Wednesday 17 October 2012
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Food Prices (Planning Policy)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am delighted to have secured this debate on the effect of domestic land use on food prices.
First, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a farmer in Nottinghamshire, I am of course affected by many of the issues around land use and the price of food.
I hope that Members will forgive me if I start by setting the scene about food prices, because the price of food is a complicated issue that crosses many Departments. I am quite aware that the Minister has responsibility for domestic planning and land use policy, but the issues that I will raise today cover a large number of other Departments. I shall try to keep my speech as focused as I can on the Minister’s responsibilities.
It is fair to say that past food prices have been stable in the recent past. I suppose that we have been fortunate as a nation to have been well fed for a number of years. Since the second world war, we have had a sustained period of level and quite acceptable food prices, but that has started to change over the more recent past. There have been a number of blips recently. In fact, in 2008, we actually saw a period when food prices came down again. We need to make our minds up really about whether this is a sustained issue or something that is just a blip in the pattern of things. In my opinion, we are facing something quite enormous in the challenges before us and the way that food prices will rise. There are a number of reasons for that, not least the price of oil, which is driving the cost for some farmers in their production methods. Anyone who is familiar with agricultural practice will of course recognise that the price of nitrogen fertilisers is based on the cost of oil and that, as their price goes up, the cost to farmers of producing food rises exponentially.
More importantly, what is really driving this process are issues around the world such as climate change, population growth and of course the change in diet for many people in other parts of the globe. Those three challenges are bringing this perfect storm together, which is a real challenge for us in the UK.
Let us look at some of those things. Whether people think climate change is carbon-driven or just something that is in the cycle does not really matter, frankly, because climate change is here to stay and is having an enormous impact on our ability to produce food; it is driving those production challenges.
Population growth, not only in the UK but around the world, is also having a big impact, which will get even worse as people on the other side of the world change to a more western diet. There have always been hungry people on earth, but all of a sudden we have hungry wealthy people who are able to pull food away from the European Union.
I think that we now recognise that an enormous challenge faces us, and the question now is how we in the UK deal with it, because the amount of domestic land that we have available is a flat figure. Without being flippant, we have stopped making land: the amount of land that we have is the amount that we have within the UK. It is imperative that, within the UK, we ensure that we use that land in the most effective way, to make sure that we are well fed and are kept warm. That is where some of the challenges on land use start to be felt.
What are the future threats? Clearly, the debate about biofuels is an interesting one. The use of land for the production of energy is not a new concept. Going back to the 1940s, my grandfather was farming and a third of his land was used for the production of hay to feed the horses that pulled his ploughs. That was, in effect, energy production at its most basic. As we have moved forward, however, farmers have found new opportunities, and as they have found themselves under pressure to increase their incomes, they have certainly looked to energy production to sustain themselves.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some farmers have found that they get less objection from planners when they submit applications for renewable energy projects than they do for projects that might relate to their own ability to produce food?
I do, and that is an issue. However, I actually welcome the opportunity for farmers to diversify their businesses, so that they can make them viable, but of course we need to be mindful of the impact. The example of anaerobic digestion is a good one. I welcome anaerobic digestion, as long as it makes use of waste streams that actually are waste streams, because we get something for nothing out of that process. However, what tends to happen, of course, is that farmers build anaerobic digesters but those digesters run much more efficiently when forage maize is put through them rather than a waste stream made up either of slurry, food waste or some other product. If Members were to drive down the middle of Nottinghamshire, they would see that the landscape there today is very different from what it was five years ago.
My hon. Friend is talking about an issue that has a major effect on dairy farmers. For many years, farmers have rented land to grow their maize. Suddenly, they find that they can no longer buy maize, because it is now being taken into biofuel plants. That will inevitably have a huge impact on the production of dairy products.
I am conscious of the fact that I said that I would try to focus on the matters that are relevant to the Minister, and we are in danger of straying into Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs territory, dare I say? However, it is difficult not to do so because these are cross-Government issues, and biofuels are one such issue.
The Minister is in control of planning policy. If we look at other renewable schemes, such as the siting of wind turbines, we might think that they do not have a large effect, but I am told that the current demand means that we will have to build 5,000 wind turbines. European targets will mean that we must more than double the amount of energy from onshore wind during the next 10 years and that we will have to build at least another 5,000 turbines onshore. Guidance for farmers provided by Wind Prospect advises that less than one acre of land is required for each turbine, including the access track, the tower itself and hard standing for the crane; the remaining land can be utilised as it was previously. However, 5,000 turbines equates to 5,000 acres, and 5,000 acres of productive arable land goes a long way to producing quite a lot of food.
We need to think about where we site some of these wind turbines. There are a number of examples of how we can put wind turbines on former industrial land, former collieries, old pit-tips and places like that, where they would not impact on the use of agricultural land. That is something that we should look at much more closely.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and I declare an interest in the agri-food sector.
Most commentators would say that the era of cheap food has gone, certainly for the medium term, and that the world has become a much smaller place, so that reactions in prices happen fairly quickly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that we look at something radical to encourage the primary producer of food, because if things continue as they are they will result in more imports from other countries and the loss of jobs? We need to look at something radical to encourage farmers to grow more crops.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have achieved that before, with Government-led campaigns to improve domestic food production, and there are examples from the recent past, when the previous Government encouraged farmers to diversify and to consider adding value to their products, to get more from their production. That, however, brings with it anomalies.
I will draw on my own experience as a farmer on the urban fringe. We considered diversifying into farm retail, so that we could sell not only our own farm products but those of our neighbours, but I was told by my local planning authority that, because of the legislation in place to protect the green belt from out-of-town development, it was not possible to retail where we wanted to. Companies such as Halfords and B and Q want to build large retail units in the urban fringe, and a farm shop is, in effect, retail. I was told that most of my produce had to be sold through the farm shop and most of the shop’s produce had to come from the farm—I understand the logic of that—but if I asked my neighbours who live close to the farm, “Would you rather my farm shop retail the pork of one of my near neighbours, so that I could support both their business and the retail business, or would you rather I put 1,000 pig arks behind your houses and produce my own pork?” they would reply, “I would rather you sold another farmer’s pork than have an impact on the green belt with all those pig arks.” That is just one anomaly; there is a clear difference between agricultural diversification and major retail companies putting large warehouses in the green belt.
What can we take from the current state of food prices? We have a problem, frankly, because food prices have been rising for some time and we can no longer regard the increases as an anomaly. Whether we pin the hikes on oil prices, climate change, population increases, bad harvests or other developing industries in the green belt, it is clear that the rises are here to stay. We remain a nation dependent on imports, increasingly from all over the world, and we leave ourselves vulnerable to the storm that is raging outside our borders. We need, therefore, to protect ourselves, just like we did in the 1940s. We need to look at domestic production and ensure that we are making the most efficient use of our domestic land.
The percentage of agricultural land dropped from 39% to 25% between 1989 and 2009—a stark decrease. England has 14 green belts around its major cities, covering nearly 13% of the country, and 72% of the Nottingham and Derby green belt—1 million hectares—is in agricultural use. Overall, 66% of the green belt is used for agricultural purposes. The conclusion that I draw is that the green belt is fundamental to our ability to produce food ourselves. In Nottinghamshire, the green belt is under enormous pressure from local authorities, as they consider sites for residential developments, and it causes me enormous frustration that some of those authorities are choosing green-belt development over using the available brownfield sites.
This debate comes down to one thing, and my one request of the Minister is that he assure us that his inspectors—these things undoubtedly end up in front of an inspector—will be completely rigorous in their scrutiny of local plans. One of my local authorities, Gedling borough, has available to it the possibility of developing a former colliery site, but has chosen, for whatever reason, to develop the green belt in the villages of Linby and Papplewick, and around Hucknall, instead. That causes me enormous frustration, because most people in the borough recognise that the Gedling colliery site should be developed. There is some debate about whether an access road would allow for more housing, but clearly there is the opportunity to put between 600 and 700 houses closer to the urban fringe, rather than to tear up the green belt in Nottinghamshire.
Another example is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has spent a lot of money on flood defences at a site called Teal close in Netherfield. I am led to believe that the site, which is close to the urban fringe and not within the green belt, is now protected from flooding, but it is not being developed, for whatever reason, and we are, again, pushing houses out into the rural areas. We need to look long and hard at that issue.
I cannot say often enough that brownfield before green-belt development is absolutely essential. I hope that that message seeps through and that at some point in the future, when we are all feeling much hungrier and cannot afford to import food, these things will come together. We will then wonder what on earth we were doing back in the early part of this century. We cannot go back. Once we have developed land and it has been taken out of agricultural production, it very rarely goes back. Probably the only examples of such land being returned to agricultural use are those involving open-cast sites that have had their topsoil removed and later put back, but even then it is very low-grade agricultural land that is probably used for grazing sheep rather than for arable production.
There are, nevertheless, some good examples of where we can get it right. Cemetery provision is a fairly contention issue, of course, because people do not really want cemeteries to be set up in the green belt, but natural cemeteries have been developed. There are no headstones and people are buried in a more natural state in a wicker coffin, so the cemetery can be used for grazing sheep and for livestock. That is a good example of things working together, and I encourage that sort of diversification.
One of my final points is that we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater—if Members will forgive the cliché. Farmers need to be able to diversify, to consider other ways to support their income.
The hon. Gentleman has tempted me into the debate by ranging widely from anaerobic digestion to burials—no connection, of course, between the two. There is a role for Government intervention and planning controls, but farmers make commercial choices about land use, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does. They choose between biofuels, food production and development of other sorts. What does he think is the right balance between Government intervention, or Government control and regulation, and the freedom of the individual farmer—landowner—to make their own choices?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman. He is very clever in his thinking. It is a difficult tightrope that he has put there for me, and I almost hesitate to tiptoe down it. It is easy to come across as a hypocrite. Farmers clearly want to make the largest possible profit, and as a member of the Conservative party, I believe that the Government should not be interventionist and poke their nose into people’s private business.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is to look at the carrot and not the stick. Within the Government’s delivery of subsidies and support for different sectors, farmers are adept at finding the schemes that work for them. We need to tempt farmers back into food production, but Government support will be needed because there are commercial decisions to be made between producing energy, which is fairly heavily subsidised through the EU, or food, which has also been subsidised in the past. The Government could consider the way in which farmers retail that food and support them in getting more value from it, and there are currently plans for a grocery ombudsman to protect farmers.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent case, and I apologise for missing his opening remarks. Further to the previous intervention, does he not accept that the planning system is, after all, fuelled by greed, rather than by need? If a farmer sees the capacity to convert his land from food production to something that is akin to £1 million an acre, what could be more profitable? Is that not the issue? He says he will not consider sticks, rather than carrots, but does not that incentive for going down the route of development, rather than food production, need to be addressed, too?
That is exactly where the ball lands in the Minister’s lap, frankly. There is a big difference between considering controls on developing land for residential or industrial use and considering variants of crops that may be produced on that land, because whatever crop is grown, the land can be reused for another crop. Of course, once land is converted to bungalows or industrial units, it can never go back. The Government, at whatever level, have a role to play in ensuring that we get those choices right. Again, that is the thrust of the debate. I do not hesitate to repeat myself: we have to develop brownfield sites before we start tearing up the green belt, which can never return. A number of colleagues wish to speak, so I shall leave it there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I apologise to colleagues for my post-conference lurgy. They will be pleased to know that I am past the infectious stage.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing this debate. The matter is important across the country, and I am sure the Minister will reply diligently later.
One of the things I normally talk about when discussing food prices is connected to the weather: the combined effects of drought and deluge. Although Government policies may be able to do something about that in the long term, no one can kid themselves that the Prime Minister can control the weather specifically.
In Suffolk Coastal, there are similar concerns to those raised by my hon. Friend. The expansion of development in greenfield sites is displacing potential food-growing opportunities, whether that is for much-needed housing in our part of Suffolk or for industrial purposes, such as logistic sites, that take over not only grade 3 land but higher-grade land, too.
Picking up on something my hon. Friend said about energy towards the end of his excellent speech, it is almost a lack of planning policy that is starting to cause potential issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), in his previous role, which is currently occupied by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), told councils, “As part of your core strategy, you can now add a particular section to plan for renewable energy.” That recognises that, at the moment, there are many speculative applications, sometimes driven by financial desire for a return on investment.
Order. Sedentary interventions are never helpful.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I think the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that financial carrots may be more worth while than actually growing carrots.
There is also a desire for lower-carbon energy, for which there is community support in parts of my constituency. Applications are starting to come in all of a sudden, and there is no question but that when a 7% or 8% return on land is offered for basically doing nothing, it is quite attractive to landowners who have hard lives working the land. As has already been mentioned, that might offer, among other things, biodiversification and allow landowners more time to focus on the quality of the food they produce on other parts of their land.
What are particularly starting to crop up—no pun intended—in East Anglia are solar farms. We are starting to see a significant number of applications, although the only application in my constituency was withdrawn because it is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Although council officers recommended onshore turbines in the AONB, for some reason their recommendation was not to have solar farms in it. Outside my constituency—a couple of applications abut my constituency—we are starting to see a trend for significantly sized solar farms, which is of concern to local residents both because they are quite a change in land use and because of the effect on future food security.
Having addressed energy in AONBs, I do have a nuclear power station, and I hope to get another, so I am not saying that the two things are incompatible—far from it. We know that industry can co-exist with agriculture and nature without necessarily destroying them, but one of the big local concerns is that some of the subsidy is driving decisions on land use. As well as potatoes, Suffolk Coastal is best known for pigs and poultry, which are the two things not subsidised by the common agricultural policy. As an aside, there are more pigs than people in Suffolk, which shows how much we love that particular source of food for the future.
The issue is translating into other areas. We are starting to see planning applications for straw-based incinerators, and there may even be one in the Minister’s constituency. Farmers are worried that their local access to straw is increasingly expensive. We are trying to encourage better animal welfare, which leads to different use of such materials, so food costs are starting to go up, and many farmers are concerned that it will be more worth while to import food that we would naturally take for granted.
A mixture of things are going on, all of which seem designed, unintentionally, to hit the food bills that our constituents pay every week when they go to their local butcher or supermarket. A number of factors are coming together, so what can we do? My Government, quite rightly, do not want to prescribe the development of growth agendas to local councils, whether on housing or energy; they want to allow local communities, led by councils, to make such decisions for themselves.
The Government need to encourage, not compel, Departments to work with each other—the Department for Communities and Local Government working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—to ensure that our approaches have no unintended consequences and do not conflict.
Ultimately, I support the Government’s desire to build new homes, which is what we want to encourage local councils to do. DCLG has come up with great schemes such as the new homes bonus, which proactively rewards councils that recognise the need for more housing for their constituents. That is true in my part of the country, but for our longer-term security we need councils to think carefully about the displacement of land, whether for housing or energy, and planning policies that currently do not exist. We do not want to return to being an importer of food that we could easily grow ourselves; instead, we should focus on energy security, food security and creating a coherent message. We encourage our local councils to take full advantage of that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing this timely debate. As anybody who has canvassed recently will know, cost of living is the big issue on the doorstep. Whether it involves fuel prices or food prices, someone at every door has a view and a proper concern about the direction of travel of the cost of living.
Unlike everybody else, I cannot declare an interest. I used to have one; that is as good as I can get. In a former life—when I had a proper job, as my mum would say—I used to wholesale fruit and veg for a living in New Covent Garden market. I worked nights for 11 years and dealt with farmers daily. They were a joy and a pleasure. Never could there be a nicer group of people to do business with. At the other end of the equation, because it was a pure market—supply, demand and information—I dealt with buyers from very big companies as well as high-street grocers. I know how the demands of ordinary punters can change the market for farmers. They can grow one type of lettuce one year and lose a ton of money, and then grow a different type of lettuce the next year and make a ton of money. I understand the supply and demand issues of food, or at least I did when I worked in the business.
The Minister will be pleased to know that the business was set up by four Lincolnshire farmers in the late 1970s, and thrived through the days of the supermarket boom. The four farmers who helped set up that family business all diversified; in fact, in my lifetime, I have never known a farmer not to diversify. One went into transport. Two went into building things: one built homes, the other built offices that he rented out to local businesses. One ended up building a karting track, and people now hurtle on go-karts around fields that used to produce good-quality cauliflowers. It is difficult to find a farmer who has not diversified due to the market over the past three or four decades. Although food prices are now high, that cannot be said of food prices in our short-term history, which is why we started subsidising farming in the first place. We needed food, but there was not enough return on the goods being produced, so the Government started to subsidise it so that we would have enough.
Anyone considering a planning policy to encourage the production of good-quality food on a large enough scale to feed the nation would not start from where we are now, and I do not think we should try. We should support farmers a bit, but our planning policy should be much broader than simply worrying about food production. We live in a world market. If we want to encourage farmers in Africa to trade themselves out of poverty, they need a market to supply. I am not overly concerned about some of the issues raised, but we should paint the picture in historical terms.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I am conscious that I have had more than my say. Does he recognise that although the market will flow when there is enough product, the product may cease? For example, on the wheat market, Russia basically said a year ago, “That’s it, we’re not going to export another grain of wheat.” It does not matter how much money we have; we cannot buy something that is not for sale. That is when there starts to be an impact on the UK.
I completely recognise that, but we still produce a decent amount of wheat. Five years ago, lots of the farmers who grow wheat were diversifying into an energy crop, miscanthus. There was simply not enough value in the market for them, so they decided there would be better value in growing miscanthus, which is pelleted for biofuels, trucked up to Drax and chucked into the coal-fired plant up there. Again, the market responded. Now fewer people in the United Kingdom are growing miscanthus, or seeking to grow it, than five years ago, because the market price of wheat is rising, not exponentially but rapidly, and there seems to be no basis for it to fall. However, that is not necessarily a planning policy issue; it is a different policy issue affecting the use of land. Ultimately, it is an energy subsidy, which is different.
As far as the Minister is concerned, though, we have a dilemma. We are an island nation with roads, homes and businesses, and we need to supply energy and food for them, but we have traditionally had a broad-based food production economy. We were very good at providing for ourselves until 30 or 40 years ago. The Minister must consider his portfolio in the broadest possible sense. There are legitimate concerns about food security, which have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). People worry, properly, that if foreign supply of a particular good dries up, we will be priced out of the market, but we are fortunate in being a relatively rich western country, and we will almost always be able to buy the goods that we require. However, that diverts goods away from developing countries. There is a concern, but I am not convinced that it is the concern highlighted at the start of the debate.
The Minister must consider some areas that are within his remit. It is significant that one part of his Department incentivises farmers not to produce food through a policy enabling renewable energy production that is way more financially beneficial to farmers than the hard graft that goes into producing a decent arable or livestock crop annually. In my last couple of minutes, I want to bang on about something that I regularly bang on about, namely the delights of onshore wind energy, how it fits within the Minister’s portfolio and how it directly affects food prices, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said. Any farmer who has not considered diversifying into renewable energy is slightly mad. The gains from doing so are phenomenal. Even the £1 million investment for a small 325-MW turbine, which is about 40 m high, might well be paid back in three or three and a half years, and subsidy is guaranteed for 25 years. A farmer who wants to put their kids through school and ensure that they can go to university will find a field—they do not care which one it is—and stick turbines on it.
The Minister will know because numerous local planning authorities have written to him—including at least one that I represent—as well as from his own experience of policy in Lincolnshire that local planning authorities are hugely concerned. They feel slightly under the cosh having to allow turbines and other renewable energy projects even when they know that the projects are not suitable for the land, whether for food production reasons or because of their proximity to dwellings. Will he help planning authorities around the country by advising us, them and the Planning Inspectorate how he intends to deal with the conundrum of super-subsidised energy production replacing less subsidised food production in areas where few people want it? Even where the parish council, local residents, the district council and maybe the local MP and MEP all object for good, solid planning reasons, a decision can be foisted on them, even though the energy production unit might be close to dwellings and so on.
Finally, I want to tell the Minister that the Planning Inspectorate that he directly controls, even though it is an arm’s length body with delegated powers, needs direction on this issue, which is causing great upset across the countryside. There is only one man who is made for the job of sorting it out, and I would like to think that it is my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—the Minister himself.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing the debate on such an interesting topic. I did not intend to speak—I came to listen to what my hon. Friend had to say—but a number of points have been made that are of sufficient interest to me and I am grateful that there is time for me to do so. First, I should declare an interest. I have been a farmer all my life. At the moment, my land is rented out, but the rent I receive depends on the profitability of the industry, so I feel that I need to declare an interest that will be recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We are debating the consequences of land that is used for food production being used for other purposes. I accept the point—I think that we all do—that we are a trading nation and part of a trading world and that Britain has always been subject to change over the decades. I cannot help but feel, however, that we have reached a stage regarding land use where the change that we face is greater than we have ever faced before. In a sense, that is inevitable, but the Minister, the Government and all of us have to be aware of unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are always the problem—those things that happen that we are unaware of and do not give sufficient attention to when dealing with an issue.
The main driver for change in land use is population growth. During my lifetime, we have seen an enormous change in the projected number of people who will live in the United Kingdom. Before too long, that number will reach 70 million. Inevitably, if that happens, we will need more houses, more roads and more rail. How we live changes, and there will be more demand for leisure activity. All that uses a huge amount of land, far more than anticipated. We have to consider population increase carefully, because of its impact on the way we live as a nation.
I, too, want to touch on the use of land for energy production. I do not oppose that, but I am one of those stupid farmers who, because I detest onshore wind to such an extent, has decided that he does not want the additional income. I have no intention whatever of going down that road, and I advise most of my fellow farmers, if they can afford not to, to do the same. I must admit that in my Montgomery constituency, an awful lot of farmers take that view: they despise how my constituency could be destroyed by the ravages of the onshore wind business. This issue is more than just about that, however.
I have always supported biofuels, but in mid-Wales the potential for the development of miscanthus is huge. That is having an immediate impact—an issue that I raised in an intervention about maize. A new biofuels plant requires maize. For decades, dairy farmers rented land to grow maize to sustain their dairy stock. That was part of how they farmed. Suddenly, they can no longer do that. It is totally impossible for them to compete in the market, because there is a subsidised industry—biofuels—buying up all the maize and they have had to withdraw. Clearly, that involves reducing the number of stock that they keep—an unintended consequence.
When we talk about onshore wind—as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) did, as always, in such an authoritative way—it is not just the wind turbine that takes up a certain area. I want to make two points on this. In mid-Wales at the moment, we are talking about a project that has a 35-mile line from Shropshire into the middle of my constituency. There will be 150-foot high pylons—steel towers—all the way along that line. That will mean sterilising a huge amount of land, and even the substation at the end of it will cover 20 acres. The impact on land use is huge, notwithstanding the 600 or 700 turbines involved.
We also have to be really careful about how the people of this country feel they are connected with government. In my constituency, the local authority has turned down all the large applications associated with this big project going ahead. If I have a public meeting on the issue, huge numbers of people turn up—probably a couple of thousand people. In fact, 2,000 people came to Cardiff with me, in 37 buses, to express our viewpoint. It is clear that the constituency feels that it does not want this imposed on it. Yet, my constituents also believe that, despite that being their comprehensive view, the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff do not care at all and will use every device that they have to ensure that those applications go through. It is dangerous for any Government to allow that democratic deficit to happen, in addition to the land use change, without being very careful about what they are doing.
For the Minister, the damage is to the localism agenda. When so many people who have a vital part to play in the communities that they represent are being ignored—this is the point that I was trying to make about the Planning Inspectorate—and overruled by one person who comes in from outside with delegated powers, that causes an issue for localism. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances on how the Planning Inspectorate will deal with future local plans that involve renewable energy elements.
That strikes a real chord with me. I very much support the principle of the Government putting localism at the heart of what they are doing. However, I must admit that if one talks to anybody in my constituency about the principle of localism at the moment, when we are talking about onshore wind, they will snort with laughter. The idea of localism has gone completely out the window.
Returning to the land use issue, there is one other point I want to make.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman is speaking passionately on behalf of his constituents about a cause that he believes in strongly and vehemently. On local planning and the democratic deficit, does he think that now is the right time to devolve the responsibility for large energy infrastructure projects to Wales? Would that do anything to reduce the democratic deficit, or is it an irrelevance? I am genuinely interested, because that seems to go to the heart of some of what he is saying—that some decisions could be made more locally, at least in Wales.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, I could probably speak for about half an hour on the issue, but I am sure, Mr Streeter, that you would not allow me to do so. In principle, I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the reality is that the sheer contempt for local opinion on this issue is greater in Cardiff, in the National Assembly for Wales, than at Westminster. Whereas previously, I may well have subscribed to the principle of transferring the power for over-50 MW onshore wind to the National Assembly, I would not support that now, if I were on this earth for another 100 years, simply because of the way in which the First Minister of the National Assembly has changed his views and shown total contempt for the opinions of the people of my constituency.
The final issue that I want to touch on briefly is planning. I make an appeal to the Minister regarding planning applications. It concerns not only onshore wind but energy crops. Permission seems to be granted for matters that would not even reach the planning committee if they involved anything else. Applications come through for wind farms, with no back-up, that would be thrown out without any trouble, yet they are approved. An application will come through to convert a building into a house to provide extra income on a farm, and that is turned down. We find a total difference in attitude towards genuine small businesses that want to use their property—often an empty building—in a way that would benefit the economy. That will be turned down and a totally alien application, which would cause huge damage, is approved. That balance needs to be looked at.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for securing the debate.
I had a few anxious moments when I thought I had wandered into the wrong debate, because it seemed to take some while for us to get around to looking at what domestic land use policy might have to do with food prices. I was interested that we looked at oil, climate change, population growth, bad harvests and renewable energy. All those things are, of course, relevant to food prices. However, I was not convinced of their relationship to planning policy in the UK. Perhaps we can talk more about that in a moment.
I was interested that some Members seemed to argue for more Government intervention in planning policy. At one point I thought the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) was arguing for more Government intervention in the markets. Sadly, he let me down by saying that was perhaps not the correct approach.
We did eventually return to the issue of food production. Members raised a number of legitimate concerns about land use policy. I was not so convinced by their suggested solution. They flagged up the central issue at the heart of planning policy: balancing competing interests for land that, as the hon. Member for Sherwood rightly said, is in finite supply.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the distinction between short-term and long-term imperatives, which can conflict. We do not want to revisit some of the policies of the distant past. The peat bogs of the hills of Plinlimon were irrigated and freed for food production in the 1940s and 1950s, understandably at that time. We now have to undo the damage by blocking them up again to restore the carbon locked into the peat bogs. We need to focus on reconciling conflicting objectives and on taking a long-term view about what planning controls are for.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I was about to come to. Some hon. Members have suggested a solution. Part of the solution has to be a national, strategic plan to set out clearly where the priority areas are for farming and food production, and how we are going to manage the need for renewable energy in future. I do not think it is acceptable for us simply to stand up and say we do not want to have wind farms in a particular area. We need to say where and how we will meet the nation’s energy needs.
I had another few anxious moments when I thought the hon. Member for Sherwood was simply going to make a case against having new housing or growth in rural areas. That anxiety was again unfounded, because he did not say that. However, I know he has in the past argued against development in former mining communities in his area, saying that large five-bedroom houses are not appropriate. I am unclear why that is the case. I do not think it fits the Prime Minister’s aspiration nation to say that because currently there are no three or four-bedroom houses in those areas, there should be none in future.
Fundamentally it comes down to believing passionately in localism. We believe in those decisions being taken locally. There is enormous frustration. My constituents tell me, “These are our opinions. This is what we want to see. We want houses developed in our area that suit our community, that match our community.” For whatever reason, whether it is a National Assembly, county council or district council, they are not taking on board the views of our constituents. I ask the Minister to help by having his planning inspector step in and make local authorities deliver localism, as my constituents want.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. However, it is an argument in support of localism, not an argument in favour of not having any growth locally. The point of neighbourhood planning is to encourage local communities to think about where they want growth.
I digress a little, so I want to get back to the issue.
I want to pick up on my hon. Friend’s point on a genuine cross-party basis. Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat, brought forward a good report while Labour was in power. He was commissioned to produce a report on housing. It went to the heart of how to reconcile local aspirations for housing with local opposition to housing. How can it be made to work? We are still struggling with that dilemma. Localism is all well and good but when localism both opposes and supports development, there is a bit of a conundrum.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but that is exactly the issue that the planning system is supposed to resolve.
I fully recognise the important issue of food prices and congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood on raising it. Last year about 130,000 people turned to food banks to meet their families’ daily needs. The number is growing weekly. I am sure a lot of hon. Members will have recently taken part in the FairShare campaign organised by Sainsbury’s to collect food in their local supermarkets. Such is the degree of need in our communities. Indeed, we see more and more families who are simply not able to feed themselves because of rising food prices. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says that cereal prices could be 20% higher over the next decade, and that will eventually lead to higher food prices in our shops.
I am not sure whether the point was made by the hon. Member for Sherwood, but the UK produces about 65% of its own food, so domestic land use policy clearly has a significant role to play in keeping food prices low and, critically, affordable. We therefore need a planning system that supports vibrant communities and Government policy that encourages long-term sustainability—exactly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—and builds on a sustainable rural community and economy. Things have to change somewhat if we are to achieve that, in particular in the face of some of the wider issues raised by the hon. Member for Sherwood, such as climate change and alternative land use challenges.
This year alone, the UK’s harvest was down 15% because of the unusually wet summer weather. Such unpredictability is set to worsen and will lead to a need for, possibly, a change in Government policy and, certainly, more intervention. The Government’s record to date is not good.
The hon. Lady said that the weather is set to worsen and that we therefore need Government intervention. Can she tell me what the weather will be like next Wednesday or in a year’s time? Weather is remarkably unpredictable, and I am not sure that it justifies Government intervention.
Sorry, I thought that was going to be a sensible intervention. Obviously, given that we will have more unpredictability in the weather—that is what we think, at least, because of climate change—I meant that we need to plan for it and perhaps look particularly at a policy that would support more food production on the land we have, or on additional land, which was another point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not take an intervention from the hon. Lady because she has not taken part in the debate so far, and I am rapidly running out of time. I want to ask the Minister some specific questions about what he might do to support additional food production in this country.
Rather than simply messing about with the planning system and using it as a scapegoat for the Government’s economic failure, we should have a series of policies that look at how food production, communities and infrastructure will work together. We need a policy that encourages economic growth but at the same time puts the environment at the forefront. That means supporting green infrastructure, which can be defined as a network of green spaces that provide life-support functions including food, fibre, air to breathe, places for nature and places for recreation. The idea has been taken up by some of our local authorities. Birmingham city council has set out a whole range of policy goals, such as facilitating community food growing and orchards, but that is the exception. The hon. Member for Sherwood went some way towards giving a couple of examples to Government on how to encourage food production and better use of land in rural areas—in particular, dual use of land, such as green cemeteries.
It could be argued that, instead, the national planning policy framework has undermined the strategic basis on which local authorities can build upon and improve green infrastructure in their areas. For example, we are not clear about what nature improvement areas are supposed to do or what they are for. The Government should be doing more to encourage community land-share schemes or local food webs—taking on board growing produce locally, setting up local co-ops and selling produce to the local high street and independent retailers. That whole area of getting different bits of our planning system and our rural policies to work together has been taken up by the Campaign to Protect Rural England in an excellent report, which all hon. Members should read, “From field to fork.” The CPRE recommends that planning guidance is put in place for local authorities. The Minister has put planning guidance out to consultation, but the general drift of the Government so far has been against providing guidance to local authorities, which could do with some support and assistance in this area.
What are the Government doing to support other public bodies to form partnerships to develop food strategies and action plans in their areas? That could range from supporting local farmers to putting aside additional land for food production, or setting targets for local farmers to grow additional crops or to diversify. The whole area is not being looked at with the seriousness it deserves given what we know will happen to food prices.
Has the Minister any intention to work with local businesses or local food networks to promote awareness, access, affordability and availability of local food, or to encourage local supermarkets to source food locally? Does he intend to do anything to support local community groups and to engage in initiatives to shape food production locally? For example, that could be something that neighbourhood planning concentrates on, although it might be difficult without more direction to local communities. We also want to see greater diversity on offer on the high street, so that we are not simply relying on a couple of supermarkets but encouraging a range of local retailers with local connections and food networks, providing not only an advantage to local farmers but—this is important—support for local farmers. We want, therefore, a farming and land use policy that supports local communities and, in particular, looks at ways to reduce food miles while making good-quality food accessible to a wider range of people than is the case at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in this, my first speech as a Minister—I hope that it is my worst speech as a Minister, in that things can only go up from here.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing a debate on a subject that is very near to his heart and to that of many of his constituents. It is also near to the heart of many of my constituents and, indeed, of my own father, who has a small farm—much smaller than my hon. Friend’s—in the fine county of Devon.
I want to address the original subject, although the debate has been an excellent one, taking in almost every aspect of Government policy, for most of which, fortunately, I have no responsibility. The original subject, however, was the link between the planning system and the recent effects on food prices.
Perhaps the only part of the contribution from the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) with which I could agree was when she doubted the direct impact of land use and the planning system on food prices. This country imports a great deal of food—nearly 50%, but fortunately not more—and most foodstuffs, but not all, operate in a global market. As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) pointed out, the reasons for recent rises in food prices are mostly global energy prices, the change in the value of sterling relative to other currencies and the changing nature of the demand for food from the rapidly developing countries of Asia and elsewhere.
I do not believe that the planning system can be held responsible for the pressure on food prices. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), pointed out that even if we cannot do much directly about food prices, we have a great interest in ensuring that we have a basic level of food security. Clearly, that is where the use of our land is important.
I hope that I can reassure hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, about the status of agriculture in the planning system, and particularly in the much slimmed-down planning policy framework introduced last year. Agriculture is the only industry—given how hard farmers work, it deserves to be called an industry—that has specific status in the planning system and explicit consideration in national policy. The policy framework is very clear about the importance of preserving agricultural land. Paragraph 112 states:
“Local planning authorities should take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of a higher quality.”
That is an explicit indication to local authorities to try to preserve high-quality agricultural land where possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said that much of the green belt is agricultural land, so any incursion into it for other uses is a particular threat to agricultural land. Here, too, I believe I can offer him reassurance that I hope will also reassure people who have other concerns about the green belt and the Government’s intentions. In the national planning policy framework, the Government have put in place very explicit and strong protection for the green belt. Paragraph 79 states:
“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”
Agriculture is one of the few productive uses of land that preserves its openness by definition.
Paragraph 83 states:
“Local planning authorities with Green Belts in their area should establish Green Belt boundaries in their Local Plans which set the framework for Green Belt and settlement policy. Once established”
“should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan.”
My hon. Friend expressed concern that some authorities, including authorities in Nottinghamshire, have not attached sufficient priority to the development of brownfield sites. All I can say is that national policy is very clear about priorities. Paragraph 17 states:
“Planning should…encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value”.
There are certainly strong indications to planning authorities that green-belt land should be preserved and that brownfield land, when possible and viable, should be developed in preference.
I hope that it will reassure hon. Members to learn that in 2010 only 2% of new dwellings were built on the green belt, and that the quantity of green belt has increased since 1997 because local authorities, which control the designation, have designated new land as green belt. Housing development on greenfield land, which is distinguished from green-belt land, has accounted for only 0.3% of the total land area of England since 1985. House building on green land has been on only 0.3% of the country’s total area. Some of the more apocalyptic visions painted not by hon. Members, but others outside, of Governments of various stripes concreting over the countryside have no basis in fact.
On a point of clarification, when the Minister says that so little greenfield and green belt land has been developed, does he include planning that has been granted, or just planning that has gone ahead?
I thank my hon. Friend. I believe that that applies to buildings that have already gone up. Obviously, some permissions have been granted and development has not yet taken place, but I do not believe that would change the picture dramatically, because most permissions apply to land outside the green belt—much of it, although not all, to brownfield land. Our planning policies provide protection for agricultural and green-belt land.
The importance of diversification in the rural economy has been discussed; we heard about it from my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and others. Many of my constituents in Grantham make the journey to my hon. Friend’s farm shop, which is famous in those parts, so I know that that diversification has been successful. The national planning policy framework makes explicit the requirement for policies to
“support economic growth in rural areas in order to create jobs and prosperity…To promote a strong rural economy…neighbourhood plans should…support the sustainable growth and expansion of all types of business and enterprise in rural areas, both through conversion of existing buildings and well designed new buildings”
“promote the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses”.
I am happy to say that the Government are looking closely at the matter, and hope to introduce specific proposals to make it easier to convert agricultural buildings into homes and for other uses without having to go through the planning process. I believe that planning policies provide many of the protections that hon. Members seek. However, I am aware that much of the debate has focused on the balance between the demands on agriculture for food production, and other uses of land, whether agricultural or other, for renewable energy.
The national planning policy framework requires local planning authorities to have a positive strategy to promote renewable and low-carbon energy. We must remember the history of the energy situation in this country. We recently received a warning—I think it was from Ofgem—that we face a real risk of the lights going out in relatively few years. The main reason for that is the complete failure of the previous Government to grasp any difficult nettles—
Will the Minister give way?
Perhaps I could finish slating the previous Government before giving way. They completely failed to grasp any difficult nettles, whether in relation to building nuclear power stations or encouraging renewable industry and gas plants.
The Minister is making a brave fist of slating the previous Government, but he has just heard his hon. Friends, one after another, oppose renewable energy from onshore wind farms or solar farms on agricultural land. He should tread carefully. Can he explain why the Government have seen a fall from third place as an international destination for inward investment in renewables in the year when the previous Government left office, to seventh and still falling? Will he explain that to us as he slates the former Government?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Government’s policies are very clear. We need a positive strategy for renewable energy.
However, I assure hon. Members that there is a clear policy on how individual applications should be decided. Policies should be designed to ensure that adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily, and planning applications for renewable energy should only be approved if the impacts are, or can be made, acceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is an indefatigable campaigner on this issue, and I am very aware that he, I, and many hon. Members on both sides of the House represent people who do not feel that all decisions—particularly about wind farms, but the point also applies to other renewable energy uses—have dealt satisfactorily with those impacts.
Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently launched a consultation and a call for evidence on how developers are engaging with local communities, and in particular, on how developers of wind farms and other renewable energy sites are sharing the benefits of those sites with local communities. A lot of lessons from elsewhere in Europe show that sharing the benefits is a good way to secure local consent for developments that are otherwise justifiable.
The Minister was in safer territory when he was praising the previous Government for protecting not only green spaces, but the green belt from development. We all accept that the planning community now thinks that under the present Government brownfield protection has been watered down, not strengthened. He was, however, getting to the heart of what we are discussing. I am not clear that what he is suggesting will help local communities and authorities—faced with a market that is promoting the use of land for renewable energy—to decide on other uses, particularly in relation to more land being given over to food production. How will the Government help local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate make those difficult decisions?
The hon. Lady is quite wrong; I never praised the previous Government for what they did to protect the green belt. They only ended up doing so by completely failing to build any houses and failing to meet the nation’s housing need, thus landing the Government with the difficult task of maintaining protections for the green belt and precious open land, while also increasing the rate of house building. As in so many other areas, we are trying to clear up the mess that Labour created.
I share the Minister’s experience, certainly with regards to Nottinghamshire. The regional spatial strategy, which was the flagship for development under the previous Government, put enormous pressure on the Nottinghamshire green belt. All the heartache I am experiencing now is caused by some of the sites that were brought forward under that strategy. Only the localism agenda and freeing up the planning process have given us a chink of light to defend some of those green-belt areas and to try to force local authorities to develop brownfield sites first.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s description of the effect of the previous Government’s policies on the green belt and elsewhere.
To return to the difficult planning balance to be struck on renewable energy, I hope that hon. Members and others are encouraged by the call for evidence from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. When I visit the Planning Inspectorate for the first time next week, I will be happy to ensure that it is aware of the call for evidence, and that the result of that call is taken into account in the inspectorate’s judgments on how the impacts on communities are being managed, and whether those impacts have been managed satisfactorily before granting planning permission.
On the other hand, I do not want to be disingenuous. I do not believe that the Government can move to a position where wind farms are built with no objections from people who live nearby. I have a lot of sympathy for the attempts by Lincolnshire and others to define acceptable boundaries. It is right that things are dealt with case by case, because sometimes the distance can be more disturbing in a flat area of the country, as Lincolnshire largely is, than it would be in a hilly area. Although the wind farm might be close, there might well be a hill in between. It is not right for the Government to have blanket policies on such subjects, but the impacts should be properly assessed and accounted for in the decision making of planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate.
I move on to the contribution made by the hon. Member for City of Durham. Mr Streeter, you may have heard, as I did, the Prime Minister’s excellent speech to the Conservative party conference, in which he talked of the “party of one notion”—that is, the hon. Lady’s party—and that notion was of course, borrowing. The Prime Minister is right to say that borrowing is the ready stand-by of the Labour party in response to any issue.
In planning, borrowing has a slightly smaller role to play, but a couple of other notions are the ready stand-bys of a Labour Government and Labour Ministers when confronted with any planning question. The hon. Lady is no exception; she calls for more guidance, more targets, and more direction of local communities, so that they know what is good for them. Well, I am delighted to say that Lord Taylor, the Member of the House of Lords whom the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) congratulated on work for the previous Government, is conducting a review of planning guidance. The aim is to reduce the guidance for local authorities from 6,000 pages, which the hon. Lady clearly feels is insufficient, to something more manageable. I look forward to receiving the results of that work.
In conclusion, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood spoke of the importance of diversification in the agricultural sector, and of farmers being left to make their own decisions, while not being skewed excessively by the interventions and subsidies provided by Government and other branches. He left us with a particularly appealing image of natural, green cemeteries where people can be buried and which support a flock of sheep. As a son of a sheep farmer, I cannot think of any better way of ending my physical existence than as nutrition for high-quality grazing for sheep.
We move to our next debate, on the important subject of Government policy on plastic bags.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I will make a short speech and allow as much time as possible for interventions, as a number of hon. Members have expressed an interest in the debate. I am also glad that our new Farming Minister is here on behalf of his ministerial colleague, the noble Lord, Lord de Mauley. I know that the Liberal Democrats have taken a positive stance on the issue of plastic bags.
The House will be aware of my early-day motion 534 with the catchy title of “Plastic Bags”. Essentially, it backs the Break the Bag Habit campaign, which involves a wide coalition of organisations, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, the Marine Conservation Society, Surfers Against Sewage, and Greener upon Thames, which was born in my constituency. That coalition calls for the introduction of a charge on single-use carrier bags.
Before explaining why that is important, I want to stress that it would be a levy and not a tax. It would be collected locally and distributed to local causes, and because there is zero need to purchase a plastic bag, except in a few circumstances, the levy would also be easy to avoid. There is also no prospect of its becoming another green stealth tax, and the approach is broadly supported by the retailers. I have received a note from the British Retail Consortium, which has couched its support in cautious language. However, in August 2012, it also said that
“if England wishes to follow the approach of the other UK Governments to achieve greater reductions”
in carrier bag usage
“it will have to introduce legislation and a charge as there is a limit to what can be achieved on a voluntary basis.”
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has secured a debate on this incredibly important issue. Does he believe that the levy or, as some people like to describe it, the tax should be paid principally by the retailer demanding the bags and the advertising, or should it be passed on to the consumer? That, I think, is where this measure will stand or fall.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I shall come back to what the levy would look like in ideal circumstances. I will deal with his point, but I shall come on to it.
To step back for a second, I should say that we are an extraordinarily wasteful country. We generate enough waste every hour to fill the Albert hall right to the tip of its dome. Plastic bags do not constitute the majority of our waste, but of all the waste that we do generate, the plastic bag is surely the most idiotic.
Does my hon. Friend agree that only 0.2% of average household dustbin waste consists of plastic carrier bags and that therefore the measures that he is proposing would be unlikely to have a significant impact on the amount of waste generated? The figure of 0.2% comes from an assessment by the Treasury in 2002.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am told that the figure is closer to 1.5%, but I shall not quibble with what he says. However, I do not see that as an argument against a measure to reduce the use of plastic bags. Plastic bags have a disproportionate impact. We are told that 16% of all the animals that are found dead on the coast are dead as a result of their interaction with plastic bags. The plastic bag has a hugely disproportionate impact in the wider marine environment and in terms of littering and so on. Yes, I accept that plastic bags are not the whole waste story in this country, but they are certainly a big part of it.
Does my hon. Friend agree with David Laist of the Marine Mammal Commission in the United States? He wrote in March 2008:
“Plastic bags don’t figure in entanglement. The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag…For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either.”
The environmental impact is, in many instances, overstated.
I shall provide a few examples of why I do not accept that. I remind my hon. Friend that I did say that 16%, not 100%, of the animals found washed up on the coast that have died as a result of waste have died as a result of their interaction with plastic bags. It is still a significant number. I shall come to that issue in a second.
Despite this being described as a minority or a small issue, every year 8 billion bags are used and thrown away in the UK. Throughout the EU, 800,000 tonnes of bags are used. Only 6% of those bags are recycled. They are used for an average of 20 minutes and can take anything up to 1,000 years to decompose. The vast majority will end up in landfill. Hundreds of millions will litter the countryside, and many will end up in the oceans.
It is an appalling thought—I mentioned this to pupils at a school a few weeks ago—that if Columbus had dropped plastic bags over the side of his ship 500 years ago, there is a pretty good chance that they would still be floating around intact today. Thousands of sea turtles, whales and countless other species mistake the bags for food and, once ingested, they block the animal’s insides and cause a horrible death.
I am sure that hon. Members remember that in 2006 a Northern bottlenose whale swam past this very building. Unfortunately, it died. It was in serious trouble, for all kinds of reasons, but when it was cut open in the autopsy, it was discovered that its stomach was packed with plastic debris. Unfortunately, the bags did not have a logo on them, so we cannot blame the individual companies, but plastic was a major contributing factor.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. Does he agree that if the Government care about evidence-based policy, as I am sure they do, the evidence coming from, among other places, Wales, where the tax has already been implemented, shows that it has managed to reduce the use of plastic bags by up to 95%? It also has 70% support among the general population. If the Government care about evidence, there is a lot to support the tax.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I absolutely agree with her—indeed, she has taken the words out of my mouth. I shall come to the Welsh example very soon.
Just to continue on the basic statistics, a 2006 UN report estimated that on every square mile of ocean, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating around. They are not all plastic bags, but a great many are. The plastic does not disappear, even when eaten; it does not break down. When a creature has ingested a plastic bag, the creature itself decays faster than the bag. When the body of the creature breaks down after death, the bag is likely to be released back into the environment and can be reingested—recycled—continuously. The plastic bag has been described as a serial killer for that reason.
The Minister will know that many countries and regions around the world have already sought to address this appalling waste. We heard about the example of Wales, but there are many beyond our shores. California, Bangladesh, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, parts of India, Taiwan and parts of China have all introduced outright bans. Others have introduced levies. In Ireland, which is one of the best examples, a bag tax, introduced in 2002, has led to a reported 90% reduction in the number of plastic bags used.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being extremely generous. He spoke about the reuse of plastic bags and the fact that only a small proportion are recycled. Does he accept, however, that many plastic carrier bags are used by consumers for other purposes? Immediately after the tax was introduced in Ireland, there was a 77% increase in pedal bin liner sales because consumers did not have plastic carrier bags and an 84% increase in disposable nappy bag sales. The bags are being put to other uses. If we reduce the use of plastic carrier bags, we will simply encourage people to buy plastic bags from other sources to do the jobs that carrier bags are currently fulfilling.
I am just looking at the statistic; I anticipated that this might come up. There were indeed reports of a 77% increase in the sale of plastic kitchen bags as a result of the initiative introduced in Ireland. That equates to 70 million bags—a lot of bags—but the net effect is still a 930 million reduction, so the net effect is clearly beneficial in terms of reducing the use of plastic bags.
Yes, there would be some perverse outcomes. It is also the case that in Wales there are certain exemptions in relation to prescription drugs, raw food and so on. There are any number of ways in which the measure could be brought in. I intended to talk about Wales, but the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has already given the key stats. The initiative there is a work in progress—it is relatively new—but it seems to be working. It is wildly popular: 20% more popular now than when the idea was originally floated. There are varying statistics on its success, but no one can argue that it has not been a success. The question is how much of a success it has been.
We are, unfortunately, miles behind in this country. There are pockets of good news locally. In Kew in my own constituency, the majority of local shops have pledged not to use plastic bags and are doing everything that they can either to get them out of the shop altogether or to encourage people not to use them. Even Tesco—after some imaginative campaigning by local school pupils—eventually, reluctantly, was dragged into the campaign. That involved a gang of local schoolchildren storming the local Tesco, unwrapping all the unnecessary packaging and demanding that it never use another plastic bag. We almost ended up in jail—I was the only one of the right age—but it seems to have had an impact and it was a wonderful thing. I encourage hon. Members to go on YouTube and have a look, because it was all filmed. It was a lovely example of what can be achieved.
Nationally, we are still waiting for action. On 29 September last year, in an interview with the Daily Mail, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave the supermarkets an ultimatum. He warned that if stores did not deliver “significant falls” over the next 12 months, they could either be banned outright from giving out single-use bags or be legally required to charge customers for them. The Prime Minister said that it was “unacceptable” that the number of single-use carrier bags had risen in the previous year by 333 million—a 5% increase. In July this year, despite the Prime Minister’s demand for “significant falls”, the official figures showed another increase—a 5.4% rise during 2011 compared with the previous year. We are heading in the wrong direction and have been for some years, and the Prime Minister is clearly now under pressure to act.
As I said, my hon. Friend is being extremely generous with his time. I am grateful to him for allowing me to present the alternative case. One issue on which we might agree is the need for voluntary action. Does he accept that from a peak of 13 billion bags a year, the UK’s consumption has halved over time, that that has all happened through voluntary action and that this issue would be better dealt with by continuing that voluntary approach?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I believe that the position is that there has been a 36% reduction since 2006; at least, that is the figure that I was given by the British Retail Consortium. Nevertheless, that trend has not continued. There was a rapid downward trend initially, after the initiative was launched, but over the past three years the trend has been considerably reversed and there is nothing to suggest that it will not continue to be reversed. When we compare that with initiatives in other countries—we have heard about Wales, Ireland and many others—we see that we can do a whole lot better.
What line should the Government take? It boils down to three choices: a ban, a central tax or a Welsh-style charge. A ban is probably too crude; although there are strong arguments in its favour, it is not what we are asking for today. Despite the temptations for the Treasury, I hope that the Government will resist introducing a tax. There is no support or appetite for anything that could become a stealth tax. The alternative is a light-touch levy applied in the shops with the funds raised distributed to local causes, which could be identified, if necessary, by the shops themselves, the community or a combination of both. There are any number of ways to spend the money.
I will end with some questions. Can the Minister tell us the Government’s reaction to the first year of a bag charge in Wales? Have he or his colleagues met the Welsh Environment Minister to discuss how the charge has worked? According to the Welsh Government, the scheme has reduced single-use carrier bags by up to 96% in some retail sectors. A recent survey has shown that 70% of people in Wales are in favour of the new system following its introduction. Crucially, the proceeds go to charity. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Keep Wales Tidy have already received a total of £800,000 since the charge was introduced.
Will the Minister confirm that the introduction of such a charge would require secondary legislation only? What would the process be and how long would it take to get a charge up and running, using powers under the Climate Change Act 2008? The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), stated last year that we could expect the Government to decide in 2012 whether they would introduce a charge in England. What is the Government’s timetable for considering it now? The Government’s waste review states that there are
“a number of small levers which we can pull in order to deliver long-term change.”
Does the Minister agree that a bag charge is one such small lever? Will he commit to bringing forward legislative proposals? In short, does he agree that it is time for the Government to act?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this important debate and on how he introduced it. I found it useful that other hon. Members who wished to take part were able to intervene on him, so that there was a genuine debate rather than simply a dialogue between the two of us.
I have had form on this issue going back a long time—to before I was a Minister, when I worked for environmental non-governmental organisations. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I am aware of the problem and eager to do something about it—and that goes for the Government, too.
The Government are committed to promoting a strong and growing economy in which all resources are fully valued and waste is minimised. That is good for business and good for the environment. To achieve it, everyone has a role to play. That is true across the whole waste agenda, but nowhere more so, I suspect, than in relation to single-use carrier bags. We all have the opportunity to change our behaviour to ensure that fewer bags end up in landfill or as litter.
Does the Minister acknowledge that plastic carrier bags are part of an important industry? The packaging industry employs 85,000 people in the UK, is responsible for a turnover of £11 billion and represents 3% of the manufacturing industry.
Of course I appreciate that, which is why I made the point in my opening remarks about the balance between the economy and the environment. We can secure a successful synthesis of the two.
I want to add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). Of the bags used in this country, 90% are manufactured in Asia, not the UK.
This is a very instructive debate. Members have come armed with a huge number of statistics that they are happy to trade across the Floor, which is all to the benefit of the debate.
We all have the opportunity to change our behaviour to ensure that fewer bags end up in landfill or as litter. Notwithstanding the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), reducing the number of bags that we use would be a step towards more responsible living that also encourages people to think about the resources that we use. Aside from the potential ecological problems such bags cause when disposed of irresponsibly, it is incredibly wasteful to produce billions of them each year to be discarded after a single use. We continue to encourage the reuse of bags wherever possible.
All bags have an environmental impact, irrespective of their composition. Reusing them as many times as possible and disposing of them appropriately when they cannot be used any more minimises that impact.
The hon. Lady wants to intervene. I shall let her do so before I continue.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. I was being a little impatient, because he said that he encourages people to reduce waste and not use plastic bags. Could he concretely say how that encouragement finds its way down to ordinary people? It is true that they have the opportunity to reduce waste, but they are not doing it enough.
They are not, and I will return to that in a moment.
There are those who are clear about their obligations and will use reusable bags whenever they have the opportunity. There are some who it will always be difficult to reach, because they simply do not want to hear the message. Then there are what I call the “guilty middle”; they will use reusable bags, and want to do so, whenever they can, but they sometimes turn up—as, I confess, I occasionally do—at a supermarket and find that they have forgotten the bag that they intended to take and have to take a plastic bag. The sort of measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park proposes might affect that large, guilty group in the middle, who want to do the right thing and feel guilty when they do not.
We have had lots of figures already, so I will add a few more. In 2011, around 8 billion thin-gauge plastic carrier bags—single-use carrier bags—were issued in the UK. If you include reusable bags, such as bags-for-life, the total figure is about 8.4 billion bags issued in the UK. Obviously, that is a very large number.
We have made some progress in recent years. The first voluntary agreement with retailers between 2006 and 2008, which has been mentioned, reduced the overall environmental impact of carrier bags by about 40%. Signatories to the agreement encouraged the reuse of carrier bags, increased their recycled content and reduced their weight, among other measures. A second agreement with supermarkets between 2006 and 2009 focused on reducing the number of bags distributed, and achieved a total reduction of 48% against the 2006 baseline. That is progress. We should not forget that.
Supermarkets and shoppers pulled together to reduce the number of carrier bags they were using. Despite some evidence of a reversal in the trend, the latest figures, for 2011, show an overall decline in bag usage of 32% compared with 2006. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby said about the contribution that carrier bags make to landfill. He is right that they are not a large part of the total waste stream, but it is not possible to argue that plastic bags, particularly when they litter our towns and countryside, are not an unwanted eyesore. They represent 72,000 tonnes of waste entering the waste stream.
Aside from the impact that carrier bags have on wildlife, marine environments and our countryside and coast, no one travelling around our countryside wishes to see carrier bags in the trees or floating down the lanes. It is all avoidable if we, the public and retailers do the right thing by reducing the use of single-use bags. We all have a part to play.
Some retailers are taking positive action, with initiatives such as voluntary charging, rewarding shoppers for reusing bags by awarding loyalty points, offering front-of-store recycling and increasing the amount of recycled content in the bags. Although recycling is further down the waste hierarchy, after prevention and reuse, it is still important to improve recycling rates for carrier bags, because it also helps to reduce the overall environmental impact and makes use of a valuable resource. I am pleased to see that the number of shops offering front-of-store recycling facilities for bags has increased, but I would like more to do so. I hope that more retailers, particularly the big ones, will be prepared to take up that challenge.
A number of stores, including WH Smith, Marks and Spencer, Ikea and Lidl, have already introduced charges for carrier bags. Is there evidence from their initiatives to suggest that there are any perverse or unwanted outcomes from such a charge?
I am not aware of any, but a lot of work is being done to look at all the evidence because we want to get the policy right and to make a really effective contribution. I will come back to the Government’s position in a moment, but may I just say that that is part of the evidence-gathering process in which we are engaged?
Let me go back to the point about how we behave. On average, shoppers take three to four new bags every time they go out shopping, and most of them have a large store of bags at home, often under the kitchen sink, which they could take with them and reuse. We need not only to reuse bags, but to reduce the number of new bags that we take and to use bags that have a longer life. All those things put together are the actions of a responsible citizen. None the less, I recognise that we are all fallible. I would hate to be accused of being a hypocrite on these matters, because I know that someone will spot me taking a bag in Sainsbury’s in Frome next week and say, “You said that we shouldn’t be doing that.” I will have to say, “Yes, and you are right; I shouldn’t be doing this and I wish that I had remembered to bring a bag from home.”
Let me address the specific points that have been raised. A question that was asked by my hon. Friend and echoed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) was about the Government’s reaction to the first year of bag charges in Wales. The results so far look positive. I hope that when we have looked at the full year’s results we will see that they are very positive indeed. We are certainly monitoring the results. When we are clear that we have robust data, we can then base any decisions on them.
Will the Minister in his evaluation take account of the additional bag purchases that will take place in Wales as a consequence of people not having that stock of unused carrier bags under the sink? In resource terms, the fact that people will be buying other products should be taken into account.
It should be. My hon. Friend is giving an example of exactly why we need to look at the results in the round rather than at a simple indicator. Let us do that and let us be convinced, if convinced we are, that what has happened in Wales is the right way to approach the issue. We will also consider the Scottish consultation on change, which closed on 28 September, and discuss the matter with our colleagues in Scotland. We will balance the benefits of any change with the real, but avoidable, effect on household budgets to ensure that we get the right option.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked me whether I had met the Welsh Environment Minister, and the answer is that I have not, but my hon. Friend will accept, I think, that I would not be expected to have such a meeting because that would be the job of my noble Friend, Lord de Mauley. In fact, it was Lord de Mauley’s predecessor in the Department, Lord Taylor, who met John Griffiths in July 2012 to discuss the matter.
My hon. Friend asked me whether I could confirm that the introduction of a charge would only require secondary legislation. If we did take such action, it would be from powers that stem from section 77 of the Climate Change Act 2008, which makes provision for charges for single-use carrier bags. Therefore, in England, we could introduce such a charge through secondary legislation, but it would be subject to a consultation process because that is the mechanism of government.
Will the Minister say when we can look forward to a decision coming from Government? He has explained that it is right to evaluate the experience in Wales. Could we therefore expect some kind of Government decision early next year?
I will not give a firm answer to that, because we want to look at the data, but I hope that we will be able to make an early evaluation of the data. Once we are clear that we have a full-year set of data and we are convinced that the effect is beneficial, we can make a firm decision, and I do expect that to be sooner rather than later. Obviously, that falls short of the sort of commitment on timing that the hon. Lady wants.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked about the small levers that can be used. He is right. This provision is one lever among many that we can take. If we find that it is efficacious to go forward on the basis of a proposal—it will be based on the evidence that the hon. Lady has asked for and that we are committed to securing—similar to what exists in Wales, we will use it as a lever to long-term change. There are other things that can be done as well. We would never want to rely on one mechanism and eliminate all others.
If, after studying the Welsh experiment, the effect is deemed to have produced a net good, both in terms of a reduction and the other considerations that have been mentioned today, is that the bar that we need to cross for our Government to pursue the same course of action? In other words, how much does this Government’s decision depend on the results in Wales?
It is one area of data on which we can base intelligent decisions. We do not only want to see whether there is a direct correlation between the activity there and the number of single-use bags that have been used. For example, has the initiative simply prevented people from using single-use bags and led them to buy a bag for life every time they go to a supermarket? If that was the consequence, that would be a worse outcome, despite the fact that the statistics on single-use bags would be beneficial. I am suggesting not that that will be the outcome, but that it is a slightly more complex picture, and we are genuine in wanting to examine the outcomes before we come to a policy decision. Such a decision will have an impact on the consumer, on retailers and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has said, on manufacturers, so we must get it right. We want to achieve a beneficial outcome for the use of scarce resources and for the environment. That is our intention as a Department and that is the basis on which we will finally reach a conclusion.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park for securing this debate and every Member for their contributions. I hope that I have responded to the points that have been made in a reasonable way. I will pass on my hon. Friend’s comments to my colleague, Lord de Mauley, for his consideration. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s early-day motion will continue to attract signatures. We will take into account all the factors involved before reaching a final decision, which I hope we will be in a position to make once we have all the information at our disposal.
Criminal Justice System
[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. The subject of the debate is victims and their treatment in the criminal justice system.
There is increasing satisfaction with our police force. My own force in Greater Manchester claims that independent surveys show an 85% satisfaction level with what it is doing. Nevertheless, the fact that there is a 15% gap indicates that things go wrong. Many Members of Parliament are here for this debate. When things go wrong, victims feel abandoned by the system, and most MPs’ caseloads testify to that.
I recently conducted a survey across Greater Manchester. Surveys can be partial, and the people who respond will have a strong motive to respond. Nevertheless, the dissatisfaction level was quite high. A quarter of the people who responded felt that they had not been treated well by the police or the criminal justice system. That is a worrying figure.
I must pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael)—joint signature on the application for this debate—for his work on behalf of victims in his years as a Home Office Minister. He was part of moving the whole agenda forward.
I want to talk about a few cases that have affected constituents. A woman living on her own found a mallet on her garden fence with a threatening and menacing note. When she contacted the police, they said they would send somebody round, as they should in a case such as that. However, the police officer did not turn up on time. When I intervened, the police turned up, but a single woman who is threatened should not require the intervention of a Member of Parliament to get the police to respond.
One of my daughters—I was with her at the time—had a dog that was attacked by another dog. A dog-on-dog attack does not make the national news, but had that dog attacked a child it would have been a much more serious event. The police took the matter seriously, but two months after its having been reported they have not come back to my daughter with an update. Not coming back is probably the single most common complaint that my constituents raise with me.
There are problems elsewhere in the criminal justice system. One of my constituents had to wait for nearly two years before her case, which involved violence from a neighbouring family against her and her family, came to court. The housing association would not move either the complainant family or those who were being complained about until the matter had gone to court. For two years, this family lived with pressure from their neighbours while they waited for the Crown Prosecution Service to take the matter to court.
I had another case of a constituent whose ex-partner was in prison for beating her very badly. While in prison, he threatened to kill her. She was told through other sources that he was due for imminent release, but the probation service would not give me or her any details about the timing of his release, which left her feeling extremely vulnerable in respect of a person who had already made threats to her well-being.
More generally, the courts themselves come in for criticism. We recently heard of Peter Bowers, a High Court judge in Teesside, who described a burglar as needing courage to burgle; many people feel that it might need courage to lie in bed listening to a burglar invading their house. Most of us do not feel that that is an acceptable way of describing a burglar. There is dissatisfaction, therefore, with the way in which the courts deal with cases, from the relatively serious to the most serious.
The daughter of a family in my constituency, Charlotte Whitby—they have allowed me to name her—was killed getting off a school bus. The family could not understand two things: first, the lack of prosecutions across the United Kingdom; and secondly, much more importantly, the lenient sentencing, which the hon. Gentleman is alluding to. I do not think anyone in this House would disagree that there is a problem, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will dwell on the point that people are getting away with murder—literally.
Killing somebody in the workplace or with a vehicle, if I am not in danger of trivialising it, would be an extremely intelligent way to go about despatching another human being. The horrible reality in cases such as the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s is that there is now a family who will grieve for ever and who feel that there is no justice in the system. I have enormous sympathy for him and particularly for his constituent.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. On the courts and the criminal justice system, does he accept that some good systems are used in the criminal justice system to have the views of victims accounted for? For example, the victim impact statement must be taken before judges prior to sentences being passed.
Yes, and that is fine. I totally agree with victim impact statements. The only problem is that they are not compulsory and not always requested. We know that victims sometimes complain that they are under pressure to produce a statement that does not reflect what they really feel to be the impact. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that that is the direction of travel that we have to take, but I think we have to go a lot further. I will certainly make that point later.
Sir Paul Stephenson, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, recently made some caustic statements about his own stewardship of policing and of policing more generally. He was highly critical in saying that burglary is often not dealt with as severely as he felt it should be. He asked himself whether he had always dealt with it properly in his policing career.
It is certainly right to point out that many people think burglary is a very serious crime. Sir Paul Stephenson described it as invasive. He is right; it is invasive of people’s privacy and people’s lifestyles. Astonishingly, such an invasion of personal property and lifestyle sees more than half of those convicted receiving non-custodial sentences. Those non-custodial sentences are also relevant to a crime, which, in Greater Manchester, has a clear-up rate of less than 17%. Only one in six crimes is cleared up, and that does not necessarily include coming to court. Of those convicted, fewer than half receive a custodial sentence. We then wonder what signal that sends out to the wider community—to those who do not want to be burgled and those who want to burgle. There is a real issue.
I recently had an interesting conversation with somebody who has long experience of sentencing. He told me that he faces a regular dilemma. He works on the basis that non-custodial sentences are worth while; they can definitely perform a valuable part of the process. Nevertheless, if he feels that non-custodial sentences are not sufficient to offer proper restitution to the victim or do not offer any element of proper and legitimate punishment, he finds himself imposing custodial sentences in cases in which he would sometimes prefer not to. That is something we need to look at. If we are going to have a range of sentencing, we need to make sure that there is sufficient severity in the whole system. We need to look at sentencing as well.
Let me turn to those crimes that, although serious, have not received full-hearted emphasis throughout the criminal justice system. I refer in the most serious areas to sexual violence, rape, the sexual exploitation of children, domestic violence and even bullying and antisocial behaviour. Let me cite, as an example, the recent case of David Askew in Greater Manchester. Although he probably died of natural causes, there is almost no doubt in everyone’s mind that those natural causes were brought on by a consistent campaign of bullying that he had received from local youths, but no one took it seriously. With hindsight, people have said that had the various agencies—the social services, the children’s services and the police—shared the information base about the bullying, it would have triggered some sort of response. At no point, however, did it trigger a response, which left David Askew to spend years of his life in a degree of misery that he should not have had to put up with. It is wrong to say that bullying is not very serious; it is serious, as is antisocial behaviour. We must see antisocial behaviour as being central to the type of society in which we live. We cannot have no-go areas in which antisocial behaviour is accepted as legitimate.
It is also worth reflecting on the comparison between the celebrated cases of sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale and the situation of Jimmy Savile. I want to place it on the record that, although the English Defence League took it on itself to protest enormously about the situation in Rochdale—it is right that there should have been real concern there—it has not protested in the same way about Jimmy Savile. Sexual exploitation is about not the ethnicity or the cultural background of those involved but criminal behaviour, and criminal behaviour, whether by the Jimmy Saviles of this world or by Rochdale taxi drivers, is something that we must prosecute and pursue.
In all those cases, the culture of the criminal justice system is such that it did not take seriously the position of victims. The young women in Rochdale were described as from a council estate. I cannot accept that there is a council estate definition of acceptable crime versus those who live elsewhere. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) will want to speak more on that issue.
We have to change the culture with respect to sexual exploitation, especially of children, domestic violence, sexual violence and even stalking, because they cause real misery, destroy lives and, in the end, can lead to the most serious of crimes, up to and including murder. The culture that says that such crimes do not matter or that allows them to slip through has got to change, whether that happens through the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or the local authorities.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and I fully endorse what he is saying, especially on domestic violence and child sexual exploitation. On sentencing, which he has touched on, constituents of mine, John and Penny Clough, set up the Justice for Jane campaign following the brutal murder of their daughter, Jane Clough, who was a nurse. She was murdered in a hospital car park by her former partner and rapist Jonathan Vass, who was released on bail by a judge. One of the things that they found most hurtful was the fact that he was only sentenced as a murderer; he was never sentenced as a rapist and a murderer. Those cases were left to lie on file. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in praising the efforts of John and Penny in talking to Keir Starmer and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that severe charges such as rape are not simply left on a shelf and that people such as Vass are not able to cover their crimes by murdering the only witness?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. John and Penny have persuaded Keir Starmer that no longer should things simply lie on file. What is clear is that there was a case to be tried. It would have gone to trial had the subsequent murder not taken place. It is distressing for the family. I can understand that not only as a father but as a citizen.
On stalking, half the people who are stalked will have been stalked for more than 18 months before anything is done about it, so many events in their lives will cause them both fear and misery. In the worst cases, stalking has led to much more serious offences, such as rape and murder. We also know that the probability of someone being brought to prosecution for stalking is still phenomenally low. Even in the event of prosecution, only about 2.2% of those involved in this serious crime end up with a jail sentence. Again, we must change the culture that allows that to take place.
There are examples of extremely good police performance. I had a meeting recently with women who had been victims of, or involved with, domestic violence. One person, who was the victim of a violent attack by her ex-partner, said that she wanted to place it on the record that her own experience of the police, the refuge that gave her shelter, the Crown Prosecution Service and other services had been good. In the same meeting, another woman told me that when she lay on the floor waiting for an ambulance to be called, she heard police officers joking with her partner, which simply should not happen in this day and age. Our police need specialist training for domestic violence and stalking, but it is not unreasonable to say that it should be there for all. Whoever polices or prosecutes domestic violence must treat that crime as something that matters, and the criminal justice system must help to resolve the problems.
Let me move on because I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak. The Minister will recall the debate a few weeks ago on criminal injuries compensation. I am sure that she will tell us that the Government are funding victim services in whatever way. None the less, there is still great anxiety about the criminal injuries compensation scheme and what will happen to it. I hope today that she will take the chance to clarify the Government’s intentions on the matter. There is massive interest outside in what is happening. There is massive interest, too, in Parliament. I do not say this as a warning, but I hope that she has been able to tell her colleagues in Government that her own experience in that debate was a little unfair on her but was not unfair in the spirit of what she inherited from her predecessors. We need some clarification that we will have a robust criminal injuries compensation system that survives any proposed changes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this enormously important debate. May I underline the importance of the point that he has just made? I have never seen so many people queuing to get in to observe a debate in Westminster Hall as I have today. It shows the level of public anxiety. Following the Government’s wise decision to withdraw the statutory instrument, does he agree that when they bring back some proposals to the House they need to advertise them within both Houses, so that all Members can make their voices heard about how unacceptable the proposed cuts in criminal injuries compensation are?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Let me add one extra thing. It would be desirable if any such debate were heard on the Floor of the House and not simply in a Committee Room, so that the full House can be persuaded of the merits of any changes and can vote accordingly. That would be in the interests of people up and down the length and breadth of this land.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and the Minister on taking up her new post. She and I worked on the Justice Committee together. I am sure that she is aware that the Government’s proposals on criminal injuries compensation would mean that more than half of victims would get nothing and almost 90% of others would get very little. If the coalition is really serious about victims, it should scrap the proposals and carry on with the current scheme.
I am bound to agree, because I spoke in the debate on the scheme some weeks ago when it struck me as perverse that we talk about things such as permanent scarring or permanent speech impediments being minor. Many people listening to the debate would conclude that their view of what is minor is not consistent with the changes that the Government are proposing. It is important that we establish that point.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I want to add to his comments about the concern that so many people outside this place feel about the Government’s plans for the criminal injuries compensation scheme. I want to ask him about a particular point in the plans that we saw before and about the fears that people have regarding any new plans. The Government intended to withdraw compensation from anyone attacked by a dog. In my constituency, I meet many constituents who have been attacked by a dog; we suffered the death of a child in my constituency because of a dangerous dog. Last year alone, we saw a 5% increase in the number of people being hospitalised because of dangerous dog attacks: just under 6,500 people were admitted to hospital last year, of whom one in six was a child. Does my hon. Friend share my view that if the Government again bring forward a proposal in this area, after all the concerns that have been raised, people should still continue to receive compensation if they are attacked by a dog?
My hon. Friend is right. Dog attacks are clearly a major concern for groups such as people who work for the Royal Mail. Like the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the Communication Workers Union has campaigned strongly on the issue.
As I said earlier, I was present when my daughter’s dog was attacked recently. In that particular case, I actually had to attack the dog. It struck me at the time that it was a rather unpleasant dog, and if it had attacked me, I might have suffered a little, but if it had attacked a child, the child might have suffered considerably. Compensation is a really serious issue.
I want to make a few other points. As we consider what we can do for victims, I would be grateful to the Minister if she could look at the role of Victim Support. Most of us who have experience of its work know that it provides an enormously valuable service. It deals with more than 1 million victims of crime every year, of whom some 80,000 are victims of violent crime and some 8,000 are victims of sexual assault. It also trains some 7,000 people each year.
There is a genuine concern at the moment among those who work for Victim Support, both nationally and in my own area, about the changes that the Government are making to funding. Perhaps I should declare an interest at this stage, as a candidate for the role of police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester. The Minister may be surprised to know that although the transfer to police commissioners will go ahead, there is concern among people from all parties who are standing to be police and crime commissioners about whether the transfer will be fully funded, with full transfer of Victim Support moneys, so that there is no loss of its services. It is important that we have clarity about that issue, because any loss of funding would not only be unfair to those who become commissioners but—much more importantly—it would be unfair to victims if those services were no longer there. We need some clarification about that.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I seem to have been speaking for 50 minutes, according to the clock. It may feel to others that it has been at least that long.
In conclusion, I simply say that we need to change the culture around victim support and put victims at the centre of the criminal justice process. There are some specific points I would like to make to the Minister that I hope she will pick up. Victims who come to see me as an MP and those who speak for them, such as Victim Support, say they want to be treated seriously in the process. They want to be kept in touch with what is going on. They want promises made to them kept; for example, people turning up when they say they will and coming back to them when they say they will.
Victims also want to be involved in the process of the management of the offender. Many victims are more inclined than the general public to support restorative justice processes, as long as they are explained properly. However, they want to be properly consulted. Victims understand that restorative justice can work, but they do not like others pressing them to agree to restorative justice when it is not appropriate; rather, it should simply be an available option. Having agreed to the restorative justice process, victims particularly do not like finding out that the criminal has been through the same process on more than one occasion. That says to them that there is no restoration; it is merely a way of avoiding the justice process. Victims do not want the police to use cautions as a way of avoiding the criminal justice process. It is important to register those points. There are sometimes good reasons for police cautions, but they should be used when appropriate and not simply as a way to avoid the bureaucracy of the court and to save police time. That is not why they were designed.
There are some specifics on which the Minister and her Department can help victims. The first is to clarify the funding for Victim Support, as I said. The second is to clarify the position of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The third would be to make a clear statement about victim and witness statements in court—particularly victim statements—to provide certainty for victims that the statements will be voluntary and properly elucidated on behalf of the victim, and that they will be used by the court to make sense of the damage done to the victim by the criminal and the crime.
I support the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) in her plea through her recent ten-minute rule Bill. A code for victims has to be one with proper backing, not just a form of words. We have had victims’ codes in the past and, frankly, if they are only codes they are ignored. We need certainty that the victim is given the same rights as the offender in the criminal justice system.
I am grateful, in what will be one of my last contributions in this great Parliament of ours, to have the privilege to raise the position of victims, who matter so much because crime is still prevalent. We need to change the culture around victims. We can do it, but we need the different agencies to proceed with a sense of urgency.
Several hon. Members
Order. As a result of the number of Members who wish to speak in the debate, I am imposing a time limit of eight minutes. The rules are the same as in the House. Each of the first two interventions accepted stops the clock and the Member who gives way has an extra minute. I remind Members that interventions should be short. The Clerk will ring a bell when a speaker has one minute left.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing it. I feel strongly about the victims of crime. I am delighted that the debate is taking place, because for far too long the victims of crime have not had their voices heard as they should have done. I appreciate there may be many reasons for that. However, this is an opportune debate at a time when the public are quite animated about the elections of police and crime commissioners. There is an opportunity to bring greater focus on victims of crime.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of Victim Support, particularly for taking the initiative to engage the police and crime commissioner candidates of all political persuasions, to bring them on board regarding victims’ services and support and to get them to sign up to the Victim Support five promises to victims and witnesses pledge.
Those elected as police and crime commissioners, regardless of their political persuasion, must champion the rights of victims and put victims first. Once they have a mandate, it would be ridiculous not to do so. I hope that the Minister, along with police and crime commissioners, can give a commitment to the work of Victim Support and other victims’ organisations, to which I will refer later, to ensure that victims get the first-class treatment that they deserve and have not had previously.
The Minister will know that, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester Central, last December I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to call for a robust and enforceable code of practice to deliver new rights and better services for the victims of crime and their families. There have been far too many gaps and inconsistencies in the provision of services for victims and their families. Following my Bill, I was delighted to see the Government take some positive steps forward and introduce the consultation, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”, which proposed new measures to improve services.
I look to the Minister for an update on when those measures will be implemented and when the details of the recommendations proposed by the former Victims’ Commissioner, Louise Casey, in her review into the needs of families bereaved by homicides will be put into effect.
Ten years ago, my constituents, Pat and Ian Levy, lost their son, then 16, who was stabbed by a 15-year-old in Hackney. They are very keen to present their victims’ personal statement in person at his parole hearing. They do not have control over that; it is at the whim of the chair. Even then, they do not get the chance to talk more about it; they simply read out a statement. I share their concern that that is not a balance. Will the hon. Lady comment on that?
I agree. As I have maintained before, there is disproportion in the system when we hear more about the offender than the rights of the bereaved family and the victims of crime. That horrible example of that brings me to a constituency case of mine. Marie Heath, an extraordinary lady, faced the terrible ordeal of losing her son, who was brutally murdered in Frankfurt in April 2011. Her family have experienced considerable distress. Those of us who have constituents who have experienced horrendous crimes can relate and empathise with their ordeal. Having to travel two or three times a week to Germany since March to be present at the trial, which only concluded last month, brought home the battle that victims and their families have with the system, particularly if overseas. That highlights the need to secure resources to help them through the process—raising funds to travel, for example, and hotel costs—while also looking for the right support. Having seen the Heath family go through that horrific ordeal, I implore the Minister to do what she can. I recognise that she is new to her role, and I welcome her. Will she also commit to meet Support after Murder and Manslaughter Abroad—another organisation that has done good work in that area?
I would also like to highlight another prominent case, that of Jeremy Bamber. The Bamber murders took place in my constituency many years ago, causing immense distress at the time, as they still do, to the family of the victims of that terrible crime. It pains me to mention that there has been some bad history in how the family have been treated by the Ministry of Justice. Regrettably, two years ago, it granted Jeremy Bamber access to the media to protest his innocence, despite a number of unsuccessful applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. No consideration was given to the victims’ family. In the small village in my constituency where the murders took place, unfortunately, every time the gentleman’s name is mentioned in the media, the world’s media descend and cause an awful amount of grief for the family. I hope that the Minister agrees that such cases are simply not acceptable. It is awful for victims to be treated in that way. They are not kept informed of what is happening, so the first that they hear about it is when it lands in the media. The distress that that causes is appalling.
The hon. Member for Manchester Central mentioned cases such as domestic abuse and crimes against children. There are many examples of things going on in this day and age that put a stain on our justice system. My constituents certainly believe that offenders have a greater say. This is about victims. We should all be championing victims, while ensuring that offenders pay for their crimes. Serious and persistent offenders should face the necessary sanctions. When the Minister sums up, I would welcome her thoughts on the areas that I have touched on. Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Manchester Central for securing the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this debate. I declare a similar interest; I have been nominated to stand for election as police and crime commissioner in south Wales.
I am proud to say that the needs of victims will be at the heart of my approach if I am elected. I want to be precise that a genuine focus on the needs and interests of victims must involve putting the victim at the heart of the behaviour and performance of the court system and of every agency in the criminal justice system, as well as of the police and the rest of our systems of local and national government. We must bear in mind that there is an enormous variety of victims, ranging from nurses, shopkeepers and police officers to ordinary members of the public. Our response must be right in every set of circumstances. Victims’ experiences are often very personal and different.
In my view, four major steps are required to bring about the radical change needed in how we deal with victims. The first is to act on the wise words given in evidence to the Justice Committee by the then chief executive of Victim Support, who essentially said that what victims want more than anything else, other than not to have become a victim in the first place, is the certainty that it will not happen again. Preventing crime—cutting offending and reoffending—is absolutely central to meeting the needs of victims.
That is clear enough in relation to the police. Sir Robert Peel said in terms, when he established the first police force, that the central purpose of the police was to cut crime—to prevent offending and reoffending. He also said that the police were the public and the public were the police, which must surely mean more than an identification in general terms between the police and the wider community; it must involve a conscious seeking-out of the experience of victims, especially those whose voices are not easily heard and whose suffering is hidden.
Such victims might be abused children or the victims of violence against women and girls and other forms of domestic violence that remain under-reported. They might be those suffering in silence who are exploited in a variety of ways, those victimised within specific communities by things such as female genital mutilation or those who suffer the ongoing victimisation of antisocial behaviour. The police and the public surely have a common interest and a common responsibility in taking the victims’ side.
That also ought to be the clear purpose of the court system. In my view, it was a missed opportunity when the purposes of the Sentencing Council were spelled out in legislation. I urge Ministers to put that right now. At the heart of the work of the Sentencing Council should be the answer to the question, “What works?” It is not, but it should be.
In the Justice Committee report on the role of the prison officer, we concluded that that role could not be clear unless the role and the purpose of prison was clear. The Prison Service, like many other agencies within the criminal justice system, ends up chasing specific targets that have nothing to do with their overall aim or purpose or the expectations of the public, which should be to hold prisoners securely and return them to the community less likely to offend, or at the very least likely to offend less seriously. That must be built into the granular detail of what we expect.
The second step is to ensure that the needs and voices of victims are heard clearly in the court system. Both this Government and the last have clearly wished victims to be listened to and treated better within the court system, but that is mostly dealt with through additional requirements, such as victim impact statements and witness support, which are welcome but do not touch the central purpose of the whole system. I was the first Minister to serve on a jury after the legislation changed, and it did not enhance my respect for the court system, which seems to be run mainly for lawyers and judges.
To return to the situation of the Levy family, what does my right hon. Friend think could be done to improve the rights of victims at parole stage as well? The victims are still suffering. My constituents rightly say, “The perpetrator has a lot of people arguing on his behalf, but the victims have nobody to argue on their behalf.” They might not even be able to be present at the parole hearing. Does he have any thoughts on that?
My hon. Friend is right. The needs and interests of victims should be present at every stage throughout the court system. I also think that greater use of restorative justice is needed. I was interested to hear a sergeant in the South Wales police say recently that giving victims the chance to tell the offender in no uncertain terms how damaging the experience of the offence had been was, in his words, genuinely life-changing for the offender. It is not a soft option; it is a hard option, as long as it is done properly, professionally and with the interests of the victims in mind.
The third step is to provide proper support for victims at every stage. We have built up a powerful victim support network across the UK. I was involved in the establishment of one of the first support schemes in Cardiff, after the very first had been established in Bristol. I pay tribute to how Victim Support, as a national organisation, has promoted professionalism in recent years among both staff and volunteers in a superb service.
As we see in other fields such as education and health, there is a necessary tension between the national dimension, in which standards are established, and local service, which is sensitive to local needs and realities. Now the Government are putting a significant amount of commissioning in the hands of the new police and crime commissioners. That has introduced an unwelcome element of uncertainty, but it might work in practice. My commitment, if elected, is to ensure that service to victims is enhanced rather than reduced.
In a reply to my recent question, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), promised that more money rather than less would reach the commissioners in carrying out their duties, but there is a worry that support to victims might be fragmented from the other service. A sentence on the Home Office website states that
“the Government will retain responsibility for commissioning services where there are either proven economies of scale or they are genuinely specialist in nature. This includes support for those bereaved through homicide, victims of trafficking, rape support centres and the witness service”.
That makes sense for the other specialist services, but it is essential that the victim as witness is given a seamless service before, during and after the court experience. I hope that the Minister can clarify that and guarantee that the witness service will be delegated to the police and crime commissioners. Given that the worst experience for the victim sometimes occurs within the court system—victims in some cases describe their experience in court as being even worse than the original incident or as compounding their suffering—it would be wrong for it to appear that central Government or the court system were unwilling for support to witnesses to be provided through local and independent services.
Ministers have made it clear, as we saw at Home Office questions this week, that the police and crime commissioners should challenge other parts of the criminal justice system about their work and performance. Being in close contact with support for witnesses surely makes sense in that regard.
The fourth necessary step is to listen and learn from the experience of witnesses. In relation to violence in Cardiff, we stopped measuring reports to the police and started measuring the experience of victims who had to go to hospital for treatment. As a result, we found that many cases were not being reported and that that needed to change.
The purpose of establishing the crime and disorder reduction partnerships in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was to bring in every aspect of the public service to support the objective of reducing offending and reoffending. That surely has to become the central responsibility of Government, to enable the whole of the criminal justice system to operate much more effectively and in the interests of victims, and to make it a clear priority for the whole of the criminal justice system and every agency.
Changing the focus of the Sentencing Council to make “what works” its clear priority would be part of that. The work of the police and crime commissions will be extremely challenging, but in the House this week Ministers set very high expectations of how commissioners might add value in pursuing the “and crime” part of their role. I am pleased they did so, but if that is to be turned into reality, the direction of the whole criminal justice system needs to support that ambition.
I am now imposing a limit on Back-Bench speeches of four minutes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I am not running for election as a police and crime commissioner. I support fully the passionate words on behalf of victims that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and many others.
As treasurer of the all-party parliamentary cycling group and a keen cyclist, I know many people who have been affected by this issue. Today, I would like to talk about vulnerable road users who are victims in our system. We need changes right the way through the system, from how cases are investigated, to charging standards and the involvement of victims and to sentencing.
I will start with a chilling statistic. We have now reached the 95th cyclist death on the roads in Britain. Some 82 of those were caused by collisions with vehicles, and many of those cases are still being investigated. The overwhelming majority of deaths to cyclists are caused by collisions with vehicles, and not because of carelessness. Indeed, we saw in statistics from Transport for London for last year that only 6% of cyclist deaths were attributable to carelessness on their part. The majority were attributed to fault by the driver. That needs to be stressed.
In many cases, of course, there is not enough evidence either way, but the majority of deaths are caused by motorists, so we need to be very clear about where the balance of fault lies in these instances. If we look at deaths and serious injuries together, last year 3,192 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads. For far too long, justice has been weighted in favour of the motorist.
Terminology is also an issue. We all refer to road traffic accidents, but I put it like this: if a cyclist is killed by a speeding lorry driver on a mobile phone, that is not an accident but a crime, and we should refer to them as road traffic collisions rather than road traffic accidents. That would help to drive a change in culture. This debate is not about being anti-car—I am a road user myself. In fact, most people who are campaigning on this issue both cycle and drive.
There are examples of unsafe cycling out there. I am sure that I owe my life to a traffic policeman who hauled me over the coals for cycling down what he called the “tunnel of death” between two lanes of slow-moving lorries and buses. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I did not shout; I just apologised very meekly. Sometimes, being informed about these things makes a difference.
Inconsistencies run right through our system. We need to look at the boundaries between careless driving, death by careless and inconsiderate driving, and death by dangerous driving. There is evidence, because of the higher conviction rates, that offenders are being driven towards lesser charges. That has huge implications for sentencing. In many cases, there is the decision that there is no one to blame at all. That cannot be right.
As with the Sentencing Council guidelines on the impact on victims of assault, let us have victim statements. Losing a child through a collision with a speeding motorist has no less impact than losing them as a result of an assault, so let us take that seriously. We should look again at strict liability in civil cases, and I would like the Minister to talk about that.
I would like to pick up on some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). Let us be clear—when people are behind the wheel of a vehicle, they are in charge of a lethal weapon. If somebody is killed or seriously maimed because of careless or dangerous driving, that is no different from killing or seriously injuring someone through any other kind of negligent or dangerous behaviour.
According to figures given to me in parliamentary answers, more than 500 killer drivers have avoided jail in the past five years. While the number of people convicted of causing death by careless or dangerous driving in England and Wales between 2007 and last year rose, there was a dramatic fall in the proportion of those convicted receiving a custodial sentence.
In 2008, there were 271 such convictions; in 2011, there were 383. However, in 2008, 90% of drivers who were convicted went to jail, while in 2011 only 50% of them did. That is totally unacceptable for the families and loved ones of the victims. They feel a deep sense of injustice and unfairness when they see somebody who has killed their loved one get off with little more than a rap on the knuckles. It brings the whole of our criminal justice system into disrepute.
I welcome the relatively new Minister, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), to her post. I have not had the opportunity to congratulate her personally because I do not see her anymore around our neighbouring offices. I hope this will not damage her career, but I was delighted at her well deserved promotion. I have a number of questions for her; if she cannot answer them now, I would be grateful if she wrote to me.
Has there been any change in the sentencing guidance issued to courts in relation to these offences? If the guidance has not changed, how does she explain the huge drop, which is way beyond the possibility of statistical fluctuation based on the individual circumstances of the cases? Will she agree to the request from CTC and other cycling and road safety groups for a review of how the criminal justice system is working in these cases?
We have a good record in Britain, going back over many years, of improving our road safety and reducing death and injury on the roads. That has not happened by accident; it has happened through joined-up Government policies that have boosted safety and changed our whole culture and attitudes towards road crime. I am sure that the Minister, who is a reasonable woman, would not wish to see the recent worrying reversal of that progress as part of her legacy. To avoid that, she needs to ensure that we can restore the confidence of the victims of road crime in the justice system.
I want to speak about information and draw attention to the Victim Support survey, which stated that 82% of people did not know their local candidates for the position of police and crime commissioner. We have seen the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) working hard to change that percentage. More than two thirds of those surveyed thought that they should be better informed about an offender’s progress and what an offender is doing, particularly if they are serving a community sentence.
The Government have set as a priority the issue of information. Indeed, in response to a question that I asked in the House on 18 September, the Justice Secretary said that that has to be a priority. It has been mentioned before. Louise Casey told me that across a whole range of issues affecting victims the big task needed to improve the service dramatically is relentless information throughout the criminal justice system. She said that in 2010.
The previous Labour Government talked a lot about the issue, too. Indeed, in 2002 they threw £11 million at the Crown Prosecution Service, setting a target of tracking all cases of victims online by 2005. Sadly, as with many other targets set by the previous Government, that was not met and the money went into the ether.
We must ensure that we can do better than that. From my own experience—I declare an interest as a criminal defence solicitor, although not practising much now—I know that the system of criminal justice is too closed and too insular. The coalition programme said clearly that we must be the most open and transparent in the world, and that light must also shine in the shadows and darknesses of the criminal justice system.
We have some momentum across the political spectrum. The Institute for Public Policy Research report this year supported the tracking of cases online. In these days of information technology, we must be able to enable victims to track cases, from the moment when they are reported to the point at which justice is served. All too often the CJS Online information is largely impersonal, and when victims want personal, relevant, useful and timely information, it is lacking.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that victims are entitled not only to things being tracked properly and so on, but to proper compensation? Has he looked at the Government proposals on the cuts to compensation and does he agree that they need to be abandoned?
I am happy to talk about that and, if the right hon. Gentleman is patient, I will respond shortly, but first I must finish my train of thought on information. It is important not to lose the momentum gained from the development of online crime mapping and take it into online victims’ justice mapping. That must happen. Yes, there is benefit from social media and peer support, but there are examples from across the sea, in Florida, where VINELink can be used to track information properly online. Avon and Somerset has TrackMyCrime and a 90% satisfaction rating for victims.
On the case for compensation, I was the shadow Justice Minister in 2008 and during a delegated legislation Committee it was interesting to note the concern in respect of removing or limiting the scope of compensation under the criminal injuries rules. The Labour Government were seeking to reduce the scope then, but I did not see the attention and concern among Labour Members that I see among them now.
An issue that we should all recognise is that “criminal injuries compensation scheme” is a misnomer; it is a criminal injuries contribution-to-compensation scheme—it is a contribution and essentially limited. Homicide victims who have not come through the criminal justice system but are going through the highly bureaucratic process do not get adequate compensation; they get to a maximum level, which is a derisory amount for the victims of crime in many ways. It is essentially limited, and compensation has to be broader than that.
Yes, we should provide the support, in particular where the offender has not been identified and brought to justice—that lies within the scope of the scheme—but we ought to recognise the progress made by the Government. For the first time, we have a statutory duty for compensation on all offenders who come to court. Let us ensure that, when cases get to court, victims are properly compensated, so that they do not have to go through civil and other remedies.
It is also planned that offenders will now have to pay an extra £50 million into the victims’ pot; there is the prisoners’ earnings scheme, which will go to victims, as well as the additional surcharges. Let us recognise that the issue of compensation covers a whole range of areas. Let us get the right compensation and the right information. Let us ensure, as I am sure we can with the new Minister, that we carry out the central task of doing so much more, so that those surveys from Victim Support and others do not come back and tell us that too many victims feel that the criminal justice system does not treat victims fairly.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate this afternoon, Mrs Riordan, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing it. I speak today as a member of the trade union USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—I draw attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—but also as the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Parliament for four years. I am proud that I was able to introduce legislation that improved the lot of victims and witnesses in the court system in Scotland, as well as speeding up court processes to stop victims and witnesses from having a lot of their time wasted and to ensure that public money was not wasted in unduly lengthy processes.
Today I want to concentrate on the changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Just before Parliament broke up for the recess, I had the opportunity to present a petition to Parliament signed by thousands of people—mostly, but not all, members of USDAW—who were concerned about that. The process of presenting a parliamentary petition means that it is in formal parliamentary language, which I felt did not really give the flavour or the opportunity to explain what it is like for the victims of crime. That is why I was so keen to speak in this debate.
Earlier today I had the opportunity to hear directly from a number of people who have been victims of crime fairly recently, including a young man who was walking to his place of work to cover the shift of a colleague who had been unable to turn up. He was set upon by three drunken teenagers, hospitalised, ended up in a coma for some days and possibly suffered a stroke. He said that the criminal injuries compensation scheme allowed him “to reset his life”, as he described it. It perhaps did not provide all the compensation mentioned by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), but no one would ever say that monetary compensation is enough in such circumstances. What that young man said was that it had at least given him the opportunity to put right some of the wrongs.
I also heard from another young man from Glasgow, who was going home from his workplace—he works in retail—to see his baby daughter at lunchtime; at 2.40 in the afternoon he was violently attacked and left unconscious and with scars that will last for a lifetime. As he said, it is not only the physical scars, which both he and his family have to deal with, but the emotional scars. Every time he goes out, he sees faces in the crowd who he believes may yet be those same people who attacked him. His clear message to us as parliamentarians is that our focus should be entirely on cutting crime and not on cutting compensation. He laid out clearly that the compensation was not about the finance—he lost more financially, by being off work for a year, than he ever got back in compensation.
I appeal to the Minister, who is new but whose background I know. She is a reasonable person, not to be seen—I am sure she does not want to be—as on the side of the assailants in such circumstances, rather than on the side of the victims. It is a real concern to me that the Government’s proposals would do away with compensation for a huge number of serious injuries—in particular those covered in the lower bandings, bandings 1 to 5. The amounts of compensation for the individuals are relatively small, but the message, the signal sent to the victims, is that the state—society—has recognised their suffering and is prepared to do something about it. I hope that the Minister will listen and that she will bring any proposals back to the Floor of the House for us all to debate in more detail.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate.
I want to associate myself entirely with the comments just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). I value her experience as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and I saw her work in the role to which she referred. I do not want to repeat what she said, but I do want to think a little about how we got to where we are.
Criminal injuries compensation is a relatively new concept. Whenever it was thought about in the past, it was considered to be a payment from the criminal to the victim. Relatively recently, in the 1950s, people started to look seriously at the responsibilities of the state. I will not go through all that history, but the first compensation scheme of its kind anywhere in the world was our compensation scheme, introduced by the Labour Government’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1964.
How that legislation operated was very different from how today’s legislation does. There are three particular things to note about the 1964 Act. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) talked about a contribution to compensation. The 1964 Act based compensation for crime on the compensation that would have been received for a similar civil injury. There was no limit, and that was the downfall of the legislation, because the budget became very high.
In the first year, around 44,000 cases were presented and more than £50 million was paid in compensation. That legislation was the first of its kind in the world, and throughout its gestation and progress through Parliament the Treasury opposed it. That must be noted.
The provisions of the scheme have changed substantially. Compensation payments have been restricted, and we have fixed bands of payments, depending on the gravity of the injury. The current legislation still meets the basic principles of the scheme—that the victims of crime should be compensated for their injuries in certain circumstances.
A financial payment can never fully compensate anyone for a violent crime. Physical and mental scars may take a long time to heal, and some never heal. I was a practising solicitor in Scotland for many years, and dealt with many victims. I also worked in the criminal courts and saw the effect of crime. I have been a victim, not of a violent crime, but it left a few scars that remain today.
It is important that the state should acknowledge the effect of violent crime on individuals—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
This debate will now end at 4.50 pm.
In the short time available to me, I want to make a simple point. One of the principles behind the 1964 Act was set out in the relevant White Paper:
“The Government do not accept that the State is liable for injuries caused to people by the acts of others. The public does, however, feel a sense of responsibility for and sympathy with the innocent victim, and it is right that this feeling should find practical expression in the provision of compensation on behalf of the community.”
The current Government intend to cut that provision, but I think that principle is still very important. The Treasury lost in 1964, but it looks as though it is winning in 2012. The victims of crime will be the losers.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan.
On 16 September 2004, Robert Levy was stabbed and killed near Hackney town hall when he went to help a younger boy who was being threatened by a schoolboy with a knife. Robert was only 16 years old when he lost his life. His murderer was 15 years old.
Robert’s murderer is due to have his parole hearing in September 2013. I have received correspondence from the former Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), saying that Mr and Mrs Levy can apply to their local parole board to attend the parole hearing and read out their victim personal statement. However, Mr and Mrs Levy believe—I have a lot of sympathy with their position—that the victims of crime should have the right to speak, or to have a lawyer speak for them, at the parole hearings of the people who have harmed them or members of their immediate family. As I said, I have a lot of sympathy with that position. The Levys feel strongly that although articulate people can present their case well—in fact, I would think the Levys fall into that category—some people might not be able to do that and others might not even be able to write their victim personal statement very well. There is, therefore, an issue about parity in the law.
Mr and Mrs Levy are concerned that at the moment, the decision on whether victims of crime can speak or have a lawyer speak for them at a parole hearing is up to the discretion of the chair of the relevant parole board. They feel that reading out a statement is not adequate—I support them on this—and does not allow family members to respond to points made during the hearing. They would like to be able to have some comeback. The perpetrator has the chance to have other people speak for him, but they do not have anyone to speak on their behalf.
I wrote to the Justice Secretary, the Minister’s boss, on 4 October. We have not had a response yet. That is not a criticism. I expect that he has to consider the matter, and we have had a good dialogue with Ministers. However, could this Minister say specifically in her summing-up of the debate whether the Department might consider what has been proposed and look into whether there could be better rights for victims, particularly at parole hearings?
This is not about retribution. It is about balance and ensuring that the perpetrator accepts responsibility for their actions at each stage of the process. For someone who has served a sentence, the crime becomes more distant. For the family who have to live without their family member—in this case, their son, Robert—the pain never goes away. It is important that perpetrators understand that the impact of their crime does not lessen with time.
I sincerely apologise, Mrs Riordan, because I may have to leave a little before the end of the debate. Perhaps I can correspond with the Minister, and if she would be willing to meet my constituents, I would be very happy to facilitate it.
I am now imposing a time limit on Back-Bench speeches of three minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. I would like to follow on from some of the points made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and ask the Minister to look at the sentences that drivers receive after killing or injuring cyclists, which many people feel are often derisory.
For example, British Cycling employee Rob Jefferies was killed when he was hit from behind on an open, straight road in broad daylight by someone who had already been caught for speeding. Unbelievably, the driver got just an 18-month ban, a retest, 200 hours’ community service and a small fine. That was in line with the guidelines, so there was no hope of an appeal. Mr Jefferies’ brother, Will, is following this debate. He said:
“The present state of the law meant that his killer could never receive a sentence proportionate to the crime.”
The lorry driver who killed another cyclist, Eilidh Jake Cairns, admitted in court that his eyesight was not good enough for him to have been driving. He was fined just £200. He was free to drive again immediately. Unbelievably, 18 months later, he knocked down and killed Nora Gutmann, an elderly pensioner. His eyesight was still poor and he was not wearing his prescribed glasses. If he had been convicted of causing death by careless driving the first time, he would have been given a driving ban and would not have been able to kill Nora Gutmann. The justice system failed not only Eilidh, but Nora.
When Cath Ward, who worked for the police in the west midlands, was knocked off her bike and killed, the driver was convicted of careless driving and received just a short driving ban. Cath’s friend, Ruth Eyles, wrote to me:
“What shocks me is that the driver who killed Rob Jefferies will be able to drive again in 18 months…If that young man had had a legal firearm and had accidentally shot and killed someone through carelessness, would he be given a new licence 18 months later?”
All too often, incidents in which people are seriously injured are downgraded from dangerous driving to careless driving because it is easier to secure a conviction, but a conviction for careless driving usually results in the driver just having to attend a course.
We need a comprehensive review of how the justice system operates when people are hurt or killed on the roads that includes, first, a full analysis of how the police and coroners investigate such cases; secondly, a review of the charging standards and legal guidance used by the CPS; thirdly, a full examination of the offences available to the CPS, particularly causing death by careless driving; and fourthly, a review of the sentencing guidelines to ensure that they adequately reflect the actual or potential consequences of an offence.
British Cycling, of which I am a member, has called on the Ministry of Justice to start a review. Despite repeated letters and 78 MPs signing an early-day motion in favour, it has had no response to its request. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and welcome her to her post. Is she prepared to meet a delegation from British Cycling to discuss justice on the roads in more detail, as the organisation has requested? Is she prepared to undertake a review of the justice system?
I want to share my knowledge of the Rochdale grooming case and, in particular, talk about an aspect that has not come to light or been much discussed: what one might term, the criminalisation of sexually exploited girls. The Howard League for Penal Reform recently produced a detailed report on that very issue, involving research by Professor Jo Phoenix of Durham university, entitled “Out of Place”. Soon after the Rochdale trial, I met a range of people involved in the case, including the victims. It became apparent that at least some of the victims had committed crimes that were clearly a response to the abuse that they had received—a cry for help.
Girl A in the Rochdale case described to me how on one occasion she tried smashing up a vending machine in one of the takeaways in which she had been repeatedly raped. The perpetrators of the rape had no hesitation in phoning the police, who attended and arrested the girl. It was during police questioning about smashing up the vending machine that she explained that she had been sexually exploited. It is the episode that people might remember; the police officer interviewing her yawned throughout the interview, as though he was not interested in what he was being told. It was at that stage that the girl’s parents first learnt about the abuse that she had received. That was in 2008, and we now know that no prosecutions, either of the girl or the perpetrators, took place and that the abuse continued for another two years.
From that incident and others, we also know that the perpetrators of those horrific crimes were emboldened to continue the abuse. As, I am sure, they saw it, they were being left alone to continue raping girls. Indeed, if the girls stepped out of line and committed crimes against them, the perpetrators felt emboldened enough to report it to the police. I was told of an incident in which one of the victims smashed up a taxi of a perpetrator, and she, too, was arrested.
I press the Minister to review the cases in which the victims were prosecuted, and possibly revoke some of the action taken against them. I shall conclude with an important point: in such cases, children must always be treated as victims, never as willing participants, and certainly never as criminals.
I was one of the MPs who last month went to the delegated legislation Committee considering the Government’s proposals to cut the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We were absolutely determined to speak up against those cuts. Indeed, in contrast to many such Committees, where most of the speaking is left to the Front Benchers, there was lively and vigorous opposition, not only from the Opposition side, but from Government MPs. I thank the Minister for having the wisdom not to push the motion to a vote and to allow time for a rethink.
If the cuts had gone ahead, they would have ended payments to victims, who include postal workers and children, mauled by dangerous dogs and to victims of criminal injury who suffered any of a raft of so-called minor injuries, including multiple broken ribs, who are currently eligible for payments of between £1,000 and £2,000. Cuts would have been made to payments that currently range from £2,500 to £8,000 for more serious injuries, such as fractured joints and significant facial scarring.
The criminal injuries compensation scheme is the last resort for victims of crime, when payment cannot be recovered from the perpetrators of the crime or from insurance cover. It involves modest sums, awarded under stringent conditions to the victims of crime, many of whom suffer loss of earnings due to their injuries. It is particularly valuable for those on low pay, such as the third of front-line retail workers who do not earn enough to qualify for sick pay. Victims of criminal injury also include health workers injured by violent patients and postal workers attacked by dangerous dogs. We cannot compensate for the trauma of an attack, but we, as a society, should at least provide modest financial help for the victims.
Furthermore, even if an injury is work-related and the employer has employers’ liability insurance, the Court of Appeal has said that no employer could be expected to go as far as preventing any robbery from taking place at all, and therefore employers do not breach their duty of care by not preventing robberies. Clearly, there is a need for a safety net and for the criminal injuries compensation scheme. For the sake of victims of crime, I again ask the Minister to abandon plans to cut the criminal injuries compensation scheme.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your watchful gaze, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this crucial debate and on the support he has had from colleagues.
How society looks to and supports the victims of crime is most important. We had a proud record in government of helping and supporting victims, not least with a 43% cut in crime, but we recognise that there was and is much more to be done. That is why, among other things, we propose bringing forward a victims’ law at the earliest opportunity—hopefully, before not too long.
In welcoming the Minister, I must say, as I said some weeks ago, that we have high hopes that she and her colleagues will do far better than their predecessors in the two and a half sadly wasted years to date. Despite the little waver when she responded to an Adjournment debate on the criminal injuries compensation scheme before the issue went to the delegated legislation Committee, she rightly and properly pulled the statutory instrument on the scheme when it came to Committee, to ensure that it was not fully considered and an injustice was not continued. Her recollection of that fateful afternoon and evening will no doubt be such that she would not want a repeat of the clearly expressed unease from the Government Benches and across the Committee.
Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that the Government will not rush through both Houses a new proposal that has been only cosmetically changed? I urge her to assure Members that the criminal injuries compensation scheme will be properly considered on the Floor of both Houses. Will she also assure Members that proposals will not be brought forward unless a proper review and reworking of the scheme has taken place to address all the concerns raised by Members on both sides of the delegated legislation Committee and by various outside organisations?
It is important to stress that the criminal injuries compensation scheme is the last resort. It is important to the most vulnerable and innocent victims in society. We are talking about modest sums, but they are very valuable, particularly to those on low pay.
A number of Members mentioned dog attacks. It is horrendous when anybody is attacked, as a lot of postal workers are, but we must remember that all too often the victims of such attacks are children. Are we seriously saying that no compensation scheme or a weakened scheme would be right? Members on both sides of the House mentioned the information available to victims; the important issue of prisoner release needs to be addressed in particular. We also heard contributions about the attitude of professionals. I hope that the Minister will say something about that. They should be professional when dealing with victims of crime.
Restorative justice has to be done properly. It is not a cheap alternative. It is not something that can be swept in to deal with the matter and save a few quid on the side. If it is done properly and effectively and in the right circumstances, it is very good indeed, but it can be incredibly damaging if it is not.
The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, mentioned the case of her constituent Marie Heath whose son was murdered, and the good work of SAMM Abroad. I add my support to that organisation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) spoke about the four steps. They are extremely good points that the Government need to take on board. I have concerns that the Government still do not even know how much money is going to be delegated for PCCs to use for victims. I believe it is work in progress, which is a little worrying given that we are only a month away.
I will not repeat the points about cyclists at any length. British Cycling has done an extremely good job of raising the profile, and Members on both sides of the House have spoken well on that point. I simply urge the Minister to take the opportunity to have a proper root and branch review of the way that not only the criminal justice system but the entire system looks at victims of incidents—quite rightly, not accidents—where cyclists are involved.
There have been so many good points. I urge anyone observing the debate to read it in Hansard. I finish with a couple of points. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) raised the matter of Robert Levy’s murder, which raises important issues, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) talked about British Cycling, and I met Will Jeffreys, the brother of Robert Jeffreys. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) raised the appalling behaviour in Rochdale. The children’s commissioner said that the issue does not just affect certain communities; it is a problem in every community of every part of our country. That is chilling.
I look forward to the Minister’s comments. I have spoken for slightly longer than I intended. My apologies to the Minister.
Order. Before I call the Minister, may I remind her that the debate must finish at 4.50 pm?
I am grateful, Mrs Riordan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. I am conscious that this may be one of the final times we hear from him. I want quickly to convey that he will be missed right across the House. I wish I had time to say more. There is so much to say and so little time.
I am delighted to be responsible for representing the needs of victims and witnesses in Government. I am committed to ensuring that they are high on the Government’s agenda, which is exactly where they belong.
At the beginning of the year, we launched a consultation that sought views on a far-reaching package of proposals. We called it “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”, because that is what we need to do. Victims too often feel themselves to be at best an afterthought and at worst forgotten in the process of justice. Despite improvements over the past two decades, the system has continued to fall short, whether in relation to helping victims recover from the aftermath of a crime, supporting them through the inevitable stresses of investigation and trial, or providing the right services in the right place, funded as far as possible by offenders rather than the taxpayer. The urgent need to remedy the current weaknesses is why we are implementing the package of proposals that we committed to in our response to the consultation.
The Government have a responsibility to ensure that practical and emotional support is provided to help victims cope with the initial impact of crime and, in the longer term and as far as possible, recover from the consequences of crime. We are proceeding with plans to make improvements to the support available, raising up to an additional £50 million from the perpetrators of crime. On 1 October, the victim surcharge payable by an adult on a fine was increased. More than that, it has been extended to other disposals such as conditional discharges, community sentences and custodial sentences. Similar provision has also been made in respect of juveniles. The increase in revenue will increase the help that we can give to victims.
However, there is little point in ensuring that decent funding is available if we do not use it in the best way possible. That means prioritising support to those who truly need it: victims of the most serious crimes, victims who are persistently targeted and victims who are the most vulnerable in our society, and who may be isolated because of lack of support or family. That prioritisation of support underpins a second, related reform. For too long most funding decisions about victims’ services have been made in Whitehall. Past Governments have tested to destruction the virtues of monopoly purchasing of services, which I do not believe are in the interests of victims or taxpayers. We will take a more intelligent approach to victims and witnesses.
Under our plans, the Ministry of Justice will retain responsibility for commissioning services where either proven economies of scale exist or they are genuinely of a specialist nature. In our judgment, that means continued support from the Ministry of Justice for those bereaved through homicide, for victims of trafficking, and for rape support centres. We are also continuing to consider where else this approach would make sense.
Our coalition agreement also promised much needed stability for rape support services across the country, and we have given them long-term funding. We have also opened new support centres in areas lacking such provision.
For the bulk of victims’ services, however, funding will be devolved to democratically accountable police and crime commissioners. It is a plain fact that the needs of victims vary locally, and PCCs, much more than officials and Ministers in Whitehall, will be best placed to decide what their communities want and what they need. Hon. Members have raised the issue of national budgets and how much money will go to PCCs. I envisage that the majority of the budget will go to PCCs.
For many victims of crime, of course, their contact with the criminal justice system involves neither drawing on services to help them recover, nor—I shall come to this policy in a moment—seeking compensation. Rather, their priority is that the system treats them decently during the investigation and trial. It is unacceptable that victims still frequently feel that too little is being done. They have been given too little information and they are expected to sit next to the families of offenders. The Government are undertaking a review of the victims’ code and the witness charter to consider in detail how they can be made more effective and robust.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester Central will be pleased to know that we are taking a careful look at the operation of victim personal statements, which can be invaluable to victims in court, making sure that the impact of the crime upon them is really understood. We are committed to ensuring that offenders take greater responsibility for their crimes and do more to repair the harm that they have caused. I have already talked about the additional money that will be provided to victims through the surcharge. Restorative justice is something that could transform lives, and I will certainly be pursuing that.
The Government believe that the role of the victims’ commissioner is vital to making sure that victims’ needs are championed and their voices heard across Government. The announcement of our intention to fill the post of victims’ commissioner is another clear signal that the Government’s commitment to criminal justice reform is real.
There have been numerous contributions made today by hon. Members. I will quickly list them: the hon. Member for Manchester Central; my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel); the right hon. Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw); my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes); the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran); my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston); and the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for Dudley North (Ian Austin), for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into detail and comment as I would like on the issues that they raised, but I assure them that I have listened very carefully indeed to everything that they said, and I may have to write to them to clarify issues.
I am sorry that the Minister has not been able to respond to the points made by three hon. Members about road traffic victims. Would she at least agree to meet a delegation led by British Cycling to discuss the issue?
I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and I agree to meet a delegation.
I am right out of time, so I will just say that our package of reforms is designed to ensure that victims’ services are put on a more intelligent and sustainable footing. It is designed, in particular, to ensure that those in greatest need of help and support get what they actually need when they need it. It is not about one size fitting all. I am committed to these reforms.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before we start, may I remind Members of the importance of abiding by our usual rules and conventions during this debate?
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I do not think that you say that at the beginning of every debate, so I feel a little admonished already.
“Erskine May”, the volume that governs how we behave in Parliament and dictates many of the rules that are not written up in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, must be one of the most regularly ignored books in the history of English literature. Members will perhaps be surprised to know that it says:
“All Members should maintain silence.”
I do not know how often there is silence in the Chamber when somebody else is speaking. It is pretty rare, although on occasion the mood of the House can change on a sixpence. “Erskine May” also says that
“Members must not read any book, newspaper or letter.”
I have often seen Members signing Christmas cards in the House of Commons while a debate is going on, so I gently suggest that “Erskine May” is often ignored. I suspect that one of the reasons is that it is not generally available to the public—it costs £260 to buy. I believe that it should be available online and I cannot see any earthly reason why it should not be. All the Standing Orders of the House and everything else that dictates the way that we do our business are available online.
I know that some members of the public might think that there was a golden age when all MPs sat in the House of Commons and listened to one another carefully and attentively, only ever voting according to their consciences and not according to any party Whip, and that there was never any unruliness. In fact, the modern era has probably been one of the most ruly in parliamentary democracy.
On 24 July 1911, Tory MPs completely and utterly refused to allow the Prime Minister—Mr Asquith—to speak for the best part of 20 minutes by literally shouting at him at a very important point in his attempt to resolve a row between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Then, when F. E. Smith was going to speak on behalf of the Conservatives, the Liberals, who believed that Smith had orchestrated the shouting at Mr Asquith, all shouted at him until the Speaker had to suspend the sitting before eventually adjourning it for the rest of the day. It is the only time that I have found that the Prime Minister was literally unable to get a single sentence out and on to the record; I suppose that is what happens when there is a Chamber dominated by Conservatives and Liberals.
In 1920, things got even worse. On 22 November that year, a Conservative, John Elsdale Molson, attacked an Irish nationalist, Joseph Devlin, when Devlin raised the matter of the Croke Park massacre, which had happened the day before. Indeed, things got so bad that the Conservative dragged the Irish nationalist over the top of the Bench and started pummelling him on the Floor. A Liberal actually shouted out, “Kill him,” and obviously the sitting had to be suspended.
Likewise, on 11 April 1923 the Speaker suspended the sitting because the Government had lost a vote the day before and Labour MPs were insisting that they should therefore change their policy on ex-servicemen. At that point, Robert Murray, a Conservative politician, and Walter Guinness, a Labour politician, ended up in a fist-fight and the rest of the day’s business was lost.
I mention all those incidents because people sometimes have this glorious image of a perfect, pacific past in the House of Commons. Sometimes we romanticise the past too much and I would argue that “Erskine May” has also entrenched some of the archaisms of the past that are no longer necessary.
Personally, I find the whole business of calling somebody an “hon. Friend”, a “right hon. Friend” or an “hon. Member” rather unnecessary. I do not know why; it just makes us seem as if we are hung up on titles. Ordinary members of the public have no idea what the difference is between an “hon. Member” and a “right hon. Member”—indeed, often Members themselves do not know the difference. It just seems so ludicrous when one Member has referred to another Member as “honourable” and then someone else pipes up and says, “Oh no, he’s right honourable.” I just think, “Honestly, have we not got something better to obsess about than our own status?”
Similarly, it is a particular irony that we always refer to one another by our constituencies, not least because we can rarely remember each other’s constituency names. So we will go, “The hon. Member for…somewhere down in the south-west,” or something like that, and then somebody will shout out the constituency name and it gets corrected and tidied up by Hansard. The irony of it all is that Hansard will actually then put the name of the Member.
It is bizarre that we play this game of having to refer to one another by our constituencies rather than our names. I do not think that the fact that people in the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament call one another by their names means they are any less courteous to one another; indeed, they might actually be a little more courteous.
There are also a lot of inconsistencies about how the Chair sometimes rules in relation to specific comments that are meant to involve unparliamentary language. For instance, Eric Forth regularly got away with using the term “PMPs”. When he was shadow Leader of the House, he always referred to “PMPs” as opposed to “PMQs”, with “PMPs” meaning “Prime Minister’s porkies”. If that was not accusing the Prime Minister of lying, I do not know what would have been.
That was quite a direct accusation of dishonesty, yet Jacob Rees-Mogg—sorry, I am not allowed to call him that; I must call him “the hon. Member for somewhere or other down in the south-west”—did not get into trouble for using the word “flipping”, but Sally Keeble got into considerable trouble for using a word that begins and ends with the same letters as “flipping” but is slightly different in the middle, and that was because it was used in a quotation.
Members are not allowed to use quotations. It says quite clearly in “Erskine May” that Members are not allowed to use a quotation at all, at any point. No extracts from books, magazines or newspapers can be used, and yet we do it regularly—in fact, we do it all the time. On occasions in 2002, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions used quotations as a means of accusing Stephen Byers of lying, but he was not reprimanded by the Chair for doing so, even though it is absolutely clear in “Erskine May” that a Member is not allowed to use the fact that they are quoting somebody else as a means of passing off an imputation of dishonesty against another Member.
I cannot remember Tom Watson’s constituency, but it is somewhere in the midlands—West Bromwich east, north, south or west. He was told off for using the word “pipsqueak” on 8 July 2010, yet the words “stoolpigeon”, “hooligan”, “blackguard” and “idiot” have all been used at various times by hon. Members and they have never been told off for using them. So I simply say that it is time for a greater degree of consistency about what we consider parliamentary and unparliamentary language. Indeed, I would say that it is time for a full redraft of “Erskine May”.
In particular, Members may not know that they are not allowed to be ironical in a debate in the House of Commons. It was a ruling of the Speaker on 25 August 1860, when he spoke to a Member:
“I should have informed him that to discuss any matter in the House in an ironical sense is unparliamentary and out of order.”—[Official Report, 25 August 1860; Vol. 160, c. 1827.]
When I have heard people make ironical comments in the House, I have often wondered whether those comments should be put in italics in Hansard, so that everybody catches the drift of what the person was really saying; sometimes it looks as if they are saying exactly the opposite of what they really mean. However, the ruling is still in “Erskine May” as a result of that decision in 1860.
I have already referred to the fact that “Erskine May” says that extracts from newspapers or books, and paraphrases of or quotations from speeches and so on, are not admissible. I think that that ruling is out of date and it is
“more honoured in the breach than the observance”.
I am sorry to have to use the term “my hon. Friend”; in fact, I will just say “my Friend.” Does my Friend agree that some things cannot be put in “Erskine May” and that there should be some guidelines that just mean that we lead by example? For instance, when I have been going round the country asking people why they hate politicians, they say that one of the primary reasons is that they do not think that we answer questions put to us. We may think that senior politicians might lead the way on that issue, but the Prime Minister demonstrated the opposite today in an answer—or non-answer—to the question that my Friend put. That is the kind of thing that infuriates voters.
I will come later to what the Prime Minister said this afternoon, but to be honest I think that it was pretty scandalous. The whole point of Parliament is that Members are sent here on behalf of their constituents to be able to hold the Government to account, and that must surely require the Government to answer questions. Indeed, the ministerial code of conduct, ironically enough, was written by the Prime Minister in May 2010. It says absolutely categorically:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”.
It also says:
“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.
People might think that that is just the ministerial code of conduct, and that the Prime Minister wrote it so he can ignore it. However, it is also a motion of this House —it was a resolution of this House carried on 19 March 1997. I cannot understand, and I do not think that our constituents will understand, why the Prime Minister should think himself able to declare that he will not answer a particular question from somebody, apparently just because he does not like them.
I happen to think that the Prime Minister did that because he had something to hide. He made it pretty clear that he chose not to deny the fact that there are additional e-mails between him and Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, of a salacious nature and embarrassing to him, which he refuses to publish. He could have chosen to deny that today. It seems absolutely clear to me that there is precisely such a stash, and he should, in the interests of democracy—and, frankly, in the interests of his reputation—publish them as soon as possible.
Incidentally, the Prime Minister said earlier this year that he was not going to reply to any of my questions, then he started replying to some of them and now he has gone back to not replying. I presume that today’s not-replying answer was precisely because I had asked a question that embarrassed him and because he had something to hide.
“Erskine May” also says that we are not allowed to ask certain kinds of questions:
“Questions which seek an expression of opinion, or which contain arguments, expressions of opinion, inferences or imputations, unnecessary epithets, or rhetorical, controversial, ironical or offensive expressions are not in order.”
That would rule out pretty much every single parliamentary question I have ever heard, certainly those on the Floor of the House; perhaps written questions are rather different. This seems to be yet another example of where we must consider changing how we write our rules.
Some of the issues are very specific, and I want to refer to how “Erskine May” says we are allowed to refer to other Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, judges, governors-general of other territories, the Queen, the heir to the throne and members of the royal family.
It is absolutely right and proper that we should not seek to bring members of the royal family into our debates, and not seek to pray in aid a member of the royal family to try, in some way or another, to influence a debate—by saying, for example, “Princess Anne agrees with me” or “Prince Andrew disagrees with me.” However, extending that to mean that we cannot say a word about a member of the royal family is inappropriate, because we can write about them in newspapers. As Members of Parliament, we can say things on television, and in debates on “Question Time” or “Any Questions?” so not to be able to say the same things in Parliament, which is meant to be the fundamental place of debate in our society, seems misguided and wrong. It relies on an understanding from the late 17th century, which is archaic.
“Erskine May” also states, incidentally, that we are not even allowed to ask a question about ecclesiastical patronage. When the Prime Minister, in the next few days, gets two names suggested to him as next Archbishop of Canterbury, we will not be allowed to ask him which name he put forward to the Queen for appointment. One of the problems with the Church of England today is that the whole process of appointing bishops and archbishops is far too clouded in secrecy. It would be far better to have an open and transparent system, as we have for any other Government appointment. Why can we not ask questions about how patronage is exercised?
Similarly, and this strikes me as very strange, we are not allowed to ask questions about how the Prime Minister exercises his patronage in the granting of honours. That is particularly bizarre, because in 1922 a Conservative Member, Colonel John Gretton—as I am sure you know, Mrs Riordan, he won two golds in the 1900 Olympics—wanted to ask Lloyd George if he could give a definite assurance
“that no money or other consideration of money value has been paid, or passed either directly or indirectly, in connection with any of the honours recommended by the Prime Minister in announcing the list of honours on the 3rd of June this year.”—[Official Report, 27 June 1922; Vol. 155, c. 1842.]
The Speaker refused to allow him to ask the question, but it seems to me absolutely quintessentially important that we should know whether money has been handed over to a political party or an individual for the granting of an honour. The Speaker relied on the answer that had been given by his predecessor, Speaker Lowther, on 21 July 1907, when another MP, Hugh Lea, wanted to ask Campbell-Bannerman, another Liberal Prime Minister, about a knighthood he had given to Sir James Brown Smith. We know, in retrospect, that those were corrupt arrangements, but we could not have found that out through Parliament. If exactly the same were to happen today, we would have no means of establishing whether there was a corrupt arrangement.
I want to come to the matter of imputations of falsehood. Earlier this year, we had a debate about the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now the Secretary of State for Health—a bizarre promotion to my mind, but that is a matter for the Prime Minister’s conscience and not for anyone else’s. I made allegations about him in the debate, which had been made by other people in different terms, but amounting to exactly the same thing. I will not repeat them here, because that would be inappropriate. Members have to understand that when a motion specifically refers to the conduct of a Member they must be able to make an allegation about that conduct, and that also applies to Members of the House of Lords and of elsewhere.
In the 19th century, there were direct accusations against Viscount Palmerston, who, because his viscountcy was an Irish one, was a Member of the House of Commons. The Speaker ruled very clearly that if the debate was about whether Viscount Palmerston had lied to the House, it was perfectly possible to make that allegation, although it would not be in any other kind of debate. We need to draw that line very carefully, because there will be times when our constituents want us to say directly, in words that they understand, adhere to and support, what the allegation is. Sometimes when we mystify parliamentary language, we do ourselves an enormous disservice.
I have already referred to the issue of what should and should not be said in Parliament, and there is just one other thing that I want to mention. If we are to do our job well in opposition—all of us, at some point, are likely to be in opposition—it is important that Ministers adhere to all the elements of the ministerial code. I note that on Monday the Home Secretary was not able to provide a copy of her speech to the Opposition before she stood up to make her statement. It was said that providing it beforehand was merely a convention of the House. That is not so. Section 9.5 of the ministerial code states:
“A copy of the text of an oral statement should usually be shown to the Opposition shortly before it is made.”
I think that “usually” is there because of the Budget, and only because of that. It goes on:
“For this purpose, 15 copies of the statement and associated documents should be sent to the Chief Whip’s Office at least 45 minutes before the statement is to be made.”
I cannot remember the Home Secretary providing a copy of her statement to the shadow Home Office team 45 minutes, 40 minutes, 35 minutes or 25 minutes before, and I very much hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell us that he will ensure that the Prime Minister will reply to questions and that all Ministers will provide Opposition spokespeople with a copy of their statements at least 45 minutes before they deliver them, as required in the ministerial code.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is a former Deputy Leader of the House, on securing the debate. He has set out his detailed historical knowledge of parliamentary procedure and his long-standing interest in the matter. He highlighted some of the discrepancies that can be identified in “Erskine May”, and has entertained us with stories of how Parliament used to be. He presented an image that resembled a fight club, but with occasional use of parliamentary procedural language.
It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, particularly as the Government have no direct responsibility for parliamentary language. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the language used in Parliament is a matter for Parliament itself, and in this House it is the Chair rather than the Government who has responsibility for ensuring that what is said is in accordance with the rules and conventions of the House. We all rightly respect the Chair, and in responding to the debate I certainly will not be suggesting to you, Mrs Riordan, nor to the Speaker or his Deputies, how they should apply the rules of the House.
Having absolved myself of any responsibility for parliamentary language, I am happy to address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is right that we conduct debates in the House in a courteous and reasonable manner. Although we may profoundly disagree with one another, resorting to personal insult and abuse would demean the institution of Parliament and its Members. “Erskine May” states that
“good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”
There may be times when those characteristics are not as in evidence as they might be, but we rely on the wisdom and authority of the Chair to set the limits.
Being too prescriptive about terms that are and are not parliamentary is easy. Much depends on the context in which they are used. As the hon. Gentleman may know, pre-1983 editions of “Erskine May” contained lists of terms that had been ruled unparliamentary. The disadvantage, of course, is that unparliamentary use is often more to do with context or the tone with which something is said. Simply having a list is no guarantee against parliamentary abuse by Members.
We have all experienced this, me included: I thought that my language was in good temper and moderation as I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on freedom of information, during which I did not accuse individual Members, but accused some of perhaps duplicitous behaviour in relation to expenses and a particular Bill, but I was slapped down because my language was deemed bad-tempered and immoderate. I felt that, in those circumstances, the language that I used was appropriate. To codify such things is extremely difficult, as they are not always black and white, which is why it is better for the Chair to judge the factors on a case-by-case basis.
I think that most Members would not want us to go down the Australian route, where a much more colourful turn of phrase is permitted. The terms of endearment that Paul Keating used towards John Howard include “desiccated coconut,” “mangy maggot,” and much worse. I hope most Members would agree that that is not the route we should go down.
The hon. Gentleman referred to arcane language. I understand his point. He said that the arcane language we use is often unnecessary or old-fashioned, but addressing other Members through the Chair provides some distance and perhaps reduces the antagonism that might be felt and, therefore, slightly lowers the temperature of debates, which should be welcomed.
I could talk through the Chair but, none the less, refer to Tom Brake, rather than the right hon. Member for whatever constituency he represents.
Indeed, the hon. Gentleman could. My point is that, by talking through the Chair and referring to other Members as right hon. Gentlemen or right hon. Ladies, we are providing some distance and reducing the temperature, which, except for some rather bad-tempered debates, ensures that good-tempered and moderate language is used in the House.
People might feel that some of the terminology that we use—Adjournment debates, early-day motions, substantive motions and Divisions—do not help the public to engage, but others would argue that at least some members of the public appear to have little difficulty in following parliamentary proceedings on the Parliament channel. They seem to cope with some of that language. Of course, there have been some incremental reforms: we do not refer to the Public Gallery as the Strangers Gallery any more. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the new Chair of the Procedure Committee, might have views on such matters and want to consider the question of archaic language.
One point on which the hon. Member for Rhondda was perhaps not entirely correct is that, in this House, we may refer to members of the royal family, the Speaker, members of other Parliaments and judges, provided that there is a substantive motion for the House to debate. In such circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate to debate members of the royal family or other categories, such as senior judges. Again, the fact that that is done through a substantive motion ensures that, for instance, the courts are treated with the respect they should and that there is a strong relationship of trust and respect between the courts and the House.
If, for instance, a member of the royal family is appointed by UK Trade and Investment to adopt an ambassadorial role on behalf of the country and the Government, is it not perfectly appropriate that Members of Parliament should be able to ask questions about the expenditure on their flights, how much it costs for them to travel, whether they have been doing a good job and whether, frankly, they have been a complete and utter embarrassment to the country?
A debate on the hon. Gentleman’s specific points might be possible through a substantive motion, and I will write to him to clarify that.
Finally, time does not allow me to rehearse the 13 June debate on the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but that debate made something clear: when a serious allegation is made against a Member and provided there is a substantive motion, it is perfectly in order for that debate to take place and for matters contained in the substantive motion to be raised. The only caveat is that there is still a need to maintain good-tempered and moderate language in that debate, so that the genuine, substantive issues contained in the motion can be debated appropriately.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I have noted his concerns and will ensure that they are drawn to the attention of, for instance, the new Chair of the Procedure Committee. He raised the specific point about Ministers ensuring that statements are received within 45 minutes, which I will ensure is taken up with Departments.
Chancel Repair Liability
Should the vote due at 6 o’clock come towards the end of the Minister’s concluding remarks, I am content for her to write to me with her final remarks, rather than bring Members back at quarter past 6.
I am also sorry that the late start means my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) are not in their places, as they had hoped; sadly, they have other duties.
This debate is on the consequences of events that happened centuries ago, between 1536 and 1540 to be precise, so I will give a little context. Parliament and English democracy will be 750 years old in the year of the next election: it was in 1265 that Simon de Montfort first called the shires to assemble in what is generally recognised as the first true English Parliament. We honour him in the vale of Evesham with particular enthusiasm; he was killed later in the same year at the battle of Evesham. Our modern freedoms can be dated from exactly 50 years earlier: it was in 1215 that King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta. He now lies buried in Worcester cathedral. The inheritances of democracy and freedom, therefore, perhaps ring a little louder in the ears of an MP from Worcestershire.
The freedoms that Parliament defends often affect many thousands, even millions, of people, but the freedom of small groups is just as precious. So it is with the archaic workings of the law on chancel repair liability. “Archaic” is the word to describe those workings: we do not have to go back as far as King John or Simon de Montfort to establish its origins, but we do have to go back to Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, which concluded in January 1540.
I am no lawyer, let alone an ecclesiastical lawyer, but I hope that the essence of what I am about to say will be accurate. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, their land was sold off by the King. Often, there was a church used by the local community, associated with the land sold off, that had been sustained by the local monastery. The King wished the churches to continue to function, so he decided that those who purchased the land associated with them would be nominated lay rectors and have continuing responsibility for the upkeep of that part of the church used by the rector himself, the chancel. Thus the principle of chancel repair liability was established.
Often, the purchasers were major institutions, such as the schools of Eton and Winchester and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. They own to this day the land that they purchased from the King, and the liability to repair the chancels of the relevant churches has continued, providing many fortunate parochial church councils of the 21st century with a useful source of income for the maintenance of their mediaeval churches.
Other purchasers were less long-lived, or the land was sold and sold again and the liability forgotten. It still existed in law but had lapsed in practice, perhaps for centuries. Although lapsed, it was still enforceable, and so we come to 1994 and Aston Cantlow. Just across the border from my constituency, in Warwickshire, events unfolded that put an unwelcome spotlight back on chancel repair liability. A family purchased a property knowing the liability attached to it but expecting it to be unenforceable in modern law. The case went throughout the courts and eventually the family lost, which cost them a total of about £500,000. The courts asserted afresh, to much amazement, that the liability remained a valid claim on modern householders.
The then Government reflected on the advice that they had received from the General Synod of the Church of England, the Law Society and the Law Commission that the liability was an archaic law that should be scrapped, and ignored that advice. Actually, I think that they were right to do so. The major institutions that own land to which the liability attaches can afford the burden and budget for it. To remove that useful source of income from the cash-strapped Church would provide a windfall for some very rich and privileged institutions—including, by the way, and with some irony, the Church Commissioners themselves, who own considerable amounts of land to which the liability attaches.
Although the then Government may have been right not to abolish the law, they should still have chosen a different route. They decreed in 2003, in the light of the Aston Cantlow verdict, that the liability would lapse on any property to which it attached if it was not registered by October 2013, but only when the property first changed hands after that date. Registration meant that the existence of the liability would appear on the title deeds and be registered as such by the Land Registry. The liability would continue indefinitely on registered properties and, importantly, on unregistered ones until the first sale after the deadline. It was the ultimate long-grass manoeuvre, simply delaying the problem until the end of the 10-year period—now—but doing little to solve it. In the meantime, an unknown number of householders and landowners in an unknown number of parishes faced the threat that chancel repair liability might be registered on their property, even though its existence had been entirely forgotten.
As the deadline looms, the reality is becoming clearer for many small and unfortunate landowners. Evidence that I have seen from the Land Registry suggests that there has been a rush of registrations. It is believed that about 5,200 churches are entitled to claim the cost of chancel repairs from the lay rector. The majority of those lay rectors will be major institutions, but a significant minority will not. Let us say that just 10% of the parishes have private householders as lay rectors and that the average number of householders and small landowners affected in a parish is about 30—the number in the parish of Broadway in my constituency, where the situation arose recently. That would give us about 500 parishes and 15,000 private individuals. This debate is about the rights and freedoms of that small group. They may not be numerous, but they face jeopardy. If the Government believe in justice, they must take their plight seriously.
It is a real plight. The chancel of a mediaeval church can constitute about one third of the total church building. A repair bill of £200,000 would not be uncommon. In the case of Broadway, a regular bill every decade or so for about £7,000 can perhaps be expected. Fewer householders in a parish with the liability would mean a correspondingly higher sum. I know of at least one parish where only two properties are liable for repairing the chancel of the church.
The hon. Gentleman has explained clearly the problems faced by householders. Given that back in 1982, the General Synod of the Church of England overwhelmingly supported a motion proposing that chancel repair liability be phased out and that the Law Commission’s 1985 report recommended that chancel repair liability arising from the ownership of land should be abolished after 10 years, does he agree that the Government should now consider implementing that recommendation or, at the very least, agreeing to set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry shortly after October 2013? It is outrageous that people should be facing the unfairness of chancel repair liability. A few householders are facing enormous bills.
I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Lady says, but happily, I think I have a rather simpler solution. Let us see.
As I was saying, the sum would be payable pretty much on demand and would be unpredictable in both amount and frequency. A house in such a situation would be either unsaleable or substantially reduced in value. Some wrongly say that insurance is the answer, but it is not. When someone buys a house, the solicitor should do a search to establish whether the liability exists on the property. Such searches are complex and often difficult to conduct, so after a brief search, many solicitors instead offer purchasers chancel repair liability insurance.
Such insurance is available only where it appears that no liability is registered. Where liability is registered, insurance is not available. Where there is no awareness of the possibility that the liability might be claimed, no insurance is purchased; I doubt whether many of us here today have such insurance. For most property owners, the registration of the liability means that they will have to pay large sums at regular intervals for ever, passing on the liability to anyone foolish enough to buy their property.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that, as pointed out by my constituent, the Rev. Greg Yerbury of Penkridge, the matter applies not just to rural parishes but to many urban parishes as well? People might think that it is just a matter of country churches, but it is not.
My hon. Friend, who I am glad to see has made it to this debate, anticipates the point that I was just about to make. I agree entirely. His constituent has been in touch with me, too, and I welcome the correspondence that I have had with him.
Other people say that householders can commute the sum by paying a lump sum to the Church, but that, too, is an arbitrary and unfair tax. It might extinguish the liability, but at considerable cost to the householder. It is important to realise that there is generally no easy way of telling whether the liability attaches to a property unless it has been registered. Proximity to a church is no measure of the likelihood that the liability attaches to a property. The land could be anywhere, town or country. It just had to be purchased by the right person when Henry VIII sold it in the late 1530s.
What transpired next was legal advice from the Church of England to dioceses that parishes should make efforts to register liability before the October 2013 deadline. A parochial church council that did not register the liability could be held in charity law to be in breach of its duty to maximise the income due to the charity. Failure to do so would make individual churchwardens and PCC members personally liable for the cost of chancel repairs.
Of course, had it not been for the Aston Cantlow case, all this might have remained theoretical. Chancel repair liability had been entirely forgotten in many parishes, but PCCs were now obliged to reactivate it. To make matters worse, English Heritage, showing what I can only describe as a regrettable lack of understanding, said that it would not provide funding for the repair of historic churches whose PCC had declined to enforce the liability.
A perfect storm now faced many PCCs, including the Broadway PCC with responsibility for the wonderful mediaeval church of St Eadburgha, which dates back to the 12th century. PCCs generally do not want to enforce the liability against their neighbours and friends. If they enforce the liability for the first time in living memory, they incur the wrath and indignation of the householders and landowners who were living in happy ignorance of their liability. If they do not, they become personally liable for the repairs and lose all grant aid from English Heritage. It is no surprise to me that since I began this campaign, I have heard from parishes and dioceses the length and breadth of England: from Norfolk, York, Cambridgeshire, Devon and Kent to Somerset, Oxfordshire, Cornwall, Staffordshire and Wiltshire. The issue is alive again, and communities around the country are living in fear.
At this point, I must turn the finger of blame on the national structures of the Church of England. Perhaps because it did not appreciate the growing scale of the problem and the increasing number of parishes caught up in it, the Church seems to have made no attempt to understand the implications of the advice that it offered and given no guidance on how dioceses should explain the other option open to PCCs, for there is another option; I would like the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) to listen carefully to this point.
The consequence in Broadway of the sudden arrival of letters from the Land Registry on the doormats of 30 local families, the Broadway Trust and landowners, some of whom live many miles away, was dismay, anger and cries of anguish. I heard that anger for myself at a public meeting in the village. Acting with the best of intentions and pursuing the only route that it believed to be open to it, the PCC had made enemies of a large number of local people. A diligent process of mapping, done entirely by volunteers comparing ancient maps with modern Ordnance Survey ones, had caused chaos. It is not an easy job.
As one vicar from elsewhere in the country wrote to me:
“It is not only a matter of the resentment that some parishioners are expressing when they find their properties are burdened with CRL. I am also concerned about the thousands of volunteer hours being expended on trying to trace, map and register CRL, often fruitlessly.”
In other parishes, there were no volunteers. As a churchwarden a good long way from Worcestershire told me:
“Members of our Church have managed to obtain limited information but to further pursue the matter we will be forced to obtain, and pay for, professional advice.”
Sadly, the Anglican church in Broadway was seen to be behaving in a profoundly un-Christian way. As a correspondent from another part of the country told me:
“As a former PCC member, I can only say that I would have resigned immediately, rather than be forced to implement what can only be considered as a Draconian law. I also wonder if the Second Commandment of our Lord Jesus—to Love our Neighbour—is being disregarded by any diocese that invokes such an unfair law.”
To decree that a very small and random proportion of Broadway’s 2,000 or so inhabitants should, irrespective of their financial standing or personal faith, suddenly assume liability for the repair of an ancient church, is just plain wrong. The arbitrariness flew in the face of all Christian teaching.
To quote another parish in another diocese:
“The PCC is concerned at the enormous damage that registering liability would cause to the reputation of the church in the local community and the adverse effect this would have on the pastoral mission of the church, the furtherance of which is the first function of the PCC.”
The incoming vicar of Broadway, the Rev. Michelle Massey, realised that that could be the key to resolving the dilemma. If enforcing the liability was an obligation imposed on the PCC as trustees, would it also not be true that, if to enforce the liability was demonstrably un-Christian, that too would put the PCC in breach of its charitable responsibilities? Here was an ingenious paradox worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, were the consequences not so serious for everyone involved.
It transpired that other PCCs from around the country, also aware of the paradox, had sought the guidance of the Charity Commission under section 110 of the Charities Act 2011 and been informed that, on the basis of the specific circumstances in each case and with no general precedent set, they would be deemed to have behaved responsibly as trustees if they decided not to enforce the liability. The Broadway PCC put together a compelling case outlining the ways in which registration of the liability would work against their fundamental duties and the Charity Commission, with commendable speed, responded saying that it agreed. Broadway PCC was free not to enforce the liability and the PCC members would not be held personally liable.
The Charity Commission has recently put together some excellent advice to PCCs, which is now available on its website. All parishes worried about the issue should read it. The advice concludes:
“Section 110 advice can provide additional reassurance for PCC members that they have acted correctly and in accordance with their duties by protecting them against the possibility of any subsequent legal challenge to their decision. We are willing to consider providing such advice where PCCs consider there is a real likelihood of their decision being challenged and they are able to present us with a substantive case explaining how they have reached their decision.”
Meanwhile, and very happily, responsibility for the grant funding of repairs to historic churches is being transferred from English Heritage to the Heritage Lottery Fund. In line with that excellent organisation’s reputation for pragmatism, the fund has told me that it will not require church communities to register the liability to receive grant funding, so all is well—not quite.
There are at least three remaining problems. First, and perhaps most importantly, many parishes are unaware of the options open to them if they do not wish to set neighbour against neighbour. Secondly, even though the current PCC in Broadway and other similar parishes have decided not to enforce or register the liability, and even though a liability unregistered by October 2013 cannot be enforced subsequently if the property is sold, it could still be enforced by a future PCC on a property that has not changed hands. A decision taken now not to enforce a liability does not mean that a future PCC might not decide differently. In practice, therefore, every landholder aware of his liability, which continues until the time of first sale after October 2013, cannot obtain insurance and, until his property is sold, could still face the possibility of a future PCC coming after him for the costs of chancel repair.
The third problem is time. Will there be time to ensure that all PCCs are aware of the courses of action open to them and, where necessary, for them to secure Charity Commission approval not to enforce the liability? Is there a real risk that a failure to get section 110 guidance from the commission could leave PCCs in a legal limbo, with liabilities unregistered and personal liability a real possibility? I think so.
The solution for my Broadway constituents is easy, I think. A simple piece of legislation is needed to ensure that, where a PCC acts on the advice of the Charity Commission and chooses not to enforce the liability, its decision is binding in perpetuity and cannot be revisited. A PCC can choose to sell land or buildings. It should also be enabled to renounce its right to claim chancel repair liability in perpetuity. In terms of ensuring that other parishes are aware of the options, I hope today’s debate will help draw attention to the issue and will focus the national Church authorities on what I see as serious neglect of their responsibilities.
The Church of England, at national and diocesan level, must act urgently to help PCCs to navigate their way round the minefield through which they are required to pass, drawing their attention to the very helpful advice of the Charity Commission. I am sure that the Government—the Minister is a very reasonable lady—will wish to do more than casually assert that chancel repair liability is a legitimate property right, as they have done in the past. If they believe in the freedoms and democratic responsibilities with which I began this speech, they must find a way to ensure that the liability is fairly applied and that the outrageous arbitrariness of this archaic law is ended.
In essence, the solution revolves around giving PCCs the right to renounce their right to the liability in perpetuity and to make their decisions, intended to have permanent effect, watertight. The state should not arbitrarily remove legitimate property rights, but where an organisation or individual wishes to give them up, the state should be willing to help them to do so. Chancel repair liability may be a complex problem, but it has, I believe, a simple solution, which I commend to the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing a debate on the subject of the approaching deadline for the registration of chancel repair liability. I am replying as the Minister with responsibility for general land law in England and Wales.
The debate has highlighted the issues that people affected by chancel repair have to address in light of the October 2013 deadline. I do not underestimate the seriousness and difficulty of those issues, and the problems that they can cause for communities; I am, however, for reasons that I will explain, not persuaded that any change in the law is necessary. I know this conclusion will be disappointing to my hon. Friend, but I will keep the matter under consideration and will monitor developments carefully.
As we have heard, chancel repair liability is an ancient, but enforceable, part of the land law of England and Wales, whereby property owners can be compelled to pay for the repair of the chancel of a church. The liability is thought to benefit about 5,200 ancient churches, and to burden a large number of properties. Liability as between owners is joint and several. However, the present owners of the properties affected by the liability are not the only people to whom chancel repair liability and the approaching deadline for registration are important. Anyone seeking to buy a property will want to know whether it may be affected by chancel repair liability. Searches will be conducted and insurance may be taken out.
On the other side of the liability, the owners of the benefit of the liability will have issues to address. In England, the benefit is usually owned by the local parochial church council. The members of the council, who are essentially charity trustees in relation to their local church, have potentially difficult decisions to make about registration and, should it be necessary, enforcement of the liability.
Given the difficulties the Minister has just referred to, could there not be a simpler solution by doing away with the need to have the liability in the first place? It seems very unfair, and she has just pointed out why it would be very difficult to put a halfway solution in place. Perhaps a final solution needs to be made that actually gets rid of it.
The main issue, though, is that it is a valid property right that has been upheld by the House of Lords. I will say a little more about the hon. Lady’s point as my speech develops.
In most situations concerning private property rights, only the parties directly involved are engaged, but with chancel repair liability, the surrounding issues may be important for the relationship of the clergy, congregation and wider community in parishes where the liability exists and may be enforced. The approach of the deadline for registration may well have given everyone in those groups pause for thought.
In the midst of all the activity that registration or the consideration of registration may have produced, however, we should not forget the essential fact that the existence of chancel repair liability over a property is long standing. No new liabilities have been created. The registration of a notice of the liability or a caution against first registration on the land register merely preserves the right to make a claim. Properties subject to a notice or a caution are therefore not subject to a new obligation. In legal terms, in relation to such properties, nothing has really changed.
Of course, if the owners did not know about the obligation before registration, they will no doubt want to be sure that the registration is correct, but the issues brought out by registration would have arisen had the owner of the liability sought to enforce it. Failure to register may make a liability unenforceable, but registration does not guarantee that the claimed liability is legally enforceable. Whether a claim is sustainable will depend on the facts of the case. Homeowners and other landowners remain as free as they are at present to contest a claim. What registration removes is the uncertainty and unpredictability—the lack of discoverability—that currently surround the possible existence of chancel repair liability.
What registration achieves is the unsaleability of property. Where a parochial church council wishes to give up the right in perpetuity, the Government have a moral obligation to enable it to do so.
My hon. Friend met with officials of the Ministry of Justice yesterday and they had an opportunity to discuss that and other issues, but he might also find it helpful to meet me at some point in the near future. If he could be a little patient and let me finish what I have to say, I might cast some further light on the matter.
People should no longer be surprised to discover that their property is subject—or, rather, claimed to be subject—to chancel repair liability. It is a positive development for property owners in general that chancel repair liability will be brought on to the register or wither for want of registration.
Registration of chancel repair liability is of course distinct from actual enforcement of payment of the liability, which will only arise if the chancel needs to be repaired. The October deadline does not affect that or the type of decisions that parochial church councils and other owners of the liability will have to make when money needs to be raised. I do not deny that deciding whether to register a notice or caution is a new step for members of parochial church councils, but it is a one-off and should not be any more onerous than past decisions to do with enforcing the liability.
Such decisions may not be easy and legal advice may well be necessary, but the Church Commissioners, the diocesan authorities and the Charity Commission are available to help to some degree. For better or for worse, parochial church councils and others who own chancel repair liability have an asset entrusted to them for a specific purpose. I accept that they may not wish to enforce the liability to preserve the harmony of their local communities, but they cannot wish away their responsibilities and, in any event, the providers of public funding for the maintenance of historic buildings will almost certainly take a close look at the reasons behind any decision not to register or enforce the liability.
We need to be clear about the nature of the deadline of 13 October 2013. The date was the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of the Land Registration Act 2002, and it is worth remembering why chancel repair liability became subject to a registration requirement. The need arose with the 2003 reversal by the House of Lords of the 2001 Court of Appeal decision in the Wallbank case. The Court of Appeal appeared to have resolved all the issues to do with chancel repair liability when it decided that the liability was not enforceable, and the Land Registration Act 2002 was drafted on that basis. The House of Lords subsequently decided that the liability was enforceable. In 2003, faced with a newly resurrected chancel repair liability, the then Government responded by making a transitional provisions order under the Land Registration Act, putting chancel repair liability on the same footing as other rights that had their status as overriding interests preserved for a period of 10 years.
Overriding interests are interests in land that bind a registered owner whether or not they are on the register. One of the aims of the 2002 Act was to bring more information on to the register, so that it formed a more complete record of legal ownership. Chancel repair liability is a good example of the kind of hidden burden that the policy was designed to expose. The October 2013 deadline for registration is a deadline in the sense that the liability needs to be registered before that date to ensure that it affects those who subsequently buy the land involved. No fee is payable for applications or registrations made before that date. Registration will generally still be possible after that date.
Naturally, the approach of the deadline has brought about a number of registrations and, unsurprisingly, issues around chancel repair liability have been awoken as the owners of the burden consider what to do, and those subject to it are reminded—or perhaps learn for the first time—that their property is claimed to be subject to chancel repair liability.
No doubt property owners subject to chancel repair liability would be delighted if the liability were to cease to exist. The Law Commission recommended abolition or apportionment of the liability as long ago as 1985. Abolition, however, would probably have to be accompanied by some form of compensation for the owners of the liability, and that money would have to come from somewhere.
There is no need to invent ways to release properties from the liability. It can be done by private treaty, although there are pitfalls, or under the formal procedure provided by section 52 of the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure 1923. I am not suggesting that they are easy or inexpensive options, but they are possible.
In conclusion, the requirement for registration will achieve a much better balance in the law between the interests of the owners of chancel repair liability, the interests of those who are subject to the liability and the interests of those who may at some time in the future become subject to the liability. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the matter before us today. We have had an intelligent and informed discussion. I am not persuaded that the case for a change in the law has been made, but I shall of course keep the matter under careful review.
Question put and agreed to.