Tuesday 29 January 2013
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)
It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your firm control. This debate is important, and I should begin by saying that I have some history with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which will not entirely surprise fellow Members. We go back a good 20 years or so. I am a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, and in that role I probably came into contact with the RSPCA as much as almost anybody in this room. I have argued with it on several points, mainly in a civilised manner, and I have disagreed with it on many things, although I agree with it on more things than some people might imagine. There is therefore much on which we can find consensus.
For a start, let us remind ourselves that the RSPCA was created 189 years ago by a Conservative MP—a pro-hunting Conservative MP, I should say—called Richard Martin. He said:
“It would be ill judged for it”—
“to become known as a prosecuting society and the prime aim should be to alter the moral feelings of the country.”
I am sorely tempted to say yes, but I will say no for the moment.
That is why we are here. The RSPCA can be, and often is, a huge force for good, particularly at a local level; that is why I was a member for many years. The debate is not about country sports or the differences of opinion we might have about animal welfare; it is about the RSPCA’s role as possibly the most prolific private prosecutor in the UK.
The hon. Lady makes a useful contribution, but I hope she will forgive me if I say I will cover that point later. If I do not, I will take another intervention from her if she so wishes.
The RSPCA is a prosecutor that, in 2012, secured 3,000 convictions at a cost of £8.7 million. That is more than twice the number of prosecutions it brought in 2008, when it prosecuted 1,252 defendants for cruelty to animals, compared with the Crown Prosecution Service’s 240. The RSPCA is a prosecutor that makes claims to comply with CPS guidelines.
I will probably disappoint the whole House by not mentioning the H-word at all during my speech, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Nothing I say today will in any way offer comfort to those who wish to break the law of the land; nothing I say will alter that. Anyone who might think there is some kind of scam going on here might be disappointed by my comments.
The RSPCA is a prosecutor that does politics in a big way. It needs to raise about £120 million a year to keep its engines running. The debate is about the conflict that arises when CPS criteria are applied in cases where the RSPCA might have a political or commercial interest.
My hon. Friend and all other hon. Members will be aware that the RSPCA has limited funds, like all charities. Those of us who have worked with animals all our life welcome the presence of local RSPCA officers, who are able to give advice, help and support to people who manage animals. Less of that is happening because more money is being spent in other ways.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I would love to be able to quote one or two RSPCA regional officers who have mentioned to me their frustration at being underfunded while reading in the papers of enormous sums being spent on cases in which the animal welfare benefit achieved is doubtful.
I will take an intervention later, but I want to make a little progress if I can.
The debate asks why the RSPCA prosecutes when pretty much every other worthy charity, whether they deal with animal or human welfare, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, relies entirely on the CPS and the police to deal with problem areas they come in contact with in the course of their professional duties. Why is animal cruelty in Scotland dealt with perfectly satisfactorily by the procurator fiscal, rather than by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the sister organisation to the RSPCA, as private prosecutions are not permitted in the same form north of the border?
I draw the Attorney-General’s attention to the fact that all those activities have a cost to the taxpayer both through the beneficial tax regimes that all charities benefit from and through gift aid, which assists the RSPCA to the tune of several million pounds a year. Will he comment on what powers the society really has, and its relationship with the police? Even some police officers often assume that the RSPCA’s officers have powers of entry. They do not. Their rank and uniform, although often similar to those of the police, provide no authority whatever in the eyes of the law, yet they can and do liaise with the police to engage in covert surveillance, raids on property and interviewing or cautioning those whom they might suspect. Given the political and commercial activities of the society, is it right that it operates so closely with the police? Should the police exercise some care in the relationship, especially as it applies to the use of cautions?
I want to address how the decision-making process for prosecutions fits with CPS guidance, especially as it applies to the old, sick, infirm, vulnerable and young. Many fellow Members will have examples of constituents who feel that they have been the victims of heavy-handedness from the RSPCA. I will highlight just two.
The hon. Gentleman and I disagree on many things, but what we can agree on, whether it suits my taste or not, is that the law is the law until such time as it is not. I am not here to defend anybody who breaches the law in this area or any other, frustrating though I may find the law. I reassure him—I refer back to my answer to an earlier intervention—that nothing I say today should offer any comfort to those who wish to break the law. This is about process, rather than policy.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Further to the last intervention, is the solution not further legislation —I am sure he will disagree—to make it easier for the CPS and the police to prosecute people who break the law? At the moment, they are not able to prosecute, and that is why the RSPCA feels it necessary to take out these private prosecutions.
I regret that I disagree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments. I will explain why in a minute. The debate is not about trying to pass yet more legislation to deal with what some people consider to be a problem. This is about how we can actually empower the CPS, and, indeed, for that matter, impose a degree of accountability on those who wish to prosecute privately. I am not here to try to stop people prosecuting privately; I am just trying to ensure that, if they prosecute, they do it in a way that does not conflict with their political or perhaps, commercial objectives.
I remind my hon. Friend that the police had the ability to prosecute in their own right removed in the 1980s, with the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service. The police must gather evidence, make arrests and submit a file to the CPS, which will then apply a stringent and objective test. That process is right, and exists to protect the public from police officers who might, through no fault of their own, be tempted to chase targets or satisfy neighbourhood or other pressures, which might distort their proper objectivity. I am attempting to argue that if any charity were to go about its private prosecutions—and, let us face it, the RSPCA is about the only one that does it—with that degree of objectivity and accountability, we should have achieved something, and my hon. Friend’s fears would not come to fruition.
Does the hon. Gentleman at least accede to the point that the Charity Commission has agreed that the RSPCA’s approach to prosecutions follows the CPS code—a two-stage evidential and public interest test, which is applied in all RSPCA prosecution decisions and that it believes that the RSPCA’s work is consistent with the duties placed on trustees?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, which I suspect she wrote before she read The Daily Telegraph this morning. I refer her to a letter written yesterday from the Charity Commission to the RSPCA:
“The charity should ensure that it has fully considered the reputational damage to the charity of adverse publicity; fully assessed the risk of such publicity; and taken steps to mitigate such risk where possible.”
The letter continues that
“although we understand the reasons for the ‘independence’ of the charity’s Prosecution Department…ultimately the trustees are responsible…and…the trustees should review the current arrangements to ensure that they are entirely satisfied with the criteria for prosecutions”.
The Charity Commission has therefore today issued a rebuke to the RSPCA on the manner in which it carries out prosecutions.
I am going to press ahead, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, for a bit. It is nothing personal. I wanted to refer to two examples, and then I hope I will eventually get to him.
Pauline Spoor, a pensioner from Manchester, was convicted and tagged for not putting down her old dog, which had arthritis. She admitted in court that her actions were misguided, but said she could not bear to put him down as he was her constant companion. Would not, in those circumstances, a quiet word from the RSPCA have resolved the problem just as effectively and at considerably less cost? What of Georgina Langley? In 2010, three RSPCA inspectors, with police reinforcement, entered the home of the 67-year-old and took away her 13 cats, four cockerels and dog. Within days, she was told that the RSPCA had put down five of her cats. The Royal Veterinary College carried out an independent post-mortem examination on a ginger tom and an adult female, after being contacted by Miss Langley’s vet. He said:
“There appears to be no good reason why the RSPCA allowed these animals to be put to sleep. The RVC post mortems concluded the cats were healthy with no signs of incorrect feeding or problems with fleas or other illnesses. This lady needed help and support, not hauling through the courts.”
It does not end there. The RSPCA pushed for costs of £28,000, asking magistrates to make an order on the pensioner’s home and calling for her to be banned from keeping animals. Instead, it was ordered that Miss Langley’s dog and cockerels and one cat should be returned. She was given a conditional discharge with no fine or costs imposed. Was the action that was taken that of a responsible and proportionate prosecutor?
Does not that remind us of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) about resources on the ground for the RSPCA’s regional officers, to enable them to give support to such people as my hon. Friend has mentioned?
My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, and in a way the thrust of the debate is to highlight something of which I think the public are increasingly aware: the gulf between very good activity on the ground carried out by RSPCA inspectors, whom we all know, work with, and value, who do good things in communities, and whose principal function is to deal with animal welfare, and the leadership of the organisation, whose principal function appears to be to deal with animal rights. The animal rights agenda is compromising the animal welfare agenda on the ground, leading to precisely the sorts of example in question.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. At this time of year particularly—post-Christmas, when there is a lot of pressure on RSPCA kennels to look after pets that have been given as Christmas gifts—education is probably the key to the debate. If the RSPCA could spend more money on educating people to understand animal welfare, that money would be better spent than on prosecutions.
There must be balance, and I have said in response to several interventions that there are occasions when prosecutions may be the only way forward. I wanted to compare what goes on in England and Wales with what goes on in Scotland. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does very good work of the sort mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but is not hampered by also being a prosecuting body, as the RSPCA south of the border is. That relationship seems to work perfectly well, and there is no reason why a similar one should not work for the RSPCA, enabling it to spend more time and money giving people a helping hand.
I wonder if my hon. Friend agrees that one of the big problems is that when Suzi Leather was in charge of the Charity Commission she confused political charities and charities, and allowed far too much leeway on politics coming into charities. Does my hon. Friend think that that should be addressed, given what we have heard about how the RSPCA has been prosecuting?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. There is political activity and party political activity. Party political activity is still outwith most charitable law. I suspect that there must be a degree of politics in every charity, but it cannot conflict, I suggest, with the prosecuting role of a charity, if that is the role it wants to pursue.
I think the situation in Scotland is deemed to be perfectly satisfactory from the point of view of animal welfare charities. I do not think that they are particularly governed by statistics. I am intrigued by the 98% success rate, because nowhere in the RSPCA documentations could I find any reference to conditional or unconditional discharges, which I think make quite a difference to the overall figure. I believe—and I stand to be corrected on the point—that those are included in the 98% success rate. I suggest that the lawyers in the Chamber might consider that slightly misleading.
I want to press on somewhat, and discuss something that I think is a commercial disincentive, using the Freedom Food brand as an example. It is a wholly owned brand of the RSPCA, launched in 1994. The society claims that more than 75 million farm animals and salmon were reared to RSPCA welfare standards under the Freedom Food scheme in 2011. So far, so good—I have no problem with that. Yet in the 19 years since the scheme was introduced, the RSPCA has not brought a single prosecution against a Freedom Food member, despite several members of the programme having been prosecuted—not by the RSPCA—for seriously compromising animal welfare standards. It is odd that in that instance the CPS is deemed expert enough to prosecute under animal welfare legislation, whereas in other cases the RSPCA argues that it alone possesses the necessary skills and resources to do so. That raises the question—I put it no more strongly than that—whether in a case where there is a commercial risk to the RSPCA brand, it is dissuaded from bringing prosecutions, whereas it may be tempted in the direction of a tantalising, juicy case that it might want to get its teeth into because of its political or financial benefits. Those are unnecessary and unfortunate consequences of trying to mix prosecution with politics.
The more I listen to the hon. Gentleman the more I am convinced that what he is talking about is a smokescreen for the attack on the RSPCA for having the temerity to prosecute the Prime Minister’s hunt. Is that not the real reason he brought the debate to the Chamber today?
The hon. Gentleman has omitted a declaration of interest, which is his vice-presidency of the League Against Cruel Sports. My response, therefore, is, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”
This raises further questions for the Attorney-General. Does he agree with the Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on wildlife crime? The Committee states:
“The CPS should review its performance on prosecuting wildlife crime in England and Wales with a view to either employing specialist wildlife crime prosecutors or introducing specialist wildlife crime training for its generalist prosecutors.”
That would enable the CPS to be better equipped to handle prosecutions, by aligning it with the procurator fiscal and reducing the need for prosecutions to be brought by a politically motivated charity. As was mentioned earlier, there are means by which we can achieve the same ends without the uncertainty about conflicts along the way and whether people are being dragged into the court system at great expense to themselves when they should not be there in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman quotes from the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee somehow to give credence to his argument. The professionalism of the CPS and proper funding for the enforcement of police activity through the wildlife crime unit were important considerations when we produced the report.
Much as I welcome the debate, as an opportunity for all concerns about the issue to be put on the record, I point out that whereas our recommendation was that we should have certainty about future funding, the funding of the wildlife crime unit has been secured for only one further year.
I suspect that you will reprimand us both, Mr Williams, if we go down the route of discussing DEFRA funding, so I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for nodding but not proceeding too much with that side of the debate.
There are numerous examples of the RSPCA failing to prosecute when there is evidence with which to do so, and vice versa, and that gets to the nub of the debate. The charity sometimes pursues tantalising cases, at not only considerable public and private cost but to the cost of some innocent victims, some of whom plead guilty simply because of the fear of the huge cost risks of doing otherwise and finding themselves on the receiving end of this massive financial machine. What is the Government’s view about how members of the public can guard against a campaigning charity with a political and commercial agenda also acting as a prosecutor in its own right? Are the Government happy with the situation as it is, and are they aware that the Charity Commission only yesterday advised the RSPCA of the need to review its prosecution procedures in the light of recent complaints?
The Charity Commission’s intervention yesterday is a serious rebuke, as others have agreed. The CPS was created to ensure that prosecutions are free from any possible suggestion of political interference, commercial influence or personal beliefs. It protects the public while ensuring that crime is properly dealt with. Over the weekend, I spoke to a police office—a former wildlife officer—who told me that it is the only check in the process that protects the public. It is a check that simply does not independently exist within the RSPCA.
I will finish with a reference to Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The HMCPSI carries out the vital role of ensuring high standards in all CPS prosecutions. The Attorney-General already has the powers to
“ask HMCPSI to inspect other prosecution bodies for which he has responsibility, or to inspect bodies where they are agreeable to voluntary inspection, and to undertake reviews of high profile cases.”
Surely, if that is good enough for the CPS it is good enough for a big, responsible charity such as the RSPCA. Will the Attorney-General consider in what circumstances the CPSI might be asked to review high-profile cases, as is its right?
I hope that nothing I have said compromises the RSPCA and the state’s ability to deal with animal abuse. That is particularly important. The debate raises questions about process. It makes a distinction between an agenda that we all used to be able to support, driven by genuine animal welfare concerns that united not only the House but the country, and an agenda that seems to be increasingly driven by some kind of animal rights ideology. It seems unfortunate that that division is affecting support and potential income for the society. If anything comes out of the debate that enables us to draw a line between what are claimed to be the legitimate political and commercial activities of one of Britain’s biggest and best-known charities and its role as an objective and independent private prosecutor, we will not only have achieved some good from the point of view of members of the public, who may from time to time come into contact with the RSPCA, but, ultimately, we will have done a favour in the interests of animal welfare.
Order. There are 10 right hon. and hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am, so I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to keep their speeches brief, at about four minutes please—but it is, of course, up to their own discretion—and for interventions to be short and to the point.
Bore da. Mae’n bleser gwasanethu o dan eich cadeiryddiaeth am y tro cyntaf, Mr Williams. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I shall be uncharacteristically brief because a number of others want to speak.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said that he was not going to use the H-word this morning, but he did not say what it meant. May I suggest that it possibly means hypocrisy? We are asked to believe that the apostles of cruelty, who for many years have campaigned in the House to keep gratuitous killing as part of hunting, now want to be compassionate to animals, and to ensure that the animal societies have enough money to prosecute cases. That is not convincing.
I am delighted, however, to see that the hon. Gentleman has broken cover. During his election campaign, he described himself as a chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, but he did not go into the details of his involvement in campaigning in this House on one subject alone that the Countryside Alliance took up: halting the great reform in animal welfare that is the stopping the killing of animals for fun and amusement.
I speak from a constituency that had an MP, Peter Freeman, who introduced a Bill in 1935 to ban hunting with dogs. It took a long time for Parliament to agree that the practice was unacceptable, along with bear-baiting and other barbarous activities that use animals as objects for sport and entertainment, but we have got that far, and those who lost that debate are coming back now and trying to refight the battle by attacking the splendid work of the RSPCA. It was absolutely right to prosecute—the law had been broken.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to save the charity money so that it can concentrate on its other work, he should persuade his friends to stop breaking the law. As the Hunting Bill went through the House, he and others sought to introduce amendments, which Members generously accepted, saying that perhaps they were genuine or there were special conditions here. All kinds of loophole were put into the law, which hunters have since used every possible means to exploit. We need another Bill. We need to define what the will of the population of this country is, and it is to take the gratuitous cruelty out of hunting. There is no objection to people dressing up and charging around the countryside following a trail, if they want to.
The RSPCA is a charity with a splendid record of investigating cruelty against animals. We have come to a situation—I will conclude on this point—where a case has drawn attention because of a particular prosecution involving high-profile people, including the Prime Minister of the land, who is a member of the hunt, and all we have today is the malice and spite of the pro-hunting lobby fighting again. Let them have a debate in this House to restore hunting as it was in the past. They cannot do that because they know they lack a majority, as people of good will and sense in their own party also want to see hunting continue to be banned. That ban must be strengthened and reinforced.
Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Williams. I wish to make only a short contribution that is effectively an observation. It is a huge pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow Welshman, and a proud Welshman at that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) not only on introducing an important debate, but on the tone in which he did so and, indeed, on focusing on an essential point that the Government must address. He could easily have been tempted into other areas where Members who disagree with him may have wanted him to go.
I was a huge supporter of the RSPCA for most of my life. I was born on a livestock farm, and I became a huge supporter of animal welfare mainly because of the annual ritual of slaughtering the family pig. Anyone who remembers that will know what a terrible thing it was. Children who experienced it became supporters of animal welfare, and I was one of them. As I became older, it stayed with me. When I took over the family farm, I abandoned rough shooting on the farm, which had been a tradition. Indeed, for a while I stopped any form of hunting on the land simply because I wanted my farm to become a wildlife centre. At some later stage, I realised that that was not the right way to go to benefit wildlife, so I changed the entire policy. The farm had rough shooting and people investing in shooting, and I welcomed back the hunt. The hunt now meets on my farm because I was so outraged by the previous Government’s hunting ban.
This debate is on the specific role of the RSPCA and the way it is carrying out its job. The RSPCA is doing a range of things, but we are addressing the specific role of prosecutions. For most of my life, I was a huge supporter of the RSPCA. When I was a member of the National Assembly and chair of the relevant Committee, quite often the advice of the RSPCA was hugely beneficial and a big part of our decisions, but in my mind it was always an animal welfare body; I now find the RSPCA to be what one might loosely describe as an animal rights body. My personal support has disappeared. I do not feel that sense of support, and I think a huge number of people in this country who were previously big supporters of the RSPCA and saw it as making a huge contribution to the cause of animal welfare no longer see the RSPCA like that.
I say to Opposition Members who are very supportive of the RSPCA that, with its current focus on prosecutions, including high-profile political prosecutions, the organisation is losing the support of a huge number of people. We will find that the RSPCA effectively becomes an animal rights body in deep conflict with an awful lot of people like me, who have been great supporters of animal welfare.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I know Opposition Members will say that there is a law and that the RSPCA’s job is to pursue the law, but the RSPCA then becomes a prosecution body and an animal rights body, and it loses the support of all those people who care about animal welfare first and foremost. I am one of those people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but he would surely agree that almost all coverage of the RSPCA in the media today gives the impression of it simply as a prosecution body because it has pursued high-profile political prosecutions. The RSPCA has become that sort of body, and it is losing support.
Animal welfare is hugely important to many of us, and I want my RSPCA back; it was a body I felt supportive of, and I want it back.
It is good that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has secured this debate, because it is important that we both discuss how prosecutions are pursued and address the allegations made against one of the country’s most admired charities. I make it clear that I am not a member of the RSPCA and never have been.
The RSPCA is a vital member of our charitable sector and its work across the country is invaluable and widely appreciated. The RSPCA is supported, for a range of reasons, by Members of all parties. I know, as do most MPs, just how important the RSPCA’s campaigns are for my constituents, who care about animal welfare and who welcome the opportunity through their membership to ensure that their concerns are heard. I have never felt that a campaign to highlight animal cruelty, bad practice and neglect has been run for purely political reasons. Under the Labour Government there were innumerable campaigns to raise awareness and to enable MPs to ask questions and seek answers from Ministers. It is absolutely right for a charity to inform Members of this House, because, ultimately, we are the people who write the laws.
The main thrust of the RSPCA’s work is to investigate, thereby hopefully changing behaviour and making people aware of the mistreatment of pets and livestock. So much mistreatment arises from ignorance. However, there are those who are only too aware that their actions are outside the law and that they are laying themselves open to prosecution, private or otherwise.
The RSPCA’s investigations rarely end in prosecution, and it is important to emphasise that the RSPCA’s prosecutions department is independent and separate from the investigators. The RSPCA had every right to investigate and prosecute the Heythrop hunt and those involved in the maiming of foxes last year.
Those seeking to criticise the work of the RSPCA, and ultimately defend hunting as a sport, have pointed to the significant figure that the RSPCA spent on the case to bring about, in their view, a fairly insignificant punishment. Criticising the RSPCA for pursuing political motivations in bringing the prosecution is completely unfair. The RSPCA does not prosecute unless there is just cause, and it considers the public interest test of the code for Crown prosecutors before deciding whether to prosecute. The RSPCA is supported by, and has good relationships with, Members on both sides of the House.
I listened to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in the early hours of this morning on Radio 4, when he talked about the RSPCA being the only charity that seems to be pursuing—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) says from a sedentary position, that is not true. We should remember that, historically, charities such as Shelter and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have faced persistent allegations of the politicisation of their work. Both charities have assisted or encouraged prosecutions, in Shelter’s case against rogue landlords and in the NSPCC’s case to protect another group that is unable to protect itself—children.
We make the laws in this place, and we make them for a reason. We do not sit here and make laws just for fun. Laws are there for a reason, and if they are broken, there are consequences, irrespective of whether someone is Joe Bloggs or a member of the Heythrop hunt.
In some cases, the charities the hon. Lady mentions have not brought private prosecutions for nearly 20 years. Will she share what the reasons for that might be? Will she also comment on the fact that the Charity Commission has today instructed the RSPCA to review its prosecuting procedures?
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely partial in his interpretation of the Charity Commission’s letter. Yes, the Charity Commission pointed out to the RSPCA the role of its trustees, but it has also stated that it will not investigate the RSPCA, which is testament to the fact that the RSPCA acted within its remit and has a right to private prosecution.
The prosecution could not have happened without the work of the RSPCA. If its powers are revoked in any way, hundreds of cases of animal cruelty in the UK will go unchallenged each year. Its role is vital. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) suggested that it ought to concentrate on animal welfare. The bulk of what the RSPCA does is on animal welfare, and to suggest otherwise is grossly misleading. That work would not be carried out by any other body. The Association of Chief Police Officers has stated that if the RSPCA were to decide not to do it, no other public service could pick it up, and animal welfare would be significantly damaged.
I am a south-west MP, so the matter is important to my constituency. One reason why I wanted to speak today was the weight of interest among my constituents. Public opinion on fox hunting is divided in my constituency, as it is elsewhere in the country. This is not about fox hunting; it is about prosecutions and the RSPCA’s ability to continue taking prosecutions forward where it thinks they are appropriate.
I do not support hunting, but neither do I condone illegal behaviour by those who are either pro or anti-hunting. I want our legal system to be the guardian. The RSPCA’s decision to test that in the courts was, in my view, absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that the Attorney-General will not be chased to ground by the baying pack of Back Benchers sitting behind him.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. He has done the House a service in doing so. Of course there are different views about all sorts of underlying issues; the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) demonstrated that from the outset. He was outed by my hon. Friend as a member of the League Against Cruel Sports. I had not the slightest idea who he was or what his membership consisted of, but I am delighted that he called in to see how we get on. That said, we would be naive if we did not think that the underlying current of debate about hunting infects some of the views expressed in this debate, although it is specifically about the RSPCA’s role as a prosecutor, which is what I will do my best to concentrate on.
My hon. Friend also told us that the RSPCA is a prolific private prosecutor, and the statistics tend to support that allegation; more than 2,000 private prosecutions were brought in 2012. However, the problem that the RSPCA faces is the public perception, whether true or false, that it has become a political prosecutor.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman reads The Daily Telegraph more often than I do, but there we are; I am sure he enjoys doing so.
I want to make it clear that as a Member of Parliament, a private citizen and a former Law Officer, I have no objection in principle to private prosecutions. Equally, however, Parliament has controlled in one way or another private citizens’ ability to take private prosecutions. I think the most recent example—my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will correct me—was the alteration in how prosecutions may be brought for the international reach of war crimes. I do not have the detail in my head right now, but I think that the situation has been altered to require that the Director of Public Prosecutions take over that sort of prosecution. We should not shy away from alterations to the rules relating to private prosecutions.
The hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that the Law Commission considered the issue of private prosecutors in 1998 and found that adequate safeguards were in place. That was relatively recent. Does it not explain the situation? Everything is okay and should continue as it is.
That is rather complacent. The whole point of being a Member of Parliament is to express one’s view on the basis of indirect or direct knowledge. Yes, the Law Commission considered the principle of private prosecutions not very long ago, but that does not prevent me from having a different view about particular types of private prosecution, and I am about to express it.
We must be watchful of the ability of the citizen—by “citizen” I mean either a corporate organisation, such as a charity, or an individual—to convert a legitimate public interest activity, namely the bringing of a prosecution in an appropriate case, into an arm of a political campaign. We all have different views about particular public issues—that is why we are elected for our separate parties—but we must be careful that the prosecuting system does not allow itself to become an arm of any one political campaign or a number of campaigns. That is the whole point of having a Crown Prosecution Service.
Certainly during my time in government, the Crown Prosecution Service subsumed the prosecuting wing of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Within DEFRA, there is a group of prosecutors who take on animal welfare cases, among other things, that were previously dealt with by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food prosecutors. That subsection of DEFRA has now moved into the Crown Prosecution Service, which seems a sensible place for those people to carry out their work.
We must be careful. Although we do not wish all private prosecutions to be brought to an end, we are entitled to issue a warning to the RSPCA that if that sort of conduct—that is, the prosecutions referred to by the hon. Member for Derby North and others, in which the costs of £300,000-plus incurred were described by the judge as quite staggering—
I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to a letter from the Charity Commission dated yesterday and stating that
“the Commission does not consider that the trustees have breached their duty of prudence in the case of this prosecution”—
that is, the Heythrop hunt. Does he not therefore agree that the RSPCA was perfectly within its rights to prosecute the Heythrop hunt, and is doing a sterling job ensuring that animal abusers are brought to justice?
Of course the RSPCA as presently constituted was within its rights to do whatever it thought appropriate in that particular case. Whether it was wise to do so is another matter. It seems to me that if it continues to prosecute at such huge expense in such a disproportionate way, it will be open to public criticism. It cannot do something of that nature in public—that is, prosecute suspected criminals—without expecting to be criticised either by the judge, as it was, or by Members of Parliament, or by contributors to The Daily Telegraph or even The Guardian, or by ordinary members of the public.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman not acknowledge, however, that the prosecution costs in the case that he referred to were so large mainly because those prosecuted resisted the charges for so long before deciding in the end to plead guilty? Could the costs not have been reduced significantly if those prosecuted had done the right thing?
The hon. Lady was in court and clearly knows more about the detail of the case than I do, but it strikes me that anybody who manages to run up prosecution costs of more than £300,000 on a summary case in a magistrates court is rightly subject to criticism for being responsible for a disproportionate piece of activity.
My simple point is that if the RSPCA does so, it cannot expect to escape public criticism, either in this Chamber or elsewhere, and I am entitled to make that criticism. Were such a prosecution brought by the Crown Prosecution Service, whether on the evidence or the public interest test, as it could well have been, there would have been a far greater grip on the management of that case. I do not imagine that, when the cost of prosecutions in magistrates courts are in the low thousands of pounds, rather than the low hundreds of thousands, the CPS would have gone about it in quite that way.
We need dispassionate intervention from the CPS in such cases. This is not to say that the RSPCA should not or may not investigate but, like the police, it should hand the evidence to the CPS for it to make a dispassionate judgment.
My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. I am a member of the RSCPA and support its prosecutions, but this was a summary case before the magistrates court, so why did it not, in the first instance, use its own in-house team of lawyers—which I as a member have to pay for—and go to expensive Queen’s counsels only when the case goes to the higher court? Surely, it was an error of judgment on the part of the RSCPA to use up such huge amounts of its members’ money.
I am very fond of expensive QCs, but it is a matter of judgment. The RSCPA, in that case, made a misjudgment. I am not criticising, for one moment, the quality of the representation that it had, but any private organisation, whether a charity or an individual, spending such an amount of money on that sort of prosecution is open to criticism. If I were a member of the RSCPA, I would want to know that my money was going to the purpose that I thought it was intended to go towards, that is to say, protecting animal welfare, rather than—as it appears, from comments made by many—the pursuit of some political agenda.
Last October, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), an oral question in Justice questions about why the courts rarely seem to make costs orders against the RSCPA when it brings prosecutions that fail, either because it got the law or the facts wrong, and cases collapse. Although the Minister promised to write to me, he did not, but the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), kindly replied with a somewhat opaque letter, which did not contain any information of interest or value relating to the discussion that I intended to have.
Undoubtedly, the RPSCA is fortunate because it is not subjected, as the CPS is, to orders for costs when it makes a mess or fails to bring home a prosecution. The CPS set aside £154,000 in the financial year 2005-06, and more than £1.5 million in 2010-11, in relation to costs awarded against it by the courts. Whether those costs fell under section 19 or section 19A of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 does not much matter: these are big numbers. The CPS has a turnover of some £600 million and I understand that the RPSCA has a turnover of about £120 million. One would think that there ought to be some read-across for the sums paid in response to costs orders, but we do not see that.
Finally, I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire who suggested that Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate should, either of its own volition or with the encouragement of the Attorney-General, consider the way the RPSCA conducts its prosecutions, whether thematically or by looking at particular cases. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I encourage my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to do that. When he and I worked together—it was a joy—we encouraged the Serious Fraud Office to invite the inspectorate to look at its prosecuting activities. That was a beneficial and useful inspection. I encourage my right hon. and learned Friend, in the little spare time that he has, to encourage Mike Fuller to look at how the RSPCA conducts its activities as a prosecutor.
Of course, I respect the right of the RSCPA to conduct itself as an animal welfare charity with all the vigour and all the money that it can lay its hands on, but it needs to be careful that it does not move away from being an animal welfare organisation and becomes a political campaigner, using the state prosecuting system as a weapon to promote its political campaigns.
The hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I do not know, but who is a member of the league, mumbles that it should uphold the law. Of course, it should. Nobody doubts that we should uphold the law. My central point is that it must be done dispassionately, proportionately and without turning a charity into a weapon of political campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I have to put it on the public record that I am a proud member and vice-president of the RSCPA. I am also proud of the fact that the UK has laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. There is always room for improvement, but, taken as a whole, this legislation is a marker of a civilised society that refuses to condone cruelty or tolerate the exploitation of other species.
I should like to say, as a member of the Committee that considered the Animal Welfare Bill in 2006, that when we make legislation we want it to be enforced. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is no point designing legislation and ensuring that it is workable and enforceable if it is not enforced?
I agree, which is why it is so extraordinary that, somehow, upholding the law can be regarded as a political or, worse, a party political act. I do not get that.
It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who secured the debate, has coyly not mentioned the H-word. That is probably because he realises that he has lost that case. We have clear guidance from the Charity Commission, which says that
“the Commission does not consider that the trustees have breached their duty of prudence in the case of this prosecution.”
Having lost that case, the hon. Gentleman is now hitting out wildly with a lot of accusations, not based on evidence, about prosecutions more generally.
Like the vast majority of members of the public, I strongly support the Hunting Act 2004—I am not afraid of using the H-word—and I am committed to strengthening its provisions, as well as to seeing the ban on the use of dogs in chasing and killing wild mammals rigorously upheld. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, as with other legislation designed to protect animals, or anything else, enforcement is critical. That is why bringing prosecutions is so important. The RPSCA is uniquely placed to carry out that task.
Colleagues know that in 2005 a Select Committee concluded that the RSCPA was the only organisation with the requisite expertise to undertake animal welfare prosecutions. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also gone on the record to pay tribute to the importance of this role and its fulfilment by the RPSCA, saying:
“Were the RSPCA, as a charity, to decide next week not to do this work any more none of the rest of us in the public service could pick it up. Animal welfare would not be furthered; it would be significantly disadvantaged.”
Thanks to its excellence and consistent best practice, in 2010, the RSPCA secured the convictions of 2,441 defendants for animal welfare offences and gave out 86,354 welfare improvement notices under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. In 2011, a total of 3,114 convictions were secured, further reinforcing the message that the law is essential to its work as a charity charged with protecting animals from abuse.
This work as a private prosecutor is clearly identified in the RSPCA’s constitution as part of its charitable aims, which include preventing or suppressing cruelty towards animals In the charity’s own words:
“Upholding the law is not a political act but is in direct furtherance of the RPSCA’s charitable purpose.”
That said, it rightly has a clear duty to ensure that any prosecutions undertaken both meet a public interest test and are backed up by strong evidence that animal cruelty is taking place. The Charity Commission says:
“If considering a prosecution, charities must consider whether bringing a prosecution is a reasonable and effective use of the charity's resources, what the prospects of success are, and whether the public interest is served by a prosecution.”
Let me take each of those considerations in turn in relation to the decision to prosecute the Heythrop hunt, as that case in particular seems to have prompted this debate.
Does the hon. Lady agree with the district judge who thought that the amount of money was not proportionate? He said that £320,000-odd on the particular case referred to was staggering. Could donors’ money not be put to better use?
I shall come on to that in a moment. There are many reasons why that amount of money had to be spent. I do not suppose that any of us would choose to spend money in that way, but, to return to the wonderful comment by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), if people stopped breaking the law the RSPCA would not have to keep spending the money.
Given that the RSPCA has a 98% prosecution success rate, compared with 50% at the CPS, it would seem to be pretty well practised at assessing whether a case looks set to succeed. In the instance of the Heythrop hunt, the charity’s judgment was correct and a conviction secured. It was a landmark case, the first time that a hunt has faced corporate charges for illegal hunting and the first case brought by the RSPCA for breaches of the Hunting Act. That case was based on footage of foxes being chased by dogs, filmed on several occasions in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire during November 2011 and February and March 2012. Expert analysis verified that the offences were deliberately committed.
All that indicates that the charity thought carefully before bringing a prosecution under the Hunting Act. It considered the evidence and judged accurately that the case was likely to be won. It assessed the impact of the case in acting as a deterrent and in sending out a clear message about upholding the ban on dogs chasing and killing wild mammals, thus preventing animal cruelty. Judging by the interest that the ruling has attracted, the charity made a pretty smart call on using resources effectively.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: there is a smoke screen, and I want to show how the case is not coherent and has no real rigour.
Much of the interest has been about the amount of money spent, with concerns expressed that the expense was not justifiable. I disagree. It was a test case and one based on a high volume of evidence, which needed careful examination to determine whether it constituted a strong enough case to bring to court. Ironically, many critics of the cost are also questioning the RSPCA’s judgment on the prospects of success, even though the charity’s thoroughness in considering whether prosecution was appropriate and its experience of other high-profile criminal prosecutions were what allowed it to budget accurately and appropriately.
It is also worth noting that the defendants indicated right up until trial that they would defend all charges rigorously. Given the importance of the case, and that the evidence and public interest tests were met, the RSPCA had a duty to respond with equal rigour and not to back down in the face of lawbreakers and those guilty of animal cruelty. Indeed, the Charity Commission has vindicated the RSPCA’s decision, stating in the letter I just quoted that it did not consider the trustees to have
“breached their duty of prudence”.
The public interest test is important. Enforcing such an important piece of animal welfare legislation is in the interests of the public, for both those who support the law and those who wrongly believe that they are above it.
I thank the Minister for his intervention, but the evidence and experience that we have is that the CPS does not prosecute in the number of ways in which the RSPCA would. I am sorry that he disagrees, but that is our experience in the area.
Eighty per cent. of people in Great Britain feel that, where there is evidence of people hunting illegally with dogs, such people should be prosecuted. In addition, 70% support animal welfare charities bringing private prosecutions against those whom they believe to have been hunting illegally, provided there is strong evidence and if the police or CPS, for whatever reason, do not proceed. In other words, the public want the RSPCA to prosecute in cases such as that of the Heythrop hunt; to do so is justified by their charitable aims.
Does the hon. Lady agree—she may not, of course—that the RSPCA is in danger of being not only a charity and a campaigning organisation, but an investigatory and prosecuting body that is pursuing a militant animal rights agenda? That is a concern that we have.
The hon. Gentleman is probably not surprised that I do not agree. That was an extraordinary statement. I return to the words of Richard Martin, a founder of the RSPCA, quoted at the beginning of the debate:
“If legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced.”
The evidence is available, and I have quoted from the police and other authorities that if the RSPCA did not prosecute, it would not be done.
I emphasise that nowhere in any of my comments have I ever suggested that the RSPCA should not be allowed to prosecute. The hon. Lady is misleading the House by suggesting that that is what I am recommending. I am recommending that the process needs to be reviewed, not the policy.
Yes, I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.
I will not go back over the motivation for introducing the debate. We all have our views and nothing can be proved.
I will finish, Mr Williams, as you want us to move on. I simply want to ask why the case was brought to the attention of the Charity Commission. I can only conclude that those who did that wanted to undermine the RSPCA—that was what it was about, not about the hunt per se. That move is cynical and not worthy of anyone acting in the public interest or in the interests of animal protection.
The UK has a body charged with the oversight of charities, the Charity Commission. That body has confirmed that it is not investigating the RSPCA, because there is nothing to investigate. A Press Complaints Commission case on misleading and inaccurate media coverage is pending, yet some have persisted in attempting to smear the RSPCA and to question its role as a prosecutor.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the so-called rebuke referred to earlier, from the Charity Commission, was actually the usual advice issued to organisations that have been under the media spotlight, and that the RSPCA has already started a review of its procedures, because it is confident that they are robust?
The hon. Lady is right: the RSPCA began that review before the Charity Commission mentioned anything.
I welcome the opportunity both to put on the record my understanding of how the Heythrop hunt prosecution and other prosecutions demonstrably further the pursuit of the RSPCA’s charitable objectives, and to represent the large number of constituents who have written to me, as to many hon. Members, about the importance of protecting the RSPCA’s important legal work.
Thank you, Mr Williams. I am grateful you called me. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for initiating the debate.
I am going to make a speech that others will probably not expect from someone on the Government Benches. In my constituency, I have been grateful for the RSPCA pursuing a high-profile prosecution and, effectively, putting out political signals through that prosecution. The RSPCA has done us all a great service in its contribution to animal welfare and in its prosecution of those who treat animals inhumanely. When the Attorney-General winds up, I hope that he bears it in mind that the terrible case to which I will refer took place in Buckinghamshire, and he is a Buckinghamshire MP.
I am second to none in my admiration for the RSPCA. Sadly, cases of multiple animal abuse appear to be on the increase, and the RSPCA is well placed to bring and carry through the sort of prosecution that it did in the case of Spindles farm. In January 2008, more than 100 horses, ponies and donkeys were removed from the most horrific conditions at Spindles farm. I went to see some of the rescued animals, many of which had to be put down. Many had been treading on the carcases and bodies of other animals. I have never seen animals with deader eyes or in worse condition in my life, and I have farmers in the family in Wales and have spent a lot of my life around animals. The RSPCA worked with the Redwings horse sanctuary, World Horse Welfare and the Horse Trust, and they are all to be commended.
The prosecution cost some £2.3 million, but the investigation was highly complex. The number of animals involved, the cruelty, the defendants’ obstruction and intimidation of RSPCA inspectors, the need for expert reports, and the problems of identifying ownership of many animals contributed to a long and complex case. It is difficult to see how any organisation other than the RSPCA could have mounted such a complex and difficult operation and investigation. Indeed, the judge praised the RSPCA.
The hon. Gentleman almost took away my finishing line. Would others give the matter the priority that the RSPCA gave it? I am pleased to report that James Gray was sentenced to six months in prison, fined £400,000, and banned from keeping horses for life. It is a good job I was not the judge, and that a greater sentence was not available, because he would have had a much bigger one.
It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. Many Tory MPs in this debate seem to be disappointed that their coalition Government have decided not to change the law on hunting, or to make it legal, and it seems that there will not even be a free vote. Their fury has been turned on another organisation, and it seems that the RSPCA’s prosecution of the Heythrop hunt has put its head above the parapet, so it is now in the firing line.
The hunt was frequented by the Chipping Norton set—Charlie and Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson, and formerly the Prime Minister, whom I understand is currently too busy to be involved in the hunt. Let us hope that he will be freed of the burdens of office in the near future and able to resume legal drag hunting—to coin a phrase, tally-ho!
I turn to serious matters. The British are rightly famous for our love of animals, and the public take animal mistreatment very seriously. It is a matter of public policy and blights not just animals’ lives, but if unchecked leads to serious social problems. The illegal trade in wild animals, for example, is worth £12 billion, and that money is not put to good use. Underground dog ownership means that animals are brutalised and used as weapons in parks and cities; they are used in dog fights, and by gangs of poachers and hare coursers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, we have laws and they should be enforced. The question today is, who should be enforcing the law?
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said that we should review the Crown Prosecution Service’s priorities, and that it should pick up the burden instead of leaving it to a politically motivated charity. The difficulty in practice is that the Crown Prosecution Service is suffering a 25% reduction in income over the tenure of this Government. He called for renewed emphasis on animal welfare, but the Crown Prosecution Service constantly announces new priorities. Hon. Members may remember that last week it said that its new priority would be tax evasion. Recently, it was violence against women and girls, and before that it was child abuse following Savile and Rochdale. All those matters are important and must be priorities, as are others that it has referred to, including driving up advocacy standards and improving support for victims and witnesses.
Given the difficulties that the Crown Prosecution Service is working under, and the importance of its priorities, on which we all agree, can it begin a new priority of animal welfare? That is not to say that it does not prosecute. This morning, the Attorney-General kindly gave me a table—I do not know whether he knows that he gave it to me, but he did—of prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service, and I understand that it will be put in the Library. The reality is that the Crown Prosecution Service works with the RSPCA, and the RSPCA works with the Crown Prosecution Service.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I will make one more before moving on to it. The national wildlife crime unit is a small group of 10 people. They work with the RSPCA, and the RSPCA works with them. They have done important prosecution work involving badger baiting and reptile smuggling. They are experts, but unfortunately it seems that their funding will end at the end of next year, so we will fall back even more on the need for the RSPCA. The question will then be, can we trust the RSPCA? The truth is that the vast majority of the public believe that we can.
In any event, we have a series of checks and balances in our legal system that allows prosecutions to go ahead without the process being abused. In fact, a process may be stayed on the basis that it is unfair, wrong and an abuse of the process. It is for a magistrate to decide that, not the RSPCA. A prosecution may be brought before a court, and it is for the magistrate to stop it if necessary. There are checks and balances before warrants such as search warrants are issued. There are always checks and balances in our system. In our view, the RSPCA does a good job, and is bringing prosecutions on behalf of the public and ensuring that we remain a civilised society. It is for the courts to ensure that prosecutions are not brought wrongly.
It is, of course, open to the courts to award costs against the RSPCA if it loses a case, and it seems that some sense has been spoken this morning about whether the courts should look again, if necessary, at awarding costs against. Many of the complaints that we have heard about this morning have been about successful prosecutions when the case was proved, yet the gripes continue. It seems that the RSPCA was right to bring its prosecution, the court accepted that the evidence was right, offences were committed, and the RSPCA had a public duty and protected an important constitutional right: the right to prosecute privately when the public authorities are unable to do so.
That is absolutely right, and it is right that if, to use the H-word again, it is illegal to hunt in this country and people are hunting, there are prosecutions to stop that so that people understand that the law is serious. If we simply pass laws and do not enforce them, that radically undermines our constitution. In those circumstances, it seems to me that the RSPCA should be applauded.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. I know from discussions with him that he has considerable experience of the matter and feels strongly about it. I think the matter has been passed to me because, although my Department does not cover hunting—far from it—I superintend the prosecutorial services in England and Wales.
I shall start by dealing straight away with the point raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes cases instituted and referred to it by the police. They include hunting and wildlife offences. Since 2005, the CPS has prosecuted 378 offences under the Hunting Act 2004, and it regularly prosecutes other wildlife offences. In 2011-12, it prosecuted 298 offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, 16 offences under the Deer Act 1991, 43 offences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, and 54 offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The CPS publishes legal guidance on prosecutions under the Hunting Act 2004 and of prosecution of wildlife offences generally on its website. If I have time, I will return to that.
That may well be, but the point remains that the hon. Lady suggested that the CPS does not take on those cases. If a case is referred to the CPS by the police, it will be considered for prosecution, and if it passes the code test for Crown prosecutors, it will be prosecuted.
The RSPCA, on the other hand, is a private prosecutor when bringing prosecutions. It is an unusual set-up, but the right to bring a private prosecution in England and Wales is an ancient right, which has existed from the time when the state did not have prosecution authorities and citizens were required to prosecute cases themselves. That certainly was the position when the RSPCA was set up. Although most prosecutions are now conducted by public prosecuting authorities, the right to bring a private prosecution remains, preserved by Parliament in the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.
Speaking personally, I once threatened to bring a private prosecution when I was dissatisfied because the police were not taking action, which did at least lead to my getting a proper explanation from the police as to why they were behaving in the way they were. I believe that it is a fundamental and important right that we have in a free society. Private prosecutions allow an individual to bring a prosecution when the state, for whatever reason, does not. Prosecutions by the RSPCA are, however, just that—private prosecutions. It has no public or special status as a prosecutor. The RSPCA sets out, in accordance with its charitable aims and in its own literature, that it applies the full code test for Crown prosecutors. If I may say so—I do not mean this in any way pejoratively—that is a self-assertion. The RSPCA may well be correct, but it certainly cannot be independently verified, and it is in no position to do that.
To pick up on something that was said, I have no doubt that ACPO may well be correct in saying that were it not for the work of the RSPCA, the burden that would be placed on the police to investigate such crimes would be considerable. I am the first to recognise, as I am sure everybody in the room today does, that the RSPCA, through its charitable work, has performed an extremely valuable role in dealing with animal welfare and cruelty issues.
There must be no doubt that if the police do not feel they have the resources or expertise to take on that work, in those circumstances it might be difficult to do it, unless some other private body were to emerge. The point I picked up from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is that the CPS will take on cases referred to it and consider them.
I must make some progress.
A point was made about cautions. The RSPCA has no power to grant cautions at all. That must be done by the police. Obviously, if the police are involved with the RSPCA in an investigation, although they are fully entitled to use the RSPCA’s expertise to help them on a joint investigation, the police must apply their own criteria and codes when deciding how a case should be disposed of—whether it should be prosecuted or dealt with in some other way. The police should not be influenced—I have no reason to consider that they are being influenced—by any private organisation with its own agenda.
Although the 1985 Act preserves the right to bring a private prosecution, it also provides—this is absolutely key to the debate—that the DPP can take over the conduct of such proceedings. The CPS will always consider a request to exercise that power and take over such a private prosecution, including from defendants, and has received requests in relation to some RSPCA cases. I will come back to that in a moment. The approach that the CPS will take in such cases is published on its website. It will review the case in accordance with the full code test contained in the code for Crown prosecutors and consider first whether there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, and if there is, whether a prosecution is in the public interest. It will also consider whether there is a particular need for the CPS to take over the prosecution, either to stop it or to continue it. That is entirely a decision for the CPS. The DPP’s policy is that a private prosecution should be taken over and stopped if, upon review of the case papers, either the evidential sufficiency stage or the public interest stage of the full code test is not met. The Supreme Court has recently upheld the DPP’s policy on private prosecutions in the case of Gujra.
The RSPCA says that it applies the full code test when deciding when to prosecute. It undoubtedly has its own prosecutions department and is seen as having expertise in this field, both as an investigator and prosecutor. However, if an RSPCA prosecution is referred to the CPS, and the CPS considers that the prosecution does not satisfy the code for Crown prosecutors, the CPS will take over that case and discontinue it. Since the CPS began to keep records in that area, it has been asked to review RSPCA prosecutions on only four occasions. One of those requests is still under consideration, but in relation to the other three, the CPS saw no reason to take over the prosecution, and it continued in the hands of the RSPCA. There are also safeguards in the trial process itself, including the court’s ability to exclude evidence from the trial, and to stop a case entirely if it is satisfied that the proceedings amount to an abuse of process—for example, when the court judges that a fair trial will be impossible.
As some hon. Members have mentioned, the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on wildlife crime reported in September last year. It recommended:
“The CPS should review its performance on prosecuting wildlife crime in England and Wales with a view to either employing specialist wildlife crime prosecutors or introducing specialist wildlife crime training for its generalist prosecutors.”
The Government are finalising their response to the recommendations in that report, and that will be sent to the Committee shortly. The response is being prepared by DEFRA in liaison with the CPS.
The CPS is prosecuting wildlife crime where wildlife crime is referred to it, and where it considers that such a prosecution is justified. It has a multi-agency approach and works closely with the police and other relevant agencies in case building, so that cases can be effectively prosecuted. There are 13 area co-ordinators. To support its wildlife specialists in assessing evidence in cases, the CPS has published legal guidance. It delivers wildlife training to prosecutors and has done so for some time. In particular, in 2006 and 2009, the CPS worked closely with the police and other stakeholders to hold a Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime court training day, exploring how to investigate and prosecute cases involving wildlife issues. It is likely that further such events will take place. In February 2011, the CPS held a seminar on prosecuting wildlife and heritage crime for CPS prosecutors, which looked at specific cases involving the Hunting Act 2004, the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997, as well as the National Wildlife Crime Unit, the Bat Conservation Trust, gamekeeping and trade in plants. Those are offences that the CPS takes very seriously, and when cases are brought to it that pass the full code test, they will be prosecuted.
Another issue raised by hon. Members is that when the RSPCA prosecutes, a cause for concern is that if the RSPCA prosecution is unsuccessful, costs are awarded to the defendant from central funds, and not from the RSPCA. I want to make it clear that, first, that will happen only on indictable offences, and secondly, exactly the same rules apply to any other public or private prosecutor. The reason is that if somebody is acquitted, it does not necessarily mean that the prosecution was wrong in principle. There would be a detrimental effect on prosecutors if they were liable to pay costs each time a defendant was acquitted. That may result in prosecutors being more reluctant to bring prosecutions if they feared the cost consequences. Cases that are properly brought can end in an acquittal. Even those cases that are dropped before the trial begins may well be properly started. Although the decision to prosecute anyone should not be taken lightly, I suspect that nobody in the House would wish prosecutions to be brought only if there was an absolute certainty of success.[Official Report, 4 February 2013, Vol. 558, c. 1MC.]
However, in the event that a judge or magistrates thought that the prosecution had been wholly inappropriate, they would have enormously wide discretion in how to deal with the matter, including the possibility of ordering a prosecutor to pay the defendants’ costs out of their own pocket. Or on a conviction—as happened in the Heythrop case—they have the power to say that only a small part of the costs should be paid by the defendant, and the rest has to be borne by the RSPCA itself. It is a matter for the court’s judgment.
Finally, I have been asked whether Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate could review the work of the RSPCA. That produces quite a big problem. The HMCPSI exists to review prosecution arms of the state. Applying that to a private prosecution would, I think, be extremely difficult.
Radlett Aerodrome (Green Belt)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. We have a very short debate, so you will have to excuse us if we rattle through it. We need to explore the history of the Radlett site and the role of the metropolitan green belt in protecting communities from harm. We need to explore the professed support or otherwise given to green-belt land by the coalition Government and by the previous Labour Government, and the views of key players such as the Minister concerning the appropriateness of development, particularly in the green belt, to see whether there has been any slackening of resolve to protect communities such as mine in and around the Radlett site.
It is worth restating that green-belt land serves specific purposes. It may fulfil one or more of its five designated functions: to check unrestricted sprawl of built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns from coalescing; to safeguard the countryside from encroachment; and to preserve the setting of historic towns while encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land. The Radlett green-belt site fulfils all those functions, so it serves a very valuable purpose, even if it is not all beautiful woodland. There is no bad green belt. We ditch that principle at our peril. My constituents in St Albans and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who will speak in this debate, need to know whether the green belt is safe under this Government, or will the economic imperative to get the country building mean that we ditch those worthy principles when it suits us?
Given the “minded to grant” decision by the Minister on a rail freight interchange on the Radlett aerodrome site, which comprises 300 acres of metropolitan green belt—the site represents 10% of the entire green belt around St Albans—it is important to explore whether is fully supportive of protecting green belt policy or if he believes it to be an inconvenient blockage that stands in the way of the drive for growth. Is he to stand accused of supporting the green belt when it is politically expedient to do so but jettisoning his principles when the need arises or under pressure from the Treasury?
I think that each green-belt application should be decided on its merits; that is very firmly the case. Indeed, I will go on to show that there is very little merit in the application for St Albans. I will not give way any more, because my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere and I must get everything down in this particularly important debate.
Can the Minister convince the House and my constituents that he does have a passion for the green belt and that he has a coherent and consistent approach to planning decisions? Some people have tried to suggest that this green belt site in Radlett is not really green belt, so it is important that we briefly explore the history of the site and its role as green belt.
Radlett was used as a grass aerodrome in the 1930s. In 1947, the runways were upgraded to concrete. All that was before the introduction of the metropolitan green belt protections, which were fully implemented in 1955. By 1970, the runway was no longer in use; most of the structures on the site were removed and it was restored to farmland. However, for a second time the community of Park Street was required to allow its land to be utilised for the greater good of the country when it was revealed that significant sand and gravel deposits lay under the site. In common with communities across the country that have such deposits, a firm undertaking was given that full restoration and landscaping of the land would occur and that it would be returned to the community as an open green space—in our case, green belt.
In 1978, 1985 and 1990, the site was used for gravel extraction, with the runways dug up to access the gravel. That ceased in 1997. The site has undergone a full environmental restoration, which has nearly been completed. The people of this community, like other communities that endure mineral extraction, rightly expected the restoration of the site as a community green space and nothing else. They were horrified to be targeted by developers for a massive rail freight site in 2006. That application was made because the Government of the day had a stated mission to deliver three or four new rail sites that would be
“located where the key rail and road radials intersect with the M25”,
and developers were scrabbling around to find land that would deliver on that goal.
In 2007, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), who was then a Transport Minister, said that the importance of rail freight had been acknowledged in terms of its significant contribution to the economy and productivity. In 2009, Lord Adonis said:
“Rail freight has become a vital driver of UK economic growth...The government remains fully committed to supporting...the development of a Strategic Freight Network”.
It has therefore always been a battle between the economy, the need to build and the protection of our countryside. The economic imperative has been a material planning consideration whenever a proposal to build on the site at Radlett has been considered. However, the question has always been whether the strength of protection afforded by green-belt status would be overridden. It has been a David-and-Goliath struggle, costing my local council more than £1 million, and STRiFE, a valiant group of local residents to whom I pay tribute, huge amounts of time, money and effort in fighting for their community and, importantly, for the green belt.
The case has been tested twice, in 2008 and 2010, and the green-belt designation saved Radlett on both occasions. It is worth noting what Ministers said when they reached those decisions about the weight given to Radlett’s green-belt status. Every application for the site has been for an almost identical scheme. In 2008, the decision was as follows:
“The Secretary of State considered that the need for SRFIs”—
strategic rail freight interchanges—
“to serve London and the South East was a material consideration of very considerable weight”,
but the then Secretary of State went on to say that
“very special circumstances to justify the development had not been demonstrated.”
“concluded that the proposal would constitute inappropriate development in the Green Belt and…attached substantial weight to that harm. She also identified that it would further harm the Green Belt because it would cause a substantial loss of openness, significant encroachment into the countryside and would contribute to urban sprawl”.
That is all contrary to green belt design. It is pretty damning stuff, with real harm to Radlett being identified and every one of the five green-belt purposes being compromised.
In 2010, the plans were considered again. We had a new Secretary of State and a similar decision; it had almost the same wording. In May 2010, he said that he was
“not satisfied that the appraisal of alternative sites”
“clearly demonstrated that there would be no other suitable location in the North West Sector that would meet the need for an SRFI in the foreseeable future in a significantly less harmful way than the appeal site.”
He went on to say that the benefits of the proposal, taken either individually or cumulatively, would not clearly outweigh the harm to the green belt and other harm. He did not therefore consider that there were special circumstances. He concluded that there were no material considerations of sufficient weight that would require him to determine the application other than in accordance with the development plan. It was refused.
It is clear that despite the need for an SRFI somewhere near London, the green-belt protection always held firm for very similar applications. Then the mood in the Government appears to change. A few colleagues are shuffled off into other areas, and we start to hear a lot of talk about the need to get Britain building. Those who stand in the way are dismissed as luddites.
Other Departments put in bids for construction projects, particularly in relation to transport, with High Speed 2 and rail freight suddenly hot topics. In 2011, the previous Secretary of State for Transport made a statement on rail freight and stressed its economic benefits, saying that
“the Government believe that rail freight could make an even stronger contribution to the country’s economic recovery.”
That sounds like a rehashing of the old Strategic Rail Authority statement and comments that I have quoted in my speech. I am concerned that the coalition Government may now be using a flatlining economy as a justification to take a less than robust view on green-belt protection—to ditch protection of our countryside in a massive push for activity. I want to test that in this debate. If it were to be the case, it would have worrying implications for many communities across the countryside.
That Secretary of State went on to say in her statement:
“The Government are therefore taking measures to unblock the development of strategic rail freight interchanges”—[Official Report, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 57-8WS.]
What is meant by unblocking? I am extremely concerned that the convenient overriding of green-belt policy may be seen as the solution to unblocking the wants of the Treasury and the Department for Transport, yet historically Ministers and senior politicians have sworn that the green belt is dear to their heart and safe in their hands.
The Prime Minister, reassuring the National Trust in September 2011, said:
“We must ensure the appropriate protections for our magnificent countryside. This is why our reforms will maintain protections for the green belt”.
In 2011, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in response to oral questions that
“we intend to ensure that the green belt is held solid and absolutely inviolate by this Administration. We are not going to follow the tenets of the former Labour Government by concreting over the green belt.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 731.]
Much was made in opposition of the concern that Labour could not be trusted with the countryside. In 2005, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said:
“Under John Prescott’s watch, Green Belt protection has become worthless.”
In 2008, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), then shadow Housing Minister, when challenged on the flexible reassigning of green belt, said that
“we will rigorously protect the Green Belt and won’t pull the wool over people’s eyes by saying that we’re enlarging it, whilst simultaneously deleting parts and creating new green belt…We’ll protect the Green Belt and we won’t play tricks by deleting one part and creating it elsewhere”.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who was then the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said of Labour:
“They are designating land as Green Belt land simply to fiddle the figures”.
Both coalition partners agreed that we cannot swap the green belt around conveniently, but there appears to have been a seismic shift in sentiment. It is now being touted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a way of getting round the awkward nature of the green belt. On “The Andrew Marr Show” in September 2012, he said:
“When it comes to the Green Belt...we are not proposing to tear that up but if you look at, for example, around Cambridge…they’ve been pretty smart about swapping some bits of the Green Belt for other bits...Those powers already exist but they’re not widely used, I’d like to see more of that.”
There is a bit of a change of mood there.
I am very concerned that the mood and rhetoric around planning and development has changed. We have a new Minister in place, and I am sorry to say that I do not have confidence that he truly understands the value communities up and down the country place on the green belt, nor does he have the confidence of my constituents, who will be unsure of what we as a Government stand for if this departure from green belt protection goes ahead. I am sure that many of them, who have copied me in on their correspondence, will let him know that.
In January 2012, in a speech to the Tory Reform Group, the Minister said:
“Business investment is also deterred by the bureaucratic rigidity of our outdated planning regime. So it is essential that we press on with our planning reforms and do not allow the hysterical scare-mongering of latterday Luddites…to strangle developments”.
On “Newsnight” he said:
“We’re going to protect the green belt”,
but he went on to say:
“The built environment can be more beautiful than nature and we shouldn’t obsess about the fact that the only landscapes that are beautiful are open—sometimes buildings are better.”
May I inform the Minister that 6 million square feet of industrial development on the green belt will never be regarded as beautiful or better? It will not deliver any local benefit, either in economic terms or through homes for local people.
This flip-flop, inconsistent approach to decision making is infuriating residents, who have a right to expect protection from inappropriate development and to lean on green-belt policies to defend them. In response to my constituent who contacted him about his “Newsnight” comments, the Minister wrote:
“We recognise the importance of the countryside to the well-being of communities, which is why the National Planning Policy Framework guards against inappropriate development in valued areas such as the Green Belt”.
Given that reassuring response, my constituents now regard his decision to be minded to grant a desecration of 300 acres of local green belt as somewhat hypocritical. He can drop a conjoined inquiry for Radlett with no explanation—which is being challenged by my council, so I will not investigate that here—but it seems that he can oppose developments when it suits him.
In a letter to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the Minister sought to clarify his position on inappropriate locations for wind farms:
“We should be working with communities rather than seemingly riding roughshod over their concerns”.
My constituents are being ridden over roughshod and they are not being worked with. They were informed on the Friday before Christmas that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was minded to sacrifice the green belt at Radlett, and have concluded that the Minister cannot be trusted on the green belt, and my post bag reflects that.
We need to ask who is now deciding planning policy—the Minister and his Department or the economic drive of the Treasury? He knows that if the development goes ahead, it will hugely harm St Albans. The fatal decision letter of December 2012 said that
“the appeal proposal would be inappropriate development in the Green Belt...it would cause further harm through loss of openness and significant encroachment into the countryside...would contribute to urban sprawl…would cause some harm to the setting of St Albans. The Secretary of State has attributed substantial weight to the harm that would be caused to the Green Belt”.
Surprisingly, substantial weight having been given to the need for an SRFI in the other appeals of 2008 and 2010, it now appears to trump green-belt protection. It seems that the hunt for shovel-ready sites is paramount, but I hate to inform the Minister that this site is green fields and does not have a hope of being developed for years. It certainly is not shovel-ready.
The letter went on to say:
“The Secretary of State considers that the factors weighing in favour of the appeal include the need for SRFIs to serve London and the South East, to which he has attributed very considerable weight.”
That is the only thing that has changed, which leads me to believe that there has been a shift in green-belt policy. The words are almost the same as those used in previous refusals. Have we had a change in green-belt policy? Do national economic factors now outweigh green-belt planning protection? Is it really, “The economy, stupid”? Perhaps the Chancellor’s recent words when discussing High Speed 2 give us a clue to the new approach:
“As with all these things unfortunately somebody is going to be affected, but that’s life.”
It might be life for some, namely my constituents living cheek by jowl with a noisy, intrusive 24/7 industrial development, but it is not life for privileged Ministers fortunate enough not to be affected by their aggressive decisions to build on Britain’s beautiful landscapes and green belt. The Minister needs to demonstrate by his deeds that he truly supports the green belt and to rethink the dangerous precedent he may be setting by sacrificing our historic landscapes on the altar of No. 11’s economic strategy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for giving me permission to take part in the debate and for the leave from appropriate quarters. I congratulate her on securing the debate.
As anybody listening to the debate will have gathered, my hon. Friend has been absolutely indefatigable in her opposition to the planning application. It would be disastrous for the green belt in Hertfordshire, for her and my constituents and for anybody who has a fondness and affection for the city of St Albans. I join her in paying tribute to STRiFE for its hard work against the behemoth that is seeking the planning application.
It is entirely right that we debate the decisions not to hold a conjoined inquiry for the Colnbrook and Radlett proposals and to grant permission for the Radlett proposal—two decisions announced just before Christmas. Those decisions can be described only as perverse and unreasonable, in view of what the Government said previously. As recently as 19 September, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote to interested parties to say that he was of the view that there should be a conjoined inquiry. I shall briefly quote from his letter, which is absolutely clear:
“The Secretary of State is of the view that the two schemes raise similar and inter-related issues. He considers it likely that their comparative merits will be a significant material consideration in his determination of the Radlett proposal. Furthermore, he considers that a decision on the Radlett proposal and the reasoning for that decision may have a significant bearing on his determination of the Colnbrook proposal. Given this, he is of the view that re-opening the inquiry into the Radlett appeal and conjoining it with the planned inquiry into the proposed SRFI at Colnbrook is likely to lead to a more coherent and consistent decision-making process overall.”
The Secretary of State’s view on 19 September could not have been clearer, nor could the subsequent U-turn. How can he take the view in September that a conjoined inquiry is the right way forward, then simply take the opposite view in December, without giving any proper explanation, and decide that one is unnecessary?
The majority of respondents to the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 September were in favour of a conjoined inquiry, and, in any case, all the responses to the consultation were what would have been expected from the relevant parties. The Minister needs to explain to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend how that change of mind came about. It is not good enough to say, “I have changed my mind.” Ministers need to give reasons. We cannot have capricious decision making. As matters stand, the Minister is, according to his Department’s own argument on 19 September, taking a course likely to lead to inconsistent and incoherent decision-making processes overall. That was the view in September.
Any reasonable person observing the contortions of ministerial decision making in such a short time would be driven to the conclusion that the process had been thoroughly perverse. The Minister owes it to those affected by the decision to give a proper explanation. As matters stand, the process bears the marks of a capriciousness that one would more readily associate with a mediaeval despot than a Minister in a modern democracy. I know my hon. Friend the Minister, and I do not think that it is in his nature to be a despot, but on this occasion he is giving a passable impersonation of one.
There is also capriciousness in the Secretary of State’s assessment of the harm associated with development on the two sites. In his letter of 20 December 2012, he said that he sees
“little reason to conclude that Colnbrook would meet the needs for an SRFI in a less harmful way than the appeal site”.
That stands contrary to the position the Secretary of State took when he reached his first decision only two years earlier, on 7 July 2010:
“The Secretary of State considers that if an application were to be made for a SRFI at Colnbrook of about the size indicated in evidence to the Radlett inquiry, then harm to the Green Belt might, subject to testing in an alternative sites assessment, be found to be significantly less than the harm caused by the Radlett proposal.”
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It is another matter that the Minister needs to explain. The residents of the two areas, and those who are interested in the environment, deserve an explanation as to why there has not been an alternative sites assessment. We have a Minister saying in 2010 that the alternative site could be less harmful and then saying in 2012, “No, it will not be less harmful.” I do not think that Slough has moved since July 2010 and I am certain that St Albans has not moved. What other explanation could there be? He is saying the exact opposite of what was said just over two years ago.
The decision is no small matter as far as my constituents and those of my hon. Friend are concerned. As she spelt out in graphic and correct terms, it has profound implications for the green belt in Hertfordshire. Everyone, apart from the applicant, who has looked at the application can see that it is very damaging for that green belt. As previous Secretaries of State and inspectors have concluded, this development would have a substantial impact on the openness of the green belt, result in significant encroachment into the countryside and contribute to urban sprawl, to mention but some of the highly undesirable consequences that flow from it. This development would damage the environment and reduce the quality of life for my constituents and for those of my hon. Friend in St Albans.
My hon. Friend is again right.
The decision is deeply flawed, because such a decision should be taken only when the alternatives have been properly considered, and, they have not been in this case. Ministerial decision making has been flawed, unreasonable and perverse. It does not stand examination, and questions are not being answered. An onus now falls on the Minister to explain such clearly flawed decision making and to demonstrate that the Government really care about the green belt. As my hon. Friend has appropriately explained, as matters stand the Government’s commitment to the green belt is questioned by the decision-making process in this case, which is very damaging to the green belt in Hertfordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) on contributing to it. They are both entirely tireless, passionate and committed in fighting for their constituents’ interests, and I completely understand their strength of feeling and that of the constituents whom they are representing about the decision taken just before Christmas.
I hope that you, Mr Williams, and my hon. Friends will understand that, unfortunately, I am not able to comment specifically on this proposal, because it may be subject to judicial review, as my hon. Friends know very well. It is entirely open to the local authority or any other party to ask for that. Unfortunately, that means that I, with my quasi-judicial function, cannot go into the reasons for the Secretary of State’s decision before Christmas about being minded to allow the proposal, which are set out in the decision letter. Although I completely accept that the specific reasons do not satisfy either my hon. Friends or their constituents, I am afraid that that is all I can say about them.
In the short time available, I will try to reassure my hon. Friends that, although they and their constituents profoundly disagree with the decision, that decision flows from existing policy, which is unchanged and was set out in the national planning policy framework. The framework states:
“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open”.
It explains that the green belt is often highly valued by communities and provides a vital “green lung” around many towns. In its original draft, as approved by Parliament, the framework states that many types of new building are inappropriate development and should not be granted permission
“except in very special circumstances”.
The key test, as set out in the framework, is whether a particular development meets such very special circumstances. I entirely accept and respect the fact that neither of my hon. Friends believes, and nor do their constituents believe, that this proposal meets that test, and I suspect that nothing could be said or any evidence produced that would persuade them, any more than that we will be able to persuade other hon. Friends of the need to grant permission for HS2 to pass through their constituencies, although in the Government’s view the test of very special circumstances may have been met.
I thought that I had made it clear in my speech—through reprising the 2008 and 2010 decisions, as well as the latest one—that the wordings have been almost identical; all that has happened is that the decision has changed. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) and I, nor our constituents, understands what special circumstances have suddenly occurred, given that there has always been the need for the SRFIs, which have been an economic imperative since 2006. We do not know what those circumstances are.
I entirely accept that my hon. Friend does not understand why there has been that shift in the assessment of whether the condition of very special circumstances has been fulfilled. I can only repeat that, although I cannot go into the reasons and the arguments behind them, the proposal is open to further challenge in the courts if necessary.
The policy on the green belt is clear, and I assure my hon. Friends that it genuinely has not changed. It is as it was set out in the national planning policy framework, which is the most important text on the green belt. However, the framework also has important text on the need to support sustainable development, stating that planning should
“proactively drive and support sustainable economic development to deliver the…business and industrial units, infrastructure and thriving local places that the country needs.”
It continues that local councils should
“develop strategies for the provision of viable infrastructure necessary to support sustainable development, including large scale facilities such as rail freight interchanges”.
The framework therefore captures the potential competition between two very important interests—that of preserving the green belt permanently as open space around towns, so preventing sprawl, and that of supporting sustainable development, specifically including—the framework is specific—
“large scale facilities such as rail freight interchanges”.
Of course, it is then up to the decision maker. As both my hon. Friends will be aware, local planning committees sometimes have to make a difficult decision between two competing demands in their local plan, and have to be able to explain to local people why they have come down on one side and not the other. Similarly, when the decision maker is an inspector or, in this case, the Secretary of State, there has to be a process of adjudicating, given the difficult tension between two priorities in the framework.
I completely accept that. The Minister mentions rail freight interchanges. Significantly, this one is a strategic rail freight interchange, which therefore means that there are also regulations about its having a sustainable work force. It has been acknowledged that this site will have no sustainable work force, and that there will be no economic regeneration. Indeed, it is anticipated that the work force will come from Luton, which is the very site area that wants a rail freight interchange. That is why there is incomprehension. That is what we do not understand; it is not that we cannot read the words on the page.
I do understand, and I profoundly regret that the decision letter has been as unsatisfying to my hon. Friends as it clearly has been. I would never have expected them to be persuaded by its contents, but I might at least have hoped that it would explain why a decision with which they disagreed had nevertheless been reached, and I regret that the letter clearly failed to do that.
I am afraid that I will again have to disappoint my hon. Friend. I am not permitted to comment further on the decision letters, either those produced earlier or the current one, but I nevertheless say that I wish such letters had been more satisfying to my hon. Friends, and had at least explained to them why the position seems to have changed in the decision letter about the Secretary of State being minded to allow the proposal.
In the remaining time, I simply say that the planning job is one of the most difficult ones at any level of government. I am not pleading for sympathy; I am simply observing that the job is one in which we have to balance very difficult and important but entirely contradictory or competing demands. Of course, a good planner tries to do whatever they can to resolve those demands, by finding a way as much as possible to meet both of them. However, there are some occasions—when building a new prison, new nuclear power station or, as we are discovering, a new vital high-speed rail infrastructure that will connect our major cities—when decisions unfortunately have to be made that will never be acceptable to local people or win their support, and which will always cause them a level of pain, misery and disappointment that they feel can never be alleviated by any mitigating measures. That is profoundly to be regretted, and is not something that any decision maker, whether a local councillor, an inspector or a Minister, does lightly or with relish.
Political Party Funding
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
It is certainly a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Roger. I realise that another debate is taking place in the main Chamber in which there is a lot of interest. However, the issue that I want to bring to the attention of my hon. Friends and hon. Members is also worthy of the attention of Members of Parliament and the Government.
It has been said that a week is a long time in politics, but the issue of the continued payment of taxpayers’ money to a political party that refuses to fulfil its obligation to represent the constituencies to which it has been elected has been rumbling on for almost 20 years. In that regard, the issue has a lifespan that represents a political aeon. Despite the repetitious nature of the argument, there is a fundamental principle at stake: those who do not take up their seats in this House should not receive the benefits that come from being represented in this United Kingdom Parliament.
That is an important principle and should not be casually tossed aside or ignored no matter how politically inconvenient it has been for successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative-led, to examine. The previous Government have been indicted on many issues by those who now form the current Government—the handling of the economy and the present financial situation being chief among them. However, some of those who are now in the Government were also deeply critical of the previous Government for their decision to grant special treatment to no-show MPs that enables them to claim Westminster allowances and receive their own specially crafted version of Short money.
I sincerely hope that our friends on the Government Benches, members of the Conservative party, will not now forget their previous utterances on this important matter. Today, I take the opportunity of reminding them just what they had to say about this disgraceful situation.
When we are elected to the House of Commons, we represent our constituents. We therefore know what is expected of us. We should be diligent in attending to our constituents’ needs and in speaking up for them in important debates in this House. Before this situation developed, every Member of Parliament was equal in that regard: from the Prime Minister down to the most humble Back Bencher such as me. Everyone knew what they were required to do.
By granting the request of Sinn Fein for special treatment, the previous Government broke that important principle, and in so doing they created two classes of MP. The ending of that situation would create a truly level playing field, and would bring to an end the present discriminatory situation. My party has opposed the situation from the start.
I came to this House in 1983, some 30 years ago. I represented the constituency of Mid-Ulster, which had been part of a previous redrawing of the boundaries and a part of the gerrymandering process at the time. It is where I was born, reared and grew up. In fact, as a child, I was privileged to have my music lesson in the home of our Member of Parliament, the late Mr George Forrest.
In 1997, after the gerrymandering of the boundaries for the Mid-Ulster constituency that divided it in two, I stood for election. I lost my seat to Martin McGuinness, who is now the Deputy First Minister in Stormont. I can remember the abstentionist views that were expressed by Sinn Fein down the years. The seat had been represented by Tom Mitchell, an abstentionist MP; Bernadette McAliskey, or Bernadette Devlin as she was known; and George Forrest, the Unionist Member, who was initially not connected with any political party.
When I lost that seat, the post was taken up by a Member of Parliament who did not come to the House. In fact, on a number of occasions, I and other Members of Parliament have been asked to raise issues by people in that constituency—my son represents the seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly—because the sitting Member of Parliament was not there to raise them. While those MPs were not here, they were receiving representative money—that was the fancy term that was used.
My party opposed that situation from the very start. When the idea of paying special allowances to Sinn Fein was raised by the Labour Government, we were forthright in our opposition. Others were equally forthright when they were sitting alongside us on the Opposition Benches—now they are on the Government Benches. That is why the Democratic Unionist party backed Conservative proposals to end the payment of these moneys to Sinn Fein. The Conservative party correctly judged that the prospect of lavishing taxpayers’ largesse on a party that does not come to this place or represent constituents here was an intolerable concession made for cynical political reasons. The decision was connected with buying Sinn Fein’s complicity in the political process in Northern Ireland—serving up goodies to them to bring about the complete ending of the IRA criminal enterprise. We supported the Conservative opposition to that concession, and we are now calling on the Conservatives to make good in government the promises they made in opposition.
Let me give the background to this situation. While making much of their public contempt for this House and the other institutions of our United Kingdom, Sinn Fein has devoted considerable time and energy lobbying to enjoy access to the financial resources of an institution that they profess to hate. As we say in Ulster, “They hate the Crown, but they love the half crown.” They first raised the issue in 1997, and it was raised again in 2001.
There are some of us who have had the privilege of sitting under the wise judgments of the formidable Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell. I regarded her as one of the best Speakers that I have ever had the privilege of meeting. She was a no-nonsense Speaker who defended the integrity of the House of Commons and its rules with an honesty and an impartiality that was second to none. When asked to rule upon this matter in May 1997, she was clear in her judgment. She said that
“those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the many benefits and facilities that are now available in the House without also taking up their responsibilities as Members.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
The logic of that argument is impossible to argue against. Sinn Fein thought otherwise and decided that it would use legal recourse to gain access to the money. This culminated in the issue being fought out in the European Court of Human Rights—a favoured avenue for those who seek to challenge the authority of the House.
The European Court ruled against Sinn Fein and upheld the validity of the Speaker’s ruling on the matter. This is an important point. Not only does the ECHR ruling recognise that Baroness Boothroyd made the correct judgment, but it debunks totally the idea that the current arrangements are a recognition of the rights of the people who choose to be represented by Sinn Fein abstentionist MPs. No one is being discriminated against if the policy of paying allowances to Sinn Fein is ended. On the contrary, equality and balance are restored.
The present situation was created by a previous Labour Administration. In 2001, they tabled a motion that would overturn the decision that the Speaker had made. The then Government made it clear that their decision did not apply to Short money. The decision was rightly seen as an unmerited concession to Sinn Fein as part of the political process under way in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein was to be encouraged down a purely political path at the expense of the rules of the House of Commons, and of course regardless of the cost to the taxpayer.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who is now the Home Secretary, identified the weakness in the Government’s position when she said in the debate on the unwanted changes:
“The issue before us is not about the Northern Ireland peace process or about the resumption of the Assembly; it is about the role of Members of Parliament, what it means to sit in the House and the nature of the job of being an elected representative of this place. It is primarily on that basis that we oppose the action that the Government are seeking to take and will be voting against the motions.” —[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 912.]
The Conservative party was equally forthright in its public pronouncements on the issue, inside the House and outside it. The proposals represented, one spokesman said,
“more unreciprocated concessions to Sinn Fein...treating the rules of the House of Commons as the currency for such concessions.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 160.]
Both the right hon. Member for Maidenhead and the Conservative party generally were absolutely correct in their assessment of the situation. The reality was that the previous Government used taxpayers’ money and disregarded the rules of this House to facilitate republican dogma around the issue of the Oath or affirmation.
Sinn Fein is not the only Irish nationalist political party represented in the House of Commons. The SDLP has representatives elected for Foyle, South Down and Belfast South, who, although seeking to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, come to this House and make their arguments to that effect. I do not agree with those arguments and I will strongly argue against them, but does anyone seriously believe that they are any less committed to the goal of a united Ireland because they come and sit in the House of Commons, represent their constituents and fight their constituents’ corner? This is a taboo that exists only inside the heads of Sinn Fein schemers, and it is disgraceful that public money should be used to subsidise such self-indulgence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. When we look at the economic situation in this country, where families have to struggle to make ends meet, a political party, over the lifetime of a Parliament, is receiving some £500,000. It does not come to this House, does not take the Oath and does not carry out the day to day functions that every other party has to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such a valid point. We are constantly being reminded that we are in a deep hole economically, yet we find that representative money is without the same scrutiny and accountability that applies to Short money and to every other political party and elected representative. We all know that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has stringent rules for MPs’ expenses. There is a proper accountability, and rightly so. However, unlike every other party in this House, Sinn Fein can use that money for political ends and political purposes, rather than being subject to the accountability of using it for representing constituents.
On the scrutiny of MPs’ expenses, it was interesting to note that one Sinn Fein Member made a single flight to London from Northern Ireland, yet they claimed £18,000 that year for accommodation. I do not know what hotel they were staying in or what champagne they were drinking, but it must have been very expensive. They claimed for one flight and £18,000 for accommodation, yet this House and the scrutinisers did not lift an eyelid in surprise. Of course, we should not be surprised, bearing in mind the other things that Sinn Fein-IRA were up to at that time. It was a cynical ploy, which it has used right up to this present moment.
Pensioners are not able to get appropriate moneys and there are cutbacks in the welfare budget and every other budget, yet we are told we will still play the game for one political party in opposition to every other party. Every other party has to play by the rules of the game in politics, so it is not right that one political party is able to absent itself from that situation. It is a disgrace. It is discriminatory and therefore totally unacceptable. Why should pensioners, young people and the unemployed or people who are endeavouring to get into work find themselves in difficult situations financially when we have a political party walking away and enjoying the fruits of not representing its constituents in this mother of Parliaments?
Sinn Fein also sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It says it does that because of its political allegiance to a united Ireland, so it is showing its distaste and objection to the United Kingdom and being a part of a British institution. Let us examine that. Sinn Fein sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly, an institution created by statute of this House of Commons. It is a British institution. The laws passed there, just like the laws passed here, go to Her Majesty the Queen to receive Royal Assent. Sinn Fein Ministers participate in that process on a day-and-daily basis. As a benefit of its participation in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Fein receives money for party administration and support staff, just like every other party. It takes that money as a benefit of its participation in the Assembly at Stormont—participation that it does not undertake here, yet it is paid the money without representation.
The argument that the special arrangement at Westminster is equivalent to that at Stormont is simply not true. In opposition, the Conservatives drew the same distinction as we do. The then shadow Secretary of State, Quentin Davies, said:
“There is in fact no comparison at all between the position in Stormont and that in the House because Sinn Fein-IRA have agreed to take their seats in the Assembly at Stormont and in the Executive there”.—[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 162.]
Given subsequent developments, and Mr Davies’s departure to the Labour party, I appreciate that some Conservative Members might not want to hear a quote from him, but I believe that he was entirely correct in his annunciation of the party position, and I trust that he and his colleagues still hold to that.
In the run-up to the 2010 general election, the Conservative party made several clear-cut commitments on the continued payment of allowances to Sinn Fein MPs. The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), was equally vocal on the issue. In the Daily Mail of 8 April 2009, he said:
“It is completely unacceptable for Sinn Fein representatives, who won’t even sit in Parliament, to claim hundreds of thousands at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Although he is no longer Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and he might consider that he has been given a higher position in government, he is a member of the Cabinet. Who can argue with his statement? On one of his many visits to Northern Ireland during the European election campaign, he made clear what direction the Conservative party would take on the issue—I ought to know because my constituency was one to which he seemed to pay special attention. He said that
“it is inconceivable that incoming Conservative MPs would vote to continue paying millions of pounds of public money to elected Members who do not take their seats.”
That is a clear statement. There is no ambiguity and no way round it, and there is no justification for his shifting from the position he announced before the election.
With the greatest respect, Gerry Adams has said a lot of things. He has said that he was never a member of the IRA, yet he was seen as one of its leading members in the city of Belfast, so we have to be careful with what he has to say.
That highlights something else that is galling to the Unionist community and, indeed, to every law-abiding citizen. There seem to be elected representatives in Northern Ireland, and now even in the Irish Republic, who are treated differently from other Members of Parliament. I suggest that everyone is equally subject to, as well as equal under, the law. That ought to apply to Gerry Adams and to Martin McGuinness; it certainly applies to my hon. Friends and colleagues and to every other Member of this House. As far as Adams, who now sits in another Parliament, is concerned, I would take certain statements from him with a pinch of salt.
Given such a catalogue of publicly stated positions, there can be no doubt as to the stance of the Conservative party, which is the major partner in the coalition Government, on this issue. The chickens have come home to roost. It was easy for the Conservatives to point the finger at the Labour Administration. It was easy for them to go through the voting Lobby whenever a proposal came from the Labour Government, but now the responsibility rests with this Administration and they will not be able to get out of facing up to it. That is what government is all about, and we are told day-and-daily that government is about taking hard decisions. I suggest that this Government have taken many harder decisions than this, on cutting benefits and so on, and they believe that they do so in the interests of the economic well-being of the country. I do not doubt their sincerity or the premise on which they present their case, but if they make such decisions on those grounds, there are no grounds whatever for them to move away from the principle of every Member and every party in this House being equal and being treated with equality.
There were clear and unambiguous statements that an incoming Tory Administration would mean the end of the wasteful and anti-democratic use of public resources. I can imagine the Government spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), preparing the argument that this is not a Conservative Administration, and that is true. But it is a Conservative-led Administration, and the Prime Minister is a Conservative Prime Minister. He might say that there is a coalition and, as a consequence, some things that were said on the assumption of an overall Tory majority have to be reviewed. The logic of that argument is correct, and it means that we need to consider the matter of the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats, for whatever reason, did not adopt a formal position on the issue back in 2001, choosing instead to afford their Members a free vote, and I have not heard or seen anything from the Liberal Democrat leadership to indicate a change in that position. Liberal Democrat Members can vote freely on the matter, and I have no doubt that a great many of them, perhaps even a majority, would be persuaded by the arguments made so eloquently by their coalition partners. I certainly hope that that will be so. The coalition has taken hard financial decisions to try to rescue our country from the economic pit that it finds itself in, so it has to face the hard decision concerning this money.
The logic for introducing the changes back in 2001 was flawed. Not only was it based on handing out concessions to a political party that at the time refused to come up to the same minimum democratic standards as the rest of us, but it served to create two classes of MP and to render as nothing the rules of this House. In practice, it has demonstrably failed. If the plan was to kill off abstentionist politics through financial inducement, it has not worked. The Sinn Fein position is as immovable as it was 20 years ago. Despite the fact that Martin McGuinness can meet the Queen or that Sinn Fein Ministers participate in the institutions at Stormont, Sinn Fein has indicated repeatedly that it would not, even if the Oath or affirmation were removed, attend the House of Commons. Its Members receive allowances from the Northern Ireland Assembly as a benefit of their participation there, and the same logic should apply here. No show should mean no pay. I urge the Government to act in that regard without further delay, and make good their many and repeated public promises on this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this debate.
The obligations of Members of Parliament are many. One of the additional onerous tasks on a small number of Members of Parliament, usually one in each party, is to be a treasurer. I say “onerous task” because I had the misfortune of agreeing to have that post foisted upon me many years ago. I have lived to regret it—I mean, never to regret it—ever since.
With that post, of course, comes part of the onerous task of ensuring that the political party’s accounts are supplied, maintained, updated and kept in order on a regular basis. That includes the money known as Short money. I say that because I have a number of years’ experience of knowing how rigorous and assiduous each political party has to be in giving its returns through the Electoral Commission on all income and expenditure, including the money known as Short money.
Each and every treasurer in each and every political party is in that position, with one exception, which is the political party so comprehensively alluded to by my hon. Friend: Sinn Fein. Members should by now know—and if they do not, they will know by the end of the debate—what the representative money was about when it was devised. If we cut through all the red tape and all the diplomatic doublespeak, representative money was about the Government here in Westminster attempting to roll out a green carpet in the House of Commons or a red carpet in the House of Lords—any kind of carpet—in the hope that, at some point in the future, Sinn Fein Members might say, “Okay, guv, the game’s up. We’ll enrol, we’ll sign up, we’ll take the pledge and we’ll come.”
As my hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) have indicated, Sinn Fein has made it clear that it does not intend to change its position. Sinn Fein has made numerous claims that have been abandoned, of course, but it is fairly clear at the moment that it does not intend to abandon that position. Even if it does, what we are suggesting does not run counter to any position it might adopt. We are simply saying that a system should be put in place that represents a level playing field, and that is rigorous and exhaustive for every political party so that no one is exempt and no one can operate under a different set of rules.
Sinn Fein has for many years had an abstentionist policy, to which it is entitled. If Sinn Fein puts that policy before the electorate in a number of constituencies and Members are legitimately returned on that basis—however illegitimate all the other things that Sinn Fein stands for may be—it may legitimately say, “We were elected on an abstentionist ticket, and therefore we are not going to take our seats.” It should be spelled out in advance that, if a party does that, it will not receive money for which an integral part is attendance in the House to carry out duties here. If Sinn Fein wishes to forgo that money, that is a matter for the party.
We all know that representative money was an attempt to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold. We also know—I more than others—that the rules for income and expenditure for my political party, and all other political parties, are different from those for Sinn Fein, because of the rigorous nature of the rules on accountability for what representative money, the money known as Short money, may be spent on.
We should recall the scale of Sinn Fein’s income, including representative money. According to the most recent accounts submitted by Sinn Fein, the party had an income of £1.25 million in the last recorded year. To give an idea of the pro rata scale of that income, it would be similar to the Labour party having an income of some £35 million and spending about £33 million or £34 million. The difference is that the Labour party would not be spending more than £30 million on employing hundreds of people, many of whom used to kill people, which is what Sinn Fein does. Sinn Fein employs scores of “former combatants.” When Sinn Fein runs out of money to employ people on that basis, as has been the case in the Stormont Assembly, it sometimes tries to employ one of the “former combatants” as an adviser to a Minister until there is a furore and it has to sideline that person and bring in someone else. That is what Sinn Fein uses the money for.
Sinn Fein is a wealthy political party. Indeed, according to the most recent figures in the public domain, it is the wealthiest political party in Northern Ireland. No one should get caught up in some sort of false sympathy and think that such a measure might in some way impinge on Sinn Fein’s capacity to represent people.
Our contention is simple: Sinn Fein should abide by the rules in the same way as everyone else. Abiding by the rules is a concept that, up to 15 years ago, was not really something Sinn Fein could do very well. Sinn Fein did not abide by the rules. It thought, “Rules are for others, not for us.” Sinn Fein now has to abide by rules.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point, but is it not true that the fact we are having this debate means that, up to this moment, Sinn Fein is not abiding by the rules? The Government are not making Sinn Fein abide by the rules by which every other political party has to abide. The inequality being accepted here runs contrary to many of the other decisions that the Government have taken; they are telling us that there must be equality.
That is why there must be a review of the rules of this House. We spent a long time with the Conservative party when it was in opposition before the last election, and with the Government since the election, reminding them of their commitment before 2010 on the need to ensure that people in Northern Ireland had a degree of assurance that moneys were being spent appropriately.
Every Member of this House, from every political party, knows that even perfectly legitimate expenditure and income is questioned and examined by our constituents. If that is the case for rigorously accounted income and expenditure, we can imagine what people are thinking about other moneys that are set aside separately for one party and for one party alone. There is rising resentment in Northern Ireland, and it is not confined to Northern Ireland, because on occasion I have had correspondence from residents in other parts of the UK who are equally annoyed and angry at the lack of accountability that exists for one political party.
Whenever this issue arises—other hon. Members will see this, too—we get correspondence from Sinn Fein Members saying that they will arrive here on sporadic visits to inform people and Members about the situation in Northern Ireland. We had a flying visit a couple of weeks ago by an abstentionist Member to inform other MPs about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Those visits normally coincide with the issue we are debating coming to the fore again. Why is that? It is not just a cynic who would be led to believe that when Sinn Fein Members see the prospect of this special money being reviewed and possibly taken from them, they hop on a plane from Belfast to London, and a hurriedly arranged meeting to update Members is on the cards. People are asked to come along and hear what is happening with the flag protest or the austerity measures. Members are perfectly entitled to ask questions about those issues and be updated on them, but not on the basis of Sinn Fein sporadically trying to justify the moneys it gets.
For that and a number of other reasons, I believe and hope that the Minister will respond by giving some assurance. We use the phrase “hard-pressed taxpayers” lightly, but people are suffering. They are examining each and every aspect of Government policy. They are looking at welfare reform and every pound they spend, as well as every pound the Government spend. When people see an unjustifiable and indefensible position such as this, they say, “The time has come to review, to change and to abandon the special status.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that Sinn Fein’s most recent ploy of holding little seminars and little meetings is in many ways an affront to democracy? Over the years, Sinn Fein Members have become used to concession and appeasement whenever they raise their voices, and they feel that, if they raise their voices in opposition to what has been suggested today, the Government will somehow back down again.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We know that some of the representative money can be used in a creative fashion. Sinn Fein are masters not only of financial creativity, but of a series of other creative measures. Anyone who denies that Sinn Fein is not just misusing this money, but using it for purposes for which it was never intended, is living in cloud cuckoo land. The time for this matter to be reviewed has long since passed. Time needs to be set aside for a review. Every Member who is elected to this House has to be treated on an identical basis. If we take our seats and make representation, whether it be good or bad, we are judged at the following election by our electorates in our constituencies. If we decline to take our seats and are elected on that basis, we should not get representative money for failing to represent our constituents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on bringing this matter to the House. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on his contribution. Both of them made heartfelt contributions. They espoused the concerns that we all have on this issue.
The issue greatly troubles my party, and it should trouble every party—the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, Labour and all the other parties too. The tremendous scrutiny of expenses is essential for us to be able to stand by every pound that is allocated. It is important for us as parties to account for all that money. It is also important for Sinn Fein as a political party to account for the moneys that it receives in this House.
The issue of Short money being paid to those who do not take their seats has been raised, and I cannot see how any Member of this House can justify the unjustifiable. We in the Democratic Unionist party can use Short money only to carry out parliamentary duties, and rightly so. This matter is of some importance, not only to us as MPs, but to our constituents. I receive regular correspondence about it. Members of my party and members of other parties ask, “When will the Government address the anomaly of Sinn Fein expenses at Westminster?”
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only is there an inequality in this House, where all Members should be treated equally, but an inequality in the press and in the BBC today? If the Democratic Unionist party was identified as doing the things we are talking about, the press would crucify it—it would be the same for every other democratic party—but for some reason they do not touch Sinn Fein.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is clearly an issue that we all feel particularly peeved and concerned about. There seems to be a double standard when it comes to Sinn Fein compared with every other political party.
The 1999 resolution on Short money did not specifically state that it could not be used by parties who had not taken the Oath. It was understood that, as it was specified for the carrying out of parliamentary duties, those who do not sit in Parliament should not access it. That is clearly the position, and that is where we stand on the matter. The 2008 motion, however, which was specifically for those who do not take their seat, allowed such a party to access the money for its representative business. As I was listening to my colleagues, I thought, “Sinn Fein are the hokey-cokey party.” They are in, they are out and they are shaking it all about. They are in for the money, but they are out for representation. If money is going they are part of it, but then they get outside and they do not want to represent their people here in the mother of Parliaments.
I have had occasion to speak to some Sinn Fein Members when they come here. I spoke to the Deputy First Minister, and I said, “It’s great you’re here. Are you now coming in here to represent your constituents?” and he said, “No, I’m not.” I had occasion to speak to the Member for Belfast West two or three weeks ago on the same issue. He was here expressing concern about benefits and welfare reform, but he was not prepared to express them in the Chamber to try to change the Government’s mind and support those who have concerns about welfare reform. Sinn Fein Members are in when it comes to taking the money, but they are out when it comes to representing the people. Many of us are concerned about that.
It is completely unacceptable that Sinn Fein Members refuse to take their seats and that they use funds for press and publicity that the rest of the Commons cannot use. Where is the parity between Members? Members will be aware that Sinn Fein was the largest-spending political party by a mile in the past year. It spent £1.16 million out of a total of £1.27 million. Those figures are confirmed by the Electoral Commission, which means there is clear support for what I am saying. The Electoral Commission records party political direction and expenditure across the whole UK and compares them.
If Sinn Fein was spending money to carry out its activities in this House for the democratic process, I would understand, but the fact remains that Sinn Fein Members still do not attend this House in the full way that they should. It has five MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the £500,000 that Sinn Fein has drawn down, and our concern about that is on the record.
Sinn Fein members do represent their colleagues at the Assembly and on councils, so there is a democratic process that they feel committed to. Since we are all under the democratic process of this House, we acknowledge the status of Westminster and the position of Her Majesty. We also have that in our chambers in the councils back home and at the Assembly, so there is clearly an issue for us there as well.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) has raised the matter of funds being raised overseas and suggested that it is time it was brought to an end. He has said:
“We have had concerns for some time that Sinn Fein can raise significant sums outside of Northern Ireland and in any review of funding of parties in Northern Ireland this should come to an end.”
Other issues are involved—not just the House expenses that those Members draw down without representing their people, but what they do in other countries. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 banned donations by foreign nationals. We support that principle and oppose the anomaly that permits a political party to be funded by citizens and organisations from another state. That is not the practice anywhere else in the UK, and the DUP supports it being brought to an end. As well as political allowances for parties, we want to consider the question of funding from overseas.
In 2011 my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) raised the subject and made it clear that the practice had to stop. That is why today’s Westminster Hall debate is happening. In 2013, I ask again what has been done to stop the practice in question. What action has been taken and by what date will the issue be addressed? The issue is of some importance to the Democratic Unionist party and all Unionist parties throughout Northern Ireland, but Labour Members are also concerned, and have asked questions, and so are Conservative Members, some of whom unfortunately cannot be here today because of the debate in the other Chamber. They want the anomaly to come to an end. The DUP has brought the matter to the House, but it concerns us all.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s remarks. Would he, like me, be interested in knowing what consultation the Government have held since coming into government? The question greatly exercised the mind of the Conservative party before the election—including in my constituency—and even exercised the Prime Minister, when the Conservatives tried to get someone else, namely Sir Reg Empey, into the South Antrim seat instead of me. Since then, have there been meetings or consultation about the matter with Her Majesty’s Opposition and the rest of the parties?
Indeed, we have concerns about the involvement of other parties and their opinions. In response to a parliamentary question the Secretary of State said:
“I have had a number of discussions with representatives of political parties on this issue. These discussions are continuing.”—[Official Report, 29 February 2012; Vol. 541, c. 314W.]
Nothing was done. In response to a question from a Labour Member he replied:
“I have had no discussions with the House of Commons Commission in relation to this issue.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 955W.]
Again, nothing was done. The same Member asked again about donations to such parties, and the reply was:
“We will legislate to deliver this as soon as we can.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 886W.]
There are words but no action. That is the problem we have. Perhaps hon. Members can gauge the frustration that we experience as representatives, when our people regularly bring the issue to our offices and doors and when we meet the Members in question swanning in and out and not making any contribution.
Since 2008 the Government have deplored the situation in which Members will not take their seat and honour the Queen as they should, but will gladly accept the Queen’s head on notes, as has been said. I do not ask for an assurance. I ask for an action—something to say that the current grossly unequal practice will stop. All of us in the House are conscious of the taxpayer, and of what money is available. We must be mindful of taxpayers, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry said; it is important to stress that. Taxpayers will be happy if the unequal practice stops, and so will every MP who takes pride in their seat, and in being appointed to the seat of democracy, with the privilege it brings. We will also be heartened by the fact that absenteeism will no longer pay greater dividends than involvement, and that more money will not be shelled out for disrespect than for basic respect for the great process that we all work hard to be part of.
First, I apologise for not being here for the beginning of the debate to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), as I was taking part in the debate on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. That debate is of considerable interest and importance and, if it were not for that, many hon. Members who are in support of the debate here, and of the view that my hon. Friends have put—hon. Members who have told us so, and who would welcome a debate in the main Chamber, to which we will no doubt shortly be treated—would be here too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim on securing the debate. I want to make some brief remarks. As has been mentioned, I raised the issue in Westminster Hall on 30 June 2010. The then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who, like the current holder of the post, is a member of the Liberal Democrat party—said:
“Over the coming months, Ministers will be talking to all Northern Ireland parties to address how to take the issue forward”—
not “if” or “possibly” but “how” to do so—
“in light of the views and clear issues of principle we discussed today.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 253WH.]
To continue the theme that my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was developing, about there being plenty of commitments, but no action, at business questions on 7 July 2011, the then Leader of the House, who is now the Government Chief Whip, said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) about the inequitable situation in which there are two classes of Member, that
“the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is having discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland”.
For what purpose was he doing so? It was
“with a view to bringing that unsatisfactory situation”—
so it is acknowledged by the Government that it is unsatisfactory—
“to a satisfactory conclusion.” —[Official Report, 7 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 1661.]
We very much welcome those commitments. That question followed one that I raised in business questions, and have consistently raised on the Floor of the House.
Government spokespersons have on several occasions said that the matter is being discussed, and that it is hoped that satisfactory solutions will be brought forward. Today we want to highlight the need to get on with it, and bring about some kind of conclusion—now that we are more than halfway through the Parliament—and reach a decision. We heard in the debate in the main Chamber about the need for certainty—drawing lines under issues and moving ahead. We heard a lot of talk about equality and fairness, in relation to Members and the constituencies that they represent. People in all parties are concerned about fairness and equality among Members of the House. Some parties may not be represented here today, but it has been made clear in their discussions with us that they do not accept as proper and fair a situation in which, although they are confined to spending parliamentary allowances on constituency and parliamentary work—as everyone accepts is right and proper—under the representative money arrangement, Sinn Fein can spend that money on party political campaigning and activities, without reprimand or possibility of its being taken away. That immediately puts it at a considerable advantage over other parties.
The advantage is not just over the Democratic Unionist party, or other Unionists. Sinn Fein is also put at a considerable advantage over its nationalist rivals for votes, who take their seats in this House. Its nationalist rivals—who, to be frank, are more likely to garner votes from Sinn Fein than we are—are at a severe disadvantage, because they play by the rules. They come here and have to spend their money, in accordance with the rules of the House, for parliamentary constituency purposes. Sinn Fein Members do not have to take their seats, do the work or come here, yet they can spend their representative money on party political campaigning. There is absolutely no justice in it at all.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Social Democratic and Labour party is indeed at a disadvantage? Although its Members are here in the House representing their constituents, their opponents in Sinn Fein can use the money from Westminster on political propaganda against them. Is it not also true that nobody will be discriminated against if action is taken on the policy of paying allowances? On the contrary, we are asking for equality and balance to be restored.
I agree, and that absolutely backs up the points that I was making.
Sinn Fein says in a statement published this afternoon that this debate and the efforts of Members from different parties to raise these issues in the House are
“an attempt to disenfranchise our constituents, and it’s unacceptable”.
That is utterly preposterous. No attempt whatever is being made to disfranchise the constituents represented by Sinn Fein; it is Sinn Fein Members who are disfranchising their constituents by not representing them properly in the House to which they were elected. They are the ones who chose not to take their seats.
Sinn Fein Members could take their seats and have access to all parliamentary expenses and allowances on the same basis as everybody else, but they have chosen not to. Ultimately, if they are saying, “We are elected on the basis that we abstain, and on principle we are not going to take our seats,” one would think that the same principle would extend to not taking the money either, but obviously there are limits to principle when it comes to Sinn Fein.
Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of irony that one of Sinn Fein’s magic mantras is equality? That word is normally used in any debate in which they engage, yet they seem to want to shy away from this debate. That is what we are demanding: equality in how moneys are given out in the House and how they are reported and accounted for.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Equality is one of their great mantras, and we hear it over and over again, but in this situation, they want a unique position, in which they have a special class of MP who can avail themselves of the moneys without taking their seats and enjoy an advantage over everybody else in the use of those moneys. It is a totally iniquitous position. This is not about disfranchising anyone in Northern Ireland. It is Sinn Fein who disfranchises its own constituents by not coming here or engaging in parliamentary work.
Sinn Fein has long since conceded the point of principle. Its members are prepared to take their place in the Northern Ireland Assembly, accept posts as Ministers there and enact legislation under the Queen. They are prepared to take their seats in Dail Eireann and to be part of structures that they once denounced as separatist, partitionist and illegitimate. They are prepared to take their seats in the European Parliament and denounce the European Union, but uniquely, they will not take their seats here, although they want all the financial advantages and privileges that go with it, and indeed special privileges and advantages. This is not about principle and it is not about disfranchising anyone. For us, it is about equality and fairness.
To put the latest figures on the record, in the year 2005-06, Sinn Fein Members received £35,163 in representative money. In 2006-07, they received £86,245; in 2007-08, £90,036; in 2008-09, £93,639; in 2009-10, £94,482; in 2010-11, £95,195; in 2011-12, £101,004. In the current year, 2012-13, they will get another £105,850. By the end of this financial year, they will have pocketed almost £750,000 since the introduction of the money in 2005, for activities not necessarily to do with parliamentary, constituency or any other type of work. They may have spent it on party political campaigning.
Taxpayers throughout the United Kingdom are entitled to be outraged at that abuse of public money. We have been told that it will be addressed, and it is now time for the Government to take action. We look forward to hearing when that action will happen.
Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is not the first time, and I hope that it will not be the last.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this debate, and on his clear and comprehensive exposition of the history and background of the topic. I also thank him for his passionate articulation of his strongly held views on the matter, which were echoed by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). It is worth putting on record how consistently Democratic Unionist party Members have presented their arguments and their case.
The measure to provide representative money was introduced by the previous Government in 2006 as a result of negotiations with Sinn Fein on a range of issues. Since then, we have made great progress in Northern Ireland, and despite the scenes that we have seen in the last few weeks, the political landscape has changed dramatically. DUP and Sinn Fein Ministers have sat together in a power-sharing Executive for six years. Policing and justice is devolved, and support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland is required of all parties in the Executive.
There is no better illustration of how the landscape has changed in Northern Ireland than Liam Neeson’s comments yesterday on receiving the freedom of the borough in Ballymena. He thanked the DUP publicly for our contribution to making life in Northern Ireland better.
I pay tribute to the efforts made by all politicians, including those from the DUP, to make life better in Northern Ireland. One can only hope that the peace process continues and progresses as it has done in recent years, despite the problems experienced in the past few weeks.
Much, too, has changed in the House. How public money is used has never been under greater scrutiny. MPs’ allowances and funding for opposition parties are carefully monitored, as is right. It is clear that representative money is an anomaly that needs to be looked at. Our view is that it is a matter for the House and must be decided by the House.
The DUP has consistently argued for the removal of all moneys paid to Sinn Fein and its MPs. However, this debate focuses on representative money. Sinn Fein will receive more than £108,000 in public money in the form of representative money in the current financial year, in addition to the Members’ allowances to which each of the five MPs are entitled. Its Members do not receive a salary, of course, but it is important that there is an equal playing field among opposition parties in how financial support for their work is calculated and what activities they can use such money for.
In June 2010, the then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), said that the Government would look into the issue and discuss it with the Northern Ireland parties. The Prime Minister has repeated that commitment inside and outside the Chamber since then, as has the Leader of the House. It is clear that the DUP’s patience on the matter has been tested. The Government should indicate where they are and how far they have progressed in reviewing the situation, as they said they would.
We believe that all Members should take their seats and play a full role in the business of the House. Representative money was introduced in a different political context, both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. It is right that it should be looked at to ensure that it meets the standards set by this House and demanded by the public.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on taking part.
The hon. Member for South Antrim said that there was an important debate going on elsewhere today, but the debate in this Chamber is equally important. He made his representations in a calm, focused manner. He encouraged me perhaps to speak for Conservative Members when they were in opposition and for a former Conservative Member who defected to the Labour party. I am not particularly well placed to do that. In the debate in the main Chamber, the Leader of the House was asked to comment on the Liberal Democrat manifesto, but felt unable to do so. I am not in a position to comment in any detail on what Conservative Members may have said in opposition.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the audit that applies to parties’ financial expenditure, as did the hon. Members for East Londonderry, for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Strangford. If hon. and right hon. Members have suggestions about how improvements could be made to that audit process, I am sure that the Government would be happy to ensure that they were passed on to the appropriate place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I understood the point that he and his colleagues made.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for South Antrim asked what meetings had taken place. I confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, her predecessor and ministerial colleagues have discussed this issue on a number of occasions with representatives of the party, both in the House and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In passing, in his willingness to take on financial responsibilities for his party the hon. Member for East Londonderry is a braver man than me. In my experience, that normally involves people taking out their own cheque book to cover the difference, but I hope that is not so for him.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North mentioned that in a previous debate in this Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), then Deputy Leader of the House, gave certain undertakings. I hope that, at the end of the debate, the right hon. Gentleman will feel that we have made some progress. I should like to put some things on the record. It may be helpful for me briefly to set out the financial assistance available to opposition parties, specifically those whose Members have not taken their seats, without going over too much ground that has already been covered.
Short money for opposition parties in the House of Commons was introduced by resolution of the House in 1975 to assist opposition parties in carrying out their parliamentary business. Although that is not defined precisely, the money is used largely for the employment of research staff and support to the Whips’ Offices. In addition, Short money is used for funding for opposition parties’ travel and associated expenses, and funding for running costs of the office of the Leader of the Opposition. Levels of funding are calculated with reference to the number of seats won at the previous general election, with a sum for the number of votes gained by the party. I had wondered whether other parties from Northern Ireland might attend, to ask why they were not entitled to that funding. In the House of Lords, Cranborne money, the equivalent of Short money, was introduced in 1996. Hon. Members know that Short money is available only to parties whose Members have taken their seats, so Sinn Fein is not eligible.
In July 2005, the IRA formally announced an end to its armed campaign and undertook to pursue its aims by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. That paved the way for the provision of a new representative allowance payable to Members not taking the Oath, which is the subject of the bulk of this debate. On 8 February 2006, the House passed a resolution providing financial assistance to such Members towards expenses
“wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support to Members designated as that party’s spokesmen in relation to the party’s representative business.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 897.]
Expenditure is audited in the same way, whether it is Short money or representative money. The term “representative business” is not specifically defined, although it is understood to include expenditure on press, publicity and related purposes. The sums provided are calculated on a similar basis to, and can be seen as an equivalent of, Short money. The right hon. Member for Belfast North set out the expenditure incurred by Sinn Fein.
In the context of this debate, it is important to note that both this House and the political situation in the Northern Ireland have changed significantly since the debates of 2001 and 2006. I know that all hon. Members would acknowledge that. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein Members play a full role in the Assembly. Despite attempts by dissidents to undermine the peace process, Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement has set it on a political path. Sinn Fein has accepted the consent principle set out in the Belfast agreement, which states that all parties
“recognise the legitimacy whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status”,
“it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
It is true that Sinn Fein is elected on an abstentionist platform, so the electorate are well aware of its stance on taking seats and vote for it anyway. Nevertheless, the Government’s view, as the Prime Minister said in January 2011, is that
“we should be aiming for all Members who are elected to take their seats in this House.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 290.]
It is the Government’s view that the issue of representative money for parties that do not take the Oath is primarily a matter for the House itself to resolve.
In 2001 and 2006, the previous Government introduced motions to facilitate decision and debate. In 2010, this Government introduced proposals from the Wright Committee to establish a Backbench Business Committee, giving Back-Bench Members direct access to the scheduling of business on the Floor of the House. When my predecessor as Deputy Leader of the House responded to a debate on this issue in June 2010, which was mentioned earlier, the Backbench Business Committee was in its infancy, having elected its Chair only the previous week and not having met to schedule a debate. It was right then that the Government decided that at such an early stage it was not appropriate to ask the House to come to a swift resolution. The Backbench Business Committee is now an established, successful part of the House of Commons and has scheduled debates on a wide range of issues that might otherwise not have come to the Floor of the House.
The hon. Member for South Antrim may wish to consider approaching the Backbench Business Committee to demonstrate that the House should come to a view on this issue, on which there may well be a range of opinions that would benefit from being debated and, if appropriate, voted on.
I appreciate the attention that the Minister has given to the matter in his speech, but the Government cannot abdicate responsibility. They should be leading. There is an inequality among Members of the House which has been acknowledged by everyone, as enunciated by the Prime Minister and others for some time. Surely it is time for decisions, with Government leading rather than relying on a humble Back Bencher to bring the issue to the Floor of the House of Commons.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the agreement to provide representative money to Sinn Fein Members was made through a resolution of the House. He should go to the Backbench Business Committee because, in my experience, it is now in a position to provide for debates promptly. If it looked favourably on his approach, I am confident that the debate could be held soon after he sought it.
The subject generates strong views and is clearly an important matter of principle. Hon. Members have used the short debate today to set out some of those views. I hope that, in providing some background and a route open to Members for achieving a resolution, I have been able to assist hon. Members who wish to make progress.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have made some forceful points. I hope that, in responding to the debate, I have provided a route by which he and his colleagues could ensure that the matter was debated in the House, which would allow for the views of all Members to be expressed. Indeed, depending on how the motion was presented, it could be something on which the House might vote.
From what the Minister is saying, the Government are clearly not going to take the issue to the Floor of the House themselves. I will certainly be making the approaches suggested, but the notion of a Government who pride themselves on enunciating the principle that inequality must be done away with does not sit well with a Government who are afraid somehow to bring the subject of our debate to the Floor of the House. The Government should act, because every Member ought to have equality and, equally, ought to be treated fairly.
I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said and his request that the Government should undertake the matter. I will ensure that that is communicated appropriately, but he and his colleagues have the opportunity to bring the subject to the attention of the House by using the Backbench Business Committee, which has been successful in bringing often controversial matters up for debate. I hope that he will use that opportunity.
Young People (Employment and Training)
It was, as ever, with pleasure and surprise that I realised that I had secured a debate on youth unemployment and the raising of the participation age, in which subject hon. Members will know that I have a long-term interest. As responsibility for this area stretches across the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, as ever, the Treasury, it is a complicated matter. I want to say a few words to introduce the debate, and to emphasise that I do so in a non-party political way.
We are at a crossroads for so many young people in our country. All parties agree that we want the very best outcomes for young people. We do not want, as a think-tank that reported this morning on youth unemployment said, a lost generation of young people in our country. We all want to achieve at least as well as the very best countries, particularly in Europe.
The last investigation I carried out as Chair of the former Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families looked at the problem of NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training. Our most convincing experience of how to handle that challenge was when the Committee went to the Netherlands, where we found better organisation and an emphasis that young people do not automatically gain social benefits until they are almost into their mid to late 20s. That emphasis on the need for every young person to be in education, training or some form of work experience is absolutely the way to tackle youth unemployment.
It was clear from our visit that an holistic approach is needed. Young people in the places we visited near Rotterdam would pitch up at a centre where they were assessed medically and their aptitude was rigorously tested. In one wing, there were private trainers, state trainers and people from colleges and education, while in the other wing there were employers—the presence of employers is particularly important—and private sector trainers. In addition, there were seminar rooms where, with professional leadership, these young people and those who used to be like them investigated how to get into further education or work.
I asked for this debate because at the moment this country has a fragmented approach, not a holistic one. I want to ask some challenging questions. Is 14 the new 16? What does it feel like to be a 14-year-old moving through the education system today? What choices does a 14-year-old—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Thank you, Sir Roger. Some of us were told emphatically by a normally well informed source that there would be two votes, one after the other. We were obviously misinformed. I will get back to the question that I finished on, if I can catch my breath.
What choices does a 14-year-old have to make about their education, training and future plans? One piece of research, which I will come back to in a moment, suggests that the countries that do rather better than the United Kingdom are those with well formulated dual education systems. What does that mean? It is not rocket science; it means that there is not just one trajectory. In our country, it is far too often the belief that there is only one path that anyone cares about.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and it may give him a little time to catch his breath. I am very grateful to him for introducing this enormously important debate, especially with all the expertise that he brings to the subject. Does he agree that, especially with the increasingly free-for-all institutional arrangements that we have with our schools, whereas there is at least some common framework of expectation for academic achievement—five GCSEs at grades A to C and all the rest of it—there seems to be nothing equivalent on the vocational level? Does he further agree that that is particularly damaging for those youngsters whose self-esteem is perpetually knocked back by academic underachievement and that therefore urgent attention needs to be given to good vocational options?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was talking about that rather obscure way of describing it—a well formulated dual education system. It is right to say that, too often, our education system is predicated on the expectation that children will go to school, go through the primary and junior years, go into secondary education at 11, take their GCSEs at 16 and be successful, and go through to the sixth form and get the qualifications to go into higher education. That does not apply to the majority of young people in our country yet. The majority of our young people do not actually do that, yet if people listened to most of the chattering classes, they would expect that that was the case.
The rest of the young people in our country have a much less certain future, only because we—all parties and all Governments—have tinkered with and changed the alternative. We have not changed the route through to higher education that dramatically, although there has been some change in nuance and there are some changes going through now. However, the fact is that we have been frantically trying to find ways in which to engage young people in meaningful further education, whether that be in colleges, by which I mean FE colleges, or whether it be through young people going into apprenticeships, going directly into employment—employment with training or, sadly, without training—or, of course, going into the hands of private trainers. There has been a range of opportunities.
The private training sector is very underestimated. I know the private training world very well. Unlike most parts of the education system, there are brilliant private sector educators and trainers, and there are some average ones and some not quite so good, but the market in private training is such that if someone does not perform, they are more likely to go out of business or see their business shrink quite dramatically than if they are running a college. That is the truth of the matter.
There is a cold wind coming through the education system and particularly in relation to the area that we are talking about today—the employability of young people and their getting the right skills for employability. That suggests that increasingly we must have greater transparency in the outcomes of the alternatives and accountability for what is delivered, whether it is the private sector through the Work programme, Jobcentre Plus and anything that it contributes, or what colleges do.
We all have to be very conscious of the last annual report of the chief inspector of schools. I was surprised that there was such a critical evaluation of the quality of FE in our country, which I felt, as a former Chairman of the Select Committee, was a slumbering giant. I was recently on the Skills Commission, looking at specialism in further education. Where further education is good, it is really good. We need only look at Newham and Hackney. We need only look at the brilliant experience in Cornwall. A fantastic-quality education is being delivered off six sites. People there know absolutely what the labour market is like and are engaging absolutely with small and medium-sized enterprises, not just the easy big ones, and delivering relevant skills training.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the incredible work that he has always done in wanting to improve the life chances of our young people. Does he agree that there has been a tendency in recent years for the FE sector almost to compete for the low-hanging fruit, rather than seeking ways in which it can engage those who are not in education, employment or training by offering innovative and inspiring courses?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. There is no doubt that the blemish on the record of our country, under several Governments, has been the inability to deliver high-quality education and training to about 25%—it is sometimes as high as 30%—of the population. They are a lost generation in many ways.
How do we have a system that allows so many children to underperform in primary school? We can predict by the time they are 10 that a significant percentage will never get the GCSEs to take them into a fulfilling career. By then, all the odds are stacked against them. What have we done wrong in primary school education? It is the new frontier. More people will look at the quality of primary education outcomes over the next few years, especially given the enormous pressure on places due to the boom in population growth. There will be a crisis in primary education. I am looking at the Minister, because he must know that.
We are not talking about primary education today, but when one goes into schools, and I still go into many schools over the year, every head says that they can predict NEETdom—the likelihood of a child becoming not in education, employment or training—very early, as the child emerges out of pre-school and into the early years of primary education. That is how challenging the problem is.
I am not sure, Sir Roger, how much time we have left for the debate.
That was the issue under discussion, which is why I was not paying attention. I am terribly sorry. I do not want to be ungenerous, so due to the interruption, the hiatus and some confusion over whether there would be a second vote, if the hon. Gentleman takes no more than another five minutes and we finish the debate at 4.45 pm, that would be fair.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I shall carry on the journey.
At 14, a young person is likely to be in school and studying full time. However, they could also enrol at a university technical college, study full time at a further education college or go to a studio school. Their older sibling may be starting an apprenticeship and their other sibling may be starting a different sort of apprenticeship —one in a different sector and perhaps of a different length—or a traineeship. What should the 14-year-old do? Should they stay in school or choose another option? What support are they given to make that choice? Are the options of equal value? Does each lead to a decent job? What happens if a young person chooses one option, changes their mind and wants to transfer?
At a time of record youth unemployment, the educational choices made by young people have never been more important. At the same time, the participation age is rising to 17 by September and 18 by 2015. The structures and institutions that make up our 14-to-19 education system are not evolving but being radically reshaped in design. That gives us a problem. It is a difficult path. There are no clear, simple pathways to progression.
This is the only party political bit of my speech: the Government seem to have given up on careers information, guidance and advice. They have more or less said, “If you want that sort of thing, it is up to a school or you do it on the internet.” I was on the Skills Commission inquiry into careers information, advice and guidance, and about 17% of young people were using the internet to access such information then—that percentage is probably in the 20s now. All the research shows that the key to getting through the pattern of complex choices is face-to-face guidance from a human being with experience, knowledge and networks.
I recently talked to a head of history in a school, who said, “I have just been asked to look after careers. I have no history of knowing about careers. I’ve had two interviews, which said, ‘Go into that classroom and show us you can teach.’ I know nothing about choosing a career, but I’ve been asked to teach careers.” Careers guidance is an important profession, but we have got rid of the system. If we do not do something about that, we will be in grave danger.
Raising the participation age means that we face a fundamental change. There are two choices: ignore it and fill schools with people who do not want to be there, or proactively ensure that when young people stay on at 17 and then 18, they are given opportunities for high-quality work experience. I have never been one of the naysayers about work experience. It is important. Having four brushes with work experience at school increases the likelihood of a person getting a job by 10 times. Young people at those ages must have opportunities for good traineeships and apprenticeships. Most of the good apprenticeships in Holland, Germany and the Nordic countries last three years; our average is one year.
The debate is a little chaotic for all sorts of reasons, but my plea in the truncated time available is about quality. We must ensure that we stop the party political shouting match and agree that we want our young people up to 25 never to be unemployed. They must always be in education, training or doing work experience, and should not be living on the margins of society on tiny bits of benefit, otherwise we will have intergenerational worklessness for the foreseeable future. Our young people should not be forgotten. We must deliver high-quality guidance and ensure that our country can be proud of what every young person, whatever their background, achieves.
I am grateful for the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to tackle NEETs in the context of raising the participation age. I am particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). He has experience and a long-held passion. He was Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills in the previous Parliament and clearly has a huge amount to say. It is important and valuable for young Ministers such as me to listen to what he has to say. I strongly agree that there is cross-party consensus on tackling youth unemployment, which rose too much in the good years and, although it is still far too high, is thankfully now falling.
The only point of partisan contention was the rather disappointing part about information, advice and guidance. The new duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice, the age range for which has since been extended, came into force only in September and is now in place. It did not replace a system. The Connexions system was widely regarded as a failure. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that the information, advice and guidance duty on schools is in place. Misrepresenting it, as the hon. Gentleman did—for party political reasons, he said—is unhelpful, because this is an area with broad party political support.
I shall take the opportunity to answer the series of questions the hon. Gentleman raised. I will try to get through as many of them as possible, but I am happy to answer them all in more detail if I cannot get through them in the seven or eight minutes I have left. The debate about the future of 16-to-18 education takes place in the context of raising the participation age, which was set out in legislation in 2008 under the previous Government and which we are taking forward. Since 2009, participation in education and work-based learning has risen from 78.8% to 82.2%. It is going in the right direction, but we must ensure that the tools are in place to make it go further. I shall touch on six areas where we are taking action to achieve that aim.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned apprenticeships and their value and importance. Doug Richard’s recent review of apprenticeships puts employers in a central role, setting standards, overseeing testing and becoming more demanding purchasers of training. We can all sign up to and agree with that. He wants a shift from what he saw as a box-ticking assessment to having clear standards towards the end of an apprenticeship, accompanied by a more open and innovative training market, with greater freedoms in how people are trained and greater emphasis on the outcome. I am very attracted to that model, which builds on some of the principles being tested through the employer ownership pilot. We will respond formally to the Richard review in the spring, and we will consult employers, educators, providers and apprentices, but we welcome the review’s direction of travel.
We know that, as apprenticeships become more rigorous, many young people are highly motivated by the prospect of work, but need support to get into it. I strongly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s support for work experience. The statistic that four episodes of work experience lead to a 10 times greater chance of getting a job was new to me; I am interested in the analysis behind that and want to know more about it.
The idea behind having a high-quality apprenticeship programme is that, as employers often tell me, young people lack the right skills and attitudes to succeed in the application process. When they have to compete against adults for jobs, they risk being passed over because they do not have such skills. Traineeships will support a significant number of young people into apprenticeships. We are consulting very broadly on their design, but our aim is for them to be available for young people from September 2013. They will offer a combination of extended work placements, work skills and English and maths, together with other flexible training and support to suit individual needs.
I completely endorse everything that the Minister says about building links between business and students, which will give students much more experience of the real world. I wonder whether, like me, he was very impressed by the “We made it” school exhibition earlier today? It has encouraged young school kids—often from year 9 upwards—to get involved in innovation and invention to build the entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors of tomorrow. We should encourage more such projects.
I am extremely excited by that project and many similar ones that are springing up. Part of the duty on schools to give information, advice and guidance to that age group is to encourage inspirational people to get into schools to show what they can do with their life, and to motivate pupils by bringing a plethora of opportunities and those from different industries face to face with them, so that they can understand what is available.
The only point that the Minister and I have fundamentally disagreed about is that if a school has no independent voice with experience about careers information, guidance and advice, all the emphasis is on keeping children in school, because bums on seats means income and money: if they go off to an apprenticeship or anywhere else, the school loses money. There is a terrible agenda in schools and colleges to keep children on one track, which is often not the one that is good for them.
There is a duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice. Ofsted is conducting a thematic review of how that is being implemented, which will report in the summer, and I shall look closely at its outcomes.
In my remaining minute, I will touch on the strengthening of vocational education and further education through a new FE guild and through stronger intervention in failing colleges, which is an important step, and on the introduction of progression through vocational education by ensuring that the highest quality vocational qualifications are supported and recognised. Those will include a Tech Bacc to ensure that, for students at 18, there is a high-quality and well-recognised suite of qualifications. When vocational education rightly becomes as rigorous and demanding as academic education, it will be seen as on a par with academic education, and that is what we hope to achieve.
I welcome this debate and the insights of the hon. Member for Huddersfield. I am sure that there can be plenty of cross-party collaboration to improve the life chances of our pupils and young people in this country for many years to come.
I thank both the Minister and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for their understanding. I am sad that the debate has had to be concluded in this way, but that is owing to the business of the House, and I am afraid that we all have to live by it.
Council Tax (Benefit Claimants)
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I thank Mr Speaker for allowing such an important debate.
A single person on jobseeker’s allowance or income support gets £56.25 a week if they are under 25 or £71 a week if they are over 25, but the Welfare Reform Act 2012 means that those people’s income will fall about 56p or 71p behind inflation next year. Some councils are proposing to charge them £3.55 a week, or even more, for council tax. Birmingham city council intends to ask for 20% of the full amount from people on a subsistence income.
The financial position in western countries is bad. Between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2012, UK GDP grew from an index of 102.8 to 102.9. People who have not looked at the source data think that the economy flatlined, when it in fact crawled up a single tenth of an index point, but the consequences are much the same. I have argued for some time that the high price of oil, and hence the high price of energy, will reduce economic activity. Unless we see a material reduction in energy prices, we will continue to have a stuttering economy.
That affects the public finances, because tax revenue is anaemic and more people are out of work. To keep sovereign debt interest rates under control, we need to control public spending. Unless there is a very high economic spending multiplier, additional spending will not result in a sufficient increase in tax revenues to allow a reduction in borrowing. Little of the fiscal debate concerns the key issue that we are in fact borrowing to keep up revenue spending, and that there is no space for additional spending. Furthermore, we must reduce Government spending to reduce the deficit and show sufficient commitment to keep gilt interest rates down. It is important to remember that every one percentage point on gilt interest rates increases costs by more than £10 billion a year in additional cuts or additional taxes.
The welfare bill cannot be immune to savings, although the £3 billion-plus arising from the 2012 Act is small in comparison with the deficit. I supported that legislation, although I am concerned about what will happen to the cost of living, and we may have to revisit that either if there is greater than expected economic growth—that currently looks unlikely—or if the cost of living goes up by more than expected.
Historically, local government had a great ability to increase central Government financing merely by putting up the council tax, because a major proportion of council tax was paid by central Government through council tax benefit, with an increase of the council tax resulting in an increase in central Government funding. The total central funding was around £5 billion; in Birmingham, it was about a quarter of council tax revenues.
We needed to put tight controls on central Government spending, but there also needed to be a change in the relationship between councils and the central Government in the operation of council tax benefit.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I am trying to ensure that I can make my speech and allow time for interventions, but I will slow down a little.
On council tax benefit, it may be that that relationship can be changed, but I would expect it to be needed for at least a decade. Any additional funding could be only by discussion, not through automaticity, as has previously been the case. The old system gave people such as Sir Albert Bore a local hand in George Osborne’s central Government pocket.
Thereafter, local councils will have the difficulty of a 10% cut in that support, but they will have the ability to raise additional costs from empty properties, flexibility as to how to provide support for people on lower incomes and the offer of grant support, which would be £2.1 million for Birmingham. There is an argument that it is a good idea for everyone to contribute something towards local government spending. A contrary argument is that it is silly for all of someone’s income to come from benefits and for there also to be an additional tax transaction.
My own view is that we need to look at things from the perspective of someone on £56.25 or £71 a week after rent. They have certain fixed costs, such as water and energy bills, for which there is no support. Without a phone, such a person will have more difficulty getting a job. I was uncomfortable about their falling behind inflation by 56p or 71p, but Labour is proposing to charge those in band H—some people in band H are on benefits—up to £8.50 a week in Birmingham. The food budget is about £20 a week for somebody on £71 a week, and Sir Albert is asking for more than a day’s worth of that budget for the council. Furthermore, food costs are expected to increase and energy costs do not look as though they are on the way down.
It is true that the average stay on JSA is about four months, but we must have a system that enables everybody to cope. I accept that some people have no recourse to public funds. We cannot say with certainty that everybody who cannot get a job in 12 months is a scrounger. There is a baby and bathwater problem—if we make the system too tough, we start hitting a lot of people who are trying hard to get a job and just find the economic situation too tough.
The good news, if it can be called good news, is that the courts will only attach benefits of up to £3.55 a week—5% of the 25-plus JSA figure—for council tax and so on. Hence, in the end, the council can only get £3.55 a week, but that is five times the cut that the Opposition opposed last week. The figure of £3.55 a week includes the £65 summons fee. Hence on Birmingham’s figures after collection costs, there would even be a cash shortfall for people in band A. The council has not taken that into account in its calculations.
It is worth looking at the figures behind the calculations. In 2012-13, Birmingham expects £88.2 million of council tax grant, and it is likely to get £79.5 million in 2013-14. That is a shortfall of £8.7 million. Using a 98% collection rate for the new charges, the council can get £6 million from additional empty homes charges, with only an 80% collection rate on the 150% charge.
The council is offering a grant of £2.1 million, which leaves a shortfall of £600,000. That can be covered by changing the rules on backdating, which will potentially bring in £883,199. In any event, that allows the council to cover the costs of the cut without charging people on JSA a penny. The Government grant allows a charge of between zero and 8.5%, and I believe that the passing of the Welfare Bill justifies the zero charge.
We then come to the sting in the tail of Sir Albert Bore and Birmingham Labour’s approach on charging people on JSA council tax. They put out a misleading consultation that argued that they should keep support costs within the level of Government funding. That means taxing poor people to pay for benefits for the poor. They estimate a 1.45% increase in the cost of council tax more generally, an increase of £1.3 million. The real sting in the tail, however, is the taxing of a “contingency” figure of £882,316 on those people on JSA.
The absurdity of such a policy is obvious in the long term. It will require a further increase in the proportion of tax on those on JSA for each year that the council tax is increased by 1.45%. However, the key is that we should ask for the burden to be shared, not simply hit those people on the lowest incomes with a tax to pay for people who also have low incomes. Yes, that does mean that somehow the cost of £1.3 million should be found from the general fund. Furthermore, the contingency risk, which could go either way, should be borne by the general reserves. However, the general fund is getting an additional £1.4 million from an increase in the tax base in any event.
Sir Albert, in his “jaws of doom” graph, says that inflation will go up by £18 million from £8.2 million in 2012-13 to £26.2 million in 2013-4. He has recognised that that is too high by more than £5.3 million, but there is still an increase of £12.7 million. That is more than a doubling in the council’s assessment of inflation and easily allows the £1.3 million needed to avoid taxing the poor to be found.
There is a problem with low pay. The biggest problem is the driving of wages down towards the minimum wage and it may be worth having visas for Romanians and Bulgarians from 2014 to reduce that effect. However, Sir Albert Bore’s “jaws of doom” graph suggests a cost to the council of £11.5 million in 2016-17 for increasing the pay of the employees of contractors. That is a nice thing to do, but when we are taxing the poor—including those people affected by that increase—in part to pay for it, that has to be questioned.
Those on the minimum wage are not paying council tax, and Labour’s proposals would increase their costs also by the full amount of 20% of JSA. Given the wage increase and the tax increase, someone in band C would get an additional £28 a week after tax, but lose £9.46 in additional council tax. Those who do not work for contractors would just pay the additional tax.
The Government, however, cannot come out of this without having to think carefully about the future. The funding provided in this year should also be provided in future years. This issue may not have got the media attention of the cut in child benefit for higher earners, because inherently very few people in the media are on JSA—they have jobs—whereas quite a few are affected by the cut in child benefit. It is, however, a very important issue for those people facing this tax. I do not think the Government can use financial constraints to justify this tax while increasing foreign aid.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am pleased and reassured that he has drawn breath before anything more serious happened in the Chamber. I think he might agree with me that all this takes place in a context. As I recall, at the time when Labour was in power, the hon. Gentleman was very vocal, both as a councillor and subsequently as a Member of this place, in saying that Birmingham did not get enough money from the Government. He is now quoted in The Birmingham Post as saying that the authority
“has done relatively well in the local government settlement in comparison to other authorities.”
Does he think that a cut in spending power of £149 for every single Birmingham resident, compared with £74 as a national average, really counts as doing well?
The argument is about whether it is best to compare people on the basis of the percentage cut in spending power or the total cut. If another council is spending only £40 and it has the whole amount cut, that is going to cause it a lot more problems. There is no doubt that it is the percentage that matters, and Birmingham’s percentage in this particular spending round is relatively good. It has to be accepted that all the figures are better than the average. Unquestionably, Birmingham has done relatively well. If the Labour party goes round whinging, no one will give them any credibility whatever. I am happy to take further interventions.
The hon. Gentleman’s words may come back to haunt him. Most people in Birmingham expect their MPs to stand up for them. If I have understood the hon. Gentleman’s position, he is trying to suggest that Birmingham council is deliberately over-charging the poor. In doing that, he is managing completely to ignore the fact that it his Government who are cutting council tax support.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating that Birmingham should accept the transitional grant. I have just read the Institute for Fiscal Studies report. Will he tell me whether he accepts that this is a one-off, one-year grant that is designed to persuade councils not to cut council tax support by as much as the Government are cutting council tax funding? Despite his maverick use of figures, does not it ultimately mean that further services will be cut to make up the shortfall? If that is his position, why does not he tell people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. On the first one, which is fighting for the city, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and I campaigned considerably, including in this Chamber, for an increase in fire funding, because the proposals from the Government were unfair. The Government indeed changed those proposals, and it is now accepted that the new proposals on fire funding are completely fair. However, when the city does relatively well out of the funding settlement, I will have no credibility at all if I go around whinging about it, which is what Sir Albert Bore does whatever happens. On the first point, of course I will fight for the city, but when we get a reasonably good deal I will say just that, because it is foolish to complain about things when we are actually doing quite well.
I accept that I have gone through a lot of figures. I can give hon. Members the spreadsheets if they want to see them. If the Government grant is £2.1 million, it is true that £1.3 million is needed from the general fund. However, if houses are built and people move into the city, there is more council tax. The estimated figure for next year is £1.4 million more. The Government grant leaves a shortfall of £1.3 million. If we then use the £1.4 million of extra council tax to prevent ourselves from having to pay the poor, we are far better off.
I have highlighted areas in which there are reserves within the council. I have particularly identified the over-budgeting for inflation. I quoted the figures from the council’s background papers, and I am happy to share the spreadsheets with all Birmingham Members if there interested. The issue is about choices. It is clear that the administration in Birmingham has decided that its choice is to try to charge poor people council tax. My view is that it has a lot of alternatives. To say, “We must do it,” is complete nonsense.
I accept, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the grant is a one-off scheme at the moment, but in my speech I said—I did not say it all that quickly—that we should extend it into further years. I hope that the Minister is listening. I repeat that I want to see the Government extend the grant to further years, because it is important that we try to protect the poorest people in society. The argument of the administration in Birmingham is that we need work incentives. We already have things such as the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, but the administration is pushing it too far.
I accept that. That is why the Labour party administration in Birmingham argued that it wanted to do this—to encourage people to work. I want to encourage people to work, but let us recognise that the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill is coming in. If we ladle things on top of people, it gets very difficult. They are householders, so they are having to manage being in a household. The courts will not enforce the whole tax bill, and the council has ignored that, but the point is serious. It is a political choice made by the authority. The grant that I want to be continued costs only £100 million. I say “only”—£100 million is quite a bit of money, but it is not difficult to find from the national budget.
It was a real struggle to get the information that I have used in this speech from the Labour administration in Birmingham. In its report, its reason for not taking the Government grant was:
“The deferral of the scheme for 12 months may not truly promote positive work incentives or support people back into work.”
It seems to me, however, that it wishes to tax the poor in order to blame the Government and for party political gain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Roger. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for providing us with the opportunity to debate the policy of localising council tax support, which will be delivered through the Local Government Finance Act 2012. I will touch on the salient points generally as well as the specific points about the council in Birmingham if time allows.
There is widespread recognition that welfare spending needs to be targeted better. My hon. Friend made that point. More needs to be done to tackle poverty by getting people off benefits and into work. Council tax benefit expenditure more than doubled between 1997 and 2010 under the Labour Government. Localising support for council tax delivers a 10% saving on council tax benefit expenditure, making a vital contribution to deficit reduction.
Importantly, however, this reform also gives local authorities control over how this saving is delivered, and it gives them a direct financial stake in supporting local people into work. I am clear that councils are best placed to understand local priorities and the needs of residents on low incomes. Localisation enables them to take local factors into account when deciding on levels of support and programmes.
Localising council tax support gives local authorities a real stake in the economic future of their areas. We want local authorities to do more to grow their local economy and reap more of the benefits of local economic growth. Making local authorities responsible for council tax support reinforces the positive benefits of driving economic growth in their areas. Funding for local council tax support schemes is being provided through the retained business rates system itself, further strengthening the incentive for local authorities to grow their local economy and get more people into work in the first place. In doing so, local authorities will not only be helping to create jobs, but will be increasing the income from increases in business rates and, therefore, the amount that they can spend on other valued local services.
Through our other local government reforms we have been clear that we want local authorities to be fully accountable for the decisions that they take. At present, councils can put up council tax without considering the impact on council tax benefit costs. Localising council tax support will change that and encourage greater local financial accountability. It will also strengthen the incentives to drive down fraud and error. We have shown that local authorities can do far more about that.
Councils have choices about how to design their schemes and manage the reduction in funding. As well as being able to choose whether some awards should be reduced, they can also manage the reduction by reconfiguring funding for other services through efficiency savings, using reserves, or using the flexibility that we have now given over council tax charges. I am aware that some local authorities, such as East Hampshire district council, Bristol and the London borough of Merton have decided to do just that, so that council tax benefit claimants in their areas see no reduction in the support that they receive, which shows that it can be done.
Local authorities have until this Thursday to agree their local schemes. I am aware of a range of options that are being considered across different authorities in addition to the examples I have given.
I will come back to that point in a moment.
Let me give another example. Mansfield district council has agreed a scheme that will see claimants pay a maximum of 8.5% of their council tax bill and no change to the support that they receive on top of that for six weeks after returning to work, which is better than the current four. The council has also set up a hardship fund to assist people who experience genuine financial difficulties as a result of the changes. That is the kind of sensible, forward-thinking approach that I hope to see other local authorities adopting. The debate is a good opportunity to put on the record some of the great work that authorities are doing.