House of Commons
Friday 19 October 2012
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).
Mobile Homes Bill
I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.
When I was fortunate enough to be drawn fifth in the ballot for private Members’ Bills on 17 May, I immediately received requests to introduce Bills on many subjects. The request to sponsor a Bill on park homes stood out from the other suggestions for a number of reasons. First, the request came from a wide variety of colleagues from both sides of this Chamber and from the other place. Secondly, based on my experiences in my constituency, I was fully aware that the law on park homes was in urgent need of reform and updating. Thirdly, drawing on experiences in my career as a chartered surveyor, it was clear that park home owners in many places have been denied the basic right to live peacefully in and enjoy their own homes, a right that those in most other property sectors with different tenure arrangements take for granted.
The sector comprises 0.38% of the country’s housing stock—approximately 160,000 people living in 85,000 park homes on 2,000 estates. It is the fact that these numbers are relatively small, not any party political differences, that explains why the sector has been overlooked for so long and why there has been a lack of progress in bringing forward legislation. There is, in fact, a remarkable degree of agreement on all sides that the legislative framework governing park homes is today not fit for purpose. It neither deters unscrupulous site owners nor provides local authorities with effective powers to monitor and help improve site conditions.
I commend my hon. Friend’s proposals to allow the sale of mobile homes to be in the control of the occupier, not the owner of the site. This will come as a particular relief to those people on sites on the Isle of Wight and beyond that have been sale blocked. People have come over to the island specifically to block sales of park homes and sites. Most owners set sensible limits, such as restricting parks to over-60s, but does my hon. Friend believe that protecting the rights of mobile home owners will prevent sale blocking by rogue site owners?
Yes, I do agree, and the Bill seeks to address the concerns that my hon. Friend sets out. His constituency, like mine, is a coastal constituency, and it is in such areas that this is a particular problem. I am grateful to him for drawing that to my attention.
It is appropriate to mention some of those who have campaigned so tirelessly to address the unfairness that my hon. Friend outlined. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who chairs the all-party group on mobile homes, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has campaigned vigorously for reform, and the noble Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has championed the cause of park home owners over many years.
A particular feature of the sector is that most residents are elderly and often vulnerable, with approximately 70% being over the age of 70. At present, they face a confusing array of laws and regulations that offer little or no protection. The existing legislative framework is flawed and has many loopholes that enable unscrupulous site owners unfairly to take advantage of residents.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that many of these elderly home occupiers came to what was to them an idyllic home in an attractive setting, often with a very friendly and helpful owner, but have then seen the site bought by somebody else who does not understand or co-operate on their problem at all?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Consumer Focus has just produced a report on park home sites entitled “Living the Dream?”. For many people these homes were a cherished ideal and somewhere they could retire to, but their dreams have been shattered and we need to pick up the pieces.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and support everything in his Bill. He has described how the concerns about park homes relate particularly to coastal areas and to the elderly. May I point out that there are two park home sites in my constituency in Northumberland that are landlocked and that the residents, who are in no way elderly, are robust, strong and intelligent people? However, even the fact that they robust, strong and have their full capacities does not stop them being completely subject to landlords and the problems my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) identified.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. There are some very responsible site owners, but there are also some unscrupulous rogue operators—gangsters, dare I say it?—against whom everyone needs the right protection.
The problem we have identified has been recognised by the Prime Minister, who, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) during Prime Minister’s questions last November, said:
“There are some extremely good park home owners, who not only obey the rules but demonstrate responsibility and compassion, but there are some who do not. We are committed to providing a better deal for park home residents by improving their rights and increasing protection against bad site owners.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 283.]
It is in that spirit, and with full Government support, led by the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), that I present the Bill for Second Reading. In summary, the problem park home owners face is that in recent years many sites have been acquired by rogue operators who, in pursuit of obscene windfall profits, exploit the piecemeal regulatory framework to make the lives of many elderly and vulnerable people a misery.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill to Second Reading and hope that we will get it through today—I am sure that we will. Many rogue operators have come in and bought up sites in idyllic places. In South Derbyshire we have some very good site operators, but there are also some people who have come in more recently who do not care about the residents and basically want them off the sites. It is a really poor show. The Bill will hopefully remedy the situation.
My hon. Friend summarises well the situation and the challenge we face.
The exploitation takes a variety of forms: the deliberate miscalculation of pitch fee increases and utility charges; poor, or even a complete lack of, site maintenance, as is the case at the Waveney residential park in Beccles in my constituency; and the abuse of the right to approve new buyers, known as sale blocking, which rogue site owners often use as a device to buy park homes at knock-down prices before selling them for windfall profits. There has even been a case involving terrified home owners being forced to sell their home, which had a market value of £80,000, for £1—a peppercorn.
The existing legal framework, which dates back over 50 years, is outdated, does not deter unscrupulous site owners and does not provide local authorities with effective powers. Local authorities have a limited ability to revoke licences when site conditions are being breached and, indeed, the granting of licences is at present little more than a rubber-stamping exercise. Moreover, the fines that local authorities can impose to deter operators are inadequate, and some site owners will risk the threat of small financial sanctions rather than maintain sites properly.
Demands for reform are sometimes made on the back of an isolated case, but that is not the situation with regard to the Bill. The case is compelling and overwhelming. The Department for Communities and Local Government carried out a consultation earlier this year, to which there were over 600 responses, and the Communities and Local Government Committee has carried out a full and comprehensive inquiry and come forward with recommendations, many of which are included in the Bill. An issue that I found particularly disturbing about that inquiry was that, of the 250 people who made representations, some asked for their names to be withheld as they were scared about possible reprisals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill this far. In gathering evidence, has he found examples, as other Members have, of unscrupulous site owners deliberately using bullying tactics so that people are afraid? I have seen that in my constituency again and again over many years. One individual in particular—I dare to name him—Mr Sines, owns many parks across the country and has engaged in exactly the sort of behaviour my hon. Friend has just described, and has done so for over a decade.
My hon. Friend makes her point well. A particularly unscrupulous type of site operator has moved into the sector and is making life a misery for an untold number of people.
Earlier this week, Consumer Focus published its report, “Living the Dream?”, which confirmed the abuses and iniquities taking place in the sector. The conclusions of these reports and inquiries are underpinned by the experiences and findings of colleagues in this Chamber and in the other place, drawn from what they have been told and what they have seen for themselves. I anticipate that during the course of this debate we will hear some shocking examples—we have heard some already—of what some park home owners have had to put up with.
The Bill’s objectives are threefold. The first and foremost objective is to drive out the rogues. Secondly, the Bill aims to ensure that responsible site owners, such as my constituent, David Westgate, who runs the Beach Farm park at Pakefield, are not unfairly penalised and burdened with regulations and so can make a fair return on the time, effort and financial investment they put into their properties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this excellent Bill, by driving out the rogue operators, will allow the legitimate and responsible park owners to have much better businesses, to be much more respected and to do much more to improve and enhance their sites in future?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She summarises the position well. The objective behind the legislation, as she says, is to ensure that the responsible site owner can move forward and run a sensible business.
The Bill’s final objective is to ensure that park home owners can enjoy their homes without fear of retribution or harassment. In drafting the Bill, I have concentrated only on those issues where legislation is needed. It contains measures to achieve the following objectives: reform of the licensing system that applies to park home sites; preventing site owners from blocking residents’ sales on the open market, including the misuse of site rules; clarifying the law on harassment and making it an offence to say something that is untrue to prevent a home from being sold; making pitch fees more transparent and setting new rules on what should be taken into account in reviews so that fees are fair and accurately reflect the condition of the site; and, finally, should it prove necessary, allowing the Secretary of State to introduce a “fit and proper person” registration scheme in future.
This Bill has, in many respects, been difficult to draft—the devil is very much in the detail—and I am grateful for the support that I have received. There are many points of detail that will need to be addressed in Committee. There also remains other work to do in the sector, including helping park home owners themselves to obtain a better understanding of their agreements and of their rights and obligations. The fact that at present only 1% of buyers take legal advice when buying a park home means that they are particularly vulnerable when faced with an unscrupulous site owner. The Government need to help the legal profession, including citizens advice bureaux, to improve their understanding of the sector and its legislative framework.
In a week when rising energy bills are making the headlines, it is important to remember that fuel poverty is a very serious issue on park home sites, which are usually off mains gas and where residents invariably do not have a contractual relationship with their energy company. Any proposals that the Government bring forward to address the challenge presented by rising fuel bills need to take account of the particular vulnerability of park home owners.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for introducing this Bill. There is a statutory instrument in place that restricts the amount of extra charges that can be passed on to mobile home owners by the site owner, but only for electricity and water and not for liquid petroleum gas, for example. Would he be prepared to consider in Committee an amendment to his Bill to change that, because it is affecting the people who are suffering the most from fuel poverty in many of our constituencies?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention. This is a very serious concern that does need to be addressed, and we can consider that point if we get to the Committee stage. The Bill has been difficult to draft in terms of its length and succinctness. I am not sure whether it is the right place to deal with the matter, but we can consider doing so.
Fuel poverty is a massive problem for park home owners. The Bill would place an obligation on the site owner to be transparent with the fee arrangements. Will my hon. Friend consider extending that to the fees charged for energy, perhaps in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk? This is very important in relation to the recommendations in the Consumer Focus report that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned, which would enable park home owners to benefit from the measures that are being introduced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change through the energy company obligation and the green deal, enabling people to improve the insulation of their park homes and to access the best tariffs to get them out of fuel poverty.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She has clearly studied the Bill in some detail and taken on board the issues raised by Consumer Focus. Her point is well merited, and we can certainly consider it if we get to the Committee stage.
This Bill is a vital step forward in addressing the criminality, abuse and intimidation that has evolved in this sector in recent years. I thank colleagues for their encouragement and support, and I hope that the Bill can move forward in order to address the injustice that a vulnerable group of people have had to suffer for too long. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am absolutely delighted to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I am very pleased that he has chosen this subject for his Bill, and I hope that it will progress through Second Reading and Committee and then become law. Like many others in this House, I have campaigned on the issue for many years, as did my predecessor, Harry Barnes—I pay tribute to him—who was MP for North East Derbyshire for 18 years. I continued the campaign when I took over seven years ago. That shows how long it has been going on and for how long this injustice has been building.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), without whom we would not have got this far. She has campaigned tirelessly, along with her constituent, Sonia McColl, to whom great tribute must also be paid. She has been a lifeline to many people; without her, their lives would have been even more miserable than they are today. I thank her very much. I will not steal the hon. Lady’s thunder by saying any more.
The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who was until recently the Housing Minister, and had been since the general election, did a lot to take the Bill forward and gave great deal of support to those of us in the all-party group on mobile homes who have been campaigning to make these proposals a reality. I am very grateful for that.
I will not go into the details of the Bill, because it will, we hope, go into Committee, where it can be scrutinised in detail. Instead, I will explain a bit of the history of why we have arrived at this point. There are very good reasons why. It is no surprise given that the previous legislation on which the sector is based is called the Mobile Homes Act 1983 and the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. That indicates a complete misunderstanding of the sector. These units may not be made of bricks and mortar, but they are people’s homes. They do not move—they are static—and they are homes like everybody else’s. To call them mobile homes or caravans is completely to misunderstand what this is about. Interestingly, a lot of people who do live in homes of bricks and mortar have joined the campaign because they can see the injustice of saying that somebody who does not have such a home should have to live under completely different rules. It is very important that we support the progress of the Bill to make sure that they enjoy the same privileges as those living in homes of bricks and mortar.
In previous generations, a long time ago, the people who owned park home sites were decent people who looked after the sites and made them idyllic places to live in. Their houses were usually adjacent to the sites. They grew up on the sites, and their children grew up on them, inherited them, and carried on looking after the people who lived there—all aged 50 or over, and almost always a lot older. A couple will downsize their home and move into one of these fabulous small units to live with like-minded people in small semi-rural communities; it is idyllic. Then the husband or wife dies and the person who is left becomes very frail and vulnerable. That is where the site owner comes into their own by looking after that person. For example, in the past, site owners charging people who live in the homes for their electricity, water and gas have bought in bulk in order to pass the savings on to them. However, that benefit has recently been abused.
In the snows of last year and the year before, people often became isolated in their units; they could not leave their site because it was not well maintained and the paths had not been cleared. In one case, because these people are very elderly and frail, somebody knocked on the site owner’s door and asked him to put some grit into the grit bins, saying that they would do the gritting themselves. The previous owner had always put grit into the bins. The site owner said “Grit bins? I didn’t realise we had them”, and took the bins away. Next day, outside his unit, he was selling bags of grit at twice the market rate. People bought that grit because they had nowhere else to go—they could not leave the site because they were too old and frail and scared of walking outside. Instead, they bought the grit at twice the price. That shows exactly what these site owners can be like.
The generation of people who used to care for and look after sites passed them on to their children, who did not want to look after them and sold them. They sold them on to what seems to be a generation of people who not only do not care but are trying to screw the very last penny that they can out of elderly and vulnerable people. Those people therefore need our protection. Because they live in such isolated communities it is difficult for people who do not live on such sites, and have not been there, to see exactly what is happening.
I agree with every word that the hon. Lady has said, and she has described exactly what happens on both park home sites in my constituency. Does she agree that the reason why the law has not worked up to now is that owners such as those she describes are deliberately getting around the law and finding a legal loophole to make the lives of park home residents a misery, simply for the sake of making money? They are using disgusting bullying tactics to do that, which is why the Bill is so important. Previous Governments have tried to close the loophole and failed, but today we must succeed.
That is absolutely right. The hon. Lady says that owners are making money, and indeed they are making considerable amounts. I know of a lady whose husband died, and she became frail and vulnerable and wanted to move into a home. She put her unit up for sale, and the owner blocked every sale. She was an elderly and vulnerable lady, but he used to go round in the middle of the night and rattle the windows. That might not seem to Members the most frightening thing, but a rattling on the windows in the middle of the night was terrifying for her. The old lady phoned the police, but they have better things to do than to go round and see somebody who has had their windows rattled in the middle of the night. That poor woman ended up absolutely terrified and wanting to do anything she could to leave her home. When a letter from the site owner popped through her letterbox, offering her £10 for a unit that was worth £100,000, she took it and left, and she died very soon afterwards.
The hon. Lady hits the nail on the head. The economics of the industry have allowed a criminal class to enter it and exploit vulnerable people who need our protection. The Bill will deliver an end to sale blocking, extra transparency in pitch fees and protection for the people whom she mentions.
When it comes to sale blocking, is not a further problem that the site owner is often in competition with the mobile home owner and therefore does not allow or encourage prominent advertising? The site owner probably has other units that he would rather sell to an incomer.
Absolutely; that is another huge problem and a huge money-spinner. The owners also buy people’s units at cut-price rates and sell them on for huge profits.
I wish briefly to touch on the role of local authorities, which are the licensing authorities. That role is dealt with in the Bill and needs further scrutiny. One big problem has been that local authorities have had neither the capacity nor the ability to enforce the licences on park home sites. Because those sites are isolated, and because they are run by a group of people who really know what they are doing—they pass licences around and change site rules—it is difficult to get hold of the problem. Local authorities have a lot on their plate already, so they cannot commit much time to the problem. The fact that local authorities will be given money to do that, through the awarding of fees, represents huge progress and will make the Bill enforceable.
The hon. Lady’s comments reflect the problems that my constituents have experienced, and she is right to say that this exploitation of the vulnerable and elderly must be stopped. Her points are apposite, because the Bill needs to be practical so that our constituents can use it to hold landlords to account. The most important aspect of our scrutiny of it will be whether it is useable by the lay person as well as by local authorities and the police, so that it can protect vulnerable residents.
That is absolutely right. One big problem is that when a bad site owner moves in, residents who have been living together in an idyllic community where everybody knows each other stop talking to each other. When the lady I mentioned just now told people about the owner rattling her windows in the night, they did not help her. They stopped talking to her, because they were worried that the same would happen to them. It was a terrible thing to happen. Not only was she trapped in her home when she wanted to leave, but all her friends fell by the wayside, although for understandable reasons. It is important that the Bill advances from a human perspective as well as stopping the criminality that is happening.
I finish by making a point that I will wish to raise in Committee—I hope that the hon. Member for Waveney will look favourably my way when the Committee members are selected. It is about the definitions of repair, maintenance and improvement in site rules, which are important to every person who lives on one of the eight sites in my constituency. The owners often do not make basic repairs, but when they do they call them “improvements”. We are worried that they will then charge a fee for them, which absolutely must not be allowed. We are dealing with a criminal-minded set of people, so we must ensure that the Bill is drafted as tightly as possible so that nothing can fall between two stools.
It is important that there is a fit and proper person test in the Bill. The residential tribunal service has led to a massive improvement for people who live on park home sites, but the process takes a very long time and requires huge organisation. We need to find a more flexible system, and I believe that local authorities will be better able to carry out the process. That is a matter for the Committee stage. Today we are discussing the principle of allowing the Bill to progress to Committee, and I hope that it will. I look forward to listening to other Members, but there is no reason for anybody not to support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who has worked with many of us on the Bill over many years to get us to this day.
Like many other Members, I tend to be in my constituency on a Friday doing a surgery and numerous other engagements. I therefore often do not have the pleasure of being present on private Members’ Bill Fridays, unlike some other Members. In fact, the last time I came here on a Friday was to support the Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill—the Daylight Saving Bill—and that somewhat dates it. I remember that I had to get through an ice storm in Winchester, and I broke my paternity leave for my second child—I am still paying for that. I hope that gives the House and the promoter of the Bill some indication of the importance that I place on it. That is why I am here to speak in support of it today.
As others have, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on his success in the ballot and on taking up the cause. It is a complex issue, and he has taken to it with his usual gusto. We have had many conversations in which we have communicated to him how we have got this far, and it has been good to have him on board.
If I had a pound for every Member who has said to me in the two and a half years since I was elected that they have a lot of park homes in their constituency, I would be a very wealthy man. People sometimes think that this is a marginal issue that affects a small number of people living in coastal areas. Not so. There have been varying estimates of the park home population, and the Consumer Focus report that has already been mentioned many times this morning, and will be mentioned many times again, states that about 160,000 people in England live on just under 2,000 sites. I think that is about right, and it is the most up-to-date figure that we have seen.
I represent eight sites across Winchester and Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, and I reckon that in the six and a half years for which I have been in post there, including the two and a half years since my election, I have knocked on pretty much every single door. I soon got a pretty good feel for what park home residents are saying, and I found that they—like most of my constituents —were not exactly shy in coming forward.
Let me be crystal clear: not all park home owners are rogues or difficult people. I have met many in my constituency, and elsewhere through the mobile homes all-party group, and most are decent people running legitimate businesses and providing genuinely affordable homes to many of our constituents. Furthermore, park home residents do not talk to their MP only about park home issues; they use the health service, schools, and experience the benefit system much like all our constituents, and we should remember that.
As I have said many times in the House and in meetings upstairs, my constituency contains good and bad site owners. It is fair to say, however, that by no means do I see the worst of the situation, and some might ask what my interest in the subject is. Having talked to park home residents over many years, I could see that there was a problem and a need to tighten the law. Since becoming an MP and dealing with my post bag and holding surgeries, I have seen this problem time and again. I have spoken to constituents who are frightened and intimidated, and who just want a bit of peace and quiet to go about their lives like the rest of us. That is not too much to ask.
During my short time in the House, many Members have asked questions about park home living. Already in this Parliament, questions have been raised with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions, and there have been debates in Westminster Hall and a Backbench Business Committee debate in this Chamber. As we have heard, and will no doubt hear again today, such debates are peppered with appalling stories of park home residents who are far from living the dream—they are living a nightmare. The trick is to make those stories count, and to get a real response so that we can change the law. My fellow vice-chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), has done more than most to get us to this point today, and we are incredibly grateful.
Hon. Members will hear a lot about the all-party group this morning. It is a real working group and I remember a meeting at the Department for Communities and Local Government that was held just before Christmas last year with the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), and also attended by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. We started to see the Bill coming together, and it was exciting to see years of work beginning to go down on the page. Let me recognise again the work of Consumer Focus in this area. Its report, “Living the Dream?”, launched last Tuesday, is a significant and first-class piece of work, and we should thank Consumer Focus for it.
It is a pleasure to support this Bill, which I hope will bring to an end years of uncertainty and suffering for thousands of mobile home residents across the country. I do not think it is perfect, and there are issues concerning the timing of some of the provisions and when they will become a legal reality. It does, however, contain many positive provisions for which we have long campaigned, and I will touch on a couple of those and highlight the experiences of some of my constituents.
Although many mobile home residents are content with the condition of their sites, a recent survey by Consumer Focus found that a quarter of all residents reported problems with maintenance, safety or security. Those issues often involved badly maintained roads or paths, inadequate street lighting, or problems with residents’ private or communal gardens. In some circumstances, the appalling condition of site roads can mean that rubbish trucks, and even ambulances, are unable to access the site.
Many park home residents in Winchester have written to me about their sites on a range of issues. One constituent wanted to draw poor parking facilities to my attention, as well as a badly maintained drainage system that resulted in water pouring into and flooding his garden on an almost daily basis. There was poor quality workmanship on parts of his plot and his home and, to make matters worse, the owner of the site refused to rectify any of those faults, and subjected my constituent to verbal abuse and barely concealed threats when he dared to complain. It is almost as if we have become desensitised to such stories, but they are real and should never be underplayed.
Another constituent wrote to me outlining serious concerns about the upkeep of the site on which he had lived for nearly eight years. During that time, no improvements had been made to the site, which he understandably found pretty frustrating. Perhaps more worryingly, since the site had been sold to a new owner, conditions had deteriorated further with potholes on the road becoming an increasing problem. On top of that, much of the street lighting was not in working order, making it pretty much pitch black in winter evenings. My constituent told me that he no longer felt safe taking the dog round the block after dark. One e-mail I received was sent on behalf of many residents on the site, some of whom, as we have heard, are elderly and have no access to e-mail. I was assured that the majority of residents felt the same way, although, as other hon. Members have said, many did not want to come forward and speak to their MP—that tells a story in itself.
Such problems are not minor inconveniences; they have a profoundly negative impact on the quality of life of residents in our constituencies, and that is why this Bill is important. Surely, as constituency MPs we are interested in the quality of life of our constituents, and time and again I have heard that that is being affected for those living on park home sites. That is not good enough.
The current licensing arrangements are inadequate because—perhaps understandably—local authorities often seem to place greater importance on breaches of licenses that pose a risk to the health and safety of the residents, as opposed to those relating to maintenance that do not on the surface appear to pose the same risk. Park home residents in my constituency frequently mention the provision of utility services and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, they are often left with much less consumer protection than individuals living in other sorts of homes, owing to the lack of any direct relationship with the provider of gas, electricity or water. I have been made aware of many examples across the country where residents pay for electricity through the site owner, but that way of operating is obviously open to abuse and leaves residents with little clarity. That is why, if this Bill gets to Committee, I will support calls by some of my colleague to increase the transparency provisions of the Bill to cover utilities.
Under the current law, if conditions attached to the granting of a licence are breached, the local authority has the power to prosecute the site owner only in the magistrates court, and they are not able to serve notice requiring works to be undertaken prior to prosecution. Many local authorities are therefore reluctant to prosecute because the statutory set fines are low—they were set in stone in the previous legislation; we would have required primary legislation to change that, which is another reason the Bill is important—and the resources required are considerable.
The Bill seeks to address those issues in several ways. Clause 4 amends section 9 of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 by providing that where a site owner fails to comply with a licence condition, the local authority may serve a compliance notice on the owner, outlining the steps that need to be taken to meet the licence condition. It is vital that a greater range of enforcement tools are available to local authorities, as that will make it easier for site conditions to be maintained. We have longed campaigned for that, and it is welcome in the Bill.
Clauses 5 and 6 enhance that measure by stating that a site owner who has been served with a compliance notice that has become operative under the proposed new section 9H, is guilty of an offence if they fail to take the steps outlined in the notice within the required time frame. Both changes provide local authorities with better enforcement powers and will go a long way to improving site conditions where necessary.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At the moment, the only option available to local authorities is that of prosecution in the magistrates court. That is costly, the maximum sentence is quite low, and that deters enforcement authorities from taking action and provides an incentive to the site owner to evade his or her responsibilities. The powers in the Bill are essential if we are to improve enforcement against unscrupulous site owners.
Absolutely. As usual my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. I hope that local authorities will not become litigious organisations as a result of the Bill, and I like to think that some of the sticks that have been brandished today will be noted loud and clear across the country. The provisions in the Bill are critical.
I welcome the fact that local authorities will be allowed to demand expenses when a compliance notice has been served under section 9A of the 1960 Act. It is crucial that local authorities are able to recover any expenses incurred, to ensure there is no disincentive for them to issue such notices. The provisions in the Bill that provide local authorities with the power to carry out works on a site in certain circumstances are also welcome, as that will surely put an end to some of the worst cases of neglect. I hope that a message goes out from the House that such actions should be the last resort for local authorities, and that the new powers will act as sufficient warning to site owners who continue to ignore their responsibilities. I suspect, however, that I am being naive in that regard, and that is why those clauses are in the Bill.
Under the current law, all privately owned sites are required to be licensed by the local authority. The conditions attached to the licences are designed to ensure that the site is in a suitable state of habitation and maintained to a good standard. However, because local authorities are currently unable to charge for their licensing role, such functions are often under-resourced. A Select Committee on Communities and Local Government report published in June found that the current law is inadequate because it does not provide local authorities with effective powers to monitor or improve site conditions.
I welcome the reforms to the licensing system in the Bill. By allowing local authorities to charge fees for the issue or varying of licences on relevant protected sites, the Bill will greatly enhance the effectiveness of the licensing regime. In doing so, the Bill recognises the importance of creating a self-funding model under which local authorities are not burdened with the costs of administering the licensing system. An effective licensing regime hinges on the cost of the licence being adequate to cover an appropriate inspection arrangement. An annual licence fee will act as a useful income source for local authorities—as we have heard, they can use it to offset the cost of enforcing licensing conditions. By providing better resources to police the system, the fee will help to raise maintenance standards and ensure that the licensing conditions are adhered to more thoroughly.
Although the Bill allows for the annual licensing fee to be recoverable through pitch fee increases—I recognise this is controversial—rather than through a new licence application, park home residents should not be liable for any costs that result from the new requirement for site operators to pay a site licensing fee annually. Ultimately, the revenue from the sale of park homes—the 10% commission that owners receive—should provide revenue to site owners for the licence fee. In an ideal world, the Bill would remove the 10% rule altogether—I have argued for many years that the rule is a scandal—but it does not. That is the context.
Under current legislation, park home residents who want to sell their home must have the new buyer approved by the site owner before any sale can proceed. The process can occasionally be used by site owners, in effect, to block the sale of a home in an attempt to get the current owner to sell their property back to the owner, which is clearly totally unacceptable—we have heard many examples of that, although I have thus far not heard of any from my constituency. Park home residents should have the right to sell their home freely and without unfair interference from the site owner. I am therefore very pleased that the Bill includes provisions to remove the requirement.
A number of constituents and many more park home owners across the country have written to me because they are worried about the bullying or intimidation that often accompanies such unfair interference.
I might pre-empt my hon. Friend’s point, but does he agree that we should not raise the expectations of current park home owners, because the Bill does not apply retrospectively? Could the promoter and the Government work to ensure that it is applied retrospectively?
The all-party group discussed that point this week, and my hon. Friend will want to take that up with the promoter of the Bill. I believe I am right in saying that the Department’s legal advice says that applying the measures retrospectively is not possible, which is regrettable.
One site owner from my own constituency wrote to me this week on the subject of site owners’ involvement in park home sales. For the record, he said:
“Dear Mr Brine…We have read the details of the proposed changes in the Mobile Homes Bill and are most concerned about the change that negates the need for site owner’s approval of purchasers. Solicitors are not normally involved when a home is sold and the only way a purchaser can obtain correct information on their future rights and responsibilities is from the site owner. The site owner also ensures the correct procedures are followed so that the rights are properly assigned. Sellers have a vested interest in omitting and even misrepresenting the facts and it is not practical for a purchaser to rely on civil proceedings…once the seller has his money and has left the park (and is often not traceable)…If the proposals become law, we can foresee a situation where elderly purchasers will pay large sums, for the ‘home of their dreams’ only to find out, at a later date, that they have been cheated by the seller and their rights and responsibilities are not as envisaged. Major problems will occur if the purchaser finds they are not able to abide by the Park Rules and as a result, could face eviction.”
I can see that site owner’s point, but I take issue with one line, although some might wonder why I have chosen only one. The line I take issue with is this:
“Solicitors are not normally involved when a home is sold.”
The Bill’s promoter eloquently told us that solicitors are involved in only around 1% of park home sales. That is crazy. Although the Bill does not—and legally could not—demand a change, I suggest in the strongest terms possible that it must change. Many park homes sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. To make such sales without the involvement of a solicitor is a most unwise move, and the park home community must face up to that inconvenient truth.
I should like to highlight a couple of cases from my constituency that illustrate the extent to which site owners are able to take advantage of residents by significantly raising pitch fees, year after year. In one case, a constituent who happily accepts that pitch fees increase with inflation wrote to me expressing his concern that his pitch fee was rising by £500 per year, well over the rate of inflation. Another constituent who wrote to me on this issue was careful to point out that he had no problems with the site owner—we have heard that before—but did have concerns about how pitch fees were calculated. There is currently little transparency over what expenses are covered by the pitch fees or how increases are calculated. I therefore warmly support clause 11, which amends parts of the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to require a site owner who serves a pitch fee review notice proposing an increase in the pitch fee to provide the resident with an accompanying document that meets the requirements set out in paragraph 25A. That transparency is most welcome.
I am an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Government’s energy policy and the green deal, having served in Committee on the Energy Act 2011—the green deal is one of the best things the Government have done. I asked the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in March 2011 whether park home owners would be eligible for the green deal, and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) has said:
“Park homes will be able to apply for the Green Deal as long as they fulfil the same criteria as other types of eligible buildings.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 616W.]
However, it is my understanding—Consumer Focus says this in its report this week—that park homes will not be eligible, because the new green deal assessors will not be able to carry out their standard assessment procedure, and because park homes are exempt from requiring an energy performance certificate.
Green deal finance is also not available to some park homes because, as I have said, owners pay for their utilities through the site owner’s joint electricity Bill. I mentioned that to the Minister earlier, but I urge him speak to his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and find a way to make the green deal work for park home owners, because they are among the most fuel poor in our country and they deserve better.
Park home owners deserve better across the board. They deserve better when it comes to buying and maintaining their homes, and better when it comes to enjoying the environment around their homes. They deserve a lot better when selling their homes and, as I have just said, when it comes to staying warm. In short, park home owners should be able to live the dream like anybody else. The Bill will help. It could be a dream-making Bill in some important respects, which is a great thing. I urge Members to join me in supporting it.
I am delighted that the House has voted unanimously that my speech should be given a public airing. I hope I can prove to be worthy of that honour.
I congratulate the promoter of the Bill, which I am delighted to sponsor. I have been dealing with the matter for the 20 years I have been in Parliament—I joined in 1992, along with your good self, Mr Deputy Speaker. The problem affects a wide variety of constituencies. When discussions on it first took place, there was a perception that the problems occurred only in seaside areas, but they occur across the country and there are many substantial sites in inland areas. There are common threads to the problems in all parts of the country.
There is a substantial number of good park home sites that are run by good owners in partnership with tenants associations. I congratulate the park home owners and the National Association of Park Home Residents on the work that they have done collectively to try to set standards. Unfortunately, the law—and this is the trouble with all law—is made not to deal with the good people but with the rogues. We come across a number of rogues in this area, and some of their behaviour is desperately poor. We must bring that to an end. To a substantial extent, we have done that in the housing sector. There are still rogue landlords in the private rented sector, but park homes have been a neglected area over the years. Despite the sterling efforts of many, including my dear friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has done so much to bring this issue to the attention of both Houses, we have not got far enough. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on pressing this matter.
In my constituency, I have the case of a site that is owned through a complex series of companies. I am not even sure to whom the site fees are paid. If HMRC staff would like to contact me, I will tell them whom they should be chasing, because I have a feeling that the structure is a neat tax dodge. This is the same chap who has sent me letters saying that he is going to take me to court for the things I have said about him. I am still waiting for the writ, and I look forward to my day in court with him. This is a case of consistent threats and bullying, and attempts are regularly made to carve any resident with a problem away from the rest by insinuating to the rest of the tenants that if they raise the issue too, it will be a black mark against them in terms of their relationship with the landlord. For example, the communal electricity supply to the site has electrical safety standards that even I, with my modest knowledge of electrical safety, would not approve of. I have asked a friend of mine, who is qualified in electrical safety and was then a local councillor, to drive round the site to have a look. He was horrified. We raised the matter with the local authority, but very little has happened. It is all very well having a regulatory structure, but we have to have the enforcement that goes with it.
The other practice that is remarkably common is the deliberately wrong interpretation of the law, in particular the use of Daily Mail-style myths about health and safety. People are told, “You must do this, on the grounds of health and safety”, when in fact the site has been inspected by a fire safety officer from the local fire authority. The owner has been given the nod that A, B and C need doing, but that does not amount to an instruction to the tenants. It needs to be clear where the responsibility lies in such cases.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) raised an interesting point about the role of solicitors in the procurement of mobile homes, and I have spoken to the hon. Member for Waveney about the line we need to develop on this. Philosophically, we should be trying to ensure that a park home owner is in the same position as the owner of a leasehold property. By definition, that would mean a need to move towards transactions conducted by legal process. The idea that the involvement of the law would be a burden on park home owners and residents—I think that solicitors are always a burden on people, but that is another matter, with apologies to those present who are members of that profession—is wrong, if the issue is dealt with properly, sensitively and in a structured way.
When the Bill is in Committee, I invite those on the Treasury Bench to think carefully about drawing parallels with rights that exist for leasehold occupants of conventionally built homes, because therein lies the key to some of the problems that we have faced for many years.
I realise that many hon. Members wish to speak on this important measure, so my final point is about enforcement. There is no point having a regulatory structure if it is not accompanied by an effective, but appropriate enforcement structure. We need to ensure that we create a structure that does not make it impossible for local authorities or fire authorities to do their work. We need not “light touch”, but “right touch”. We do not want a heavyweight regulatory structure: we want one that works properly in the context. Legitimate complaints have to be investigated, but frivolous complaints must be sidelined. A proper complaints process will work in the interests of individual park home owners as well as the collective group on the site
All the evidence suggests that where there is a good tenants’ association on the site, and a landlord who is acting rationally, a good working relationship can be achieved, even to the extent that in case of a dispute, the owners and the landlord jointly invite the local authority to adjudicate in terms of the legal position. We have come across this on issues such as spacing of homes and transitions when owners move on. On the other side of the coin, some sites still give rise to huge concern.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney, and I wish his Bill every success. As I have said, those on the Treasury Bench need to look carefully at the Bill in Committee and invite officials to draw as many parallels as possible to give this group of home owners the same status as owner-occupiers of leasehold properties.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on his success in the ballot and, even more, on his selection of this issue for his Bill. I am sure that he will go down in history for his wise and splendid choice. Like the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), I cannot quite believe that we are today to start the introduction of much-needed legislation to protect park home owners, so many of whom are vulnerable and have suffered financial and other forms of abuse over many years.
I pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Sonia McColl, a park home owner who set up the national park home owners justice campaign, particularly to stop sale blocking, who deserves to be honoured for her work, persistence and readiness to run a campaign of this magnitude, especially given that she had to learn on the job. She reminded me that three years ago this week the first petition to the Government to stop sale blocking went out. Almost 10,000 people signed it before Christmas 2009. She has also organised several mass demonstrations in London, and we have organised meetings in the House so that MPs can hear at first hand the dreadful experiences of many park home owners.
Initially, it seemed that the then Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), was not inclined to introduce new and extra regulations—after all, the Government initially intended to cut regulation—but then came progress, as the evidence showed that the industry had been infiltrated by rogues and that action needed to be taken for the sake of the whole industry, as well as for park home owners.
I praise the hon. Lady for her work. I am proud to be a member of the all-party group on mobile homes and to have my name on the Bill. Does she agree that our work on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, bringing this issue forward and taking enormous amounts of evidence, was a turning point that gave the final nudge to get the Government to do something? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), too.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will refer specifically to the Committee later.
Sonia has carried out a massive survey, Consumer Focus has proceeded with an investigation and, latterly, the Communities and Local Government Committee has conducted an inquiry. Throughout, there has been enormous support and help from the park home owner associations. Many parliamentarians have been involved over the years, although I can only mention a few today. First, of course, I want to congratulate the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield for bringing these proposals together and the noble Lord Graham for his unstinting support for park home owners over many years. More recently, there has been the truly cross-party work of the all-party group and, in particular, the meetings between Ministers and me, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire. This is the very best type of legislation, with strong cross-party support.
To prove that malpractice is widespread, Consumer Focus carried out independent research to back up the anecdotal material that we all had. This provides some incredible background—this is an evidence-based Bill—and makes it clear that we are not dealing with a series of isolated events, but that the problem goes right across the whole industry.
I am pleased with the structure of the Bill, although of course we will have to scrutinise each clause closely in Committee. On licensing reform, local authorities must have the resources to do what I believe most of them want to do. Consumer Focus reports in its survey that local authorities want more power, so let us give them the necessary resources. They are on the spot, and it is fairly easy for park home owners to go and find someone at their local authority.
According to Consumer Focus, 25% of people surveyed reported problems of maintenance, security and safety, which is why it is important to have a site licence and site licence conditions, to enforce those conditions and to ensure that the site owner does not carry out vital work but that the local authority is empowered to do it and recover costs. I agree with the hon. Member for Winchester that this should be a last resort, however, and let us hope that the Bill sends out the message that we need a better and more consistent approach throughout the industry. I am a little concerned, however, that the clauses on licensing might not be brought in operation before April 2014. That is a long time to wait, if, as I hope, the Bill is enacted in 2013.
On clause 8, we must thank the Select Committee for its recommendation regarding the “fit and proper person” rule, which would not be in the Bill had it not been for the Committee’s important work. It is a clever device to have in our back pocket ready to introduce. We have been calling for it for many years. There are reservations—will it work?—but it is excellent that it is now in the Bill.
Clause 9 deals with site rules. It is important that park home owners know exactly what the rules are, that the rules are printed in the pitch agreements and that the agreements are transparent. We must have certainty. I have come across cases of the age clause in site rules being very conveniently changed after a purchaser has been turned away for being the wrong age. I suggested that site rules be lodged with the local authority, so I am pleased that such a provision has been included. One of my local authorities requires residents associations to lodge their constitutions with it, and does not invite associations that do not do so to consultative meetings. So there is a precedent. This would get a grip on the problem of people changing the rules as they go along. Having said that, some park home owners have expressed concern about how the licence fee will be paid, but we will talk about that in greater detail later.
Sale blocking is what first got me involved in this issue. We had the most appalling incident in my constituency where £15,000 was offered for a home that could have gone for £150,000 on the open market. The problem is widespread. Consumer Focus showed that 28% of residents thought they could not buy or sell their homes freely, and that 10% reported problems of intimidation, violence, vandalism and damage to property.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This is the tip of the iceberg. I keep referring to the figures, however, because they are evidence—that is what is important. We relied on anecdotes for a long time, but it got to the point where we were not going to make progress without evidence.
We have a two-tier approach to sale blocking comprising existing agreements and new agreements. We have to look at that closely. Consumer Focus recommends a targeted campaign to ensure that prospective and current park home residents are fully aware of their rights and obligations. This will be really important. We say that park home owners do not want to speak out, but we are not convinced that we have reached the majority of park home owners. It is especially important that the home owner provides the purchaser with the regulations. I agree that citizens advice bureaux need to be more proactive in making much more information available to park home owners, and that we need to encourage purchasers to use a solicitor. The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield made a very good contribution when he proposed to increase fines. We are now talking about fines of £50,000, which will make a difference, because in one very bad case in my constituency the fine was £1,000, which was just not enough in the overall context.
Other Members have probably, like me, received representations from park home site owners who have expressed concerns, because there are a lot of unknowns for them, with a lot of references to things being covered in regulations. I understand that uncertainty, particularly on the part of our good site home owners—like everybody else, I have good site owners in my constituency. It is important that we should have a good dialogue, because we want this to be a good industry overall. That means ensuring that we do not pass bad legislation, and there are fears that we might do that. We need to reassure those concerned that we will scrutinise the proposed regulations in Committee in the utmost detail, because we want the Bill to work for everybody.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her work. Does she agree that park home owners/residents associations have an important part to play in having good dialogue with the owners? I had a problem in getting recognition for a residents association. It was a great comfort to me to know that the hon. Lady and her group were batting for everybody on the issue, which eventually gave me the incentive to persevere until we secured that recognition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; that is absolutely right. We have to move towards co-operation and working together, rather than coercion. However, because we have the evidence—all the horrible stories—we have got to act today. Metaphorically, I raise my glass to justice for park home owners.
I am delighted to support a Bill that for many of us has been long overdue. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing a favourable position in this year’s ballot and on having the good sense to take on this cause, not only for his constituents, but for all the constituents—the thousands of people—we represent, many of whom have been suffering for too long as a result of the actions and the inactions of unscrupulous site owners.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). She and I have been working on this matter since my arrival in this place some two and a half years ago. Alongside the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), we have, I think, worked together very well as part of the all-part group on mobile homes, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and others. However, the real tribute should go not only to Sonia McColl, who has rightly been mentioned, but to all those residents who not only have raised the issue with their Members of Parliament and their councils, but have come to this place and spoken, very eloquently indeed, about the issues they face. I include in that the residents of Brook Meadow Park in my constituency, in Wroughton, near where I live. They have come to this House on several occasions and have spoken up very powerfully indeed about the problems they experience.
It is sad to note that, in the years since I first became concerned and involved with these issues prior to my election to Parliament, apart from one or two items of progress—most notably the transfer of jurisdiction from the county court to the tribunal system last year—progress has been altogether somewhat slow. This Bill marks a welcome further stage in the process of recognising the fact that park homes are not merely goods or chattels to be bought and sold, but are the homes of thousands of our residents. We have heard the statistics; we know what the expectations are of people who live in mobile homes. What they want is security, safety and that well known legal phrase “quiet enjoyment”. It is that principle which we should adhere to strongly when we consider legislation in this area.
As a parliamentary candidate, I was particularly concerned with the issue of sale blocking. I am delighted to see that the various provisions in clause 10 mark a welcome change in this area. I accept that a distinction is to be drawn between agreements that are made or assigned after the commencement of the legislation, if it is to be enacted, and existing agreements. Hon. Members have already quite rightly raised the issue of whether that could be made retrospective. I would urge the Government and everybody concerned to consider the matter carefully when the Bill goes to Committee. At this stage it is right just to outline where we are with the provisions.
For existing agreements, although the right of objection by a site owner is not to be removed, there is welcome change. It is important to emphasise that, because the effect of the new provisions will be to reverse the burden of proof. The prospective buyer will no longer have to demonstrate their suitability; rather, it will be for the site owner to demonstrate, via use of the tribunal, that the prospective purchaser is unsuitable. That is an important point to make. The change is one that we should welcome warmly, and it is one that will give some comfort to all our residents who have existing agreements. Obviously the position is dramatically different for new agreements, which is an extremely welcome initiative.
When it comes to one of the most fundamental issues in the campaign waged by residents and others, I am absolutely delighted that a “fit and proper person” test for licensing is now part of the Bill. That is something that we have heard about from residents time and again, and I know that they will be as pleased as I am to see those words in the Bill. At long last, the Bill gives a benchmark against which local authorities can work and a benchmark for every site owner to reach. It also gives certainty to all residents concerned. That test will go a long way towards resolving some of the abuses that have taken place in far too many parks.
The question of enforcement has already been raised. It is important to note that, sadly, there is often a disconnect between what the statute says and what the powers of local authorities may be, and the economic realities that apply. As I said in an intervention, the sad truth is that for many local authorities the cost and resource implications of taking on prosecutions are often too high for them to bear. The low penalties that have applied until now are a further disincentive to local authorities in bringing prosecutions for infringement.
In the past my hon. Friend has, like me, done cases on behalf of residents of park homes acting against landlords. Does he agree that, just as there is a need for local authorities to pursue criminal actions, it is manifestly the case that all matters would be so much easier if, when the original purchase took place, there was a solicitor involved?
I entirely take on board my hon. Friend’s point. This is a plea not for more work for lawyers—I declare my interest as a lawyer—but for all residents to ensure that they are fully and properly advised about their rights in the purchase of park homes, as well as their rights pursuant to any sale of them and their rights when it comes to the enforcement of an existing licence.
I know from my own discussions with residents how frustrated they feel when the local authority says, “It will be very difficult for us to do anything, because we do not have enough resources to mount a full prosecution.” If, for instance, a private building has become so dilapidated and dangerous that it poses a health and safety problem or a threat to the environment, the local authority can issue an enforcement notice, but it has no power to do so in the case of park homes. The Bill deals with that very effectively.
At long last, local authorities can take advantage of further stages before prosecution to enforce licence agreements. The issuing of a notice will often do the trick. It will place the onus on the site owner to make good any dilapidation, or to deal with a problem caused by a poor access road, a dangerous tree or an item on the site that is causing a potential or real nuisance to park home owners. It will give the site owner an incentive to get on with the job and ensure that the wrong is righted. The increase in the armoury available to local authorities is an essential part of the Bill.
As other Members have pointed out, this Bill is not the consequence of a headline or a knee-jerk reaction to a single isolated case. It is the product of many months, if not years, of careful evidence-gathering, consideration of the technicalities of the existing law, and testimony from thousands of our constituents whose stories of suffering have not only moved us all, but demonstrated to us the deficiencies of the existing legislation.
Many of us have spoken of the vulnerability of park home residents, but we should also note that their advocacy has been incredibly effective. They have been not just victims but very effective campaigners for legislation, and they should take some credit for the Bill.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I think that she speaks for us all in expressing admiration for the fortitude of the constituents whom we have the honour of representing.
The issue of commencement has been mentioned. I think that if the Bill is to become law, it should become law towards the end of the current Session. Waiting until 2014 would mean a lengthy further delay, and I urge Ministers to ensure it comes into force as early as possible in order to alleviate the problems that we are discussing.
Rather than making glib generalisations about what the Bill can do, we should be realistic about what it cannot do. It is important for all of us, as parliamentarians, to get to grips with the detail, ensure that the Bill’s provisions are as strong as possible, and use the opportunity that we have in the current Session to ensure that it is future-proof, so that we do not have to keep returning to tweak it as we have been forced to do with legislation in the past.
Today is a good day for residents and an encouraging day for park home owners everywhere, and for that reason I am delighted to commend the Bill to the House.
It is a great pleasure to speak about this Bill, on which I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I am sure that we all wish to encourage and support him in driving it towards its Committee stage and, subsequently, the statute book, and to support our constituents, many of whom have had to suffer for so long as a result of inadequate legislation.
A number of Members have spoken passionately about views that they have been expressing for a long time, but anyone watching this debate must consider the fact that it has taken so long for Parliament to do something about the whole business of park homes a bit of a mystery. A report produced by Berkeley Hanover in 2001 stated categorically that the arrangements for the sale of pitches could not be described as fair, flexible or transparent. However, the past is the past. Perhaps, as we heard from the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), what was needed was a champion in the sector—in this instance, her constituent Sonia McColl and the park home owners justice campaign—to mobilise the downtrodden in the park homes sector, along with a Select Committee to gather evidence and a greater awareness among all of us of the issues affecting our own residents.
Those of us who entered the House in 2010 may have other points to make. I first visited Woodlands Park, one of two park home sites in my constituency, in about 2007. At that stage I had no idea of the number of issues with which residents were having to deal. I suspect that, far too long ago, our predecessors concluded that it was all just too difficult. However, the phrase “Something must be done” has resonated throughout the history of this Parliament, and it could not be truer of the park homes situation.
The champions in the House—many are here today, and I salute them all—finally found a Minister who was prepared to listen and to take up the cause. I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), whom I warmly welcome to his position on the Front Bench, has picked up the baton and will complete this race with the same élan with which Usain Bolt completed his during the Olympics,
For me, this has been a process of education at the hands of residents in my constituency, and I pay huge tribute to the calm and steady leadership of the Woodlands Park residents association that has been provided for many years by Mike Morgan. It was his commitment to focusing entirely on the facts of the situation that quickly converted me to the residents’ cause and persuaded me to fight for it. I suspect that all Members who are present today have had similar champions in their own constituencies.
I hope that the issue of residents associations will be dealt with in Committee. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, they have not always been recognised by park home owners, and in many cases have been studiously ignored.
We need to ensure that they are recognised as an important part of the dialogue between residents and owners.
Under the heading “Site maintenance”, the minutes of the August meeting of the Woodlands Park residents association note:
“Residents have constantly complained of street lighting being out of action for six weeks or more”.
It is one thing for street lighting to be out of action for six weeks or more in August, or even September, but it is quite another thing in December or January. The way in which the Bill deals with site improvements, how they will be tackled and how owners’ obligations can be made clear will be of practical relevance to many of our constituents.
The Bill covers issues that have been discussed in the House, in the all-party group and in the Select Committee a number of times. It is the third change in the law since the coalition Government came to power, following the introduction in February 2011 of new rights for residents in disputes and the introduction of statutory security provisions two months later. This Bill will go further by tackling the routine blocking of residents’ sales by site owners and, in some cases, the blocking of home owners’ improvements. It also includes clarification of licensing reforms and penalties for eviction or harassment.
Anyone listening to this debate or reading the Bill might be forgiven for thinking that park homes are the last hideout of mediaeval robber barons. However, the point I make is that previous legislation of 30 years ago unintentionally incentivised the piratical approach. That is because an owner can block sales and thereby oblige someone to sell their unit at a significant discount to that owner, who can then sell on at a profit or replace the unit and make a profit in that way.
I wish to mention a point that has not been made so far in the debate. There was a good reason for giving site owners the ability to block a sale, which was to avoid people who did not fit in with the park coming to the park. The initial legislation was put in place to enable better site practice, but it has been abused and so, unfortunately, it must be removed.
The hon. Lady make a good point, and it was why I said “unintentionally”. As is so often the case with legislation, it is the unintended consequences that we all have to live with years later. She is right in what she says, but I think we are all agreed that it is time to change the legislation and ensure that those unintentional consequences are removed.
Like several other hon. Members, I am here on a Friday for the first time. I am abandoning Gloucester to come to this important debate on behalf of my constituents in park homes. I am very pleased to do so, because this is a good, if not a great cause. Above all, what the Bill will do is show that democracy does work. Even though this has taken a long time, this Parliament, helped by this Government, is taking forward legislation to put right historical wrongs and to ensure that everybody living in park homes has the same regulatory framework as all the rest of us living in other homes. In short, we are seeking to ensure that Cinderella does finally come to the ball.
It is a humbling and special moment rising to follow such distinguished speakers. If we are here to do anything, it is surely to protect those less able to protect themselves. People in park homes have found themselves in that situation through a variety of means and statutes that have been passed down the years. I should record at the outset that, of course, some very good park owners provide a perfectly good service and are in no way to blame for the problems caused by the miscreants, who have created the disasters that we have all heard about, either as constituency MPs or as lawyers—the joyous profession of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). When the two of us were at the Bar we had to represent individuals who owned park homes and were attempting to litigate, with diminished funds and diminished ability, at an age when no person should be in a court. I do not refer to my hon. Friend there; I refer to the individuals whom I had to look after and guide through a litigious process that no 70, 75, 80 or 85-year-old should have to undertake. Their being in that position is manifestly wrong.
I am humbled to follow such distinguished speakers. I confess that I have never spoken in a private Member’s Bill debate before. The reason I am speaking almost last in this debate is that I speak far too often in the House. [Hon. Members: “No.”] You have not heard all of my speech yet! I follow the coastal king of Waveney, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has ploughed forth his ship from Waveney down to Westminster to create a new law that will, for the first time, protect park home residents—and that is not the only wonderful thing. What is also wonderful about today is that the House has had the chance to be united. It was a pleasure to hear the speech made by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Normally we all go to the Backbench Business Committee to prostrate ourselves at her feet with a view to obtaining the opportunity to debate matters in the House. So it was good to see her on her feet making the case eloquently on behalf of not only her constituents, but her predecessor, who so ably served the cause of park home residents in her area.
I do not, in any way, diminish the contributions that we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I also wish particularly to pray in aid the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who, long before the good residents of Hexham decided in 2010 that they would like me to represent them—to my surprise and, I suspect, to theirs—was ploughing a strong furrow on behalf of this cause, and she must be given due credit.
It is worth bearing in mind the number of people we are talking about, because the context is fascinating. Individual constituents would come to us with particular problems and we would raise them, and Governments would often step in and change the law to help individuals on a large scale. The paucity of the numbers has been part of the problem here, and it has stopped Governments necessarily getting involved. In reality, however, we are talking about approximately two parliamentary constituencies—there are about 85,000 park homes involving between 100,000 and 150,000 people.
Interestingly, we spend so much of our time looking after the Army and attempting to champion its cause, whereas park homes have, to a certain extent, been a less strong element in this House’s consideration. Individual champions have changed that and have brought the matter to people’s attention and to the attention of the House. I give due credit to all the individual local champions, both those who have been cited by hon. Members today and those who have gone to their MP in other circumstances. They should all be welcomed and supported. The point is that a small section of a society of well over 60 million people is particularly disadvantaged by the current legislation, and that is manifestly wrong. So today is a historic day, as the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney will come to fruition.
I urge hon. Members not to judge a book by its cover: park homes are superficially very attractive and we can see why so many people would wish to enjoy the benefits of one, but I must add the sad reality of a conveyance into that context. It is madness that so little legal advice is given to park home residents when they purchase their property. I assure the House, before I am said to be trying to cite the benefit of employing lawyers, that I do not practise as a lawyer in any way and have not done so since May 2010. In addition, I must say that I would not be any use when it comes to a conveyance. Conveyances are specialised and specific things. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, the Lloyd George of Llanelli, would be wonderful at many aspects of the law, but would be utterly useless on conveyances. We are not pitching for work. I am urging that individual park home residents should not purchase a property without spending £500 on legal advice to get their conveyance right. Failing to do so is manifestly wrong. One would not make an investment of £50,000 or £100,000 without taking a modicum of advice, as to do so is short-sighted in the extreme and patently wrong. If people from park home residents associations read the Hansard record of this debate, I urge them to take that point and give it as advice on every occasion.
That point is also relevant for site owners. Individual site owners do not start with the predisposition, “I want to cause problems. I want to have disputes with my residents.” There may be isolated examples of site owners who do take that approach, just as isolated individuals set out to commit crime, but most of the time these situations develop. They arise because of a breakdown in relations or because they cannot keep the agreements going on. It is surely in the site owners’ interests for legal advice to be given and taken. I urge the site owners, who have just as much to gain as the individual purchasers, to consider that.
It ill behoves me to cite the various problems, as I have been in the Chamber for nearly an hour and a half and listened to repeated examples of problems in yesteryear. I am grateful to my constituent Mr John Stafford, who lives at 5 Pinewood Grove in Yont the Cleugh in Coanwood, for describing the difficulties that his park home has suffered down the years. He cites the usual litany of problems with the water and electricity supplies, street lighting, field drainage, road surfaces and power cuts—and, of course, a problem that particularly concerns us in the north-east, which is liquefied petroleum gas.
The provision of LPG for park homes is an utter scandal. LPG is effectively the only power provision in this country that is unregulated; all other power providers, including those in oil and gas, are regulated. The House has debated heating oil on many occasions and those who have heard me speak about fuel poverty will know that I consider the heating oil market manifestly to be broken and there is a particular problem with LPG. Individual canisters of LPG are available only from certain providers and in Northumberland, we have only two providers for the whole area, so the competition is limited at best. In the more rural areas of Northumberland, there is a single provider, which does the best job it can. We must bear it in mind, however, that the LPG canister is sold by that single provider, which has not a whit of competition, to the site owner, who can charge property owners whatever he or she wishes.
Countrywide—I stress that this is not the case in the two Northumberland properties that I represent—there are plenty of examples of the provision of LPG being an utter scandal. Mark-ups are unbelievably large—well over 100%—and unless they are paid, the elderly residents, who are struggling pensioners, are deprived of all power and heating. That is manifestly wrong. When the Bill is in Committee, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney to consider LPG and how it is provided and to see whether he can address the problem in any way. I urge him to take on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is from Suffolk, not from Norfolk, as was cruelly suggested earlier. I thought that she was having mild palpitations until she realised that it was an error, and that her constituency had not morphed into Norfolk in the boundary review. Lord knows, I blame—no, I will not go there.
Park home residents will be in a better state as we go forward. The journey has been long for the individuals with difficulties, but there is great potential. I go to the park at Blenkinsopp, where a wonderful 14th century castle is set high on the hill overlooking the River Tyne between Haltwhistle and Hexham. It was set up by that famous Frenchman Bryan de Blenkinsopp, whose family came over in the Norman invasion. If hon. Members will indulge me, I will give them a little history tour. It was Bryan de Blenkinsopp who set up the latest castle in the 14th century and at a feast, he was teased about his marriage plans but replied, “Never, never shall I marry, until I meet with a lady possessed with a chest of gold heavier than 10 of my strongest men can carry.” Sure enough, a lady returned with 12 strong men carrying a very large chest of gold. It has never been found and the park homes still reside on that site today. Bryan obviously passed away long ago and is no longer with us. It is still an idyllic spot and when I take individuals around there, they say, “This is where we want to live.” The site has a very good owner, but there is no legislation to provide the protection that those individuals would like.
Let me sum up the Bill, if I can. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney is doing something amazing that reforms the licensing system, prevents residents’ sales from being blocked, clarifies the law on harassment, makes pitch fees more transparent and introduces a proper and fit registration scheme. This is a special day and we are privileged and lucky to be in the Chamber to demonstrate our support for the long campaign that many have fought.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—I am inclined sometimes to say Waverley, but that is of course a station in Edinburgh—and to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has done so much to champion this cause. I pay tribute to the previous Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), for his work and welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). I congratulate him on his appointment.
The problem and the concern about it are widespread, as demonstrated by the presence of Members from all over the country who are in the Chamber today rather than in their constituencies, and by the fact that they are prepared to speak up on the matter. As well as hearing from your county of Lancashire, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have heard from Members from Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Cheshire. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is from Birmingham—perhaps I should say Warwickshire, or his part of Birmingham might be in Worcestershire; I am not sure. We have heard from Members who represent Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall, Essex, Wiltshire, Northumberland, Kent, Oxfordshire, Somerset—or as that Member would say, Somersetshire—Middlesex, Pembrokeshire and, of course, Staffordshire. This is a problem across the country not just, as Members have said, in coastal constituencies. Stafford is about as far from any coast as one could possibly get and we have this problem.
Before coming to this place I was not aware of the problems that we have discussed today, but my constituents have brought them to my attention time and time again. I pay tribute to my office manager in Stafford, James Cantrill, for his tireless work on behalf of those constituents in trying to resolve some of their problems.
Members have mentioned that the Bill results from evidence, which is vital. The problems it seeks to correct are real and affect people daily. I do not want to detain Members for long, but I want to go over three of the problems that have been brought to my attention by my constituents, including examples from other constituencies.
The first problem is with the ability to do emergency works when required. A council officer in my constituency brought to my attention an incident that had happened elsewhere, when they were in a previous post. A water main had burst and continued to gush for days on end, if not weeks, without any action being taken, depriving residents of their water. The council was unable to gain access or to do any work and, in the end, had to resort to bringing water to the residents who were without it. It is clear that such a situation must be dealt with and that councils must be able to enter and perform emergency works when necessary.
My second point is about sale blocking. Members have already spoken at great length on the subject. I would just like to say that I have heard of several instances in my constituency in which it is quite clear that that is taking place, and it is vital that we stop it.
Finally, hon. Members have referred to fees. I cannot count the number of times that people have come to me and said that they believe that the fees levied on them, whether for energy or other things, have been over the top and higher than they should be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, park home owners deserve better. They deserve our protection. This is precisely the kind of work that Parliament should be doing, and I am glad that we are doing it. I hope that the Bill becomes law before too long.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on bringing this legislation forward. He was lucky enough to be in the top seven of the ballot; he could have picked any topic on which to introduce a private Member’s Bill, and it is a great credit to him that he had the wisdom to pick this issue, which we have struggled to get to grips with for so long.
As has been pointed out, there are very few constituencies in which there is not a park home. In my constituency, there is Priory park and Falcon park. Both are mixed sites, with a mixture of holiday homes and park homes. We need to be clear at the very start that the Bill does not apply to holiday parks, or those parks where the residency is formally for 10 months, even though people may happen to stay a bit longer and nobody may realise that, officially. We need to be clear that the provision relates to proper residential parks, where a full 12-month licence is granted every year, and where people can stay until the end of their lease.
I am sure that all Members will agree that when we go canvassing or deliver leaflets in our constituencies, and go to park homes, they are often in the most beautifully kept park areas. People have great pride in their homes. It is right to bring in the changes that we are discussing, so that instead of the contract being about chattels and services, as I understand it is at present, a park home can legally really start to become a home.
I want to reiterate the two points that I made in interventions, and I will tell Members why I feel so strongly about the subject. One of the things that politicians get a bad reputation for is saying, “We’ve come up with a solution; here’s the answer,” only for people to find that the solution does not apply to them. I give great credit to the officers of the all-party group on mobile homes. Its meetings are usually held in Committee Room 14, because they are so well attended, and when they are in other Committee Rooms, it is standing room only. It has been tireless in its campaign to move the issue along. As has been said, credit should be given to the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps).
I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), to look at what they can do. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said, there is precedent for changing retrospectively the rights of leasehold owners, whether of flats or land. I know that the legal implications are very difficult in this particular case, but it should not be beyond the brains of our excellent civil service and parliamentary counsel to draft a provision to that effect. It is vital that all the people who have worked so hard, and have been praised in the Chamber today, do not suddenly feel that they have to say, “So what? What has it all been about?” I welcome the Bill; I do not want to sound like a complete sourpuss, because I know how much hard work has gone into it, and how much effort my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has put into it, but let us see what we can do to make it even better.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) refer to Blenkinsopp castle, given that a castle is probably the most immobile of homes. As there is a castle that bears the name of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and has gold underneath it, he might make a claim. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham was right to bring up the issue of energy. To give credit to some liquefied petroleum gas companies, there are metered estates where everyone is on one contract and they do not rely on bottles. Some changes have already happened, voluntarily, on that score, and that is good news, but my hon. Friend is right to bring up the issue. I encourage the Government to look at the small statutory instrument issued in Ofgem’s name, to see if we can do something about the issue while we are tackling the problems that park home owners face. That would be another small thing that could be done to add to the Bill, although I appreciate that the subject is complex enough already.
This is an important Bill, and I am sure that it will get wholehearted support. I am delighted to have made a contribution to the debate on behalf of my residents.
We have heard some moving stories this morning about what has happened to people in our constituencies as a result of the deliberate, unscrupulous bullying actions of people who have taken over park homes that were previously idyllic places in which to live with a view to using them as a money-making exercise, with no regard whatever for the people living there. I pay tribute to the people who live in park homes in Breach Barns park and Woodbine Close park in my constituency—beautiful places on the edge of Epping forest. I would like to name the park home residents who have worked so hard to try to ensure justice, but I cannot; they have asked me not to mention their names, because they are afraid of the actions of Mr Sines, the man who owns those parks, who has deliberately, over a period of more than 10 years, made the lives of the people who live there a misery.
It is brilliant that this Bill is before us today. Previous Governments have tried and failed to close the loopholes in the law, because the owners of park homes sites who are deliberately flouting the law and using the loopholes can well afford to pay lawyers to get around the law. Today, we can give power to the people who need it—our local authorities and others, who will use it on behalf of our constituents, who need our protection.
I should particularly like to pay tribute to another person who lives in my constituency, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has been a great champion of this cause, and to those, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who have worked so hard for the all-party group. I wish the Bill every success.
I will start by focusing on the human face of why the Bill is so important—those who have bought park homes in areas of rural idyll, often in the twilight of their years—and on the inhuman face of rogue site owners. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) is absolutely right when she says that if anyone is not a fit and proper person, it is Mr Maurice Sines, who has a long track record of abusing those who live on park homes sites that he owns.
In Ladycroft park in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, residents went to the county court after suffering harassment and intimidation, and an inability to sell their home. Mr Sines was abusing the law, saying that he had to approve any sale. He was meant to give a valid reason, but did he? Did he, hell. Residents took action in the county court, led by the admirable Sheila Austin, who said at the time:
“He blocked sales saying homes would be dragged around the park, threatening and shouting abuse…It was absolutely horrendous”.
Eventually, sadly, 30 people sold their homes to Mr Sines, but at a very good price for him, and a very poor price for them. One home, valued at £50,000, was sold for £10,000. The homes were then demolished and replaced with new ones.
Let me give another example involving Mr Sines and his track record at a mobile home park owned by him and his business partner, James Crickmore, at Hardwick Bridge in Norfolk. One of the owners, Jackie—this is not her real name; as the hon. Member for Epping Forest rightly said, many of the vulnerable people concerned are reluctant to reveal their identity—reported:
“They were banging on the doors in the early hours of the morning saying: ‘You have got to get out or we’ll hook your van up and pull it round the site until it just falls to bits.’ It was unbelievable.”
There are other rogues like Mr Sines. At another park, the Glen site in Worcestershire, elderly residents suffered a series of terrifying arson attacks. One woman lived almost next door to one of the homes that was burned to the ground. She said:
“When I saw the blaze I opened my door and fell down the steps, because I thought: ‘It’s going up in a minute.’ Of course I was thinking: ‘If they put anything under mine I won’t stand a chance.’”
She and three others living on the site were eventually blackmailed into selling their homes to the owners for only £1. I repeat: one pound. In this case, because of the serious acts of arson, a police investigation resulted in seven men, including the site owners, John and Simey Doherty, getting jail sentences of 64 years in total.
The situation must end. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on introducing this much-needed and long-awaited Bill. I congratulate Members on all sides who have worked hard and long in support of action being taken at last. On the Opposition side, they include my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who was right to say that we must end the second-class status of park home owners, and the indefatigable Lord Ted Graham.
I congratulate the all-party group on the work that it has done, and the park home owners justice campaign on the work that it has done. I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee because, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire said, it conducted an excellent inquiry and produced a powerful report, including calling for the law to be strengthened on the “fit and proper person” issue.
Today is one of those days when the House speaks with one voice to say that the time has come and that legislation is long overdue. The hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) were right to say that for all the discussions that have taken place over many years, it is about time that we got on with it and changed the law. We embarked down the right path in government, and this Government continued down that path.
The reason why I pay such a tribute to the hon. Member for Waveney is that thanks to his private Member’s Bill, he will now force the pace for long-awaited action to be taken at last. He is right to point to the scale of both ownership and abuse. There are 84,000 park homes across England, with an estimated 160,000 residents. Although the evidence is that the majority of site owners are reputable, there is too great a minority who are rogues.
In conclusion, I express the Opposition’s warm support for the Bill. Of course there will be discussion in Committee on the eventual shape of the Bill, but the Bill is a noble measure with a noble intent. Today, by backing the Bill, the House is sending a united message that park home owners deserve security and an end to their second-class status. Reputable site owners deserve an end to the damage done to their reputation by the rogues. So today we serve notice to quit. Just as there should be no place for rogue landlords, so there should be no place for rogue site owners. No more Maurice Sines.
It is a pleasure to be able to stand at the Dispatch Box today when there is total House coalition on an issue which I would no doubt have found myself speaking to on a Friday as a Back Bencher. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on the Bill that he has introduced and on his success in the ballot for private Members’ Bills.
As was pointed out earlier, a company has a duty to protect its minority shareholders. This is a clear case in which we as a Government have a similar duty to protect a small part of society in the best way we can. I congratulate all the campaigners and my hon. Friend and neighbour on introducing a Bill to do just that. I understand the issue fully both as a Minister and as a Member of Parliament. In Great Yarmouth, as in other coastal towns, we have our share of such properties. We also have examples of good ownership, which the Bill will help to protect.
It is important to reiterate some of the comments made this morning to show the breadth of support and the range of topics covered. My hon. Friend and neighbour outlined the Bill. I congratulate hon. Members on their cross-party support and thank the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for her comments, emphasising the importance of behavioural issues for park owners and of protecting the rights of park home owners. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) highlighted the size of the industry. I noted his comments on the green deal and will pass on to the relevant Department his remarks on the Floor of the House and in a conversation earlier today. He was right to draw attention to the excellent work done on the issue by Consumer Focus.
Everyone is better off for having heard what the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) had to say, fortunately in public. I entirely agree that it is hugely important that we achieve the right touch as well as a light touch. The Bill can certainly achieve that. Special congratulations are due to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on being such a long-term campaigner on the issue, as I know from my time on the Back Benches. She emphasised the importance of the “fit and proper person” provision being, in her words, in our back pocket.
My hon. Friends the Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman) highlighted a message to go outside this Chamber, and, to an extent, outside the Bill’s remit. They spoke about the importance of good legal advice on an investment of the scale we are discussing; clearly they were not looking for any business for themselves. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon also emphasised the need to work, particularly in Committee, to make the Bill future-proof, and to retain the power in our back pocket—a point also made in respect of the phrase “fit and proper person”.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for his comments. I will do my best on this Bill to match the speed of Usain Bolt, as I am sure we all will. I will restrain myself from using the hand gestures on the Floor of the House, although I might be persuaded to do so for charity at another date.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham was right to highlight the need for protection, and I much appreciated, as I am sure we all did, his history tour. If anything, I was slightly disappointed that it was not matched by the usual tour through Greek history given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). No doubt that will be saved for anther day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) rightly highlighted how widespread this problem is, and said that it is an issue not only for coastal towns, such as Waveney and Great Yarmouth, but throughout the country. One of my near neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), constructively highlighted some of the issues that the Bill needs to deal with. I noted her comments on the SI and Ofgem, which I will pass forward.
We will all have noted and taken on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)—they were also eloquently made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington—highlighting some of the hugely unscrupulous behaviour in this sector that must be stamped out, to protect not only the residents, who are our prime focus, but the reputation of the good owners, who are by far the majority throughout the country.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. The “fit and proper person” test is nice and neat in our back pocket, but may we have his assurance that if, as I said earlier, I am being naive and the Bill does not have the desired effect, the Minister and the Government are prepared to dip their hand into that pocket?
I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to confirm that. Yes, we will, and I will highlight that point specifically in a few moments.
As has been said, the Bill affects only a small number of homes, but it is hugely important to the people who live in those homes, and that is what matters. It will deal with about 85,000 park homes on 2,000 sites. The sector represents only about 0.5% of the housing stock in England, but it is vital. Its residents have rights just like everybody else, and they matter a great deal to all of us. The fact that the sector is small does not mean that we should not address the injustice that is rife in it, and the Bill goes some way towards doing that. That is why the Government fully back the Bill.
Let me explain the Government’s position and why the Bill does not contain more—a point on which some Members have commented. The Bill builds on the thorough and searching inquiry conducted in the spring by the Communities and Local Government Committee. I congratulate the Committee on the report and thank them for it. The Bill takes forward a number of the Committee’s recommendations. As we have heard today, there is a good deal of consensus on the fact that legislative reforms are desperately needed. There is cross-party support for such reforms. Members have given examples of unacceptably unscrupulous behaviour towards older and sometimes vulnerable home owners, disgraceful acts that must not be tolerated for a moment longer.
For Members with park homes in their constituencies, these stories will unfortunately be all too familiar. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney reminded us that the Prime Minister has himself called for urgent action to tackle the problems in the sector. The Bill will do that, but the Government are mindful, as is my hon. Friend, that there are many good site owners in this industry who provide a professional, top-class service to their residents and respect their rights. Sadly, their good work is too often masked by the unacceptable behaviour of the unscrupulous operators who pervade the sector.
We want to create a level playing field where the good operator does not face unfair competition from unscrupulous ones who ignore their obligations and the rights of others. We want to see the industry put on a sustainable footing for the future, so that those who run a decent and honest business can flourish and there is no place for the unscrupulous and for criminals. We want home owners to be confident that their homes are safe and their rights are respected. The Bill aims to achieve that by introducing measures targeted at those who ignore their obligations and exploit their residents, while placing minimal burdens on those businesses that manage their sites well and respect their residents’ rights—the right approach with a light touch.
The Bill focuses on three key areas: reforms to the antiquated licensing regime that applies to park home sites; removing the ability for unscrupulous operators to block lawful sales by residents of their homes; and ensuring that pitch fee increases are transparent to prevent residents from being overcharged. All those issues were identified in the Department’s consultation paper on reforms to the sector published in April.
The Bill also includes a provision that would permit the Government to introduce a “fit and proper person” test through secondary legislation, should that prove necessary, which was one of the Select Committee’s recommendations. I will say a few words about why the Government have accepted that recommendation. It is not our intention to introduce an industry-wide “fit and proper person” requirement at present. I sincerely hope, as many Members have commented today, that the introduction of such a test will never be necessary. New bureaucratic burdens on good businesses must be a last resort. As we have heard this morning, the majority of site owners are good.
However, we must also ensure that conditions in the sector improve, which is why the Bill focuses on making it simply unprofitable for unscrupulous operators to exploit residents. We accept the risk that some of the worst operators might try to persist and that it might therefore be necessary to take powers later to remove them directly from the industry. Therefore, we will review the situation after a suitable period to see how behaviour in the industry has changed. If unscrupulous practices persist, we may consider introducing the “fit and proper person” test. A clear message must go out to bad owners that their behaviour will not be tolerated and, if it continues, the Government will act.
I congratulate the Minister on his new post—it is great to see him at the Dispatch Box. I am so pleased to hear his words about the “fit and proper person” test. I came here four years ago, as leader of South Derbyshire district council, to meet Ministers and discuss this matter, but we were just thrown out of the room and not one iota of the proposal was to be considered. Time has moved on and I am delighted that there is cross-party support for the proposal. Clearly, it is such a big issue that the Government have listened and everyone wants it to happen. I thank the Minister very much.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Hopefully I have been able to give some assurance about the Government’s determination to deal with this issue. If we need to act, we will do so.
I acknowledge that my hon. Friend’s Bill does not include everything the Government consulted on. The policy reasons are explained in the published response paper, which is available on the Department’s website. In some cases we have simply concluded that legislative change would not necessarily be the best solution, but it is also a matter of size and what can be achieved in a private Member’s Bill. The Bill already runs to 15 clauses, which is unusual for such a Bill, and it would have been impossible to include everything we consulted on if it was to have much chance of completing all its stages and receiving Royal Assent—something that we all want and which is important for the industry.
I want to congratulate everyone who has campaigned so hard on this issue over the years, including the previous Housing Minister, who did a huge amount of work on it, Lord Graham and the all-party group on mobile homes. I also congratulate the Select Committee on its report.
In conclusion, I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s decision to focus the Bill on the key areas of reform that would have the greatest impact and the most lasting effect. These reforms, as we have heard, are well overdue and desperately needed in the industry to protect all our residents. That is why I commend the Bill to the House and wish it a safe passage through this House and the other place.
We have had an interesting two and a half hours. I have been heartened by the support from both sides of the Chamber. This place is often at its best when it speaks with one voice. We have also heard from across the country. I have been particularly heartened by the extremely robust responses from the two Front Benchers, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the Minister, my hon. Friend and neighbour.
We have heard horrific stories of what some park home owners have had to put up with. We need to chase out and remove from the sector the rogue owners who have caused so much misery for so many elderly and vulnerable people. I also hope that the constructive nature of the debate will be taken forward into Committee. Some very valid points have been raised this morning which we will look at in great detail.
I will sum up by saying that park homes were, for so many people, seen as the dream retirement. In so many places that dream, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, has turned into a living nightmare. We need to deliver a wake-up call to the rogue operators that they are not wanted and must get out. That is what we will be doing, and I am grateful to the House and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving us the time to do so this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Marine Navigation (No. 2) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I was delighted to be drawn 12th in the private Members’ Bill ballot and to have this opportunity to introduce a Bill that seeks to reduce the operational burden costs on the marine industry, to promote the work of the General Lighthouse Authority, and to strengthen the powers of port police.
I pay tribute to the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who did so much for marine safety while he was in his post, and I welcome the new Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to his position. I understand that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is not in his place, is attending a memorial service but will be in the Chamber at some stage of the debate.
Members will know that I have a strong personal interest in maritime matters. Indeed, in the mid-1990s I was secretary of the Plymouth sea safety group, which was set up to bring together master mariners, rescue services such as the RNLI, the fishing industry, channel and river pilots, harbourmasters and yachtsmen in order to allow for a greater understanding between all users of the marine environment.
The maritime industry is crucial to the economic well-being of the United Kingdom, with ships carrying goods for consumption, business people and holidaymakers to and from our shores. The ports industry provides a gateway to and from our nation. In 2010, UK ports handled 512 million tonnes of goods, the value of which was about £340 billion. That represents 95% of the total volume of UK import-export trade and 75% of its value. Some 23 million international passengers used UK ports in 2009—three times the population of London. The maritime industry provides employment, directly and indirectly, from as far north as Shetland to as far south as Cornwall. My constituency is bordered by two busy ports—to the west is the port of Fowey, and Plymouth sound is on the eastern border. My constituency’s economy relies heavily on the marine industry.
The marking of hazards and of safe shipping routes in the channel is a key factor in facilitating this vital UK industry. We are fortunate in this regard to employ the efficient services of three world-leading providers of marine aids to navigation throughout the UK and Ireland, collectively known as the General Lighthouse Authority. Marine pilotage is dealt with in clauses 1 to 4 of my Bill. It is a noble profession that dates back hundreds of years. Pilots are highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals responsible for safely guiding ships into our ports and harbours. They provide a vital service without which our shipping industry could not safely operate. The Pilotage Act 1987 governs the provision of pilotage in the UK by competent harbour authorities. I propose to modernise one section of it, relating to pilotage exemption certificates.
I have received a number of representations on my proposals from ports, harbourmasters and those in the pilotage industry, and I reassure the House that they are not simply about saving money and are not designed to reduce safety. The Bill would enable competent harbour authorities to recognise the skills and knowledge of a wider group of individuals when it is clear that they are able and capable of holding a pilotage exemption certificate.
In my opinion, the Bill would implement a balanced set of improvements to the pilotage exemption certificate system, under which competent harbour authorities may at their discretion grant suitably qualified crew a certificate that enables them to pilot specified vessels instead of taking on a pilot. The Bill would remove the restriction that currently allows only masters and first mates to be granted a pilotage exemption certificate. It would allow any crew member demonstrating the high level of skills and experience required by the authority to hold a certificate, and it would also give the authority greater powers in relation to the suspension and revocation of a certificate where appropriate. I am, however, willing to discuss the specifics of my proposals in far greater detail in Committee should colleagues so wish.
Clause 3 would enable ports and harbours that have an obligation to provide pilotage services, but that do not have the traffic to warrant such services, to relinquish that requirement in a straightforward and sensible manner. That is about removing unwanted burdens on ports and harbour authorities, and deregulating where it is safe and appropriate to do so.
Clauses 5 and 6 relate to harbour authorities. Statutory harbour authorities have many duties and are primarily responsible for the safe operation of their facilities. About a third of them currently benefit from powers of general direction. Extending the use of those powers to the rest of the industry—a responsible and mature industry—would reduce the costs and time required to achieve the same effect via harbour revision orders. That proposal is localism in action and would enable the right decision to be taken by the right organisation without the need for expensive recourse to legislation.
Unused port and harbour facilities can be a financial drain on their owners once they are no longer economical to run. Some facilities have geographical restrictions on the size of ship that can access them, and others fall victim to changes in trade patterns. In either case, through no fault of the operators, ports can become economically unviable. Some of those ports are owned by local councils, which then pass the costs of maintaining facilities and honouring statutory duties on to council tax payers. The Bill would make it easier for statutory harbour authorities to close unviable harbours when appropriate, and to relinquish costly responsibilities that cannot be justified given a harbour’s limited use.
Clause 7 deals with port constables. Currently, a port constable is limited to working within one mile of their port restriction.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for introducing this important Bill and for the work that she has conducted on the issue over many years.
As a member of the all-party group on human trafficking, I believe that clause 7 will be important in giving port constables the right to extend their sphere of work to inland constituencies such as mine. It is well acknowledged now that the only way in which we will successfully tackle the increasing scourge of human trafficking, which blights lives, is for more agencies to work together. I am therefore delighted to support the Bill, particularly clause 7. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the Bill has great relevance not only to coastal constituencies but to every constituency in the country?
I do acknowledge that; this clause is extremely important, and I know other hon. Members will speak about it. Port constables are currently limited to working within 1 mile of their port—a restriction meaning that otherwise perfectly competent officers must be accompanied by the local police whenever they need to investigate a crime, or escort an offender to a custody suite or court beyond that limit. At a time when, as has been mentioned, we are seeking efficiency in all our public sector organisations, that cannot be right. Worse still, it provides the potential for an officer to find themselves unable to prevent a crime, simply because it happened a few feet too far away from the port at which they work. My Bill will remove the geographical limit on the powers of port constables, where that is agreed with the local police.
My hon. Friend has explained well and succinctly the case for extending that jurisdiction. Does she bear in mind the fact that both the port police and the Home Office have wished for that change in the law since 2008? It is important for the Bill to make progress, so that we can end that anomaly, and so that the port police can make a full contribution to defending our borders.
My hon. Friend is right. The problem was identified in 2008 when the Department for Transport conducted a consultation on the issue. It is, therefore, important to get the Bill through and place this provision on to the statute book.
Clauses 8 and 9 relate to general lighthouse authorities of which the UK and Ireland has three: the Northern Lighthouse Board, the Commissioners of Irish Lights, and Trinity House. Each organisation is world renowned in its field, and each has a proud and historic reputation for ensuring the safety of mariners. The general lighthouse authorities already carry out some commercial work, prudently utilising any small amount of spare capacity they may have when that does not affect their day-to-day operational activities. For instance, the Northern Lighthouse Board maintains and monitors many rig watchers, which are used to mark decommissioned oil and gas rigs. The Commissioners of Irish Lights recently won a contract to mark an offshore renewable energy site, the first for them in that field. Trinity House undertakes short vessel charters, where it provides small lifting operations for wind farm sites.
The general lighthouse authorities are innovative in their approach to work, and I want to help them make the most of commercial opportunities when they present themselves. Once enacted, my Bill will enable those three organisations to trade more freely on their reputations of excellence, providing each with greater commercial freedom and enabling them to increase the income they generate through commercial activities. I hope that such action will reduce the call on the shipping industry for funding through the payment of light dues. The other measure on the general lighthouse authorities in the Bill puts beyond doubt their power to provide markings beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial sea limit—a sensible proposal, as I am sure hon. Members will agree.
Clauses 10 and 11 relate to other marine issues. Section 47 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 provides a regulation-making power concerning the minimum number of qualified persons who are required to be carried on ships, and the standards of competence required and conditions to be met to achieve such qualifications. Amendments to those regulations require secondary legislation, which takes up limited time and administrative resources. My Bill will simplify the process for setting manning requirements for ships by enabling secondary legislation to cross-refer to external documents, such as industry or international technical agreements—a practice known as “ambulatory reference” that already applies in other maritime legislation. In practice, references to external documents, which are known within the industry as “M-notices”, are issued by the Secretary of State through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. They are a well-established means through which the Department for Transport and MCA communicate with stakeholders.
The final substantive clause in my Bill confirms the ability of lighthouse authorities to deploy modern electronic navigational aids to help minimise the risks to mariners and the maritime environment. I must declare a special interest in this area—my son works for a worldwide maritime electronics manufacturer on the technical side, and my daughter uses electronic navigational aids occasionally in her career as a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy.
In our modern age, electronic aids to navigation are increasingly important to the mariner, who makes great use of satellite navigation systems. In times of emergency, such electronic aids can be used to mark a hazard rapidly, until a more permanent buoy, beacon or other physical aid to navigation can be deployed. The electronic system and the automatic identification system beacons that are fitted to vessels made my personal tragedy last year much easier to deal with—the fishing vessel my husband was on had an AIS transmitter.
That was quite a canter through the contents of my Bill, which I hope the House agrees should be considered in more detail in Committee. The clauses might seem familiar to some hon. Members—most are drawn from the draft Marine Navigation Bill published by the Department for Transport in 2008 and consulted on at that time. The one addition is the extension of the geographic limit of port constables’ jurisdiction, which emerged from a review of ports police forces by the Department for Transport in 2008, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) correctly highlighted.
I have carefully read the comments made on the 2008 draft Bill at the time of its publication and discussed the issues raised with interested parties across the maritime industry. My Bill focuses on supporting growth in that industry.
I am grateful to my hon. and brave Friend for introducing the Bill, which in large part is not controversial and will be of assistance. One difference between this Bill and the one that Lord Berkeley introduced in another place is of concern to the Royal Yachting Association, of which I am a member. Is she willing to meet the RYA to discuss its proposed approach to clause 5, which Lord Berkeley agreed to leave out of his Bill? Perhaps we could persuade the Minister to do the same.
I would be more than happy to meet the RYA, which I know has concerns about the general rules of direction. I would like to reassure it, and I am sure the Minister will back me up. A number of ports already operate under general rules of direction, which must be consulted on fully before they are in place. If a competent harbour authority does not take note of responses to consultation, it could be subject to judicial review. I should like to meet the RYA—we need to get the clause right.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s request and would like to put it on the record now that I am sure I would be delighted to join that meeting.
I am grateful to the Minister. When the association holds its events, it can have designated areas of the sea where those events will not be disrupted by other leisure users sailing through a regatta, for instance. I would be more than happy to meet members of the association.
I am confident that my Bill would benefit the UK maritime sector and I am grateful to the British Ports Association and the UK Major Ports Group, which have provided me with considerable support and advice on the Bill. The ports industry is one the UK’s hidden success stories. It is an incredibly competent, competitive and customer-focused industry that operates largely out of the public eye, because of its efficiency and the safety of its operations. Despite the lack of awareness of the ports industry, our whole way of life depends on its success. Some of the anomalies in the current maritime legislation that I seek to correct in this Bill may seem arcane, but I have tried to show that the industry that the changes will assist is far from irrelevant. I humbly ask hon. Members to support the Bill today.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) is right in her concluding remarks about the importance of the ports industry to the UK and its economy. We take for granted the significance of ports around the country, but collectively they do an enormous amount of work to ensure that the goods we rely on—both imported and exported—are managed sensibly.
Ports are under wildly varying forms of ownership, and some of them need a tougher regulatory regime than others because of the sea conditions they experience. Some estuaries are particularly difficult and some are incredibly busy. For example, I used to live on the south coast, and Southampton in particular is incredibly busy and clearly needs a regulatory regime that is fit for purpose. Other, smaller ports need a much lighter touch that will meet their needs. In the north-west, the River Mersey is very complex to navigate and needs a pilotage system that is strong and robust. That is especially necessary at certain states of the tide, when serious seas are running out in Liverpool bay. I have been out in the bay both when it has been as flat calm as the carpet in front of us and when the ship has virtually stood on its end with every wave. In such environments, entering a river mouth needs careful handling by expert pilots and we should give credit to pilots in our ports for the fantastic work that they do.
Over recent years, there have been some changes that are controversial in local areas, as well as some that have been adopted with the support of local pilot associations. I have received a significant amount of correspondence from a constituent who is a lawyer and has periodically given advice to the local association. He has one fundamental objection to the Bill, and with the House’s indulgence, given that these issues are so important to the safety of our seafarers and others operating in and around our ports, I will put it on the record and invite the Minister to respond as positively as he can. He is familiar with my constituent’s correspondence, because much of it has been directed at him.
The substance of the objection surrounds clause 2(1), which would broaden definitions used in the Pilotage Act 1987. My constituent asserts that this is an
“obvious and gross reduction in the standards applicable in compulsory pilotage areas that…cannot be (and is not) lawful, for all of the reasons raised since the Bill was introduced.”
Those reasons are set out elsewhere in correspondence. He wrote to the Prime Minister expressing his concern on 30 September:
“The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport has made it clear that HM government intends to remove regulatory burdens and to relax standards in compulsory pilotage areas. The point which he fails to address (as mentioned in my letter of yesterday’s date, herewith) is that the governmental intention contravenes all known law, in particular the following provisions:-
1. The common law obligation to maintain the highest possible standards in compulsory pilotage areas. This obligation was confirmed and acknowledged by Lord Bingham the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Criminal Appeal in April 2000 when allowing a reduction in penalty to Milford Haven port authority following its admission of guilt in the SEA EMPRESS incident of 1996. Lord Bingham noted with approval that efforts had been made to improve standards.
2. In a report published in April 2002, “The New Humber Pilot Service”, the Department for Transport, Local Government and Regions confirmed that the obligation identified in the SEA EMPRESS case is strict and onerous.
3. The declaration of the International Maritime Organization (representing the maritime concerns of the United Nations Organization) that developed standards in pilotage (and not merely in compulsory pilotage areas) should be not merely maintained but enforced. This declaration is in Resolution A960 of 2004, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory.
It follows necessarily that any relaxation of standards in a compulsory pilotage area (as HM government now specifically proposes) is unlawful; and that the obligation to maintain standards remains accordingly strict and onerous. This you should know. The Department for Transport has known it since 2002 at the latest.”
Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. His constituent is a prodigious and prolific writer, and he has written to the Department along similar lines. Clause 2 deals with pilotage exemption certificates. Clause 2(1)(a) and (b) substitute “master” and “mate” with
“a member of the crew”.
The provisions are, of course, still subject to section 8 of the Pilotage Act 1987, which clearly states that a competent harbour authority can issue a pilotage exemption certificate only when it is certain that the applicant’s
“skill, experience and local knowledge are sufficient for him to be capable of piloting the ship”.
That is why the Government are confident that what we are doing does not represent what the hon. Gentleman’s constituent has written to say. Moreover, when combined, the provisions in the Bill will strengthen the allocation of exemption certificates, as they will enable competent harbour authorities to withdraw them much more speedily, if for any reason they are no longer confident of the certificate holder’s skill, experience or local knowledge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that reassurance, but if he wishes to pursue the matter further we can do so in Committee.
That is an extremely helpful statement to have on the record. However, I want to pursue the Minister a little further before I relax my guard, because it follows from what he says—I hope that he will correct me if I have misunderstood this—that the exemption for an individual cannot be granted willy-nilly. I know that there has been discussion in the Department and that people have talked about different ranks on the ship, but it is not a question of what rank the person holds; it is a question of their qualifications and competence to undertake the task in question. As I understand it, that is measured by two things: first, the individual’s ability to meet the requirements of the port authority in question; and, secondly, that the exemption is for that specific vessel and that vessel only. I would be grateful if the Minister put on record his agreement that the exemption under those circumstances would not even, for example, extend to a sister ship, and that it must meet the standards that are normally in place for the port in question.
I am obviously disappointed that the hon. Gentleman feels the need to have his guard up when I am at the Dispatch Box, but let me reassure him that the position that he has just outlined is indeed correct. The exemption does not refer to rank—it refers to qualification—and it does refer to the specific vessel.
That is very important. I would suggest to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall, who has moved that the Bill receive its Second Reading, that, for the sake of clarity and ensuring absolutely no ambiguity, there is an argument that clause 2(1) should be gently amended in Committee to make things so clear that no court could misinterpret what the Minister and I—and, indeed, the hon. Lady—clearly understand to be the correct position.
I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that about three different wordings for clause 2 have already been received. We will certainly ensure that it is as explicit as possible to reflect the intention, which is for a specific vessel, in a specific port, for a specific time period.
That is extremely helpful.
The hon. Lady covered a number of other important points, and she was gracious enough to recognise that it essentially had its genesis some years ago, under the previous Administration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) is very enthusiastic about the core principles of the Bill. He is not with us yet because he is attending the memorial service for Malcolm Wicks, and I know that the House will understand the reason for his absence. However, because we are dealing with an issue that involves profound safety risks—as is clear from the accidents that have occurred in the past—we must ensure that when we amend the legislation we get it absolutely right. Following the Minister’s reassurance about the issue of qualification, I am entirely satisfied by what has been said in good faith, but I hope that we shall be given absolute clarity on the important points that I have raised well before the Bill returns to the House.
Clause 5 has already been referred to by the right hon. Gentleman who represents the Royal Yachting Association—
If the hon. Gentleman is not right honourable, he ought to be. I accept his comments; I was jesting when I said that he represented the RYA. Anyway, he raised a legitimate point about harbour authorities. As I said, there is a complex range of port and harbour authority models, from local authority to private ownership. I want to be certain that a privately owned port, operating in the context of the Bill, is not empowered to act as judge and jury in relation to what happens within its remit.
Yesterday evening I had a very constructive discussion with the hon. Member for South East Cornwall and some of the Minister’s expert officials, and I am extremely grateful for that. I think I understand the position, but, again, I should like further clarification. I assume that it would not be in a harbour authority’s gift to block a vessel’s access unilaterally, unless it was so oversized that it could not get into the port or its cargo could not be handled appropriately there, and that only rarely could a privately owned port authority take restrictive action against the owner of the ship or the cargo.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. First, the obligation that is placed on harbour authorities is placed on all of them, irrespective of the mode of ownership. However, as the Bill clearly states, harbour authorities will be responsible for consulting on any harbour direction that they propose. They will be obligated to identify the correct interested parties, and they must invite them to comment on the proposed direction. If any individuals or groups feel that they have not been adequately listened to in any consultation, they are of course entitled to challenge that direction legally.
That is an extremely helpful intervention. I appreciate that the Minister, for understandable reasons, does not want to be the regulator in this structure, but I am trying to seek reassurance that the small player is not disadvantaged by the mighty corporation here. Can the Minister give comfort to small yachting associations or small ship owners by indicating that if they felt they were being disadvantaged by the regulatory regime being imposed in a particular port, the might of his Department would be there, as a last resort, given that the vehicle of judicial review is a bit pricey, to support David over Goliath—although David did well on his own?
David certainly did do well on his own. The key point that I re-emphasise to the hon. Gentleman is the obligation that harbour authorities, of whatever size, have to parties of whatever size to ensure that they have identified all those legally obligated and interested parties. I am prepared to look at that assurance again in Committee, but I think it is in place.
I was wondering where we were getting to with that point. I listened carefully to the Minister and I welcome that assurance. This is a question of language and whether there needs to be a stop-gap for circumstances where the port is not in public ownership. For publicly owned ports the line of accountability is through the ballot box.
I apologise for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will know that this clause does not affect the open port duty, which provides that any harbour has to have open access for vessels to use the harbour, and to load and unload cargo and passengers. I hope that that will give him comfort that privately owned ports and harbours will not be able to use general rules of direction to prevent competitors from using port facilities.
The hon. Lady has put it succinctly and the Minister needs to consider the extent to which it is necessary to reinforce that by finding a way to express it in the Bill. It may or may not be necessary to do so; this may be sufficiently well established with the concept of open ports. However, as more ports become privately owned institutions the question is raised in my mind about fairness and equity in an important market.
Those were the two substantive points I wished to raise, although the Bill contains a lot more than just them. The hon. Lady has put forward some valuable and important propositions in the Bill. On that basis, I hope my points can be dealt with sensibly in Committee and that there can be consensus that meets not just the needs of the House but the broader opinions held outside it, including those of my constituents. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for meeting me yesterday with the Minister’s officials and I am grateful to the Minister for his extremely helpful assurances about issues that concern people’s safety. We can progress on that basis and I hope we will see the necessary adjustments in Committee.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for introducing the Bill. I do not think that anyone is unaware of how deeply she cares about the maritime industry and it must be a particular pleasure for her to introduce the Bill today.
It is fairly true that, as my hon. Friend said, many of the measures in the Bill appear arcane. That is because we do not see maritime Bills very often. For those of us on the Conservative Benches, that probably goes to prove that industries thrive best when Governments and politicians do not get in their way. Considering the maritime traditions of this country, it is perhaps a great surprise that we do not talk about them more often. I for one value hugely and am well aware of the maritime industry’s contribution to our economy, particularly in the area local to me in Thurrock, where the port of Tilbury and its associated shipping and logistics interests are so significant for jobs and wealth creation.
As my hon. Friend the Minister takes on his new responsibilities, I ask him not to neglect the maritime sector but not to get in its way either.
Does my hon. Friend agree that unlike airport capacity, with which we know we have a problem and with which we are trying to grapple, port capacity is growing rapidly in the UK? That shows the success of the sector. My hon. Friend will know that it is true because of the presence of the largest construction site in Europe next to her constituency in Thurrock.
My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. I know he has been very proud to witness the growth of that new major port facility in his constituency. The emergence of that port further strengthens the role of the Thames and the estuary in our port infrastructure and the ports in my constituency are looking forward to its becoming functional. They do not view it as competition but think that it will strengthen the maritime sector overall. The interesting thing about my hon. Friend’s comparison with aviation is that a lot of heat has been generated about aviation capacity and, as we have said, the maritime industry tends to be neglected by politicians. Sometimes that is a good thing, but when the Mayor of London makes noise about the availability of the Thames estuary as a potential airport location, he has not thought about its impact on the maritime sector. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Transport will consider fully the impact on the shipping and maritime industries of their considerations about airport capacity in the south-east.
I want to focus on clause 7 and the provisions on port police. I draw the House’s attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which records that I am an unpaid adviser to the port of Tilbury police in my constituency. Six port police forces serve the ports of Dover, Felixstowe, Bristol, Liverpool, Tees and Hartlepool and, last but not least, Tilbury. The Port of Tilbury police are the second oldest police force in the country. It is the heir to the port of London Authority police force, which followed on from the Thames River police force, which was ultimately merged with the Metropolitan police. We are proud of our historic role in the development of policing in this country.
The point is that when we talk about port police, we are not talking about something separate from the established police forces that people recognise; we are talking about police constables and their powers. That is why clause 7, which will extend the jurisdiction of port police officers, is so important.
As I mentioned, the need for a change to legislation was identified back in 2008, so for me, the clause is extremely belated, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for including it in her Bill, particularly as the Bill contains a number of provisions; it is ambitious, and it is a tribute to her that she has included so many measures in it.
I am sure that many Members will be surprised to learn that there are separate port police forces. Perhaps it is worth reminding the House, and acknowledging, that there are a number of non-Home Office police forces in the UK. The most well known are probably the Ministry of Defence police and the British Transport police. The role of port police forces is to undertake policing activities in port areas. My local port police force in Tilbury polices an area the same size as the City of London. Those Members who have not been to a port may not realise that ports are big communities in themselves and do need a police function. Port police forces are funded entirely by the ports that they serve; they take no resource from the taxpayer.
The six ports with police forces account for more than 40% of the UK’s non-oil traffic, which means that those police forces are the guardians of millions of pounds-worth of traded goods every year. I mentioned that their responsibility is to police the port area. It is worth saying a little bit about exactly what kind of activity that involves. In the public’s mind, the presence of police in a port would tend to be associated with concerns such as drug smuggling, anti-terrorism and immigration control. Those matters are the responsibility of the UK Border Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and special branch, but the port police work in constructive collaboration with those agencies. That is additional support for Government activities—at, I emphasise again, no cost to the taxpayer. Although these constables are privately funded, they enjoy exactly the same rights, responsibilities and roles as any normal constable. They owe allegiance in a personal capacity to the Crown, and they are sworn in by local magistrates.
Clause 7 extends the jurisdiction of port police constables beyond the existing limit of one mile outside the port area. That one-mile jurisdiction is enshrined in the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act 1847. I am sure that all Members of the House will recognise that our docks were very different places then. They were places of intensive employment, and faced lots of labour issues, more than anything else. Also, the goods coming into the docks would have been a lot less technical and valuable. The pattern of policing has therefore changed. The fact that there is less employment in ports means that crimes tend to be a lot more sophisticated. The suggestion that the crimes and activities that forces will be involved in can be kept within the realms of the port is an historical anachronism.
Looking at what else has happened in the more than 150 years since the 1847 Act, obviously, there have been changes in patterns regarding holding prisoners in custody and the provision of courts. The reality is that when port police officers are prosecuting offenders for crimes in the normal way, through the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts, most of them have to attend courts beyond that one-mile jurisdiction, and by definition, they then do not have their powers as constable while they are in court. It is a bit dangerous to highlight that issue, but the situation needs to be addressed. Having been the best kept secret, since 2008 the press in Dover have realised that the port police there often act beyond their jurisdiction. That fact is out there and needs to be dealt with. A matter addressed in the House can often be the best kept secret, so we can have a frank debate about it.
Port police officers have to travel all over England and Wales to attend courts, but do not have the powers of a constable when they do so. On occasion, officers have attended court, have been directed by judges to arrest people and have had to explain that they do not have the power to do so. It is important for public confidence that we deal with the issue. As port police officers travel outside their port in marked cars, they are a visible presence and the public expect those officers to act and intervene when something happens—for example, if they came across a scene of crime or disorder, or to stop drunk drivers. At present they cannot do so. We have been looking for an appropriate legislative vehicle to deal with this anomaly.
Can my hon. Friend give the House any practical examples where officers have not been able to use their powers, whereas under the changes proposed in the Bill, they would have been able to intervene in a crime or misdemeanour and the outcome would have been different?
I have been told by the chief constables of both Dover and Tilbury police forces that on a number of occasions officers have been asked to intervene, particularly in episodes of disorder such as street assaults, while they have been out on patrol. In practice, their current status has not prevented them from doing so, but they well know that, if challenged, they would not be able to defend their actions in court. The proposed changes would put everybody on a more secure and legitimate footing.
In making the case for the change, I want to highlight the contribution that port police make to national policing priorities. Although port police are dedicated to serving the ports where they operate, they have, as I said, the same powers as other constables, and much of the work that they do in the port is indistinguishable from and complementary to that of Home Office forces. As was said before, they prosecute crimes in the same way as any Home Office force by sending files over to the Crown Prosecution Service with recommendations for prosecution. Let me illustrate that national contribution with a few examples.
The port of Dover police is the largest of our port police forces and its presence at a busy border crossing means that the Home Office relies heavily on services that it provides. The force’s officers often play a role in detaining people subject to football banning orders. They regularly intercept people with histories of violent crime who are attempting to travel. I am advised that in 2010 the port of Dover police arrested 180 people who were wanted by Home Office forces. That illustrates that they are very much part of the fabric of our police infrastructure.
Both the port of Dover and the port of Tilbury have automatic number plate reading systems installed at the ports, which are connected to the police national computer. As a result, nearly 700 vehicles were intercepted in 2010 by just those two port police forces. Almost all those vehicles had had their details circulated by the police national computer from Home Office colleagues across the UK.
In addition, the work of the port police complements that of the local forces. Many port police forces engage in traffic control outside their ports, for example, thereby preventing traffic gridlock as a result of vehicles queuing to get into the ports. It is also worth mentioning that in the event of a major incident, port police forces are ready to support their Home Office colleagues. From my own perspective, given the number of COMAH—control of major accident hazards—sites that exist in my constituency, they are a fantastic additional resource that the Essex police would be able to call on in the event of a major incident. I know that the port of Tilbury police value and attach great importance to their readiness to support them in serious incidents. It is also worth noting the contribution of the port police forces to our successful Olympics this year. They were very much part of the powers to combat terrorism and made a full contribution to public safety.
My hon. Friend gives a glowing account of port police. Does she think that our ports would not be so well policed without them, and, if so, would she recommend that the new port being constructed in my constituency next door to hers by DP World, the London gateway port, would be best served by adopting its own police force, rather than relying on those supplied by the Home Office?
The power of the port police, as opposed to any other supplier of security provision or support, is that they have the powers of a constable. The strength of that, and the support that we give to our police officers, speaks for itself. The port in my hon. Friend’s constituency has reserve powers to create a force if it so wishes, and I would encourage it to do so. My experience of the port of Tilbury police is that, given the amount of high-value commercial activity in a port, there is every opportunity for serious and organised crime, which requires the expertise and dedication of sworn-in police officers to combat that effectively. To be frank, it will give a level of service that contract providers such as G4S would never be able to provide.
I completely endorse that point. In many ways, over the years the port of Belfast police may have made more of a contribution to our national security than any of the other port police forces. The chief constable of the port of Belfast police wants exactly this measure for his force. I would thoroughly encourage the Northern Ireland Assembly and Ministers to engage in whatever is necessary to ensure that these legislative provisions are extended to the port of Belfast police.
The port police do other work in support of Government agencies. For a number of years, port police forces have supported the UK Border Agency in arresting illegal immigrants. We are all well aware of the stories over the years that we have read in our newspapers, particularly concerning Dover, but a number of incidents in Tilbury have also required the port police to arrest illegal immigrants. The port police also assist the Maritime Coastguard Agency by detecting offences contrary to regulations on the carriage of dangerous goods by sea. I emphasise that all this work in support of what the public expect from their police services in protecting the security of our kingdom is done at no cost to the taxpayer.
In practical terms, the legislation will allow the police officers to maintain their powers and privileges of the office of constable beyond the 1 mile jurisdiction. When they attend custody suites with prisoners they will be working on legitimate authority. As I have mentioned, we are aware of occasions when port officers have attended court and been asked to arrest persons. If they do so—and they have done so—they are acting outside the law, which is clearly in no one’s interests and needs to be addressed. Equally, when processing prisoners at custody suites outside their jurisdiction, strictly speaking it is illegal for officers to carry any personal protection, including batons and handcuffs, but if they were not to do that they would obviously be at risk. Again, we need to remove that anomaly.
This change will enable officers going to or returning from an incident to use their powers as constables to deal with crimes in progress rather than simply reporting it to the local force. Clearly, there is an efficiency for local forces if a port police officer can deal with a matter there and then instead of, as in my case, referring the matter to Essex police and waiting for an attending officer. That will enable them to be much more effective in supporting their local officers and will mean that, if called upon to support in a major incident, they will be able to act with the full confidence that they are not acting outside their powers. The important practical point is that it will enable officers to arrest suspects and carry out house searches for offences committed in the port but where the suspects live outside, because otherwise going to an address outside a jurisdiction would obviously mean working outside their authority.
Some Members might be a little nervous that we are extending the jurisdiction, but the existing jurisdiction is well below that of special constables and we should look at it in those terms. Also, the way my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall has presented the relevant clause in the Bill means that the chief officer for the resident Home Office force will have the powers to rescind the right to operate beyond the jurisdiction of 1 mile if he is ever unhappy with the manner in which the port police are operating. The way the Bill is drafted brings no challenge at all to the chief constable in the Home Office force and allows us to maximise the complementary nature of port police officers. I know that the Department for Transport has consulted all the Home Office forces that would be affected by that and all chief constables were positive.
I hope that I have been able to persuade colleagues of the real urgency of tackling this anomaly once and for all, in the interests of security and public confidence in our policing. I hope that the Bill is given a Second Reading, notwithstanding the concerns expressed about other provisions, which I look forward to addressing in Committee.
The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for sharing her expertise on the important work done by the police linked to harbours. We all agree that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) is doing a service to the nation and to those who use our harbours and ports. I will not repeat what we have heard about her expertise and involvement, but I pay tribute to her. I also welcome the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who we have heard was at the memorial service for our former colleague Malcolm Wicks, who was the kind of person who gave politics and political service a good name.
I have no intention of delaying the Bill and want to see it on the statute book. There has clearly been bipartisan agreement about it for some time. Its purposes are necessary and the changes are sensible. I do not think that there is a serous objection to anything in particular, other than the need to sort out what was not clear to the constituent of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), which is that clause 2(1) is an amendment to an Act that is very clear about the person who holds a pilot certificate or is recognised as a competent pilot for one or more vessels. That is a strong and necessary provision that is being continued. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising the point about clause 5, which I will like to speak about shortly.
My maritime experience was gained when I worked my passage back from Brisbane to Liverpool, working 16 hours a day on a 7,000-tonne freighter. Given some of our experiences while crossing the Australian bight, I have a respect for those who go to sea in all weathers, especially on long journeys, and the fishermen who put up with whatever the weather throws at them. At some stage I might write half a chapter for my unread and unwritten autobiography about what can happen when 82 people are on a vessel for seven weeks. Nowadays there would be about 17 people, so half the things that happened would not happen now.
I also think that it is about time we got back to recognising—this is a brief diversion—some of our great maritime stories. I think that the works of Joseph Conrad should be brought back and given the same importance as the present Man Booker nominees, as should those of Somerset Maugham and Erskine Childers, who wrote “The Riddle of the Sands”, which, although written as a warning about possible threats of war, is I think one of the most evocative books ever written about the sea and about sailing, and certainly the most evocative I have read.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his responsibilities and congratulate him on how he has already approached these issues in being willing to intervene in the debate and to say that he will happily meet those with concerns about particular parts of the Bill. That will make a difference.
I am a life member of the Royal Yachting Association, partly to avoid its spotting how bad a sailor I am and saying that it will not renew my membership unless I take another course. The RYA knows perfectly well that when there is an issue that I think it has not got right, I will pursue it, as I did at the last annual general meeting; I pay tribute to how it has responded since.
We have to look at the reasons for its concerns. Nobody expects that the navigation or harbour authorities are going to do anything silly or daft. They carry out their responsibilities in providing navigation aids and controlling safety in and around their harbours in a way that is much appreciated, whether by leisure sailors, commercial traffic or the fishing industry. When I was agriculture Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, one of the happiest times I had was going out fishing from Kilkeel at midnight on one of those very calm nights when the water reflected the moon. Those who smoked had a fag and then pulled in their nets, and about 4 tonnes of fish were landed. It was one of those magical evenings where one can understand the allure of the sea.
My Friend the Minister may say, as no doubt his predecessor will have said before the change of Government, that if an authority is going to do something that is clearly irrational there is the opportunity for a judicial review. Whenever a port authority needs to make an emergency provision, no one is going to argue with its doing so—safety comes first, and there is usually a reason for it.
The issues that come up for consultation are those which will have permanent effect or might create a new criminal offence. There may be a judicial review if the authority, either by its own choice or because it is following a pattern created by other port and harbour authorities, is ignoring the legitimate interests of other people.
It is intended that before any competent harbour authority introduced harbour revision orders or general rules of direction it would consult all users of the area. In Plymouth, the Queen’s harbourmaster has authority over the port of Plymouth, but we have two other major ports in Plymouth sound—Associated British Ports at Millbay docks, and Cattewater harbour, which takes in a tremendous amount of fuel to serve the south-west. We have Brittany ferries using the Millbay docks area, and we have our naval base and dockyard. I am absolutely certain that the Queen’s harbourmaster would not introduce any general rules of direction without consulting Associated British Ports and the Cattewater harbourmaster. In fact, they regularly sit on a committee called the Tamar estuaries consultative forum, which takes account of every interested party before starting to make any rules.
As directed, I am very grateful. My hon. Friend reminds me that the first woman named in the New Testament is Tamar, who appears in the second verse of the first chapter of St Matthew.
My hon. Friend makes the sensible point that people want to do sensible, important and serious things. The Minister has received a letter from the Royal Yachting Association. I will not read it, but I think I am right in saying that it would prefer not to have clause 5. It was withdrawn from what was effectively this Bill when Lord Berkeley introduced it in another place, but it has turned up again. No one is complaining about that, but the question is whether it should stay in. Without making any threatening noises, I shall say that I am sure the Bill would have as easy a passage without it as with it.
We must then consider what is the alternative. One option is for clause 5 to remain as it is, surviving Committee and Report and going to another place, but there are alternatives—it is either in, out or modified.
The RYA put to the Minister a suggestion for its modification for him to take advice on. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, in consultation with the Minister and his advisers—I am sure they are working closely together—might want to see whether the RYA’s suggestion could have what I might call a moderating effect.
If I may, I will spell out what I understand to be the RYA’s position. Clause 5 would modify the provisions on harbour revision orders. As we all know, some harbours already have the power to issue them, obtained through statute or in other ways. Clause 5 would enable harbour authorities in this jurisdiction or the Scottish nation to give general directions to ships, including recreational craft. Members might not expect this, but when I come across the Solent into Portsmouth harbour, my open canoe is classed as a ship, which is a bit grand. That is even better than the promotion that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston gave me when he confused me with my wife.
The power in clause 5 is expressed as applying to ships within, entering or leaving a harbour, and relates to their movement, their mooring, the nature and use of their equipment and the manning of them. As I have been reminded, a pre-consultation requirement is included, stating that a harbour authority should
“consult such representatives of users of the harbour as the authority think appropriate.”
We understand that it will do that properly.
Contravention of a general direction would be a criminal offence. That is not new, but it might apply if a new harbour revision order came in.
I will try to be as helpful to my hon. Friend as I was to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). As my hon. Friend points out, there is a requirement of pre-consultation. Prior to any consultation, the Department would issue directions as to what should be consulted upon. I believe that that potentially covers some of his objections.
We are making progress, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that I will not take all that long, but to aid the process I point out that a number of individual authorities have obtained powers of general direction over the years, starting at the time of les événements, when the permissive society was invented in 1968. Such powers of direction have generally taken the place of byelaws. Unlike directions under clause 5, which harbour authorities could issue, byelaws have to be confirmed by the Secretary of State and are subject to what most people would regard as clear checks and balances in addition to consultation. The current byelaw process involves consultation, so there is nothing new about that. The consultation element is in place already and will remain. The question is about the checks and balances that exist. I am not thinking of accusing any harbour authority of having malevolent wishes towards recreational users or other classes of ship.
I pay tribute to what the RYA does in training young people on the water in motor vessels and sailing craft. It has become a better and better organisation that does more and more good for more people, and if other organisations could do the same thing by training up the young and helping them to become first assistants and then qualified instructors, there would be far more value and purpose among our people on land as well as at sea.
The RYA has become increasingly concerned in recent years about the potential of powers of general direction to be exercised indiscriminately and in a manner that is unnecessary and harmful to the lawful exercise of recreational and other rights. Not every campaign the RYA takes up is wrong—in fact, nearly every campaign I have seen it run was right, and I admire the way in which it works with the British Marine Federation. They provide in partnership, without overlap, a seamless approach to the law and the use of our waters.
Let me give a list of some of the questions considered by the RYA about the powers of general direction, and whether they are fully merited. There are some powers that everyone can accept, but whether they are sufficiently merited to be unqualified or without the moderation that I hope the Minister will mention is a matter for debate.
Making general directions involves the creation of new criminal offences, which local harbour authorities may be seen as ill-equipped to do. Even democratically elected local authorities, in their other roles, do not normally have powers to create criminal offences, and the Bill contains none of the supervisory safeguards usually imposed on law-making bodies. This may be political theology or philosophy, but why should a harbour authority be different from a local authority?
The powers of general direction can be seen as running counter to the Government’s localism policy by granting an unelected harbour authority law-making powers that are not subjected to democratic checks and balances and full transparency. Most of us could argue that because harbour authorities exist for a particular purpose, and because those who are appointed to harbour authorities are there to provide expertise and a contribution, we should not be too worried about that. One should put it on the record that those people are not democratically elected, and the localism agenda is not just about saying that we are not going to do things in Whitehall—or in my day, the Department for Transport on Marsham street—but that things will be done locally by locally elected people. I do not criticise the harbour authorities for not being elected, but there is a distinction.
Under the power, general directions could be made over the wide areas used by recreational and commercial traffic in a disproportionate manner, without proper risk assessment or consideration of the full implications or possible alternatives. They could be used to impose significant and potentially burdensome restrictions on the navigational use of recreational craft. Many harbour authorities have jurisdiction over substantial areas going out to sea, not just partially enclosed harbour areas. Again, I do not want any hon. Member who arrives late to the debate to think that I am attacking the harbour authorities. I am just asking what protections there could be, and whether we need a system in which the potential for things to go wrong could be anticipated and perhaps built into the legislation.
There have been past examples—this is not about harbour authorities and harbour revision orders—where some in government picked up the idea, wrongly in my view, that small recreational craft could start contributing to light dues. We all get the benefit from navigation, but how on earth do we get a person—me in my Mirror dinghy, or one of my sons, daughters or granddaughters in their craft—to contribute to that? There is a question of where to draw the line, but at some stage it must be drawn some way away from ordinary recreational craft that might, under this legislation, be regarded as ships.
Yes, and were this a slightly different debate I would be paying tribute to Trinity House for what it does.
I have two more points on this general issue. Prior consultation has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, and by our hon. Friend the Minister, but we must ask whether that is an adequate safeguard. Experience shows that across the public and private sectors, inappropriate or flawed decisions sometimes follow prior consultation. We can get things wrong, whatever hat we wear.
Because reference was made to judicial review, we must ask whether it is an adequate remedy against an objectionable direction when powers are expressed without significant limitations, as in clause 5. We can presume that any procedural or substantive illegality to provide for a cause for action is highly unlikely, and an authority could just say, “I’ve consulted. I’m not convinced. I’m not going change my mind.”
The adjudication procedure, which the Minister might talk about, could allow interested people to require, in limited circumstances, the harbour authority to obtain an independent report on issues arising before deciding to proceed, to ensure that the designated harbour authority’s case for the exercise of the power includes recreational interest concerns, and to ensure that it is fully explained and documented, and subject to independent and objective examination.
Clearly, the designated harbour authority would retain ultimate discretion and authority to proceed with proposed directions having considered the independent person’s report. A decision by the designated harbour authority would be open to legal challenge only if it is patently perverse to allow it to proceed, when the courts and judicial review become involved. The fact that concerns me is that the cost of formal legal proceedings and getting a fair hearing would act as a spur to persuade interested bodies, including the RYA and other stakeholder interests, to accept decisions. As I said earlier, if a direction is issued in an emergency, the consultation could not take place, although the procedure may be applied retrospectively if the direction given in an emergency or at short notice is likely to turn into a permanent or long-standing requirement.
I am advised that the procedure has been applied under the Broads Authority Act 2009, which is a precedent. Hon. Members are keen on precedents, although the House of Commons has “Erskine May”, which is full of things that had not happened before or that were blocked for the first time. A similar provision is included in the recently published draft Cowes harbour revision order, but the Poole Harbour Revision Order 2012 was made without such a provision, because, as I understand it, the Poole Harbour Commissioners objected to its inclusion. The RYA makes it clear that such a provision provides a worthwhile, and some would say essential, safeguard that ought to be applied more generally. I agree. The RYA expressed its concerns to representatives of the port industry and the Government before the 2010 general election in response to the Government’s consultation on a draft maritime navigation Bill in 2008.
Clearly, the Bill has been improved by that consultation, and I hope it will be improved as a result of my remarks. I am grateful to the House for listening to me with kindness, but more importantly, for listening with admiration to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall.
May I offer my apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker, for wearing my “Malcolm Wicks Vote Labour” sticker in the Chamber? As a number of hon. Members have said, it was his memorial today, so it is appropriate that he is with us in the Chamber, where he did such great work over 20 years. I also apologise to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), whose Bill we are debating, for missing her speech. Naturally, I will read her comments in Hansard, and I am sure I will hear her voice when I do so.
I am grateful to the shadow deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), for his assistance, for allowing me to be absent to go to Malcolm’s memorial, and for nursing my prepared remarks in the hope that he would not have to deliver them, which fortunately he will not.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing the Bill. The Commons Library note, which was produced by the excellent Ms Louise Butcher, states:
“The Bill recreates many of the provisions in the Labour Government’s 2008 draft Marine Navigation Bill”.
The Opposition would therefore look a bit foolish if we opposed it, although, as the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, the measure has aged and improved.
Our only concern with the Bill is on pilot exemption certificates. I have had discussions with the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) about this issue. Having arrived in the middle of my hon. Friend’s remarks, I know that the Minister was able to give strong reassurances about the concerns raised by the UK Maritime Pilots Association, and I am grateful to Captain Cockrill and his colleagues for their assistance in preparing for this debate. On the basis of the assurances that the Minister has given, I am sure that we will be able to support the Bill and reassure those who are worried about retaining and maintaining the skill and qualification levels of those responsible for the safe passage of vessels in and around the UK.
The Library, in the notes on page 5, gives a clear background to this critical issue, explains the development of pilot exemption certificates and reminds us that, at the time of their introduction, the Transport Select Committee expressed some concern. I greatly welcome the reassurances that the Minister has given today on these serious matters. We will, obviously, have the chance to return to the issue in Committee so that those reassurances can be reinforced, but it is helpful to know the Government’s position today.
On the other clauses of the Bill, we look forward to examining the clauses on harbour authorities further in Committee. The hon. Member for Worthing West has adequately dealt with those and raised questions from the Royal Yachting Association and the British Marine Federation, but the measures appear to represent positive steps forward. Clause 7 looks like a sensible move to acknowledge a better way of working for ports police, where they exist, and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) ably explained to the House why this is needed. Had we been able to do so, we would have done this in government, so we are grateful to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall and the coalition.
In clauses 8, 9 and 11, general lighthouse authorities would be given added freedoms and responsibilities, which are overdue and supported by Trinity House. I am grateful to Deputy Master Captain Ian McNaught for his briefing. Anything that addresses the industry’s angst about the charges levied for light dues and allows the GLAs to continue with their excellent work is very welcome.
My only pedantic point is on clause 10, and I wish to mark my discomfort with the word “manning” in the 21st century. We are talking about crew numbers here, and if it were not for the fact that the Bill quotes previous Acts, I would suggest that “crewing” would be a much better and more accurate term. Given the number of women at sea these days, “manning” is very 19th and early 20th century language. I am not known for being overly politically correct, but sometimes we need to look at our language and bring it into the 21st century.
We support the Bill, although we will want to look at every clause in Committee. I look forward to hearing from the Minister. The last time I saw him was yesterday evening at the champagne reception to mark the opening of the excellent new headquarters of the Chamber of Shipping in SE1 next to London bridge. He gave a good speech on behalf of the coalition and I look forward to his remarks in support of the Bill.
We have had a fascinating 90-minute nautical exploration this morning. We were safely taken out of harbour by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), and I am pleased that she has been able to introduce this Bill because I met her several times when I had this role in opposition and she was campaigning for the fisheries industry. She and her family have devoted their lives to the marine and maritime industries through both tragedy and good times, and I congratulate her on her success in the ballot.
With the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), we skirted round choppy waters—we avoided sailing right into them—and I shall say more about his contribution in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) is of course right that my role should not be to neglect this issue, but nor should it be to get in the way of the maritime industry. I shall address her remarks about clause 7 later in my speech. I know that the knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the maritime environment of the Isle of Wight is extensive. He could pilot anything into certain parts of Seaview and Bembridge. But he is right, of course. If his autobiography is as well written as “The Riddle of the Sands”, it will go down as a literary tribute. If he will allow me, I will address some of his remarks when I discuss clause 5.
The maritime industry carries out its activities every day without fanfare or demand, but, as was pointed out at last night’s event, where I drank copious amounts of tomato juice, all too often, as people eat their lamb or take their car to the continent for holiday, or if they are wealth creators in manufacturing, it is taken for granted that the finished goods will either be imported or exported around the world, while the mechanism by which that occurs is not always appreciated. Far too many people take the maritime industry for granted, but I know that many in the House, including those who have contributed to this debate, do not. It is an industry that works come rain, wind or shine.
I was delighted to attend the British Chamber of Shipping event and to visit Felixstowe this week to see a port operating and securing the future of UK plc. I recognise the vital contribution that the industry makes to the UK, its living standards and its prosperity, and it is right that nothing be done to hinder the safety of anyone working in it. Everything in the Bill is intended to ensure their safety. I recognise the hard work that the employees and those who work self-employed at ports and on the ships contribute every day to keeping this country moving and competitive. I also recognise the managers whose freight operations ensure the most streamlined and efficient operation of ports. That is important not only for the maritime industry but for our country as a whole.
With that in mind, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for introducing her Bill. I am aware of its antecedents and the hard work done then. The Bill will not only ensure that the UK’s impeccable safety record is maintained but, more importantly, will help to make the industry ever more efficient in its day-to-day activities and ensure that we have an industry fit for the 21st century.
I do not intend to speak at length about every clause, because my hon. Friend has already put the case extraordinarily eloquently. A few issues have been raised during the clause-by-clause examination, about some of which I hope I have reassured hon. Members sufficiently to ensure the Bill’s safe passage to Committee, but none the less let me put on record some comments about each clause. Clauses 1 to 4 cover pilotage, the pilotage exemption certificate and the removal of pilotage powers that are no longer required. My hon. Friend has given a detailed account of the pilotage profession, its high level of proficiency and independent thinking, and the knowledge of the ports, their waters and local conditions that all pilots require.
Clearly, my knowledge does not compare with my hon. Friend’s in this matter, and I cannot add much, other than by observing that pilotage is a tradition and an industry stretching back almost 3,000 years to ancient Greek and Roman times, when pilots were local fishermen employed by ships’ captains to bring vessels into port. UK pilotage custom, practice and legislation are more modern than they were 3,000 years ago and are governed by the Pilotage Act 1987.
Many ports and harbours have a long and distinguished tradition dating back hundreds of years, but I will resist the temptation to give a history lesson on every port and harbour, and their distinguished traditions. As several people have pointed out, however, trading patterns change and ships are much larger than they used to be. Change is driven by improvements, economies of scale and advancements in ship-building technology. It is clear that where a port or harbour operates purely for leisure craft or small shipping vehicles, the need for pilotage might have been overtaken by events and knowledge might have improved. I welcome the proposals, therefore, to enable facilities to relinquish some of their obligations under the Pilotage Act.
Let me turn to the exemption certificates. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall identified the Pilotage Act 1987 as the umbrella legislation that covers marine pilotage operations. I agree with her assertion that the 1987 Act could benefit from an update in relation to such certificates, because it is some 25 years since it was passed. None the less, it is clearly right to address the concerns that have rightly been expressed on behalf of the pilots association and by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on behalf of his constituent. I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman in respect of section 8 of the Pilotage Act 1987, which clearly states that competent harbour authorities can issue exemption certificates only when they are certain that the applicant’s
“skill, experience and local knowledge are sufficient for him to be capable of piloting the ship”.
I hope that in my other interventions I was able to reassure him on the other issues he raised.
Competent harbour authorities are responsible for the operation of their ports. They know the types of ships that call, they know the geography of their sea beds, they know their tidal patterns and they know their ports. Currently, competent harbour authorities are responsible for the pilotage services provided at their facilities. They can choose the pilots who provide the services at their ports, requiring specific skills and experience of those who ply that trade. Competent harbour authorities can already issue pilotage exemption certificates to masters and first mates who know a port well. Such certificates enable an individual to bring a ship into a specified facility without the need for a pilot, and the requirements for the holder, in terms of knowledge, skills and experience, are the same as for full-time pilots.
I therefore believe that competent harbour authorities are well placed to decide which members of a ship’s crew they issue a pilotage exemption certificate to. Competent harbour authorities are, after all, experienced in this field and know the navigable hazards of their facilities best. Moreover, we should enable competent harbour authorities to recognise the skills and knowledge of those who have driven themselves to achieve the required standards, through the granting of a pilotage exemption certificate. Clauses 1 to 4 further strengthen competent harbour authorities’ administration of the certificate process, enabling the easier withdrawal of certificates and introducing stronger pilotage reporting requirements. The proposals therefore clearly seek to strike a balance between right deregulation and maintaining high standards of maritime safety.
Clauses 5 and 6 deal with some of the issues that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised, as well as those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West. Let me try to give my hon. Friend some reassurance. As he rightly said, the Royal Yachting Association has indeed expressed a number of concerns. Some were similar to those it expressed in 2008. My Department has looked at a number of them, and we will be responding in Committee. None the less, although we have discussed the issue of consultation and guidance from the Department, I think the crux of what my hon. Friend was saying today is this. In the response to the 2008 consultation, the Royal Yachting Association proposed that an independent adjudication procedure and process be provided in the Bill. Where I think he wants reassurance is on the question of why the Bill does not do that, for which there are several reasons. First, the Bill is not only about marine safety, but about simplification and deregulation. There is little evidence that the authorities that already have the power to give general directions do so unreasonably, although to be fair, my hon. Friend acknowledged that point.
Just as I was standing in front of an open goal!
As I have said, harbour authorities will be required to consult users and stakeholders before making general directions, and it would be sensible of them to hold informal discussions with those bodies before the formal consultations. The Department will provide guidance. Some Members asked whether the process of judicial review was too expensive, but it exists none the less. I have agreed to meet representatives of the RYA with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and my officials, and I hope that we shall be able to give them even more reassurance before the Committee stage.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure the House is as well. The RYA representatives may say that they are looking forward to the meeting as well, and are expecting the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall to agree to what they want. I hope that all parties will be asking themselves what they are trying to achieve, and what is the best way of making a minor modification to the clause if it is not to be dropped altogether.
If it is felt that the clause should be retained—for the purpose of simplification, as the Minister sensibly said—it might be worth considering provision for an independent report. No one is suggesting that there should be an independent report on every possible harbour revision order, because most are uncontroversial; the need arises only when an order becomes controversial, or when there is a clash of interests.
I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, and I shall ensure that my officials and I go to the meeting in the spirit that he desires. He is right to say that everyone wants to deal with the clause constructively.
As I said in an earlier intervention, and also a moment ago, some harbour authorities have powers of general direction through private Acts of Parliament or through the harbour revision orders, while others do not. Such general directions are used to control vessels and improve safety. The Bill enables the Secretary of State for Transport to make an order giving a named harbour the power to make general directions in respect of ships. I think that that is a welcome measure, which will have the potential to place all harbour authorities on a similar footing in terms of order-making powers to control their harbours using general directions. As for the harbour closure proposals, it seems sensible to me to allow port and harbour facilities that are no longer economically viable to be closed in order to prevent a continued financial drain on their owners.
Many navigation authorities are on inland waterways, which may not be within the scope of the Bill. Might they constitute inactive responsible authorities, and might they be covered by the clause? I do not expect the Minister to answer my question immediately, but perhaps he would be kind enough to write to my hon. Friend and me at a later stage.
I will indeed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock made an extraordinarily powerful speech about clause 7. She not only guided us through the history of the Port of Tilbury authority—I shall use that information for a question in my constituency pub quiz later—but drew attention to the Bill’s antecedent of 2008, and welcomed the present Bill.
As my hon. Friend said, knowledge of the powers of the port police and what should be required of them in the 21st century is limited. She gave examples of the anachronistic nature of the law as it applies to them: it certainly does not cover the needs and requirements of the 21st century. She rightly observed that their role often went well beyond their present tightly defined remit, involving traffic control, the ability to work with local police forces in trying to control episodes of disorder, and the additional resource that they provide in other contexts as and when directed by local forces. They should, of course, also feature on the roll of honour celebrating the great performance of public servants and volunteers during the Olympics. She rightly recognised and forcefully made the point that clause 7 will put the ports police on the same footing as other police. It is right that it does so, and I look forward to the clause being widely welcomed in Committee.
The Bill does not limit itself to the matters of shipping and port activity; it also seeks to enable the general lighthouse authorities to trade more freely in the commercial sector. My hon. Friend gave us a pub quiz question, so before I comment on that legislation, may I, in that same spirit, tell her some things of which she may not be aware? The oldest lighthouse in existence is indeed in these islands, at Hook Head, in south-east Ireland—the tower, with additions and modifications, dates back to Norman times; Trinity House has been in existence for 500 years; the Northern Lighthouse Board recently celebrated the bicentenary of its iconic Bell Rock lighthouse; and the Commissioners of Irish Lights provides marine aids to navigation across the whole of Ireland—it is symbolic of what the UK and Ireland can achieve through working together. The enactment of this clause will not only enable the general lighthouse authorities to minimise their operational costs through the generation of additional income, but will help the Commissioners of Irish Lights in its drive to be self-funding in the Republic by 2015-16.
I, too, am aware of the commercial activities that the general lighthouse authorities undertake. They also pool their limited spare capacity to undertake commercial work where they can, a good example of which is the help they give the Met Office in maintaining deepwater buoys. The clause that my hon. Friend has promoted will enable the three general lighthouse authorities to enter into commercial agreements more easily, and trade on their good names.
I take the stricture of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) about the phraseology of clause 10; he rightly says that it refers to a previous Bill. I take his point, and nothing should be inferred from that phraseology. Clauses 10 and 11 are the other substantive clauses in this Bill, and they represent a sensible approach to tying up administrative loose ends for the lighthouse authorities and removing some of the bureaucracy involved in making new regulations on manning or crewing requirements, which is costly for both private enterprise and the Government.
The Bill has had widespread support. A number of issues have been raised, on which I hope we have been able to reassure hon. Members. If not, I hope that we will be able to do so in Committee. So I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for introducing this legislation and I commend her Bill. I hope that hon. Members will agree with my assertion that it should be taken forward to Committee, and I look forward to its passage on to the statute book.
I thank hon. Members for the support I have received today on Second Reading. I wish to mention the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is not in her place, on how the clauses on the port police will help not only coastal communities but inland communities. I hope that we have given the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who has long-standing experience in marine issues, the reassurance he needed that we will examine clause 2(1) in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) has superb expertise in the area of the port police, and I know that since she has been in this place she has worked extremely hard for her constituents to try to get something established. I hope that I will be able to draw on some of her expertise in Committee.
It was also good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), who talked about the expansion of the port in his constituency. I hope we might be able to give him some assistance if his port decides to introduce its own port police force.
It was a privilege and an honour to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). He is a long-standing Member of this House with great expertise in transport and he spoke with knowledge as a member of the RYA. I gratefully take on board his suggestion and I hope that he, too, is reassured that we will consider in Committee the points he raised.
I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the Minister for their contributions today and for their support in taking the Bill forward.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to all those people who go to sea on big ships and little ships. They do so much to support our great island nation but they often do not receive the recognition they are due.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
First, let me put on record my tribute to Malcolm Wicks, the celebration of whose life was held today. He was a man of great principle and a good personal friend who will be sadly missed. I can say honestly that he was not just respected but deeply and fondly respected by Members on both sides of the House.
I welcome the new Minister for Immigration to his place, although I must say that this is not an immigration or migration Bill. It is interesting that until a week ago we were corresponding with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I have in my hand a letter from the then Under-Secretary, which states that
“BIS recently consulted on proposals to improve corporate narrative reporting. As part of that we sought views on making it explicit that quoted companies should consider human rights issues in reporting. We are working up final proposals on reporting and hope to announce them later this year.”
I do not know why the Bill has been transferred to the Minister for Immigration, but that is not to say that it is devoid of immigration issues—the berries we get in our supermarkets and the production of the “Big Mac” chickens that were proudly boasted of as being “all British” at the Olympics but turned out to be run by gangmasters who hired a gang of subcontractors that treated people like animals and stole from them and who are now being taken to court by Her Majesty’s tax officers for taking tax off people and not paying it. I have talked to people who tell that me the conditions for people who harvest the asparagus from Peru that can be bought in our supermarkets are beyond what one would expect in any country. So, there are immigration issues for the UK.
Professor Gary Craig of the Wilberforce institute in Hull is at this moment preparing a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The subjects studied include forced labour among Chinese migrants to this country, forced labour in Northern Ireland, the regulatory and legal frameworks surrounding forced labour and a report entitled “The experience of forced labour in the food industry” that was launched in the House of Commons in mid-May and took a field-to-fork approach. They raise questions about migration in the UK, but the Bill is not about migration and the UK.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The Home Office and I have the lead in Government on combating human trafficking, on which I work closely with colleagues across Government. Indeed, only yesterday we published our interdepartmental report on combating human trafficking. Perhaps that is why it was felt to be appropriate for me to lead on the Government’s response to his Bill.
That explains why the Government need a pair of specs to look at what the Bill is about. It is not about human trafficking. There may be elements of human trafficking within it, but it is about the exploitation of humanity. It is about modern-day slavery; that does not require people to be trafficked across the world, but may include trafficking across the world.
Professor Craig goes on in his report to talk about major supermarkets, and asks how they can
“sell flowers or vegetables sourced from thousands of miles away (e.g. Asparagus from Peru) at prices which cannot possibly reflect appropriate labour costs”.
“These major retailers generally claim that their own practices are ethical and that they try ‘as far as possible’ to ensure that the practices of those who supply them…are also ethical”,
but how much do they try?”
No. I do not take many interventions. I do not have much time, because people treated the previous Bill as though they were in Committee and spoke at great length and in detail, when they should have done so in Committee. Not a lot of time is left for me to speak, or for others who wish to speak on the Bill.
The question is how ethical suppliers are. Professor Craig said:
“Despite a number of campaigns, there is little doubt that the products of slave labour abroad end up on the High Street of all our communities”.
The purpose of the Bill is to deal with that.
I bow to the Foreign Secretary’s knowledge of the thoughts of William Wilberforce, on which he expounded in his excellent book. He wrote time and again that Wilberforce said that he would not be turned aside from his campaign on slavery 200 years ago. The Bill aims at addressing the modern-day version of the slavery that Wilberforce thought he had eradicated 200 years ago.
Last night in the House of Commons, on anti-slavery day, we had a meeting of people who support the Bill, including its Conservative sponsor, the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). It is no coincidence that a large number of faith-based organisations joined the civil organisations supporting the Bill. Clearly, they all know that I am a humanist and do not have a religion, but the Right Rev. Albert Bogle, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, came down specifically to speak in support of the Bill. The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility, representing 19 ethical investment companies, came to speak. Fair Pensions and the Fairshare Educational Foundation, the Ethical Investment Association, and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales were represented at last night’s meeting in support of the Bill.
Unseen UK was there; it has launched the “Walk Free” petition, which is gathering signatures at a rate of 10,000 a day. A young organisation with which I was very impressed, the Global Poverty Project, is negotiating contacts with the fashion industry to challenge it on how it brings to the high street goods that may have been sewn together by people who are getting a pittance wage and living in terrible conditions. Not many people would buy those goods if, when they walked into these fancy stores, the label stated, “This garment is made by slave labour.” I wish that organisation well.
The Institute for Human Rights and Business was also represented at the meeting, because the business community is interested in this. There were about 20 other civic society organisations there, too, and I thank them all. We pledged last night that this campaign would go on. If the Bill is talked out today, it is coming back. This issue is not going away. The campaign will go on, as Wilberforce did in his struggles, until he changed the attitude of his country, and then the world, to the abuse of people moved, as slaves, from Africa to other parts of the world.
Anthony Steen was also there. I pay great tribute to him. He is the founder and director of the Human Trafficking Foundation. If ever there was a cause for a knighthood, it is what Anthony Steen has done in this field alone. I also commend the all-party group on human trafficking, and Parliamentarians against Human Trafficking, a group with members from all parts of Europe, and wider Europe, who met in this House on Tuesday and Thursday to talk about human trafficking. The Bill does not contradict what the Human Trafficking Foundation is about, but it is not only about that; it is complementary to it.
In attempting to get the Bill through, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, because people have done so much, from Wilberforce right through to the modern day. I say “giants”; for some people, the EU is one of those giants. I notice the presence of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who may intervene; he may see the EU as a large body, rather than a giant. It is interesting that, in December 2012, the European Commission will launch its draft guidance to employment and recruitment agencies operating worldwide. It is talking about how best to implement the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights. It is important that those who support the recruitment and employment industry, and who also want to see better standards to ensure that bottom feeders do not exploit workers, engage in this process. I commend the company, Manpower, which has spent five years auditing its supply chain right down to the lowest level. Its managing director speaks out strongly on the subject. He spoke on behalf of those who put through the Bill similar to this one in the California legislature, where such auditing is now law.
Talking about giants, it is interesting that President Obama last week called modern-day slavery
“a debasement of our common humanity.”
He spoke about
“the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name—modern slavery.”
There are giants in the field and I am happy to step up on their shoulders.
When we are talking about a Bill to do with trade and business, not just to do with migration, it is interesting that when the FairPensions campaign for responsible investment and the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility wrote a letter, they wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. At my suggestion they copied it to the new Minister for Immigration, but only because we had found out that the Minister for Immigration, rather than the Business Secretary, would reply to the Bill.
What is the purpose of the Bill? It is to create a framework that large companies can use to review the contract arrangements that they have entered into for the supply of their goods and services, and by including services we extend beyond the California Act. It is interesting that in the discussions last night, many of the organisation said, yes, that includes public procurement —the £9 billion of public procurement contracts that this Government give out. They must audit, right down to the roots.
It has been embarrassing when organisations have been found to have people working in their buildings who do not have the right to be in the UK and who come in with gangs of workers. I work very late at night in this building. I go home at 1 am or 2 am because I like working in the evening. I have often tried to speak to the people who work here in the lifts. Many of them cannot speak English. That does not mean that they are not legal immigrants, but when Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London he reckoned that 500,000 people live in London illegally. The Government give no subsidy to London for their education or other services. Those people are exploited because they have no right to be here, so they can be paid poor wages or kept in terrible conditions.
The growth of TB in London is attributed to the fact that people are living in such terrible conditions, and to the fact that they are afraid to get treatment because they would then be sent back home. That is a problem common to large conurbations in this country and others.
The Bill represents a challenge, but not a threat. It is not a big stick to beat companies. It aims to encourage companies to seek transparency from their suppliers and from those who supply their suppliers, right back to the first transaction moved by their finances and their sale of products and services. It is an invitation also to raise the ethical standards of their trade. That is what Wilberforce was about. It was not necessary to have enslavement in order to have trade. The Bill aims to lead the fight to eradicate the incentives to enslave men, women and children, just to shave a small percentage off the price of goods and services in the UK.
We hope that that invitation will be taken up because it is an opportunity to win the right to display a sort of kite mark. That is what is happening in California, where companies are saying, “We have audited, we are ethical, we are proud of being ethical. Buy our goods and services because they are worth something extra.” That is what I want to see companies looking for—pride and marketing value, such as the Body Shop brand, which was clearly not tested on animals and became an example of ethical production. That changed the view of the purchaser and of other companies in the high street so that they could match the achievement and win in that market also.
How can the Bill do this? We are following the California Act, which was mentioned by President Obama. Clause 1 says who should do it and for what purpose. Companies with annual receipts of more than £100 million worldwide should disclose what they have found. The phrasing of subsection (2) is clumsy. It refers to
“the worst forms of child labour”.
We have had to stick to that wording, which is defined in article 3 of the International Labour Organisation’s convention No. 182. That refers to
“work which exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse…work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces…work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads…work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise level and vibrations damaging to their health…work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work where the child is unreasonably confined in the premises of the employer.”
Is there any hon. Member here, or any member of the Government, who does not want to oppose those worst forms of child labour? I do not think so. Do people want to buy products that they know have been made in that way? Remember the scandal when during the Beijing Olympics children were shown sewing leather footballs that were sold in Europe for a vast profit. There have been exposures again and again of women locked up in factories in Malaysia, not paid, not fed and not allowed to go home, making garments that end up on our high streets. Those are the things that the Bill asks companies to seek out and do something about.
Clause 2 is about disclosure. Companies must disclose on their website and in their annual report what they find. If they do not have a website, they must produce a report within 30 days on what they have found in their supply chain. Is that so much to ask? I do not think so. That is asking companies to look closely at what is happening in their name, with their money, on behalf of their customers. There is a movement out there that wants to see us trading ethically. Fair Trade is the beginning, but ethical trade is the end, and that is what is coming to us. If we go to meet it, we will be applauded; if we do not, we will be abused and put down as being people who do not really care because we still think that it does not matter as long as UK plc makes a buck. That is no longer what the public want.
Clause 2(3) is about what will be disclosed and how—the methodology. It is the same methodology as set out in the California Act, which has now been embraced by many companies. Interestingly, 40 multinationals from the UK trade in California and will have to go through this process if they wish to do business there. Many of the companies will, I hope, then be able to lead the way in the UK. I have had letters of support from BP and from the people who bought the 26 sites in olefins and derivatives from BP, INEOS. We have companies saying that they want to see the Bill through because they are willing to do this. So we have the audit of suppliers and direct suppliers and setting up internal accountability standards, providing companies’ employees and management with direct responsibility for the supply chain, with the accountability to reply and report on the supply chain right down to the bottom. That is all very sensible.
Clause 3 states that when the company finds people who are being abused in these ways, it must then seek out ways to assist them. It states that it
“shall take action necessary and appropriate to assist people who have been victims and shall report on that action in their annual reports”
That is a very sensible requirement. Companies do say, “Yes, we have done it. We are ethical. We do not have any problems.” But if someone finds that they are not ethical, they are found to be denying very publicly the audit that should have taken place. I remember going round companies—some Government Members may not like this—with a lot of stickers always in my pocket showing a skull and crossbones and saying “Contaminated by apartheid”. It may be that eventually, when companies are denying what they are doing in the supply chain, people will be putting stickers on their goods saying, “Contaminated by child slavery”, or “Contaminated by slavery”. Then they may have to look again at what they are doing when they say that they are doing everything correctly.
The Bill might be talked out today, but it is coming back. It will not go away. If the Government had the courage to give the lead to UK businesses, those businesses can still win the markets, but they can also win the next stage of Wilberforce’s campaign as set out 200 years ago and challenge and help to eradicate modern day slavery.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) on his speech and on taking the Bill forward. I am delighted and proud to be one of the 11 sponsors from five parties, including no fewer than three colleagues who are all named Jim—I am not quite sure of the significance, but I felt that it was worth placing that on the record.
I was first recruited to this admirable cause by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) when she brought in a ten-minute rule Bill along the same lines, and it was then taken up by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk in his excellent Bill before us today. I know that he, like me, will be disappointed if it does not proceed to Committee, but it has been given an airing today, as he rightly said, and I am sure that we are all grateful to the Government for having made certain that that would happen.
There was some confusion over the question of human trafficking in relation to the Bill. Human trafficking is certainly one of the concerns covered, but it is neither the Bill’s exclusive focus, nor even its main focus. The main focus of the Bill, as became apparent in the hon. Gentleman’s speech, was brought out at yesterday evening’s reception, which I was pleased to attend. We heard some horrifying tales about what actually goes on overseas in the unsupervised chain of production for many products we see on supermarket shelves, often without the knowledge of not only consumers, but the companies selling the goods. It is therefore also in the interests of the companies and their reputations that they should make an effort to investigate the chain of production for the products they sell so that no one would be tempted to go around marking them on their shelves as having been contaminated by the ruthless exploitation of child labour or that of other impoverished people.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the Bill has a light touch. It would affect only very large companies, companies that have the resources to carry out the sorts of examinations and checks that would assure them and their consumers that the goods being sold had not been created as a result of an unendurable chain of human suffering. I think that I am right in saying that BP is an example of a major company that, although very tough-minded, has nevertheless seen it as appropriate to adopt such measures. If BP can adopt such measures, that sets a good example for other large companies to do likewise.
I will not give way, for a reason I am just about to explain.
While talking of setting good examples, I would like to say that there are times for long speeches and times for short speeches. This is a time for short speeches. I look to hon. Members on the Back Benches and on both Front Benches to follow my good example and make short speeches so that this worthy Bill can proceed as it should to Committee.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has brought forward a noble Bill that, in its intention and motivation, is of the highest standards this House ever reaches. As he said, it continues in the tradition of Wilberforce’s campaign to eradicate the slave trade and then slavery throughout the British empire. I believe that the Act of Parliament that finally eradicated slavery throughout the empire was passed three days before Wilberforce’s death, so he was able to see that moment.
I hope that it will not take quite so long for this Bill to be passed and that the hon. Gentleman will see very many years go by after his aim of getting slavery taken out of the practices of multinational companies has been achieved.
As a general rule, I am not in favour of imposing extra regulations on business. We need to have a competitive and free market with companies that can trade. I am very suspicious of fair trade as against free trade. Fair trade often means protectionism by another name—choosing one’s preferred people as opposed to those who are most competitive—and cutting out the poorest in favour of those who are good at filling out bureaucratic forms. We should always be careful when we consider doing anything that might encumber free trade or put burdens on business. We must remember that when burdens are put on business, it is not the profits of the multinationals that suffer but the electorate—often the poorest of our electorate—who find that their prices go up.
Within any advocation of free trade there must be some limits. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proud Christian tradition of opposing slavery in all its forms. Going back to my O-levels, I remember studying the letter of St Paul to Philemon, which sets out the Christian case for opposition to slavery. In the Roman empire, slavery was perfectly legal and legitimate. There was no reason to oppose it; it was part of the status quo. The young, burgeoning Christian community lived within that—they had to. They were persecuted enough already without taking on one of the foundations of the Roman empire. St Paul, writing in prison to Philemon, who is a Christian, about his slave who may have escaped, tells him to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother, not as a slave—not as a piece of property but as somebody of worth and value equal even to a Roman citizen. That has set the path, followed by Wilberforce and others, to ensuring that as a nation we have done whatever we can for the past 200 years—after a pretty shameful history beforehand, it has to be admitted—to ensure that slavery is not part of the system of global trade and not something from which British companies profit.
So what is the right level of burden to put on companies—multinationals—that are facing this problem? First, there is the question of their own consciences. Before legislating, we should always see whether companies already take the view that something is fundamentally wrong and has no place in their supply chains. That is a good starting point. With the growth of international trade, many big companies will have major intermediary suppliers. They will not deal with thousands and thousands of small suppliers across the globe but have intermediaries they are able to go to. Those intermediaries should be able to assure the companies that they themselves do not use any improper forms of labour—slaves or children—in the production of the goods that are sold.
We then need to go to the next stage and look at the companies that are supplying to the intermediaries. There may be many thousands of companies, some of which are very small or in very remote parts. My professional background has been in investing in emerging markets. While I have been doing this, the number of emerging markets that have come into the investable framework has been growing. Countries of extreme poverty are now beginning to come into the global system, and auditing them efficiently and properly would be a pretty onerous task to put on to businesses. However, in relation to slavery, it is almost certainly a right and moral one for us to adopt.
The situation that companies will face is one that I have faced as an investment manager in looking at the companies that we invest in for our clients—that is, going to visit them to ensure that their practices are proper. I confess that in one of my company visits I was suspicious that the company did indeed use child labour. The business was a very attractive one, but I thought that my clients, and the pension fundholders they represented and the charities they served, would be appalled to be making money on the backs of children. The individual conscience of company managers and investment managers is an important starting place, which I think helps to achieve the objective behind the Bill.
The question then remains, what are we to do about people who do not have any conscience? Is legislation appropriate, right and proper? There may come circumstances in which that is the case. Perhaps this is more a point for a Committee speech than for a Second Reading speech, but I believe the Bill needs some adjustment to achieve what it is intended to. That is partly because it is trying to do a bit too much. I would prefer it to concentrate purely on the issues of slavery and child labour, which are specific and clear. Other issues can be harder to define and can therefore place a more difficult burden on companies. I hope that the Government will consider the matter seriously and see whether there is something they can do to ensure that the required standards are met.
My hon. Friend may not be aware that just yesterday, colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills laid draft regulations that will ensure that as part of their narrative reporting, quoted companies will have to report on any human rights issues necessary to understand their business. Perhaps we can achieve the necessary reporting standard through that avenue without the burden of the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister, and I take this opportunity to welcome him to his new post. He is the most civilised of Ministers in the Government, and I am glad that he has moved, because when he was in his last post I opposed practically everything that he did. I sincerely hope that I will now be able to support him more often. In reference to the Board of Trade’s action, the term “human rights” does not necessarily have a very good name in the House. I am slightly cautious of it as a generic term when we have a pretty awful Human Rights Act and a European Court that often gets the wrong end of the stick. There are fundamental principles of humanity in the Bill that we are discussing, not just the woolly words “human rights”. So I am sort of grateful for what the Minister says—more grateful than for a lot of what he said about the constitution when he was the Minister responsible for it—but perhaps not fully grateful.
The Government need to take up the running and take the matter out of the hands of a private Member’s Bill, which cannot necessarily be given the time and resources it needs so that we can get the phraseology as tight as it ought to be. They should find the parliamentary time to introduce a detailed Bill, which could be used to ensure the correct balance between burdens on business and benefits for people at risk.
There is also a twofold economic argument for such a Bill. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk alluded to the first part of it, which is that companies that fail to follow the basics of humanity will be embarrassed in their marketing. They will be brought to shame in front of the nation if it is discovered that they are using child labour or slave labour in the production of their goods. That will bring the crack of the economic whip on their profits, which is a very good means of ensuring that companies behave better.
The other point that is worth making is that companies that treat their employees well tend to be more profitable and successful. Sometimes they are very large employers. I have spoken to Hon Hai, which employs more than 1 million people and is one of the biggest suppliers to Apple. It finds itself employing so many people that it provides an almost governmental style of welfare for them, because it is in its own interests to do so. If it is to employ such large numbers of people in an environment in which there will inevitably be difficulties and disputes, it needs to take care of its employees in the round rather than simply getting the maximum out of the cheapest individual employee.
There is also the argument that if companies move away from child and slave labour, they will be able to mechanise more easily and therefore be more productive and efficient. There is a good argument, which has long been known, about the inefficiency of slave labour. The financial incentive that we talk about when discussing tax rates applies to people in routine jobs in poor countries just as much as to bankers in the United Kingdom. I have no doubt that there are robust economic reasons for wanting to avoid slave labour, and robust moral reasons as well. It is important—the mood of the House is almost certainly along these lines—that the Government should take the matter up.
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 2 November.
Business without Debate
Town and country planning (Control of advertisements) (England) regulations 2007 (Amendment) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 9 November.
Coroners and justice (amendment) Bill
Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Bank of England (Appointment of Governor) Bill
Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 July), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 26 October.
Prisons (Interference with wireless telegraphy) Bill
Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
Bill read the Third time and passed.
Police and Crime Commissioner Elections
Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
It is now less than four weeks before the police and crime commissioner elections on 15 November, and I have to tell the Minister that there is acute concern about the likely turnout. A wide range of people have expressed concerns. For example, Peter Neyroud, the former chief constable of Thames Valley police, former chief of the National Policing Improvement Agency and now a respected academic at Cambridge university, has expressed concerns about the PCC elections. He stated:
“If you could have constructed a manual on how not to conduct an election, the Home Office have managed to tick just about every element of it.”
The result of the Home Office’s cack-handedness will be that the turnout, again in Mr Neyroud’s words, will be “pretty shocking”.
Concerns were also expressed at the Liberal Democrat conference, by the new Minister of State in the Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who advanced the opinion that a turnout in the PCC elections of 20% would “not be good”. Worries have been expressed in the other place, by the Police Federation and by PCC candidates, whether representatives of a particular political party or independents.
The clearest and most strongly worded concerns have been expressed by the Electoral Reform Society, which stated some weeks ago that the PCC elections are set to have the lowest turnout of any election in modern times—18.5%. To all democrats, that must be of profound concern. If turnout is that low, it could unfairly advantage extremist candidates who would never succeed in winning over a larger proportion of the electorate. It would also place a massive question mark over the role of elected PCCs. Let us not forget that the stated purpose of police and crime commissioners is to improve the accountability of the police, and reconnect the public with them. That objective would clearly be placed in jeopardy if there were such a low turnout.
To date, the Government have shown few indications that they comprehend the gravity of the situation. Despite protestations that the winter is the worst possible time to hold an election, and particularly a first-time election, the elections are being held in the middle of November, having been postponed by the Government from May. All who have experience of elections know full well how difficult it is for us to persuade voters to come out in the middle of winter, when the nights are cold and dark. That was borne out by distinguished academics Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, who conducted research into seasonal factors affecting voting in which they concluded that turnout in council by-elections fell by an average of 6.6% when held in November as compared with May. If that happens with council elections, there is a risk that it will happen with PCC elections.
From the start, it was always going to be difficult to generate enthusiasm for, or even interest in, these elections, but it must be said that things have not been made easier by the Government’s attitude and inaction. Despite the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission and others, the Home Office has refused to provide information other than online, unless someone specifically asks for written information. The result is that some 7 million people who do not regularly have access to the internet are unlikely to know what is happening. Thankfully, the Electoral Commission is providing a booklet to all households, but it will provide information only about the elections and the electoral system to be used—the supplementary vote. Crucially, no information will be provided about the candidates in any of the police force areas. The result is that electors will have to rely on information provided to them by the candidates themselves.
My hon. Friend is speaking extremely well. There is very little awareness of the elections in my patch of the city of Leicester, although the excellent Labour candidate, Sarah Russell, is reminding voters that the Government are cutting 200 police officers from the Leicestershire force. There is a great deal of awareness about that; it is extremely unpopular.
My hon. Friend’s example from Leicester is replicated the length and breadth of the country. There is tremendous concern about policing and police numbers, but many people are not making the connection between that and the PCC elections. The Labour party will certainly do its utmost to make the connection.
Police force areas are huge in terms of geography and population. It is therefore difficult to disseminate information door to door—it is a huge task. The Government’s position prompts a question: if comprehensive information, including details of the candidates, can be provided for mayoral elections—it will be provided for the Bristol mayoral election on 15 November—why cannot the Government provide candidate information in the PCC elections? Surely that would increase public knowledge and interest, and enhance the democratic process.
There is also a concern that there are no provisions for information in accessible formats for people with sight difficulties, and no information is provided in any other languages, despite the assurances given in an Adjournment debate on 25 April by the then Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform. Incidentally, I would appreciate an explanation of why a Cabinet Office Minister responded to that debate on PCC elections, but a Home Office Minister will reply to this one. Why the change? Is the switch indicative of the confusion at the heart of the Government about the conduct of the elections? Who is really in charge of these elections? Is anyone in charge of them?
I referred a moment ago to minority languages. I am incredulous that the Government have messed up on the production of bilingual ballot papers for Wales. Despite repeated reminders from the Opposition, the Home Office has only this week tabled the order to enable the production of bilingual ballot papers in Wales. It is likely that Parliament will approve the order to allow the ballot papers to be sent out as postal votes in Wales and I guess that this will be done in the nick of time. But there is of course no certainty that the Government will meet the deadline, and they belatedly realised this some weeks ago.
Having wrongly believed that there was no need for such an order, the Home Office, in its wisdom, then decided to play safe and give the go-ahead for the production of two sets of ballot papers—one set in English only and one set in English and Welsh. Which set will be used depends on whether the Government get their order through before the deadline. The unused set of ballot papers will then be destroyed—I kid you not, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the first time in modern electoral history that the Government have, through sheer incompetence and stupidity, been obliged to throw away more than 2 million ballot papers before an election. How much is this act of folly costing the taxpayer? The Government are reluctant to say, for understandable reasons, but it is estimated that the cost runs into many hundreds of thousands of pounds—taxpayers’ money wasted by the incompetence of this Government.
I am sure the Minister will point out that the Government are engaged in a public awareness campaign with television, radio and newspaper advertising. Those advertisements are making a contribution to raising public awareness. That cannot be denied, and I sincerely hope that they will continue to help raise awareness, but I have to say that these advertisements are unprecedented as a way of increasing knowledge of elections and they are not risk free. In this respect, I would point out to the Minister that concerns have already been expressed. It has been suggested by some that the adverts unfairly depict young people, imply criticism of current policing and suggest that PCCs will have a role in day-to-day policing priorities, which of course is not and should not be the case.
As I said at the outset, there are only a few weeks left before the elections. I hope that the lessons of the campaign so far will be learnt and I know that the Electoral Commission is already focused on this, but I also hope that the Government will mobilise more resources, even at this relatively late stage, so that a concerted effort can be made to raise public awareness. I would hope that all Ministers will make an effort to refer to the PCC elections at every opportunity. Labour Members will certainly do our best to make people aware of them.
While all of us in this House have differences about the role of PCCs and what their priorities should be, all of us must surely believe that it is important for democracy that there is a good turnout in these elections. That is something on which all sides of the House should surely agree.
I would normally congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate but given the content of his speech, the thought occurs that perhaps we would both be better engaged in being out there and campaigning for some of our respective candidates in the PCC elections on 15 November. In that regard, I feel I should put it on the record that I did indeed spend this morning in Stevenage and Hitchin campaigning with the excellent Conservative candidate for Hertfordshire, David Lloyd, and meeting people working on crime prevention in the area—
I will happily do that, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it gives me the chance to correct a number of inaccurate assertions that the hon. Gentleman has made.
I will deal with the hon. Gentleman’s final point about whether Members are doing their best to increase interest in the elections. I cannot remember whether he attended Home Office questions on Monday, but, as the Home Secretary observed, many Government Members took the opportunity to refer to the elections and individual candidates. The only Labour candidate referred to by name, however, was the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), and he was referred to by himself, so, although I agree that Members should help to raise public awareness, I think I can say, in the fairest and least partisan way possible, that the hon. Gentleman might want to spread that message on his own Benches. It has been well spread on ours.
The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) mentioned police numbers, so it is worth putting it on the record the fact that crime in Leicestershire has fallen by 5% in the past 12 months, which shows how effective the current arrangements for policing are there.
I remind the House why we are introducing police and crime commissioners, the most significant democratic reform of policing ever. It will introduce greater transparency and accountability to a service of which we are rightly proud but which can sometimes be too distant from the public it serves and can fail adequately to reflect their concerns and priorities. For too long before the Government came into office, the Home Office interfered too much in local policing and cared too little about national threats. The introduction of PCCs is a step along the road to reversing that trend. The creation of the National Crime Agency to focus on serious and organised crime nationally is another. PCCs will not just focus on their local area but will have a duty to co-operate in dealing with national threats under the new strategic policing arrangement.
Within four weeks, we will find out who the first PCCs will be. They will be the first people elected with a democratic mandate to hold their local force to account, set the budget and draw up the policing plan. Of course, the wider landscape into which the new PCCs will enter is also evolving fast. The college of policing will be launched later this year, and PCCs will sit on its board. Crucially, then, direct representation of the people of England and Wales will also be introduced on to that board. The purpose of the college will be to enhance professionalism across the service. Everyone in the country cares about the continual improvement of professionalism in the police, and the college will play a significant role in making that happen.
The issue of public awareness lay at the heart of the speech by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. It is worth putting that in the context of the picture we now have of crime. By happy coincidence, the latest crime statistics were out yesterday, and they are very pertinent to this debate. They show that on both measures—the crime survey for England and Wales and police recorded crime—crime is falling. It has fallen by 6% in the crime survey and by 6% in the record crime figures. Most significantly, the fall is across the board—violence, burglary, vandalism, vehicle theft, robbery and knife crime are all down.
PCCs will be taking up their posts, therefore, in a time of a continuing downward trend in crime rates that proves—this is relevant to the point about Leicestershire—that it is not how many officers we have but what we do with them that counts. Wise PCCs will understand that point when they take up their offices and start deploying the police plans that they will need to operate. We are replacing what were bureaucratic and unaccountable police authorities with democratically accountable PCCs so that, for the first time, the public will be given a voice and a seat around the table when key decisions are made about how their communities are being policed and how their money is being spent. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would agree that that simply does not happen under the current system, and I genuinely hope that the tone of his speech did not reflect an underlying unease about greater and better democratic control of the police.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman confirms that it did not.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I can also agree that for all the good work that people on the police authorities do—many do very good work—we know that police authorities are often invisible and unaccountable. Inspections have shown that fewer than a quarter of police authorities perform well on their basic functions and that fewer than a third engage well with their communities. In part, that is because only 7% of the public know what a police authority is. The hon. Gentleman adduced survey evidence showing the level of engagement with the PCC elections, but none of the figures is as low as the 7% of people who have heard of police authorities. That figure represents a huge failure in democratic accountability, because it is the job of a police authority—as it will be of a PCC—to spend the public’s money in a way that guarantees that the police in its area are doing what the public need. However, it is impossible to do that when 93% of the public do not even know what police authorities are. There is simply no possible measurement of success in that area. Up to now—and up to next month—the public have been simply unable to do anything about those failures. PCCs will have a clear incentive to perform better than that. If PCCs fail to represent their communities, engage properly and deliver on their priorities, the public will be able to tell them what they think of them at the ballot box.
The hon. Gentleman made the point about the November elections. He will be aware that the legislative timetable meant that this was an early date, but the Government correctly took the decision that further delay would simply mean that it would take longer before we could apply what are appropriate democratic controls. He also made the point about the weather. On the whole—but not always, in these troubled climatic times we live in—the weather in May is better than the weather in November. However, I should also observe that every four years America holds what is possibly the most important election in the world in November and the American electorate seem to engage in it, so it is not insuperable for people to go and vote when it is a bit cold and wet.
It is also clear—this is hugely relevant—that with more than 90% of the public not even aware of what a police authority is, we are starting the procedure from a very low base of public engagement. We could have a long, academic debate about what the turnout may or may not be in a few weeks’ time. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that there is no shortage of commentators criticising the date of the election or demanding that ever-increasing amounts of money be spent on strategies to engage the public, which may or may not work. What is neither academic nor remotely in doubt is that whatever happens—however many thousands of people turn out to vote in each force area—every PCC will have more legitimacy to make important decisions about what the police do than unelected, unaccountable and, as I have said, largely invisible police authorities.
There is no question but that there is huge public interest in policing issues. They regularly come near the top of issues that people want addressed, particularly when they are asked about antisocial behaviour, which many feel is not taken seriously enough in some areas. The Home Office advertising campaign, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and about which I shall say more shortly, is focused precisely on telling the public that PCCs will respond to those priorities. The hon. Gentleman made some critical remarks about the content of the advertisements, but that content is dictated by what the public care about. That is what they think about when they think about crime, and that is what they will want the PCCs to address.
There is evidence that the public are engaged. Our crime-mapping website is the most successful Government website ever. There have been more than 500 million hits since it was launched, and—perhaps because of the elections next month, and the gradually increasing public awareness and willingness to discuss crime-related matters—the traffic to the site has increased markedly in recent weeks. This month alone, it is averaging more than 360,000 hits each day. I know how much of an increase that is. Because I am relatively new to my post, I still remember my initial briefing just over a month ago, when I was told that the average was 250,000 hits a day. I am fairly sure that the only reason for the increase—an extra 100,000 hits a day—is the advent of the PCC elections, as nothing else has changed.
We are expanding the website to respond to that ever-increasing demand for information. We have added justice outcomes so that people can see what happens when a crime takes place, measures to compare similar areas, and mug shots of convicted criminals, all of which are proving popular with the public.
We know that the public care about crime, that they want to know more about crime in their local areas, and that they want their voice to be heard. The elections on 15 November will give them an opportunity not just to talk about crime, but to take action to make a change in their communities. A week from today, information about every candidate who supplies such information will be published online. That will give the candidates an opportunity to set out their stall to the electorate, and to reveal their vision for policing. Let me stress again—I have said this many times, but it clearly has not got through to the hon. Gentleman yet—that the information will be delivered free of charge, in written form, to anyone who asks for it, via a phone line.
I am aware of that—if the Minister had listened carefully to my speech, he would have heard me make it very clear that I was aware of it—but why on earth does he not follow the example of the mayoral election campaign, and send information directly to households?
There is a certain amount of confusion among Opposition Members. Half of them complain that the elections are a waste of time and cost too much, while the other half demand that we spend more on them. The hon. Gentleman falls into the latter camp, which is entirely consistent with his general approach. That is fine from his point of view, but I have to tell him that there is no such thing as a free mail shot. The so-called free mail shot would actually have cost the taxpayer more than £30 million. If the hon. Gentleman wants to go and decide, along with his colleagues, whether he wants more to be spent or not, he can do so.
We should publicise this information. The address of the website is www.choosemypcc.org.uk, and the telephone number—which is Freephone from landlines—is 0800 1 070708. It is very easy for people to obtain information about the elections. Details of both the website and the phone line will appear on every polling card that is delivered to every registered voter in England and Wales outside London. We launched an advertising campaign this month that explains the reforms, encourages participation in the elections, and provides a phone number. No one will be denied information. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has seen our advertisements. We have calculated that 85% of the population will see the television advertisement alone an average of six times. In addition, every household will receive information about the elections from the Electoral Commission, which will include information about the role of PCCs and, crucially, about how to vote.
The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in saying that every effort should be made to familiarise the electorate with the role of the PCCs, with the candidates and with the electoral system. All that has been done. In addition, a large number of candidates have already started campaigning and will be doing much of that work themselves. So not only will the public be made aware of the elections, but they will have the information they need to make informed choices. Beyond that, it is up to the candidates locally to make these elections a success. Given that the three main parties in this House are fielding candidates, it is incumbent on us all to go out to explain to the public why the competing visions for policing and tackling crime are worth turning out for, and how PCCs can best ensure that the public get the policing they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.