Tuesday 26 February 2013
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Responsible Dog Ownership
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
Responsible dog ownership may not be at the top of everyone’s political agenda, and it might not be at the top of every party’s political agenda, but, nevertheless, it is of national importance. I look forward today to addressing a number of issues that have been raised over the past few years.
The UK is a nation of dog lovers. I dare say that the majority of dogs are kept as pets by loving owners and families. Children adore the tricks and licks of their loving pets. Of course, the elderly generation often keep dogs for personal affection and constant companionship.
Following the last general election, the coalition Government said they would
“promote responsible pet ownership by introducing effective codes of practice under the Animal Welfare Act, and will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.”
That has not happened. This morning’s debate will accentuate the weakness of the coalition’s recent proposals and announcements on dog ownership, and hopefully provide a robust framework for cross-party agreement on much stronger and more detailed legislation to be introduced sooner than the Government currently anticipate. There is cross-party agreement on most parts of the announced legislation, and there is not much difference between the parties other than perhaps on the timing of the required legislation’s introduction.
The statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 6 February was described by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as “belated” and “woefully inadequate.” The Committee called for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs urgently to introduce a Bill to consolidate fragmented legislation on dog control and welfare.
Additionally, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), said:
“Current laws have comprehensively failed to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. DEFRA’s belated proposals…are too limited.
Since 2007 dogs have killed seven people, including five children, in private homes…More than 100,000 strays are found each year; incidences of cruelty and neglect are rising and many dogs are out of control due to the irresponsible or deliberate actions of a minority of owners.
The evidence we received from DEFRA and the Home Office did little to reassure us that either Department is giving sufficient priority to dog control and welfare issues.
The Home Office approach to tackling antisocial behaviour is too simplistic; and fails to reflect the impact that poor breeding and training by irresponsible owners can have on a dog’s behaviour…New rules should give enforcement officers more effective powers, including Dog Control Notices, to prevent dog-related antisocial behaviour. Local authorities need to devote more resources to the effective management of stray dogs.”
The hon. Lady has done terrific work on dog ownership, which is an important topic, and she is much in line with the views of Opposition Members. Dog ownership is a massive issue, and the responsibility that comes with ownership increases almost daily.
Mr Gray, may I gently stray ever so slightly to the issue of stray and loose horses? I do not often get the opportunity of having both the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), in the same room. In my constituency there is an issue with wild and loose horses. Mr Gray, I see that you are shaking your head to suggest that I should not stray on to that ground, but perhaps the Minister will agree to meet me to discuss that out-of-hand legislation. [Interruption.] Thank you, Mr Gray. [Laughter.] I have in my notes, “will not be accepted by the Chair.”
Dog ownership is an important issue, and I have some key facts and figures that are quite enlightening. There are approximately 9 million dogs in the UK. Every year 250,000 people attend GP surgeries, minor injury units or accident and emergency departments after being bitten by dogs, and there are more than 6,000 hospital admissions resulting from dog attacks. The cost of dog attacks to the NHS is probably some £10 million. There are some 5,000 dog attacks on postmen and postwomen each year, of which 70% are on private property where irresponsible owners are immune from prosecution. That is obviously another major part of the debate.
The number of dogs dangerously out of control continues to increase. Police, local authorities and animal welfare groups work together in a few areas to promote responsible dog ownership, but only on a voluntary basis. Fourteen people have been killed in dog attacks since 2005—eight children and six adults—and hundreds of children received life-changing injuries and disfigurements during the same period. Enforcement action and the number of prosecutions remain low, as do court penalties.
Some 8 million dogs are kept as pets in the UK, yet there are many stray dogs running wild on our streets. Experts suggest that during 2011-12, nearly 120,000 stray dogs were found, of which 7% were destroyed. Having 120,000 dogs running wild hardly demonstrates responsible ownership. Despite our dog-loving culture, many people seem to be afraid of loose dogs, which is understandable. A pack of dogs running towards someone is a frightening experience, and I am sure it has happened to most people in this room. Whether or not the dogs appear vicious, people tend not to enjoy such an experience. Many of those animals are quite domesticated; they are not wild dogs or banned breeds, but they are set loose to God and good nature by their irresponsible owners or get loose by other means.
This year, a survey on stray dogs conducted by Dogs Trust reported a 24% rise in the number of individuals convicted of cruelty and neglect to dogs, which is shameful. There was a 22% rise in convictions related to dogs and a 21% rise in disqualifications from keeping animals. Again, those are hardly the signs of a dog-loving nation. The figures are frankly unacceptable in any civilised society. Due to many problems and many more false dawns, progress on responsible dog ownership and regulation has been slow.
The announcements made earlier this month by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out the Government’s proposals concerning dogs. They include measures on the compulsory microchipping of dogs, the seizure of dogs and the extension of the law to cover private property. On 15 February 2013, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report following its inquiry into dog control and welfare. As I mentioned, the report—“Dog Control and Welfare”, HC 575—made a series of recommendations and was critical of the Government’s approach. Concerns are rife about the poor condition of many dogs, including those bred for sale and those connected to pedigree breeding.
As I mentioned, incidences of out-of-control dogs have been increasing in the UK. Statistics show that 210,000 people are attacked by dogs in England annually, including 6,000 postal workers. It is not just postal workers but visitors to people’s properties: people going in through the back door or the back gate, doctors, nurses, postal workers and other communication workers. All those people are suffering greatly because of the current legislation on public and private land.
Since 2005, 14 people have been killed by dogs, the majority in their own homes. Many organisations are working assiduously on responsible dog ownership, and there are some shining examples, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust, the Communication Workers Union, Blue Cross, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Retired Greyhound Trust and many others. They deserve credit, as I am sure we will agree throughout this debate. Without their assistance, I am not sure where we would be on welfare and responsible dog ownership.
The RSPCA believes that prevention is better than cure. It says that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had a golden opportunity finally to tackle the big issues, but instead merely tinkered with existing legislation rather than making the comprehensive reform called for by dog law enforcers. The RSPCA believes that preventive measures, such as dog control notices, are required, as well as the introduction of dog registration to improve ownership, and education on dog welfare and safety. Such measures could prevent suffering to animals as well as protecting public safety where there are concerns that owners are failing to control their dogs or do not know how to do so effectively.
The CWU has campaigned hard and is continuing to do so, because its members are experiencing increasing problems with dogs and the irresponsible actions of their owners. The CWU launched its “Bite Back” campaign in 2008 following two horrific attacks on postal workers in Sheffield and Cambridge, when both victims were nearly killed. Some 23,000 postal workers have been attacked in the last five years. The “Bite Back” campaign has achieved dangerous dog law changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland and secured the introduction of the Control Of Dogs (Wales) Bill by the Welsh Assembly, with full cross-party support.
The CWU is seeking similar positive changes here in England. There is a worry that for whatever reason, England has been left behind in those positive national changes. The public have a picture in the back of their mind of a postie being chased around the garden, which they find quite humorous—it has been the focal point of many jokes and cartoons—but it is not really funny when we scrape the surface. Let us look at the frightening statistics involving ordinary people. Some 23,000 postmen were attacked by dogs in the last five years, or 5,000 every year. An average of 12 are attacked every day, and as I just explained, two were nearly killed in 2007-08. Dog attacks peaked at 6,500 in 2008. Action is required now to introduce legislation not only to promote responsible dog ownership but to enforce it legally.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is giving comprehensive statistics on ownership and problems with dogs, but so far he has not mentioned irresponsible dog breeding, which lies at the heart of the issue. As long as there are irresponsible dog breeders, we will always have irresponsible dog owners and dogs that get out of control.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have mentioned dog breeding, but only slightly, and I agree fully with those sentiments. There are so many issues involved in responsible dog ownership. That is a main issue, and I hope to cover the rest later in my contribution.
The first of the three main issues arising from the written ministerial statement was a requirement that dogs be microchipped with the owner’s details. The second was a change in the criminal law, in section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, to extend the offence of a dog being dangerously out of control to all places, including private property. The third was to allow owners of dogs seized as suspected dangerous dogs or prohibited types to retain possession of their dogs until the outcome of court proceedings.
The Secretary of State said that microchipping makes a clear link between a dog and its owner. More than 100,000 dogs stray, are lost or are stolen each year, and many must be kept in kennels before being re-homed. A microchip allows them to be reunited quickly with their owners, reducing stress for dog and owner alike. It will also lead to substantial savings for local authorities and welfare charities, which spend some £57 million a year on kennelling costs, and will mean that fewer dogs are destroyed. Up to 6,000 are put down each year because their owners cannot be found.
The Government announced the introduction of regulations to require the microchipping of all dogs in England from 6 April 2016. After that date, owners will need to have their dog microchipped and registered on one of the authorised commercial databases available, and they will have to register the details of any new owner before they sell or give away a dog. Owners will be required to keep their contact details up to date on the microchip databases.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I fear that I might be about to incur the wrath of the Chair, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that any database, and the registration of changes of ownership, must be absolutely robust so that we do not end up with a situation like the passporting of horses? There are 75 passport issuing organisations, and nobody has confidence that a given microchip and passport link to the right horse. Does he agree that in the case of dogs, we must ensure that the system is absolutely robust?
Yes, of course. I fully agree, and will probably cover the issue in the next few minutes. If we are to have microchipping, it is extremely important that it is absolutely robust and foolproof. If we cannot guarantee that, we will be wasting our time.
The progress made on microchipping has been well received by all parties; it is one of the most important parts of the statement. There is still a lack of clarity, and some might say an undoubted dragging of feet, on the potential introduction of legislation in 2016.
In the Minister’s response, I should be delighted to hear further clarity on microchipping: the age at which dogs will be required to be microchipped, whether there will be any exemptions, how the law will be enforced, who will carry out the enforcement of the law and how it will be funded. Does the Minister expect enforcement to be proactive or reactive? Will microchipping a dog actually prove ownership of the animal? That is important. If a local authority receives a stray dog that is not microchipped, and if it is not claimed but in kennels, will the local authority be able to microchip the dog and re-home it? Will the requirement to keep contact details up to date on the database be cheap for dog owners? Will there be a maximum fee, to ensure that the introduction of microchipping, although most welcome, is not cost-prohibitive for many people? A lot of vulnerable people have dogs and cherish them. What education and awareness- raising will DEFRA do over the next two years to encourage compliance with the microchipping regime?
The second major issue is the suggested amendment of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Extending section 3 to cover all places, including private property, is a major step forward, and will be welcomed on both sides of the House. It will extend the law and give better protection to people in their own homes, as well as to those I mentioned previously who enter private property, such as postal workers. Again, however, more clarity is required. For example, will the extension cover going inside a private dwelling, or will it remain at the front door and just cover the front garden? What private property will the law cover? Will there be a defence for dog owners protecting their property and, if so, what will it be?
Any amendment is important because the legislation is important. To effect the change in the law, DEFRA is to introduce amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act as soon as parliamentary time permits. Put simply, there is not much disagreement in the Chamber this morning, but I disagree about the timing: it is not good enough to say that the legislative changes on private property will be introduced when there is parliamentary time. We need a guarantee that the legislation will be introduced at least in this Parliament. Indeed, we need to ensure that the legislation is introduced as soon as possible—this week would be fine as far as many people up and down the country are concerned. The Dangerous Dogs Act is seen by many as extremely poor legislation and as wholly ineffective, so it would be better to have consolidated legislation covering everything, rather than tinkering with other pieces of legislation.
The third major issue is the seizure and kennelling of suspected dangerous dogs. To ensure the welfare of suspected prohibited dogs that have become the subject of court proceedings and to ease the substantial cost to the police service, the Government have decided that the police will no longer need to seize and kennel such dogs pending the outcome of court proceedings if they do not consider the dog to present a risk to the public. The police will have the discretion to release a suspected prohibited dog when they are completely satisfied that it is in the care of a responsible owner. They will be allowed to put extra restrictions on the owner, such as requiring the dog to be muzzled and on a lead when in public. Such changes will be made by way of amendment to the exemption scheme, and can be done through secondary legislation. Someone mentioned this being the animal equivalent of an antisocial behaviour order, an ASBO, suggesting it should be a DOGBO. I have not seen that before, and I am not personally convinced, but the cross-party line is fully supportive.
The Government consider that allowing suspected prohibited dogs to be exempted from seizure in those circumstances strikes the right balance between protecting the public from potentially dangerous dogs and ensuring that the dogs are safely and properly looked after and not unnecessarily removed from their homes. There needs to be clarity on the issue. I am concerned that one or two dogs might slip through the net. I am not sure that the police are properly qualified to identify vicious or dangerous dogs. A beautiful white poodle could be totally vicious, and the biggest dog in the world could be quite placid and not vicious at all. Let us be honest about that: categorisation is difficult. The police are extremely talented at deciding about individuals and personalities from how they react, but I am not sure that they are well qualified to determine which dogs may be vicious and what owners must do to retain possession of their dog during a court case, if indeed they want to.
Further clarity is required. For example, is the Government’s proposal to allow dogs to remain with their owners effective at the point of potential seizure, or at the discretion of the police once the dog has been seized and kept in kennels? Has DEFRA made an estimate of the percentage of dogs seized each year that are likely to be affected by the proposal? If so, what is that percentage and how did the Department arrive at it? Why has DEFRA not looked at the court processes more closely, to require a time limit on expert witness exams for all dogs seized? I have already posed a whole number of questions, to which I have added more, but many issues need clarification, probably on all sides, to continue constructive dialogue.
With the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee highlighting the need for a more fundamental approach to dog control, will the Government commit to updating and consolidating all dog control legislation? Will DEFRA commit to asking the Law Commission to conduct a review into dog control legislation, as per the Select Committee recommendations? Will DEFRA be providing any new money for training and education? The money that was mentioned in the written statement and subsequently, which I have not discussed yet, appears to have been spent already, as far as the Opposition can see. There is no new money.
I want to place on record my congratulations to my own authority, Northumberland county council: the public protection service’s animal welfare team has been awarded a gold footprint in this year’s RSPCA community animal welfare footprints scheme. The team at Northumberland county council ensure the highest standards of stray dog welfare during the collection and kennelling process; they carry out proactive work to educate owners and preventive measures to reduce strain and long-term stays. Although some north-east councils have achieved the silver and bronze awards, Northumberland was the only council in the north-east to achieve the gold footprint award in 2012, so good on it. It is good to see that in my region we are being proactive in putting the right resources into responsible dog ownership.
Members might be aware that I have an interest in greyhounds—indeed, I have owned and raced a number of them in recent years, with varying success—and I have been a very responsible owner. The greyhound is a truly remarkable athlete. It is one of the oldest breeds in the world: it is mentioned in the Bible, in Chaucer and in Shakespeare, no less. It is arguably the most protected of all canine breeds. The introduction of the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010 under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was a major advance, helping to raise welfare standards across greyhound racing, and we can take a leaf out of that book. All the 30 or so greyhound tracks in England must be licensed and inspected, as must their owners and their owners’ properties. That is about responsible ownership. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain is the regulator and looks after greyhounds’ welfare in the UK.
A few years ago, I was involved in a campaign about the horrendous disposal of greyhounds after their working life. Greyhounds are given to people who kill them and bury them. One person was found to have buried hundreds in a field that he owned. Greyhounds may be looked after when they are running, but, sadly, their welfare after they finish running is really suspect.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. That is a wholly different issue. I have been involved with greyhounds all my life. There was an horrendous episode in Seaham, in the north-east; it was like the killing fields of greyhounds. That spurred the Government to introduce the regulations that I mentioned, so that every greyhound must be microchipped, and every greyhound is now microchipped. That is why I suggest that we should take a lead from the greyhound legislation and ensure that all dogs are microchipped. The case that my hon. Friend mentioned was horrific, and it was symptomatic of the times, but things have changed greatly. That is why I mentioned greyhound racing. There was a huge problem, but it has now been rectified because of legislation.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, I should say that an organisation in Scotland homes former running greyhounds, and I have been involved in its campaign. Retired greyhounds make wonderful pets; they are very loving and sensitive. Everyone who has homed one has been absolutely happy with it.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers, I should say, as the resident “Gray-hound”, that we are straying slightly from the topic of the debate. Quite a number of people are seeking to catch my eye, and it might be courteous to them if we keep our remarks reasonably short.
Thank you, Mr Gray. In reply to my hon. Friend, I would say that the issue is microchipping. I agree that greyhounds make fantastic pets. My point is that, because of the disasters involving greyhounds, legislation introduced microchipping immediately. That has had a great impact, and we should look at it. That is why I mentioned the welfare of greyhounds and the regulation of greyhounds and their owners.
Like many other re-homing charities, the Retired Greyhound Trust is committed to promoting responsible dog ownership, and it does a fantastic job. Members will want to join me in paying tribute to the wonderful work of many re-homing organisations. They are leading the way on promoting responsible dog ownership. Without their efforts, this country could not declare itself a nation of dog lovers. So, good on the Retired Greyhound Trust. We should look at best practice and try to convert it without delay into national legislation for all breeds of dogs, as well as regularly monitoring dog owners.
Many other issues relate to responsible dog ownership, and I am sure that they will be covered in the debate. They include the absence of dog control notices, the status of dog ownership and the £50,000 funding for innovative local community projects to encourage responsible ownership. There is also legislation—we really could have done with this, although that is a separate issue—on attacks on guide dogs, which everyone here utterly deplores. What penalties can be imposed on the owners of dogs that attack guide dogs? Can owners be treated as though their dogs had attacked an individual, because such attacks cause individuals huge distress?
We still have no timetable for the proposed legislation. There should be no further delays in implementing any of the measures. I welcome the progress that has undoubtedly been made, but I emphasise the need to act now, not later, to avoid more people being injured and to protect the welfare of dogs themselves.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be worth saying that six hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. A quick glance at the clock indicates that they will have something like six minutes each. There is no formal limit, of course, but, as a courtesy, it might be helpful if Members keep that in mind.
I think I am the only Member of the House who is a member of the Kennel Club. That came about when one of my pugs won the Westminster dog of the year award. Rather cruelly, The Times carried a photograph of the pug and me, saying that I was the one on the right. Following that, I got an invitation to join the Kennel Club.
Time is short, so let me just tell the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) that the phrase “when parliamentary time is available” does not mean that legislation will not be introduced in this Parliament; it just means that it has not been introduced in this Session. I strongly suspect that the Minister will make it clear, when he responds, that the Government intend to introduce legislation as soon as the Leader of the House and the business managers make parliamentary time available.
The EFRA Committee has just produced an extremely good report, which made 30 recommendations. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate, when he winds up, which of them the Government do not agree with. It might be more helpful for the debate to focus on the issues of contention, rather than the issues on which we all agree. The Committee’s report was really good: it deals with attacks on postpeople and on guide dogs, it talks about the need to reform the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 and, I think we all agree, it rightly raises the need for the compulsory microchipping of all dogs.
I want, however, to focus on irresponsible ownership and dangerous dogs. Some of the genuinely saddest evidence given to the Select Committee was that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger)—I hope she will catch your eye, Mr Gray, and that my comments move her up the list of speakers—and her constituent Angela McGlynn. A relation of Angela McGlynn’s had been killed by a family pet—a pit bull. She told the Committee that it had not bitten anyone before, adding:
“We do not know why it did it, but it did.”
It is very tragic that this family pet had suddenly turned and killed a baby.
The most disturbing evidence given to the Committee was that of PC Keith Evans, who was representing, and an adviser to, the Association of Chief Police Officers. Talking about the pit bull, he said that:
“it is the best breed of dog, pound for pound, for killing what is in front of it. It does this through hundreds of years of selective breeding.”
Effectively, one has years of selective breeding of muscle, weight and jaw strength, which is very frightening.
Everyone in the debate has rightly been disparaging of the Dangerous Dogs Act. I think I am probably the only person here who was a Member of the House in 1991, when hon. Members will recall that a series of really nasty attacks on people by pit bull terriers took place, and both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers carried stories of such attacks nearly every day. Quite rightly, the Government of the day sought to introduce the best legislation possible in the time available, and they were advised to focus on the breeds and types of dog that were causing the attacks. It was clear from the evidence that Mr Evans gave to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that the police and the Association of Chief Police Officers still believe that certain breeds should be on the list of dangerous dogs, but more needs to be done. In its report, the Select Committee recommended the introduction of
“Dog Control Notices, using as a model Dog Control Notices introduced in Scotland. This will provide the police and local authorities with a comprehensive and tailored set of powers for tackling all aspects of dog-related crime and antisocial behaviour”.
PC Evans told the Select Committee that the pit bull is
“without doubt, the breed of choice for certain elements of the criminal and irresponsible dog owners within our communities. It has become quite a status symbol.”
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck made clear, one can have a vicious poodle, and other breeds of dogs may be quite vicious.
I believe that hon. Members are 99% agreed on the matter, and if this were a Second Reading debate, we would be broadly in agreement. The hon. Gentleman made some good points for interrogation in Committee, such as whether cases of trespassing involve the front door. I suspect that we need to do a lot more on the reform of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to be confident that when legislation is introduced, it will command the greatest possible public support and not simply cause people to say, “The 1991 Act was rubbish and this one is not much better.” I do not think that the matter merits a Green Paper, but especially given that the legislation might not necessarily be introduced in the next Session of Parliament, it would be helpful to have a discussion paper detailing the Government’s thinking on the matter. That would focus all our minds on what we can do collectively to deal with dangerous dogs.
It is not responsible dog ownership that we need to be concerned about. The vast majority of dog owners are responsible and love their dogs. We need to be concerned about irresponsible dog ownership and the serious issue of dangerous dogs, and of dogs increasingly being used in crime, in antisocial behaviour and to intimidate people. As hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will testify, there is nothing more intimidating than seeing dangerous dogs being paraded around the streets as status symbols by those who seek to intimidate others.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs managed to get the lead on dogs? The Home Office and subsequently of the Department for Communities and Local Government used to be responsible for dogs, and I am not sure how, in the great lottery of life, DEFRA ended up with that responsibility. Although that is a question about the boring machinery of governance, it is quite interesting. Will the Minister also tell us how we might focus not on the issues on which we all agree, but on those that still cause contention, such as how to deal most effectively with dangerous dogs?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing the debate, which gives us another opportunity to discuss such an important issue. As my hon. Friend made clear, there are more than 9 million dogs in the UK, and the number of our fellow human beings who are attacked by dogs is startling. Every year, 250,000 people are bitten by dogs and attend GP surgeries, minor injuries units and A and E, and more than 6,000 people are admitted to hospital with more serious injuries. The annual cost to the Exchequer is more than £9.5 million.
In addition to the drivers, health visitors, midwives and doctors whom my hon. Friend has mentioned, about 5,000 postmen and women are attacked each year, or 12 each day. My hon. Friend mentioned Paul Coleman, a postman in Sheffield who nearly lost his leg when he was attacked by a dog in 2008. That attack triggered my involvement in the campaign to improve dog control in this country. To this day, Mr Coleman makes regular contributions to the local radio station because he is still traumatised by the attack and he feels strongly that we need to improve dog control law. Since 2005, 14 people—eight children and six adults—have been killed, which is a truly appalling statistic.
There is another story to be told concerning animals. We have already heard about the increasing incidence of attacks on guide dogs by other dogs, and I was pleased to see that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee considers that attacks on guide dogs should be taken as seriously, and given the same status, as attacks on their owners, and that the Committee recommended the introduction of jail sentences of up two years for attacks on guide dogs. I support that recommendation, and I hope the Government will act on it. In addition, the number of dog-on-dog attacks and attacks by out-of-control dogs on other animals has increased.
More generally, we need to improve welfare standards and attitudes towards dog control in this country. The local newspaper The Star reported yesterday that a dog walker in Sheffield found
“a beaten dog which had been tied to a tree, its legs broken”.
The report stated that the dog’s head was “smashed in” and it was “set on fire”. I am ashamed to report that incident in my home city, but it underlines the extent of the problem in this country. Someone, somewhere is responsible for this, and such an incident underlines the fact that the problem is not only one of dog control but dog welfare and attitudes towards dog ownership, which is why this debate is so important.
The history behind the debate is extensive. The current situation is primarily the result of the work that the Communication Workers Union has undertaken, in conjunction, initially, with the RSPCA, on the “Bite Back” campaign since 2008. In a private Member’s Bill that I secured in 2009, we called for the extension of the existing law to private property. Work on the campaign continued, and the CWU worked very hard with the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust. We secured a consultation from the outgoing Labour Government in early 2010, mainly because Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales had already indicated that they were going to legislate. The Government and the Prime Minister, therefore, wondered why on earth, if the rest of the UK could do it, England could not do the same. The same question remains today. Those three countries—the other parts of the Union—have consolidated and updated their legislation, so why cannot we do the same?
We had the consultation, but we then had a significant wait for a response from the incoming coalition Government, and that response was frankly inadequate, although I acknowledge that there was progress. There was agreement to extend the law to private property and on the principle of microchipping. We then had a further consultation, which many of us thought was unnecessary, but we are where we are. Two weeks ago, we heard the outcome of the consultation, which was a commitment to legislation but with no timetable. That is not good enough. We need a timetable for implementing the Government’s proposals. Delay is not good enough. We have waited four years for action.
The number of dog attacks on other animals and on human beings is increasing year on year, and the cost to the Exchequer is £9.5 million annually. Surely, it has to be recognised that not only should the current proposals be put into legislation, but we must implement the EFRA Committee’s recommendation that the Law Commission should look at the overall issue of dog control legislation with a view to comprehensively updating and consolidating it as Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have done.
I am convinced that in the long run, savings can be made for the Exchequer if we get dog control legislation right because, more than anything, if we build prevention and education into that legislation, primarily with the use of dog control notices, that is the principal means of securing savings for the Exchequer.
The Government have some questions to answer, which my hon. Friend dealt with in detail, so I will not go through them again. I look forward to the Minster’s response. More than anything, I want to know when the agreed proposals will be implemented and, beyond that, whether the Government will ask the Law Commission to look at consolidating and updating the legislation?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on obtaining this important debate. I did not intend to make a contribution, but I want to make a few points.
Just before Christmas, I attended a conference with about 150 local authority dog wardens. It was addressed by the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). The unanimous view there was that if the problem of dangerous dogs is to be addressed, identification of dogs is particularly important. Everyone agreed that microchipping is a good thing, but other issues were raised, including the cost of microchipping. More than 2 million dogs in this country are microchipped, but the less responsible owners are least likely to microchip their dogs, and those with limited resources might find the expense of microchipping too burdensome, and that problem should be addressed. The main question at the conference was about the database. Who will hold and maintain it, who will pay the cost of running it, and who will have access to it? I suspect that local authorities, the police and the RSPCA will have access, but will it be open to a wider range of organisations?
The hon. Member for Wansbeck and other hon. Members have referred to the sort of damage that dangerous dogs do to human beings. That may be traumatic at the least and sometimes, unfortunately, fatal. Some young children and babies have, sadly, been killed by dangerous dogs. I want to pay a little attention to livestock worrying. I come from a livestock rearing area and am a livestock farmer. During the last two years, the person who runs my farm experienced baby lambs aged between one day and a week being killed, perhaps 20 at a time. They knew who owned the dog, but the owner maintained that they did not know the dog was guilty of the crime. When considering dangerous dogs, we also must take account of livestock worrying.
The hon. Lady makes the point that not just commercial livestock are affected, but pets. However, I must emphasise that the problem with livestock worrying is not just the financial loss, but the terrible task of having to clear up dead bodies that have been pulled apart by dogs that are out of control.
From my side of the coalition, I would only say that if the practical difficulties of putting the plans in place can be overcome, and if setting up and maintaining a database with access for responsible organisations can be achieved, there is no reason why the legislation should not be introduced so that it is on the statute book before the end of this Parliament instead of leaving it until the next Parliament.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Gray. I have no financial interest to declare, but as an organising secretary of the Communication Workers Union group in Parliament, I have worked on the issue for many years when it was not so much in public view.
We must face facts. On this issue, we have a do-nothing Government. They have been provoked into re-announcing exactly the same promise they made last year and perhaps the year before. In 2010, the then Leader of the Opposition assured the Communication Workers Union’s health and safety representative, David Joyce, who has done a massive amount of work on this, that legislation would be introduced if he was elected. The Government have not done so.
The provocation came from a critical Select Committee report, and I suppose that another promise from the Government is better than the Liberal Democrats’ standard response—I note that a Liberal Democrat Minister will respond to the debate—which is to apologise for ever having made the promise, and then reneging on it. I hope that the Minister will recover some credibility for himself, if not for his party, which is a lost cause, by giving a fixed timetable for implementing the legislation in this Parliament instead of yet another vague promise.
The Select Committee’s report is not a bad effort by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who is part Scottish and perhaps knows that in Scotland, Ireland and Wales legislation has been implemented to give people there better protection than in England. The Committee referred to the welfare of dogs. English people may have a soft spot for dogs, but perhaps they should have a soft spot for victims because clearly much needs to be done.
The report says that if a breeder has more than two litters a year from a bitch, they should be licensed. No. They should be banned. No dog owner should be allowed to breed from a dog more than twice a year, but that is what causes many of the deficiencies. There are weaknesses in the report.
One of the first people to be called by the Select Committee was Mr David Joyce, health and safety officer of the Communication Workers Union. Many of the responses, even to the Government’s present plans, are in line with those of the “Bite Back” campaign, which was formed in 2008 after two postal workers received life-threatening injuries in dog attacks; one in Sheffield, I believe, and one in another area.
The facts cannot be restated often enough: 23,000 postmen and women have been attacked in the five years since the “Bite Back” campaign started—that is five years of inaction by the Government to change the law—and 5,000 postal workers are attacked every year. It is worth calling Parliament’s attention to the fact that, as more parcels are now delivered by postal workers, more people have to go up to the door, knock on it and have it opened. The possibility of further attacks is increasing all the time, and we must therefore do something about it.
The Government’s proposal is welcome, and they will extend it—if they do bring in a timetable and it is not just another open, weak promise—to introduce legislation for attacks on private property and for compulsory microchipping. However, why are the Government not proposing to introduce—as has been done in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and is proposed in Wales—to have dog control orders, which are very important? Why are the Government not introducing compulsory insurance for dogs?
It is a travesty that the Government are proposing to end criminal injuries compensation scheme payments for dog attacks in the case of irresponsible dog owners—it is already a Government proposal—and yet they are not going to introduce compulsory insurance. If someone registers their dog with the Dogs Trust, for £20 a year, they get third-party liability insurance for the dog, with up to £1 million cover. That cost of £20 a year is less than one week’s food for a dog. It is estimated that, over a dog’s lifetime, a dog owner can spend up to £16,000—in fact, some estimates even put the figure at £31,000, when looking after high-quality breeds that are taken off to Crufts, and so on. It seems that the insurance costs less than the dog’s inoculation for flea and worm treatment, but the Government do not intend to introduce it. If they are taking away criminal compensation payments, surely some kind of compulsory insurance for dogs must be introduced, so that anyone attacked by a dog is compensated for their injuries in a proper manner.
We have heard about the children that have been killed. Four of those have been killed since 2008, when the “Bite Back” campaign started, and Governments have not responded to that. Five adults have been killed since 2008, and nothing has been done about it. How many people have to die or be injured seriously by dogs before the Government do something about it? Irresponsible dog ownership will only be controlled by the Government imposing a serious penalty on people who have such dogs in any area and use them in any way, whether that involves attacks on guide dogs—and I totally support the idea of an aggravated attack: attacks on caring dogs should be treated as though they are attacks on the owners. The Government must do more. Their offer is not enough at this time, and responsible dog ownership requires not only microchipping, but dog owner control orders and compulsory insurance for dogs, as well as many other things.
Finally—I know that other Members want to speak—Dave Joyce sent round a portfolio for people to read, and I wonder how many people took the trouble to open it, to see the type of dog we are talking about, and the injuries to a child. They should look at that if they have not seen a victim face to face, and realise that we are talking about saving people—it is not just about nips or a torn piece of clothing—from serious, vicious dog attacks. It is time that the Government lived up to their responsibilities, kept their promises and delivered a timetable for legislation.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for securing the debate.
I am saddened by the comments made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), because until then we kept the debate fairly non-party political. It is a bit rich to say that nothing happened and no people were bitten in the 13 years that Labour were in power, and had time to do something, and to blame everything on the coalition Government. However, because of limited time, I will not rant and rave about that for too long.
I say to the Minister that I very much welcome the fact that the Government have listened since the first consultation. Originally, only puppies were to be microchipped, which would have taken an awfully long time, but the Government have now said, quite rightly, that all dogs should be microchipped. I would like to see that come in sooner rather than later.
The Committee took evidence from postal workers, and I have every sympathy for all postal workers—as well as other workers who go into homes, such as midwives—who have been bitten, especially where particular dogs are known to bite. That is also one of the conundrums: it is not only about which dog bites and whether it is vicious, because many people know that their dogs bite yet they still do not lock them up, keep them out of the way, or keep them under control. That is what we have to emphasise. I am a farmer by background, and I know that animals will sometimes turn, as will dogs. It is unfortunate when animals turn, but it is not the same penalty as for dogs that are known to be dangerous. I welcome, therefore, what we can do to help with measures on private property. I also welcome the fact that we will have universal microchipping, but we must have an accurate database. At Blue Cross or Battersea dogs home, they can only identify the owners of about 30% of the dogs that come in and are microchipped. An up-to-date database must be put together.
However, let us deal with dangerous dogs in particular, and with people who breed dogs to be dangerous, and beat them to make them dangerous. It is not the dogs that are at fault, but the people. They will not get their dogs microchipped, and they will not get insurance, because they do not want their dogs linked to them. They want to ensure that they run beneath the radar screen, which is why we have to be careful when bringing in legislation that we do not make things more onerous for all the people who legitimately own dogs, while not getting to people who breed dogs to be dangerous, and beat them up to make them even more dangerous. Whether it is a DOGBO, an ASBO or whatever sort of BO, we have to proactively get those people. It is not only about legislation. People can legislate as much as they like; we can legislate in Parliament until the cows come home, but it does not mean that the law will be enforced. Very often, there is enough legislation, but it is not being enforced.
I turn to the issue of breeds. Either we keep the Dangerous Dogs Act in its entirety, and we add to the breed-specific legislation, or we scrap it. A lot of dogs are crossed with Japanese breeds, Canadian breeds, and all sorts of breeds, which can actually mean that a dog is just as vicious as a pit bull. Again, that is done to get round the legislation, and the people doing it are not the nicest people in society. They do not go to Sunday school; they are out to cause damage to people. Other Members mentioned what has happened to guide dogs. We have had the evidence. I cannot imagine being blind, because fortunately I have my sight, but it is bad enough for someone who is sighted to have their dog attacked as they are walking along the road. However, if a blind person is walking along the road and their dog is viciously attacked, it is hugely upsetting, dramatic and traumatic. Not only is it traumatic for the owner, but if the dog is destroyed or killed, or maimed in such a way that it can no longer carry out its function and help the blind person, there is a huge financial burden, because it probably costs £1,500 to £2,000 to train a dog on the routes the person takes. We have to take such matters seriously.
We also have to take seriously the internet sale of puppies, not only from this country, but from eastern Europe and the Republic of Ireland. A lot of puppies are coming into the country, and many of them are not only dangerous, but potentially very ill. People who are sold such puppies have enormous vet bills in order to put the dogs right, and sometimes the dog dies and, again, there is huge trauma.
We need not worry too much about the cost of microchipping, because many of the charities that deal with dogs, such as Blue Cross and Battersea, are happy to put in the microchips to help people who cannot afford them.
I think the Minister is sympathetic to the cause, and I really want to hear from him what we will do about tracing people who are breeding and training dangerous dogs, and inflicting them on innocent individuals and other dogs.
Order. Before I call the shadow Minister, I apologise to the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), both of whom sought to catch my eye but unfortunately have been squeezed out because of the time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on an excellent opening contribution to a wide-ranging debate, and I also thank all other hon. Members who have taken part in it. Let me point out not only the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck, but the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). Although my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) was not called, she has taken part in many of these debates before. They are all fine campaigners on the issue. Hon. Members on the Government Benches have also been in these debates before. We have been here before. The need to tackle irresponsible dog ownership has been a consistent theme during the past three years.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) rightly said that it is not the case that dog attacks never took place before the current Government came to power, but we do know that in the final months of the Labour Administration, a consultation was set up specifically to consider the issue. It reported on 1 June 2010, and here we are now, nearly three years later, almost going into the fourth year of this Government.
I genuinely say to the Minister that I welcome the announcements that have been made. We do. We want to support him, but we sometimes feel—to stretch the analogy a bit—like a trusty old Welsh sheepdog, trying to herd the Home Office and DEFRA Ministers through the gate that is clearly identifiable at the other end of the field. The darn sheep keep wandering off into the long grass; they keep being distracted. We want to get the measures implemented. We want to move away from the good words and away from what I have to say are re-announcements. Many of the things we heard a couple of weeks ago were re-announcements.
I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way. Is it not the case that it is not just Labour Members who feel frustrated? Hon. Members on both sides of the House feel frustrated because we have not seen any movement since the consultation closed in June 2010. We are speaking on behalf of all our constituents who are affected. My constituent, Angela McGlynn, lost a child. She desperately wants action from the Government and instructed me to come here today on her behalf, to say, “Please—when is this action coming forward?”
My hon. Friend makes the point succinctly on behalf of her constituent and all the others. We are talking about families who have lost loved ones, in her constituency and elsewhere, in traumatic situations; families who have been attacked and owners of guide dogs and companion dogs who have been attacked. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) mentioned dogs that are out of control in rural areas. All those issues have to do with irresponsible ownership, rather than the type of dog. That is why, although we welcome the announcements and, indeed, the re-announcements that have been made, there is an element of frustration, which has been relayed in the debate today. We are saying, “Get on with it.” We will support the measures. We will rally behind the Government to the nth degree to get things done.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who has great experience of the issue, raised the possibility of the Minister beginning discussions on the overall issue of the dog legislation that is in place—a theme that was picked up by other hon. Members. I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury, but we are in year 3 and going into year 4 of this Government. We would have preferred to be doing things now and getting on with it. It is not as though we have been quiet on the issue. It is not as though the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, the CWU, the Royal College of Nursing, the Police Federation and others have been quiet; they have all been very streamlined on the issue.
One of the big problems previously was that Ministers would say, understandably, “Well, there isn’t any agreement.” Actually, there has been a tremendous amount of agreement. It is rare to get this level of agreement, and it extends to such things as dog control notices. It extends to saying that we should have a fundamental look at the overall complexity of the legislation and whether it should be overhauled. There is agreement on microchipping. I say to the Minister, “Go on. We’ll rally behind you on this. We need to do it. Let’s keep the cost low and the burden minimal. Let’s ensure that it works, that it’s efficient, that the technology is right and that the databases are secure and actually talk to one another.” Yes, there are technical issues, but let us get on with it. Let us deal with the internet trading and backstreet trading. Let us deal with the strays and the resulting kennelling costs for local authorities, the police and others. Thousands upon thousands of dogs are euthanised every year. That is appalling in a society that purports to love its animals—a pet-owning nation.
What is going wrong? It is a classic market failure in many ways. There is demand for the breeding of dogs and for the selling of dogs on the internet. There is demand for illicit trading in dogs. We must step in and take control. We must ensure that resources are in place and that there is enforcement. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, in his very good contribution, made the point well about enforcement, but enforcement carries resource implications. Whether local authorities, police or charities are doing the work, we need to find a way to do more with less—to pick up the phrase of the day—but also to ensure that enforcement is happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck did a tremendous job of highlighting the challenges ahead. He talked about the £57 million a year of kennelling costs for local authorities. He talked about the cost to the police of kennelling dogs. More than 100,000 dogs stray, or are lost or stolen every year. Six thousand dogs are put down every year. What a tragedy that is in terms of animal welfare. There is also the impact on local authorities and others. There are attacks on communication workers, social care workers, home visitors and so on. It is an absolute tragedy. There are 5,000 attacks on postal workers every year. There was a 12% increase in the number of warnings issued by the RSPCA to dog owners last year because of poor welfare.
What is going on? It may be a result of the economic times we are in. I do not know. Certainly when I visit Battersea Dogs and Cats Home or other organisations, they tell me that more dogs are being abandoned, and it is not just breeds that are perceived to be dangerous; dogs across the board are being left. They are being tied to lamp posts; they are being left at shopping centres for someone to come along and pick up. There are major implications in what is happening, but I say quite genuinely to the Minister that he has our support in taking action, as well as saying the words.
We need to get on with it. There have been calls from hon. Members today for the Government to set out a timetable. As a former Minister, I am familiar with the form of words, “When parliamentary time allows”, but I am also familiar with Ministers then coming to this Chamber or to the main Chamber and saying, “What I mean by that is that we will do it within this parliamentary Session. We’ll have to work with the Whips; we’ll have to work through the usual channels, but we will do it.” That is the sort of commitment we are looking for. We want to know that action will be taken and when. We want to know when the Minister will ask us for our support—to wade in on his side.
I know that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench is trying to persuade the Government, rather than chastise them, but surely there is a major problem in this respect: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced or are introducing dog control notices and the Dogs Trust offers, at £20 a year, proper liability insurance for dog owners, should the Government not bring in those notices in England, and also make it compulsory for dog owners to insure their dogs under a scheme such as the one I mentioned so that victims can be compensated?
My hon. Friend raises a very good question for the Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said, if Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales can do it—the reforms are of different types, but they are moving ahead on the issue—why cannot England? My hon. Friend said that fundamental question remains today; we are still at the same point.
I tabled written questions for the Minister. I asked, pursuant to the statement that he made, whether the Government planned
“to bring forward in this parliamentary Session an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to allow for the prosecution of attacks that take place on private property.”
The response from the Minister was:
“I will answer the question as soon as possible.”
Today is a good opportunity to do that. I also asked whether the Government planned
“to bring forward in this parliamentary Session amendments to existing legislation to allow for the introduction of compulsory microchipping in England.”
The Minister responded:
“I will answer the question as soon as possible.”
Again, today is a tremendous opportunity for the Minister to make clear when he will do that. We are looking to rally behind him. He will know that despite the initial warm response, there have been criticisms, from Blue Cross, Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, that the plans do not go far enough. I look forward to his response, including a definite timetable, so that across the parties we can rally behind action, not just words.
It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on initiating the debate. It has been a good debate in general, because we are all united over the broad principles of what we are trying to do.
Despite points of difference on occasion being expressed, there has been a very warm welcome to what the Government announced in the written ministerial statement and a firm view that we are going in the right direction. We are united, because we all want to encourage responsible dog ownership and to help to tackle irresponsible owners. The question therefore is, what are the right measures to achieve those objectives and how quickly can we introduce them?
We are absolutely clear that we will bear down on irresponsible owners who allow their dogs to attack people, and we will do specific things to address the appalling number of stray and abandoned dogs on our streets. I say that because the Government consider owning a dog to be a serious undertaking that should not be undertaken lightly. We are working closely with the animal welfare charities to encourage people to take more responsibility for their own actions and those of their pets. I speak for the Government, but I know that I speak for the House when I say that we care about dogs, about improving dog welfare and about protecting public safety.
The measures that we have announced—the compulsory microchipping of all dogs in England by 6 April 2016, an extension to the law on dangerous dogs to give the police powers to tackle attacks on private property and the ability for prohibited dogs that do not cause a threat to be returned to their owners under strict conditions—are all aspects of achieving the balance between protecting the public and the welfare of the animals people own. We have worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that there are measures to tackle antisocial behaviour that involves dogs—I shall return to that point. I hope that that will deal with the problems with dog control orders, because we can achieve the same objective through different routes in our criminal law system. We have a route available to deal with the issues.
I reject one aspect of the criticism: I want to make it absolutely clear that the measures are far-reaching. The Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), described them as “woefully inadequate”—they are simply not. They go to the root of the main problems associated with dogs and dog ownership. We are trying to tackle two issues here: to improve the welfare of dogs generally and to address concerns about public safety from dog attacks. The two issues need different but complementary solutions.
I shall deal with microchipping first, because the hon. Member for Wansbeck referred to it extensively. Compulsory microchipping is, in the first instance, a dog welfare measure. It will promote responsible dog ownership, by improving the traceability of owners, and help local authorities and charities to reunite more of the 100,000 dogs that stray or are stolen each year. Many such dogs have to be kept in kennels before being returned to their owners or re-homed. Having dogs stuck in kennels for any length of time is potentially detrimental to their welfare and costs animal welfare charities and local authorities nearly £60 million a year.
Microchipping will allow dogs to be reunited with their owners more quickly, and that is good for the dog and good for the owner. Indeed, 6,000 dogs have to be put down each year because their owners cannot be found. Quite frankly, that is a disgrace. Moreover, microchipping dogs will help to ease the burden on our charities and local authorities and allow more precious resource for other dog control and welfare work and for educating owners.
The Government’s proposal on microchipping has been widely welcomed by the police, local authorities, veterinary bodies and animal welfare charities. We have listened to their comments, and therefore, as was mentioned earlier, the initial proposal was different from what is now suggested. Following the consultation, we adapted our proposals in the light of the comments. From 6 April 2016, owners in England will need to have their dogs microchipped and registered on one of the commercial databases available. They will have to register the details of any new owner when they sell or give the dog away. Owners will be required to keep their contact details up to date on the microchip databases. My Department is working with database providers and microchip suppliers to ensure minimum standards of service for commercial databases and standards of microchips and that updated implantation guidance and training is available, as well as a one-stop 24-hour inquiry point for microchipped lost and found dogs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to the cost of microchipping. I thank the Dogs Trust in particular for its very generous support, whereby a free microchip will be available for all unchipped dogs throughout England. Other animal welfare charities are offering free microchipping at their centres, including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Blue Cross, and the Kennel Club is providing free scanners for local authorities, which is also very welcome. I do not think someone not being able to afford the cost will be an excuse.
The hon. Member for Wansbeck asked what age of dog will be microchipped; veterinary advice is that eight weeks is appropriate. He also asked whether there were exemptions; the answer is, no, we do not plan to have exemptions, because as soon as we create exemptions, we create loopholes, and we do not want loopholes in the system. Let me be clear that enforcement is not about harassing responsible owners, but an offence will be committed if someone owns a dog that is not microchipped and the offender will be subject to prosecution.
The databases are already in place. They are available; they are being used and will continue. We do not propose to establish new databases. They will be available to the police and local authorities to access. There will be a single portal, which we are working on, so that no one has to worry about whether they use one database or another. Those databases will be used.
I have very little time to answer the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), because I want to move on to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which is extremely important.
The second key element of our proposals is to address the scourge of dog attacks on people. I will not repeat the statistics but simply say that regular attacks by dogs on people are totally unacceptable. We need to toughen up the law, and we propose to do so. Many hon. Members have asked when we will introduce the changes. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) was kind enough to accept that there are conventions in Government, with which he is familiar, whereby I cannot possibly commit to a particular time for the introduction of legislation. It will not happen this Session, because we are only a couple of months away from its end. Introducing new legislation at this point will simply not happen.
I will be equally clear and say that it is certainly our intention to introduce legislation in the next Session of Parliament—not before the end of this Session, but in the next Session. That is our intention. [Interruption.] A shadow business manager—the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)—is cheering, but she knows the constraints under which I make that statement. I simply say that we intend to do so, because, subject to parliamentary approval, we want the proposals to be in place during the next year. I hope that answers the major question that hon. Members asked.
Other matters were raised about whether the Law Commission ought to deal with the legislation. I do not think that this is a case for the Law Commission; it is not complex law and there are no legal ambiguities. It is of course always better to consolidate legislation, but I am not sure whether it is necessary in this case. Look at what the Home Office is proposing on dog control orders and the antisocial behaviour proposals being introduced. They will provide a very firm vehicle for the control of dogs and the anticipation of such offences, which the Home Affairs Committee has been looking at—
Local Government Finance
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
My purpose in asking for this debate is to highlight the unfairness of the financial and other support provided to local government. I am particularly concerned about Knowsley, the wider Liverpool city region and the overall rationale behind the way that resources are being allocated.
The first issue that needs to be questioned is the general support for local government. The Local Government Association made it clear that the loss of grant over the current spending review period will leave a gap by 2019-20 of £16.5 billion. That is not a small figure; it is a very significant figure in terms of local government expenditure. Indeed, the National Audit Office said that local authorities are planning to reduce spending by £4.6 billion in real terms by March this year, and after absorbing additional costs arising from increased demand for local services that means there will be real cuts in real services.
The NAO also points out that Departments did not break down their analyses to identify regional or other variations. That is an important issue, which I will return to later. If we were to go purely on what we have been told by individual Departments, and particularly the Minister’s Department—Communities and Local Government—we would not know what the regional variations are. I am particularly indebted to Knowsley council and the LGA for providing a briefing that enabled me to make that breakdown. It is pretty sobering reading.
Knowsley anticipates cuts in services—not in back-office functions or luxuries, but actual services to the public—of £17 million during the next two years, which is a 15% cut. That means that over the next three years the council must find savings of £36 million, on top of the £32 million savings it has already made. We are talking about one of the smallest metropolitan boroughs having to make cuts during the period of this Parliament of £68 million.
Like all organisations, Knowsley council sensibly looked at where it can make reductions that do not affect front-line services, and where it has been able to make those changes it has done so. It has even been able to make small improvements in some services, recognising the priorities that exist. However, the fact of the matter is that the council now has nowhere else to go in terms of efficiency savings and changes in policy that could be made without a direct impact on services.
It is Sefton Central. My right hon. Friend used to represent part of Sefton Central when his constituency was Knowsley North and Sefton East.
Sefton council faces a total cut of £116 million for the period 2011 to 2014, and like Knowsley council it has no choice other than to cut services, including the library service in Aintree village, which is relied upon by many elderly and vulnerable people. The Government said that councils should resolve these problems by use of reserves. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that that is an incredibly short-sighted approach, as those reserves can only be used on one occasion and once they are gone they are gone.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central for making that point. I have a very great affection for Aintree library, because when it was in my constituency I used to hold surgeries there.
My hon. Friend is right. If he looks at the NAO report, “Financial sustainability of local authorities”, which was produced in January, he will see that the NAO points out that although 93 local authorities
“used reserves in 2011-12, the remaining 260 either made no changes to their reserves or added to them.”
There is an argument about the use of reserves, which the Government have made, but the NAO report goes on:
“There is evidence that local authorities are reducing services, for example in adult social care and libraries”.
Certainly in the Liverpool city region, in terms of reserves there is really nothing left other than what prudentially is needed.
My right hon. Friend mentioned efficiency savings. Does he share my concern that when Liverpool city council was asked to make £141 million of cuts during the last two years, the opportunity to make efficiency savings was limited because so little notice was given that drastic and severe cuts would have to be made?
I think the Government have the illusion that local authorities are stuffed full of people with nothing useful to do, and that all anyone has to do is to identify where those people are and all the problems will be solved. However, the reality is that there is no headroom left at all in most local authorities, and increasingly we will find that that will directly impact on services. If there is a reduction in the number of social workers, it has an impact on adult social care, families under stress, children’s services and so on. There is a real problem.
To highlight my hon. Friend’s point, I will look at the latest settlement in terms of metropolitan areas as a whole and in terms of other sorts of local authority. If we deal with things by region, the Liverpool city region is experiencing a two-year cut of £166 per dwelling; in London, the two-year cut is £129 per dwelling; the English average is a two-year cut of £105 per dwelling; Wiltshire is experiencing a two-year cut of £50 per dwelling; and Surrey—that hotbed of deprivation—is experiencing a two-year cut of £19 per dwelling. There can be no doubt about where the cuts are being targeted.
My right hon. Friend talked about fairness, or rather the lack of fairness. I wonder if he has any comment to make about the fact that if we look at what is happening over a four-year period, we see that the cut for Liverpool amounts to a staggering £329 per head, putting it right at the top of the amount of cuts in local services that the Government are demanding, despite Liverpool being No. 1 in terms of national assessments of deprivation. Does he think that is fair, and does he have any kind of explanation as to why the Government would do that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. She is absolutely right. To be perfectly honest, I do not think it is any accident that Liverpool, which is No. 1 in the multiple deprivation ranking, is experiencing one of the highest cuts per dwelling anywhere in the country over the period. It is also significant that Knowsley, which ranks fifth in terms of deprivation and is therefore not far behind Liverpool, is experiencing a £206 cut per dwelling over the two-year period, which is one of the highest cuts—if not the highest—in the country.
Of course, that has a real impact. Knowsley council told me, and I have no reason to disbelieve it, that cuts in services and jobs are now unavoidable. It is having to anticipate cuts of £9 million to health and social care and to children’s and family services over that period. It is looking at 340 job losses, which will mean that services suffer, and that in economic terms more people will be thrown on to the scrap heap in areas such as Knowsley, where we have relatively high levels of unemployment.
Is the situation a statistical fault or deliberate policy? When system funding cuts are deepest in the areas such as Knowsley that are least able to bear them, and not in areas with relatively few problems of deprivation, we are bound to conclude that Knowsley is being targeted. As has been pointed out by my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Sefton Central, surrounding areas that, at least in part, have a similar character are experiencing the same thing. It cannot therefore be an anomaly that relates only to Knowsley, a point to which I shall return in a moment.
No doubt, the Minister will make the point that the Government have brought in innovations that might help. For example, he might talk about the new business rates retention system, but the problem is that it is no longer needs-based. All the evidence is that redistribution will be to more prosperous areas, which will get to keep more of the business rates, so Knowsley will again not benefit. The National Audit Office has pointed out:
“Business rates income has been volatile across individual local authorities.”
I cannot therefore see that as the knight on a white charger that will save areas such as Knowsley.
There is also the new homes bonus, which is supposed to reward councils that boost new house building, but for every £1 lost through the top-slice, Knowsley will get back only 15p through the new homes bonus, whereas, for example, Uttlesford in Essex will get back £19 and Basingstoke will get back £18. Again, the evidence is that the benefits are being shifted away from the areas with the greatest levels of deprivation to those with much lower ones.
It is a similar case with arrangements for council tax support. The Local Government Association concluded that local authorities will have no choice but to pass on the cut in that support to the working poor. People who are in low-paid work and may be in receipt of council tax benefit will feel the greatest impact, because the Government are providing only 90% of the required funding. In fact, the Government have got their sums wrong: the average is 11.4%, but the actual cut in Knowsley is 12%. That cut is not transparent, but is taking place by stealth, even though the Government claim that the arrangement is a new and helpful innovation.
Before I finish, I want to say a quick word about welfare reform. With the bedroom tax, 5,000 households in Knowsley will lose £13 if they are considered to have one bedroom too many, or more than £20 for two bedrooms. I attended a public meeting in Northwood in my constituency on the bedroom tax, and I heard tale after tale of people who will have nowhere to go. They will have no options, because there are no two and one-bedroom properties to move into. Even though Knowsley has comparatively low rents, work done so far shows that 123 families—mainly larger ones, with four or more children, in private rented property—will be seriously impacted by the benefit cap. It is clear that the emphasis is moving away from areas with few problems compared with areas such as Knowsley, and that all the impact will be in areas like Knowsley.
I want to draw a few conclusions. The worst effects in finance and other support for local government have been targeted on areas with the highest levels of deprivation. The statistics I have presented, including those provided by the Local Government Association, point to that as an inescapable conclusion. Whichever way we look at it, frankly, it is shameful that the poorest areas in the country are asked to bear the brunt of the cuts. Without doubt, critical services—they are more critical in areas that suffer high levels of deprivation—will be cut severely.
Similar conclusions can be drawn about welfare reform, particularly in relation to the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and universal benefit. Those hit hardest will be those who work—described as the working poor—the disabled and those dependent on benefits, who are least able to bear the brunt of the cuts.
Where are we and where are we heading? I do not want to push the comparison too far, but we are very much heading back to the days of the Poor Law and the Speenhamland system of outdoor relief. With the bedroom tax, I can even imagine that we will need a modern equivalent of workhouses, because people will have nowhere to go. If we can make comparisons with the worst aspects of the 19th century, the Government should hang their head in shame at what they are doing.
Targeting the poorest areas is wrong in principle but, as the National Audit Office suggests, the Government are making no effort to monitor the effects of the changes. Before we know it, we will find families spiralling into debt or greater deprivation after April, with no plan for that when it comes about. Perhaps the Minister will not share my analysis of the problem—I am almost sure that his briefing will lead him in a completely different direction—but I hope that, at the very least, he will agree that all those matters need to be closely monitored after April, on almost a daily basis. The Government need a back-up plan for how they will respond if the sorts of problems that I have described arise. If they do not have one, frankly, they do not deserve to be in government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) for and congratulate him on raising an important issue. However, I was a little surprised by his choice of topic, because the settlement, as he will appreciate and other Members have commented, is for not only Knowsley, Liverpool, Merseyside, Manchester or even Great Yarmouth, but the whole of local government. It is a landmark in the sense that, after years of doffing their caps to Whitehall, all councils can now take charge of their own destiny.
I was particularly surprised that the right hon. Gentleman chose this debate and made the case he has tried to make about the situation in Knowsley, bearing in mind that Knowsley has not only been in line with the English average of changing spending power this year, but has a spending power of £3,122 per dwelling in 2013-14, compared with the average in this country of only £2,216, so credit to him for his ability to try to make a case that Knowsley is being treated in any way unfairly.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. Does he not recognise that those resources were distributed on the basis of need? My case reflects the fact not that Knowsley is standing with its hand out waiting for the Government to dispense largesse, but that there are high levels of need there.
That argument might hold more weight if such areas were not getting almost 50% more than the national average in the first place. Even a constituency such as my own, which has three of the most deprived wards in the country, gets around £2,200. I struggle to have sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s argument that getting almost 50% more than the national average is a hardship.
In all the deficit denial and doom mongering that some people have been engaged in, an important message is in danger of not being heard. However, the recent move by Moody’s has once again reminded us of that message. The size of the deficit and the simple fact that local government accounts for a quarter of public spending mean that local government cannot remain immune. It is one of the biggest players in the public sector and it has its part to play in reducing the deficit.
I want to make it clear to hon. Members that this settlement is a fair deal to both the north and the south. Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham and Newcastle all have higher spending power per dwelling than the national average. I have already commented on the fact that Knowlsey has the highest settlement in its area.
I dispute whether that is even correct, bearing in mind that the base point that such areas start from is so much higher than anywhere else. It was the previous Government who left areas with high deprivation, such as Hastings and Great Yarmouth, with a cliff-edge drop in funding of up to 20%, which this Government have had to fix. Places such as Wokingham have been mentioned before in debates on the settlement—Surrey was also mentioned today—but it must be remembered that all the councils under discussion today are at least £500 better off per household than Wokingham is in 2013-14. Knowsley itself is pretty much at the average with regard to its reduction, but it has a spending power of £3,122, compared with an average of just £2,200, so this settlement is fair. Thanks to the new efficiency support grant, the seven authorities that face the biggest hit to their spending power in 2013-14, a couple of which I have just mentioned, are eligible for a funding boost, which ensures that no council faces a spending power decrease of more than 8.8%, despite the previous Government leaving them with one closer to 20%.
Vitally, the system now works in a council’s favour. Through the Localism Act 2011 and the financial reforms in this settlement, some 70% of local authority income will be raised locally. Councils now have more power than ever before, but they need to understand the implications of this settlement and to act in their residents’ best interests and work harder on their behalf. They can do that by redesigning council tax benefit to cut fraud, promoting local enterprise to get people back into work, or redesigning services to make them more efficient and sustainable. There are still savings that can be made. I disagree with the earlier comment about the council tax support position. The money the Government have put in, the opportunities that exist for savings and the flexibilities that have been given to the sector can more than make up for what is needed to be found. Last year, local government showed commendable skill in reducing its budget while still protecting front-line services. Many residents thought services had actually improved. This is about not how much money is spent, but making sure that it is spent in the right way.
The Minister will know that the leader of Liverpool city council has extended an invitation to the Secretary of State to come to Liverpool to tell us how he thinks more efficiency savings can be found, bearing in mind that we now have to make additional cuts on top of the £141 million that have been made so far. Will the Minister also accept an invitation to come to Liverpool to see for himself the extent of the cuts, bearing in mind the levels of deprivation that exist, and tell us where he thinks further efficiency savings can be made?
I suggest to the mayor of Liverpool that some of his language has been extremely unhelpful and somewhat unfair, particularly when Liverpool starts with a per dwelling spending power of around £2,700. Many areas of the country, even deprived areas such as those in my constituency, would be keen to have such spending power. I am happy to come to Liverpool during the course of this year. In fact, I will be visiting the fire service soon, and so will be happy to visit the council as well. I suggest the council looks at the booklet, “50 ways to save money”. Part of taking that local power and being a locally directly elected mayor is about having responsibility. There is that old phrase, “With great power comes responsibility.” Instead of looking to everyone else to solve their own issues, councils should be looking at what they can do locally; that is what local accountability and local democracy are about. Through our community and neighbourhood budgets, we are rewiring the system and bringing people together from across the board—local authorities, the police and the health service. We are seeing such alignment with the whole place community budgets. Areas close to Liverpool and Manchester are finding local savings worth millions of pounds, and providing an opportunity to realign the public sector to make it more streamlined and efficient.
Thanks to the autumn statement, which exempted local government from another 1% top-slice, councils have time to put their house in order and put people first. They should start that process by freezing council tax, which rose exponentially under the previous Government—it more than doubled. We have now put money aside to put tax rises on ice for a third successive year. Already a huge number of councils are doing the right thing, including, I am glad to say, Knowsley, as well as Derby, Dorset, Northampton and Watford. Areas such as Lancashire are going further and actually cutting council tax by about 2%. In many cases, councils have far more in reserves than they are losing through cutbacks. Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds have reserves twice that of their spending power reductions. The local funding settlement used to be the end game, but now it is just the starting point.
The Minister and the Government tend to treat reserves as some kind of luxury that local authorities can easily live without. Before I came to this place, I spent several years as the chair of the finance committee on Knowsley council. I am no accountant, but I do know that a council has to have reserves to hedge against unexpected areas of expenditure—perhaps a surge in inflation that they cannot cope with or pay settlements that they were not anticipating. It is prudential to have reserves, not in any way a flagrant abuse of the system.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is right for a council to have reserves. However, it is also right to use those reserves at the right time and to keep only a prudent amount of reserves. Many people in this country cannot understand how local government can say that it is struggling when at the same time it has built itself up in the past couple of years, even under these changes and savings, to have the highest level of reserves it has ever had—they have increased to around £16 billion. When authorities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds have reserves roughly twice that of their spending power reductions, I suspect that most residents will have some lack of sympathy with their argument that there is not enough money to protect their services.
Furthermore, councils will be able to retain around £11 billion-worth of business rates, which will deliver £10 billion extra to the wider economy. In recent years, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool all saw their business rates rise above the national average of 4.8%, but thanks to the old begging bowl system, they missed out on the opportunity of making the most of that money. That will not be the case in the future; they will get the benefit. It will be about what councils make and not what they take that counts. If they bring in more businesses and more jobs, they will be rewarded. With regard to the comment on the new homes bonus, with more than £650 million being allocated this year, the same applies. If councils build, they will get the money. It does not matter where they are in the country. If they build the houses, they will get the money.
In this settlement, we capture a new ethos in local government. We are looking to generate more income through the new homes bonus, business rates retention and the new transition challenge award where councils that are sharing services and management, and being innovative to ensure that they can spend money on the front-line services can make a pitch for that part of the bid.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned reserves. What is also important for councillors and council officers to remember is that those reserves are not the council’s money to sit on and protect. The money that councils have is taxpayers’ money to be spent on services for taxpayers. If councils are willing to put people above political ponderance, to look to the future, and not in the rear-view mirror and do things because that is the way we have always done them, they have a once-in-a-generation chance to move forward, finance themselves in a new way, be genuinely local and deliver for their local residents.
Planning and Regeneration
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair looking after us this afternoon, Mr Dobbin, particularly because the topic of preserving urban views and regenerating high streets is tremendously important to towns and cities up and down the country.
I hope we can all agree that there are two fairly severe challenges facing our built environment, no matter which part of the country we may be talking about. On the one hand, a housing crisis is looming. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Housing, has been making the tours of the TV studios and radio airwaves to make the point that we have an incipient housing crisis, caused by years and years of under-building, and that if we are not careful and if we do not do something about the situation relatively quickly we face the prospect of owner-occupation being something that will fairly rapidly become just the preserve of the rich. That will happen unless we start to build significantly more houses. The figure bandied around is that more than 100,000 homes—in fact, several hundred thousand homes—will have to be built every year for several years, in order to catch up with the backlog.
Given the levels of building needed to match current and expected demand, the pressure on finding sites and space will be intense. Even if we use all the brownfield sites that are available, it is true that if we do not find other spaces to build on, the pressure on our green fields will inevitably grow. I suspect many people view that prospect with alarm; it is an extremely unpleasant and inconvenient fact. If we can find alternatives, clearly we should use them.
In addition to the threat, or challenge, of the housing crisis, our high streets also face two very serious challenges: one of long standing, the other relatively recent. The long-standing challenge is that, for several decades, out-of-town shopping centres have been threatening to suck the life out of our high streets by pulling shoppers away from town centres to out-of-town locations, and in some cases they have actually done so. That has been going on for many years. Back in the 1980s or 1990s, John Gummer, a distant predecessor of the Minister, started to introduce restrictions on planning permissions for out-of-town shopping centres. That process has continued; in fact, as recently as last year the latest set of planning guidelines further sought to restrict permissions.
That is a well-established threat; it has existed for some time. More recently, of course, the advent of online shopping means that many more people are now shopping from home over the web, and as a result a great many retail store chains have concluded that they need fewer shops to cover the entire country. Inevitably, that has reduced demand for shopping locations on Britain’s high streets.
Those two challenges mean that change is inevitably coming to our towns and cities. That should not surprise us. Change is fine; it is okay and it is something that Britain’s built environment has had to face up to over decades, indeed over centuries. In fact, if we look at townscapes and cityscapes—the way that towns and cities look—we see that all of them are the product of successive waves of development, in some cases going back very many years. We are in London. London has been occupied for at least a couple of millennia and the signs of successive waves of development during human occupation of this site are around for us to see, even now.
It is the case in most cities, with—I suspect—the possible exception of one or two places, such as the one that the Minister represents, the city of Bath, which of course is—
Bath is indeed extremely beautiful; it is also a very rare example of a single, fairly homogenous and relatively planned style of building. With very few exceptions such as Bath, or more modern examples such as Milton Keynes, most of the rest of Britain’s towns and cities are not planned. The way they look is the result of a set of rather accidental phases and stages of development. As a result, some of those phases and stages of development, which have inevitably happened because towns and cities have had to react to society’s changing needs over decades and centuries, have created a look that in some cases may be beautiful and in some cases may be very, very average indeed. In fact, I suspect that many of us can think of some parts of some towns and cities that everybody would cheerfully see being redeveloped quite rapidly. And there is everything in between.
In some cases, we have lucky accidents of beautiful parts of our towns and cities, and in other cases the unlucky accidents of rather ugly places. We need to face up to the fact not only that change has always been a facet of the development of our built environment but that it will always be so. Our towns and cities need to carry on changing if they are to cope with the changing demands of society. They always have and they always will. Given the twin challenges I have just set out, it is extremely likely that we are due for another bout of change—another rapid stage of evolution in what our towns and cities need to do. Nowhere is that more true than on the high street, as it tries to face up to the challenges that I described.
The question is not whether change is coming—clearly it is—but rather how we react to it; how our built environment reacts to it and how local residents are able to use the buildings that we have inherited from our predecessors and those that we are building and developing to bequeath to our successors in whichever urban environment we live and work.
Consequently, it is crucial to ensure that we keep the best bits of what we have already. As I said, there are plenty of examples of beautiful townscapes and wonderful locations, from London’s Mall through to city-centre locations from Edinburgh right the way down to Cornwall, and back again. We need to ensure that as we allow our towns and cities to change, to develop and to react to the pressures on them, we keep the best pieces and do not casually or accidentally allow them to be destroyed in the process of development.
We already have some mechanisms to do that. For example, we have listed buildings. A very small proportion of this country’s buildings—roughly 4%—are subject to listing orders. That means that if they are of particular historic or architectural importance, they are legally protected from being damaged by future development. Equally, we have conservation areas, which is where I think the Minister and the rest of his Department come in. Those areas are protected by planning laws. Local councils can designate a conservation area, and that allows a measure of protection to ensure that it is properly looked after and a homogenous look is maintained.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him both on securing the debate and on the passion for tourism that he has shown on both the Front and Back Benches. Does he agree that although listing and conservation areas are very welcome, there is a bit of a failing, because in neither case is sufficient weight put on actually keeping a building for what it was actually designed to be, even though in many cases that is perfectly possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend that, wherever possible, it is often more historically authentic to try to maintain a particular building for its original purpose. However, it may no longer be possible to maintain a building for its original purpose; a good example would be Martello towers, which, for those who have temporarily forgotten, were part of Britain’s defences during the Napoleonic wars, guarding our coastline from invasion. Clearly, whatever we may think about the likelihood of a French invasion in the future, Martello towers are no longer part of this country’s sea defences, so it would not be sensible to have them as a military installation any more. Many of them have now been very successfully converted, and most conservationists would argue is that if it is not possible, either for economic or other reasons, to maintain a building for its initial use, it is far better to make sure that it has a modern use than to have it sit empty, because if a building sits empty it very rapidly decays. Although I instinctively sympathise with my hon. Friend’s comment, if it is not feasible we need to be flexible and accept the case for change.
Moving on from listed buildings and conservation areas, I recently called for an addition to the available tools for protecting the best of what we currently have, to ensure that as the process of change moves forward in our towns and cities, what is good is not accidentally destroyed. In addition to individual listed buildings and conservation areas, we also need to give consideration to listed views—some way of protecting the skyline or particular avenues of views in towns and cities. There is already a small measure of protection. For example, here in London a number of view corridors are protected, so that people can see the dome of St Paul’s from various points in the city, including a hill on Hampstead heath. But those corridors are narrowly defined and do not provide a ready way of protecting the incidental, day-to-day or small-scale beauty that most of us can think of in towns and villages in our constituencies.
Most people, as they take the dog for a walk or go for a walk on a Sunday with their family, for example, will know local spots where the view is perfect and they love it. They will pause when looking at such a view to appreciate it, whether it is a towpath on a canal, a bandstand in the park or the local high street; it does not matter exactly what it is. It is hard for existing legislation to protect that aspect of what is good-looking and therefore worth preserving in our urban environment. It would help if we moved towards rounding out and completing the suite of protection measures that we have.
Deciding what protections we need, and designating the bits that are worth saving, would allow us to move faster and more vigorously towards the kind of change and updating in urban environments that we have already mentioned, particularly high streets, given the housing requirements that we know about. If we know about the bits that are worth keeping, inevitably and logically it follows that everything else is at least fair game for being updated, redeveloped and regenerated more rapidly, so that it can be altered to reflect what society needs from it with less fuss than before.
We can move faster in reacting to the forces of housing requirements and the hollowing out of high streets, but only if we know what is worth keeping—because we will have designated it, as I have described—and what is not so special, which, if it is changed, we should not be so worried about. Having designated the stuff that is worth keeping, we should be more relaxed about everything else, allowing more rapid development and not being so precious about what regulatory and planning constraints we place on some things.
If people look around while walking on most high streets in Britain, in most places they will usually see a ground floor with retail and sometimes leisure—restaurants, or whatever—and above that, except in the centre of the biggest cities, they will see one or two storeys of lightly used residual construction in buildings that have been standing for 100 years. The upper floors tend not to have been designed to be used above retail and, in many cases, they are hard to access and use for anything terribly productive. In many otherwise thriving high streets, above those one or two extra storeys above the ground floor there is just fresh air.
Those spaces ought to be some of the most valuable, productive and useful in our towns and cities, yet they are lightly used or unbuilt, by and large because such buildings were constructed in the 19th century or earlier and, if they are not historically important, the chances are that they are not terribly useful either. We should allow the ones that are not designated as important and historically, visually or architecturally significant to be redeveloped more easily. To do that, we need to be a bit more relaxed about the regulations that we apply.
My gentle suggestion—my starter for 10—is that if we want to free up the opportunity for our high streets to be redesigned and redeveloped more easily, and make space for more housing in town centres, reducing the inevitable pressure on the fringes of towns, on the green belt and green fields, we should consider allowing developers to build up rather than just out. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that to do that we should allow buildings to be redeveloped, particularly on high streets, knocked down if necessary and built up. It should be economic to rebuild them. A building that is four or five storeys high, when it is currently only one or two, makes the economics of redevelopment work much more effectively.
We could extend the permitted development rules, which currently allow small-scale extensions and additions to buildings, to allow additional height to be added to some town centre buildings. We could set a maximum height, for example, up to the maximum height of other buildings in the same block, or to that of a local church tower or the tree canopy—something that is not absurdly tall. I am not talking about building the Shard in towns around the country. I am talking about a small addition that would make more of our towns and cities look more like a Parisian boulevard, for example, with shops, restaurants, cafés and other commercial premises on the ground floor and a mixture of either offices or apartments a few floors above. Those are great places to live and work; they are elegant and in some cases beautiful. Doing that would make sure that we were hanging on to the important parts that are already beautiful in our developed and built environment.
That small change could be transformational and could save our high streets, or allow them to develop and mutate as they must if they are to survive, and could, I hope, reduce pressure on our green fields by providing alternative places to build much needed houses. This is a small suggestion—a modest proposal—and I hope that the Minister takes it in the spirit in which it is made. I look forward to his reply after listening to the thoughts of other colleagues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this important debate, which covers a range of subjects, all of which are keenly considered important by those whom we represent.
The full title of the debate is “Role of planning in preserving urban views and regenerating high streets”. Our high streets are coming to terms with the change in shopping habits. Can the planning system do anything to help speed and assist that regeneration? The key question is, is the planning system a help or a hindrance in that process at the moment? Clearly, it has a part to play. I served for five years as a cabinet member on a local authority, in charge of planning policy. Thankfully, I was not in charge of implementing individual decisions, which of course is the most contentious part of it. The part that I found most difficult was the speed at which the planning system works. Whether people are on the side of a developer or a shopkeeper wanting to make a minor change, or objecting to an application that they feel will blight their part of town, they want a speedy resolution of the issue.
We can all relate to the listed views that my hon. Friend mentioned. As he represents a different seaside resort, I am sure he has a different view, but he should come to witness the sunrise over Cleethorpes. All of those things add to the quality of life, so they are important.
The Government have made some important changes to the planning system since the coalition agreement, including the new planning framework, all of which has been very good. One aspect about which I have reservations is that more decision making is being passed to unelected officials, be it the Planning Inspectorate or whatever, whether on appeal or because a local authority is seen to be failing in its duty. A vital part of the local democratic process is that local councillors should be in charge of making planning decisions. Those of us who have served on a local authority appreciate that people expect us to be involved in and to influence planning decisions, whether small or large. That goes right to the heart of our local democratic process.
Cleethorpes High street has a good mix, and it is surviving despite the onslaught from out-of-town developments and neighbouring Grimsby, where the main shopping centres are located. I appreciate that shoppers do not take note of political boundaries. In fact, Grimsby and Cleethorpes are one area. Thirty years ago, Freeman street in Grimsby was the hub of the local retail community, which served a vast housing area where many who worked on the fish docks lived. Freeman street has declined into a street of boarded-up properties with the occasional charity shop, a few takeaways and little else because the local authority, on which I served for a period, did its level best to maintain the high street as it was without recognising that the main shopping centre had moved elsewhere. We tried to preserve the high street, and it was like continually putting plasters on to a wound.
We must recognise that the high street is changing. Out-of-town retail parks have, to a considerable extent, become a replacement high street. People can go to the local out-of-town supermarket, which is surrounded by half a dozen outlets of a similar nature. People can get everything in that one place, which we must recognise. I want to preserve high streets where they are commercially viable and, in effect, wanted by the local community.
I am not a particular fan of the recommendations of the Mary Portas review, although not because I do not support its aims and objectives—I served on a town team for a great many years. Across the country, there are councils, chambers of commerce, traders associations and the like that have tried virtually everything contained in the Portas review, including adjusting planning controls and doing their best to keep parking charges at a reasonable level.
We must recognise that parking charges are an important part of a local authority’s income. When I was a councillor, parking charges represented just over £1 million of income. Yes, people can say that doing away with or restricting parking charges would boost the local economy and might attract more business, thereby boosting business rates, but it is a long-term process. In the meantime, the local authority is stuck with having to provide services on hard-pressed budgets. That income simply cannot be replaced. Yes, there are schemes. North Lincolnshire council, which forms part of my constituency, has had a very successful scheme in recent months that has proven a godsend to many of the smaller towns and has helped things along considerably.
Promenades are an important part of seaside resorts such as Cleethorpes and Weston-super-Mare, and they are equally part of the retail mix. Yes, promenades have their amusement arcades, but if we want a vibrant seaside resort, there has to be a mix of arcades, retail, cafés, restaurants, and so on. We urgently need to do all we can. My own party produced a document on seaside resorts prior to the election called, as I recall, “Not the end of the line.” The document considered many of those issues, and perhaps it is worth the Minister digging the document out of the files so that we can see whether we can proceed with some of its suggestions.
My hon. Friend mentioned the need for change of use so that people are able to bring many of the now surplus retail units back into use—every town has parades of shops that are now redundant as retail units. Yet more help is needed, perhaps including a programme of support, so that owners can change those units into residential use. We all know of the chronic housing difficulties in many parts of the country, and many of the surplus retail properties are owned by small-time developers or redundant family businesses that have now closed down with people moving on. It would be helpful if the Minister were to consider those things.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this important debate, in which I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak.
As a former Minister with responsibility for heritage, I want to say that the hon. Gentleman is right when he remarked on the important balance of preserving what we have come to understand across communities as beauty in relation to our heritage. I remember the delicate discussions when I was a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on balancing the interests of heritage against new building.
In London we have broadly got that right. We can point to exemplary new architecture that contributes to the London skyline, such as the Gherkin, the Shard and the London Eye. Those buildings are controversial—some people like them, and some people dislike them—but they contribute to the sense that London is a modern, forward-looking city. None of us would want to see the important centre that is Westminster, and the important heritage that lies here, destroyed. The London Eye, across the way by County hall, adds to that and provides the right balance. Equally, there were delicate discussion on how the Shard might affect the views from the Tower of London and the important line of sight that goes right down to Richmond park, and we arrived at the right balance. Those discussions will continue as new developments are proposed.
When we consider what has been achieved in parts of London that have been run down and are in need of regeneration, such as the royal docks and the huge work by the London borough of Newham under the leadership of its mayor, Sir Robin Wales, particularly around the Olympic site and the Westfield development, there has been a huge contribution of modernity, and the right balance has been struck for the vibrant multicultural community, which has experienced tremendous poverty over the years.
I thought it was important to contribute to this debate because at the same time, a story has been unfolding on our London high streets—a quiet disaster in need of serious regulation. I am slightly concerned by the presumption made by the hon. Gentleman, unless I misunderstood him, that protection should apply to heritage, beauty, what we need to preserve and where we need development, but that we more or less do not need regulation for the rest. I want to introduce to this debate a growing depth of concern, across London and now in some of our other major towns and cities, about the look and shape of our high streets and how individual people can affect that. What people see here in London, from Ealing to Tottenham to Hackney to Peckham, is a proliferation of betting shops, payday loan shops and fast food restaurants, usually in the shape of chicken shops. They are not Kentucky Fried Chicken but Tennessee, Kansas or any other state. They are rife in boroughs such as Waltham Forest and Haringey. Pawn shops also proliferate.
That is disastrous to the high street. No one says that it is a problem to have one or two bookmakers, but it is a problem to have, as Haringey Green Lanes does, nine in a stretch of no more than 800 metres. Do we need 22 bookmakers from Seven Sisters tube station up Tottenham High road and Fore street and into Enfield? What kind of regulatory environment has led to that? The hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with some responsibilities in that area. It is time for his colleagues in DCMS and the Department for Communities and Local Government to come together to establish the right planning and licensing environment to preserve what we understand as a high street. If we just allow mini Las Vegases to develop across London, we will be thumbing our noses at a licensing regime that worked well. All developed countries take the planning and licensing of gambling seriously.
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman would agree with me and the all-party save the pub group. We point out that it is not the rigidity of the planning system but its weaknesses that are causing problems. He and I have both highlighted the ludicrous situation that a viable pub can be turned into a betting shop without the need to go through the planning process, which undermines the whole topic that we are discussing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I was moving in that direction, but I saw him in his seat and knew that he would elucidate very well the situation faced by our pubs, particularly on the high street, so I navigated my remarks into his terrain. However, I will leave him to give the peroration that I know he is about to give. He will know that the reason for the proliferation and saturation of bookmakers on our high streets is relaxed planning laws that have allowed them to move into former pubs, banks and estate agents’—frankly, to move anywhere—when they should be in a sui generis class of their own. Any civilised democracy would seek to regulate that area of activity carefully. I am not suggesting that it should be the same as how we might choose to regulate lap dancing clubs, for example, but I think we have wisdom as human beings in taking gambling seriously and requiring a certain kind of regulation for it.
I see that later this week, an Adjournment debate will be held in the House on fixed-odds terminals in betting shops. These new machines, which allow people to lose up to £100 in 20 seconds, are driving the proliferation of betting shops. I am deeply concerned that the Government seem not to want to do anything about them on either the licensing or the planning side. Where will we be in five years’ time? What misery will be wrought on communities? Can it be right for the borough of Haringey to have more bookmakers than bookshops? Is that really the message that we want to send to our young people?
Ministers have said that they want local authorities to use article 4 powers to designate an area to exclude a particular category of activity, such as betting shops. The problem with article 4 is that it does not prevent betting shops from opening in banks or estate agents, and it certainly costs local authorities a hell of a lot of money that they do not have at this time to use the powers. The Government must act, and they must get serious about licensing. A fear is developing across the community that the Government will not act because their receipts from taxation on these activities are such that the Treasury is prepared to turn a blind eye.
We will pick up the tab in disastrous lives if we allow such activities to continue. If we allow chicken shops and takeaways to open up next to schools across the country, the NHS will pick up the tab for the resulting obesity. If we allow betting shops to prey on poor people—the latest evidence suggests that the proliferation is occurring in poor and deprived areas—we will pick up the tab for broken marriages. Wives and daughters in particular feel the pain. We will pick up the tab for the consequences. Because my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) does it so successfully, I need not articulate how much damage payday loan shops cause, with the huge interest rates—up to 1,000%—that they are now charging in this deeply recessionary period. If we allow that to continue, I am afraid that the sorts of scene that one can see in parts of downtown America will be visited on this country.
That is why, when we talk about urban planning, it is important that we talk about what is real to people in their lives today and on their high streets. They want a place where they can go have a drink, which is why I absolutely support the activity of the hon. Member for Leeds North West and the work of the Campaign for Real Ale to highlight the loss of pubs throughout this country. People want somewhere to shop. They want independent shops as well as major retailers. Yes, they want to bet on the grand national, but they do not want to be overrun with bookmakers. They certainly do not want to be overrun with fast food shops, given that we know that too many are particularly dangerous for young people.
I hope that the Minister will say something in his response about those issues. It is not the first time that they have been raised in the House; they have been raised time and time again. Co-ordination and consideration is needed between two Departments in order to get a grip on the regulatory environment for planning on our high streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am delighted to take part in this important debate. I do so wearing two hats: I am a proud member of the all-party group for small shops, which clearly have a huge interest in this topic, and I am the chair of the all-party save the pub group. I will focus my comments on those interests.
I want to start, however, by telling the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), the former Tourism Minister, that I very much welcome the fact that the Government have rightly put a lot of emphasis on the importance of our high streets and town centres as hubs of not only commerce, which they clearly are, but social interaction and cohesion.
My hon. Friend talked about some of the issues that high streets and town centres face with out-of-town shopping centres and online, mobile retailing. I warmly welcome the Government’s work on the Portas review and the town team partners scheme, and I am delighted that Otley, in my constituency, has received a share of the multi-million-pound fund to take forward elements of the scheme’s plans. That is encouraging local people to get on and promote town centres, and those people are often best placed to do that.
I have four town centre high streets in my constituency —in Headingley, Otley, Yeadon and Meanwood. Those areas are all different, but they all rely on a mix of retail, food and entertainment, including pubs. It is important to acknowledge that, although the way people are shopping is changing, retailers are taking up and working with those changes; indeed, they are using them to benefit themselves, their business and therefore their town centre and their community.
It is important that we do not make the mistake of talking about the death of the great British high street. Although some high streets might be changing, some businesses on them are doing extremely well and succeeding. A good example that is some businesses in Otley are providing wonderful local goods, some of which are foodstuffs and some of which are other things. Those goods are made locally and transported short distances. That is the kind of thing people want to buy from an independent retailer and cannot buy in the same way from larger retailers.
At the same time, other businesses are using innovation and coming up with different products, ideas and ways of retailing. Many small independent retailers, unlike some of the large chains that have collapsed, have shown that they can embrace the internet era. They can have a shop front physically showing people their products or services, while having an attractive online offering that allows them to sell to a far greater area.
We must accept that there are challenges, however, and the Government are right to do so. The message that I want to get across to the Minister is that we must not fall into the trap of thinking that the way to deal with some of those challenges is simply to deregulate the planning system and say, “If we allow developers to get on and do whatever they want, that will regenerate the economy.” That is a mistaken view, and I am glad that it is not taken by my hon. Friend, but it is taken by some people. Simply relaxing planning could be disastrous for many town centres. It would be entirely wrong simply to say that people can do what they want, without any interface with local teams, whether town or parish councils or chambers of trade.
I want to put on the record my concern at the suggestion that there should be no need to go through the planning process for change of use from office to retail. If an office is genuinely no longer wanted as an office, and no one wants to take it on as an office, that suggestion would be reasonable, but let us allow local communities to have a say. That is what the Government say that they believe in promoting through the big society, so it simply does not make sense to give blanket powers that could have a detrimental effect on many high streets.
I understand the case that my hon. Friend is eloquently making. Does he agree, however, that if local communities have a say, it is important that that say is genuinely representative of what local people think? He, I and many others here could point to local campaigns against this or that development—usually whipped up by people who have something commercial to lose if the new development is installed—that do not represent the views of local people once the development has gone through. In some cases, a vehement campaign is fought against Tesco or whomever it may be, but not one year later, once the local Tesco or whatever it may be has been built, everyone who signed up to the campaign ends up shopping there. It is therefore important to make sure that the democratic voice genuinely represents the actual behaviour of local people, rather than the views of just a few vehement protestors.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but the simple point is that people should have a say, and they cannot have a say if it is denied to them by allowing further relaxation of the general permitted development rights. That is why I strongly urge the Minister to make representations that such a suggestion could be very unhelpful. With town centre developments, as opposed to other kinds of development, we have the opportunity to get the view of local retailers, town councils, chambers of commerce and chambers of trade that is not simply about opposing development, but about building a vision for the local area. Those people know best, and we must not deny them the right to express their views.
I want now to turn to pubs. I said that the British high street is changing. For many years, the mainstay of our high street might have been the old-fashioned post office or the butcher. Many of those things are important, and they are surviving and, indeed, thriving, which is to be welcomed. I pay tribute to the work the Government have done with the Post Office network to ensure that the local post office remains a mainstay. However, the mainstay of many high streets can and should be the British pub. The pub has served a purpose in high streets and marketplaces for hundreds of years. As many retail businesses necessarily change around them, many pubs do not need to change; they are still surviving and still thriving. Many of the issues that they face are not about the amount of trade they do. It is important to recognise that other issues affect them, but the problem with the planning system is that it does not do that adequately.
As the Minister knows, I commended the work on the national planning policy framework, which is a huge improvement on what we had before. For the first time, it mentions valuable local services, including pubs, and gives them a value in planning law, which is hugely welcome. However, that does not sit alongside the reality of the use class orders and the general permitted development rights, which remain in place.
I have mentioned the nonsense that a viable, wanted pub can be turned into a betting shop against the wishes of the local community, the town council, the chamber of trade and all the retailers and residents of an area. That can also be the case with a supermarket. That is simply not acceptable. In many areas up and down the country, people find that a local pub that is wanted, used, viable and making money can be sold. Indeed, pubs are being sold in their hundreds behind the backs of local communities by indebted lease pub companies, whose model is now facing the end. Pubs are sold direct to supermarkets, but the community has no say whatever. That simply cannot be acceptable.
The save the pub group warmly welcomed the call by the Department for Communities and Local Government for councils to adopt supplementary planning guidance for pubs and other local services. Of course, some councils have done that, and the Minister has taken a keen and direct interest in some of those cases. Cambridge city council is an excellent example of a proactive council that considers pubs to be important. It has introduced supplementary planning guidance to deal with some of the problems that pubs face. I am extremely disappointed that the British Beer and Pub Association, which unfortunately represents Britain’s large pub companies and brewers rather than fighting for the future of many British pubs, is seeking to overturn that decision by judicial review. Not only is that disgraceful, but it shows the organisation for what it is. I hope that through the work of the save the pub group and the Department for Communities and Local Government we can encourage more councils to introduce such guidance.
The work that the Department for Communities and Local Government is doing does not excuse the fact that it operates a planning system that does not adequately and commonsensically prevent unreasonable moves from one use class order to another. It is still possible to demolish a free-standing pub overnight, even if the pub is wanted and a small business man or woman wants to carry on running it. That is a permitted development right, which is nonsensical. Likewise, a pub can be turned into a supermarket, a betting shop or a solicitors’ office, which are very different uses of the premises. Communities may lose a valuable and wanted pub and have a supermarket imposed on them and on local retailers.
To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, when communities are genuinely opposed to such a change, they do not even have the opportunity to comment on whether they want a local Tesco to be imposed on them. Such a development might damage the small retailers in a town centre and affect the mix of shops in the area, which is the reason why people come and shop there in the first place. The wrong kind of development can be extremely damaging.
The simple message is that much of what the Government have said and done has been welcome and positive, particularly the work on the Portas pilots. The national planning policy framework was a great piece of work, which has hugely improved the planning framework. Will the Minister tell us why officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government still refuse to amend use class orders or look again at the general permitted development rights to clear up the absurd loopholes that are damaging communities and town centres across the country? It would be possible to make simple changes under secondary legislation to give communities a say by requiring any change of use of a valued community facility, such as a local pub, to go through the planning process. Overnight, that would stop such assets being sold behind the backs of communities; it would stop there being 22 betting shops on the street in Tottenham that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) mentioned; it would stop Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores being imposed on communities without their having any say whatsoever; and it would stop the nonsense of viable, profitable businesses being closed. The damage that such changes of use do to the local economy is borne out by the fact that twice as much of the money spent in a pub is recycled into the local community as of the money spent in a supermarket.
I finish with a word of warning to the Minister, who is a big friend of pubs, and who is passionate about them and about other small shops, business and services. The Government have announced that they will introduce a statutory code of conduct for the giant leased pub companies to stop them overcharging their lessees year after year—a scandal that has closed and is closing many otherwise viable, wanted businesses. That is good news, but already some of the leased pub companies have threatened to start mass disposals of their pubs. Around the country, pubs are being bought up by small breweries, micro-breweries and local entrepreneurs and by communities, some of whom are using the community right to buy. Unless the DCLG takes responsibility and changes use class orders and general permitted development rights, the leased pub companies will be able to dispose of such pubs for other use, as they have threatened to do, without giving the community a say in the matter. Joined-up thinking is required, and my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues must take that responsibility seriously and deal with the problem. It is a simple matter for them to ensure that, where such pubs are viable and wanted and where a realistic offer is made for them, they are sold as pubs, so that they can continue to be an important part—indeed, the mainstay—of our high streets and our communities up and down the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. It is an extremely important debate, and because the Minister and I serve beautiful city constituencies—in his case Bath and in my case Durham—it is relevant to both of us. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare made two important points that I agreed with and want to emphasise. First, change is coming to the high street and we need to think better how to prepare for and manage it to ensure that the cityscapes that we treasure are not damaged. Secondly, we must recognise that planning is important in shaping places and that it can be positively used for the benefit of our communities. We do not hear that very often; we usually hear that planning is a brake on growth and that it is damaging. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman used Milton Keynes as an example of what positive planning can achieve. We might not see the outcome of planning decisions for several years, but 30 years on we can see that Milton Keynes has benefited from careful planning.
Several hon. Members made important points about their communities and protecting their high streets. I will, rather cheekily, pick up a point that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made strongly. He said that localism was important, and he was worried that some of the changes that the Government are making might damage localism and take decisions away from local planning authorities. The Opposition objected to the changes contained in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which will transfer many decisions to the Planning Inspectorate. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues did not join us when we opposed the Government’s plans.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) made powerful speeches about use class orders, which picked up on the point made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. They made important points about the need for local people and local authorities to have more control over use class orders, which I will discuss in more detail later. The Government have just produced a school food review report that suggests that fast food outlets should not be available near schools. It will be interesting to know whether the Minister has had any conversations with his colleagues in the Department for Education about how that could be implemented.
More generally, we heard a plea for more flexibility to be given to local authorities on how use class orders are used, which I have been advocating for a long time. I see no reason why use class orders cannot simply be given to local authorities to use as they want. Local authorities represent their communities and know about what use classes should be available, how they should be used and how to rescind one and to put another in its place. If the Minister wants to extend his localism credentials, this is something I could give him on a plate: take use class orders away, look at them and give them to local authorities. That would be a much more sensible way forward.
To return to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, he referred to how local councils can already protect views through conservation areas, under the Civic Amenities Act 1967, which established the right of local authorities to designate a conservation area. The policy has been fairly successful, because we now have 8,000 conservation areas throughout England. Under the Act, conservation areas are defined as
“areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”.
That can and often does in practice include views, so although I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely, I am not exactly sure what additional protection he thinks is needed for particular views.
I was thinking either of the much larger example of an entire skyline, which would be hard to preserve, protect or allow to alter in a particular way through the conservation area designation, or of the very narrow, specific example of a particular line of sight, perhaps on a small scale, down a particular street with something that happens to be framed at the end of it, which would be a criminal waste to allow to be got rid of but which is too small and too specific for the conservation area legislation to work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification. Local authorities can already designate and protect views through their local plans, however, which leads me to wonder whether we need additional regulations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham talked about what is already happening in London; the Greater London authority plan includes some good examples of whole views being protected, in particular urban landscapes that are thought to define London. The plan not only protects the views but gives more detailed guidance about what should happen to protect them. That facility is available to all local authorities through their local plans, but I suspect that they are not all using it as well as they might be. Perhaps this afternoon we should be putting a big plea out to local authorities to ask them, when they are putting their local plans together, really to think about views—outside a particular street or part of it—that might be important to the local community or area and that need to be protected. They should outline what the views are and put additional guidance in place. They could all learn easily from the London experience, where that seems to have been done rather well.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned that UNESCO also protects views, to and from world heritage sites, one of which I have in my constituency. He made a strong point and a lot more could be done by local authorities to ensure that such views are protected. From time to time councils have to be reminded, when a development application appears before them, that they have to think about the world heritage site. Those three elements already in existence go a long way to giving the protection that the hon. Gentleman was discussing.
I want to pick up on one other point made by the hon. Gentleman, which was about using additional regulations to pre-empt where developers might want to develop. That is an extremely difficult thing to do: always being one stage ahead of developers is probably impossible. Each case is best dealt with on its merits, bearing in mind the protections that can already be drawn down by local authorities. I am absolutely not convinced that more regulation is needed in this instance.
A lot of hon. Members this afternoon have raised issues about the high street, and it is worth picking up on a few points. Some of the figures about use of the high street are interesting: high streets with strong conservation areas are doing better. For example, Cambridge is doing well in protecting its high street and the volume of commerce taking place in retail there. That tells us something about how communities are starting to think about their own high streets and how tourists are thinking about them, because a high street is a lot more than simply a retail experience. The hon. Gentleman brought out this point well: we sometimes get bogged down in thinking about our high streets only in terms of retail. It is tempting to do that because we get regular figures about what is happening to the retail sector, which is important because it is an indicator of the health of our high streets, so we need to take the figures seriously. But what they tell us is that we need to diversify the high street and to think a lot more about community and housing use. This strays on to the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West about the importance of pubs. They are part of the leisure offer that is important on our high streets, but which we are very much in danger of losing.
Again, use class orders are important, because we need councils to have the flexibility to decide whether the retail space that might not be fully occupied can instead be office, leisure or housing use, and to be able to change it back. One of the problems with use class orders is that it is sometimes difficult constantly to change use, but we need that degree of flexibility. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says.
No one mentioned how complicated it is at the moment for local authorities to draw down money to support regeneration of the high street, outside of Portas. On that Portas money, even if local authorities got £100,000, we know that only about 12% of the money has been drawn down so far. There are lots of different tiny funding pots, and we perhaps need to bring them together into a more coherent regeneration framework, so that local authorities can find a straightforward way to develop their high streets in line with the local community opinion of what should be provided. I am probably telling the Minister that Portas is good as far as it goes, but it is not the whole answer.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has done us a great service in bringing forward this subject for debate this afternoon. We need to think about how to protect what we value in the high streets, how to encourage them to develop and, in the current climate and from now on, to diversify. We need additional tools to do that, but I am not sure that they include additional planning regulation.
It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship and to participate in this debate, which has been led by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I join the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in praising my hon. Friend for his work when he was Minister for Tourism and Heritage. He was also the gambling Minister and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, some issues remain outstanding from my hon. Friend’s era. Before responding to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods)—I will echo many of her comments—I will refer briefly to some of the other excellent and helpful contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) asked whether planning was a help or a hindrance, and reminded us that he had five years’ experience of being in charge of planning. He worried about the speed of operation on some occasions and then chided the Government for putting pressure on local planning authorities if they did not act quickly. There was a slight inconsistency in his comments, but he clearly cares as passionately as I do about the importance of local decision making, and I suspect that he will be pleased to see the amendments that have been tabled to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill in another place to deal with the concern that he expressed. We are looking for ways of speeding up some matters, not least, for example, current consultation on the planning application procedure, and I think that will be welcomed by him and other hon. Members here today.
On issues relating to change of use from commercial to residential and some other permitted development rights, one of the consultations has now finished and the Government are considering their reaction to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) referred to some other aspects of permitted development and I draw his attention to the fact that consultation is still open—
Sitting Suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before we had our short break, I was referring to the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. I look forward to his dusting off that old policy document from the Conservative party and making it available to my Department. We will look at the various proposals for seaside resorts with great interest.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham rightly praised my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare for his work as a former Minister. I pointed out that my hon. Friend also had a remit in response to gambling. One of the things that he was able to do towards the end of his period of office as the Minister with responsibility for gambling was to help ensure that the Government could announce a review of the concerns that the right hon. Member for Tottenham raised in respect of what he called bookmakers. That increasingly seems to be a misnomer as more and more of them seem to do their business from fixed-odds betting terminals, about which the right hon. Gentleman joined with me and hon. Members of all parties in expressing concern. I am delighted that the review that he rightly said is needed is now under way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West on his excellent work as a member and chairman of the save the pub group. I am delighted that he was full of praise for the work that the Government have done in response to the concerns expressed about tied pubs and so on. I am grateful to him for praising the Government on the national planning policy framework and—notwithstanding the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes—the work that we are doing on the Portas pilots and the town team partners, of which Otley, as he reminded us, is one and is benefiting from that scheme. He also rightly pointed out that not all regulation is bad. I have made that point on several occasions. Those who seek to deregulate merely for the sake of deregulation have missed the point. Although the Government are seeking to remove unnecessary red tape, we are also mindful that some regulations are critically important.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West in praising areas such as Cambridge that have introduced supplementary planning guidance, among other things, to protect pubs in their immediate neighbourhood. I repeat what I said to him earlier: consultation on some of the matters that he raised closes on 7 March, so any right hon. and hon. Members who wish to contribute to the discussions are welcome to do so.
The hon. Member for City of Durham saved me a lot of effort. For once, even though we are on opposite sides of the Chamber, I have great sympathy with much of what she said in response to the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare in this excellent debate.
My hon. Friend began by reminding us that we face various challenges. He said that on the one hand we need to get more houses built, but on the other hand there are pressures in achieving that without encroaching on the green belt. He also pointed out what happens in our high streets and the dangers that have existed, particularly in relation to out-of-town supermarkets and developments. He rightly praised a former Member of the House, Mr Gummer, for his work. I remind my hon. Friend that we have gone further in the national planning policy framework, which has now established a clear sequential test. Before out-of-town developments can take place, all the various stages of that testing procedure must be gone through.
My hon. Friend said, with great perspicacity, that change is always necessary to meet changing demand. He was not putting his head in the sand. He accepted that change has to take place. It has to take place in the high street in response to, for example, online shopping. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes gave the example of a street in Grimsby where the challenge of changing circumstances has not been picked up and has had pretty disastrous consequences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare clearly accepts that we have to get a balance between conservation, design and urban development. He pressed me in much the same way as he did in his excellent article in The Daily Telegraph on 2 January, when he wrote that
“individual buildings are preserved by listing, but we need a similar set of rules to ensure the best city and townscapes are saved too.”
Like the hon. Member for City of Durham, I must say to my hon. Friend that we already have in place measures that will deliver what he seeks to achieve. Many local councils are already taking innovative planning approaches to safeguarding urban views and are developing strategies to support their high streets. There are many different ways in which that is being done, but it is predominantly through local plans and the supporting evidence that goes alongside them.
Others have adopted sensitive approaches to heritage conservation—I know my hon. Friend cares passionately about that—urban design, designated conservation areas and so on. For example, South Kesteven council has undertaken a townscape character assessment of Grantham, which considers the town’s evolution and character to guide decisions on new development, achieving what I think he seeks. The document assesses the design of the buildings and the relationship between them as a contribution to the distinctiveness of the town. It details key views to landmark buildings and heritage assets, which are issues of material consideration in various development proposals.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham referred to examples in London, where he thinks we have got it about right. The supplementary planning guidance in the London plan sets out protected panoramas, linear views, river prospects and townscape views that contribute to the character of the city. Other parts of the country have adopted a similar approach. The right hon. Gentleman praised my constituency of Bath. Bath and North East Somerset council has already done something along the lines that he seeks. Burnley, Hampshire, Preston and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead are other examples.
The hon. Member for City of Durham made a very important point. Powers exist, but perhaps not enough councils are aware of the opportunities to achieve the sort of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare wants. I will certainly talk to my ministerial colleagues about her suggestion that we should do more to promote the powers that already exist, and perhaps share with councils examples of good practice that could achieve much of what my hon. Friend wants. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that suggestion. We will do what we can to take it forward.
My hon. Friend raised issues to do with high streets. He suggested that we look at the parapet above the shop with its often rather garish colouring, where, very often, we see empty spaces. He will be delighted to know that I recently announced a challenge to the Portas pilot and to the town teams to make proposals for the large sum of money that I have earmarked to bring back into use, for residential purposes, the spaces above shops. I entirely accept that there are difficulties, which he alluded to, including access to the space above shops and security, which is why we have asked the many teams to consider innovative solutions. We are on to the issue; we are providing some money and help from the Department, and we have many people looking for bright ideas. I know that he wants me to go even taller, which I will come to.
I may be pre-empting the Minister’s next remark, but I urge him to think a little more radically. I welcome the measures and steps that he describes as having already been taken. In some cases, because buildings were designed for a different purpose 100 or 150 years ago, it is not possible to retrofit them in a way that delivers the additional potential uses as accommodation, offices or whatever. Therefore, the only way to get them to work, even without public money, is to allow enough commercial headroom for entire buildings to be redeveloped.
As my hon. Friend said, he has forestalled me. In the few minutes I have left, I have headroom to refer to that issue. He made it clear that he does not seek new regulation. He talked about the possibilities for townscapes and views. They already exist but they could be promoted further. He suggested that having done that, we might also increase the density of all sorts of developments and go higher above shops, if necessary with demolition.
I assure my hon. Friend that I will discuss his various proposals with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is the Minister with responsibility for planning. However, may I say to my hon. Friend that what he seeks is already possible within existing legislation and the current planning rules? It is up to a local authority that wants the type of development he proposes to ensure that such a possibility exists within its local plan, and individual planning proposals can then be introduced. However although it is possible to do that within current planning rules, I will discuss the issue further with the planning Minister, and we will contact my hon. Friend to arrange more discussions with him.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I welcome his remarks, but is he indeed correct that such powers exist? We think that some powers to protect urban views may already exist, but are not being properly used, so will he undertake to disseminate that information more widely? Clearly, although the powers exist, they are not being widely used and might benefit from being more thoroughly understood.
I am more than happy to assure my hon. Friend that we will look at the exact legislation with respect to his specific points, and if it is necessary to disseminate that information more widely, we certainly will, just as we will for legislation on streetscapes.
I know that hon. Members wish to get the next debate under way, but may I comment on the Portas pilots? I am grateful for the widespread support for the work done, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. Some very exciting proposals are emerging from the Portas pilots and town teams considering various issues. We intend to disseminate examples of good practice as widely as possible to help develop those who are not one of the 300-odd schemes with which we are directly engaged. I am delighted that high streets and town centres can benefit from those very exciting proposals.
I want to comment on my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, who is now back in the Chamber. In his absence, I praised him for his work on the all-party save the pub group. I absolutely assure him that we are very alert to his concerns. As he knows—he referred to this—the right to bid gives a community the opportunity to register a facility, such as a community pub, as a community asset, which is one way to provide some protection. In my constituency, as he knows from tweets I sent out only the other day, I recently got a pub to look at being listed as a community pub. That is one option, but I entirely accept the issues he raised about whether we need changes to planning use class orders. I assure him that the Government are considering that.
Finally, I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. I know that he feels strongly and passionately about this issue, on which he has even put pen to paper in national newspapers. I think I can assure him that in most areas where he wants developments, opportunities already exist, and that in most places where he wants protections, they already exist. I assure him that we will look at the issues raised in the debate. We will at least help to disseminate the information available more widely, and if changes are needed, we will consider them.
May I say how delightful it is to have you chair this debate, Mr Dobbin? I am pleased to have secured this half-hour debate, because it gives me an opportunity to raise the issue of hate incitement against Israel and the west by the Palestinian Authority.
The year 2013 has been identified as the year of peace for Israelis, Palestinians and all the people of the region, but Israelis and Palestinians in particular face many difficulties if they are to secure peace. Overcoming those difficulties will require determination and willingness to compromise. For Israel’s part, they will need to readopt the land for peace doctrine that in the past has secured landmark peace agreements with its neighbours.
The Palestinians also have an important role to play, and I want to use this debate to raise one thing that they ought to do. It is clear that a culture of hate has wormed its way into the very fibre of Palestinian society. Incitement to hate is pervasive in Palestinian school textbooks, on television programmes and at cultural and sporting events. Palestinians have been consistently and unremittingly taught to hate Jews, Israel and the west.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that as the children of a future for Palestinians and Israelis alike, teaching them to love rather than hate each other and their doctrine can be the only right way forward?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a perfectly sensible point. I shall say something along those lines later.
Incitement has been done with very little condemnation by the international community, including, I have to say, the United Kingdom. My contention is that that activity fundamentally harms the peace process and any hope for a two-state solution. Ignoring incitement and hate education because we do not want to rock the boat will not help us along the path to peace, and it does not provide the steady foundations needed for peaceful coexistence.
Incitement takes many forms. It ranges from the denial of Israel’s right to exist to the abhorrent glorification of violence and infamous Palestinian terrorists. PA officials readily speak to western audiences about their determination to reach peace with Israel, but a very different story is presented to their domestic audience. Official Palestinian Authority media regularly paint a picture of a world in which Israel does not exist. In its simplest visual form, that is expressed through the distribution of maps depicting geographic Israel replaced by the “State of Palestine”.
During the Palestinian application for statehood at the United Nations in September 2011, the PA’s official TV channel broadcast a map that depicted all of modern Israel and the Palestinian territories wrapped in the Palestinian flag with a key through it. Therefore, at a time when President Abbas was telling the UN that he sought two states living side by side, residents on the west bank were being shown a map carrying an unmistakeable message of Palestinian sovereignty over the whole area. In addition to denying Israel’s existence, official Palestinian Authority media vilifies and demonises Israel and the Jewish people. Last summer, a PA TV broadcast showed a painting depicting Israel as an ogre with a Star of David skull cap that impales and eats Palestinian children in Gaza.
Just this month, PA TV broadcast a music video honouring a number of convicted terrorists. The song featured excerpts of a speech by President Abbas, stating, “We will not rest until all prisoners are freed and the prisons are emptied.” One of the terrorists who was honoured in that video was Ibrahim Hamid, who is serving 54 life sentences in Israel for planning a series of suicide bombings that killed 46 Israelis during the second intifada.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The matters that he brings to the attention of the House are truly shocking and put a question mark over the status of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace. Would it be good for the Government to direct more of their funding to support genuine co-existence projects that bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of two states?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In addition to the hon. Lady’s suggestions, we must also ensure that we expose those terrible examples of output on PA TV. The one that my hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago was changed after that exposure. The key to bringing about such change is ensuring that British Government officials and representatives in the region make official protests about every single example of such output on TV.
Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I will do my best to speed up. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope the Government will take that lesson on board. I have brought with me some examples that I will be passing over to the Minister. In the past, there has perhaps been a denial of such things, but when the examples are seen in black and white, they are hard to deny.
As a direct result of PA-endorsed incitement, dying for the sake of Palestine remains an ideal that is an accepted part of Palestinian discord. Shockingly, the official Facebook page of Fatah in the Lebanon recently posted a photo of a mother dressing her young son with an explosive suicide belt and encouraging him to blow up the sons of Zion.
Fatah’s Facebook page routinely publishes pictures and slogans venerating arms and violence against Israel. In some pictures, young children are even shown carrying rifles. Does my hon. Friend agree that such glorification of violence during the peace process plays into the hands of the extremists and makes the idea of a two-state solution impossible?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is shameful that such incitement to hatred has been denied by too many people. I appreciate the Minister’s efforts in recent weeks to further the matter in the Foreign Office, but what discussions has he had with his colleagues in east Jerusalem on the issue of incitement and hate education and how will the Foreign Office play a part in ending it?
The Palestinian school textbooks have included the same inflammatory messages that I have mentioned. I read with great interest a recent report into this matter by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. The US-funded report concluded that both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks could do more peacefully to portray the other side. The findings once again highlighted the fact that both sides in the conflict need to prepare their populations for a peaceful future. The report also shows the need for those responsible for Israeli ultra-Orthodox education to re-examine the material that they are putting out.
However, there are shortcomings in the report about which any reasonable and unbiased person should have concerns. Those shortcomings could explain why a number of the study’s scientific advisory panel and leading stakeholders have refused to endorse the report. For instance, the report fails to emphasise that the ultra-Orthodox school system, which makes up only 8% of the Israeli student body, is not Government-regulated. It does not represent an official Israeli line and should not be seen on a par with the PA-authorised textbooks. The report’s other major failure is that it justifies the levels of incitement found in Palestinian textbooks by asserting that perhaps it is because the Palestinians are at an earlier stage of nation building, are the weaker of the two adversaries and have suffered more hardships in day-to-day life. We must not be distracted on the path to seeking peace by that sort of moral relativism.
Consistent with the Palestinian Authority’s policy of glorifying terrorists, the PA financially reward terrorism by paying a monthly salary to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons convicted of terror offences. It pays a monthly salary of anything between £240 and £2,100 to prisoners serving multiple life sentences for involvement and facilitation of deadly acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings. The longer the time in prison, the higher the salary. To put it crudely, the more horrific the terrorist activity and the more Israelis who are killed, the larger the salary. In total, the PA is paying salaries totalling approximately £3 million each month to 5,500 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons.
I was shocked to learn that those payments are part funded by the British taxpayer. Indeed, the payments come from the PA’s general budget, into which the UK contributes more than £30 million each year. I am unaware of any known safeguards in place preventing the use of UK aid to that end. Previous attempts by my parliamentary colleagues from all parts of the House to raise that issue have been met with apparent denial and a declaration that the payments are simply “social welfare payments to the families of prisoners.”
I wholeheartedly believe that dependent spouses or children should not be held responsible for the crimes of family members, and I doubt that any of my colleagues here today would disagree with me. None the less, PA legislation repeatedly refers to “salaries”—or ratib in Arabic—and not “social assistance” or “welfare payments”. Crucially, that legislation stipulates that a prisoner is not obligated to give his salary to his family. Unmarried prisoners also receive the same basic salary as those who are married and have children. Finally, a small stipend for wives and children paid to prisoners is received separately from the standard salaries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he is aware, numerous questions have been asked of our Government in relation to those payments. Time and again, we have been told that they are salaries and not social assistance. However, in December 2012, a Palestinian Authority statement, which was released through its official news service, explicitly stated otherwise. That statement, which is made in the name of the Palestinian Minister responsible for prisoners’ affairs, Issa Karake, announced that those payments were salaries and not social assistance. It went further by stating that any talk of social assistance was incorrect rumour. How can my hon. Friend square that issue with the denials made by our own Government?
I cannot—I have to ask my hon. Friend to put his question to the Government, because I cannot answer for them. However, since these payments are not explicitly given to those in need, it seems logical to assume that they are given as a form of reward for prisoners’ terror acts; to me, that is quite logical.
As I have shown today, those are the very same acts of terror that are all too frequently praised by the Palestinian Authority. I have no doubt that the Minister will have been in contact with his colleagues at the Department for International Development about this issue. However, can he tell me what discussions he has had with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts on this issue? Furthermore, what assessment has he made of this very serious matter?
In conclusion, the PA’s failure to deliver on their commitment to end incitement explicitly undermines the principles and conditions on which the peace process is built. That incitement highlights the extent to which Palestinian society has not publicly begun to absorb the changes needed for a practical and genuinely peaceful co-existence with Israel. I contend that incitement is a form of abuse of Palestinian children. We must remember that those children are the next generation of peacemakers and state-builders. Simply put, no peace agreement will be able to guarantee peace in the medium to long term if a generation of Palestinians is growing up indoctrinated to hate Israel, Jews and the west.
I am reassured that this is an issue that the Government are starting to regard with increased seriousness. Indeed, the Prime Minister made his position clear at a United Jewish Israel Appeal dinner late last year, when he said:
“Britain will never support anyone who sponsors a football tournament named after a suicide bomber who killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant. We will not tolerate incitement to terrorism.”
The Government rightly hold Israel to account when Israeli policies stand in the way of peace in the region. By the same reasoning, it is important that they adopt a similar policy with regard to the Palestinians. The Palestinians will take any British silence as a green light to continue this practice. We must insist, as a policy, that the PA end the indoctrination of its youth with views that jeopardise a future of peaceful co-existence.
To that end, I ask the Minister to give me an assurance that the Government will make, and will continue to make, representations to the PA that incitement against Israel is unacceptable and in contravention of the Oslo agreement. Widespread PA-endorsed incitement has gone unchallenged for too long. The PA are clearly not making any effort to educate their people in peace and co-existence with Israel. As we move forward into this “year of peace”, the need to abandon all messages of incitement is more important than ever.
I echo the pleasure of other Members in serving under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin; as long-established friends, it is particularly good to start in such a way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) has secured an important and timely debate, and I appreciate his courtesy in sending me a copy of his speech earlier this afternoon. I welcome this opportunity to reiterate the Government’s position on incitement. We oppose, in all circumstances, the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. We deplore incitement on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including any comments that could stir up hatred and prejudice in a region that, perhaps more than any other, needs a culture of peace and mutual respect, as my hon. Friend and other hon. Members made clear.
We do not hesitate to raise instances of incitement with both the Palestinian Authority and Israel whenever we feel that it is appropriate to do so. I am in regular contact with our colleagues in the consulate general in Jerusalem, and in answer to my hon. Friend’s questions, I can say that we have a regular dialogue with both the PA and the Government of Israel, in which we reiterate the need for both sides to prepare their populations for peaceful co-existence, and we take some of the specific issues that he has raised directly to Palestinian sources through our colleagues in Jerusalem.
By opening my response in this way, I emphasise my concern, which I know the House understands, about incitement, but I will not provide a commentary on all such allegations, not all of which we can verify, and nor can the UK be held responsible for them. As I will make clear, and as my hon. Friend made clear in his remarks, it is not possible to deal with this in isolation from the backdrop of the ongoing issues between the Palestinians and Israel that have beset the region for too long.
I do not fully share the bleakness of the rhetoric with which my hon. Friend began his remarks, particularly his comment that Palestinians have been consistently and unremittingly taught to hate Jews, Israel and the west. I genuinely find that far too wide an expression to cover all Palestinians everywhere in the region. I also feel that to neglect any sense of any activity that may have been perpetrated by Israelis during the occupation as any part of popular anger against Israel misses an important part of the context. That is not to minimise the damage done by incitement, but not to mention that and not to feel that it is part of the context is, in my view, simply wrong.
On the PA’s leadership, it is important to stress that we consider that the track record of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad shows their genuine commitment to non-violence and a negotiated two-state solution. To quote the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres last April:
“President Abbas is constant in his announced position—for peace, against terror, and for a two-state solution. I think we have never had a wider basis to conclude peace than under his leadership.”
The Israeli Government have repeatedly praised the strength of the co-operation between the Palestinian and Israeli security forces in improving security and preventing violence, including violence against Israel. It is for these reasons that we firmly believe that the PA, under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, are indeed firm partners for peace.
I am a little alarmed at that statement by the Minister, because there are many examples—example after example, indeed—of senior Palestinian officials at the very top levels attending sporting competitions named in honour of people who have murdered innocent Israelis, or of their attending ceremonies to rename squares and streets after people who have murdered innocent Israelis. So while they may say one thing to the west, they may be saying something slightly different in Arabic.
The Prime Minister was clear in his denunciation of those who set up sporting tournaments or who support activities named in memory of the so-called martyrs and the suicide bombers. Of course, that is the clear position of the UK Government.
Again, however, to neglect the context in which people see the position of prisoners and those who have been engaged in activities against Israel is to fail to understand the context of the issues that we are discussing. It does not make the glorification right—it is not right—but not to understand how that operates in the occupied territories is to miss something fundamental. To place it all in terms of the rhetoric and not to understand the wider context will not help us to get to where we need to be, in our encouragement for all engaged in this issue to find a solution, which—as my hon. Friend made clear—has prime importance this year in particular.
I used this debate today particularly to refer to that incitement. I mentioned the fact that Israelis are not blameless in this situation—I understand that—but what is wrong, under any circumstances whatsoever, is some of the practices that have taken place to incite hatred against Israel and Jews, and there is no condoning of those practices whatsoever.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his clarification, and given time—in the next eight minutes—I am happy to make our position even clearer. However, he did not spell out the context in his speech as clearly as he has just done, and that is vital. We will condemn the incitement and the naming of events after the so-called martyrs, but not to understand the context is to miss something, and I appreciate what he has just said.
I appreciate that the Minister condemns the glorification of violence, but the point is that—in effect—that glorification is being part-funded by the UK taxpayer, because British taxpayers are paying £30 million a year to the general budget of the Palestinian Authority, and the state TV and radio broadcaster is pouring out some of this hatred, as shown in some of the evidence that the Minister has heard today. Unless the UK Government get cross about that incitement, it will not stop.
The Government’s memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority makes it clear that our aid to the PA is intended to contribute towards a peaceful and prosperous Palestinian state and society, by improving fiscal sustainability, improving public satisfaction and lowering fiduciary risk. The memorandum of understanding makes it clear that all funds must be used to deliver against those agreed outcomes.
We engage closely with the PA to ensure our money has maximum effect on achieving the intended goals of the project. We have a number of safeguards in place to ensure that our money is spent as intended—we keep them under constant review—including safeguards to ensure that UK money does not support Hamas or other terrorist organisations, either directly or indirectly.
I am well aware of the allegations surrounding PA financing to Palestinian prisoners, including to those convicted of acts of terrorism. The PA Prime Minister has made it clear, both in public and to the UK Government, that payments to families are intended to sustain families whose primary breadwinner has been imprisoned, while payments to prisoners in Israeli jails are made at the request of Israeli authorities to meet basic living conditions. We have discussed these issues with the PA at the highest levels in recent months, and continue to encourage the PA to ensure that these payments are more transparent, needs-based and affordable. I assure hon. Members that these discussions are current and ongoing.
Although there are genuine issues with nomenclature and translation, it is still vital to make certain that correct payments are being made, which we believe, up to now, have been appropriate. But it is essential to be clear about this. I note the strength of feeling among hon. Members. I will give an assurance that we will continue to press the PA in relation to this issue, and I expect colleagues to raise it in due course.
The issue of textbooks comes up on occasion. There was a recent US-funded study into Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. Allegations of methodological flaws have been raised. I am not sure that they are sufficient to deal with the underlying results of the study, which we have only just been able to glance at. Our sense is that it is in line with previous studies, which have found that incitement and extreme negative characterisations are very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks. However, also in line with previous studies, the report found a profound need for textbooks on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to do more to promote a positive portrayal of each other, reflecting the principles of co- existence, tolerance, justice and human dignity. We will continue to engage both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli authorities in relation to the background of that report.
My hon. Friend has a number of issues in his back pocket. I had a briefing on some of the material some weeks ago, through Palestinian Media Watch. There are some tough examples. I think that I was expected to be shocked, but I was not. Hon. Members should not mistake me. Some material was shocking and offensive. It has no place in any political or historical discourse in which any credible democratic authority has a part. But my deep and genuine worry is that this incitement is not simply a cause of separation between peoples and hatred; I am afraid that it is a symptom of it.
My overwhelming feeling in looking at some issues, particularly in relation to children, was sadness that those on both sides of the divide who wish to emphasise difference and separateness are steadily winning that battle. One example, which my hon. Friend may be aware of, is a little girl of about seven years of age reciting with pride a poem about a suicide bomber, or so-called martyr. If we see a child reciting a poem about such a thing, instead of what ought to be filling her mind, how do we react? Anger towards her is clearly not appropriate. Whoever’s fault it is, it is not hers. I felt sadness for her, but anger that those who possess the ability to take down some of the barriers between Palestinians and Israelis simply do not do so, but continue actions that perpetuate the hatred.
The Palestinians should not praise the so-called martyrs and the suicide bombers, and we will rightly condemn this, but progress in the middle east peace process, perhaps, will play an even more effective part in ensuring that what we all wish to see—the growing together of people, without these barriers—comes to pass. Israel must examine its own actions in the occupied territories, to ensure that it does not allow an opportunity to fuel popular anger about Israel, which has not come about solely because of exposure to the media, but by the experiences of occupation of too many in those territories. To neglect that is to miss something of considerable importance.
Accordingly, we believe that the only way to combat violence and incitement is to reach a comprehensive two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are urgently working with both the US and the European Union to start the peace process. This was a major subject for discussion in talks between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State Kerry yesterday in London. That is the most important way forward. Incitement on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unacceptable and worthy of the condemnation of the House. If we do not get progress in 2013 on the middle east peace process, the context in which incitement and violence takes root will not be truly dealt with. I urge all hon. Members to focus the same determination on that issue as on their rightful condemnation of incitement where they see it.
Communications: Social Media
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.
On 19 December 2012, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, issued interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. It was a welcome move in the right direction and I hope that Parliament and the judiciary will study internet abuse more closely and begin, as I have been urging Ministers to do for some time, to distinguish between the different degrees of online abuse.
As I explained in my Adjournment debate in September last year, trolling first came to my attention following the tragic death of Liverpool teenager, Georgia Varley, in October 2011. Since then, it has become clear that there is no clear-cut definition of trolling. Too often, this is confused with cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking or even child grooming. Trolling is something very different. I would characterise it as something said online that carries online consequences and poses no offline, real-world risk to the individual in receipt of the message. Trolls demonstrate immoral and unethical behaviour and, quite often, as in the case of Georgia, they trade entertainment on the back of an individual’s personal grief. In essence, the victims of trolls suffer psychological, not physical, abuse.
It is a growing problem in British society and one that Parliament and the legal process have been slow to recognise. I want to focus on concerns regarding the advice given to prosecutors, suggesting that messages sent that are of a grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false nature do not meet the public interest test, inasmuch as they are unlikely to lead to prosecutions. Indeed, Crown Prosecution Service rules state:
“Just because the content expressed in the communication is in bad taste, controversial or unpopular, and may cause offence to individuals or a specific community, this is not in itself sufficient reason to engage the criminal law”.
That should concentrate the minds of parliamentarians. There are rightly concerns because the guidelines fail to articulate exactly what trolling is or identify what kind of people are commonly victims of it; instead, the guidelines attempt to issue a one-size-fits-all solution that is not contextually bound and takes no consideration of personal relationships between the sender, the recipient and/or the subject matter.
The guidelines set out by the DPP that most relate to that issue are referenced in section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. The interim guidelines attempt to make a clear distinction between the different degree of abuse sent via social media, and so instruct prosecutors accordingly. For example, because of the seriousness of the potential offence threatened in a message as outlined in paragraphs 12(1), 12(2) and 12(3), such misdemeanours would be prosecuted robustly using, it has to be said, mainly legislation designed for offline offences.
We are advised that offences deemed to have been committed in accordance with paragraph 12(4), which are likely to be grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or false, are unlikely to lead to a prosecution despite the distress, hurt and needless anxiety that such contraventions can cause. That is where the guidelines have failed adequately to address the growing problem. Indeed, the directive highlights one of the major problems for prosecutors, because, in accordance with the guidelines, something said online is not punishable in law in the same way as something said offline. In essence, the guidelines fail to address the increasing grey area of trolling: the difficulty of proving what a troll intends and what a victim interprets the troll’s intention as being. That, coupled with the ease with which anonymity is afforded to social media users, has led to deliberately manipulative and deceptive behaviours with which prosecutors have not been able to get to grips. Put differently, there is a fundamental failure to grasp the intention of trolls: namely, it is their sole purpose on the internet grossly to offend with obscene messages. The DPP’s justification for what I perceive to be leniency is that it is not in the public interest to prosecute such people, which is germane to my critique of the guidelines because, in my opinion, they misinterpret the public interest.
In describing the dilemma, I am aware of a quote from an illustrious former Prime Minister and Merseyside MP, Harold Wilson. He said:
“I doubt whether any Member could provide a legal definition of what he means by the public interest, capable of covering changing national conditions and of being applied to all…cases”.—[Official Report, 22 April 1948; Vol. 449, c. 2035-2036.]
I do not profess to being legally trained, so I would no doubt fail the Wilson test, but as the use of social media increases exponentially, the exposure to such gratuitous activity increases in proportion. It stands to reason, therefore, that the public’s propensity to want to see such crimes dealt with by the criminal justice system will have increased consequently.
Paragraph 39 of the guidelines specifically addresses the question of public interest. The guidelines advise that if a suspect has taken swift action to remove the communication or has expressed genuine remorse, he or she should not face prosecution. I broadly welcome that clarification, but swift removal does not necessarily mean someone has not already been grossly offended. The internet allows individuals to build an audience of tens, hundreds or even thousands within a very short space of time. Under the guidelines, an individual troll could post a series of grossly offensive messages that are seen by many people, but simply removing the posts within a short space of time—and “swift removal” is not defined in the guidelines—makes it hard for action to be taken against that troll.
Similarly, deletion does not take away the possible psychological impact on someone who has already seen the message. Deleting a message from the internet does not delete it from someone’s mind. Additionally, the guidelines advise that if swift and effective action has been taken by others, such as a service provider, to remove the communication in question, or otherwise to block access to it, prosecution is not in the public interest. Surely that would depend on the particular type and frequency of such transgressions. The guidelines are a “get out of jail free” card that offers virtually no deterrent whatsoever. To all intents and purposes, prosecution can be avoided because of the discretion of others, which is something we should not endorse.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I have two points. First, he talks about people retweeting a message on Twitter. Does he agree that, whether someone is the first or the fifty-thousandth person to retweet a message, there should be equal liability? Otherwise some people would not be prosecuted because they retweeted later than others. Does he also agree that it is good to have a review of the guidelines? We need to make the public aware of how defamation laws apply to social media, otherwise people will say, “Well, I did not know.” The message has to go out to the country: “If you commit a crime or breach the defamation law, you will have to face the consequences.” We need new guidance, but, equally, people must be aware of the existing guidelines.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, in law, ignorance is no excuse. So someone could be prosecuted for defamation if they transgress the guidelines. On the first point, I believe that anyone who engages in social media should be aware of the social consequences of posting such tweets or Facebook statuses, as my assistant, who is a regular Facebook user, tells me they are called.
The guidelines advise that if a communication is not intended for a wide audience, nor is that the obvious consequence of sending the communication, the offender should not face prosecution, particularly where the intended audience did not include the victim or target of the communication in question. That is weak and, with respect, misunderstands social media. In the case of an RIP memorial page on Facebook, for example, a troll’s message on a status is not directed solely at the person who authored the status but is also directed at other people who have commented on the status and all those who have visual access to it. In the case of Georgia Varley, more than 4,500 people had liked her page and were therefore able to see a whole host of comments, unfortunately including those posted by trolls. That calls into question how the DPP uses the term “wide audience.” Does a prosecutor have to investigate the computer literacy of a suspect to determine whether they knew the exact figure of the audience in receipt of their post? Additionally, the subject of an RIP memorial page on Facebook would, of course, be deceased. The intended victim of the troll, therefore, is not necessarily the deceased person but the reader of the message.
The guidelines also advise that if the content of a communication does not obviously go beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in an open and diverse society that upholds and respects freedom of expression, no prosecution is necessary. Of course I agree with that, but I also believe that greater consideration must be given to enforcing the law when grossly offensive comments have been made. There should be some online equivalent to offences committed offline. Only two people in England have been successfully prosecuted and jailed for sending messages considered to be grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing. Is that really an effective deterrent to the people who are sitting at their computers right now, contemplating sending a disgusting message that might cause gross offence?
I understand that questions have been raised about a person’s right to freedom of speech offline versus their right to freedom of expression online, and I accept that it is about proportionality, but the reality is that anyone who knows anything about trolling will say that the problem is that too much grossly offensive material exists, and it would be far too resource-intensive for the criminal justice system to investigate each and every case.
I agree with paragraph 29 of the guidelines, which suggests that any parliamentary proposal would have to ensure that it did not have
“a chilling effect on free speech”.
We must take into consideration the European Court of Human Rights directive, which protects an individual’s right to speech that is offensive, shocking or disturbing. There is still a debate to be had about whether free speech even applies to the sending of communications via social media, or whether it is classed as freedom of expression, which is not an absolute right.
We are talking about vile, insulting and unacceptable behaviour, such as the comments that I have seen posted on RIP memorial pages on Facebook and that were revealed in a BBC “Panorama” documentary. We are not talking about someone’s legitimate right to express themselves freely. There is a world of difference between a fair comment and a wilful denigration without validity that aims simply to cause as much hurt and offence as possible. If we try to protect trolls’ freedom to offend grossly, we are essentially defending the indefensible.
The guidelines clearly give preference to physical abuse or the risk of physical abuse over psychological abuse. When I met the Crown Prosecution Service, its view was that, given the complexity of online abuse, the police are not afforded enough time to compile the evidence necessary to take a case to court. Often, a maximum of six months is not long enough to gather sufficient proof of the alleged offence for a successful prosecution. In any such investigation, the police must routinely combat fake accounts, fake identities, fake e-mail addresses and issues with mobile communications, such as pay-as-you-go devices. Deception makes it difficult for officers to know where to start when looking for a troll hiding behind the anonymity of a computer.
However, that should not prevent us from trying to rectify the problem and eradicate the grey area that I have described. In fact, as I have said, I believe that granting the police and the CPS additional time to gather evidence for court cases would allow them to obtain evidence that meets the test of what is grossly offensive and even expose patterns of behaviour in some individuals that could lead to criminal prosecution.
As well as additional time to compile evidence, the police need innovative approaches to assist them. For example, the university of Central Lancashire is in the early stages of looking at ways to identify trolls through written word patterns. Dr Claire Hardaker, a lecturer in linguistics and English language at the university, said:
“Everyone has a unique way of writing, of putting certain words together, which is subconscious. Many teenagers say they are able to identify who sent a text to them just by the style of writing and word habits or the way the words are written. Someone might be pretending to be someone else, but by analysing the way they write online, we can determine a probable, age, gender, even a probable region from where they come from.”
Such creative approaches could be invaluable in convicting trolls. However, it is also true to suggest that any such invention will be for nothing until the DPP can adequately provide prosecutors with a definition of trolling that is separate from cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking or grooming and that can be robustly prosecuted where appropriate.
One conclusion that I reached early in my investigations into trolling is that a multi-agency approach is needed to tackle the problem effectively. As I have repeated, I am of the firm belief that the way to deter individuals from sending grossly offensive comments on social media is to change the culture of online users. That in turn requires a clear lead from the judicial system. That does not necessarily mean changing the law, but it does mean changing the application of the law, which the guidelines fail to do. The final part of Harold Wilson’s quote in the Commons is:
“In the last resort this House is, and must be, the authority which decides whether or not any particular practice is in the public interest.”—[Official Report, 22 April 1948; Vol. 449, c. 2037.]
He was, of course, right.
I conclude by thanking hon. Members for taking part and by asking the Solicitor-General the following questions. How does he define internet trolling? Does he agree with the DPP’s assessment that messages sent via social media that are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false are unlikely to warrant prosecutions because it is not in the public interest to do so? Does he agree with the approach set out in paragraph 12, which is to assess initially offences that may have been committed using social media? What steps is he taking to work with prosecutors to find new ways to identify trolls, such as the scheme devised by the university of Central Lancashire? Finally, will he consider my request to increase the period of time that the police have to collect their evidence on trolls before a case must be brought before the courts?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. It is a topic about which he feels strongly and on which he has led and campaigned for some time. I agree that the sort of behaviour that he has described in this debate and on earlier occasions is completely unacceptable and wrong and must be tackled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and the hon. Gentleman made the point that a multi-agency set of different approaches are needed if the issue is to be tackled effectively. My hon. Friend mentioned defamation, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware of some of the constructive work being done with media sites to ensure that comments are taken down quickly and effective action is taken, but much more can be done.
I start by addressing the hon. Gentleman’s four questions. The interim guidelines distinguish a range of different kinds of behaviour in the social media field. I am sure he would agree that a prosecutor would tackle a case where there is a credible threat of violence, for instance, differently from another case. Similarly, if an individual is being targeted and harassed persistently, that is another kind of case. There are offences that can be used to prosecute particular kinds of conduct.
There are cases involving activities such as credible threats or harassment, therefore, and then all the other cases, which can vary widely in what they involve. They do not necessarily have the aggravating factors that would lead a prosecutor to charge someone with a serious indictable offence such as threats to kill, or harassment, but it does not follow that the cases in that other category, which are so different from each other, will not be prosecuted. In fact, the guidance is designed to cover the whole field.
Secondly, the wording of paragraph 12 is subject to public consultation. I will ensure that what the hon. Gentleman said today is conveyed to the Crown Prosecution Service, so that his comments are not only on the record in this place but part of the consultation. The approach taken in the interim guidelines is to distinguish offending of different gravity. A case of trolling, which, broadly speaking, is social media jargon for posting provocative or disruptive messages, can fall into any one of the categories of offending set out in the interim guidelines, depending on the facts.
Thirdly, I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to work in the academic sphere to develop technology and expertise that might assist the police in the investigation of such offences. The consultation extends to those with an interest in such matters. The police, certainly, are interested in the techniques. Finally, there is the question of whether statutory time limits need to be extended. That needs to be considered in the context of the consultation. The issue is important.
More generally, I provide assurance that the CPS can and does prosecute cases successfully. The CPS reports an increase over recent months in the number of social media cases. Since the publication of the interim guidance on 19 December, the principal legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions agreed that 15 cases should be proceeded with by prosecution. The interim guidelines issued by the DPP have been developed to assist prosecutors. They were also developed in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers. The idea is that points of the sort that the hon. Gentleman made about the academic evidence can be taken into account in the consultation. It is important to remember that the police investigate offences and gather the evidence, and that the guidelines are intended to help them as well.
The public consultation provides an opportunity for practitioners, other interested parties and the general public to contribute to the framing of the final guidance. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should urge people with an interest in the issue to take part; I will ensure, as I hope he will, that as many colleagues as possible and those outside this place take the opportunity.
The interim guidelines set out four broad categories for prosecutors to consider when deciding on the appropriate charges. Have there been credible threats of violence? Are there communications that specifically target an individual? Has there been a breach of a court order? Finally, does the communication breach section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned?
Malicious communication may warrant a far more serious charge being pursued. The interim guidelines are aimed at requiring the prosecutor to consider a range of potential offences that might arise. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the deeply unpleasant practice of trolling in the case of Georgia Varley—a website set up to commemorate that young girl’s life was targeted. Under the interim guidelines, prosecutors are reminded that communications used to threaten and target others can give rise to a range of serious offences. The hon. Gentleman is right: the person who died would not be the target in such circumstances, but the relatives and the people who cared for that individual are targeted, or can be. When a particular person is targeted but a harassment charge is not possible, because of the legal requirements, clearly prosecutors would carefully weigh up whether they can take the case under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act. It might well be in the public interest to do that.
Similarly, section 127 of the Communications Act provides an important safeguard against the misuse of social media, such as the sending of grossly offensive messages. The wording of the legislation is broad enough to encompass quite a range of behaviour. The guidelines should assist prosecutors in assessing each individual case. We do not want to restrict free speech but, as the hon. Gentleman said, with rights come responsibilities. While recognising important principles of free speech, the interim guidelines do not offer a charter for those who want deliberately and repeatedly to harass and cause distress. It is important to recognise that.
Another point to make to the hon. Gentleman is that paragraph 12.4 of the interim guidelines, the large category of messages, is set out as a particular category. There is then an analysis of the court cases concerning sections 1 and 127—the judges’ comments and how the cases should be looked at in the European context. All that is examined. Finally, there is a paragraph that deals with what the threshold would have to be in order to prosecute cases. It is therefore a more reasoned and complex exercise than might have been thought.
The requirement of prosecutors to prosecute cases of this sort has been demonstrated in cases that the hon. Gentleman is aware of, such as that of Sean Duffy, who was successfully prosecuted and sentenced to 18 weeks’ imprisonment following the death of a young lady. Matthew Woods was prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act and sentenced to eight weeks’ imprisonment for posting on a Facebook page grossly offensive messages regarding the missing children, April Jones and Madeleine McCann. It is wrong, however, to think that those would be the only cases involving social media to be charged and brought before the courts with the risk of imprisonment. Such offences are very much the ones that do not involve threats to kill, blackmail allegations or harassment charges. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that there are offences involving indictment and Crown court trials, with substantial sentences available, that could be used in appropriate cases.
The consultation runs until 13 March—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).