to deal with metal theft in isolated areas, such as in pubs that are being renovated, as we have seen in my constituency? The police are being distracted from what they should be doing and are instead having to monitor isolated rural areas for metal thieves.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Indeed, I will come to the question of enforcement a bit later.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that the low risk of being caught is driving much of this theft. What assessment has he made of the use of SmartWater? Where it has been used by churches, Network Rail or war memorials—indeed, SmartWater provides the product to war memorials free of charge—the amount of theft has gone down considerably, because the chance of being caught goes up considerably.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Putting SmartWater on to cables and using a UV light on materials that come into yards is acting as a deterrent. However, such is the nature of market forces that people are already beginning to find a way round that. Technology has to move on and continue to provide a deterrent—again, a point I shall come to in a minute.

The escalating problem of scrap metal theft results from the confluence of two things: the global rise in commodity prices over recent years and a badly regulated industry, which my Bill will tackle. It proposes a tough but fair regime for our scrap metal industry. It will support legitimate dealers and penalise the parasites who profit from the things we hold most sacred.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the incident at Llandough hospital, which affected the operations of very many of my constituents. Surely there is also a third aspect: what happens at the present time to those engaged in such activities who are caught. We had another incident in south Wales—a notorious incident—involving the Pontardulais town band, all of whose instruments were stolen. The leader of the band contacted the local scrap metal dealer to warn him of the theft, yet half an hour later the instruments were received by the dealer, crushed, for £61, and the court imposed a £500 compensation order. Is that not part of the problem as well?

Absolutely, and those are two points that I shall be coming to. Indeed, as my hon. Friend has illustrated, in some cases half an hour can be too long. Sometimes it takes only minutes from the theft for the metal to become untraceable, it having been processed and converted into cash by thieves.

I have visited many scrap yards in recent weeks—I can assure the House that in this weather it has been a character-forming experience for me. There are more than 2,500 legal scrap yards and hundreds of illegal ones. At the bottom of the industry’s pyramid are the thousands of mobile collectors—sometimes known as “itinerants”—who collect scrap metal from houses, small businesses, plumbers, electricians and factories. We have no idea of the numbers or exactly what they get up to, which is part of the problem. Mobile collectors sell scrap metal to yards, which clean up the product, stripping cable from wires, sorting the different metals—lead, copper, brass: you name it—chopping up large bits of metal into small pieces and packaging it into lots for onward sale. The small yards feed it to the medium-size yards, which continue to process it and sell it to the large yards. The majority of the non-ferrous metal that comes out at the end is packed into 25-tonne containers and exported abroad, or sent to the 20 to 30 furnaces in the UK.

The greatest opportunity for stolen metals to get into the chain arises at the bottom of the pyramid. Some of this is done by organised criminals, and some by young kids trying to make a quick buck. Either way, we have a problem that needs to be addressed. It is the prevalence of cash transactions, together with the anonymity and lack of traceability of the stolen metals, that fosters criminal activity. It is all too easy to convert stolen metal into cash within minutes. With the world price of copper at almost £5,000 per tonne, the temptation is irresistible.

We need new legislation. The existing regulatory regime is the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Incidentally, that legislation was introduced as a private Member’s Bill following a spike in world commodity prices, so things do not change much. The Act is now out of date and requires wholesale reform. Under its provisions, scrap metal dealers are required to register with local authorities, but the authorities have no power to turn down or revoke a licence. Indeed, the obligation to get a licence is often ignored. There is nothing to compel accurate record keeping or to verify the ID of the seller. False names and addresses are logged with impunity—Mr M. Mouse and Mr D. Duck seem to be regular traders. Under the Act, there is a complete lack of co-ordination between the authorities, which have limited powers of inspection. Scrap metal dealers are also able to trade in cash.

Concerns have been expressed over the proposal in my Bill to outlaw cash payments altogether, and I should like to address that point directly. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which received Royal Assent earlier this year, will ban cash payments except for mobile collectors and car breakers. I welcome this move, but it does not go far enough. We are still left with numerous points where stolen metal can be sold for cash and infect the pyramid.

Allowing cash payments for itinerant collectors in house-to-house collections creates a loophole. That is where most of the criminal activity takes place. Before we know where we are, businesses will be run from garages and the back gardens of people’s homes. A complication arises because those collectors also collect from businesses, and the product is mixed up. It then becomes impossible to identify which metal has come from households and which has come from businesses.

No records are kept and no taxes are paid. A mobile dealer who handles, say, three to four tonnes of scrap metal a day—which is not unusual—could earn up to £200,000 a year, which is significantly above the £77,000 VAT threshold. Once business taxes are taken into account, it is estimated that more than £1 billion is being lost to the taxman each year. This practice creates a distorted marketplace, with bona fide registered dealers paying VAT and taxes while the tax avoider gets a competitive advantage. The industry itself is crying out for a level playing field.

That is a crucial point. The largest and most legitimate scrap metal dealer in Southampton frequently makes the point not only to me but to the police that there has to be a level playing field, and that there must be a complete ban on cash transactions so that legitimate businesses that pay their taxes are not disadvantaged by those that are using the loopholes that my hon. Friend has identified.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for this, the most controversial part of my Bill. This is the area in which the most criminality exists, and we need to tackle it head on.

I was on one of my regular visits to parts of my constituency with the police recently, and we were sitting near a scrap metal yard that has been identified as creating a nuisance. As we watched the vans going in, the police officer I was with would frequently say, “He’s known to the police.” The drivers of many of the vehicles going into the yard were known to the police for other acts of criminality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this reinforces his point?

Absolutely. It also reinforces my point that, although the police might have knowledge or suspicion of criminal activity, it is hard to prove when there are no records. There is often no way of pinning that criminal activity on the offenders.

My Bill will repeal the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and addresses the cashless loophole by introducing a comprehensive ban on cash payments for scrap metal, including for mobile collectors and vehicle salvage operators. It is worth noting that when France introduced cashless payments last year, metal theft in Paris fell by 50%. My Bill will also oblige scrap metal dealers to verify the ID of all sellers of metal at the point of sale and keep records of the transaction available for inspection for a period of two years.

This will build on the notable success of Operation Tornado, a voluntary scheme led by the British Transport police under the wing of the national metal theft taskforce. It requires anyone selling scrap metal to dealers to provide photographic proof of ID. The results so far are impressive. The initial pilot scheme was in the north-east, and in the first six months, overall results showed a 50% drop in metal thefts. In the city of Durham, there was a fall of 73%. Operation Tornado is now being rolled out across the country, and we all have high hopes for its continued success.

The key feature of my Bill is the provision, in clauses 1 and 2, that no one may carry on a business as a scrap metal dealer unless they have a licence from their local authority. That will include motor salvage operators. The licence will be valid for three years, and a licence fee will be charged to cover the cost to local authorities of administering the licensing regime and ensuring compliance.

Clause 3 will give local authorities the power to turn down applicants unless they are satisfied that the applicant is a suitable person to carry on business as a scrap metal dealer. Unsuitability may be determined by a range of factors, including a criminal conviction. Clause 4 will give local authorities the power to revoke a licence. The Bill will also give the police and local authorities greater powers to take action against unregistered dealers. It contains powers to enter and inspect, and clause 9 will give the police and local authorities the power to close unlicensed premises with a court order. At long last, we will be able to ensure that any scrap metal dealer, whether mobile, on a site or a motor salvage operator will not be allowed to conduct business without a licence.

I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend’s comments about the licensing of scrap metal dealers, but I am still at a loss to understand how we can prevent people who steal metal from war memorials—as happened in Lingfield, in my constituency—from selling it. Even a licensed dealer could still buy stolen metal.

My hon. Friend makes a key point. The Bill on its own is not a silver bullet. It is part of the overall picture, and it will be necessary to work with the Home Office and the police on its enforcement. The Bill will give the authorities the necessary power to implement a much tougher regime than the one that we have now, which is manifestly not working.

Clause 7 provides for the creation of a single, national publicly available register of all licensed scrap metal dealers, which will be maintained by the Environment Agency. It will be fully transparent and accessible to the public, and will for the first time give a national picture of the industry. That is another feature that I hope will be welcomed.

The current legislation does nothing to stop metal theft. It does nothing to incentivise good trading standards. It excludes mobile collectors from rules on cash payments, and it does nothing to support the law-abiding, legitimate scrap metal dealers. I believe that my Bill will address those woeful shortcomings. The worst breaches of the provisions of my Bill, such as operating as a scrap metal dealer without a licence, trading in cash or failing to keep proper records of dealings, will attract punitive unlimited fines. Many have complained that sentences for metal thieves do not reflect the economic and emotional impact of the crime. That matter will be considered by the Sentencing Council this autumn.

As I have said, the Bill is not a silver bullet; it will not provide all the answers. It is part of a comprehensive plan to address the overall problem. Many questions have been raised about scrap metal exports. Much of that goes through our ports in containers—some legally, some illegally—and intelligence evidence suggests the majority of stolen metals that find their way into those containers have been through scrap metal dealerships first. However, I am pleased to report that excellent work is being done in this area, under the umbrella of the national metal theft taskforce, which I hope will continue to receive financial support from the Government. Analysts from the British Transport police, who co-ordinate the taskforce, have joined forces with the UK Border Agency, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the container intelligence team at Felixstowe port to help identify and intercept containers carrying stolen metals. The taskforce has also established the force intelligence unit, which brings police and the industry together to function as a central hub for all metal theft intelligence. Work is also under way to design pioneering DNA techniques to improve the traceability of stolen metals.

If I may behave out of character for a moment, I want to applaud the British media, who have been quick to highlight and condemn incidents of scrap metal theft. The stories and campaigns, such as the “lest we forget” campaign by The Sunday Telegraph to protect our war memorials, have ensured the issue is constantly topping the agenda. I also congratulate the War Memorials Trust on its worthy “In Memoriam 2014” campaign, in partnership with the SmartWater Foundation, to protect all memorials in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of world war one. Half of the £6,000 cost to replace the plaques that were stolen from my local Sanderstead war memorial is being met by the trust, and I am delighted to have its support for my Bill. I pay tribute to it for its work.

We need a holistic approach in order to tackle the problem of metal theft. My Bill will sit at the heart of the chain of reform. This is our chance to support the legitimate traders and stamp out the loopholes that are allowing a sinister criminal underworld to grow in strength and in numbers. I have been deeply encouraged by the groundswell of support for my Bill right across society. Private Members’ Bills are notoriously vulnerable to opposition, but I ask the House to give this Bill, and its cause, its unanimous support.

Recently, a family in my borough woke up to discover that during the night lead flashing had been taken from their doorframes, bay windows and porches. The thieves had stood on wheelie bins to reach some of the lead. That illustrates the scale of the problem that the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) is seeking to address. I congratulate him on introducing his Bill. We must not make too much of a habit of my following him, however; I did so on 27 March, in a debate on a totally different subject, and I wonder whether the same situation will arise again in the near future. He is right that metal theft has become a major and very antisocial problem throughout most of the country. He mentioned the Croydon parish church, which, as he might know, is not unfamiliar to me from a prehistoric age. My Front-Bench colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), will no doubt address general matters, but I shall concentrate mainly on the position locally in the Walsall borough and in my constituency.

I recently received a letter from a constituent in which she wrote:

“Afraid life has become a nightmare here, with cars parked everywhere and vans loaded with scrap parked in front of houses. Scrap is moved from one lorry to another.

Of course, everyone is in a state of distress and I hear different reports of what is being said. All this is mixed with fear, residents are terrified of reprisals; even so, I know that the police have this on their radar.

Am I correct in thinking that this is an increasing problem for the constituency?”

Of course, the answer is yes, very much so.

Last Friday, I went to a ward in a different part of my constituency. I hold regular surgeries there, and I wanted to see the up-to-date position. I was accompanied by a local councillor, and we saw that in certain streets, although not in the ward as a whole, there were vans full to the brim with metal, all of it to be sold at a later date. There was no licensing of any kind. These activities undoubtedly cause a major antisocial nuisance in the vicinity.

It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for the House to recognise the seriousness of this problem. I would have hoped that we could have dealt with it earlier. Walsall council is not indifferent. It does not have a Labour majority, but there is no party political point to be made, and the officers are doing their best. However, they simply do not have the powers to act effectively, for many of the reasons the hon. Member for Croydon South mentioned. His Bill is therefore clearly necessary.

The local authority says that it and the police simply do not have sufficient powers to take the required action. It sent me a letter saying there is a lack of cohesion between the borough and neighbouring areas, which results in problems being passed from one area to another. It added that the penalties are ineffective in that they are not sufficiently strong to act as a deterrent, and that there are problems with enforcing laws due to slow legal processes and limited resources. It is also difficult to monitor the number and location of scrap dealers, as many of them are not registered with the council. We all hope and expect that the Minister will give the Bill his support, but I ask him to address that issue. If we are going to pass legislation, local authorities must have the powers and resources to be able to enforce the new laws.

My hon. Friend’s comments bring to mind a situation in my constituency involving European Metal Recycling. The company and its scrap yard have been causing a great nuisance to neighbours. EMR has flouted the planning law and all sorts of other regulations. It has put up buildings and installed CCTV, and erected scrap piles that are far higher than is allowed. My local authority has tried to address the problem, but at every turn EMR has manipulated the law, and planning objections that have gone before the council will now possibly have to go through the entire court and appeal system. That serves to highlight my hon. Friend’s point that these companies will do anything to get a few quid in their pockets from scrap.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being so conscientious in dealing with these problems in his constituency. We all know that he is a very conscientious Member of Parliament.

We must not have any illusions and assume that changing the law will result in everyone who is involved in this business suddenly changing their ways. Many of them will do everything they can to evade the law and continue to make a fast buck.

The hon. Gentleman said local authorities need to have the resources to enforce the laws. One of the great strengths of the Bill is that it provides those resources through the ability to raise a licensing fee. Does he agree that the scrap metal industry should pay for the costs of licensing?

Yes, of course. That is a very valid point, but I am also saying that where local authorities require further resources to carry out their duties and responsibilities they should not be in a position where they cannot do so. If an authority does not face such problems of resources, so be it. Just to clarify things, what I am saying is that whatever the source of revenue, local authorities should not be in a position, once this Bill becomes law, to say, “We want to do it. We know it is important, but we have not got the resources.” I do not want to participate in an argument today about how local authorities are being so adversely affected by the cuts, because there will be many other occasions to do so. I have not come here to deal with that, and Government Members should be pleased at least about that.

Reference is made in the introductory notes about the cost to the country; it is estimated that between £260 million and almost £800 million could be lost each year. So we are talking about large sums indeed. Various clauses of the Bill will doubtless be examined in Committee. I note that the Local Government Association would like more flexibility to impose local conditions, which is, again, a Committee matter. Moreover, the same organisation said in its memorandum that it fears that what is being proposed may not be enough to change the behaviour of some of the worst offenders. I think I have dealt with that aspect, but it needs to be emphasised that strong measures will have to be taken once the Bill becomes law, and we hope that local authorities and the police will carry out their duties accordingly.

Clause 15 proposes that the Act should be reviewed every five years, which, again, will be a matter for the Committee. I would say that this should be done every three years. Given that the problem is as acute as the hon. Member for Croydon South rightly said it is, is it really enough to say that this should be looked at only once five years has passed? I very much urge that that period should be shorter. Clause 3(7) provides for bodies that need to be involved in registration and so on. I would include local authorities in that, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give consideration to that point as well.

All in all, I believe that what is being proposed today is essential. It is what our constituents want, and it is what local authorities and the police require in order to deal with what we all agree is a major social problem—perhaps I should call it an antisocial problem, as that would be more precise. I know that one or two Government Members at the back of the Chamber do not have much confidence in the state intervening, but if ever there was a case for it, this is it. I hope I am not provoking the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), but saying that was somewhat irresistible when I saw the two of them sitting together on the Back Benches. The argument that the state does not have a role to play in so many matters falls, as is quite clear; even they may recognise that this is a problem that cannot be left to be dealt with locally and does require state intervention, hence the reason for this Bill and why I am pleased to support it.

May I begin by apologising to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), to other hon. Members and indeed to you, Mr Speaker, for the fact that a long-standing engagement in Yorkshire this afternoon, which was in place before I knew the dates for private Members’ Bills—all hon. Members know my interest in those—means that I will have to depart relatively hastily? I apologise to those who will speak later, because that is not a discourtesy I would normally do people. I assure everyone that I will read the record of the contributions that come later in the debate with great interest, but I wanted to apologise in advance. No discourtesy is meant to anybody by my leaving early.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in the ballot and on raising a subject that, as the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) made clear, is without doubt a major problem in this country that affects an awful lot of people. We can all agree that there is a problem, although we may not necessarily agree on the most appropriate solution. The advantage of the fact that I have to depart early is that I will be prevented from going on at as much length as I might otherwise have done, which I am sure will cause great pleasure to all involved. I just wanted to take the opportunity to set out some of my concerns about the Bill, notwithstanding the fact that we all agree about the problem. I very much hope that some of my concerns may be taken into account in Committee and, if not then, on Report, as we all want to see an approach that will be effective in tackling the problem.

There clearly is a major problem that we need to tackle. Metal theft has an unquantifiable cost to society. Let us consider, for example, the danger to people in hospitals if there is a loss of power because of the theft of some key metal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South made clear in his opening remarks; the disconnection of telephone services, which means that people can be cut off from the emergency services; and the theft of such pivotal things as the dry riser valves used to put out fires. Of course we are also talking about the sentimental value of numerous world war statues that have been remorselessly ripped down where they have stood for decades.

I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on introducing the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has rightly identified some of the problems caused by that metal theft, but there is a further problem. Many churches in my constituency have had lead stripped from their roofs, and the Day’s and Atkinson’s Almshouse Charity has had lead stolen from its roofs on four occasions. On only one of those occasions was the theft “successful”, as on the three other occasions all the thieves did was cause damage, which then gives a cost to the almshouses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not only metal theft itself, but the difficulties caused by damage to properties from unsuccessful thefts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A considerable cost is incurred by many organisations and by society where local communities have been left without various services and where organisations that do fantastic work in those communities are compromised in the amount they can do for them because of the cost of the theft. The Association of British Insurers has claimed that this is costing £1 million a week in insurance claims and that 300 tonnes of metal is stolen every week, which is the equivalent of 300 cars. The ABI has also said that UK metal thefts have doubled in the past five years, to about 1,000 reported incidents a week.

Metal thefts are also a problem in my constituency. In April, there was a spate of thefts of brass door handles. Inspector Tatham of the Shipley neighbourhood policing team told my local paper:

“We have had a number of reports of brass theft from homes near the A650 in Shipley so far this month and are investigating the matter. The thieves appear to be targeting older properties with brass door handles”.

In addition, 28 iron cellar grates dating back to Victorian times were stolen last year from the world heritage site at Saltaire in my constituency. Metal theft also often takes place in very dangerous locations; my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South made the point that at least 10 people died in the past year while attempting to steal metal on railway lines. So many costs, both financial and human, are involved in metal theft, which is why I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this matter to the House.

Let me deal with the current position under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Special regulations have applied to scrap metal dealers since at least the late 1800s in order to help tackle the theft of metal. The 1964 Act places specific controls on scrap metal dealers to discourage the trade in stolen metal; these are in addition to the general requirements under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The controls under the 1964 Act include the fact that dealers have to register with the local authority and local authorities have to maintain a list of dealers. Dealers are required to keep a variety of records, including details of the types of metal received, of the processing of that metal and of the names of those disposing of metal at their site. A failure to meet the requirements of the 1964 Act may lead to a fine of up to £1,000.

The Government have also set up the metal theft taskforce. On 29 November last year the Chancellor announced £5 million of Treasury funding to establish a multi-agency national metal theft taskforce, to be led by the British Transport police. The Home Office has said that the taskforce will

“develop intelligence, coordinate activity and target and disrupt criminal networks—both the thieves and also the criminal market, including rogue elements of the scrap metal industry.”

Last June, we also had the waste review, which was set up to consider available penalties and sentencing guidelines for scrap metal theft and there is certainly scope for increasing the penalties for and sentencing of people involved in these crimes. The Select Committee on Transport produced a report in January that made a number of recommendations for reform, including

“introducing a new offence of aggravated trespass on the railways to increase the penalties associated with cable theft.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South said, we also have the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and last minute amendments were introduced to the Bill to make it illegal for scrap metal dealers to accept cash for transactions. I was very nervous about that. In principle, it seemed to me to be perhaps a step too far, but now we have a new Bill proposed seemingly only five minutes after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act was passed. My understanding is that the new measures will not commence until this autumn, so we seem already to be discussing a new law to replace one that has not yet even come into force. I wonder about the sense in this House introducing new legislation when the previous legislation has not even come into play.

The Bill repeals the 1964 Act and replaces it with legislation that empowers local authorities with a more robust and, I am sure my hon. Friend would say, more enforceable licence regime for all those who deal and collect scrap metal. The key features are: any individual or business who carries out business as a scrap metal dealer must complete an enhanced application process to get a licence; local authorities can refuse unsuitable applicants and have the power to revoke licences; all sellers of metal must provide verifiable ID at the point of sale, which is recorded and retained by the dealer; the cashless offence will apply to all scrap metal dealers without exception, including those who conduct house-to-house collections, and although there are a few concerns about how to protect people selling scrap metal at their house and to ensure that they get proper payment for their goods, I am sure that we can discuss that later; the police will have the power by court order to close unlicensed premises; a single national and publicly available register of all scrap metal dealers will be published; and the definition of a scrap metal dealer will include motor salvage operators, bringing that licensing scheme within one new scrap metal licensing regime. In a nutshell, the Bill seems to be suggesting an awful lot of new regulations and new offences. We need to determine not the intention behind them or how well meaning they are, but how effective they will be in tackling a problem that we all agree must be tackled.

It seems to me that a real problem has been identified with the Bill.

I am listening to my hon. Friend with close interest, but, on his last point about our introducing a lot more regulations, in truth we already have a lot of regulation and it is not working. We are reforming the existing regulation rather than bringing in new regulation.

I agree with my hon. Friend, but we might have drawn a slightly different conclusion from the point on which we agree. My point would be that we do indeed have a lot of regulation for scrap metal, as the 1964 Act includes quite a bit of it, but, as he has identified, it has not worked and is not working. If regulating the industry has not worked, I am not entirely sure that the solution is even more regulation. I am not entirely sure where the evidence is that suggests that solution and that is the nub of my concern.

It seems to me that the only solution proposed to solve the problem is regulation, regulation, regulation. I wonder whether other measures could be a bit more successful, such as SmartWater, which I mentioned earlier and which is already having a great effect in reducing theft. Not only does it help to bring people to justice, but it acts as a deterrent to stealing the metal in the first place. Another measure might involve increasing the sentences for people who are caught. If we had more robust penalties and sentencing for this crime and if we sent people to prison and kept them there longer, that would have a much more beneficial effect on the local community and metal theft than simply tackling the scrap metal dealers.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. However, although his points about stronger penalties for those who cause the crime and the deterrents are all valid, people only steal to get money and the easiest way for them to get money is to get cash. If we remove cash from the equation and make the process transparent, so that they have to go through legal channels, that will be the most powerful deterrent in ensuring that people are not minded to steal metal in the first place. Does he agree?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point and she might well be right. Time will tell. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South will be successful with his Bill and we will see, but I am not necessarily as confident as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) that that will happen. The criminals who are engaged in such illegal activity are clearly making a lot of money from it, and I do not believe that on the back of this Bill—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South made it clear that he did not see it as a silver bullet—those people will pack up their equipment and say, “It was nice while it lasted, but now we’ll all move on to knitting,” or to some other activity of which we would all approve. I suspect that they will continue with their criminal activity and will merely pursue it in a different way. It will probably go underground and through illegitimate businesses rather than legitimate scrap metal dealerships.

We should be wary of the idea that regulating businesses will solve the problem. I have always taken what might be deemed an old-fashioned view of such matters and if someone is going out and committing the crime of stealing metal, we should be clamping down on the people who are going out and stealing the metal. The Bill seems to be chiefly aimed at clamping down on the metal dealers further down the line. The people going out and stealing the metal are not being targeted as much as the dealers.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we should be clamping down on the people who are stealing the plaques, the memorials and the cabling, but in the case of my own dad’s plaque, the dealer who bought it had bought tens of thousands of plaques and war memorials from across south London. Does my hon. Friend not agree that as well as going after the people who are stealing the items, we should come down like a ton of bricks on the people who know what they are buying and should not let them continue to operate in the industry? That is what the Bill would achieve.

I have a great deal of sympathy for what my hon. Friend says and I think the whole House will have sympathy for what happened and for the distress it must have caused him. Of course, we all want to clamp down on not only the people who steal but on the people who knowingly trade in such metal. I do not think that anybody would deny that, but the proposals in the Bill do not just clamp down on the people involved in the theft or in the trading of stolen metal. The Bill is clamping down on everybody. In effect, it states that everybody involved in the trade is a criminal, that we will treat them all as criminals and that we will clamp down on them all. My point is that it is rather unfair to categorise a whole industry as involved in illegality. In every industry, there are good people and bad people and the Bill imposes extra costs and burdens on the good as well as the bad.

I should like to draw on the experience of one of the largest scrap metal dealers, operating on the edge of my constituency. It makes the point that it wants cash to be removed from transactions, so that the business does not have the additional risk of having to carry large amounts of cash daily, and so that customers do not come to it expecting to get cash. Its argument is that that would make its business more secure and more economically efficient.

That may well be the case. Of course, there is no compulsion on anybody to make cash transactions. If a business does not want to trade in cash, it is perfectly at liberty not to do so.

The Government may well have changed their tune slightly on the subject. Their views on reform were recorded in their written evidence to the Transport Committee in November last year, in which they said that

“Against that”—

that is, calls for action on the issue of scrap metal theft through regulation—

“it would be necessary to consider carefully the additional burden which new regulation might put on legitimate businesses, and the extent to which the disposal of stolen metal might still continue on an illegal basis. Given the Government’s general aim to reduce and simplify regulation, there would need to be a strong case made to justify any new regulation.”

The Government were wise to sound a note of caution, as regulation is not always the way forward, yet more regulation is proposed. I am not entirely sure that it is entirely justified. More importantly, I am not entirely convinced that it will stop metal theft. We may end up with a lose-lose situation: the regulation will punish not just the bad scrap metal dealers, but all of them.

My hon. Friend makes a compelling case. He may have seen the British Metals Recycling Association’s briefing on the Bill. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, it seems to be in favour of funding the Bill and its provisions through “a small licence fee”. Does he share my concern that, often, what starts off as a small licence fee soon becomes a very large licence fee?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. We have seen many examples where a local authority is given a small amount of power, and, before we know it, it is expanding and empire-building at every possible opportunity, and increasing costs on a salami-slice basis. Before we know it, an industry that thought it worth paying a small cost to deal with a problem finds that there is still a big problem, but its costs have gone up hugely and show no sign of abating.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Before this argument runs away with itself, I should confirm to the House that although the local authority would have the power to set the licence fee, a cap will be set in regulations by the Home Office.

I am grateful for that clarification. Let us just hope that we always have sensible people in the Home Office. Clearly, we can have confidence at the moment: I see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), is on the Front Bench. I do not want to alarm him unduly about his career prospects, but Ministers come and go, and although we may have confidence in this Minister, I am not sure that I share the faith of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South that every future Home Office Minister, whatever their party, will show the same wisdom as this Minister in setting the regulations.

As I was saying, the Bill would affect legitimate businesses. It is worth showing the other side of the industry, because there are good operators in it, as some newspaper stories show; unlike my hon. Friend, I am a big fan of the media, so I am sure that these stories are true. Let me set out one case involving a scrap metal dealer. I am sure that this happens time and again; I am picking out just one example, as the House would not want me to go through every single newspaper report of this kind. I use this story as an illustration. A scrap metal dealer called the police when he was asked to purchase a war memorial from offenders. When Lana Jane Clitheroe and Paul David Kelly pleaded guilty to stealing from a war memorial in St Mary’s church on Lewisham High street, the district judge, Julia Newton from Bromley magistrates court, said in her sentencing remarks:

“A scrap metal dealer was approached by the Defendants; he very quickly realised what the item was and refused to accept it.”

He alerted the police to the problem, so that they were able to catch the offenders.

Many legitimate scrap metal dealers are part of the solution to the problem. They do not want to be involved in any illegal activity and to take things that have been stolen, and they play a crucial role in alerting the authorities to the problem. I feel nervous about saying to the scrap metal dealer who was involved in that case, “I will treat you as if you are potentially involved in criminal activity, and put on you a huge new burden and cost.” What has that person done wrong? What has he done to deserve that? He is part of the solution, not the problem.

Another scrap metal dealer

“donated £21,000 to replace metal plaques stolen from a war memorial in south London.

Fourteen bronze plaques bearing the names of 243 World War I servicemen were stolen from Carshalton war memorial in Sutton in September 2011.”

The scrap metal dealer

“said he was as ‘outraged as everyone else’ that it had been ‘plundered’.”

These are good people—people whom we should be trying to help, and whose side we should be on. The Bill would impose on those people huge burdens and extra costs. What have they done to deserve those extra burdens and costs? Nothing, as far as I can see. We are castigating a whole industry because of some people who are operating illegitimately in that industry. My solution is to go after the criminals. Let us pursue criminals, not a whole industry, which includes some very good people who are not criminals at all.

On bringing offenders to justice, we can use the Theft Act 1968 to charge unscrupulous scrap metal dealers with handling stolen goods. There is already a law with which to tackle the problem of people who handle stolen goods. In addition to using all the existing scrap metal legislation, we should use the Theft Act to prosecute those who accept stolen scrap metal and pass it on. It states:

“(1) A person handles stolen goods if (otherwise than in the course of the stealing) knowing or believing them to be stolen goods he dishonestly receives the goods, or dishonestly undertakes or assists in their retention, removal, disposal or realisation by or for the benefit of another person, or if he arranges to do so.

(2) A person guilty of handling stolen goods shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”

That is already on the statute book. If a scrap metal dealer is found guilty of handling stolen goods—the definition in the Theft Act makes it perfectly clear that someone handling stolen metal is guilty of handling stolen goods—it is already in statute that they can be sent to prison for a term not exceeding 14 years.

If we actually gave proper sentences, and sentencing guidance was strengthened, so that the provisions in the Theft Act were invoked and a few 10-year-plus sentences were handed down by the courts to these people, we would find a vast drop in the number of scrap metal dealers handling stolen goods, without imposing any kind of extra licensing regime, bureaucracy, or cost, and without giving local authorities more police-like powers to interfere in every nook and cranny of people’s businesses. Let us just start handing down some proper sentences to these people; we will find that some people go legitimate very quickly indeed.

If someone walks off the street into a scrap metal dealer with a chunk of railway line in their hand, or a £500,000 statue or a huge great war memorial in a van, and the scrap metal dealer accepts it and pays them a few pounds for it without any questions asked, the scrap metal dealer should be prosecuted under the Theft Act. If the police and the Crown Prosecution Service cannot get a conviction for that, it says more about our criminal justice system than about anything else.

Has my hon. Friend heard anything in the debate so far or read anything in the Bill that would give him any confidence that the new regime, once it came into force, would be any more capable of being enforced and securing convictions than the present one?

No. That is part of the problem. My hon. Friend makes a good point. When politicians are faced with a problem, their solution always seems to incorporate two ingredients. The first is that they must be seen to be doing something. It is the bane of all politicians. The second ingredient is that what they propose must not offend anybody. As long as a politician has a solution that looks as though they are doing something and it does not offend anybody, whether it does any good or not, they will go down that road every time. Rather than looking as though we are doing something and being tough, I would like us to spend a little more time looking at whether the proposed course of action will work and whether it is absolutely necessary. I am not entirely sure that the Bill passes that test.

On offender profiles, according to the Transport Committee in its 14th report of January this year, which was on cable theft from railways,

“Perpetrators can be broadly split into two groups; small-scale, local offenders and organised crime groups. We heard from the BTP”—

the British Transport Police—

“that local criminals were responsible for the majority of thefts from the railway, these being ‘opportunist but nonetheless professional criminals’…and that up to 80% of those arrested for metal theft have previous convictions for similar crimes.”

Here we hit the problem: 80% of the people caught for metal theft have previous convictions for metal theft. The police have done their bit. Under the current regulatory regime, the police have got these people, and what happens? The perpetrators get a derisory sentence from the courts and they are back out on the streets stealing metal again in five minutes flat. So it is not the regulation, but the sentencing of these offenders that is the problem.

Metal theft has recently been included in the serious organised crime strategy. The British Transport Police welcomed this but noted that a maximum of only 30% of cable thefts involved organised criminal gangs. Chief Inspector Carl Burkey, of Airedale and North Bradford police, which is my local police division, said in March this year:

“We have been pleased to take part with partners and reinforce the message locally that officers are working hard to frustrate the sale of stolen metal in Airedale and North Bradford.

Metal theft is a crime which can be life threatening to thieves and seriously disrupt commuters when it affects rail services, and it is important that scrap dealers remain vigilant when offered stolen metal. We will…work closely with all partners and would urge anyone who has information about metal theft to contact ourselves or Crimestoppers.”

One of the main solutions to the problem is for members of the community to be the eyes and ears on the ground—that is what my police chief inspector said—and to report any suspicious activity that they see. When that happens, the police are quite successful in catching the perpetrators.

We come back to sentencing. Metal theft and handling should be seen as an aggravating part of the sentence, taking into account the disruption or the severe sentimental loss that such crimes cause, particularly in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). I referred earlier to District Judge Julia Newton from Bromley magistrates court when she sentenced a pair who had stolen a war memorial in Lewisham. She also said:

“The war memorial is described by Father Scott Anderson, the Vicar of St Mary’s Church. He believes the memorial plaque had been in the church since approximately 1920-1925. The plaque displayed the names of some of those who had fallen in the First World War. It is described as being a large and heavy plaque, approximately 1.25 metres high and 1.75 metres tall. The impact of the loss of the plaque is described by Father Anderson. The stolen plaque is expressed to be invaluable to both the Church and the families whose relatives’ names appear on it. He cannot even estimate the value. He describes the feeling amongst the members of the Church and Local Community as being both ‘in shock and saddened.’

Those named on the memorial are remembered by family, relatives and fellow countrymen. The desecration of the memorial will be seen by many as an affront. The historic value of the plaque is incalculable.

The seriousness of this offence is determined not only by the culpability of the Defendants, but also the harm caused. This offence was committed without a thought for the impact that their actions would have on individuals or the wider community. In assessing the harm caused, it is not simply the monetary loss in replacing the memorial which is to be taken into consideration, but the public feeling of many as described by Father Anderson.”

The judge took all that into account and said that the risk of re-offending was assessed as high. She said that she took the view that the offence was so serious that only a custodial sentence was appropriate. Bearing all these factors in mind, the sentence of the court would have been 180 days in custody, but because the offenders had pleaded guilty, it would be reduced by one third. The sentence would be 120 days imprisonment. That seems to rank high in terms of the sentences handed down by the court for this type of crime. I therefore praise the judge for bearing all those circumstances in mind as aggravating factors when she came to sentence the offenders. I encourage judges to do more of that, so that sentences are more of a deterrent.

My hon. Friend’s expertise in these matters is well known. Perhaps he will be able to confirm that although a sentence of 120 days imprisonment was handed down, it is highly unlikely that the criminals would have served anywhere near 120 days in prison.

Sadly, my hon. Friend is right. One of the great outrages of the Labour Government was that they introduced a law which meant that everybody, no matter how well or badly they behaved themselves, had to be released from prison halfway through their prison sentence. It was not that they became eligible for release halfway through their sentence; they had to be released halfway through their sentence. For some of the lower-end offences, people can be released much earlier than halfway through the sentence.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm, somebody sentenced to six months in prison can be let out within six weeks, which is a scandal. Somebody sentenced to prison for 12 months can be released after three months, and somebody sent to prison for two years can be released after seven and a half months. This is what the Government should be focusing on. Let us have proper sentences handed out by the court. When people who are involved in this despicable crime are sent to prison, let us keep them in prison for the length of the sentence that the court handed out, rather than letting them back out into the community in five minutes flat to carry on from where they left off. If we were to go down that route, it would have a much greater impact on the level of crimes such as metal theft.

Technology will be a huge tool in counteracting such crime. I mentioned SmartWater earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South also praised it in glowing terms. The SmartWater Foundation, which is providing it free of charge for all war memorials, is to be highly commended. Network Rail experienced a huge reduction in metal theft when it used SmartWater. To illustrate the point, the SmartWater technology is so good that different parts of the track can be identified by the type of water on it, so when somebody turns up at a scrap dealership with metal that is covered by SmartWater, not only can it be identified as stolen, but it is possible to identify exactly where it has been stolen from.

This technology is one of the main reasons why we should be hopeful for the future and about our ability to tackle the crime of metal theft. Rather than using it just to catch people, SmartWater and the police have been working together to use it more as a deterrent. They take the ultraviolet equipment to the local scrap metal dealerships, put up signage saying that anything that has SmartWater on it will not be accepted at the dealership, and that all scrap metal is tested. There is plenty of evidence to show that when SmartWater is used, scrap metal dealers will not accept stolen metal because they know what the consequences will be if they are caught with it on their premises.

One of the most telling things that my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks was that the low chance of being caught was driving the crime. We must use SmartWater much more. I know from a question to the Church Commissioners last month that the Church of England is now using SmartWater to cover many of its roofs, and we know that it is to be used on war memorials. I think that we should be encouraging as many people as possible to use SmartWater to deal with this problem at a reasonably low cost.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) referred to the British Metals Recycling Association, which he said—I think he is right—appears to be in favour of the Bill, but some of the things it has said in the past have actually made a great deal of sense. It has identified illegal scrap metal sites as the main problem and called for better enforcement of existing legislation by the police and the Environment Agency to close illegal sites. If that is right—I have no reason to think otherwise—and illegal scrap metal sites are the main problem, the introduction of an awful lot of new regulation and new costs for legal scrap metal dealerships would not only make no difference to the problem, but be likely to make it worse. The only possible impact would be to encourage some of the legitimate scrap metal dealers, who do not want the cost of the regulation to become illegal. The danger is that some of the Bill’s provisions might inadvertently make the problem worse.

The British Metals Recycling Association has previously expressed concern that any move towards cashless transactions could simply disadvantage small, legal and well-run scrap sites, unless there was

“effective enforcement against unregulated operators”.

My hon. Friend is clearly a champion of free markets, but he must understand that in order for them to work properly they need a level playing field. Is not one of the risks that the current changes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will make it difficult for small operators if the unlicensed operators are able to accept cash and they are not? Is not that why the proposed change in this Bill to make sure that all operators are subject to the cash ban is so important? It would provide the level playing field that will allow a proper free market.

I absolutely take my hon. Friend’s point, which he makes characteristically well. The issue is whether we will end up with a level playing field. I do not doubt that we will end up with a level playing field for all legitimate scrap metal dealers—that is clearly the case—but, according to the British Metals Recycling Association, much of the problem is not with the legal dealers, but with the illegal ones, so we do not have a level playing field and all the Bill would do is further uneven it by making it even harder for legitimate sites to compete with illegal ones.

The key point—this is where we might come to some agreement—is that this could work, as the British Metals Recycling Association has stated, only if there were

“effective enforcement against unregulated operators”.

My concern is that we would have an awful lot of enforcement against regulated operators, which is what the Bill would do. It is about targeting those who are already regulated and piling more regulation on them, but that will not help to tackle the unregulated ones.

The hon. Gentleman certainly represents the most progressive part of the 18th century, but will he accept that if the organisations involved with this problem—the British Transport police, the British Metals Recycling Association, the Association of Train Operating Companies, the police generally and local authorities—believe that this is necessary and support the measure, should we not take on board what they say?

I am rather wrapped up in wondering whether the hon. Gentleman’s first comment was a compliment or an insult; I will go away and think about it, but perhaps he will make it clear. I was rather startled by his second point, because I think it was the first time in all the years I have been listening to him in this House that he has seemed to have made the point that if the police think something is a good idea this House should deliver what they want. I remember when he sat on the Government Benches in the last Parliament and talked about anti-terrorist legislation, for example. He was a great champion of the view that, “Well of course the police want all these powers, but it is our job to resist giving them to them.” As someone who is generally a big fan of supporting the police, I welcome his conversion to a more authoritarian approach to crime and law and order, but it is rather uncharacteristic.

Order. I think we are getting away from licensing. Mr Davies, I think you are desperate to get back to where you were and I am sure that you do not want to be distracted.

As ever, Mr Deputy Speaker, you read me like a book. I was just thinking about how I did not want to be distracted by the hon. Gentleman, but I have every confidence that his next intervention will put us back on track.

I was not aware that I was off track last time. If it were simply the police who were saying that these measures were necessary, the hon. Gentleman, whom I would not dream of insulting, could say that the argument would not necessarily be valid, but they are one of a number of bodies that want this. What I am saying is that those who have to try to deal with the problem—I mentioned local authorities and the local police in the Walsall borough—all seem to be of the same view that it is necessary to strengthen the law.

I am sure that the police are reassured to know that the hon. Gentleman is not wholeheartedly behind them, but I am sure that they still welcome his move in their direction on this issue. As I made clear just before you arrived in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, I must press on as I have to go to an engagement in Yorkshire, which will be a huge relief to all Members in the Chamber.

Before my hon. Friend concludes his opening remarks, will he confirm that the real question the House has to decide on this afternoon is whether this is being done because the Government have to be seen to be doing something or because it will actually move the issue forward?

My hon. Friend is right.

In summary—I reiterate that I mean no discourtesy to anyone by having to leave pretty smartly after finishing speaking and hope that no offence is taken—we all agree that there is a problem and that this is a terrible crime that needs to be tackled robustly. What we have to consider today is whether the Bill will actually bring about the kind of change we want to see that will stop the outrages that we have all seen in our local communities. I am not entirely persuaded.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South for raising the issue and know that his intentions are absolutely honourable. In many respects, I hope that I am wrong, that he is right and that these changes will bring about the difference we all want to see, but I am not necessarily convinced. It is very easy on these occasions for us all to say, “This is absolutely marvellous, so let’s rush headlong into this and go along with it.” It is the duty of this House occasionally to pause, think and ask, “Are we absolutely convinced that this will do what we hope it will do?”

I hope that the Bill gets a fair hearing today on Second Reading and do not intend to cause my hon. Friend any problems in that respect, but I hope that he will think about it so that in Committee and on Report we can look again at some of the issues and think about whether we can do something that will make a real difference, not just something that sounds good, looks good, reads well in the local media but which, in a few years’ time, will not have sorted out the problem that we need to tackle.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I hope that it will not do his reputation too much damage when I say that over the past two years he and I have found common cause on a number of law and order issues, much to my surprise and, indeed, his. I am sorry that today there is a slight difference of opinion between us on the content of the Bill, because I believe that the measures it sets out will be a valuable addition to the police’s armoury. I say in passing that, if that was a short speech, I look forward to hearing one of his longer ones at some point, because it was certainly a good effort on his part.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on bringing forward the Bill and thank him for doing so. He has been unfailingly courteous in helping to inform Opposition Front Benchers and other Members of the House about the Bill’s objectives. We have had a good dialogue on the Bill before Second Reading and I believe we should support it. He made a very strong case in his speech, and I believe that the Bill will be a good addition to the police’s armoury in tackling metal theft.

Metal theft, as we have heard today in contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) and other Members, is a huge and growing problem that has increased over the past three to four years largely because of issues to do with the price of metal. There have been many high-profile cases, and in every constituency, as the hon. Member for Croydon South said, churches, school halls, war memorials and cemeteries have been hit by thieves, who take metal for profit, for cash and for their own gratification, and who in doing so cause immense disruption and distress and have damaged the fabric of our society.

I was particularly struck by the experience of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), whose own father’s grave was desecrated, and only this week we saw the conviction of two individuals who took part in the theft of the memorial to Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, who were killed in Warrington some years ago.

So there is a real issue, and in cash terms the Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that metal theft costs the UK economy about £770 million a year. The British Metals Recycling Association, which supports the Bill as a group of people who deal with the matter daily, says that 15,000 tonnes of metal is stolen each year, and it is clear that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 still allows hundreds of businesses to operate outside the licensing and inspection regimes. I pay tribute to the association, with which I have had meetings on the issue, and it fully supports the measures before the House.

The Energy Networks Association reports that the cost of metal theft to energy generation industries rose from £11.7 million in 2010 to some £60 million in 2011. Metal theft in churches rose by 48% between 2010 and 2011, and the cost of repairs to railways has risen to £60 million over the past four years.

The British Transport police estimate that between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2011 there was a 70% increase in the theft of cable, which is undoubtedly the No. 1 crime on the railways, accounting for almost 40% of railway property theft—not to mention the delay, danger and inconvenience it causes.

The British Transport police also confirm that the prevalence of metal theft is tied closely to the price of metals on international markets, and sadly, or positively, depending on which way we look at it, that is expected to rise until at least 2015.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) is on the Opposition Front Bench today, because as a Home Office Minister with me in the previous Government, when the trend began to emerge, he took action and undertook surveys and reports in the north-east, in particular, on the recognition of that emerging trend. He was instrumental in founding what has turned into Operation Tornado, which is now being rolled out nationally, and it is an issue that we certainly need to deal with throughout the United Kingdom.

In my constituency, metal theft is a real issue. Indeed, in March, Judge Niclas Parry, sitting in Mold Crown court in north Wales, said that metal theft had reached “epidemic proportions.” It is not something that judges take lightly, and in a sense I agree with the hon. Member for Shipley that, on that aspect, we need a tool in the box for catching criminals and for ensuring that they are convicted and sentenced effectively, but the Bill provides for another aspect—tackling the issue at source, because sadly the police cannot be at every statue, plaque, cemetery, railway junction and railway line. They certainly have to catch criminals, but they also need to help us consider how we tackle the issue in a different way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) tried to do that in a Bill before the House last year, but at that stage the Government did not support his proposals. I do not wish to introduce to our discussions this morning a note of discord, but the Government were slow to recognise and act on the large and increasing problem of metal theft. It is only because Back Benchers, the Opposition and others put pressure on the Government that tough and urgent action was taken, but sadly what we had was a piecemeal approach.

The reforms proposed were new clauses inserted at a very late stage into what is now the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. They tackled the problem in part but left a number of loopholes, which the Bill from the hon. Member for Croydon South will close. So poorly thought out was the 2012 Act that some measures that were brought before us only a few weeks ago are now subject to repeal in this Bill, supported by the Home Office, which took the 2012 Act, when it was a Bill, through the House only weeks ago.

Clause 16(f) of the Bill before us repeals

“sections 145 to 147 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act”,

which received Royal Assent on 17 May 2012. I do not know whether there is a Guinness record for the shortest time that a piece of legislation, which, indeed, will not even come into effect until October, has remained on the statue book, but if there is, sections 145 to 147 of the 2012 Act would certainly qualify—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) smiles a knowing smile—[Interruption.] He says that he was thinking of some of our legislation, but I challenge him to find something that lasted from 17 May 2012 until its repeal in a Bill—supported by the very same Department and produced by the hon. Member for Croydon South—today.

But let us leave that aside, because we do not want a note of discord, and a sinner repented is better than a sinner not.

I am very pleased to see that the Bill mirrors much of what the Opposition, including the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), called for last year. We called for tougher powers to close down rogue traders; for anyone selling scrap to have proof of identity and a record from the point of sale; for the licensing of scrap metal dealers, rather than the current method of registration; and for a move to ban cash transactions, especially for large-scale, high-value scrap metal deals. The plan was supported by the British Transport police, the Association of Chief Police Officers, Neighbourhood Watch, the Association of Train Operating Companies and the Local Government Association.

The proposals that we talked about in January were a balanced and comprehensive package to deal with issues that Members on both sides of the House recognised, and they would have made it more difficult for organised criminals and opportunistic thieves to profit from metal theft. The measures formed the basis of much that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn did in his Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill, which was prevented from receiving further scrutiny although it contained much of what is in the Bill before us.

During the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Bill on 6 February, my hon. Friend the noble Lord Rosser included one of the provisions in the Bill before us, on powers of entry into scrap yards, in an amendment to that Bill, but the Government defeated his proposed change, albeit by only six votes.

Again, earlier this year, we tabled an amendment to delete the itinerant metal sales exemption on cash payments, a measure that the Government now support in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill before us, so I should certainly welcome today the Government telling the House again the basis on which they exempted itinerant metal sales from the Protection of Freedoms Bill in February. Our amendment would have closed that loophole, and it is thankfully being closed today, but I still do not get the logic behind the Government’s view in the first place.

Speaking in another place on 20 March, the noble Lord Henley on behalf of the Government said:

“We are only talking about a very small number of people”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 March 2012; Vol. 736, c. 888.]

Yet the Minister here today, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, said in a holding answer from 26 March to a written parliamentary question:

“There is no accurate information available on the total number of itinerant collectors operating in the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 34W.]

I am glad that the Bill closes off that exemption for itinerant dealers.

We need to consider verification of suppliers’ identity, which we have called for and is now addressed in clause 10. The Bill gives the police greater powers of entry and the right to make closing orders. We welcome the increased fines and the extension of the rights of entry under clause 13. There is still a discrepancy as regards the right of entry to unlicensed sites, although the Government attempted to deal with that previously. We need to consider that in Committee. I welcome the banning of cash transactions, as I did when it was considered during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill earlier this year. We need to consider this seriously.

We need to have verification of suppliers’ identity, which we have called for previously. I therefore welcome the proposals in clause 10, which allows the Secretary of State to prescribe regulations on documents, data or information sufficient to order and verify the supplier’s identity. There is a fair amount of discretion for the dealer. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on this. We will explore in Committee what regulations will be brought forward, particularly with regard to verification. I would particularly welcome some detail on that, as it leaves open a wide range of potential options. The Bill refers to

“a reliable and independent source.”

I would be interested to know whether that includes passports, driving licences or utility bills. Perhaps it could have been solved by an identity card, but I will not go down that route, as I do not want to introduce any discord. I put the Minister on notice that in Committee we will want some clarity on what is a reliable document for these purposes.

We support the more comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to licensing. The Bill allows for scrap metal licences to be issued by local authorities and, in turn, the Environment Agency must maintain a register of licences. I welcome those measures, and I am pleased that the Local Government Association supports them. This is an extremely important part of the Bill and one that we cannot afford to get wrong. In Committee we will need to explore how we ensure that licences and databases are fully maintained and accessible. Saying that we want those things and will put them in place is very different from delivering them on the ground. I would welcome some clarity from the Minister on how he intends to maintain the database and keep an eye on it.

Schedule 1 sets out the Secretary of State’s powers to set a fee for registration. That was raised by the hon. Member for Shipley. I welcome the power for the Secretary of State to set a fee and the fact that there is discretion for local authorities to be flexible about what the fee is dependent on their work load and the number of potential sites in their areas. I would welcome an indication from the Minister, now or in Committee, as to what he envisages the level or range of fees to be. Although the British Metal Recycling Association supports the introduction of a fee, the key point is what level it is set at and how that impacts on businesses. An early indication would take some of the pain out of the equation for those who oppose the Bill.

There are still a number of outstanding issues that the Bill does not address, including the use of Environment Agency funding and the agency’s inability to use its resources to target those who do not pay their fees. The Environment Agency’s role in the context of current legislation needs to be examined in detail by the Committee.

The BMRA has called for second-hand domestic appliance traders and used gold traders to be brought within the scope of the Bill. I put the Minister and the hon. Member for Croydon South on notice that we need to look at those issues. We need not come to a conclusion on them as yet, but I would welcome some detailed thought and consideration as to whether we need to amend the Bill in Committee to include those types of traders. There may or may not be a case for that, but we need a considered examination of the issues.

There is also the general issue of enforcement and the overlapping of the scrap metal dealer and environmental regimes. If there is not sufficient clarity on this approach, there could continue to be enforcement issues.

I have received representations about the exportation of stolen metals, which we can consider as the Bill progresses. If we tighten up the system in this country, there is still no barrier to people exporting stolen metal and recycling it elsewhere in the European Union or further afield. Calor Gas, for example, is losing 100,000 canisters a year, with a large number being exported to Africa. The law of unintended consequences means that tighter policing, regulation and enforcement regarding restrictions on stolen metal recycling in the United Kingdom might lead to increased exports and the involvement of more organised crime rather than just petty criminals.

Felixstowe is in my constituency, so I recognise that it is a big challenge to make sure that we are monitoring goods going out as well as goods coming in. Given that it was suggested earlier that about 30% of crime is organised activity, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill represents a great opportunity to tackle the other issues as well?

I support the Bill because it does provide an opportunity to tackle those issues. I am merely saying that I want clarity from the Minister, who has the resources of the Home Office behind him, in considering whether activities may be displaced towards exportation. The involvement of organised crime means that stolen metal being recycled at local institutions could be replaced with its being exported to places such as Africa. Calor Gas has expressed to me the concern that canisters from its business are being stolen and exported for recycling rather than that happening in the United Kingdom. We need to think about how we address that. Can the new National Crime Agency get involved? How do we work with the Environment Agency? Do we need to look at any amendments to strengthen the Bill?

Scrap will tend to start off in smaller scrap yards and be moved along a chain, so by the end of the process, when it is ready for export, it is in a huge conglomeration and nobody is looking at the detail as it is done purely by weight. We need to make checks as we go along to ensure that the plaques and other goods are not in there, but the end of the road of export is a difficult place to do that, so we have to make sure that it is done much earlier in the chain.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I know that she has taken a great interest in metal theft in her constituency.

This is a very valuable Bill. Policing is very strong in this respect, and the Bill will help, but there are still potential displacements and unintended consequences that we need to monitor downstream. In relation to the comment by the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), when scrap arrives at Felixstowe it may well be too late to deal with the problem. I want to put the great minds of the Home Office on notice that we would like some consideration of those issues when the Bill arrives in Committee.

We will not oppose the Bill. I want to give it a fair wind and enable it to pass into Committee, where we will scrutinise it very closely. We want swift progress because the level of metal theft is causing irreparable damage to people’s lives and unacceptable disruption to our communities. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon South for producing a Bill that is worthy of support. He has handled himself in an exemplary way in his discussions about the Bill. We will give it a fair wind today, but I give notice that there are certain issues to which we will return in Committee. I hope that in a spirit of cross-party co-operation we can, in September or October, examine those issues for the benefit of our constituents.

It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). I welcome the Opposition’s support for the Bill. I am afraid that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I must apologise that I will have to leave the Chamber shortly after making my comments as I have long-standing engagements in my constituency. No discourtesy is meant. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, can read him like a book. When we come to read his comments, I think that they will read like a book. However, I know that they were well intentioned and he made some important points on sentencing with which I broadly agree.

I speak as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on combating metal theft. I join the Opposition spokesman in welcoming the work of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) in introducing his private Member’s Bill, which sadly did not have enough time to be passed. He co-chairs the group with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly).

I am here to offer my strong support for the strong and proportionate private Member’s Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has introduced. I think that I speak for all members of the all-party group, both in the Commons and the Lords, in offering that support. Our group is sponsored by the Energy Networks Association and its meetings have been attended by a huge number of organisations, including the Local Government Association, the Country Land and Business Association, the War Memorials Trust, Network Rail, BT and the Church Commissioners. All of them have talked about the problems of metal theft and the importance of acting on it.

I became involved in this issue because, as a local MP, cases were being brought to me all the time. The most dramatic was the attempted theft of metal from the roof of Worcester cathedral. That is not a minor site in my constituency, but one that is central to it. A bold and daring attempt was made to strip lead from the roof during daylight hours. Fortunately, it was not successful. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned that brass theft has become more common. All the door furniture in an entire residential square in Worcester was stolen in one go. I am glad to say that the police acted quickly and caught the burglar red-handed with the goods in his bag. My constituents have also suffered from many train delays caused by metal theft.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, lives have been put at risk across the country by metal theft. In Malvern, just outside my constituency, the heating system of a public swimming pool was broken in order to steal copper pipes. Steam was pouring out, which could have endangered the lives of children in the area. It is very important to crack down on this theft.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South said that there is a chain of supply in the metal recycling industry. The all-party group has discussed metal laundering and the ease with which stolen metal can slip into the supply stream and disappear. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley suggested that we should prosecute and act more seriously against scrap metal dealers who handle stolen goods. However, he has to recognise that it is all too easy for goods to be anonymised and stripped of their identity very quickly at the early stages of the process. Metal laundering is of concern to all legitimate scrap metal dealers, because they can be implicated in crimes when people drive into their yards with large amounts of scrap metal that are difficult to break down and identify. That is why some of the actions in the Bill, such as introducing proper licensing, are important and proportionate, and will be welcomed by the vast majority of the industry.

It is vital that we act quickly to replace the 1964 Act, which is clearly no longer fit for purpose. The cash ban is extremely welcome. As I have warned in previous debates, however, without a comprehensive licensing regime and a crackdown on illegal and unlicensed scrap metal dealers, a cash ban risks driving people into the hands of the black market and towards smaller scrap metal dealers who are less likely to obey the law and do things properly. It is important that the two things come together.

It seems to me that attitudinal change is also needed. A metal thief who gave an interview to a journalist said:

“What’s good about nicking copper is that you don’t see the person who owns it. It’s only the insurance companies and the fat-cat train companies that suffer, so I don’t feel any guilt about what I am doing.”

It is a real problem that it is seen as an anonymous crime, whereas in fact it deeply affects all our communities.

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady. It is far from a victimless crime. The victims of this crime are all of our constituents who suffer long delays on the railways and whose lives can be put in danger by metal theft. We have to hammer home in this debate that this crime has many victims. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South has pointed out the huge disparity between the small amount of money that is gained by selling stolen metal and the enormous economic and social costs that it causes.

We had some interesting exchanges earlier about the support of the police in this area. I commend the work of the West Mercia police in Worcester, who have cracked down on metal theft. I have had a lot of conversations with them. One thing that made me eager to attend this debate was the neighbourhood watch meeting in St John’s in Worcester that I attended. Metal theft was by far the most significant issue on the agenda. I recently received an e-mail from the local policing sergeant in St John’s to update me on the police’s progress in combating metal theft. He started with the welcome news that such crimes were down in Worcester in the first six months of the year compared with the previous year’s figures, although only slightly. They were down from 165 reported offences in January to June 2011 to 103 reported offences in the same period this year. That is a drop of a third, and the credit has to go to West Mercia police. He went on to say:

“I work closely with colleagues from the Environment Agency, VOSA and Smartwater. Our consensus is that the licensing is the best point of attack.”

That is why this Bill is so welcome and important, and why it deserves the support of this House.

The sergeant had other suggestions, some of which are reflected in the Bill:

“Compulsory photo ID for Scrap carriers would be a good start. Another issue”,

as we have discussed,

“is sentencing. One of our rogue yards was successfully prosecuted last year for failing to operate with a valid license. He was fined a rather pathetic £200.”

I agree with him that, given that that yard can take several thousand pounds a day, that seems ridiculous.

The sergeant made another suggestion that I am not sure my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and others would support:

“Finally, what about scrap carriers being licensed to a specific local authority. I stopped a van…a few weeks ago. The occupants had convictions for burglary, assault and a host of other offences. They were in the process of applying for a licence from Sandwell, where they lived. Present legislation allows travelling criminals to move across our Force border under the pretence of collecting scrap. Make the scrap carrier stay on his own area. It would make this easier to police, and might prevent a few burglaries in Worcestershire!”

There would be practical difficulties with doing that, but it is perhaps something to consider in Committee.

We had a brief debate about technology. Technology has an important part to play, but it is not something that we can legislate for. Alongside the legislation, it is welcome that we can use new technologies such as SmartWater. Yesterday at the Farnborough air show, I met QinetiQ, which has an exciting new technology called OptaSense, which effectively turns telephone wires into sensors. It is possible to tell where down the length of a telephone wire it is broken or whether digging is happening nearby. That might be very useful in protecting the railways and telecommunications systems in this country. However, technology alone will not deal with the issue. There is a need for greater licensing.

This is a good Bill, it is well thought through and it is much needed. This is an example of Parliament working in the way that it should to respond to the concerns of our constituents and the issues that are raised with us.

It is a great pleasure to speak in support of the private Member’s Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has introduced. He referred to a number of ways in which this problem affects our home towns and constituencies across the country, including through attacks on community facilities and buildings. He referred to Croydon minster, which sits in my constituency. He also referred to the theft of telephone cables. Residents in Forestdale in my constituency have suffered from that problem on numerous occasions.

My hon. Friend also referred to my personal experience. I want to take a couple of minutes of the House’s time to talk about that, not because what my family have been through is any worse than what thousands of other families across the countries have experienced, but because it is important to put on the record the effect that this crime has on people. In the case of my family, my father suffered with Alzheimer’s for a number of years. During that time my mother cared for him at home in increasingly difficult circumstances, until he had to go into a hospice for the last few months of his life. It was an incredibly difficult time for the whole family, but particularly for my mother, who struggled with seeing someone she loved being stripped away from her day by day over a number of years. She gave a great deal of thought to the message that she wrote on the plaque to be placed where my father’s ashes were interred. Beyond my personal anger at the theft of that plaque was my anger as a son that my mother should have to go through further pain after what she had already experienced.

As I said, I mention that not because what we have been through is any worse than what thousands of other families have been through, but to show the type of crime this is. It is one thing for someone to have their car broken into and a stereo or iPod stolen, but when they lose something that is close to them on an emotional level, that is a much more devastating blow. It is a serious offence.

The one thing that perhaps goes beyond even the theft of plaques from people’s graves is the theft of war memorials. Let us think of the incredible sacrifices that generations before mine had to make for this country, to defend the freedoms that we now all enjoy. I have language to describe people who conduct such crimes, but I suspect that you would regard it as unparliamentary, Mr Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend rightly said that the Bill on its own would not be the silver bullet that solved the problem, but it contains a number of key ingredients that will help to do that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is no longer in her place, talked about cashless payments and the need to ensure a level playing field across the industry.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who has also had to leave the Chamber, said, the licensing system is a key ingredient. Before I came into the House I was a councillor for 12 years in the London borough of Croydon, and in the last year and a half crime and community safety were my responsibilities. On one of the most interesting evenings that I spent in that job, I went out with the police licensing team. Croydon had a large night-time economy, and they showed me a range of institutions, from those that were highly professionally run to those where I feared for the physical safety of the people in them.

That licensing system, which is a pretty good parallel to what the Bill proposes for the scrap mental industry, was hugely welcomed by the good operators, because they objected to rogue operators who did not invest sufficiently in maintaining the safety of those using their institutions and were undercutting them. To respond to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made, let me say that the reputable establishments did not object to the bureaucracy of having a licensing system but thought it was essential to try to drive out the rogue operators, which would be to their benefit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned the importance of being able to establish where material has been sourced. He mentioned what Operation Tornado was achieving in the north of the country, and I hope that it will be spread nationwide quickly. The Bill also provides for unlimited fines for those who breach their licences.

I want to end my speech by responding to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. We come from different traditions within the Conservative party, but I have a very high regard for him. It is hugely to the benefit of the House that when there are proposals to introduce new legislation, there is a voice that questions the need for doing so and makes arguments about whether that is the right solution to the problem. He is right that in politics, when there is a public concern there is an instinct to do something to respond. Sometimes, that can lead to disproportionate legislation that places a cost on businesses or overly restricts individuals’ freedom. It is important that a different voice is heard when we have debates such as this. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) may still hope to speak and will make similar points.

I felt that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley presented the House with a binary choice—either taking a tougher approach to punishing those responsible for offences under the existing law, or changing the law and introducing new regulations. My strong conviction is that we should do both those things. It is not a choice of one or the other. In the two years I have been in the House, I have often found that the polarisation in the Chamber has presented such a choice. On the wider issue of crime, we are presented with the choice of either introducing tougher sentencing or reforming our prison system to try to reduce reoffending. I never quite understand why we cannot do both at the same time.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should go after people who steal metal, make greater efforts to catch them and punish them more severely. He is also right that there are laws to deal with those who trade in stolen goods. However, there is good evidence that the industry sees a need for a licensing system to protect the good operators. He is right that we should not send the message that the whole industry is full of criminals, because there are legitimate, proper operators who are law-abiding people, but they themselves are asking us to examine the issue.

In my own case, the scrap metal dealer who bought the plaques—there were thousands of them, not just my father’s—knew exactly what he was doing. I absolutely agree that we should try to bring him to justice and punish him, and that there should be stronger punishment for trading in stolen goods. However, I also profoundly believe that he should not be able to go back into the industry after he has served that punishment and start operating again. That is why we need legislation on a licensing system.

I say with huge regard and affection for the role that my hon. Friend plays in the Chamber that I believe he has made a strong case for not only stronger punishment and more enforcement effort but changes in the law that will strengthen the hand of police and local authorities to deal with a crime that has been a scourge of many communities up and down the country. With that thought in mind, I am proud to support my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South in his efforts to deal with the problem.

As always, it is a great pleasure and honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell)—it is a Croydon day today, is it not? He made some moving points, and the whole House will have been moved by what he said about his personal experience of the effect of metal theft.

Whether we have been affected personally, as my hon. Friend has, or just read about the problem in the papers, we all know that metal theft affects everybody. Some people may have been stuck on a train that has been delayed because the tracks have been taken up and destroyed. Even though a particular church might not have suffered any metal loss, it will still suffer from having to pay increased premiums as a result of thefts from other churches.

There is no doubt that there is a problem, but I rise to express concerns about the Bill. I will not repeat everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, because he did a thorough job of going through the problems that could arise with the Bill, and because those problems might well be dealt with in Committee.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on his success in coming second in the private Member’s Bill ballot, which has given him a place at the top of the agenda this morning. Although the Bill is a private Member’s Bill, it has much the look of a Government Bill—it has 20 clauses and two fairly lengthy schedules. That is perhaps not a surprise, because, as we know from the House of Commons note, the Bill is a handout Bill. The note helpfully describes a handout Bill as a Bill offered by the Government to a Back-Bench MP to take forward as a private Member’s Bill, and states:

“These are usually Bills for which the Government has not been able to find time in its”—


“programme or, for some other reason, it does not want to present itself.”

I do not know why the Bill is not a Government Bill, but perhaps we will find out when we hear from the Minister. I can think of at least one Bill—namely, the House of Lords Reform Bill—that could be jettisoned so that the Government can find time for the House to consider a Government scrap metal dealers Bill. People outside would be much happier for the House to discuss a problem such as that caused by the theft of metal.

Just so the hon. Gentleman is clear, the Government made proposals in a previous Act in the previous Session but rejected the measures in the Bill. The Government therefore made a political decision in the previous Session not to proceed with the provisions. They are supporting them in this Session because of pressure from Back-Bench Members such as the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell).

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister takes that view when we hear from him.

Metal theft is doubtless a serious problem, but it is also an increasingly high-profile problem. The Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that metal theft costs the UK economy approximately £770 million a year. The British Transport police, who have the lead policing responsibility for metal theft, experienced 2,000 incidents in 2010-11, up some 33% compared with the previous year.

The reason for the increase in metal theft is largely tied to the international scrap metal price. A useful diagram in House of Commons Library research paper 12/39 demonstrates that. The graph shows that there is almost an exact correlation between the level of metal theft and the price of metals on the international market. The increase in the price of metal on the international market has led in recent years to an increase in the problem of metal theft.

I am sure all hon. Members would like to see an end to the problem, just as we would like to see an end to all other forms of crime that cause so much damage to our society, and I am absolutely sure that the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, and its six sponsors, are entirely well meaning. I have great respect for their views.

I mentioned that scrap metal theft is a particular problem for churches. The Ecclesiastical Insurance Office, which deals with church insurance, wrote to me on 6 July seeking my support for the Bill:

“Metal theft is an on-going epidemic in this country. Since 2007, the problem of mindless criminals stealing metals from churches, schools, heritage properties, railway lines and even hospitals has continued to rise as the demand for such metals on world markets has increased. 2011 was the worst year on record for the number of metal thefts from churches with some churches in this country now being targeted for more than 10 times in the space of only five years.”

As a church warden of my parish church, I ought to declare an interest. We are as concerned as anyone about the increasing cost of insurance. Many examples have been mentioned—war memorial plaques stolen, chaos on the railways, churches desecrated—but the scrap metal industry is already extremely well regulated. Society has long accepted the need for regulating the industry. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, which the Bill would replace, repealed the Old Metal Dealers Act 1861 and several other Acts. So the regulation dates back well over 150 years.

It is already an offence to steal metal under the Theft Act and to handle stolen goods, so we need to examine why these offences continue, given that apparent deterrents are already on the statute book. The existing regulation is not driving out the rogues from the industry, so what will make the new regulations any more successful? The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 received Royal Assent just 74 days ago, but has not come into force yet, so we do not know what effect the increased penalties will have.

One fundamental change to the regulatory regime will be the introduction of a scheme of registration and identification similar to the one requiring solicitors to ascertain the identity of their clients for the purposes of money laundering legislation. I had some experience of conducting such tests when I practised as a solicitor, and I know only too well the rules and regulations dealing with money laundering and the detailed information about clients that has to be kept.

I note that the Bill does not state what sort of identification will be sought from those seeking to sell scrap metal, but leaves it open for future debate. No doubt that is one of many matters that we can consider in more detail on Report. However, being able to establish someone’s identity is not quite as straightforward as some people might think. Very often people will come without any form of identification, which will no doubt cause inconvenience at the very least, when they are told, “I’m sorry, I can’t pay for your scrap because you’ve not got any identification,” and they will be sent away. They might scrub about in their pockets and pull out a credit card, but that will not have their address on it and so will not be satisfactory, so they will go away disgruntled and have to find further proof of who they are before they can return. It remains to be seen, but I suspect that the evidence will have to be photographic—a passport, a driving licence with a photograph on it or some other photo ID—so that the person conducting the check can verify that the person whose identity documents have been produced is indeed the person before them. The matter is therefore not quite as straightforward as people might otherwise think.

As has been said, a lot of action has already been taken to try to sort the problem out. We have heard that in November 2011 the Government announced the establishment of a dedicated £5 million national taskforce, led by the British Transport police and comprising officers from across England and Wales whose job it would be to target metal thieves and scrap metal dealers trading illegally in stolen metal. The taskforce’s first steps apparently included a programme of action to target scrap metal dealers suspected of trading illegally in stolen metal. At that time, the Government said they would consider longer-term options to tackle the problem of stolen metal being traded too easily in the scrap metal industry. As we have seen, the Government then changed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, increasing the fine available under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 to

“level 5 on the standard scale”—

that is, a fine not exceeding £5,000—and introducing a new criminal offence that prohibits cash payments.

All that has not really had a chance to work; nevertheless, we are now faced with the possibility of new legislation, and we have to consider whether it will be successful. Clause 20(1) states that the Bill applies only to England and Wales. One does not have to be Einstein to work out that the Bill risks creating a possible loophole that those involved in underhand, illegal and criminal activities of this nature will quickly spot. It is that people would simply go to Scotland or Northern Ireland to dispose of their ill-gotten gains. Before anyone intervenes on me, I should say that I accept that Scotland is looking at the problem and that it might well come up with a similar set of rules and regulations to those that we have here in England. I do not know whether Northern Ireland is going down a similar road. Nevertheless, if this Bill is to be successful, discussions will need to take place between the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom on what they are doing to tackle the problem.

If the Bill is successful, it will repeal the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, but there is no doubt that it will also increase the level of regulation. That is what it is all about. Its raison d’être is to create more rules and regulations to restrict the opportunities for those involved in criminal behaviour to get away with it. That brings me to the Government’s one in, one out policy, which I strongly support. What regulations will be scrapped to make way for the creation of these new ones?

The Government’s report, “One-in, One-out: Third Statement of New Regulation”, that was issued in February this year shows that, unfortunately, the Home Office does not appear to be doing too well in the league table. According to annex A of the report, its contribution to the overall total was a negative one. It had three “ins” and only one “out”, and the zero net cost is listed as 5. In terms of the annual regulatory cost to business, the Home Office’s “ins” cost £50.8 million, with an “out” cost of only £0.83 million, leaving a net balance of £49.97 million. I submit that the Bill will only leave the Home Office further marooned at the foot of the one in, one out league table.

That leads me to the benefits of increasing regulation in the scrap metal industry, and to ask how successful that will be. In this regard, I am obliged to Philip Booth’s blog posted on the Institute of Economic Affairs website on 5 January. He writes about the fact that the regulation designed to tackle money laundering is being recycled for the scrap metal industry, and relates the views of the British Transport police on the matter. His blog states:

“The British Transport police go on to say: ‘My serious belief is that if you put those measures in place, Johnny in the white van isn’t going to want to turn up, produce his passport or his driving licence and proof of where he lives so we can then very quickly check where [his metal] comes from.’ Precisely…This will be the case whether Johnny in the white van is a builder or a criminal—the two will be treated exactly the same. The naivety of the proposals is stunning. Already, about ten per cent of economic activity in developed countries takes place in the shadow economy and serious work suggests that regulation and taxation are a major cause of this. Whilst Johnny Plumber in the white van may just decide to dump his scrap in landfill rather than have it recycled, Johnny Criminal will turn to the black market which will thrive. Indeed, Johnny Plumber may decide to become a criminal himself and use the black market. So, as ever, well-meaning measures lead to more stress on the natural environment, more business costs, more criminality and the people who it is designed to hit will just carry on as normal in a thriving criminal world.”

There is therefore a real danger that the Bill will not be as successful in tackling the problem as its promoters hope.

A number of changes to the regulatory regime have already been passed, but have not yet come into force. Also, Operation Tornado has certainly been relatively successful. We know that from the debate in this Chamber on 18 June, when the Minister said that

“Operation Tornado, a voluntary scheme supported by the British Metals Recycling Association”

had been so successful that it had reduced metal-related crime

“by half in the first three months of 2012 across the three north-eastern police force areas of Northumbria, Cleveland and Durham.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 718.]

In anybody’s book, that is pretty impressive. If such a level of success could be rolled out across the country, that could be just as beneficial to society as the measures in this Bill.

Let me repeat my support for some of the remarks on sentencing made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. There is a problem if the risk of being detected is low. If people think they can get away with crime, they will be more likely to be tempted down the criminal path. Secondly, we must have stronger sentences that actually act as a deterrent to criminals. We need honesty in sentencing, too. I remember the days when it was Conservative party policy to have honesty in sentencing, and I look forward to that once again being the case, so that when someone is sentenced to six months in prison, they spend six months in prison, and when they are sentenced to five years, they spend five years in prison.

I trust that the concerns that my hon. Friend and I have raised will be looked at when this Bill goes into Committee, and I assure the House that its measures will be examined very closely on Report.

May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on his second place in the ballot and on introducing this Bill on a subject that rightly interests all hon. Members? Hon. Members from across the House vividly described the impact of metal theft on communities, so it is right that we had the opportunity to debate these issues this morning. There is a great deal of consensus on the nature of the problem, the scale of its impact and the need to examine solutions to deal with this crime, which is adversely affecting many of our communities, and that has been reflected in debates in this House over a number of months.

Some issues do deserve further scrutiny, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) have identified, but I believe that they can be dealt with in Committee and that the Bill addresses a number of significant issues and concerns that have been raised. Although I take on board the effect that initiatives such as Operation Tornado have had—it is important that we recognise that—they can take us only so far. In order to get a universal approach—universal buy-in—legislation is required. I believe that there is broad recognition of the fact that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 is no longer fit for purpose, which is why it is appropriate that we are considering these matters in detail and why my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South is right to introduce his Bill today. It deserves fair consideration and a fair hearing, and the support that I hope there will be from hon. Members from all parts of the House.

The Bill is not a silver bullet, as my hon. Friend rightly said. We need to take a balanced approach between enforcement, prevention and disruption, but the legislation contemplated in the Bill is important in addressing a number of those elements. This is about being balanced within a broader framework of enforcement. The investment that the Government have provided through the metal theft taskforce is a significant step forward in seeking to deal with the intelligence and to build partnerships together. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) highlighted the issue of exports, and he was fair and right in putting the matter in that broader context, too. However, his comments showed why intelligence is also being co-ordinated. I hope that what we are doing will telegraph some further support for the National Crime Agency, as that proceeds, in harnessing intelligence and ensuring a cohesive, co-ordinated approach to dealing with serious and organised crime.

The 1964 Act is widely seen as being outdated and in need of reform, and as not reflective of the current £5.6 billion industry. It is important to recognise the wide support that the Bill has already attracted. We have heard clearly about the impact that metal theft has had on churches, cathedrals and other places of worship. Notably, the Archbishops Council of the Church of England has given its support, recognising the steps the Government have taken and saying that

“now is the time to support the introduction of new legislation for the scrap metal trade.”

The Local Government Association highlights the fact that nine in 10 councils are affected by such crime and says that further steps are required, that there is a need to introduce further regulation and that it supports the proposals for local authorities to have that stronger say in and control over the licensing of scrap metal dealerships.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley highlighted the importance of contributions made by the British Metals Recycling Association, and it is important to note that Ian Hetherington, the director general, has said:

“The Private Member’s Bill will help close the numerous loopholes present in the current regulatory framework that will enable stolen metal to continue to be sold for cash and bolster unlicensed operators at the expense of compliant businesses.

BMRA hopes the Bill makes swift progress through the legislative system in order that the full range of regulatory measures can be implemented in a single process to avoid confusion for the industry and for the police, Local Authorities and other enforcement agencies.”

There is broad consensus across a number of different parts of the industry as well as law enforcement and other agencies, and that is reflected in the Bill. It is therefore important to recognise the impact of metal theft.

The incidence of metal theft has increased rapidly in recent years and the Home Office estimates that there were between 80,000 and 100,000 reported metal theft offences in 2010-11, costing the UK economy some £220 million to £260 million a year. That is one estimate, but I also recognise that there are higher estimates. The Association of Chief Police Officers provided an estimate of as much as £777 million when the costs of the direct result of infrastructure disruption are also factored in.

We see the impact on so much of our infrastructure, on power companies and on our rail infrastructure, as we try to get around when signalling has been disrupted as a consequence of metal theft. Only this week, we saw 89 homes without power in Stockport following an attack at a local substation. We simply cannot put a price on the costs incurred by members of the public and businesses as a result of the disruption. It is not just about infrastructure, however. Our churches and our community monuments feel the impact of this appalling crime. In London, 16 brass plaques from different monuments and cemeteries have been stolen over the past two years, including from my own constituency in Sidcup. The plaques remembered more than 15,000 war dead. We also saw the shameful theft of the river of life memorial plaque to Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry in Warrington and the destruction and theft of Barbara Hepworth’s bronze sculpture from a south London park over the new year. That sculpture was insured for £500,000.

Such crimes are wanton, selfish and callous and show no respect for our communities. Frankly, those who are responsible deserve our contempt. I point out to those watching our debate this afternoon the personal impact of the crimes. I do not think that anyone present in the House today could have been anything other than moved by the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) about the personal and emotional impact of these crimes. That is why it is important to take action to deal with such incidents.

I know that the police have undertaken considerable work to identify where stolen metal is being sold and where it is going to. The UK is a major exporter of scrap metal, with more than 9 million tonnes of metal leaving the UK legally last year. Although we must be aware of the risk of stolen metal being directly exported, we believe that the vast majority of stolen metal is still being laundered through the scrap metal industry. It is therefore right that our attention should be focused on that industry and it has become clear that the regulation is woefully outdated and in desperate need of reform.

However, I put it clearly on record that the industry does vital, good work, and clearly benefits our economy. We should recognise that there are many reputable scrap metal dealerships, but the industry itself acknowledges that to protect the legal part of the industry and raise the bar, legislation and further regulation are required.

The Government have already taken action, both operationally and by making some initial legislative changes. As Members will know, in the previous Session the Government made initial legislative approaches in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which received Royal Assent in May. It prohibits cash payment for scrap metal, amends police powers of entry to unregistered scrap metal sites, and increases the financial penalties for offences under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. We anticipate that those measures will be brought into force in the autumn.

However, we did say that that was a first step, and we always considered the 1964 Act to be outdated and in need of reform. That is why the Bill is important. Through the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, we have an opportunity better to regulate the industry. The Act is ineffective and needs change. It does not reflect the 21st-century scrap metal industry, and the materials that dealers now purchase. It does little to ensure that dealers maintain accurate records of transactions, or verify a seller’s identity. The Act merely requires records of transactions to be made. It does not enable a local authority to refuse to register a dealer, or to remove a dealer from the register, if that dealer is not suitable to operate as a scrap metal dealer. Nor does it provide any powers to close unregistered businesses. Scrap metal dealers can register at no cost, so local authorities cannot cover their costs. There is also the issue of itinerant collectors, which is largely an issue of enforcement. Many of the people who go round with vans have not registered with local authorities or been recorded by the police, as is required under the legislation. That needs to be addressed as part of broader reforms, and to be covered by a broad legislative framework.

In effect, the Act does little to stop the purchase of stolen metal or encourage higher trading standards across the industry. The Bill before us will change that, by putting in place a more robust, local authority administered, licensing regime for the scrap metal industry. It is right to allow only those individuals and businesses that are considered suitable to operate as scrap metal dealers. The test for suitability should mirror the one used by the Environment Agency in relation to its environmental regulations, and should include a consideration of all relevant unspent convictions. That will support law-abiding scrap metal dealers, while ensuring that elements in the industry that are only too happy to purchase stolen metal can be effectively tackled and closed. The Home Office agrees that the licensing authority should be the local authority, rather than the police, the Environment Agency or some other local body.

It is right to introduce a fee, so that local authorities can recover the cost of administering and seeking compliance with the regime. That should ensure that the regime is effectively managed, and that illegal operators can be tackled. The Home Office has been working with the Local Government Association to cost that licensing fee. We believe that it will be a reasonable fee that will not be disproportionate. It will cover local authority costs relating to the administration of, and compliance with, the regime. It is right and proper that details of that should be provided clearly in Committee, so that the industry is cognisant of how a proper balance will be achieved.

It is important to note the requirement for verification—a point that the right hon. Member for Delyn highlighted. I point to the reference in the explanatory notes to how identity could be verified; it could be done through documentation including passports, driving licences, and bank and utility documents, but not identity cards, which this Government did not consider an appropriate measure. That is why it was one of the first things we scrapped. If the right hon. Gentleman is interested in issues that have not hung around for very long, I challenge him back on that topic.

It is important to note that the Bill will provide powers to close unlicensed scrap metal dealers. The regime will provide for the courts to close premises that should not be operating—the ultimate sanction.

The Bill has been widely called for by Government Departments aware of the need to regulate the industry, by parliamentarians, not least through the Commons motion passed in February, by law enforcement organisations, by victims of metal theft, by public and private industry and those who represent the third sector, and most notably by the scrap metal industry itself. The Government believe that action will be limited without necessary reform to regulate the scrap metal industry. The private Member’s Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South provides us with the opportunity to make the necessary changes. We must seize the opportunity, and I hope that all Members of the House will support this much-needed reform.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63.)

Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I was very fortunate to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills in a position where I felt I could do something that would make a difference to people’s lives. I know that everybody says that when they do well in the ballot, but I realised that it was important to do something in an area in which I had some interest in the past and in which I believed I could build a consensus in the House. My short experience has told me that that is the best way to make any progress. I thank Members in all parts of the House who have helped me with the Bill, including the current and previous Governments. Having been through most of my right hon. and hon. Friends and colleagues, I can say that I have had unanimous support.

The Bill has one clear objective—to prevent the fraudulent use of social housing, which has gone on for so long. Constituents and others who wrote in once the Bill had received some publicity found it strange that illegally sub-letting social housing—a flat or house that formerly would have been known as a council house and which is now part of social housing—is not a criminal offence.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in the ballot. He mentions that the problem has been going on for a long time. Is there any particular reason why he felt it necessary to introduce the Bill now? Is the problem getting worse? How have we managed without such a measure for so long?

My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a considered point. I do not quite know the answer. I do not know why the problem has not been dealt with before. When researching the subject, I noticed that it had been talked about for a long time. Bodies such as the Serious Fraud Office and the National Audit Office have identified the problem, and for years Governments have had it on their mind, but it is one of those small things that slip through the net of legislation.

An important question has been put to my hon. Friend on this point. Is he aware that in a consultation carried out with housing associations, which are obviously very worried about the problem, they identified as one of the main concerns in this area the lack of sufficient deterrent penalties available for people who engage in such activity and thereby enrich themselves?

I am aware of the consultation. Having researched the matter, I know that the problem has increased over the years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested. I hope that there is a general consensus that it is time to do something about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) has been in the House since 1992 and so might remember speeches and contributions right hon. and hon. Members have made on the subject. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I was quite surprised that it has not been included in legislation by this Government, the previous one, or indeed the one before that. In my humble way, I can simply deal with the problem as it is today.

Clearly there is a problem. This type of sub-letting is something I am sure the public think is a criminal offence. It is an outrage that an estimated 150,000 social housing tenants—50,000 is the most conservative figure, but the National Audit Office’s estimate is 150,000—are illegally sub-letting their properties. Typically, it is done by someone who qualifies for a social tenancy because they have the necessary points in the scoring system. They sign a contract with a social housing provider but then illegally sub-let it to a tenant, who in many cases pays a market rent for the property, and then pockets the difference between that rent and either what they are paying themselves or what is being paid as part of their housing benefit.

That is not simply taking advantage of the situation financially; it also means—in many ways this is a worse aspect—that a family who are on a waiting list and would be entitled to the property cannot occupy it. I know from correspondence with hon. Members across the House that this is a problem in their constituencies; I know of no area where it is not a problem. The shadow Minister, in my discussions with him, explained that he thinks it is a greater problem in the London area, but that is only because properties in London are rented out in the private sector at a much higher rate. I have yet to meet a Member of the House who is not aware of this being a problem in their constituency.

Does my hon. Friend accept that this is a problem not only in high-rent areas? East Kent has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the whole south-east—indeed, they are some of the highest levels in the country—and families who have been on the waiting list for a very long time find it deeply offensive that this kind of practice goes on in low-rent as well as high-rent areas.

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I know that it is a problem in Scotland, Wales and other places a long way from London, but I think that the numbers are accentuated in the central London area, and in terms not just of the total volume of social housing property, but of the value of the rent. The problem is still the same. It is depriving people who are entitled to social housing and in desperate need of it and who, in many cases, are having to live in really sub-standard temporary accommodation, which is a burden to them and comes at a high cost to the taxpayer. It is keeping very suitable properties provided in the social housing field from them, and I think that it is very wrong.

What would the Bill do? It would create some new criminal offences of sub-letting social housing without permission. It would introduce appropriate penalties, ranging from a fine to a maximum custodial sentence of two years, in order to provide a proper and correct punishment and also an effective deterrent. It would allow local authorities to prosecute for offences in the Bill on behalf of housing associations and other local authorities. It would allow social landlords to recover the profits made by tenants who sub-let their property without permission. If such activity is a criminal racket and people have made money out of it, the Bill would allow social landlords to recover the money. It would make it easier for housing associations to gain possession of a property from tenants who have moved back in having previously illegally sub-let it, because that is something that has been reported a lot.

In promoting the Bill, I am trying to outline why I believe these measures are most effective in creating the right legislation to deal with this problem. There is no point making the effort and for the Bill to become law without it once and for all dealing with the problem, but it should not do so too severely, by victimising genuine social housing tenants or those who have a reason for temporarily not living in their property, because life is like that, and there are genuine reasons. A lot of thought has therefore gone into the Bill, and I thank the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Opposition Members who encountered the issue when they were Ministers, for their help in creating what we believe is sensible and balanced legislation.

In my own world of Watford, the Watford Community Housing Trust has been helpful, and I have consulted it regularly. In a letter to me early on in my time as a Member, it outlined several measures that it thought would make a difference in preventing social housing fraud, and each one is covered in the Bill. With due respect to colleagues, we hear things from a certain angle, so I have tried my best to speak to people in housing associations and local authorities who deal with these issues on the ground, because as things filter upwards they can be changed; there might be political factors and things can be sanitised. I hope that I have included both levels of the issue, and I thank Ruairi McCourt of the Watford Community Housing Trust for his helping in dealing with it.

It was unbelievable to me, as a new Member dealing with constituents for the first time, to find that so much of our constituency work involved dealing with extensive social housing waiting lists. I am sure that colleagues from all parts of the House have heard similar stories, but properties owned by housing associations are sub-let by tenants, often on the private market and in estate agents’ windows, in all our constituencies. I had seen it with my own eyes, but little seemed to have been done to marry the two issues, so I was grateful this year when the Government, based on work that they and the previous Government had done, launched a consultation on social housing fraud and started to look seriously at criminalising the activity I have been talking about.

I was a little naive about the way things worked, however, because I thought, “Ah! There will be consultation, then it will become legislation.” I have since learned that things do not always work like that, and to my frustration it was not possible to pass any legislation—or at least not until now. So when I was given an opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, I really wanted to introduce this one. However much my political career to date and in future may lack an illustrious aspect, whatever may or may not happen electorally, and whatever I may or may not contribute to the House, I should like to feel that this Bill is going to become law, and that my name will go down in one little footnote in history—not to make a political point, but because I believe that this legislation is an important part of social justice.

The Bill represents a little gap in the market, but like so many small things that are debated in the House, it will have a significant effect on people’s lives and remedy not just an injustice to all of us as taxpayers who fund what is happening, but a real injustice to people throughout the country who are desperate for social housing and are told that there is a four or five-year waiting list, while people who do not deserve it occupy properties and people who pretend that they deserve it profit from it. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to do something about that.

I very much congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. I hope that he gets that footnote in history, because if he is responsible for taking even only one family off the housing list or out of temporary accommodation, he will have done a great service to the many people throughout the country, in my constituency and in everyone else’s, who we know are waiting desperately for social housing.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments.

I find it strange that many other types of social housing fraud are already criminal offences. It is well known that making fraudulent right-to-buy applications, lying on forms when applying for social homes and misrepresenting financial circumstances to obtain social housing are all caught by criminal legislation, but sub-letting is important, because the authorities perceive it to be the most prevalent abuse and it has never been included in such legislation.

My hon. Friend could be forgiven for not knowing the answer to this question, but I hope that he may able to assist me. As we have heard in his excellent speech, this problem is prevalent throughout the country. What action has been taken in the past when it has occurred? Surely the courts and the police could have prosecuted for offences such as obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception.

I will make every attempt to answer my hon. Friend’s question. There are two answers. First, it is possible to bring prosecutions for fraud under the Theft Act 1968. He mentioned obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception, which is what the offence was called when I last studied law in 1979, but that may have changed; I was not very good at the subject then, and I am certainly a lot worse now. I think that there have been some criminal prosecutions. However, I know from speaking to people at the housing associations and enforcement officers at local authorities that it is quite hard to prove in court that there was a fraudulent intent. Far too many cases of blatant abuse have not gone through the necessary hoops to be caught by the Theft Act but are still basically fraudulent in the context of my argument.

The second answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that—

Order. I know that it is difficult, but could the hon. Gentleman please address the House so that his voice is properly picked up and everybody can hear it?

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Obviously if the choice is between facing you and facing my hon. Friend, there is no contest.

I was brought up in an old-fashioned way and told that it was rude to speak to people with one’s back to them, but clearly that is not the case in this House. I apologise and will proceed to face you at all times, Sir.

The second answer to my hon. Friend, to whom my back is now turned, is that until now the main way of dealing with this matter has been through civil proceedings. Those have proved very inadequate because, at best, the council or housing association will get vacant possession of the property, but that does not provide a deterrent or punishment or prevent the people involved from going somewhere else in the country and doing the same thing.

This is a particularly big problem in Enfield. My hon. Friend may be interested to know, further to the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), that last April Enfield council managed to secure a prosecution on the basis of representations dishonestly made—in effect, fraud—and the person in question received a suspended sentence. The current way of proceeding is unsatisfactory because it means going to extraordinary lengths to find a means of bringing people to account. My hon. Friend’s Bill is therefore well timed in providing us with a much more straightforward process.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I had heard of the Enfield case he mentions. The fact that it was reported makes it very rare. The authorities in Enfield were delighted that they had managed to get through all the different hoops despite the fact that it is very difficult for them to deal with these cases, of which there are many, as elsewhere in the country, with the weapons they have available. The Bill would help the authorities in Enfield and elsewhere that have been pursuing such cases. It would give them teeth and ensure that they do not have such difficulties in proving their case before a court and then end up allowing people to escape following blatant misuse of their social tenancies.

The National Fraud Office estimates that such social tenancy fraud costs the Exchequer and taxpayers over £900 million a year. I do not know how it arrived at that figure, because the nature of the crime makes it difficult to work out how widespread it is. However, one can understand its having done so given that most conservative estimates predict that about 50,000 properties are affected, while some say that the figure is 150,000.

As I have said, the level of such fraud differs across the country. Where there are bigger profit margins, it is more commonplace. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), it is most prevalent in London. Westminster city council estimates that up to 5% of London’s social housing stock is sub-let. That is a huge amount.

In my constituency of Watford, a family living in a three-bed social housing property pay £111 a week in rent. A similar property on the market would cost £263 a week. If such a property was sub-let, it could make the person letting it a profit of more than £150 a week. That assumes that they are paying for the social rent. If it was paid for through housing benefit, the entire £263 a week would be kept. We are talking about profits of £7,000 to £15,000 a year with no tax. That is appalling, especially as there are 4,000 people on the waiting list in Watford. People wait for years for social housing to become available. This is an absolute affront.

While researching this subject, I chaired a useful seminar that was attended by a large number of leading organisations, mainly local authorities and housing associations. I heard several horror stories from local authorities. One organisation showed me their properties being sub-let on the websites of letting agents. That is being done brazenly and openly, not in the corner of a pub. People are saying, “This is my property and I’m going to let it out,” despite the fact that others are crying out for such properties. That has to be stopped.

People sub-let such properties for different reasons. On a small scale, some people sub-let their house while they are abroad for the month. I am not really concerned about that. I am concerned about the most extreme cases, which involve organised criminal gangs operating on a large scale. They get people to put themselves on the waiting list and help them to qualify, with the sole intention of providing the base for a fraud.

Housing associations, local authorities and Governments have not been blind to these issues over recent years. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who dealt with this issue under the previous Government, has been extremely helpful to me, although he is not in his place today. He and the current Minister for Housing and Local Government have made significant improvements in the rate of detection and the number of properties recovered by providing funding to help the officers of local authorities and housing associations track down fraud.

Peabody, a large housing association in London, made 700 visits and recovered 19 properties in 2009. It told me at the conference that, with some changes to its practices, it made 1,544 visits and recovered 63 properties in 2010. Those are still quite small numbers, but they show that if Government funding is used selectively, it can lead to more detection.

I hope that with this Bill, which contains greater powers and financial incentives for such organisations, the numbers will begin to increase. They need greater powers to do what they are currently trying to do with limited powers. Until now, the efforts have focused on detecting the problem. The resources made available by this Government and the last Government have helped tremendously in financial terms, but it is like saying that we will deal with shop lifting and training special officers to do so, without having a law that provides a proper sanction for people who steal from shops. We do have such a law, by the way. I believe that providing local authorities with extra powers will help dramatically to reduce this crime.

As I have said, the most common consequence at the moment is the shrugging of shoulders. The tenant returns to the property and then disappears, fully able to commit the crime again. I have every reason to believe that there is consensus on this issue. I hope that that is confirmed by the Second Reading of this Bill. We need to help social landlords tackle the abuse of their stock, and I believe the Bill will dramatically help them to do so.

If I may crave your indulgence a little longer, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am looking you firmly in the face now, Sir, as is my duty and honour—I wish to point out that clause 1 will make it a criminal offence improperly to sub-let a social housing property. That will cover people who sub-let either part or the whole of their property, and those who no longer occupy a property but take part in what is known, in what we might call in the trade, as key-selling. That is when people get hold of a property and then sell their key—either physically or theoretically—to a new tenant. I am told that the cost of that is typically £2,000 to £4,000. They then pocket that money and disappear back to wherever they actually live, and the new family occupy the place.

I have a slight concern about the provision on those sub-letting part of a property. Local authorities are advising some people facing the potential bedroom tax that they could take in a lodger, in other words sub-let part of their property to avoid paying the additional costs, particularly if they cannot be rehoused. Could such people be caught by clause 1?

The hon. Lady asks a valid question. If I may crave her indulgence, I hope to convince her that that has been taken into consideration in the drafting of the Bill. We want to catch people who pretend that they are still occupying a property by using what is known as the airing cupboard option—they pretend that a little room is theirs and that they occupy it all the time. We want to catch those people, but not those who just let out a room.

In fact, the Bill states that people can sub-let with the landlord’s consent, and circumstances such as the hon. Lady mentions are quite genuine. Such sub-letting is good from a social point of view, because it adds to the number of people living in social housing without depriving other people of it. I hope that the drafting of the Bill takes care of that. If the Bill continues its passage, I hope she will be interested in taking part in the Public Bill Committee, where we can get down to the details of it, because she makes a good point.

I know that you abhor over-lengthy interventions, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I hope to avoid making a speech.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) raised a point that is very important in east Kent. We suffer from what I might describe as horizontal mobility. People move from household to household and change partners on a depressingly regular basis. They take in lodgers and then move to stay with a fresh partner, leaving the lodger behind with the tenancy and then possibly moving back in later. There seems to be a grey area in the Bill, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) and the Minister might wish to consider that in Committee. My personal preference would be to say that that should not be done at all, but will my hon. Friend take that point on board?

I thank my hon. Friend, and that certainly will be taken on board. The key to the drafting of the Bill is that it has to be clear about what is allowed and what is not. We have to avoid a lack of clarity, which would allow loopholes—I think the mixed cliché in the trade is “creating a chink of light to drive a coach and horses through it”. I hope Hansard records that, because I do not think I can say it again, but I think it is relevant in this case.

I certainly assure the House that in creating the new criminal offence, it is not my intention to fill prisons with thousands of people who sub-let their properties. It is designed as a tool with which local authorities can take action against tenants who have defrauded them, and to create an effective deterrent to prevent others from doing the same.

The criminalisation of this fraud is long overdue, and many housing associations have called for it for some time. In its response to the social housing fraud consultation, the Chartered Institute of Housing stated:

“The majority of housing providers CIH has spoken with agree that tenancy fraud should be a criminal offence”.

Some 90% of respondents to the Government’s consultation supported the new criminal offence, and in Watford both the community housing trust and borough council have welcomed it.

Any criminal conviction needs to be met with an appropriate and effective punishment. There has been a lot of consultation on this with the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. The Bill makes provision for sentences varying between a fine and a maximum two years’ custody. That strikes the right balance for the crime and will deter others from committing it. I cannot reiterate enough that, currently, anyone planning on sub-letting has nothing greater to fear than having to return the property, after which they can try somewhere else.

The Bill extends the power of prosecution for local authorities. They can currently prosecute when it is deemed to be in the interests of people in their area, but the Bill introduces more flexible powers and enables local authorities to prosecute the crimes laid out in the Bill on behalf of other local authorities. Different housing associations operate in different local authorities and across local authority borders, and the measure deals with that anomaly. In this world of joint partnerships, and of landlords coming together regionally and sub-regionally, we must give those who want to enforce the law those powers.

I keep mentioning landlords, by which I mean not private landlords with thousands of problems, but social landlords. The Bill gives social landlords the chance to get the money back and to use it to fund more anti-fraud work. That will provide an incentive and resource for local authorities to investigate more, which in addition provides a further deterrent. The National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association, which are important bodies in this field, support that measure.

Lastly, by removing assured status from the housing associations that sub-let the whole property, the Bill makes it easier for landlords to gain possession when a tenant who has previously sub-let moves back in. Currently, if the landlord wants to end such a tenancy, they must prove to the court that it is reasonable to grant possession for breach of a tenancy agreement. The Bill will enable the landlord to end the tenancy by giving notice, which brings housing association tenants into line with local authority tenants. That anomaly has been used as a loophole, but under the Bill, landlords will have the same powers as local authorities.

It is a pleasure to present the Bill with support from so many colleagues from both sides of the House. It is fair to say that the sponsors of the Bill transcend the full political spectrum. I hope that that alone satisfies both the Housing and Local Government Minister and his shadow.

The results of the Government consultation have been put into the House of Commons Library today. The timing is a bit unfortunate, because I have not had time to read the Government response in full, but I understand there is an overwhelming consensus on the measures. I take comfort in the fact that most of those who have contacted me—80% to 90%— support the Bill.

During my research, I have spoken to so many different people, and I thank Joe Joseph of Peabody; Kevin Campbell-Scott, the fraud director at Southwark council; David Clayton and Stephanie Toghill of the Chartered Institute of Housing; and Paul Keogan of Westminster council. I could go on. All those people deal with these issues on behalf of social housing providers. I am not playing politics and the measure has not been dreamt up—there is a real grass-roots need for the Bill. Lest anyone believe that the Bill is London-centric, I have also spoken to Stoke-on-Trent city council and people from all over the place. They are all in favour of the Bill.

I should mention possible opposition to the Bill—one problem was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, who asked whether existing legislation is enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) said, there have been successful prosecutions, but they are few and far between, and not all organisations have the resources or expertise to conduct the kind of case that was conducted in his constituency. This my final quote—I will not read any more out. The Chartered Institute of Housing said:

“Some are already attempting to”


“using the Fraud Act 2006 and they are keen to make use of any new legislation granted to enable them to tackle social housing fraud more effectively.”

I want to give local authorities the rights and powers to bring charges against those who defraud them, and the Bill would only enhance the work already being done and the local laws already in place.

I would have liked to include other subjects in the Bill, but I could not, at this stage, because extra consultation would have been required. I hope that the issue of information sharing, which, as was pointed out to me, is vital, can be rectified in Committee. There has also been discussion about introducing a framework on the intention to return—if people leave with the genuine intention to return for a genuine reason—but on consideration I decided that it was far too complex to introduce at this stage. I feel that these Bills need to be as simple as possible.

The lack of social housing is of great concern to all housing associations, to me and to the Government, and although I do not flatter myself by suggesting that the Bill would solve these problems in one go, it would provide local authorities with the opportunity to make use of the stock they have and not to incur unnecessary costs from providing homes to people who could otherwise live in this stock. It is estimated that on average it costs £18,000 a year to house a family in temporary accommodation and about £150,000 to build a new property for social housing stock. It is not acceptable that local authorities and housing associations have to meet these costs when they already have properties that could be used for these purposes, but which instead are being used by people to make money illegally—off the back not only of the taxpayer but of decent people living in temporary accommodation who need these properties.

I hope that the Bill will become an effective and lasting piece of legislation that will make a real difference by preventing such social housing fraud; will have the necessary measures to punish those who cheat and profit from the system; will create punishments that deter offenders; will help local authorities and prosecutions; and will allow social landlords—in a way, all of us—to recoup profits made by tenants in their properties and to use that money to provide more genuine social housing. The Bill aims to bring about a fairer system and rectify the anomaly whereby the incentive to cheat is so much greater than the risk of detection and the penalty incurred. It would also free up thousands of properties that could instead be given to hard-working individuals and families who play by the rules and deserve this social housing.

Order. I point out to Members that we are under time constraints—a lot of Members want to speak, we will want to listen to both Front-Bench spokesmen and there is other business before us.

In the light of the number of people who want to speak, I will curtail my comments. I must start, however, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on how he has introduced the Bill and on picking such an important subject. I am sure that by getting the Bill through Parliament he will make a real difference to many hard-working families and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. That will be something of which he and his whole family will be proud and a legacy of his time in Parliament. I look forward to working with him and all other Members who have volunteered their time to support the Bill and its safe passage through Parliament in the months ahead.

Like my hon. Friend, I have many constituents who are desperate to put a decent roof over their families’ heads. There cannot be a single Member who does not, in their weekly or monthly surgeries, face heartrending stories of people who have been languishing on council waiting lists for long periods—hard-working people who are trying to do the right thing to look after their families but who cannot get decent accommodation—so any measure that enables us to use better the housing stock we already have must be welcomed.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is shameful that people who have benefited from a decent council home provided by a housing association are denying someone else that opportunity. Any measure that cracks down on that and introduces proper and effective deterrents is therefore to be welcomed.

The issue that I would like to raise with my hon. Friend is perhaps one that we can discuss further in the Bill’s progress. In my research for today, I noticed that some parts of the country are particularly good at identifying fraud. He mentioned London, but sadly there are other regions, such as the one that I represent, that are very bad at identifying fraud and taking action, yet I am sure that the research that has been carried out will show that the problem is occurring all over the country. The Government have recognised the problem and have launched the unlawful occupancy fund for 2011-12, to help local authorities with the resources needed to introduce mechanisms to detect such crime. The fund is worth £19 million and about 51 authorities are benefiting from it, but for such measures to be effective we need to see prosecutions all over the country.

If there could be just one prosecution in each local authority, the message would go out loud and clear to those thinking of entering into such fraud that they will be found out and that they will be prosecuted. I agree that the deterrents that are being introduced—fines and potential custodial sentences—will send out a strong message. However, I wonder whether in Committee we could look at ensuring that every local authority—particularly those in the south-west of England, which are clearly not making the most of the opportunities that already exist to detect such fraud—are encouraged to do so and given any available resources from the Government, so that we can quickly reach the point where there are prosecutions that act as a genuine deterrent.

That was the main point I wanted to make. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, and I look forward to ensuring that the Bill gets on the statute book, so that we can get on with securing more homes for people who really need them.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on introducing what I believe will be a valuable piece of legislation that will ensure that those who need to have their accommodation provided for by housing associations or local authorities are given better access to the available housing stock. I say that because, without wishing to labour the points that other Members will no doubt make, the illegal sub-letting of social housing distorts the supply of limited and valuable housing stock, prevents those who most need social housing from securing it and, of course, rewards and motivates fraud. This Bill is about ensuring that the housing stock is used to best social effect. Given current pressures on the supply of, and demand for, housing, the Bill is also very timely.

There is, of course, genuine difficulty in assessing the sheer scale of the fraud. The National Audit Office offers a figure in the region of £900 million a year, but this counts only fraud committed against local authorities and misses many of the sums lost to housing associations, which regrettably do not collect as many data. The true scale of the problem is therefore unknown. I would like to pay tribute to the largest housing association serving my constituency. Aster Communities is fortunate to suffer from relatively low levels of tenancy fraud, but that in no way makes it complacent. In fact, it is probably its vigilance and checks—these include collection and use of photos at sign-up, effective sharing of information protocols, and acting swiftly and rigorously on reported problems—that account for Aster Communities suffering from low levels of fraud locally.

Our experience from our constituency surgeries often gives us the opportunity to help housing associations to identify where there might be fraud. We are often the people who hear about it first from our constituents who, in many cases, are desperately seeking either accommodation in the first place or larger accommodation, but have not been able to access it. I have found from my constituency that residents are quick to tell me where they believe there is illegal sub-letting. In 2010—the year I was elected—only five three-bedroom family homes came forward for occupation via the local authority and housing associations in the Test valley part of my constituency, which means that families looking to move to larger accommodation often find themselves blocked by illegal sub-letting.

I vividly remember one such case, involving a gentleman in desperate housing need. He was a single father with three children, and they were living in significantly overcrowded accommodation. He used to update me regularly on the situation in the village that he wished to move to because of family connections—he was seeking assistance from his parents to look after the children. He e-mailed me daily with information on the road that he wanted to move to, telling me about a number of houses that he believed were being illegally sub-let. I duly reported all that to the housing association, but I was surprised to learn that my constituent was not deemed to be a priority because he was already the tenant of another housing association property in a different part of the region, which he had let out. That just proves that what goes around can also come around.

There is a need to get this Bill right, and with the intention of assisting in that aim, I wish briefly to mention an issue that I am sure the Minister will have anticipated. It has been difficult to obtain the submissions given to the consultation, yet the Bill Committee would certainly benefit from having access to that material. I understand that the Government have yet to publish all the submissions received, but I trust that that will not affect the efficacy of the final legislation, and that the Minister will ensure that all the submissions will be made available for consideration.

The Bill provides for many genuinely positive outcomes. The creation of a new criminal offence of illegal sub-letting will certainly be the biggest benefit. Local authorities will also have the power to prosecute those who illegally sub-let, and the Bill will ensure that the courts can recover fraudulently obtained funds. I believe that making illegal sub-letting a criminal rather than a civil offence will demonstrate the seriousness of abusing social housing in this manner, deter it as a practice, punish those who engage in it and protect housing stocks for those who are genuinely entitled to them.

Those who work in this field in my constituency—whether as lawyers servicing housing associations, or representatives of the associations themselves—have made a number of interesting points to me. In the course of our discussions, I was informed of a case in which a lady who was renting a social housing property had sub-let it and, subsequently, under a different name, obtained a second property for herself. This came to light when she moved into a property that she was able to own, having accrued thousands of pounds of illegal income over several years. There was no ability to recover those moneys, and the woman simply moved the illegal tenants out of the first property. The Bill will remedy such situations and make it far simpler for housing associations to deal with that kind of troublesome tenant. In the light of such blatant abuses, it is no wonder that associations such as the Guinness Trust are now piloting schemes in which officers are employed specifically to deal with tenancy fraud. That illustrates that the problem is growing, and that the Bill is therefore timely.

An important aspect of the Bill is the removal of the anomaly in the way that the law treats assured tenants and secure tenants. I commend my hon. Friend’s efforts to close that loophole. Social landlords with assured tenants are often disadvantaged owing to the loopholes that the Bill intends to close. I return to the case of my constituent to illustrate this point. The Bill will close the loophole and prevent assured tenants who have committed fraud from regaining their security of tenure, thus creating a level playing field between the two types of social tenant, and empowering housing associations to ensure that their properties are being put to best use.

There are of course some problems that the Bill cannot resolve, such as the difficulty of proving a tenant’s real intention—or otherwise—to return to a property. This is one of the defences regularly employed to prevent eviction, as intent is hard to prove in law. The Bill will be of enormous help to housing associations in that regard, because if they can prove that sub-letting is taking place, they will be much more likely to get a mandatory order for possession. That might encourage housing associations to seek possession.

I shall end as I began, by congratulating my hon. Friend and the Minister on bringing forward the Bill. It has cross-party support, and it is clearly welcome, timely and much needed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on introducing this Bill, which is very timely given the current housing crisis facing the nation. Sub-letting for financial gain prevents people from obtaining a home, and we support the Bill. Its proposals build on the work done by the previous Labour Government, as the hon. Gentleman said, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who launched the first ever national crackdown on the fraudulent sub-letting of social housing. Almost 150 councils signed up to that concerted effort, including every London council and every top-tier Labour council that was responsible for its own housing stock. Under that initiative, councils got a share of a Government grant of £4 million, which was established to assist local authorities in developing their own anti-fraud initiatives. Councils and housing associations were also given practical advice on how best to tackle this problem. The initiative made a considerable impact.

Before the last general election, Labour committed to making the unlawful sub-letting of social homes a criminal offence. There have, however, been a number of successful prosecutions in cases where tenancies have been unlawfully sub-let. The Fraud Act 2006 has been used by both Camden and Westminster councils, and the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) said his council had taken action using current legislation as well, but I think explicitly making unlawful sub-letting a criminal offence will assist local authorities to deal with the problem. This Bill will make that a reality. It will assist local authorities to extend the work they are already doing. It will provide them with an additional tool to address the problem, and thereby to make the best use of their existing housing stock.

Notwithstanding the horrendous examples of abuse that Members have outlined in this debate, it is important to put on the record a point that the hon. Member for Watford made in his contribution: the overwhelming majority of council and social housing tenants pay their taxes and play by the rules. It would be very wrong if we were in any way to stigmatise people living in council homes by giving the impression that large numbers of them are abusing the system. There is no evidence that that is the case.

May I confirm that I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s point? The fraudulent ones are, in effect, an insult to the vast majority of genuine tenants who pay their rents, pay their taxes and are in social housing by right.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments, and I think we both agree that it is important that we stress the fact that we are talking here about only a small minority of tenants. We must tackle their behaviour, in the interests of fairness and what is right.

The Bill has received cross-party support, and support from housing professional organisations and pressure groups, including the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association. The LGA posed a number of questions in a briefing note, to which I am sure all hon. Members will have had access, that could be addressed in Committee. For example, the briefing suggests that restitutionary payments should be made to social landlords where it has been found that a tenancy has been unlawfully sub-let. The LGA also perceives as narrow the definition of who would fall within the terms of the Bill and it seeks a wider one. Perhaps that could be taken into account as the Bill is scrutinised further in Committee.

I do not wish to strike a discordant note, because, as I have said, there is cross-party support for and cross-party sponsorship of the Bill. However, it is important to state that the Bill will not make up for the failure of the Government’s housing record. As the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) rightly said, there is clearly a desperate need for social housing in this country. We need to step up to the plate, but the Government are not doing so at the moment. They will need to do that to address the housing crisis gripping the nation.

There is broad agreement on the fact that we are gripped by the worst housing crisis in a generation. Waiting lists are increasing all the time; I believe the hon. Member for Watford said that there are 4,000 people on the list in his local authority area. We therefore need to do more than is contained in the Bill, although it will make a helpful contribution to tackling the inadequate supply of affordable housing. A renaissance in house building would also have huge benefits for the wider economy in jobs and growth, which are vital to get the economy moving again. We need to get people back into work, and if the Government would only take the measures necessary to increase the supply of new housing, that would provide a benefit by addressing some social needs and helping economically; it would help to generate growth and jobs, which are desperately needed at the moment.

What was extremely unhelpful in dealing with the housing crisis was the fact that the Government decided to make a £4 billion reduction in the funding available for affordable housing, which led to a disastrous collapse of 97% in new social housing starts and a 68% collapse in affordable house building over the past year. Labour Members have warned the Government time and again that their policies would make the housing crisis worse. This Bill will go some way to dealing with the problem, but we need to go much further. Young people, families and elderly people have all been affected by the Government’s disastrous housing policies—that is the only way they can be described. Regrettably, the Minister for Housing and Local Government has refused to listen and has insisted that things are getting better when the evidence demonstrates that they are clearly getting worse—

Order. I think that even the shadow Minister may sense that he is going a little wider than what is contained in the Bill, so perhaps he could focus on its contents.

I am grateful for that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will endeavour to abide by your guidance.

The Bill is helpful in dealing with a problem, particularly given that people are often being forced into private sector accommodation because of the inability to find suitable social housing. The hon. Member for Watford and others made the point that forcing people into more expensive and often less suitable accommodation is unhelpful and unfair to individuals in such circumstances. We must therefore take measures such as those contained in the Bill to protect people from rogue landlords and being trapped paying high rents, which make things difficult for them. Even if they aspire to move into an occupation, they cannot do so because the rents are so high that they cannot set aside the money necessary to build up the deposit. It is clear that the Bill will ease the pressure on the housing list if we can release more accommodation through it, but unless more social housing is provided, councils will have to place more people in the private rented sector, including in expensive bed and breakfasts, and that will lead to an increase in the cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, the impact of the Bill will be further undermined by the Government’s decision to reduce the rights of tenants by creating insecure tenancies. As Members will be aware, the Government plan to link rents to market prices, which undermines the very basis of social housing. Although if the Bill finds its way on to the statute book that will be good news, as it will increase the supply of social housing, we must consider the consequences if the rents charged in the social housing sector are so high that it becomes difficult for people to access it at entry level.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is going off at that angle. The point is that a small number of people are deliberately playing the system, either making money out of it or trying to hold on to properties. That is what the Bill is trying to deal with, not some of the more general challenges he is talking about in the context of social housing, which we all support. I am quite surprised by his speech.

The hon. Lady will concede that the hon. Members who have spoken so far have made the point that there is a desperate shortage in social housing and we therefore need to find ways to increase that supply. The need for the Bill is brought into sharp relief by the fact that there is such a dearth of social housing, particularly in certain parts of the country, where the waiting list runs into the thousands. For many people, the prospect of ever obtaining a social housing dwelling is virtually zero. It is therefore important that we set the proposal in its wider context. Members alluded to the suggestion that the Bill would go a long way towards eliminating and eradicating the problem of the insufficient supply of social housing. Clearly, it will not go anywhere near that so we need to take further measures to address the problem faced by millions of people in the country today.

I do not think that anybody on the Government Benches suggested that at all. The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that we make better use of the social housing that already exists. We are all absolutely aware that other measures need to be taken to address the wider issues that the hon. Gentleman is raising, and the Government are taking many of them, but today is not about a general debate on housing. The hon. Gentleman can raise that question in an Opposition day debate during their parliamentary time and it is very disappointing that he is bringing partisan points into something that is, generally speaking, a widely accepted and positive step forward.

Order. Before the shadow Minister responds, I should tell him that although he is being masterful in doing so, he is straying into a wider debate on housing. I ask him to focus his attention on the contents of the Bill.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion in any event. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for her intervention. I am sorry that she feels that I am striking a partisan note; all of us acknowledge, as she did in her intervention, that there is a much wider issue that needs to be addressed. I hope that we can get cross-party consensus on the importance of housing, and of ensuring that the Bill is just one of a number of measures that helps us to deal with the problems that confront far too many people in society.

We certainly welcome the Bill, but the Government must do better. Ministers should take steps to boost the number of new social homes, and abandon their proposals to abolish secure tenancies and to kick tenants out of their homes when they get a promotion or pay rise. They should make affordable housing genuinely affordable again, rather than proposing to link social housing rents to 80% of market rents. The problem with that proposal is that it will undermine the basis of the Bill; if rents are 80% of market rents, it will be a pyrrhic victory in some ways, because people moving into the dwellings will not be able to afford to go to work. We need to make work pay; that is an important goal, as all of us on both sides of the Chamber would agree.

We certainly welcome the general thrust of the Bill. I hope that the Government will support it, but go a lot further, and listen not just to Opposition Members but people right across the housing world. Our country faces a massive housing crisis. The Bill will act as a mere sticking plaster on the problem unless the Government step up to the plate, do better, ensure that we build the houses that people need, and ensure that the Bill has a much more meaningful impact on the availability of social housing in our society.

I do not want to speak for too long, but I want to say why, on one of our very important Fridays, which we spend in our constituencies, I am here in Parliament, supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) in his endeavours to ensure that the Bill becomes law. This is an incredibly important issue in all our constituencies, because we all know from our surgery appointments that constituents who come to us may be in social housing, but not the appropriate social housing. They need to find the appropriate housing for them and their families. They may be in two-bedroom accommodation although they have two children, who need separate bedrooms. They cannot move into homes that would be much more appropriate because, as has been said, many constituents are sub-letting those homes. That is why we should support the Bill. It is a small measure, but it could make a significant difference to so many people.

This is a matter of basic, common justice. Society as a whole has decided that some people should have the benefit of social housing, having qualified for that support. That is absolutely right; there are people who need that support. However, when they do not need to live in that home any more, because their family circumstances have changed, or they have moved to another part of the country for work, or whatever the reason might be—I am sure that many of the reasons are very innocent to start with—it is inappropriate and incorrect for them to sub-let their property fraudulently, instead of putting it back into the housing stock, where it is very much needed by people who would like to take it up. That is just common sense. Nobody could argue with the point that if a person is in a home that they no longer need, and are receiving from the state and society the benefit of living in that home, they should give it back to society. They have had the benefit of it; they should give it back, so that someone else can have that benefit.

Another point that I wanted to make derives from my work on the Work and Pensions Committee and the inquiries we have carried out on housing benefit. The Government and hon. Members in all parts of the House are keen to see the housing benefit bill come down. Housing benefit payments are based on the average market rental in an area. Where a tenant is sub-letting at a higher rent than they are paying to the social housing provider, because they are making some form of profit, or even if they are doing so at the same rent, the consequence is that they are distorting the market. That makes it harder to rein in the housing benefit bill, and makes it harder for people in genuine need who want to rent private sector properties to do so using housing benefit.

I had a recent incident in my constituency. Residents in Aldeburgh were complaining that someone was renting out their social housing over the summer and raking in far more in one week than they were paying per month. This is the kind of thing we need to tackle.

My hon. Friend summarises the point well. We must make sure that such abuse of the system is not allowed. Even though it introduces small measures, the Bill will tackle those problems.

Finally, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford on the sensitive way in which he has dealt with the issue. The measure could easily be misinterpreted and be seen as an attack on social housing tenants. Other Members might have scaremongered about the issue. My hon. Friend has not done that. He has tackled it with great sensitivity. All social tenants should be reassured that the Bill is not an attack on them. It is trying to deal with the 150,000 social tenants who, we understand, are abusing the system, distorting the market and making it more and more difficult for people in genuine need to get the homes that are appropriate for them.

That I why I am here on a Friday to support the Bill. I very much hope that the Government and the official Opposition will support it so that it can become legislation as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). I join her in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on having selected this topic for his private Member’s Bill and on the way in which he introduced it today, giving the House the benefit of a detailed, coherent and compelling account of the background to the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford spoke with characteristic modesty, which is a very attractive trait but does not give an entirely accurate impression in his case. He spoke of leaving a small footnote. Having known him for many years, I would say he is somebody who finds it impossible to leave a small footnote behind him. He also spoke, again with modesty, about his academic legal career. I can tell the House from my own knowledge that that career encompassed at least one very rare achievement. His legal knowledge was no doubt reflected in how he introduced the Bill. Suffice it to say that he has convinced the House—he has certainly convinced me, as a sponsor of the Bill, that it deals with a real problem that is also widespread, although the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and others made the very good point that that is no reflection on the vast majority of social housing tenants, who are decent, honest people to whom it does not occur to carry out an illegal activity such as sub-letting.

It is as well to bear in mind that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the position not only of existing social housing tenants, but of the people who are in many ways the worst victims of such fraudulent activity—those on housing waiting lists, of whom there are a large number in my constituency, whose position I will deal with in a moment. There is a widespread view among housing associations and in the sector that this activity is not sufficiently covered by existing criminal sanctions. Indeed, there seems to be some doubt whether existing criminal law covers it. In those circumstances my hon. Friend is right to introduce the Bill, which makes it a definite criminal offence, avoiding the element of doubt whether the law captures the mischief in question. This is a definite measure aimed specifically at that mischief, and it should leave nobody in doubt about it.

I would like to know whether my hon. Friend the Minister envisages publicising this measure so that people will become aware of it and its deterrent effect on those who might become involved in this activity can be maximised. There is one other point on which I invite my hon. Friend, if he feels able to at this stage. The Bill would introduce two different offences, the first of which is dealt with more seriously than the second. The offence set out in clause 1(2) provides, on summary conviction, for a fine and possibly a prison sentence and, on conviction on indictment, for imprisonment of a term not exceeding two years, whereas the offence set out in clause 1(1) is triable summarily only and does not provide for a sentence of imprisonment. I guess the offence under subsection (2) is dealt with more seriously because it involves dishonesty. I invite my hon. Friend to comment, if he feels able to do so, on what sorts of factors he thinks prosecutors would take into account in deciding whether to bring a charge under subsection (2), rather than subsection (1), when they feel that dishonesty is present.

The impact of the Bill is clear and I hope that it will have a deterrent effect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford has envisaged. Certainly everyone in my constituency with whom I have spoken about the Bill thinks that it is a good idea. There is huge pressure on social housing in Hertsmere, as there has been for a long time under Governments of both descriptions. My hon. Friend pointed out that this type of offence is more prevalent in London than elsewhere in the country because of the particular pressure on housing there and the high market rents. The same considerations apply in my constituency. I guess that this offence is taking place in my constituency and hope that the Bill will go someway towards tackling it.

As I mentioned, the people I think of in particular in this regard are those who are in housing need but are on the waiting lists that my local authority and housing association keep, many of whom have families. The local authority and housing association determine those cases on the basis of greatest need, whereas that consideration does not arise in the case of those who are sub-letting their properties. We need to take these needs into account. I saw a case only this week involving a large family with small children in great need—I will say no more about it than that—and there were compelling educational reasons for keeping the family in the locality. I am sure that all Members deal with such cases. It is the people on housing waiting lists waiting for one of these valuable social housing tenancies to come their way whom the Bill will benefit the most, especially as there appears to be a substantial number of such properties that are not getting into the right hands and have been diverted away from social housing, and which are also, by the way, causing significant problem for local authorities.

I think that my hon. Friend’s Bill deals with a real mischief and meets a real need. I think that it is an excellent Bill and am happy to promote it. I congratulate those on the Opposition Front Bench on the attitude they have taken towards the Bill itself, if I may put it like that, and I hope that it proceeds to Committee and receives proper consideration and eventually passes into law.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. May I start by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on his success in the ballot and on introducing this valuable Bill? It is one that the Government are happy to support, and I am sure that, with support across the Chamber, it will have the fair wind that it deserves. I congratulate him personally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) has just done, on the way in which he has brought it forward and put his case. He made a carefully argued, powerful and deeply felt speech, which I think says a great deal about him, because he has sought to deal with this important issue in a serious and constructive manner.

I knew my hon. Friend for a long time before he became a Member, and I, too, know the qualities that he brings to the House. It is easier for some of us than for others to leave a small footprint, but I am sure that he will leave a large footprint in this place and be here a good number of years to ensure that this Bill is by no means his only achievement in the House. It is, however, a very powerful and impressive start, because he hits upon a serious issue.

I shall not dwell on the history, but I observe that the issue was recognised even before the coalition came into office, and I note my hon. Friend’s attempts to engage with a former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who has always known when to be partisan and when not to be in relation to this issue.

The Government have recognised that there is a problem not only by bringing in the consultation, which was discussed prior to the general election, but by increasing grant aid funding to local authorities over four years from £4 million under the previous Administration to £19 million under this one; by setting up a team of experts, based at the Chartered Institute of Housing, to offer free, practical advice to social landlords on how to tackle fraud in their housing stock; and by setting up a framework agreement to help local authorities to use credit reference agencies and data matching more effectively and cheaply.

Practical things are already being done, but real concern remains about abuse, which all of us will have come across in our constituencies and which has been highlighted on the television and in various aspects of the media. In some cases the sums involved are quite egregious, and in others fraud is carried out on what can fairly be described as a professional or near-professional basis. That is the abuse which rightly needs to be tackled. Members on both sides of the House have observed that this is a fraud not only on the public purse, but on the vast majority of social housing and council housing tenants who are honest, and above all on the people on the waiting list, who are done out of the home that is fraudulently let. We are therefore happy to support the Bill.

There are difficulties with the current law—an issue my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) raised in an intervention. He is not in his place, but I must tell the House that I too was a lawyer. He was an academic lawyer before having a distinguished career in business, and I was a criminal barrister—some people say, “Aren’t they all?” but I did spend 25 years in the criminal courts of this country, so I recognise that despite the successes from time to time when using the existing legislation, there were gaps in its effectiveness. When I was a prosecutor and a defender in such cases, the difficulty seemed to be that neither the offence of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception nor light fraud offences wholly fit these circumstances, because the deception does not operate upon the mind of the tenant—the illegal sub-tenant in this case—who parts with the money.

So making the activity fit the definition is not easy, and similarly, because the Theft Act 1968 involves the appropriation of property belonging to another, there is a difficulty in this case with the appropriation taking place at one point while the mind, or any element of dishonesty, operates on a different person—and one has to prove the intention permanently to deprive as well. The means of taking forward any such case is therefore slightly convoluted, and that is why everybody on both sides agrees that a tailor-made offence is the surest and safest way to proceed.

On the legal aspects, a point was made about the distinction between indictable and summary-only offences, and about the issues of knowledge as opposed to dishonesty. It is ultimately for the local authority, as the prosecuting authority, to take a decision on this matter. They have access to the general guidelines that the Attorney-General issues for Crown prosecutors, which are well known from Archbold’s “Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice”, the standard text in this regard. One would expect the lesser offence to be appropriate where a lesser gain is involved, and there is discretion to consider that. The nature of the behaviour may well affect the degree of dishonesty, and it is sensible to make that distinction. In some situations, a tenant might know that they were in breach of the tenancy agreement. Given that it is pretty standard for any tenancy agreement on which a public body lets out houses to have a clause expressly stating that sub-letting is forbidden without the written consent of the landlord, a tenant who breaches that will often do so knowingly.

In some cases, no money will have been made or the tenant will have moved out and sub-let to a friend rather than handing the keys back. However, that still deprives the social landlord—the local authority—of the ability to let the property to the person who is highest on the waiting list in terms of housing need. That is why this offence can incur a financial penalty. Where a rogue tenant goes in, that may be because the occupier’s own personal circumstances have changed so that they no longer feel in need of the social subsidised property and therefore let it out to make a profit. That is clearly a dishonest activity, and it is right that it should potentially be visited by imprisonment.

My hon. Friend is giving the House the benefit of a clear explanation of the difference between the two types of offences and what could be taken into account in determining how to prosecute. Does he agree that in order to avoid people casually letting out tenancies to friends, perhaps without great profit, and to maximise the deterrent effect on those who try to make a large profit by letting out tenancies, it should be made clear to tenants, on taking on the tenancy, that they will be committing a criminal offence and face the penalties in the Bill if they sub-let in the circumstances that it outlines?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful and sensible point about deterrence. We in the Department, together with the Local Government Association, other local authority bodies and the social rented sector, will want to take this forward.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Bill includes provision for an unlawful profits order, which strengthens and makes more specific the provision for an order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That means that someone can not only be fined or, in a bad case, go to prison, but can have the unlawful profit taken from them and returned to the social housing provider, as well as losing their status as an assured tenant. These are powerful sanctions that have not been drawn together before, and that is a great strength of the Bill. I should point out for the benefit of anyone who is anxious about this that an honest person who lets in a lodger will not be caught because in such cases the agreement of the landlord is secured and no difficulty arises.

I hope that that is a proper argument on which the Bill can proceed and that I have made it clear that the Government want to give it a fair wind. It is by no means, of course, the only area where the Government are determined to act to improve the affordable housing situation. We inherited a lamentable record of affordable housing starts, and we have been working hard to improve that through our affordable homes programme, which will provide up to 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. [Interruption.] Nevertheless, the Bill is a valuable piece of legislation in its own right.

I was about to interrupt in order to say that those were wonderful statistics, but that the Minister seemed to be straying down the same path as the shadow Minister. However, he has clearly now finished.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63.)

International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The world is in a state of continual change, with economies being reshaped and new Governments being formed, but the one constant is the stain on the conscience of the developed world: poverty. Having succeeded in the private Members’ ballot, I decided to introduce a Bill to ensure that the Government’s commitment to enshrine in law development assistance spending of 0.7% of gross national income was honoured. That pledge was made in the election manifestos of all three main political parties, and after the election it was included in the coalition agreement. The Bill would also toughen the remit of the independent body established to monitor the effect of aid spending.

The Secretary of State for International Development has stated that the Government Bill to implement this pledge is drafted and ready to go, and that the delay is due only to limited parliamentary time.

Would it not be a good idea for this measure to come forward as a Government Bill in the time in September that would have been allocated to Lords reform, but will not now be spent on Lords reform?

All Governments, including the last Labour Government, have tremendous pressures on their time. However, this pledge was made by all three main political parties before the election, so there should not be a great deal of controversy. The Minister will speak for himself, but I know that the Government are keen for legislation to be passed on this matter, like all other mainstream political parties. I am sure that the Government would not want to be seen to be using the lack of parliamentary time as an excuse for not getting the Bill on to the statute book before the next election. We certainly do not want that to happen.

This Bill gives the Government the opportunity to legislate on this matter. The draft of the Government Bill was not forthcoming, so I put my Bill together based on a similar draft Bill that was published before the last general election by the previous Secretary of State for International Development. I have added other measures which, having spoken to the Minister earlier today, seem to be acceptable to the Government. Obviously, minor amendments may be needed if the Bill makes it through to Committee. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I hope that he and his colleagues will give the Bill a safe passage today.

The Bill would not only reaffirm Britain’s commitment to the world’s poorest people, but take party politics out of the debate about aid spending for the long term. That is important because the measure of any society—we are talking about the human race as a whole—is the degree to which it helps and works with its disadvantaged people. The fact that all three parties agree with that makes me optimistic that the Bill will make progress. I genuinely want an all-party approach. This issue must not be kicked into the long grass because of ideology or electioneering. Politicians from all parts of the House must realise that by supporting the Bill, they would be fulfilling the hope and trust that millions of the world’s poorest people have put in Britain to make their lives better.

With the current economic hardship in Europe and the world’s wealthiest nations, it would be easy to dismiss a commitment on international aid spending, but those problems pale into insignificance compared with the fight for basic survival of people in the developing world.

For the Opposition, putting an international aid commitment into law would fulfil our values and our belief in helping those who need it most. Our history is built on battles against injustice, and until we make commitments backed by action, we will continue to let down those most in need of our assistance.

Let us imagine being unable to pay for the drugs necessary to help a sick child, or medicines not being available at all. Let us imagine not knowing where our next meal will come from, or living in a war-torn country with no basic infrastructure to support communities. Those problems are vast. The solution is not easy, but we can neither shirk our responsibilities nor shrink from the monumental task before us. The people snared in poverty’s trap cannot afford inaction.

In 1970, United Nations General Assembly resolution 2626 committed all economically advanced countries to providing 0.7% of their gross national income as official development assistance. The coalition agreement states:

“The Government believes that even in these difficult economic times, the UK has a moral responsibility to help the poorest people in the world. We will honour our aid commitments, but at the same time will ensure much greater transparency and scrutiny of aid spending to deliver value for money for British taxpayers and to maximise the impact of our aid budget.”

It continues:

“We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law.”

As I have said, there is concern that given the parliamentary agenda, there may be difficulty in getting time to secure that legislation. The Bill presents an opportunity to do that.

The UK remains committed to meeting the 0.7% target, but as we know, it has not yet done so. The Bill would therefore impose a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that the UK meets the 0.7% target in 2013 and each subsequent calendar year. It provides that whether the target has been achieved will be determined by reference to the overseas development assistance and gross national income figures reported to Parliament annually in accordance with the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006.

The Bill would require the Secretary of State to lay a statement before Parliament in the event that the UK failed to meet the 0.7% target in any calendar year from 2013. That would mean that the Secretary of State’s accountability for his duty to meet that target would be to Parliament alone.

Clause 1 covers the duty on the Secretary of State to meet the 0.7% United Nations target from 2013. Clause 2 sets out his duty to lay a statement before Parliament if that target is not met. It states that he must do so if his annual report laid before Parliament in 2014 or any subsequent year shows that the UK has not reached the target in the year to which the report relates. It also provides for the possibility that figures in an annual report may be revised. Subsection (2) states that if a revision is made to any year’s figure meaning that it no longer meets the 0.7% target, the Secretary of State must then lay a statement.

Clause 2(3) provides that a statement must explain why the 0.7% target has not been met, and that it may refer to economic or fiscal circumstances that have had an impact. It may also refer to the impact of

“circumstances arising outside the United Kingdom”,

for example the failure of a foreign Government to achieve the targets necessary to trigger debt relief. On the requirement for the Secretary of State to lay the statement before Parliament, he or she must describe in it any steps that have been taken to ensure that the 0.7% target will be met in the following calendar year.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being very generous and making a powerful speech. If we are in a recession, as we have been, does the 0.7% commitment mean that the amount of overseas aid will go down?

Yes, it does. We are talking about percentages. If we have growth, the overall budget will increase in real terms, but the percentage will stay the same. If GNI contracts because we are in recession, the real amount will fall, but the percentage will stay the same. The Bill maintains a percentage commitment, not an absolute commitment in real terms.

Clause 4 provides for the repeal of the Secretary of State’s duty in section 3 of the 2006 Act to forecast when the 0.7% target will be met. That repeal takes account of the Secretary of State’s new duty—in clause 1 —to ensure that the UK meets the 0.7% target from 2013 onwards.

Finally, clause 5 sets up a new body, which for the purposes of convenience I have called the independent international development office. The new body would bear a great deal of relation to the current Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which the Secretary of State rightly set up just over a year ago to answer to the Select Committee on International Development so that it can oversee the effectiveness and efficiency of aid administered throughout the world. The new body would keep a much closer eye on the Department and its performance, and it would have a statutory footing—it would be established in law.

I support a lot of what the hon. Gentleman tries to do in the Bill, but I am concerned about clause 4. I wonder why we are duplicating functions, but the Bill also mentions

“a pre-appointment hearing by, and with the consent of, the International Development Committee”.

To almost resurrect a discussion on other Bills, why does he believe that this extra obligation of monitoring the Department is not the job of the Select Committee and Parliament as a whole? Why do we need that external body?

If the Government’s commitment is written into law—the intention is that Governments of whichever party must keep to it—the body needs a statutory footing, which the current Independent Commission for Aid Impact does not have. The new body will also mean much tighter scrutiny: it will be able to oversee the work of the Department in a way that the current ICAI cannot because it does not have a statutory basis. I accept the hon. Lady’s point on procedures arising from the Bill, but we can iron those out in Committee should the Bill make progress.

It is right, during a time of hardship, that we continue to fight against poverty. I urge the House to grasp the opportunity and to support my Bill. That will fulfil not only a pre-election promise but, more importantly, a promise to fight, and one day to fulfil, that dream of eradicating poverty.

Today stands to be one of the most important days in the history of international development. The United Nations and other organisations have been campaigning for more than 30 years to put a fixed figure on what wealthier countries should spend in the aid they give to those who are less fortunate. Today, the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) has moved a Bill that would establish just that. We bear him no grudge for pipping the Government to the post by moving the Second Reading of a Bill that would enshrine in law our having to spend 0.7% of our national income on official development assistance. He has beaten our Bill for reasons the House well understands, but I assure him that our Bill is ready and that we have—or had—every intention of putting it to the House. To a large extent, the first half of his Bill is almost identical to what we would have tabled.

The Minister makes a powerful point in welcoming the Bill and saying that it should be for Government time. Does he agree that this is such an important Bill—by any standards, it is a major shift in policy—that it should have priority over Lords reform so that we can get it properly debated in the House?

I well understand my hon. Friend’s relative affection—or lack of—for either pieces of legislation, but this is almost a one-clause Bill. The principle is clear and well understood, but we would be delighted, were the House minded to give the Bill a Second Reading, to see him in Committee to discuss his concerns in detail. And, of course, there will be Report and Third Reading.

I want to make it clear to the hon. Member for Preston that Her Majesty’s Government support the Bill and have no intention of opposing it. We would like it to go into Committee, and hope that, in a few minutes, that is what will happen. Having said that, we only saw his Bill yesterday, and I saw that it fell into two distinct parts, the first of which we agree with. It is what we are setting out to do; it is in the coalition agreement and is agreed by all parties in the House—it will enshrine the 0.7% figure in law.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand, however, if we do not agree with the second part of the Bill, which would set up an independent international development office. To all intents and purposes, we have done that already by setting up the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which is working well and is inexpensive and effective. We believe that his proposal would do the same thing, with no particular added value, but at a higher cost. I hope, therefore, that, just as we welcome the introduction of his Bill, he will, in the spirit of give and take, accept our argument about removing this part of the Bill, so that we can focus on the 0.7% target and concentrate on the search for value for money and transparency in all that we do.

I am sympathetic to what the Minister says. Does he not feel, however, that putting this body, whatever its name, on to a statutory footing would give it more teeth and greater powers over access to information from the Department that could be provided to the Select Committee? As a purely independent body without a statutory position, it is a weaker animal.

I understand the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but we are not persuaded by it because we believe that the body we have set up is working well and has adequate powers. Given the debate in this country about how much we spend on international development, it is essential that we are seen to spend it on those poor people who need the benefit of our spending on overseas development and assistance, rather than on this sort of body, which, under his proposal, would cost more. I think that with the current system we can achieve the same thing for less.

There is a debate in this country—we must respect it—about whether, in a time of austerity, we should be committing to spending 0.7% of our national income on official development assistance. I believe that everyone in this country can hold their heads high, both in the UK and when they travel abroad, because of what we are doing. If the Bill is passed, we will become the first seriously wealthy country to commit to spending in this way. The results we are getting across the world—in terms of saving lives, vaccinating children and ensuring that mothers and their children do not die in childbirth—are something of which we can be enormously proud.

We in the Department for International Development strive to get value for money. We have reviewed everything we do—from our bilateral relationships, where we have direct aid programmes in individual countries, to all our subventions and payments to multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations agencies and the global fund—not just with a view to ensuring value for money across our budget, but in a way that makes lots of other countries copy what we are doing, so that across the world others do what we do. Often, where DFID and the UK Government lead, others follow. By leading on 0.7%, I hope that others—who are falling way behind that figure—will follow what we do.

One of the great and most important principles of development is that we need continuity. It is no good darting into a development programme one year and abandoning it the next. Continuity and certainty of programmes over a number of years are essential to securing good development outcomes. That is why we have committed to budgets over four years—we have operational plans, so that we can follow through what we want to achieve from now to the end of 2014 and beyond—and why a Bill such as this, which commits us to spending 0.7% of our national income, is so important. There are few of us who, even if we were down to our last £100, would not give one of those hundred pounds to someone dying in the street. That, in proportion, is pretty well all that we are trying to do with this Bill. I hope that the House will give it the Second Reading it deserves today, so that the United Kingdom can be proud of being the first country to do what so many people have been campaigning for for so long.

I do not intend to speak for long, because I want to ensure, if possible, that the Bill gets its Second Reading today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), not only on coming so high in the ballot, but on choosing a topic that I can only describe as—to repeat, to some extent, what the Minister said—one of the great issues of our time. Let me also say how pleased I am that the Government are supportive—even if for only half of the Bill—and determined, as I and many others are, that it gets on the statute book. However, there are some forgotten people as well. We should not forget the millions of people outside this Chamber who have campaigned on the issue—people from non-governmental organisations and all sorts of other organisations—and for whom, if the Bill goes through, it will be a dream come true.

People talk about the effectiveness of aid, but let me give the House just one statistic that comes to mind when people ask whether it does any good. As a result of aid involving malaria nets and all the work done with medicines and so on, over the last 10 years a third of the African children who would have died from malaria have not done so. There are many justifications for the Bill. We hear about how it can help deal with migration and terrorism, and about how it is good for business and trade, but at the end of day, we are doing this because it is the right thing to do. Recently I was in Zambia. We went from Lusaka down to Choma, and then out into the bush country—not even on roads, but through long grass and so on—to a little village. We saw mothers there who were pulling clean water from a well that had been provided by overseas aid. The look on their faces! When the words of one of those mothers were translated into English, we heard that she was simply saying how pleased she was that her children were not sick—that they had clean water and were disease-free.

This Bill is the right thing to do morally, but—to pick up the point the Minister made—it also puts the UK on the moral high ground where it deserves to be. That will enable us to say, in bilateral or multilateral negotiations with other countries, that we are the first country in the world to do this.

The Bill is important for us as a Parliament, for the Government and for the Opposition. It is important for the United Kingdom, but far more than that, it is important for millions of people in some of the poorest countries of the world. It is for them that we are doing this, and I hope that the House will support the Bill.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham), and to welcome the Bill that has been introduced by the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick). He made a powerful speech, but I am afraid that he did not have as much time as he might have liked. That is what is wrong today. We have half an hour for a Second Reading debate on a major piece of legislation that represents a huge step change in the way in which Governments have looked at overseas aid over the years. We have spent several hours talking about scrap metal dealers, which I am sure is an important issue, but it is not as important as what we are discussing now.

This should be a Government Bill. The Government should have introduced it and made the arguments for it, so that we could have had proper discussions on it and heard all the views. The Chamber is not packed today because people did not realise that this Bill would be reached. I have reservations about the Bill, but I believe that it needs to have a proper airing and a chance to get on to the statute book. I am not convinced that the private Member’s Bill route is the way to do that, but the hon. Member for Preston was right to introduce it and to put pressure on the Government in this way.

I heard what the Minister said earlier. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented Ministers in the Government, and, as an aside, I would say that if we were not in a coalition, I believe that he would be a Secretary of State in his own right. However, on what is probably a wet Friday afternoon—I am not sure whether it is raining outside—this Bill is not the best way to deal with this issue.

If my hon. Friend takes the view that this is an admirable Bill, and if all sides agree on it, would it not be better just to get on with it and allow it a Second Reading? In that way, the Bill could be introduced, with a full debate later. It is better to do that than to delay it in any way at all.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful intervention, but she is absolutely wrong. The whole point of Parliament is that we discuss these matters in detail and hear every point of view. I am not saying that this is an admirable Bill; the Minister has said that it has serious flaws.

Is the hon. Gentleman not making the best the enemy of the good by insisting that the Bill should be introduced as a Government Bill?

I am taking a purely parliamentary view of the matter at this stage. I do not think that major changes in policy should go through in half an hour on Second Reading. There are Government hand-out Bills that can, of course, go through in half an hour on Second Reading, but we should not do that with a measure that seeks to change policies that Governments have dealt with for years and years.—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words a moment ago, but the clock is ticking. I can assure him that I believe the Bill will, in effect, be cut in half. It will go down to one clause, which will provide for the 0.7% to which all parties have committed in their manifestos. May I appeal to his good nature and implore him to let the Bill go through on Second Reading today? I really implore him to do that, for the good of the many people in the world who need our help.

I hear the Minister’s pleas. If he is serious—no, of course he is seriously committed to this. So is the Prime Minister and so is the coalition, so it has to be a Government Bill, done properly through this House.

In a Second Reading debate, we have to discuss the principles involved, so let us start with one of them. This is not intended to be a party political point. Overseas aid as a proportion of gross national income was at its lowest point in 1999, under the Labour Government, when it stood at 0.24%. [Interruption.] The Labour Government had 13 years when, if they had wanted to, they could, in those boom years, have increased the overseas—[Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) want to intervene, or does he want to chunter from the Front Bench? This Bill can come back on another day and be debated properly.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 7 September.

Business without Debate

bank of england (appointment of governor) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 July), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Green Belt (Broxtowe)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Goodwill.)

May I begin by saying that I very much hope that this place changes its procedures so that one person cannot thwart a measure on which there is so much cross-party agreement?

I am grateful to have secured this debate. In my maiden speech, I referred to the green belt in my constituency. We do not have a great deal of it, as it has been developed over the years. As a result, the only land now available for development in Broxtowe is either brownfield or green-belt land; we have no greenfield land at all. We are the most densely populated borough in Nottinghamshire, and one of the most densely populated in the east midlands.

In my maiden speech, I referred to the threat to the green belt from development and from open-cast mining. I anticipated that there might be an application by UK Coal. I wish my prediction had been false, but, unfortunately, UK Coal has now made an application for an open-cast mine. I shall briefly address that issue at the end of my speech.

The real threat to the green-belt land in my constituency comes from development, however, and most notably from the borough council’s aligned core strategy document, which is currently out for public consultation. I know the Minister will be interested to hear my observations, which are supported by many of my constituents. We have had many public meetings, some called by me and others by Broxtowe residents. There is absolute agreement about the form that accompanies the so-called public consultation. I believe it is a form that we inherited, so I am not casting aspersions on my own Government alone; this form is a fault of all. It must be almost impossible for anybody to fill in the form with confidence unless they are either an agent or an extremely experienced clerk to one of our brilliant town or parish councils. I urge the Government to look at such forms and the notes that accompany them. When we ask for a public consultation, please can we make sure that ordinary people can fill in the forms that are provided, so that they can truly make their voices heard?

This aligned core strategy document that is out for public consultation in Broxtowe utterly contradicts the national planning policy framework, in which the Government have set out what I believe is an excellent policy on the green belt, and which stresses the need to protect it. I secured a 90-minute debate on green-belt land in Westminster Hall. I will not rehearse the history of the green belt and the reasons it is so special. It was introduced specifically to prevent urban sprawl, so that our communities kept their own identity and there was not coalescence.

In a letter to me dated 22 June, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), succinctly explains the following:

“The Government attaches great importance to the Green Belt. Our new National Planning Policy Framework provides strong protection to the Green Belt, and explains that only in exceptional circumstances should a Green Belt boundary be amended.

The Framework not only reaffirms policy on the permanence of Green Belt and the need to protect it from inappropriate development, it also makes clear that policies protecting Green Belt are not overridden by the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The presumption should work through, not against, the Local Plan, and of course it is in Local Plans that Green Belt is designated.”

People throughout Broxtowe know that their green-belt land is seriously under threat within the borough because of this document produced by the borough councils and the other councils that form the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board—again those are not exactly words that trip off the tongue and are easily identified by ordinary people.

At its heart, the document is about setting a housing target that would mean that some 6,150 houses would be built within Broxtowe. The problem, as I have explained, is that we have only green-belt and brownfield land. We know that we have enough brownfield land for between 3,000 and 3,500 houses, which means that the remaining 2,000-plus houses would have to built on our green-belt land. My campaign began in 2008-09, before I came to this place, and when I have criticised the acceptance of this housing target, as I did recently, I have been accused of many things. I have been accused of telling lies and of scaremongering. I have been told that I am talking rubbish. I have actually been told that I should not poke my nose into these things because I do not know what I am talking about. I believe that I have some understanding of the consequences of what is in this document, but in any event it is absolutely my duty as the local Member of Parliament to come to this place on behalf of the people I represent and say what their view is. It is my duty to represent their views, not just here, but in my work in the constituency, in opposition to that target, because I believe firmly and fundamentally that the Government’s policy of protecting our green belt from development is absolutely right.

I know that the Labour party also takes the view that green-belt land should be properly protected and should not be developed, except in exceptional circumstances. I have asked the Minister for an explanation and an understanding of what “exceptional circumstances” or “very special circumstances” might amount to. My fear is that if a housing target is deemed to have been set and to be both legally compliant and sound, that will override Government policy. With great respect to the Government, may I say that that is going to put us in a very difficult position? If we do not resolve this, the fine words of Ministers across the board and up to the Prime Minister, who has talked about how special green-belt land is and why it must be specially protected, and the fine words in the national planning policy framework will all ring hollow. Those words will also be hollow if councils such as Broxtowe’s are allowed to establish a figure that they cannot meet without building thousands of homes on green-belt land.

Is it not the case that, unfortunately, because of some of the earlier campaigns about the NPPF, some developers and councils keen to have housing—no bad thing in itself—are blaming the Government by saying, “The Government are allowing us to build all over the place”? That is not the message of the NPPF, which respects the environment. I think that my hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of her constituency and her constituents.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, but the difficulty is that it matters not what Ministers say—although they are important words, of course—unless we resolve the contradictions with the NPPF. Organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England have accepted that it protects our green open spaces, but it will count for nothing unless we resolve the conflict between what is said here and what is happening out in the real world.

Last night, I went to a meeting in Greasley that had been organised not by me—to those who say I am stirring up trouble, I say that I did not organise it—but by a gentleman by the name of Neil Hutchinson. I walked into a parish hall, which was packed. People were almost having difficulty getting in, such was the strength of feeling and the opposition to the council’s plans. It has set the target and has not got the land to fulfil what it says is the need.

I want to make it very clear that Broxtowe has formed a board with Nottingham city, Erewash, Rushcliffe—although it withdrew from the process and has set its own housing target—Gedling and parts of Ashfield covering the parts of the county to the north. They have taken up the target together. The overall target was initially established by the old regional spatial strategies, which I know the Government are trying to abolish, but those councils have supposedly looked at the housing need for the whole of Greater Nottingham, and that is the problem. Broxtowe has not looked at its own housing need and neither has it worked with its local communities. Neighbourhood plans have been mentioned only in the past two or three months. They had been ignored, despite my protestations, until recently, so we have not had all the great things that the Government want to do to bring communities together to determine their neighbourhood plans.

The first site proposed in the document is a green-belt site at Stapleford. Again, I went to a public meeting in a pub that, again, was standing room only. People were cross and angry. That meeting had been arranged by a couple of local people and I should give full credit to them—they are a woman called Jennie Phillips and a man called Richard McRae. He has delivered hundreds, indeed thousands, of leaflets to bring people together to have their say. People are angry that the first site that has been proposed is a piece of green-belt land.

We then move to other communities in my constituency, such as Greasley, which has been lumped into Eastwood and told that 1,400 houses will built in that area. None of the sites has been identified, however. Equally, we find that Kimberley now encompasses Watnall and Nuthall. Again, the figure that has been given is 600 but none of the sites has been identified. We know that there are green-belt sites there and our fear is that they are all now liable to be developed. We know that because we know what happened to Toton, which has a large piece of green-belt land that stops the sort of coalescence between communities that green-belt land was designed to prevent. At Toton, a green belt site had been proposed by the council as a preferred site and when the people rose up in anger, it was taken off the list. It has been made vulnerable, however, and we know that because we anticipate that a planning application will be made some time next month for 800 houses. So, green-belt land is being proposed before even brownfield sites.

My hon. Friend is a famous champion of the green belt in Broxtowe and is speaking knowledgeably and passionately. She is making a local point and, through that, highlighting a national issue. Does she agree that local people up and down the country are worried and anxious about how to protect their green belt?

Absolutely. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point because the danger when we have such debates about our constituencies is that people could say it was all about Broxtowe. Of course I champion my constituency, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments in that regard, but the question has huge implications, as identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Unless we ensure that there is no conflict between our stated policy of protecting our green belt and what is happening in the real world, all those fine words will ring hollow.

People will say, “Why is this being done? Why is the borough council—and the Lib Dems and Labour, who control it—doing this in the face of so much opposition?” The borough council talks about need; I have addressed the fact that it has looked at the housing market in the whole of Greater Nottingham, but now it seems that the planning inspectors, who are, at the end of the day, Government inspectors, are being blamed. In a letter, Councillor Steve Barber, the chair of the Greater Nottingham Joint Planning Advisory Board and a Broxtowe councillor, says:

“Our consultants and experts came up with a much higher housing figure”.

He does not actually say which figure it is higher than, but that does not matter; what matters is what follows:

“and the inspector indicated to us that in the absence of striking new evidence, he will not accept any lower than this.”

“This” is the overall figure given for Greater Nottingham, which councils have literally divvied up among themselves. I have looked at various minutes—I have some here—to see where the inspector has said that he wants “striking new evidence” before he will accept any lower figure, and I cannot find that comment. I have asked for evidence of that statement, and it is yet to be forthcoming.

My real message to the Minister is this. I do not know whether he is able to contact Keith Holland, the planning inspector, who I know is a very senior inspector, but it strikes me that what is needed is for the Minister to write to him, or arrange a meeting with him, so that I or perhaps others can discuss directly with the inspector what is happening in Broxtowe, and how Broxtowe can offer a figure that in some way matches up to the availability of non-green-belt land, so that we do not find ourselves in a position where so much of our green belt is under threat from development.

I also ask the Minister to give good, firm guidance to all inspectors throughout the country—this is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones)—to ensure that full, proper advice is given to our inspectors in their work with local authorities, so that local authorities are not putting in danger our green belt and flying in the face of our national planning policy framework document, and the words and policy of this Government—a policy of protecting our green belt.

As ever, the clock is against me. I quickly want to say that the other threat to the green belt in Broxtowe is from an application from UK Coal that the county council will consider in September. The public consultation is completed. The application would allow, at a 325-acre site in a place called Shortwood, between Cossall and Trowell, the extraction of 1.5 million tonnes of coal and fireclay, which—if you can believe it, in this day and age, Mr Deputy Speaker—would be put into heavy goods vehicles, at a rate of some eight movements an hour. Those vehicles would go all the way along congested roads to the M1, and then to a coal-fired power station and back. I am reliably informed that it would take that power station about four months to burn that coal, which it would take more than five years to extract; it would take another year to restore the area. One wonders whether, in this day and age, that is worth it. In my judgment, that is certainly not right.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker for allowing me the time I have taken to speak. I look forward, as ever, to the Minister’s contribution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this debate, and on the typically thoughtful way in which she made the case on behalf of her constituents. I understand the concern that she, her constituents and many other people have about potential threats, general or specific, to the green belt. Like me, my hon. Friend is a lawyer, and she will know that in planning matters, there is a legal process that is gone through, both in the plan-making process and in the consideration of individual applications. Planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate—although it acts in the Secretary of State’s name, it has operational independence—Ministers and the Secretary of State, who has a role, potentially, in appeals processes, all play a part in that quasi-judicial process, so propriety means that we are not in a position to comment on individual applications; I know that she will understand that. The plan-making process has to go through a specific set of legal processes and tests; that is the important thing to bear in mind.

My hon. Friend raises a concern which was made worse by the previous Government’s policy of regional spatial strategies, which were seen as a top-down removal of green belt. Across the country there were some 30 instances where regional strategies proposed to remove land from green-belt protection. The Government have made clear their intention to remove those regional strategies, although we must act lawfully and give consideration to the environmental impact doing so. That is the legal process that we have to go through. The House made clear its view by voting in the Localism Act 2011 to remove the legal basis for any future regional strategies.

The core strategy, which has become known as the local plan under our new system, can be a single document for one authority or can, as in this case, be a joint document for a number of authorities. The strategy has to go through a process whereby, having been consulted on, it is submitted to the inspectorate for examination and to be tested as to whether it is sound. That is the important legal test to bear in mind, and it includes the opportunity for an examination in public in which not only must the council defend its proposals, but there is the opportunity for my hon. Friend, her constituents or other interested persons with a legitimate nexus who appear before the examination in public to make their case that what is proposed is not sound. I cannot prejudge that, and neither can the inspectorate.

With reference to some of the comments that might have been made or are purported to have been made to my hon. Friend, I can assure her that the Broxtowe plan has not yet been submitted to the planning inspectorate for examination. Although there may well have been some correspondence about preliminaries, no inspector is considering proposals yet. I want to emphasise that. When they are considered, the inspector will have to consider whether the proposals in the plan—the core strategy—are sound, in the sense that they are consistent with national planning policy, and whether they are based on sound and robust evidence.

In relation to green-belt matters, national policy is clearly set out in the national planning policy framework. That commits strongly to protecting the green belt. It says that inappropriate development is by definition harmful to the green belt and should not be approved, except in very special circumstances. It sets out, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, that existing green-belt boundaries should be altered only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process, which involves public consultation and a public examination by an independent inspector. As I understand it, the proposal that Broxtowe puts forward will purport to amend green-belt boundaries. It will have to be considered against that test.

The relevance of the regional spatial strategy in this case is that there are housing numbers that the council seeks to rely on. The council, like any local authority, is entitled to do that. Now that we have abolished the top-down system that we inherited, I cannot recreate a top-down system which says what my hon. Friend cannot rely on, any more than what she should rely on. Those have to be tested and found to be reliable. I am sure my hon. Friend and those who share her concerns will want to use the process to make sure that that testing takes place. That will be for the inspector, not for me, to decide.

In that context, while the regional strategies remain part of the present development plan prior to their abolition, the fact that they are proposed to be abolished is a matter which the inspector can take into account, as the council could have done. The weight given to the proposed abolition of those strategies and the numbers that go with them is again a matter which can be taken into account and could have been taken into account by the council when drawing up its proposals. It chose not to do so. The inspector will have to be the judge of that.

I understand that the east midland strategy was published in 2009, so the housing figures are pre-2009. It will be for the inspector in a public inquiry to look at the most up-to-date and reliable evidence put forward, so I will be careful about not prejudging that, but my hon. Friend will understand that where the issues properly arise that might be a matter for debate.

Within the process there are proper routes to challenge what is perceived to be a needless or inappropriate removal of land from the green belt if it is not based on evidence that meets robustly the very special circumstances test. My hon. Friend and her constituents might want to consider that as their way forward, but I cannot say more than that. That is the process. The Government cannot interfere and would not seek to do so, for reasons I know she will understand. Equally, because it is a joint strategy, where green-belt land straddles local boundaries, as housing markets can, local authorities of course must demonstrate to the inspector that they have actively met the duty to co-operate, which is also part of the NPPF.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but does that mean that a local authority such as Broxtowe borough council is duty bound to be part of a much larger housing market, because at one time this crossed into five councils? Is that what co-operation is about, or is it not about one council saying to another, “Well, we’ve got a bit here. What have you got? How can we perhaps take some of our need and you could soak it up?” Are they duty bound to be part of a very large single housing market, or should they be setting their own needs and their own target?

No local authority is duty bound to follow a particular model for dealing with the duty to co-operate, which is why it is deliberately not defined in the NPPF. What amounts to genuine co-operation will vary from case to case and will depend on each authority’s circumstances, so it will be assessed by the inspector and the decision based upon the evidence put before him or her. In the same way, it is perfectly possible for local authorities to choose to collaborate if they so wish. As I understand the history my hon. Friend has related, one local authority has chosen to leave the joint strategy, which is its right, just as it is the right of another authority to stay in. That is their call; it is not for the Secretary of State to prescribe one way or the other. Similarly, the NPPF does not seek deliberately to define the very special circumstances because that issue has to be assessed by the inspector on the evidence base and then applied to the national policy.

I note that, now that the NPPF is in place, only today there have come to my attention two decisions—they are not green-belt issues, but the general approach adopted is significant—in which the planning inspectors have specifically said that they gave great weight to the NPPF, so these things are taken on board by the Planning Inspectorate. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), meets from time to time with Sir Michael Pitt, the chairman of the Planning Inspectorate, not to interfere in individual cases—we cannot do that or set up meetings along those lines—but to ensure consistency, and Sir Michael is aware of the importance of a consistent approach.

That is why I cannot do everything my hon. Friend has asked me to do, because that would breach the constraints relating to the quasi-judicial nature of the process, but I hope that I have made clear to her the criteria that have to be met to remove land from the green belt. It is a clear test and a high one, but it is not for me to judge whether it is met in any given case, and there are means of that being challenged and tested through the public examination process, which will come along shortly.

My hon. Friend mentioned minerals extraction. Again, I cannot talk about specific applications, for obvious reasons, but the NPPF makes specific reference to the test that is to be applied in relation to minerals in the green belt. It is slightly convoluted because it can only work in some circumstances, but it does restate strong green-belt protections around development of that kind.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.