House of Commons
Friday 24 October 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is my honour and pleasure to move the Second Reading of my Bill today. My interest in this subject was initially prompted by the fact that I represent the very rural constituency of South Norfolk, which has many young people who find it very difficult to get on the housing ladder or to find any place to live when they grow up and leave home. The idea of being able to stay in the area, let alone the village, where they grew up or to be near their parents is sometimes completely outwith the range of possibilities for them in a very rural area with many small villages. Of course, some young people will go off to big cities—in our case, to Norwich or cities in Essex, as well as to London or elsewhere—but the fact is that we do not have enough housing in our rural area. What has become apparent to me, and it would be apparent to anyone who takes notice of the debate across the country, is that the problems of housing are just as acute in many urban areas. In some cases, the problems elsewhere are even broader.
There is a very important but underestimated issue about how we unlock the energy latent in the population and deploy it to get more housing. The fact is that many millions of people in this country would like to get a piece of land and build their own house. The National Custom & Self Build Association estimates that about 1 million people would like to do it in the next 12 months, and that more than 7 million people would like to do it at some point in their lives. The availability of means to turn this latent desire or pent-up demand into something real—in my view, it would do a great deal to fulfil the nation’s housing needs—have been remarkably lacking. We have a housing market, if we can call it that, that is sclerotic.
Slightly more than 12 months ago when I was at the party conference in Manchester—I have recently returned from this year’s conference—house builders were still talking about how the housing market was quite fragile. They said that there was no certainty about the recovery, and that the sector still needed support. Yet only two or three months ago, the newspapers were full of stories about a housing bubble. It is quite remarkable how one can go from near stasis or sclerosis to a housing bubble within 12 months. It seems improbable that that would happen if we had a well-functioning housing market. In fact, it happened because we do not have a well-functioning housing market: the supply of housing does not rise to meet the demand for housing. We have a systemic problem or a sustained disequilibrium, to use the jargon, between the number of people who want houses and the supply of houses. There are a whole range of very understandable reasons for that connected with the structure of our planning system and the number of large-volume house builders who provide a great deal of the housing in this country, as well as the interplay between those two factors and between the large-volume house builders and the capital markets.
Although we do not have equilibrium, it is no good blaming anybody. I attended the debate on housing supply in the summer, which was moved by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). I found it a rather appalling and depressing experience, because the first hour and a half was taken up with hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber essentially shouting numbers at each other about who had not done what. Shouting numbers will not get us far. Indeed, announcing targets will not necessarily get us far. If targets were the answer, we would probably have solved the problem by now.
One of the most interesting facets of public policy in recent years has been the widespread recognition, for example in policing, health and schools, that targets have often made the situation worse and allowed people to game the system. I am not sure that that is quite true of housing, but there is certainly a broad recognition in many areas of public policy that instead of worrying about numbers and setting targets, one should focus on removing the blockages that prevent the system from flowing smoothly. In other words, to use the term of art coined by John Seddon, the occupational psychologist and management thinker, if one spends more time studying “how the work works” and attempting to remove the blockages in the flow of how the work works, one frequently gets improvements in performance much greater than any target one would have dared to set. We have seen that again and again in different parts of local government, where we have had startling successes in performance improvement by taking that approach.
People have asked me whether it would make a difference if we had a statutory right to get a piece of land and build a house. They ask whether I can point to a number and say, “That is how many extra dwellings would be created as a result.” The answer is, “No I can’t, and I’m not even going to try,” because the question misses the main point: that there is enormous pent-up demand among people who wish to get a piece of land and build a dwelling of their own, but it does not have an outlet because the blockages are too severe.
My humble Bill seeks to do two things: to create a register containing information on people who wish to get a piece of land and build a dwelling—individuals and associations of individuals—and to ensure that local councils have regard to that register when bringing forward their housing plans. I believe that such house building could make a significant difference if it were built into the warp and weft of the housing plans of local authorities and became, as it were, part of the new normal. A number of other steps would need to be taken in parallel for it to become part of the normal landscape, rather than an activity for an eccentric or highly wealthy fringe, as it is still too easily characterised. I will say more about the things that need to happen in parallel later, but I just say, to emphasise the point, that we need to take a broader view of the parameters of what is possible in trying to make our housing supply function properly and rise to meet demand.
This agenda touches on a far broader range of issues than I at first realised. It is not just about rural areas and urban areas, but touches on social cohesion, reoffending and disability. Stella Clarke, who runs the Community Self Build Agency in Bristol, has young people, who 10 or 15 years ago would have been rioting, literally building their own stake in the community. She has found a way to help young unemployed people who are in housing need to take action to shape their own future. Ex-service personnel, who had always had the accommodation that they needed provided for them in the forces, but who sometimes lose their way when they leave the discipline of the military environment, have been helped in the same way.
The front page of the Community Self Build Agency website quotes a local resident who was helped by the agency:
“I was encouraged by the local council to apply for the CSBA Scheme, I rang them and said; ‘I am disabled, unemployed, on benefits and I know nothing of building.’ They said; ‘You fit all the criteria!’ I have never looked back.”
We need to open our eyes to the parameters of what is possible if we are to unlock the energy of our people.
There are many people I need to thank for their help and advice on the Bill. First, the Minister’s terrific team at the Department for Communities and Local Government has helped me enormously in making the Bill technically sound. I thank Ted Stevens, who until recently was the chair of the National Self Build Association, which is now called the National Custom & Self Build Association, as well as his successor as chair, Michael Holmes, and the association’s members and supporters.
Ted Stevens was instrumental in a visit that was made by the all-party parliamentary group on self-build, custom-build and independent housebuilding—we were looking for a snappy title, Mr Speaker. We will shortly be changing the title to self-build, custom housebuilding and place-making, which I wish we had called it in the first place, to connote the important difference between building boxes on the one hand and using a bit of thought to shape places and communities that work as places to live on the other.
Ted Stevens was instrumental in helping the all-party group with our trip in the summer to Berlin to look at the Baugruppen, or building groups. More than 300 such groups have sprung up in Berlin, delivering more than 5,000 dwellings. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in his place, who came on the trip. We were accompanied by senior officials, right up to director general level, from the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as a range of housing experts from around the country, including from the Scottish Government. It was an extremely enlightening visit.
One thing that became apparent was that if the local authority—in this case the Berlin senate—co-operates with and encourages activity by people from the bottom up, there can be a surprising range of results and a surprising speed of delivery, and more can be done than is currently done in this country to meet housing need. I think we could import some of the ideas that we saw in Berlin to this country. I am conscious that one cannot just take a model and lift it across, because one has to take account of local circumstances, but the fact is that the Baugruppen have contributed nearly 200,000 dwellings in Germany. It is not a small sector, but a significant one.
I received an e-mail from a lady in Yorkshire a few months ago who had heard about my Bill, saying that she and her husband had been looking for a piece of land for five years, and that they were no further forward now than on the day they started. She said, “It seems as if in this country it will never be, as it is in Germany, a middle-age right of passage that you can go and get a piece of land and build a house.” In Germany, if somebody wants a piece of land, they go to their local authority and say, “I’d like a piece of land please.” The way the system works in Germany is that the land is, in the first instance, sold by landowners to the local authority. I am not saying that we necessarily need to repeat that system here; I do not think that we do. I am just telling the story because I think that it is illustrative.
When someone asks for a piece of land, the local authority says, “Would you like a big one or a small one?” The big ones are slightly disproportionately expensive to subsidise the smaller ones, which are slightly disproportionately cheaper. That is relatively easy to do and there is no chronic shortage; and that in a country where, as anyone who has been listening to Neil MacGregor’s wonderful programme about Germany on Radio 4 will know, a third of the land area is forest. I will not segue into a great soliloquy on the importance of hugging trees and the German soul, because it would be outwith the bounds of this debate, but the fact is that there is plenty of land and it can be done.
One thing that people do not understand in this country, which they really should—I have dwelt on this and have tried my best to get the point across—is how much land we have. Only 1.2% of the land area in this country is taken up by houses. We could double the number of houses in this country, if they took up the same amount of land, and still have 97.6% of the land not being taken up by housing. Surrey has more land devoted to golf courses than to houses, and that is in the rich south-east. These are important facts—I am not making them up.
I have taken the official statistics from the Department and asked The Daily Telegraph to publish them. The senior political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, Christopher Hope, has been running a very successful campaign for years to point out that the wicked Conservatives wish to concrete over England. Sometimes he gets one of his reporters to phone me up, and she says, “You’re a rural MP. You’ll be worried about all this extra housing.” I then give the reporter 10 or 15 minutes on why we need more houses, and because she phoned me and it would be really rather rude to put the phone down, she has to sit and listen. I know full well that they will not actually quote me, and they never do, and then instead I see a quote from somebody else saying, “It’s disgraceful—there are actually people who think we should have enough houses for everyone in this country. It’s wicked.”
The fact that Mr Hope is my brother-in-law is simply annoying, but I hope that at some point I can persuade him to publish the facts about what is going on. A ludicrous dichotomy is emerging—the idea is that people either want to concrete over England and do not care about beautiful scenery, or they only care about beautiful scenery and do not want there to be enough dwellings for all of us to have somewhere to live. I do not know anybody who falls into those categories. Most of the people I talk to both love beautiful scenery and want somewhere to live. My firm belief is that both are possible, and I hope that my Bill will make a contribution to making that happen.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s bravery in taking on the Telegraph in the form of his brother-in-law. According to the national land use database, 5.4% of land is homes and gardens, and only 1.1% is the homes themselves. Not only are we not concreting over the countryside, we are dedicating a large percentage of the land that is developed to gardens.
Indeed. When I talked about 1.2% of the land—the hon. Lady said 1.1%—I was referring to houses. She is right that gardens take up at least another 2% or 3%. I believe that railways take up 2.2%, and that the built environment as a whole, including absolutely everything—factories, offices, roads, railways, churches—takes up about 9% or 10%, so 89% to 91% of our land area is not built on.
I am sure that there will be discussion of the green belt, but I will not dwell on it, partly because we do not have any green belt in Norfolk. Searching Google images for “green belt” gives maps of where the green belt is, showing that none of it is in Norfolk. We have a huge amount of land, and the green belt is an unfortunate distraction. It has been created in such a way that there are places that are not in the green belt, including in my constituency, that I would be horrified to see built on. I would sit in front of the bulldozer to prevent it. There are also places that are in the green belt but probably should not be. We need to be more intelligent about that. Personally, I think people’s instinct to preserve beautiful countryside is good, and I completely support it. The Campaign to Protect Rural England wrote to me saying, “We’re interested to hear that you’ve got a Bill, and we are quite supportive of this sort of approach, even though you might think that all we’re interested in is hugging trees and protecting wild animals.”
My hon. Friend has a good point. The Isle of Wight is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. If we had the north American approach of zoning, which is much harder-edged and makes it absolutely clear whether somewhere can ever be built on, we might make more progress. That is probably outwith the terms of the debate, as would be a long discussion of the green belt, but it is an important point because it relates to people’s deep instincts about land use. Those instincts are sound in many ways, because we want to protect beautiful countryside. As a representative of a rural area with a lot of farmers, I should say that we also want to keep land to grow food on.
I trust that my hon. Friend recognises that to a developer, the choice between developing a brownfield site, which may have problems of industrial waste or contamination, and developing a greenfield site, which carries none of that extra development cost, makes them much more likely to want to pursue a greenfield or green belt option rather than a more challenging industrial brownfield option.
I completely take my hon. Friend’s point. I suppose I would reply, with the Irishman, “I wouldn’t have started from here”, but the developer is presented with the narrow choice that my hon. Friend describes. I should say in passing that one event that I attended at our party conference featured someone from the London assembly who was trying to get some brownfield sites in London made available for housing. They kept on encountering planners who said, “Hands off our strategic industrial land. We need to keep some brownfield land.”
The argument is complex and nuanced, and my hon. Friend is right about the costs of dealing with contaminated land, but in a more fluid and well-functioning world, the responsibilities that sit within the public realm for making land available for use and providing services for it would work differently. In Victorian times, the local councils or corporations—those great Victorian institutions—took it upon themselves to build the infrastructure they needed, such as roads and sewers. The fact that they did that so well is the reason why it has lasted so long and why we now have 100-year-old sewers that need to be replaced through private finance initiative schemes. The only reason they have lasted so long is that the Victorians did such a good job. They went into the market and issued bonds, and they borrowed money. The Bolton Corporation, the Corporation of Birmingham and other great Victorian civic institutions, from when local authorities had a bit of self-respect, did great work and provided the environment in which private individuals could build. Many splendid developments were built, quite dense and quite high, and we can see many still standing in London and our other great cities.
The problem that we have now is that strategic land promotion is, in a way, done by the wrong people. I will come on to the issue of volume house builders, but I will mention them now since my hon. Friend has triggered the point. I do not blame volume house builders for acting in a rational manner, and people who are surprised that they construct dwellings only when it is profitable to do so need to wake up and smell the coffee. Of course that is how they will behave, and we cannot be in the slightest bit surprised. The point is not so much that we encourage them to do a quick job and get out, leading to buildings of substandard quality and durability and poor longevity, but that we require them to do that. They are forced to act in a deeply sub-optimal way in a flawed system. We need a much more patient approach to the employment of the capital that is needed.
We can look at some of the ancient estates that undertook construction years ago, including in London, and still own the properties that were built, or at least the freehold to them, many decades or hundreds of years later. One is the Duchy of Cornwall—there are not that many 600-year-old private ducal estates with the explicit purpose of providing an income for the heir to the throne, but it has been doing its job quite well for 600 years.
Surely the planning authority is the ultimate authority, and local authorities should be much more robust in forcing developers to consider brownfield sites before they allow greenfield sites even to be considered. I do not know whether my hon. Friend’s Bill would assist in any way in freeing up brownfield sites first.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing his Bill, which I am here to support. I had not anticipated making an intervention about the much bigger issue of devolution in England, but he is making a strong case for enabling local authorities to have the independence, the powers and the finance to make decisions and judgments as they see fit. That would enable the sort of building that we saw in Berlin, which the Berlin local council initiated just after the second world war. The marvellous dwellings that we saw would not exist were it not for that freedom and finance. Perhaps I can draw him, provided that he does not go out of order, into the argument about freeing up local authorities to get on with that.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the issue is broad and deep. The fact is, many people who go into the planning profession do so because they are driven by a desire to help shape the community and provide better places for us to live. Then they get into a local authority, with the extraordinarily complex planning environment in which it operates—I commend the Government for scything away hundreds of pages of planning law so that an ordinary lay person can read it and have some hope of understanding it—and suddenly find that instead of being able to help shape the community and think logically, they are the person who says no the whole time. They do not like being that person, so the good ones often leave. That is a dreadful caricature and it is not true that the only people left are the malign and mediocre, but hon. Members will get the point.
Some people who go into planning with the best of motives end up leaving. I have met such people, and when I present that caricature they say, “Yes, I used to be one of those people; I found I couldn’t do anything.” Think about where planning authority power sits. My local district council is the council tax raising authority and the planning authority, and 1p on council tax raises only about £60,000 for it. Will it be able to stand up to a large developer? There is an enormous asymmetry of power; it cannot take rounded decisions in a responsible and representative way on behalf of the people it governs locally, as I and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) would like. Once again, however, I fear that reforming the whole of local government and making it flow and function as it should is probably outwith the terms of my Bill.
On patient capital and the Duchy of Cornwall, let me talk about Poundbury, which is an urban extension of Dorchester. I went there last year with the Public Accounts Committee when we were looking at the Duchy of Cornwall, and again this summer with a number of colleagues. As for the Georgian pastiche—like sugar in tea, some people like it and some people do not—I happen to think that if it is well done, and some of the pastiche in Poundbury is extraordinarily well done, it is rather good, and it is built to a very high standard. If one stands near the farmhouse and some of the oldest developments that have been there for nearly 20 years by the mature trees, one would swear one was in Islington or Camden 150 years ago. People like that and want to live there.
What is really interesting, however, is that Poundbury is now 21 years into a 33-year project. Last year, they had done more than 1,000 dwellings and 1,600 jobs. Now they have done 1,200 dwellings and more than 2,000 jobs. The target for 33 years was only 2,200 jobs, so they have nearly reached the target in two-thirds of the time. The dwellings are becoming more and more attractive, and the most fascinating thing is that when firms such as Barratt are allowed to build there, they have to build to a very tight design code, and they pay a premium for the land compared with what they pay elsewhere. On the surrounding land belonging to different land owners there is a halo effect, because people look at it and say, “Phwoar—I’d like some of that!” Instead of boxes on the greenfield at the edge of the town, which is easier and cheaper to build on than the brownfield mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), the value of the last house built is higher than that of the first house built, which is rarely the case in most big house building developments.
I will make a bit of progress and try to whizz through the rest of my thank you list because I would like to get on to the substance of my Bill. As it is such a humble little Bill, I hope that will not take too long.
Lord Richard Best, president of the Local Government Association, has been enormously helpful and supportive to me, as has a group called Housing People, Building Communities in Liverpool. It has an award-winning self-build project on land provided by the Roman Catholic diocese. I recently met the Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff, who leads for the Church of England on land and property. He is hoping to link the dioceses across England with the vanguard councils that were recently announced by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The National Housing Federation has also been amazingly helpful and supportive. Being at the cutting edge of technology, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that 12 November is #housing day. I am even more impressed by its December Christmas campaign, Ho Ho Homes for Britain. Somebody should probably get an award for that, even if it is only a bar of chocolate.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is indulging in what I think I can accurately describe as preliminary dilation. If it is of any encouragement or succour to him, I have the very keen sense that the House is enjoying his preliminary dilation, and I am a little alarmed by the thought that he might, as he put it, “whizz through” the rest of his remarks. I do not think we would want him to do that.
I feared that my speech would be more like Oscar Peterson than J. S. Bach, and so it is proving, but I will conclude my thank you list because I want to move on. Lloyds bank has been tremendously supportive to the planning sector. Stephen Noakes is head of mortgages at Lloyds bank, and the current chairman of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. He supported our all-party group on self-build, custom-build and independent housebuilding when we had a meeting last year with the university of York. It launched a report on blockages in the self-build and custom house building sector, and Stephen Noakes was a sponsor of that report. Earlier this year we had a meeting with Kevin McCloud in a Committee room upstairs. The meeting was packed with MPs and peers, Stephen Noakes was also there and I found myself on a panel with him at the party conference. Earlier this week Lloyds bank announced a £50 million fund for small house builders to encourage a sector that has been decimated.
When we consider what happened after the housing crash, and the fact that many big banks, including Lloyds bank, decided at the highest level to shrink their exposure to property on their balance sheet, the fact that such institutions are making long-term commitments is extremely welcome. Lloyds bank has created the Lloyds bank commission on housing to explore and address such issues. That is chaired jointly by two of the Minister’s predecessors—my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), and they will bring together in that commission a range of housing experts.
On the front of a recent document Shelter asks the extremely important question:
“Where are our children going to live?”
When one looks at the Lyons review, which was commissioned recently by the official Opposition—I think I have a copy of it somewhere—the front page title is:
“Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need”.
I was given the review only yesterday so I have not had a chance to look at it all. I have heard it slagged off in newspapers, probably by people who have not read it all. I am sure it contains things I would agree with and things with which I would disagree, but it is an interesting and important contribution.
I am glad the hon. Lady says that, and I look forward to reading it with interest.
I was talking to Shelter at a meeting and trying to distil my policy. I have not come to this as a housing expert, but I look at the world and think that if we had got things right there would not be a problem, there would be an equilibrium between supply and demand, and I would not have to stand here in the first place. I distilled my policy down to six words: everyone should have somewhere to live. That is it; that’s what I know. More than that I do not know, and the rest in some ways is details. We must ensure that everyone has somewhere to live, and at the moment they do not. I think we need every available shoulder pushing on that wheel. Of course, if a big rock is in front of the wheel we need to move it out of the way, but I am up for any idea that increases the total supply of housing, particularly if it is done to the highest possible standard.
One simply cannot tell which parts of Poundbury are affordable housing. When they are pointed out, people look at them and think, “Phwoar—I’d like to live there.” They have no particular special status; people are taken off the local housing list like everywhere else, and Poundbury has its share of social problems. However, the shape of community that has been created does something to lessen some of those problems.
A YouGov survey two years ago indicated that 75% of people do not want to buy the product of the volume house builders which, as I said earlier, I think are acting rationally inside a systemically flawed system. One of the main constraints on supply is that the standard house models of the volume house builders are attractive to only a small proportion of the total numbers of would-be buyers in the population. That makes it difficult to get above an average of 2.6 sales per month per site. Where there is a custom-build approach—or, as I might venture to call it, a customer-build approach—they can get two, three or four times that level of performance.
There is a wonderful development—it is not an experiment; it has happened—in the Netherlands in Almere on the opposite side of the IJsselmeer from Amsterdam. Many, many dwellings were allowed—it now has 3,000—and most are self-build and custom build. When the volume house builders around the edge were basically in stasis and nobody was buying their dwellings, there was a hive of activity in the middle of that development because the building of houses was being treated as if customers mattered.
A colleague recently retailed to me the story he had been told about a former Conservative MP who had been on the board of a major house building company. The former MP had said, “I have been on the board of this big PLC house builder for eight years. We have talked about land acquisition, finance, buying other businesses, the supply chain, cost control, staffing levels and skills. The only thing we haven’t talked about is houses.”
The truth of the matter is that we do not really have a housing market. If we did, there would be enough houses for everyone. What we have is a land market—which is very tightly controlled—and volume house builders which have access to the open capital market act rationally: they build when it is profitable to do so and take out an insurance policy to cover the down side. A farmer who is getting 3.5 tonnes of winter barley from a field is very happy if someone gives him £4,000 a year for the next 10 years for an option to apply for planning permission to build houses on it one day. That may never happen, but the only entity that can afford to do that is a large, well capitalised house builder. Small house builders cannot possibly do that.
It is even worth a large house builder’s while to employ someone—at considerable expense—to work out how to remove a joist that costs £76 from a roof. It is worth the investment of thousands of pounds and a considerable amount of time to figure that out, because for 1,000 houses on one site it will save £76,000. For someone who builds 9,000 or 10,000 houses a year, it will save £750,000. Over 10 years, that will amount to £7.5 million. What business would not want to save such a sum? But then along comes the purchaser, accompanied by the sales agent who, for some strange reason, often drives a pink Fiat. The sales agent is trying to sell that rather pretty little shoebox, containing furniture that is manufactured to deceive the eye. The width of a double bed in most show homes is about 3 feet 11 inches or 4 feet. Furniture for show homes is not furniture that could be used: it is specifically designed to make the rooms look bigger. The prospective buyers, perhaps a husband and wife with a baby, say, “We are thinking of having another baby. Can we extend into the roof?” But they cannot do that because the design, to save that £76, makes that impossible. The whole thing would fall down.
In a customer-driven environment, from the beginning the customer would say, “This is what I want now, and this is what I may want in the future”, and the market would respond. Some mathematician has worked out that if someone buys a Mini Cooper from the factory in Oxford, there are 126,000 different permutations to choose from.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Duchy of Cornwall. The Prince of Wales is on record several times talking about UK architecture and the occasional carbuncles that it produces. If the market allows individual designs, someone’s aspirational design is likely to be someone else’s carbuncle. How will the Bill address that differential in taste and aspiration?
The vast majority of our built environment that is worth protecting was built before the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, when there was much less control on what could be done. Also, when people are spending their own money on assets, they are likely to do so in such a way that protects the value of those assets. Aesthetics vary: every beautiful Georgian terrace we see—except those that were built on green fields—was built on land that previously held a beautiful row of black and white cottages from the 14th or 15th century that was knocked down to make way.
Imagine a world in which people could go along to a site and the sales agent with the pink Fiat said, “Here are some choices for you. You might want a big plot or a small one. Your tastes might tend in the direction of very traditional architecture or of something very funky. If the former, you might want to think about these architects and builders. If you want something more contemporary, you might want to consider these architects and builders who have a lot of experience in that sector. We have some examples of work they have done earlier and we can attest to their quality.” That could be the normal approach, but at the moment it is anything but.
Interestingly, the UK is an outlier in this area. In Canada, Germany, France, Sweden and Ireland, self or custom build often accounts for more than 50% of the market. In Italy, it accounts for more than 60% and in tiny Austria it is 86%. In this country, self-build is still seen as an elite club that is open only to a small number of people. As Kevin McCloud has said, we build some of the poorest performing, most expensive and smallest homes in Europe. If someone wants a home with triple-glazed windows so that it costs nothing to heat, we have no suppliers who can supply that. I do not know anyone who would not like a house that cost nothing to heat, but triple-glazed windows are not available here, although they are in Germany. They should be available here, too.
I am hugely enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. Is there, however, a greater problem with the planning system than he has outlined so far? Planners instruct builders on the precise colour of the bricks that they must use. With that level of ridiculous detail, people cannot let their imaginations run wild on bespoke houses because they will not meet the conditions laid down by the bureaucracy.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, people go into planning with the most benign intentions, but they end up becoming the person who says no. They find that they do not like that and they leave. That means that those left in planning authorities can be the less imaginative and creative, who like exercising their little bit of power. I know someone in South Norfolk who built a house and he said that after his seventh attempt to get the gutter colour right, he told the planner to choose. But that person is employed by the taxpayer and should have better things to do. The people who work in local planning authorities are as much victims of the system as everyone else. Perhaps a quarter of them should not be there, but most of them would like to do a good job. They would like to have more ability to help their local communities properly in a true place-making way, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North describes.
The Government have done a lot in this area. The Budget provided £150 million for service plots, and the Government have announced a significant range of housing schemes in recent years—the local infrastructure fund, the Growing Places fund, the new homes bonus and Help to Buy, as well as the more recent starter homes money. The Minister can say more about those if he wants, but my point is not that nothing is happening. It is that it is not happening quickly enough. We need to make it happen quickly if we are to solve the housing needs of our people.
One crucial problem is that, because the supply has not been flowing properly, the cost of buying a house has risen considerably compared with the average income. It used to be three to four times income. In South Norfolk, it is now 8.2 times average income to buy the average dwelling, and it is the same in Harlow. In mid Suffolk, it is 8.6 times. These figures are from a “Home Truths” card for the east of England—the National Housing Federation has produced a card for each region of the country. In South Cambridgeshire, it is nine times average income, in St Albans 10.5 times, in Welwyn Hatfield 11.9 times and in Hertsmere it is 13.4 times. In a well functioning, flowing market that would not be the case.
In my view, the word “customer” should apply in the broadest possible sense. As I said, my policy is that everyone should have somewhere to live, but not everyone can afford to buy a house, and we need to recognise that. It follows that people without the money to buy a house should also be treated as customers. I want to see a world in which a person can say to a housing association, “I can’t afford to buy a house, but I am a human being and I don’t want to live in a ditch. I would like to have somewhere to live, and I understand that you provide housing for people like me”; and I want to see a world in which the housing association replies to such people or groups of people, “How can we help create something you want to live in and then rent it to you?” I know that can happen because it is happening now—tens of thousands of houses are being built this way across Germany and other parts of the continent—but not here. If we treat house building as if customers matter, we will go a long way towards solving the problem.
My humble Bill would require each local authority to keep a register of persons—individuals or associations of individuals—who are
“seeking to acquire serviced plots of land in the authority’s area in order to build houses for those individuals to occupy as homes.”
In the Bill, the word “house” includes a dwelling that forms part of a building, and “serviced plot of land” means
“a plot of land which satisfies such requirements about utilities and other matters as may be specified.”
For example, if a group of people got together to take over a derelict commercial building in an urban area, do it up and turn it into a series of dwellings, and if they got the co-operation of the local authority, that would fall within the scope of the Bill as a serviced plot.
Clause 1 identifies the relevant authorities that in each area would be responsible for observing the Bill: district councils, county councils in areas with no district councils, London borough councils, the Common Council of the City of London, the Council of the Isles of Scilly and other authorities, such as the Broads Authority, national parks and so on. The Government’s vanguard councils, with a bit of help and pump-priming money, are experimenting voluntarily with registers to see what is easiest and most cost-effective, and the last thing I want to do is place extra burdens on already overburdened councils.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case and is slowly winning me round. However, if there was a plot on which 10 houses were to be built, a section 106 agreement, as well as infrastructure for sewerage and top water, would be needed. How would the 10 individual purchasers arrive at an understanding to pay the section 106 money, the sewerage connection fees and other ongoing costs?
It could be done in lots of ways. I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he draws my attention to something I should have mentioned earlier. The long title of the Bill states that one of the purposes of the Bill is
“to allow volume house builders to include self-build and custom-build projects as contributing towards their affordable housing obligations, when”—
and for the avoidance of doubt, I should have written “and only when”—
“in partnership for this purpose with a Registered Landlord”.
There is no reference to that in the text of the Bill, and there is a reason for that. I had planned to suggest to volume house builders that they could do this too, but on advice, owing to concerns from the affordable housing sector, the Department for Communities and Local Government and others—particularly in the other place, there are many experts who have forgotten more about section 106 agreements than my hon. Friend or I will ever know—it became apparent that I would have been treading into deep waters unnecessarily and that much of what might be needed could be done by guidance and regulations from the Department. For a technical reason, however, the words about volume house builders in the long title have had to remain: this was the Bill that was presented, so I have to keep the long title on Second Reading. If it gets into Committee, however, I will move an amendment deleting those words so that the Bill is silent on the question of section 106 agreements and volume house builders—there is no definition of volume house builders in law anyway. There was much justified concern that this approach might have been open to abuse, and it was certainly not my intention to allow that.
In defence of volume house builders, whom I do not blame for behaving rationally, there are some—in particular, Mark Clare, chief executive of Barratt Developments—who are across this agenda and thinking broadly and deeply about what they can do to help. For example, Barratt is providing plots for local small builders alongside its big developments to encourage diversity and choice. I commend that approach tremendously. Barratt is a high-quality operation, and as it does that, more will follow. In their negotiations with big developers, local authorities could start discussing how volume house builders might incorporate that into their big developments, but I would rather it be done on a case-by-case basis—local authority by local authority—rather than have us tell them from above what has to happen. That is not likely to work.
Clause 1 deals with the establishment, maintenance and promotion of the register, and clause 2 deals with the duty as regards the register. It states that local authorities, having established the register, must have regard to it in bringing forward their housing plans. The meaning of “have regard to” will vary enormously. What is appropriate for the London boroughs of Hammersmith or Newham, depending on conditions and the amount of land available, will be very different from what is appropriate for a national park, which is also a local authority, for a suburban area, a rural area such as South Norfolk or a market town. So I have not tried to define exactly what it would mean. Instead, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State could issue guidance and make regulations about what it means.
Just yesterday, the Government published their “Right to Build: supporting custom and self build” consultation document. It is a thorough document and I commend it to hon. Members. It is an index of how serious they are about talking to local authorities about what will work locally and how to make this the new normal without its becoming a bureaucratic and burdensome exercise.
I do not pretend that the Bill will change everything overnight. We have a serious issue with our housing need that has not been solved for a generation, and we are not going to solve it overnight. However, I contend that if we open up choice and empower the customer—I mean “customer” in the broadest sense, including those in the market for affordable rental properties—we will start to make a significant difference. We need every available arrow in our quiver if we are to start to solve this problem, which has been going on for far too long. If we can unleash the energy of our own people, we can make a tremendous difference. As Rod Hackney, the architect who used to advise the Prince of Wales, said, it is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy that can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves. I believe that my Bill would contribute towards helping people to help themselves, and I commend it to the House.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I represent constituencies with an equivalent demography and similar levels of deprivation and dysfunction. My constituency could be characterised as seven enormous former council estate. It might seem odd, therefore, for me to begin by praising the Bill put forward by my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and mentioning Kevin McCloud and his programme “Grand Designs”. I do that because he has popularised the concept of self-build and because it happens to be my favourite television programme. When Kevin McCloud came to the House of Commons to speak to the self-build group, I remember him being deeply unimpressed when I showed him that my phone ring-tone was the “Grand Designs” theme tune. More seriously, however, he has put the concept of individual self-build very much into people’s minds, so we owe him and the show a continuing debt because it opens up a line of thinking.
The line of thinking for me is not building a £1 million house in beautiful green belt, but, to connect back to my opening sentence, that self-build, custom build or community build could be one of the answers for areas such as my constituency and that represented by Madam Deputy Speaker—places that linger at the bottom of the league table on so many statistical indices, whether it be, as in my case, sending the fewest number of young people to university, or having double the number of single households or double the national average of the number of children entitled to free school meals. I am trying to juxtapose these two extremes, and I think we can do this, which is why I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, the chair of the self-build, custom-build and many other builds in the title of the group. If we are extending the title further, I would like to add, in brackets, community build, because that is where we can bridge into the less affluent areas where the need for housing is just as important. By dint of personal energy and effort, my hon. Friend has raised this issue virtually single-handedly in the House, bringing us to a position whereby I understand that both the Front-Bench teams will support his Bill—quite an achievement, albeit only one of many in his illustrious parliamentary career.
As his constituency neighbour, I am well aware of the challenges the hon. Gentleman faces in his constituency. He referred to Mr McCloud and the “Grand Designs” programme, but it strikes me that almost all those type of programmes conclude with the projects going over-budget and over-time—a demonstration of the enormous challenges of building one’s own property. Is there enough support out there from the National Custom & Self Build Association to assist people who are not of great wealth to overcome the challenges they might face in the self-build process?
I am tempted, in Kevin McCloud fashion, to say, “Will I actually get to the end of this speech, and will it be done by Christmas? Let’s come back after the break and see.” More seriously, my honourable neighbour makes an important point, which I shall try to cover on the basis of what little I know about this field. It is indeed important not to look at individuals of high net worth to do the self-build, which would simply not be possible in my constituency. Rather, we should look to local partnerships, particularly including local councils. I have alluded to the experience of Berlin, to which I shall return, but in my own area, the superb Nottingham City Homes is the arm’s length management organisation for the former council housing stock. It is very well led, with imagination and creativity in abundance. If we can tie such organisations to people in the private sector who are prepared to help, I think it will be possible to bridge from those high-end individual self-builds into something that could have a real impact on my constituents.
I say that for another reason, too—not necessarily for the obvious housing reason. This could be a demonstration and a symbol of the fact that people in areas decimated by the decline of manufacturing who have been pulverised by the loss of employment in their communities—and, in many cases, the loss of self-respect, as well—are capable of getting up, organising and achieving something like this. That could have a really cathartic effect on those estates with which I know the hon. Gentleman is so familiar.
I pay tribute to Ted Stevens, whose name has been mentioned. Ted was not simply the chair of the National Self Build Association. One cannot come into contact with Ted without being electrocuted by the passion and desire he brings to this field. He is an inspirational character, and we were fortunate that he chose to come to Nottingham recently to convene a meeting with a number of colleagues who are interested in this field. One cannot pay for that sort of passion or buy that sort of interest and desire to spread the word. If, with the hon. Member for South Norfolk and Ted Stevens—he is no longer the chair of the association, but he is not the sort of character who is going to leave the field—we can bottle that passion, there is a real chance of doing something very significant in this field.
Let me say a little more about the specifics in relation to my own constituency, which I know the Bill’s promoter is concerned about, too. If we are to make an impact on the market, we are going to have to look at how this will impact on the former council estates, on working-class and low-income housing, which is where much of the expansion could come from. I made a point earlier about having more devolution so that local government can make some decisions rather than be the passive recipient of policies coming down the pipe from Whitehall. In my constituency, we need to enable the local authority to get on and do the job it sees fit. Peculiarly, there is too much housing in my constituency.
The project I am fortunate enough to chair in my constituency is called the rebalancing project. It is called that because we are trying to balance the fact that 95% of the constituency is covered by former council estates, with very little provided in the way of employment, training, leisure—all the things that go to make an effective community. To balance that, we have to confront the reality of being issued with housing targets that are wholly inappropriate for a constituency such as mine, and the drive in local government, when battling austerity, to sell land assets, often to people who could put a semi on a corner or a Barratt estate on a zone designated for business and enterprise, losing that land for ever. Those pressures must be considered .
We need a much more flexible system—one that is looked at locally rather than one in which all we are doing is looking to tick the boxes sent to us by the centre. If we can have that degree of flexibility, there will be room and possibilities for self-build, custom build and community build—breaking, in my case, this unleavened sea of former council housing. I put on record that this is actually very good stock—brick-built houses from the new garden city movement era, with gardens front and back and pitched roofs, with no deck access and no high rise, but which, none the less, in modern circumstances, without the employers who were around at that time, creates a large, single problem, verging on a ghetto, which we need to break down in order to create communities and neighbourhoods on a more human scale, based on a balance of employment, skills and training.
I was inveigled by the hon. Gentleman to go to Berlin to have a look at some of the self-build or community build there. It was one of the best bits of inveigling I have ever experienced. This was not “Grand Designs” as a concept. Some of the buildings we saw were converted. There was a beautiful former school which had been made into a wonderful set of apartments for a broad-based mix of people, with plenty of facilities on site. The other buildings that we saw were flats, sets of housing rather than individual housing. That visit opened my eyes to the fact that it was not necessary to do a one-off in a green field. I realised that this was relevant in an urban context and relevant to more than just an individual, and that it could start to involve a more collective approach that could be the answer in areas such as mine.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned our visit to the school in Karlshorst, in east Berlin. That meant a great deal to me, not least because in a different incarnation, probably more than 20 years ago, I worked in Karlshorst as a teacher. I used to pass Russian generals walking their dogs every morning, just after the Berlin wall had come down. The most interesting thing about the Karlshorst school was the existence of a supervised community consisting of eight or 10 families and 10 children, many of whom were orphans or had been removed from their parents. The children had adult role models to whom they could relate—apart from their own step-parents—who created for them a new, normal environment that they could not possibly have experienced anywhere else.
When I was in Berlin, I had the impression that the concept of group build was déclassé. In the United Kingdom, the aristocrats have the big houses, the middle classes have their hideaways in Islington—or its equivalent in my city, and no doubt in other cities—and everyone else seems to have acquired the “better builder” kit from one of the volume builders. And then there is social housing.
In the United Kingdom, there is a very rigid view, almost a “caste system” view, of what housing should be. That was totally absent in Berlin. There was fluidity. It was not a case of “We have a quota,” or “We are helping some people out,” or “We are getting a bit of a deal, some money, and because we are being allowed to build something else, we will build a bit of social housing.” That is rather what the old council estates used to be like, certainly when I was growing up in my constituency. There was no thought that such housing was strictly limited to a specific group. Now, however, we have almost come to accept that that is the way that it has to be in the United Kingdom. I think that self-build, or collective build, or community build, is one of the ways in which we can return to a more open market in housing, in which everyone can have a stake.
As I have said, Berlin was quite an eye-opener for me. I discovered that 15% of all new homes there were provided by means of the group build method. That is a big chunk of the market, and—the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong about this—I believe that the percentage is increasing, and has been increasing steadily since just after the war.
A key factor has been local government’s ability to play its part. We were told repeatedly that the precedent could not have been set if the spark had not been lit by the Berlin council and its sub-divisions, which saw group-build as a way of enabling people to run their own affairs and to make housing that they felt was appropriate, rather than housing that some other person felt was appropriate for them. They were allowed to express themselves, by which I mean not wild and wacky architectural design, but enabling people to make whatever interiors they like once the shell had been constructed. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, we went in and out of houses which were identical at first sight, but whose internal design had resulted from a tremendous amount of imagination. The customising of group-build was one of the features that I took away from that visit.
I am sorry that I was not present for the beginning of the debate. I know from my time in Germany that there is not much of a tradition of owner-occupation there. Many people hire or rent their properties. Is the system that the hon. Gentleman is describing a way of helping young Germans, or Germans without much money, to enter the property market, because the cost of owning property in Germany is so much higher than it is here? That is a question, not a statement: is owning property more expensive there?
I did indeed want to intervene. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we visited the houses known as “Elf Freunde”, or “11 Friends”, which is a German footballing pun. Indeed, I think that those are the houses to which he referred earlier; the ones with the tremendous variation inside. Although much of the housing that we saw in Germany had been provided by Genossenschaften, housing co-operatives, that particular project was for private sale. Four of the 11 people involved were architects who, because of rising costs in Germany, were anxious to do what many people in this country have thought about doing for years—to buy somewhere so that they would have somewhere later, rather than seeing their rent dissipate. We saw four-storey houses with huge square footage that had been built for a total cost of just over £200,000, including land and construction.
I found that intervention very helpful, and I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) did as well.
What I envisage for my area is not the standard group building that we saw in Berlin, much of which was architect-driven or initiated by professional people. I have been encouraged by my conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and with the Minister, whom I met coincidentally earlier in the week in order to discuss another matter. They seemed to be open to the idea that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer in this instance, and that self-build can contribute to the opening up of the housing market. In Nottingham North, however, we would not start off with the professional skills that would be necessary to create something along the lines of what we saw in Berlin, but we could bring those skills to the table. We could ask the private sector to bring them to the table. We could ask individual architects and other professionals to help, we could ask local government to facilitate the project, and we could ask our wonderful Nottingham City Homes whether it might consider sponsoring it.
Nottingham is probably the last place where most people would ever think of trying to start something like this, but let us, as it were, start with the last place. As I hope to show later in my speech, if we can do it in Nottingham North, there is absolutely no reason why it cannot be facilitated by all parties—and this is a cross-party debate. There is no reason why Governments of all colours, and parties of all colours, cannot do something similar to what was done by the Germans after the last war. We could see 15%, 20%, 25% of homes in the United Kingdom being self-built, custom built, or community built. Some people might say that the demand does not exist, but I think that the hon. Member for South Norfolk has well and truly shot that one out of the water.
Let me now add my two penn’orth and return to the survey conducted by the National Custom & Self Build Association, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, and which I think was carried out jointly with Ipsos MORI. According to the survey, an estimated 7 million people want to adopt the self-build, communal-build route. Well, we could all say that we might like to have a go at it, but there is a further statistic: it seems that 1 million of those 7 million want to start this year. I cannot believe that they will all do so, but if there is a real desire among them, if they have a time limit in mind, if they are saying “I really want to do this”, I would love to be standing here this time next year with the foundations dug in, and Kevin saying, “Will the money run out?” I am sorry; I should be more serious about this. If 1 million people are saying that they want to get started, that is a fantastic asset for the Government and all parties. I think that if we could achieve it at the cost of just one or two little improvements, flexibilities and discretions, building on the Bill, that would be a great step forward.
I want to finish with a little vignette about the rebalancing project in Nottingham North. We are pulling together a charity which is setting up to do a large number of things coterminous with my constituency, not least around the pre-NEETs group—14-to-17s—and also a number of key public health issues, but one of our workstreams is most definitely around housing, self-build and tenure. We were able to bring Ted Stevens to my constituency just a couple of Fridays ago and he got a fantastic group of people in the same room to brainstorm around the topic of self-build. They included the chief executive of Nottingham City Homes, Nick Murphy, private sector people such as Jon Sawyer from Igloo, which I understand has won the build-it award for custom build this week—we were not aware it was even in for that competition, but congratulations to it—and people from the One Public Estate organisation, which I think resides in the Cabinet Office, or perhaps the Department for Communities and Local Government; forgive me if I am wrong, the Minister will.
What they are trying to do is bring land assets which are not being used fully into proper use. That includes central Government assets—I had better not name any as I am keen to have the possibility of exploiting them—and the aim is to match those with council land and property assets in the ownership of local government. That is a precious and small group of assets. We are not in the position of the hon. Member for South Norfolk of having a fairly large number of sites to look at. They are very precious and we must safeguard them to ensure they are used and maximised as much as possible.
We started to get those holders of land assets to consider self-build as an option, and that is an enormous step forward. Hon. Members in slightly better circumstances may not even understand what I am saying there, but when land is so precious and virtually all of it is built on, those small sites can be very important. Land is the key social control in an area like mine and catalysing that frees up the potential for self-build and community build.
One of the key things Ted Stevens, Jon Sawyer and others put to us the other week was that separating the land acquisition from the build process reduces the risks for house buyers buying upfront. So in a sense what we look at then in terms of self-build is that we have housing manufacturers rather than people who need to do the whole lot of the pathway from an empty piece of land to occupied land full of happy families. Separating the land acquisition is one of the key factors and will be even more important in the British context than it is in the Dutch or the German context.
There are a lot of examples of this happening already. I do not know if it is in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, but there is a development called the Yard in Bristol, and that was pointed up as a lower income area that could benefit. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows of it? We would be looking to do something like that—building something in Nottingham similar to what they are doing in the Yard in Bristol.
Added to the people I have mentioned, we had people from urban design, not least from Nottingham Trent university, but also people who had attended the annual urban design conference in Nottingham some five or six weeks ago. I think marrying self-build, community build and group build with the idea of re-engineering—redesigning—the urban landscape in a place such as Nottingham North presents tremendous possibilities.
In order to be inventive, innovative and creative, I wish the hon. Gentleman’s Bill swift passage. What he has managed to do in getting the Bill to this stage of its progress through the Commons is superb. If he wishes, I will allow my name to go forward for the Bill Committee. There is so much to disagree about in housing, and I hope that the dogfight continues, but I also hope that on this issue my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on the Opposition Front Bench and the Minister, who I have had so many positive dealings with, and all of us can say that if we can give self-build, communal build and group build a fair wind, we will be doing something that will bring immense joy and happiness to many families, not least those in my constituency.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on both an excellent bit of luck and an excellent choice: excellent luck in coming fourth in the private Member’s Bill ballot—not many of us can say we have come fourth in it—and excellent choice of the specific Bill he has brought forward. I went to his all-party group on self-build, custom-build and independent house building meetings earlier in the year and I know he has become a champion for self-build and custom build in Parliament, and I commend him for his work in this area.
I commend Ted Stevens, who has already been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, the former chair of the National Custom & Self Build Association. I thank him and the association for contributing to the Lyons housing review, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I also want to thank Igloo Regeneration, which has also been mentioned, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for its submission to the Lyons review. I will say something later about the work that has been done in this area.
On a personal note, I want to put on record the fact that I have lived in a self-build house. In fact, the first house I lived in was a self-build house, because my father is an architectural consultant, and he built his first self-build house in the 1970s and then built another one in the 1980s in which he still lives, so I do have some personal experience. However, I would suggest that most of us mere mortals who do not have the experience my father has in architecture or the trades tend to be more attracted to custom build because it is somewhat easier. It gives people the choice and control over the design, but it takes away a lot of the risk, uncertainty and challenge for those who do not have significant experience in the house building sector or market.
First, I want to say something more general about the opening remarks of the hon. Member for South Norfolk. Labour Members support his Bill and agree with his overall and—let us face it—simple objective that everybody should have somewhere to live. I think that would be difficult to argue with, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. I also agree with his analysis that for quite some time the market in this country has not been delivering anywhere near the number of homes we need.
Usually the Minister and I would trade insults and figures and so forth across the Dispatch Box, but I will attempt not to do that today. This is a long-standing problem. The problem of under-supply of new homes goes back some three decades or more, and I agree with both my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North and the hon. Member for South Norfolk that there are some pretty deep structural and, as the hon. Gentleman said, systemic problems with the housing market.
One of the big problems, which both Members highlighted, is the problem with the land market. That structural problem affects the potential of self-build and custom build. I will focus on that later in my remarks, but I want to put that right up front as one of the key, fundamental issues we need to deal with.
We support the creation of the register by local authorities and a requirement for them to identify demand for self-build and custom build. I called for that in my first major speech as shadow housing Minister in January. The Government have been talking about it for some time and I welcome the support I believe they will give the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, evidence presented by the National Custom & Self Build Association and others shows significant unmet demand, so we also agree when the Bill sets out that local authorities should have regard to the register that they will have to put in place when carrying out their planning functions and producing their housing plans.
Let me deal briefly with the specific reasons why the Opposition support the Bill and why I support it. The first is that, as the hon. Gentleman discussed, it will give a voice to those shut out of home ownership. This is not exclusively about them, as there will be owner-occupier families who want a bigger home or even a smaller, more bespoke home. However, some first-time buyers are priced out at the moment. He talked about the ratio between the average salary and the average house price, which is scarily high in some areas of the country, not least London. The generation who are between the ages of 20 and 34 are the most deeply affected by our failure to deliver a market that delivers enough homes. We know that one in four of that age cohort are living at home with their parents.
In the last 12 months that I have been doing this job, I have met so many parents who crave an empty nest. I am sure they do not mean it—[Interruption.] Oh, there are some in the Chamber. Extraordinarily, 3.3 million people in that cohort are still living with their parents. As a country—I say this of successive Governments —we must be doing something wrong, and the system is not working. This register would be one approach to and recognition of that failure and unmet demand. I am also keen on the register because planning applications, which are between the council, as they should be, and groups of people, some of whom are in favour and some of whom are against, often do not include that younger generation, so the register could be one way of seeking to give them a voice in this process that they do not currently have.
Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman set out in his excellent speech, by promoting self-build and custom build we can, in turn, promote more customer choice and a drive for better quality. We often focus on the numbers in our debates, talking about a Government not producing a certain number, describing what our party would do and saying that we would like to double house building from the current level. However, any such increase cannot be at the expense of quality. The interesting thing about this part of the market is that it is so focused on quality. As he set out, if the customer is put at the heart of the process, we inevitably drive up quality. On energy-efficient homes, someone who is in the driving seat and who will be subject to the energy bills has much more motivation to try to commission—if it is a custom build—or build a house that will give them the lowest possible energy bills in the future. The volume house builders perhaps do not have that same motivation, because they will simply sell on and move on. Where the customer is driving that process, they will be the one living in the home for some time, so I am totally with him on this point, and how we drive up quality is important to the wider industry, too.
Thirdly, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it is important that we promote self-build and custom build to a much wider range of people. Recent research carried out by the university of York found that a variety of households could benefit from self-build and custom build but the current market is dominated by an older, asset-rich demographic, although not exclusively so. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who is no longer in his place, intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North to suggest that although Kevin McCloud’s programme is a fantastic contribution to this debate, its projects often run over budget and over time. We need to de-risk the process, and so although I welcome the initiatives in the Bill we can do more on that. I know that the Government have done some interesting things on trying to make sure that mortgage provision is available in this area, as that remains a major barrier.
I could not agree more with that. It was interesting to meet Kevin McCloud at the all-party group meeting that the hon. Gentleman organised earlier in the year. I am sure that Kevin McCloud’s vision is for a much more inclusive and comprehensive sector catering for people of different backgrounds and incomes, but his programme can sometimes focus on those who are having difficulty. Perhaps that is because it makes for more interesting television, as the hon. Gentleman has implied.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North made an interesting point about community build and his experience on the visit that the hon. Gentleman organised to Berlin, where a much more collective approach to these projects is taken. Our country has some real trailblazers, but they are few and far between. We have some interesting initiatives, but they are not going on at scale in the way we see in Germany and other countries.
I think you were otherwise engaged when I mentioned the Yard in Bristol, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not know whether it is in your constituency or nearby, but it is a classic example of a community starting a development together. I wish the House had facilities to enable the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) to make a presentation of the sort we have seen, showing example after example of different groups and types of people, some with and some without a connection, some where people have responded to an advertisement, all coming together. Delighted as we are that Kevin McCloud has raised the public profile of self-build, that approach is the antidote to it, as it is about collective provision rather than just individual provision.
Order. I did hear the reference that the hon. Gentleman made—he would be surprised to know that I can do more than one thing at a time—but it is not normal for the Deputy Speakers to intervene. While I am on my feet, may I say that the provision has historically been done on a community basis, not only in Bristol, but in lots of places? Minister.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You have just promoted me, and I am very grateful for that. The point I was making was not that this is not going on, because we know it is happening in Bristol, Cornwall and other parts of the country. My point is that in Germany and other European countries it is going on at scale, not only in self-build—so on an individual basis—but in collective build. I am referring to the group build discussed by the hon. Member for South Norfolk and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North.
I also wish to say something about social housing, because some impressive Labour councils—I am trying not to be party political—have undertaken interesting initiatives using custom build. That is not happening in all parts of the country and it is not happening at scale, but we can learn and draw inspiration from it. In fact, in a new scheme in Lewisham, the local Labour council is running a custom-build scheme that allows residents—my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) knows about this—to choose the design, select the contractors and specify individual requirements. We should not limit this just to private sales: it is just as important to involve social housing residents in design and place shaping, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk said. That is an innovative way to go about new build.
Finally on the Bill’s specifics, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intention to delete the last part of the long title, which states:
“to allow volume house builders to include self-build and custom-build projects as contributing towards their affordable housing obligations, when in partnership for this purpose with a Registered Social Landlord; and for connected purposes.”
I understand that his intentions were good, but I agree with his analysis that, if we are not careful, that provision could be misused. We would very much like to protect section 106 arrangements and ensure that developers play their role in delivering affordable housing. I appreciate that he has not been allowed to delete that provision for some strange, technical drafting reason.
The Lyons housing review rightly identifies the problem of the availability and affordability of land as one of the main barriers to self and custom build. In fact, according to the National Custom & Self Build Association, 48% of would-be self and custom builders have a budget of £200,000 or less, which is simply not enough to cover both the construction costs and the land costs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, land is one of the key problems. Sir Michael Lyons specifically calls for land to be included in plans for self and custom build in a way that allows the kind of broad outline permissions that we see in the Netherlands and Germany to be granted. That is an interesting way to simplify the planning procedure for self and custom build, and it should be considered.
Sir Michael Lyons talks about the need to make land more affordable—the Government have spoken about this—and public land should be a priority. We should think about how public land could be invested as equity. In fact, the review makes recommendations about how we could use public land more innovatively for self and custom build and for other types of housing, too.
All too often, public sector land becomes a victim of the same process as private sector land, where the state—whether a local authority or a Department—sits on the land and waits to sell it off to the highest bidder, so that land is not built on because the process takes time. Sir Michael Lyons suggests in the review that the state take a more innovative view, perhaps by keeping a stake in that land or allowing deferred payments. That could unlock the potential for self and custom build and for other types of house building, too.
More widely, Sir Michael Lyons emphasises giving local authorities more power to be proactive in going about their planning and housing duties, rather than being reactive. In particular, the innovations of housing growth areas and new homes corporations proposed by the review will provide new opportunities for local authorities to assemble plots of land and, crucially, allocate some of that land for self and custom build.
Crucial to trying to drive this sector is the role of the small builder. The hon. Member for South Norfolk said that Mark Clare is on the expert panel of the Lyons commission. As important as Barratt and other volume house builders are, small builders are essential if we are to deliver a step change in the self and custom build ambitions that we all agree need to be furthered. Often, the smaller builders are doing the work and building these new homes.
Sir Michael Lyons and the Labour party more generally have been keen to seek ways to promote greater competition in the market, particularly by helping small builders to access finance. We have set out a help to build scheme, which would underwrite loans for small builders. Only yesterday, we had a meeting of five of the big banks with a number of small builders, facilitated by the Federation of Master Builders, and we were encouraged by the debate that went on between those two stakeholders. Again, if we could ensure that the banks were lending to small builders in a more significant way, it would help us to increase self and custom build in different parts of the country.
In January, in my first major housing speech, I talked about this subject and the need for small and custom builders to have access to land. I said—I still think that this is the case—that local and national Government ignore small sites too often and place much more emphasis on larger sites. Local authorities should include a higher proportion of small sites in their five-year land supply. Often, small sites are brought to market much more quickly. They are often simpler to develop and the projects are easier to get going.
I also said in my speech in January that more public land should be allocated to smaller firms and custom builders. In addition, we have committed to ensuring that a proportion of the homes built in new towns and garden cities will be built by smaller firms and self and custom builders. So there are lots of things that we can do in the land market.
The other aspect of the land market that we are poorly served by is the lack of transparency. We have committed to increasing transparency in the land market by ensuring that developers register the land that they own or have options on. Again, that will help people to identify plots of land for self and custom build.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech and has touched in almost the same breath on two exceptionally important subjects: land and finance. Does she agree that there is no shortage of land; there is a shortage of accessible land? There is plenty of “permissioned” land out there. Does she also agree that there is no shortage of finance; there is a shortage of financeable propositions? If the proof of concept in the experiment that Igloo is doing with institutional investment from Aviva works—by the way, a very good Norfolk investment institution, although I prefer the name Norwich Union—it will show that this can be done all over the country at scale.
First, on land, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, as he said in his opening speech, there is no absolute scarcity of land because we have not built on much of the land in our country. I agree that we have enough land to build more homes to meet housing need and to preserve our wonderful and beautiful countryside. We are dealing with an artificial scarcity of land, for all sorts of complex reasons that are not just to do with planning. We have said that if we win the next election we will keep the national planning policy framework, but this is not just to do with planning; it is also to do with speculation and the extended negotiations between landowners, developers and local authorities. Often, local authorities and local communities are unable to benefit to the degree that we would like from the uplift in value of that land. Capturing that value was one of the great innovations of new towns, and we would like to replicate it.
Developing infrastructure up front makes it much easier to gain public consent. People oppose development because they are concerned that their local schools and GP surgeries might become over-subscribed and their roads might become congested. If we can find a way, along the lines of what happened with the new towns—this is why we are proposing new homes corporations—of capturing that uplift in the value to put back into communities, we think that we can unlock sites more quickly, and for the benefit of those communities, and start to see an easing in the process of getting consent in the first place.
I also think that driving up the quality of new development more generally will help with seeking consent. Shelter, which has done a lot of polling on this, has told us that people often object to development because they are worried not necessarily about their house prices falling but that their community and area might be undermined and not look as nice. They are worried about the aesthetics of the communities and areas they live in. I think that driving up quality through self-build and custom build, and indeed more generally, could really help in the wider debate on how we seek consent for new development and, frankly, give it a better reputation.
The hon. Member for South Norfolk is absolutely right that we need to draw inspiration from our European neighbours, whether Germany, France or Austria. As he pointed out, Austria is top of the league when it comes to the percentage of new build. In the UK, self-build and custom build make up about 1% of new build housing, whereas in Austria the figure is over 80%, and in France and Germany it is in excess of 40%, so they are clearly doing something right. I agree with him that we cannot simply transpose their model, because obviously it is very different from ours. However, it is interesting to hear about the sorts of initiatives that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North have visited and think about what we can learn and draw inspiration from.
In this great spirit of cross-party agreement, I will conclude by saying that we welcome some of the initiatives that the Government have introduced to assist self-build and the provisions of this Bill. We think that the artificial scarcity of land and the way it is brought to market, and indeed the land market more generally, are part of a much more fundamental problem that we will need to grapple with if we are to boost this part of the house building sector, and the other parts too. I will not get into that wider debate today, but it might be the area we do not always agree on. However, on the self-build and custom build sector, I welcome the Bill and the provision that local authorities should have a register. I also welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to ensure that the sector drives up quality and that we have more innovation and creativity in the house building industry.
It is a great pleasure to say that the Government strongly support the Bill, as I think the House is well aware from the comments that have been made. I welcome the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), a fellow Norfolk MP, who has championed the cause of self-builders and custom builders as chair of the all-party group on self-build, custom-build and independent housebuilding—I understand that its name is shortly to change again. I am happy to endorse this innovative piece of legislation.
This debate is a really good example of what this House does fantastically well and of the importance of private Members’ Bills. My hon. Friend has taken up this matter of his own accord, worked it through and come up with a Bill that enjoys cross-party support and will be an important step for our country. Thousands of people across the country are taking on this type of building project, and we want to see that grow much more. In years to come we may well be able to look back and see that that growth in the market started here in the work we are doing this morning on this private Member’s Bill.
I will take this opportunity to explain to the House why the Government are so strongly supportive of custom builders and how the Bill will help to take forward our proposals for a new right to build, which we are currently consulting on. The Government are committed to increasing housing supply and helping more people achieve their aspiration of a home of their own. When we came into office, house building in England had fallen to levels not seen since the 1920s and many sites across the country were stalled. We have spent the past four and half years fixing that, and we can see our policies working.
However, we must also accept that for many years this country has not built enough houses and that our population is growing. We can see that when we think about our own families. My parents had three children and we lived in one home. All of my siblings now have a home of their own and we all have, or are about to have, two children. That means that within two generations one family will have gone from needing one house to needing 10 or more, depending on how many children my siblings end up having—my wife has made it very clear that two children, wonderful though they are, is quite enough. We are seeing our population and the need for housing grow.
We are rebuilding demand through Help to Buy so that hard-working people with sufficient earnings can get on and fulfil their aspiration to own their own home. We are boosting supply through planning reforms, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) outlined, with the national planning policy framework widely recognised as a fantastic step forward. We are investing through our get Britain building campaign, large sites and builders finance funds, which make sites viable for builders so that they can build out their sites and do what they do best—build the homes we need. That action is delivering more new homes. Nearly 480,000 homes have been built since 2010, including over 200,000 affordable homes. New housing construction orders and the registration of new homes across country are at their highest level since 2007.
However, we know that we cannot just rely on a delivery model that is dominated by volume house builders. Much of the housing built during the last boom was in the wrong place and was of the wrong size, which did not meet homebuyers’ aspirations. That is why, looking forward, we want to see greater diversity in the housing market, with more competition, more small and medium-sized home builders, more new entrants and more new development, to increase the speed and quality of the housing we build in this country.
We want to see small builders grow further. The hon. Lady outlined the importance of small builders building on small plots. The Bill can directly provide a huge boost to the small building industry, because it will appeal to those kinds of builders to pick up the contracts from home owners, and potential home owners, who want to be part of the custom and self-build market. We have also introduced the builders finance fund for small builders. I was pleased to see Lloyds announce this week its plans, following our meeting last week, for a £50 million fund aimed directly at small builders.
The Government strongly believe that custom and self-build housing can play a crucial role as part of a wider package of measures in securing greater diversity and helping to deliver the homes people actually want. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) mentioned television programmes such as Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Designs”, which bring a new profile to custom build. The intention of this Bill, and the fantastic work my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk is doing, is to make people more aware of that opportunity and make it more available to them, turning it into a wider market. More people will start to appreciate that they can build their own home at an affordable price, and often more affordably than buying directly from a developer.
It is right to put on record the important distinction between custom build and self-build within the sector. The definition of “self-build” covers someone who directly organises the design and construction of their new home, while “custom build” covers someone who commissions a specialist developer to help to deliver their own home. What matters for the purposes of this Bill and our proposals on a new right to build is that we develop a framework that promotes both.
That is a really important distinction if we are to retain credibility and trust as this Bill moves forward. It is not good enough for the big-volume builders just to offer to put a few extra knobs on and call that custom building. The custom building that I am referring to—as is, I suspect, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon)—occurs where there is a sense of creating something. It might not be entirely original; there may be elements that can be drawn down and fitted in. I think that is the concept—I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—that we are all proposing in trying to move self-build and custom build forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Having explained the differences between the two, for the purposes of this debate I will use the terms “custom build” and “self-build” interchangeably—but I want to make it clear that there is a difference between them. He is absolutely right. With regard to volume house building, including on large sites, we would like eventually to see opportunities within that put aside for these projects. I will touch on that later, particularly as regards garden cities and the garden city principles we are using in areas such as Ebbsfleet.
It is realistically possible that, with the use of modern technology and the way in which modern building techniques are now moving, we will not be that far away from house builders, even in large-volume house building, adapting parts of their site, at least, to a point where a member of the public who wants to buy their own home can walk on to it and instead of doing what they tend to do now and saying, “What plots are available and which house are you building on that plot,” and, “Thank you, that’s the one I would like to buy,” being able to say, “I want that plot with this style of house, and I want to do this or that with it,” so that they can then have that house built for them by the builder more quickly, we hope, than the 20-plus weeks that it takes at the moment.
My hon. Friend gives me a chance to clarify the situation. Earlier this year, we changed the permitted development rights on farm buildings, in particular, to allow them to be converted into homes. They would probably come more into the conversion category, unless it involves somebody being able to get planning permission to demolish what was there and then move on to self-build or custom build, as appropriate. I guess that it somewhat depends on the size and quality of the sheep pen.
Many people across the country would love to build their own home, whether by building it themselves or by commissioning a specialist developer. As has been noted, research by Ipsos MORI has shown that over 1 million of them are looking to do so in the immediate future. We know from the latest Building Societies Association consumer survey in September that more than a third of Britons are open to building their own home. That is a phenomenal number to whom this Bill could open up a new market.
That strong level of interest is not surprising. Custom and self-build housing offers people more choice and the ability to design a home to suit their own needs, leading to greener and better-designed homes. If people design their own home, as I am sure the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East remembers from the home with her parents that she described, they tend to live there longer, and that is good for building stronger communities. In many cases, it is also more affordable than buying a home in the conventional way. A report published by Lloyds Banking Group in 2013 concluded that self-builders can save between 20% and 25% on the cost of an equivalent home on the open market—a crucial saving for many looking to get on the housing ladder. That brings things up to the levels we are talking about with the new starter homes programme under the next Conservative Government.
There are wider benefits too. A strong custom-build sector brings new opportunities for medium-sized and smaller house builders, as well as for housing associations that are looking to diversify their offer. We know this because the Federation of Master Builders and the National House Building Council have found that most smaller builders want to do more custom-build projects. More housing associations are now looking at the option of custom build. It presents a huge opportunity.
As my hon. Friend the shadow Minister said, there is a very exciting project in my constituency, where L&Q has worked with a group of young people to develop 10 new self-build properties. Does the Minister recognise that such projects give important skills to young people who want to develop their careers, as well as providing them with a house at the end of the process?
Absolutely; the hon. Lady makes a good point. That is a super scheme. L&Q is also doing some fantastic work in regeneration across London. She gives a good example of how house building is not just about providing homes but plays a hugely important part in our communities, as we all know, with people building their own homes and learning new skills in everything from the building itself right through to project management and financing. That is a hugely important option. This also mixes well with modern technology. I saw the building opportunities created by Accord up in Walsall, where there is a factory with 19 staff, 17 of whom were unemployed before it opened. Within weeks, they were building houses, which helps them with their skills challenges.
This sector can speed up the supply of new homes where there is a strong demand for plots, because custom builders do not build for profit—they want to get their project up and running, built and finished as quickly as possible so that they can move in. The up-scaling allowed by modern technology can help even more, so that we start to move from the 20-plus weeks that traditional building can take to just a few weeks. It sustains and creates new jobs and, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) just outlined from the experience of her own community, supports local economies. The sector already makes an important contribution to our overall housing supply, with about one in every 10 homes being built or commissioned by individuals. Many people are not fully aware of how widespread this already is. It is important to the national economy, turning over about £4 billion per year.
However, the sector in England is not yet fulfilling its potential. In many other European countries, more than half of all new homes are built or commissioned by self-builders. Several hon. Members have referred to this. In Germany, for example, the figure is about 60%, while Austria builds over 80% of its homes this way. Crucially, in these countries, building one’s own home is not just for the privileged few—there is a strong tradition of self-build and custom build right across the social spectrum, and there should be in this country as well. Although I, like many others who have spoken, greatly enjoy “Grand Designs”, it is important that we see custom build not as a hugely challenging activity that only a few have the resources and time to aspire to, but as a mainstream activity that people from all walks of life can participate in. Crucially, hard-working people on modest and reasonable incomes should have the opportunity to build the homes that they want for themselves and for their families.
That is why it is important that we tackle the four key barriers that face self-builders and custom builders. First, there is a lack of suitable plots of land to build on, as we have heard. Only yesterday, I was delighted to be able to talk to the landowners at Ebbsfleet about the opportunities for making land there available as part of the project. Secondly, there is limited finance available to custom builders, especially in the development phase. Thirdly, the significant amount of red tape, especially around securing planning permission, can put off many prospective builders and make life very difficult and costly for them. Fourthly, there is a lack of independent advice that can take people through the process of building or commissioning their own home from start to finish.
We as a Government have taken strong action, in partnership with the industry, to tackle the key barriers holding back the growth of the sector. We are already encouraging more plots of land to be made available through the planning system. Since 2012, local councils, through the NPPF, have been required to assess and plan to address the need for all types of housing, including the demand from those wishing to build their own homes. This has been backed up by our planning guidance earlier this year. I am pleased to say that many are responding with a wide range of policies, proposals and initiatives, many in partnership with the private sector, from Newcastle to Plymouth, and from Norfolk—I am pleased to say, as a Norfolk Member of Parliament—to Cornwall. This past year has seen a record number of permissions, with 230,000 homes being approved through the planning process.
We have also identified 12 Government-owned sites, which the Homes and Communities Agency is releasing for self and custom-build development. The sites include Trevenson park in Cornwall, where Carillion-Igloo proposes up to 60 plots, which sets a good trend.
We have been actively addressing the finance challenge, too. In 2012, we launched a £30 million custom build homes fund to provide repayable finance for larger custom-build developments. That has since been completed by giving self-build groups access to £65 million under the affordable housing guarantee programme, and by introducing, earlier this year, a £150 million five-year “serviced plot” investment fund to finance up to 10,000 more plots. We have been engaging with lenders—including meetings I have had in the past two weeks directly with the major lenders—to see how we can improve the number of self-build mortgages available to the sector.
We have been removing red tape. Self-builders are now exempt from the community infrastructure levy, potentially saving them thousands of pounds on individual projects. We have just finished consulting on a similar policy change to section 106 charges, which, if implemented, will exempt smaller scale housing projects from paying costly planning obligations—the very things that can sometimes prevent this kind of small-scale personal development from happening. We have also simplified design and access statements and made it easier to change the use of buildings to housing, which we know the industry has welcomed.
We are working closely with the National Custom & Self Build Association, which, as other Members have said, deserves great credit, particularly its chair, on the work that it and others in the industry have been doing to improve the advice available to consumers and developers, including the development of an online self-build portal to provide better information for self-builders, which now includes a plot-finding and “find a self-build contractor” service.
That action is having a real impact. According to the National Custom & Self Build Association, there are now more than 5,000 new plots in the pipeline, with many new projects across the country. Many councils are now bringing forward land and developing new initiatives to support custom builders, and there are more lenders operating in the market—26 compared with just 16 in 2011.
We recognise, however, that there is still a long way to go if this form of housing is to become a mainstream option in our country. In particular, we need to do more to address the lack of suitable plots of land being made available for self and custom build, and we know from our constituency mailboxes about the frustration that that lack of land can cause people.
That is why we announced in the Budget earlier this year that we would consult on a new right to build. The idea is simple: prospective custom builders will have the right to a plot of land from their local council to build their own home. Implementing that right in different land markets across the country, with different challenges and opportunities, is potentially complex, so we want to consult widely. I am pleased to say that we published our public consultation on the right to build yesterday, to coincide with the Second Reading of this excellent Bill.
The consultation sets out our vision for the right to build. First, eligible prospective custom builders, including groups of individuals, will be entitled to register with their local planning authority for a suitable, serviced plot of land on which to build or commission their own home. They will be recorded on a right to build register. Secondly, the demand for custom build on the right to build register will be taken into account in the preparation of local plans, so that appropriate planning policies are in place to bring forward sufficient plots of land for custom build. Thirdly, and crucially, registered custom builders will be offered suitable plots of land, with planning permission, for sale through the local planning authority at market value.
This is an ambitious vision, giving local councils an important new role stimulating custom build in their area. I hope as many prospective custom builders, local authorities and businesses as possible respond to the consultation over the next few weeks, to help us tailor the right to build to every local area and every aspiring self-builder in the country. As part of the process, we also intend to ensure that we consult the National Custom & Self Build Association and the Local Government Association. We want all the partners that can deliver this future prospect to work together in order to deliver it in the right way. To underpin the consultation and ensure that the right can work across the country, I announced in September a network of 11 right to build vanguards to test how the right can work in practice in a range of different circumstances.
I want to be clear that the full right to build will only be legislated for in the next Parliament. In particular, the idea of local councils offering plots of land to registered custom builders needs careful consideration. I am delighted that there is cross-party support to make sure that we can work to deliver that. We want to ensure that the right forms an integral part of the planning system and that it does not override the local plan process or trump existing planning designations that are designed to constrain inappropriate development and protect precious landscapes such as our green belt. We want to proceed carefully but fully, and to ensure that the views from the consultation and the experience of the vanguards play their part in informing the full legislation.
We think, however, that there is merit in legislating in this Parliament to establish a key foundation of the right to buy, namely the establishment of local registers of custom builders who wish to acquire a suitable plot of land to build their own home. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk has given us the opportunity to work with him on his private Member’s Bill to put in place that early legislation.
Specifically, as my hon. Friend has emphasised, the Bill will ask local planning authorities to maintain a register of custom builders who want a serviced plot of land in their area and to have regard to the demand of the register in the exercise of their planning, housing, regeneration and land disposal functions. As such, it builds on national planning policy and guidance, which already requires local planning authorities to identify and plan for local demand for custom build in their local plans and five-year deliverable housing supply. In particular, the guidance already recommends that local planning authorities should develop registers of custom builders to help identify local demand.
The Bill as drafted sets out the broad framework for the register and the need for local authorities to have regard to it. The Secretary of State will have the power to make regulations about the operation of the register and issue statutory guidance to local authorities. We are very keen to ensure that regulations and statutory guidance take account of the outcome of the consultation and, crucially, the experience of the vanguards.
Ultimately, it is important that the register is seen as valuable to prospective custom builders—who are, after all, the consumer—and proportionate and not burdensome on local authorities, which we want to deliver this opportunity. That is why we are keen for the consultation to seek views about the practical operation of the register and the balance between a common national framework and—this is hugely important—local discretion and local accountability. In particular, an individual or group of individuals that seeks to acquire a plot of land in a local authority area to build their home would, under the Bill, be entitled to apply to register with the local planning authority.
However, it is important that custom builders have the opportunity to express preferences about the nature of the plot that they ideally seek for their home. We therefore propose, through regulations and statutory guidance, that applicants would have the opportunity to set out broad preferences in their application, such as general location—for example, a particular town—or a realistic price range for the plot based on local land values.
At the same time, the register is intended to demonstrate local demand for custom- build plots. Those on the register should genuinely be seeking to build or commission their main home, and have the financial means to acquire a plot at a going market rate and to build their home on it. We therefore propose to set out eligibility criteria in regulations. If an applicant fails to meet any of the criteria, the local planning authority would have the right to reject the application and not include it on the register.
The consultation specifically suggests four possible criteria—age, local connection, financial viability, and a main residence test to ensure that people are registering only to build their own main home, not a second home or a property to rent out. There is particular merit in giving local authorities the discretion and the right to ask prospective custom builders to demonstrate a local connection to be eligible for registration. That is especially important as new custom build developments should contribute to meeting local housing need, as identified in the local planning process.
We want to ensure that authorities have at hand the tools they need to manage demand effectively; for example, in areas of high demand, such as national parks. That will ensure that those areas are not overwhelmed, and allow the register to focus on identifying and supporting local need. At the same time, we recognise that some parts of the country will want to attract custom builders from outside the local area as part of a wider regeneration plan.
Local authorities will have the power to remove an individual from the register on certain grounds to be specified in regulations—for instance, if an individual notifies the local planning authority that they wish to be removed from the register, or if they cease to be eligible for the register. To ensure that the eligibility assessment and removal powers are not abused, a prospective custom builder who is deemed ineligible for the register following their expression of interest, or who is removed from the register, will have the right to request the local planning authority to review any such decision.
We are keen to ensure sufficient transparency. The register will not be made publicly available for data protection reasons, given that it is likely to contain personal data. It will, however, be legitimate for local planning authorities to make publicly available, on an annual basis, the headline data about the level of demand on the register—for instance, the number of individuals registered and their broad preferences. These data are particularly important as they will help to ensure that local planners, landowners, building contractors and custom builders have a clear idea of aggregate local demand for custom build in their area, and can therefore plan accordingly for their area or business. In particular, the aggregate data would form an important contribution to the process of making the local plan.
The Bill will require local planning authorities to publicise their register so that local custom builders are aware of it, and the Secretary of State will have the power to issue statutory guidance. How the register is publicised will be at the discretion of the local planning authority, taking into account statutory guidance and reflecting its individual circumstances, but I make it clear that we expect publication to be proportionate and not burdensome for local taxpayers.
There is no doubt that the detailed operation of the register will throw up practical issues and challenges. That is why I am pleased that we had such a strong response over the summer from local authorities wanting to become right to build vanguards. I especially welcome the diversity of those authorities, which has allowed us to select a wide range of different types of authorities. All the vanguards are committed to establishing registers and making plots available in response to the level of demand on their register. We will work closely with them over the next year to test the practicalities of maintaining a register and of making sufficient land available across a range of different local housing and land markets so that regulations—under this Bill, as well as under the legislation for the full right to build—can be informed by the practical experience of delivery on the ground.
The list of vanguards includes several authorities that have established a strong custom build track record. Cherwell district council in Oxfordshire has led the way in establishing registers for prospective custom builders through its Build! programme. It is pursuing the largest custom build project in the country at Graven Hill, which will offer nearly 2,000 plots over the next decade on land bought from the Ministry of Defence. Similarly, South Cambridgeshire district council is keen to work with major developers in the area to ensure that its significant growth plans reflect the demand for custom build and enable homes to be delivered faster. Shropshire council and Teignbridge district council, which cover predominately rural areas that face local housing growth pressures, have been at the forefront of developing innovative policies in their local plans to make more land available for custom build.
Perhaps more interestingly, it is not only local authorities with strong growth pressures that are actively considering custom build. Two of the vanguards, Stoke-on-Trent city council and Oldham council, are in areas in the north and the midlands with lower housing demand. They see custom build as part of the solution to regenerate their areas. Sheffield city council is keen to offer its surplus public land for custom build. Its inclusion in the vanguard process will allow us to test how a register can operate in a large conurbation.
We have chosen a number of authorities as vanguards, such as South Norfolk, which is the home council of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, and Pendle and West Lindsey in Lincolnshire, which are keen to pursue custom build, but are only starting to formulate their final plans, so that we can learn lessons for the majority of authorities that are yet to engage proactively with the custom build agenda.
Perhaps the most welcome bid was a joint bid for vanguard status from the Dartmoor and Exmoor national park authorities. I am delighted that the national park authorities are actively engaging with our proposals. We have no intention of using the right to build as a means of encouraging unacceptable development in our most precious landscapes. However, the national park authorities are keen to explore how the register could be used to identify and address local housing demand from long-standing residents who work and live in their national parks.
Finally, we will work with the Greater London authority on the merits of a pan-London register of prospective custom builders. Although the Bill proposes that the requirement to maintain a register should fall on London boroughs, we recognise that London poses particular challenges, such as high potential demand and significant land constraints, especially in inner London. Just this morning, the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) outlined what is happening in her area. Recently, I saw the YMCA using modern technology to put together properties that could just as easily lend themselves to custom build and self-build opportunities for first-time buyers. The experience of Berlin, where there is a growing culture of custom building, shows that custom build can be a viable option in world cities that, like London, face significant growth pressures. We are keen to hear people’s views on the most appropriate approach for our capital city.
I believe that the experiences of the vanguards will enrich the development of the registers for which the Bill legislates. The legislation has been drafted deliberately to ensure that there will be sufficient flexibility in the regulations governing the detailed operation of the registers to reflect the vanguards’ experiences.
We are keen to explore how the right to build can be used to support more custom-built affordable housing. Although custom build is generally considered to be a form of market housing, it has a track record of delivering affordable housing. We think that registered providers can play an important role in bringing forward custom-built affordable housing by bringing sites to market, enabling and supporting others, and providing information and support.
Not that long ago, I was proud to take the Secretary of State to see the first council-built homes in a generation being built in my constituency of Great Yarmouth. Those homes are being built using modern technology and the skills of local people from the great Great Yarmouth college. The very same technology that is delivering those homes could easily be used to deliver homes on a larger scale for custom build and self-build projects in constituencies right through the country from Great Yarmouth to Cornwall, Newcastle, London and elsewhere. Our consultation proposes that the register should enable prospective custom builders who are eligible for affordable housing to register in partnership with a registered provider.
In conclusion, I am determined to ensure that we help everyone who aspires to build a home of their own. The Bill marks an important milestone along the road to achieving that. Along with the consultation and the vanguards that I have outlined, I am keen to build a consensus on how the right to build can be implemented effectively to deliver long-lasting change and make more high-quality homes available to hard-working people. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Control of Horses Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to be able to introduce this simple but important Bill, which I believe will go a long way towards improving the existing legislation on fly-grazing and, in the process, improving horse welfare.
First, I must draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a farmer, although I have not suffered the effects of fly-grazing, I have witnessed at first hand the problem and the horse welfare horrors it causes. It is my aim today, in the time available—I know that a number of hon. Members want to speak—to set out the scale of the problem, explain why the current legislation is not working and set out exactly what the Bill will do. Finally, I will touch on my intention to apply its provisions to private land, with the will of the House, for reasons that I will make clear.
Some Members with long memories may well remember that I secured a similar debate on the connected issue of illegally tethered horses back in July 2012. Last November, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) secured an excellent debate on the issue of fly-grazing. Unfortunately, the problem has worsened since then. I appreciate that for some, the problem of fly-grazing might seem somewhat mundane, but try telling that to the farmer whose crops are being destroyed, the motorist whose life is endangered by a horse on the road or the animal welfare charities that work tirelessly every single day to rescue horses from the miserable existence to which so many are condemned.
At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle: that no one should be above the law. Abandoning horses to a life of neglect has no place in civil society, nor should people’s lives be negatively impacted by those who have little regard for the law. Habitual fly-grazing represents a complete and utter lack of respect for the law and the wider community. Frankly, it is beyond me how some people have the nerve to take over someone else’s land without permission for their own gain.
It is impossible to know precisely what the true scale of the problem is. My constituents on the edge of York face the problem of fly-grazing, but sadly it is not restricted to York or the great region of Yorkshire. It is found throughout the entire country, from the countryside to our towns and cities, and even on some busy roundabouts.
I would like to place on record my thanks to Members from all parts of the House for their support since I introduced the Bill. We need cross-party co-operation to tackle what has become a terrible problem for many communities up and down the country. I have been working with a wide variety of rural organisations and welfare charities, ranging from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and World Horse Welfare to the Countryside Alliance, the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union. I also wish to put on record my thanks to all the charities and organisations that have worked hard on the issue. If the organisations that I have mentioned can agree that this fundamental animal welfare issue needs addressing—they do not always agree—there is hope yet that Members from all parts of the House can work together to tackle it.
Definitive numbers are impossible to provide, but welfare charities believe that unlawful fly-grazing has increased significantly in recent years, with conservative estimates that at least 3,000 to 4,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone. During the past decade, fly-grazed horses have become an acute problem for farmers and local authorities. The lack of care that the horses receive, and the actions of their irresponsible owners, are threatening people’s livelihoods, causing huge animal welfare problems, and risking the lives of motorists. This is a horse crisis of unprecedented levels, which is exactly how animal welfare charities and rural organisations regard the issue.
Two excellent reports have been published on this issue: “Left on the Verge” and “Stop the Scourge”. Those reports are essential reading for all Members present today, and indeed some may touch on them later in the debate. Unfortunately, rural organisations have all reported an increase in the number of cases of horse neglect and abandonment that have been brought to their attention. The irresponsible horse owners who engage in the practice appear to have little concern for the impact they are having on people’s lives, and people from across the country have contacted me with their own stories of how existing laws are letting them down.
In my constituency of York Outer there have been a number of incidents involving horses being fly-grazed. A month ago an accident on the A64 from York to Bridlington involved two horses that were being fly-grazed and a cement lorry. Sadly, but as one would expect, the consequences were not good. One horse died almost immediately, but the second was only injured and subsequently went missing. It had been moved by persons unknown, but was later traced back to a local site where the RSPCA attempted to treat the injured animal. Unfortunately, the mare had to be euthanized soon afterwards, as although she appeared to be responding to treatment, vets were unable to control her pain and she was found to be bleeding internally. The owner of the horse has yet to come forward.
In November 2013, three Shetland ponies were removed from the same site in my constituency in extremely poor body condition. The attending vet gave the ponies body scores of 0.5 and 1 out of 5—a score below 1 is officially categorised as “emaciated”, and the animal is all too often close to death by that point. Although the RSPCA was advised who the owner was and was able to contact them and conduct interviews, it was unable to prove ownership so the case could never proceed to court. Thankfully, the ponies were re-homed.
A further case from my postbag involved another horse being hit by passing traffic on the A1079 from York to Hull. It was reported that the owner had discovered the horse in a terrible state of pain in a field where it was being fly-grazed, yet they decided to leave the animal to die in a neighbouring field without any veterinary attention. Again, the RSPCA was unable to prove ownership of the horse, which must serve as a reminder that those tragedies would never have occurred if the owners had looked after their horses responsibly and not left them abandoned to their own devices.
Fly-grazing not only blights the lives of horses subject to it, but also impacts on farmers who grow our food. A 2012 survey by the National Farmers Union found that more than 1,000 farmers have direct experience of fly-grazing, and a similar number are aware of neighbours who have been victims of it. More than half of all respondents had suffered from fly-grazing on their land on multiple occasions, with more than a third affected more than five times in a single year.
This week I received telephone calls from farmers from Richmondshire and South Yorkshire. In the latter case, an elderly farmer has for the best part of a decade had up to 80 horses being fly-grazed on his land, yet Doncaster council has consistently failed to address the problem. It appears that this very serious case also included a long campaign of intimidation by the owners of the horses that, the farmer believes, resulted in the much hastened death of his neighbour, an elderly farmer in his eighties, after a dead horse was left at the end of his lane in a grim Mafia-style warning. Because of such behaviour, many people fear reprisals and do not want to come forward so that those responsible can be held to account. Fly-grazing is part of the much wider issue of rural criminality, which all too often goes unnoticed by the metropolitan elite. Meanwhile, lives are blighted by criminal damage and intimidation of often vulnerable people in isolated households.
Local authorities have also suffered the ill-effects of fly-grazing, both in their capacity as landowners and from trying to address the situation as enforcers of the existing legislation. In a survey in 2014 conducted by animal welfare charities, more than 70% of responding local authorities said that fly-grazing was a problem in their area. One authority even reported spending more than £100,000 on attempting to crack down on the issue. More than 80% of local authorities surveyed also said that the changes I propose in the Bill would help them to address fly-grazing more effectively in the future. That support has been further cemented by my meeting with the Local Government Association on this issue.
The reasons behind the growing prevalence of fly-grazing are complex. My understanding is that since the horsemeat scandal that devastated our confidence in the EU’s food safety process the price of horsemeat has plummeted. Notwithstanding that collapse, irresponsible dealers have continued to buy, breed and import horses, and the market has become saturated. A horse can now be purchased for as little as £5, although it can cost in excess of £100 a week to look after it properly. Some evidence suggests that irresponsible dealers are importing horses from France and Ireland under the tripartite agreement that allows for free movement of horses without health checks. As the market for horsemeat in mainland Europe is also depressed, dealers are left with a surplus of horses, much of which—sadly—can be seen grazing along the roadside and in other people’s fields.
Over-breeding of horses is also a significant issue and another great concern that I share with the animal welfare charities. Irresponsible horse owners are failing to ask themselves, “Do I need to breed from my horse? Is there a market for the foals? Can I afford the costs involved in caring for and supporting more horses?” When the answer to those questions is no, the temptation to fly-graze is all too clear, especially when enforcement action is so varied.
One area that has got to grips with the problem is Wales. The Welsh Government have given their local authorities powers to seize fly-grazed horses after seven days and, if necessary, to destroy them. Seven days is still a long time to wait to seize a fly-grazed horse, although the existing legislation in England provides for 14 days. A shorter period would benefit everyone involved. The code of practice on the welfare of horses says that owners should check on their horses at least once a day, so if a horse has merely strayed—as opposed to being deliberately fly-grazed—the owner should pick up on that very quickly.
The main mechanism for dealing with fly-grazing has been the Animals Act 1971. Under the Act, it is possible for landowners to detain livestock that strays on to their land after 14 days, and sell such livestock at auction or public market.
It was drawn up at a time when animals fetched a good price at auction and there were not so many horses being grazed, and unfortunately it was not designed for the problem of deliberately fly-grazed horses. There are, therefore, numerous problems with using the Act to deal with this growing issue. For example, it refers to animals straying on to other people’s land, but with fly-grazing we are concerned with animals placed deliberately on someone else’s land without their permission, which is a different matter, both in action and intention.
The Act allows animals to be sold at auction, but often the horses have little or no value, and it is commonplace for the owner to buy back the horse at a knock-down price, the horse having been microchipped by the person or local authority responsible for the horse’s initial detention. Thus, the irresponsible horse owner who engages in fly-grazing at the expense of others gains a fully vetted and legally compliant horse at little cost. The current law, therefore, has the perverse effect of allowing them to benefit from their actions, while leaving local authorities, farmers and taxpayers to pick up the pieces.
Welfare charities have argued strongly for a mechanism whereby the horse being fly-grazed can either be re-homed or, in some circumstances, humanely destroyed. Sadly, there is often no demand for horses for re-homing. The RSPCA, World Horse Welfare and Redwings tell me that their re-homing centres are full of unwanted horses. Sadly, we have too many horses, and without the measures proposed in my Bill the cycle of fly-grazing will continue unabated, with horses growing in numbers and the problem spreading further and wider.
Another major problem with the Animals Act is that it requires the person detaining the fly-grazed horse to look after it for up to 14 days. During this time, they are responsible for the horse’s welfare—they have to feed and water the horse and ensure it does not stray or harm itself—which can be expensive. This is the nub of my point. Too often, an irresponsible owner who abandons a horse on someone else’s land has no intention of paying any of these costs, and although there is provision in the Act to recover costs, it is often impossible to do so because there is seldom any way to identify the owner.
The authorities can use other mechanisms to crack down on fly-grazing. If a horse is suffering, it is possible to use provisions in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to take emergency action, but often the horses are not in immediate distress, so the emergency provisions are not applicable, and they might then be left until they are in severe distress, which cannot be correct. In some cases, local authorities could issue a community protection notice, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, but in such cases the owner of the fly-grazed horse would have to be known. As I said, however, too often the owner’s identity is not known—and the weapons in our armoury against the scourge of fly-grazing are all the weaker for it.
As a proud Yorkshireman, taking inspiration from the Welsh is an unusual concept for me, but that is exactly what the Bill does. It takes inspiration from the Welsh Assembly’s example in order to close the current loopholes. It would make several small but significant amendments to the 1971 Act to make it easier to tackle fly-grazing head on.
I propose three changes. First, the Bill gives local authorities in England the power to detain a horse in any public place in its area where the authority has reasonable belief that the horse is there without lawful authority. It is worth noting that the provision can apply to both stray horses and ones placed there deliberately by irresponsible owners. This is similar to the powers available to local authorities in Wales under the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014.
After detaining a horse—and detaining can include removal—the local authority must inform the local police within 24 hours of its right to detain the horse. Once the police have been informed, the local authority may detain the horse for a total of four working days from when it was first detained. The current time frame in Wales is seven days. To my mind, seven days is still quite a long time for a landowner or local authority to have to care, house and support a horse that is not one of their own. After that time, the local authority may dispose of the horse by selling it, arranging for it to be humanely destroyed or in any other way such as gifting the horse to an animal welfare sanctuary or re-homing it with a loving family, if at all possible.
After four working days, the owner of the horse will no longer be able to claim it back—crucially breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. Where a horse is sold and money is left over from the sale, any excess money once the costs of looking after it have been deducted can be claimed back by the owner. As I said, however, the horses are often of such low value that there is hardly ever money left over after the sale.
It has always been my intention that these changes to the Animals Act 1971 should be applied to all land—to private land as well as to public places. I am advised by the Public Bill Office, however, that the long title of this version of Bill does not stretch to the inclusion of private land. Sadly, this was due to a slight misunderstanding between myself and the department that seeks to keep control and order in this place. My intention, with the support of the House, is that, should the Bill reach Committee, we consider amending it to extend the same provision to private land as to public land. This would allow occupiers of private land the same benefits as those of local authorities with respect to public places. In my opinion, it is essential that public and private land receive the same protection under the law from fly-grazing. Otherwise, we could see the mass migration of thousands of horses on to private land, as it becomes clear that many irresponsible horse owners know full well how to exploit the law’s current loopholes.
I am advised that for the Committee to consider such amendments as are cognate to the Bill, this House would need to pass an instruction. I hope that time will be available for such a motion, and I ask whether the Minister would be willing to table the instruction. Should the Public Bill Committee agree, the intention would be to amend the Bill’s long title in order to make it consistent with provisions relating to private land as well as public land.
In conclusion, the issue of fly-grazing affects a great number of people in a great many ways, as I have made clear and, I am sure, as other Members will make clear. In almost every case, an innocent law-abiding person is either endangered or taken advantage of. This issue is a cause of deep anger and frustration for many individuals up and down the country who want to see robust action taken. I hope that Members will support me in trying to take that action and that the law will be changed so that it applies universally and fairly. I believe the Bill will go a long way towards tackling the scourge of fly-grazing, and I commend it to the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on having had the determination to present the Bill.
I am not sure whether I need to declare an interest. I have kept horses and ponies for a long time, but I can assure the House that I have never fly-grazed one of mine. Like many other horse owners, I am acutely aware of the cost of responsible horse ownership. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time focusing on a reduction in numbers—not altogether successfully, because the direction of travel always seems to be up.
My hon. Friend rightly identified the issue of irresponsible ownership, but let me emphasise that the vast majority of Britain’s horse owners are entirely responsible. Their animals are, in many ways, treated like their children. Just like other pet animals, they are part of the family—loved, cherished and looked after. There are many of them: although no accurate figures exist, which is a problem in itself, it is thought that there are between 600,000 and 1.2 million horses in the United Kingdom. They are also big business. In 2011, the British Equestrian Trade Association estimated that the horse industry contributed £2.8 billion to the British economy every year.
According to some terrifying statistics produced by Equine World UK, the cost of keeping a single horse can range between just over £3,000 and £10,000 a year, depending on how the horse is kept. The British Horse Society has produced a detailed breakdown of the costs of responsible horse ownership. Interestingly, there is no total at the end, and I did not dare tot up the sums; suffice it to say that they are the sort of eye-watering numbers that I have spent all my life trying to keep from my father.
Those figures, of course, relate to responsible ownership. They include farriery costs and the costs of vaccinations, worming, equine dentists and vets. Those are costs that all who cherish their animals willingly pay, but the owners described by my hon. Friend simply do not bother with them. That is the reason for the horrific welfare cases with which so many equine charities are struggling to cope. When they are called to places such as Alton in Hampshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), the rescue charities are not contending with fit and healthy animals; they are dealing with starving, sick animals, riddled with parasites, and with hooves that have grown to such an extent that they bring to mind pictures that used to be seen only in advertisements for foreign welfare charities.
I picked Alton—perhaps unfairly, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire cannot be here today—largely because when I was chief executive of the National Pony Society, it was based in that town. The NPS is Britain’s oldest pony charity, and is dedicated to the welfare of British native breeds and the British riding pony. It does not have a rescue facility of its own, but it is a member of the National Equine Welfare Council.
I remember from meetings that I attended back in 2008-09 that the welfare crisis was well known then, and the rescue centres were already struggling to cope. Wind the clock forward five-plus years, and the situation is much worse. The numbers are much higher, the cost of feed has gone up, and charities that were previously struggling to cope have now gone beyond breaking point. That does not mean that they are not doing their absolute best in extremely difficult circumstances. When, as happened in Alton, they are called to a field of 45 horses that have been dumped by their owners—and, in that instance, multiple owners were thought to have been involved—for whatever reason, and have been left to fend for themselves as a herd, the charities are already at capacity, and in many cases, sadly, there is only one viable option. No one likes to talk about euthanasia, but for sick, old, lame and starving horses it can be the kindest option. However, there are then the costs of destruction. The British Horse Society estimates that it can easily run to £500 per animal, and who is to pick up the bill when animals are not necessarily microchipped or freeze-branded and no one can trace the legal owner?
The case that I have just described occurred on what was definitely private land. Let me now say something about what happens on local authority-owned land. I have never forgotten the sight of two small ponies trotting down Coxford road in Southampton right past the general hospital. Few Members in the Chamber today will recognise the geography of Southampton, so let me assure them that that is right in the urban core of the city. I have no idea where those two ponies had come from, but the only pieces of open land anywhere near there are the cemetery, the municipal golf course, Southampton common and the sports centre, all of which are owned by the city council.
I do not know if those ponies had come from any of those areas, but I do know that fly-grazing has been a problem in the city for many years. It has happened on both private and public land, but areas such as Peartree green have frequently been abused in this way, and it causes distress and concern for local residents. Many of them are simply not used to seeing relatively large animals with potentially dangerous traits—I learned from a very early age that they kick at one end and bite at the other—and it can be extremely scary, especially for the parents of young children who wish to use the play areas and the sports pitches, and also for the horses themselves, which are not usually used to being in an urban environment and can sometimes be found tethered with inadequate access to food and water and without the sort of shelter responsible owners lavish upon them.
Of course in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency we might reasonably expect horses to be commonplace. There is a small corner of the New Forest in my constituency and at Canada and Wellow commons we can find the indigenous New Forest ponies in abundance. I am the first to celebrate feral ponies running wild—our traditional mountain and moorland breeds, which can be found in their natural state all over the British isles. It entertained me earlier to hear the Minister speaking of the national parks of Exmoor and Dartmoor, but in many cases it is our national parks where we find our native species running free, from the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in the south-west to the original Thelwell ponies on the Shetland islands—as an aside, Norman Thelwell was one of Romsey’s most famous former residents, who lived on the banks of the river Test. However, these are distinct cases and very different from the situations my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has identified in his Bill, but I am sure he has considered them, and fully considered how the national park authorities might address this sort of issue, should they encounter it.
In other parts of my constituency there have been real problems with semi-feral herds of ponies, including an unfortunate incident earlier this year at Braishfield, where a large number of ponies escaped and ran loose through the famous Harold Hillier gardens and arboretum, causing much damage. While there can be an almost comical aspect to the prospect of police community support officers, police officers and local residents running through the gardens chasing after roughly 80 ponies, it is not funny for a motorist who encounters a dark-coloured pony in the dead of night standing in the middle of the road.
If we find a horse or pony loose, they are very tricky to identify. Yes, since 2009 all foals have had to be microchipped, but when there are large fields of horses with no discernible owner indiscriminately breeding among themselves, who exactly is checking whether they all have passports or microchips? Local authorities simply do not have the resources or the expertise to be matching fields of feral horses to what in many cases is non-existent documentation.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer rightly referred to the problem of over-breeding and identified that in many instances owners might decide simply to continue breeding when there is no viable market for the stock they produce. I would highlight that those who breed responsibly do so very scientifically and with much thought, in many cases with generations of knowledge and expertise, but even they, producing very high quality animals with commitment, love and dedication, cannot find homes for all the ponies they produce—or certainly are finding it very difficult to do so with an economic return on them. Why then are irresponsible owners simply getting away with indiscriminate breeding? In many cases, close relatives will be breeding among themselves, producing many conformational defects and horses that are never going to be any use on the open market because they are not sound and never will be.
Earlier this year a loose pony was found on the A36 trunk road running through my constituency. I met one of my constituents clinging desperately on to it with a length of washing line in the car park of the local convenience store, and I did the decent thing and took it home. As I did so, I spoke to a police officer who had been forced to stop all the traffic on the trunk road, and a jam was building up. I said, “What do I do with it now? How are we going to find the owner?” I was met with the response, “We’ll just wait until somebody notices it is missing.” I looked at this beast, which I did not much want—it was very sweet, but I did not want to keep it or have the costs associated with doing so—and was told that the owner might appear. Last night we debated the perils of social media but this incident proved their power, because once the mugshot of the offending pony was plastered all over Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat the owner recognised the wandering criminal, came forward, collected it and took it home.
I wondered what would have happened if the owner had not done so. How long would I have been left with this wee beastie? If I had sent it to auction, that would in no way have met the cost of keeping it for however long was necessary. If it had had to be sent to be humanely destroyed, I certainly was not going to be the one stumping up £500 for that. The local authorities do not have the capacity to stable unwanted straying horses, the charities are at breaking point and the police certainly did not want to be lumbered with this beast, although they were keen to get it off the main road. Thankfully, it eventually went home. I cannot say that I blame the local authority or the police for not wanting it, because the costs of stabling it would have been horrendous, and over long periods, in particular, our public services and local authorities cannot be expected to sustain those, especially not in the numbers we have heard about today.
Hampshire is thought to have about 5,000 fly-grazed horses and ponies, and is second only to Surrey in that respect. Those figures were put together by the Country Land and Business Association. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has done sterling work in introducing the Bill, which aims to remove the ambiguities in the current law, and consolidate powers into one place and strengthen them. He has worked tirelessly to secure Government support and, given that, as he said earlier, the situation is a crisis, he has been absolutely right to do so. What we all want from this Bill is an improved welfare situation; greater clarity for local authorities so that they can more easily detain, secure and dispose of animals that are causing a hazard and being illegally grazed; an avoidance of situations where owners at the last minute remove one animal and replace it with a different one; and, importantly, a presumption that, if you can find them, the owner of the horse will be liable for damage and all associated costs.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who brings to this debate a good deal of experience in the ownership of horses, both as a child and as a responsible adult. It is also a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing this Bill to the House. Like her, he knows a great deal about this subject, both as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a farmer. He has set out the facts and the concerns that a great number of his constituents and mine, and no doubt those of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, have as a consequence of the unlawful grazing of animals on other people’s property. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to sum up this debate and respond on behalf of the Government. His presence here highlights the importance the Government place on this matter. It is important that we try to produce a practical solution to this obvious problem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, the current legislation is well meaning but it is inadequate to deal with the problem we face, which is a national one. The Welsh Government have attempted to deal with it, but in his constituency, as in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North and in my own, in Leicestershire, we see on a daily basis the difficulties caused by irresponsible owners and the illegal use of other people’s land.
At the moment, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer candidly accepted, the Bill deals with public land only. It is most important that it is adjusted to enable the owners of private land to be protected by its provisions. The problem on public land is bad enough, but until we sort out the private land problem, we are only nibbling at the problem.
We have all seen examples—I have certainly seen them in my constituency—of horses either tethered or wandering about on main road verges, roundabouts and other vacant land, which may or may not be in public ownership, strictly speaking, but which is certainly accessible to the public. There one sees—predominantly, I am afraid, they are coloured horses or ponies—horses of varying degrees of health. Just outside my constituency in Enderby, which is close to the city of Leicester, I have seen horses that could only be described as toast racks. I have seen them lying alive but unable to move in puddles, in boggy fields and in the most appalling state and the most uncomfortable conditions. Until those irresponsible owners are prepared to own up to owning them, very little can be done of a practical nature.
At the heart of the matter is how best to use public resources to deal with the problem and how best to discover and then to deploy the evidence of ownership. Without evidence of ownership, even under my hon. Friend’s measures, it will still be difficult to pin on those errant owners financial responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
I applaud the introduction of measures that will allow local authorities to dispose of such beasts, either by sale or destruction at an abattoir, but I worry that if the local authority cannot sell the beasts, and as my hon. Friend has quite properly said, these animals are of little financial worth, and is forced to have them destroyed—to have them put down—that will involve a cost.
As we well understand—this is not a controversial party political point—our local authorities are short of cash. Harborough district council has a revenue budget of between £10 million and £12 million a year. It is not a large metropolitan authority with lots of money. It must husband its resources extremely carefully. It must have an order of priorities. If it is a question of performing a more general and acceptable public service or spending its limited resources on taking abandoned horses to the abattoir, I suspect that it will place the removal of the horses at the bottom end of the list of priorities and that the problem will persist.
I look to the Minister to see whether he can provide us with at least an indication, if not the whole answer, of what we do when a local authority would like—it is not a matter of wishing or desiring, but this is the only option available to it—the horse to be taken to the knackers or the abattoir, but the cost of doing so is an inhibiting factor, even if not wholly prohibitive.
There is this great problem of ownership. Far too many people need to be brought to book, whether under the criminal law or under the civil system of justice, for their irresponsible ownership of their animals. The shorter detention period that my hon. Friend’s Bill would introduce is a welcome amendment to the law. He set out the deficiencies or difficulties caused by the existing legislation, particularly the Animals Act 1971. A number of other pieces of legislation work to a greater or lesser degree, but they all founder on the difficulty of pinning ownership on an individual or a group of individuals who can be required to accept responsibility.
Evidence, evidence, evidence is what we need, and unfortunately this Bill does not provide for it, but at least if local authorities and, when the Bill is amended in Committee, private landowners can, after the shorter detention period, deal with the animals in question, I hope the problem will be lessened and the Bill, as amended, will have a deterrent effect. Once the legislation is in force, I hope the Government will make sure that nobody can be in any doubt that if they leave their horses on somebody else’s land, be it a private owner or a public owner, the horses will be confiscated and brought into the ownership of other people, who will be able to dispose of them, and that if the original owner can be found, it will be at their cost.
I have one question which my hon. Friend the Minister may be able to answer when he responds to the debate, or perhaps on another occasion or in writing to me. That relates to one of the conditions in the proposed amendment to section 7A of the Animals Act 1971, which is dealt with in clause 2. Subsection (2) of proposed new section 7B states:
“The right to detain the horse ceases at the end of the period of 24 hours beginning with the time when it is first detained unless, within that period, the local authority gives notice of the detention to”—
this is where the question lies—
the officer in charge of a police station”.
What is the officer in charge of the police station supposed to do with the information? Is that simply a box that has to be ticked or does it place a positive duty or burden on the police to do something? No doubt the affected landowner would like the police to go and search for the owner of the horse. Certainly, that is what I have asked my local police to do on behalf of my farmers and owners of fields who have had their grazing land trespassed upon by these ponies. Like the local authority, my police force does not have endless resources.
The intention is to allow people who have legitimately lost their horse, or whose horse has broken free from land it has been grazed on—paddock land and so on—and has strayed, to log that with the local police force. If the police have that information, they can then respond accordingly so that the shorter period of detention does not impact on those legitimate horse owners.
That is extremely helpful; I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. That releases my hon. Friend the Minister from having to deal with that point, which has now been dealt with comprehensively. That is the advantage of having a chap who knows what he is talking about introducing the Bill.
All that needs to be said has been said by my hon. Friends and I will therefore curtail my remarks, apart from two general points. First, if the Bill is to work, it is essential that we collect evidence of ownership and tighten up the means by which we identify the owners of horses. It is well said in the document “Stop the Scourge”, which was produced by a number of bodies interested in the subject whose concerns are well set out, that if we do not improve the way in which we identify horse owners, there will be a lot of tears before bedtime. The existing identification system needs to be strengthened.
Secondly, we need to make sure that the balance of resource is properly distributed. I fear it is a matter of practicalities. We are unlikely to recover much money from the errant horse owners. There will therefore be a competition, or the absence of a competition, between public authorities over who should have to pay for all this. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to have some intense discussions with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government on how we distribute the burden of sorting out what is an obvious problem.
As I said a moment ago, I have had any number of constituents bring to my attention the problems they face as a result of having horses unlawfully on their land. I have had a number of meetings with the Market Harborough branch of the National Farmers Union, a number of whose members have been physically threatened, and indeed physically assaulted, by the owners of those ponies and horses. It is extremely frustrating for them, as law-abiding, tax-paying, farming citizens, to have to watch those people stick two fingers up at them as the horses trample on their crops, predate on their grazing and cause them endless trouble.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for introducing the Bill and wish him every success with it, not least with his amendment to introduce the aspect of private land ownership. I urge all parties in the House to allow him the triumph that he well and truly deserves.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for bringing forward this important private Member’s Bill. His comments demonstrated a clear understanding of the issues relating to fly-grazing, such as the impact on horse welfare, the burden that this illegal habit places on local authorities and why it has been increasing in recent years. He has a long history of campaigning on the issue and, as the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) pointed out, he has worked hard to secure Government support for the measures being debated today. He underlined the cross-party support for the Bill, which I will talk more about later.
I also thank the other Members who have spoken, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), who both highlighted the problem in their constituencies. I also want to put on the record our thanks to the organisations that have campaigned long and hard to get this issue on the national political agenda, including the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings. They all came together recently to produce a damning report entitled “Left on the Verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales”, which the hon. Member for York Outer referred to. It catalogues the appalling neglect and animal welfare abuse all over the country, including in his constituency.
In short, this problem affects all parts of the UK—I want to emphasize that point—and it is growing. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North rightly indicated the extent of the problem in her area, in Hampshire, and, in particular, in Surrey. The hon. Member for York Outer also pointed out that it is a big issue in north Yorkshire and in places such as Doncaster. Although Doncaster is governed at local level by a metropolitan local authority, it does not have the significant resources required to deal with such problems. We should not be using local authority money to deal with these illegal activities. We need to deal with the problem, which affects the whole UK.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough also referred to “Stop the Scourge”, the booklet recently produced to indicate the depth and scale of the problem and what needs to be done. What is pleasing about that report is that the RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance are on the same page—something we do not often see. That indicates the strength of feeling on this issue across the country, and the strength of the consensus about how to deal with it.
It is important to point out that there are many good horse and pony owners, including many in the Traveller community, for whom responsible horse ownership and trading is an integral part of their way of life and culture. However, there is also a minority of people who, for many reasons, are not responsible. Those people do not care about animal welfare and frequently put horses at risk, never minding the damage and dangers that they create for others with their irresponsible actions. The incident on the A64 highlighted those dangers perfectly.
Illegal fly-grazing is a complex issue with many aspects. The dumping of horses is often a consequence of over-breeding and the drop in the value of horses. There is a lack of passporting and micro-chipping to enable easy identification of horse ownership, as has been clearly illustrated by all the examples that have been laid before us. It is to do with the complexity of outdated legislation, which allows unscrupulous owners, at great taxpayer expense, to dance around the authorities and enforcement regimes. It is also about criminality.
Labour Members believe that this issue needs urgent attention, and we therefore support the Bill and hope that it makes good progress. That is not to say that we are completely happy with it, or that it will not benefit from improvement in Committee, as the hon. Member for York Outer acknowledged. We believe, like him, that it could be improved in some areas.
Before I move on to our concerns about the Bill in its current form, I would like to comment briefly on the lack of action by the Government. In contrast to Labour in Wales, which has grappled with this issue and already brought forward legislation to deal with it, Ministers in this place have dithered and done nothing while the problem grows. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) recently stated, the Government could have introduced amendments to existing legislation, such as the Animals Act 1971, to improve the situation, but they have chosen not to act.
Alternatively, Ministers could have brought forward a simple Bill, as did the Welsh Government, that would have given local authorities and other agencies the powers they are asking for to deal with this issue—powers relating to proof of ownership, to removal, and to the ability to dispose of animals removed in such a way. Instead, we have seen nothing, and now, perversely we see the problem growing in England after Wales has acted. In short, parts of England are being seen as the softer option, and Wales’s problem is being exported to add to the existing problems that we have in England.
We do absolutely welcome the Bill. However, one major difference between this Bill and the legislation introduced by the Welsh Assembly is that it covers only public land, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. That, in our view, is a major weakness. Without the inclusion of private land, enforcement would be difficult, if not impossible in many cases, and that is unacceptable. For the Bill to be effective, all types of tenure of land need to be included. We believe that private land needs to be added to its provisions, and we would support its strengthening accordingly. I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the use of an instruction by way of a motion for the House to consider. We will support any motion of that kind in order to get the Bill into the right form. I hope that the Minister will say the same, and that we can all continue to work together on this on a cross-party basis.
The RSPCA has seen a 20% rise in calls relating to tethered horses, and over the past few years there has been a huge rise in incidents of fly-grazing reported to local authorities. The impact, therefore, is not just on local authorities, whether they are large or small and whatever their resources, but on big charities such as the RSPCA, which is feeling the pressure because it has to deal with the issue.
Our outdated and ill-fitting legislation and enforcement powers are allowing criminals to pirouette through their responsibilities and evade justice while horses suffer and landowners, whether they are public or private, find themselves enmeshed in a cruel and unnecessary tragic farce.
We wish the Bill well as it passes through its perilous parliamentary journey, which could be made much easier with Government backing. There is every indication that they do back it, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and hope we can get the Bill through the House and the legislative process. We will continue to offer our support, so long as the Bill deals with the issue in its entirety. However, let me make one thing clear: if this Bill fails to make it to the statute book or, indeed, if it remains too weak to be able to tackle this most serious of issues, we will legislate to stop this practice, if we form the next Government.
I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to tackling the issue of fly-grazing. Before I begin, perhaps I ought to declare an interest: I am a member of the Flicka Foundation, which is a horse and donkey sanctuary based in my constituency. As part of my membership package, I think I adopted a donkey called Tabitha.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) has long championed this issue. As he said in his opening remarks, he first held a debate in Parliament on this issue as long ago as 2012. I am happy to tell him that, sometimes, persistence pays off in this place, because I am delighted to confirm that the Government will support this simple but important Bill, which we believe could have a significant impact on helping people deal effectively with the issue of fly-grazing.
Many hon. Members will have had large amounts of correspondence from their constituents on this important issue. Animal welfare charities have done a great deal to highlight some of the challenges, including by producing reports such as “Left on the Verge”, to which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), referred. As some hon. Members have said, it is estimated that there are some 3,000 stray ponies and fly-grazing horses in Wales and another 2,500 or so in England, so this is a serious problem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has pointed out, this is not the first time we have debated the issue. Indeed, last November, about a month into my appointment as the Minister responsible for farming, we had a debate that had been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). During that debate, we heard about the many problems caused by people fly-grazing their horses, and we have heard more about that today. In some parts of the country, significant numbers of horses are being fly-grazed and such incidents appear to be occurring more frequently. There have been incidents of fly-grazing horses straying on to the highways and, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer noted in introducing the Bill, in at least one case that has led, sadly, to the death of a person in a road accident.
Since the November debate, there have been many calls on the UK Government to replicate for England the provisions in the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. We have been watching developments in Wales with interest. My hon. Friend said that he was reluctant to seek inspiration from Wales on this issue. As a Cornishman, I have no such reluctance: we western Celts have much in common and often learn from one another.
During last November’s debate I set out the approach we have taken in England to date, which has been to encourage all relevant local interests—local authorities, police, farmers, landowners and animal welfare charities—to co-operate to tackle the issues on the ground using the existing legislation. It is worth remembering that that there are four key relevant Acts, including the Animals Act 1971 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is relevant to the issue of horses in distress. I also highlighted during the November debate the potential for the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to give us stronger powers to deal with fly-grazing; I will return to that later. Finally, there is the Highways Act 1980.
Since the debate in November, we have given the issue more consideration. I can tell the House that my noble Friend Lord de Mauley has done a lot of work on it. He has met welfare charities, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, to discuss what can be done. The Government now recognise that making small amendments to the 1971 Act would go a long way to ensure that the provisions work better for those trying to deal with fly-grazing. The amendments would bring the legislation up to date, and make the process more efficient and less burdensome.
The debate in November brought out the fact, which has been highlighted again today, that there have been several changes since 1971. The first change is the introduction of microchipping and horse IDs. As I noted in the previous debate, since 2009 it has been a legal requirement that horses be identified with a microchip and passport. We know that many people who fly-graze horses do not do that, which has created two problems that we did not have in 1971. First, it makes it very difficult to identify and tackle the owners. Secondly, it makes it all the more expensive for local authorities and others to deal with the issue. Once they have detained a horse, they have to microchip and passport it themselves before selling it, which places added costs and burdens on them.
Another development since 1971 has been the change in the mode of sale or disposal of fly-grazed horses. Under the 1971 Act, a detained horse can be disposed of only through sale at market or auction. In 1971, when the Act was drawn up, animals fetched a good price at auction, and fewer horses were fly-grazed. My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes to amend the 1971 Act to provide a more flexible set of options, including euthanasia, sale or gifting to a charity.
The reality is that horses often have little or no monetary value today. There have even been cases of the owner of a detained horse buying it back at a knock-down price at auction, after it had been microchipped by the person who detained it. The fly-grazer was therefore able to gain a legally compliant horse at little cost, which cannot be fair. We need to address that matter, and my hon. Friend’s Bill does just that.
We have listened to the animal welfare charities. They have strongly argued for a mechanism whereby fly-grazed horses can either be re-homed or, in some cases, put down. Sadly, there is so little demand for horses and so much demand for re-homing that charities such as the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare and Redwings have all reported that their re-homing centres are full of unwanted horses.
From listening to the animal welfare charities, we know that part of the problem has undoubtedly been a lot of irresponsible breeding of horses. Horses are being bred for whom there is no market. Sadly, they are then abandoned by people who, frankly, are not fit to own horses in the first place.
I want to move on to the central feature of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which is the length of time that an animal must be detained before it can be sold. One difficulty created by the 1971 Act is that it requires the person who detains a horse to look after it for up to 14 days. During that time, they are responsible for its welfare and for preventing it from straying, and they are liable for any costs incurred. The Bill would permit the disposal of horses after the equivalent of four working days, rather than the present 14 days. We think that four working days strikes a good balance: it is lower than the figure of seven days that applies in Wales and, to respond to the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), it will significantly reduce the cost to both local authorities and landowners of intervening in such cases, because they can sell or dispose of an animal after only four working days.
There are consequential amendments that must be made to the 1971 Act, one of which relates to the point that was put to me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough about the requirement to give the police notice that one has detained a horse within 24 hours. In addition to the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, it is worth pointing out that currently, notice must be given within three days. We think that it is proportionate to reduce the deadline to 24 hours, given that we have condensed the period of detention. There is a requirement to give notice to the police so that if they receive a report of a horse going missing, they can reconcile it with the report of fly-grazing, and thereby reunite ponies and horses with their legitimate owners who have just managed to mislay them.
I am grateful to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for clearing up the point about the police. When the Bill becomes an Act, would it be worth issuing guidance to local authorities and police authorities on informing local hunts of the existence or whereabouts of detained horses, because they have facilities to help with the removal of horses, dead and alive?
That is something that may be considered when the Bill is, I hope, enacted.
The animal welfare codes recommend that a horse that is being kept should be tended to at least once a day to check that its welfare needs are met. We feel that the 24-hour notice period is reasonable because the legitimate owner of an animal would realise that they did not have the animal quite quickly. If the police are notified within 24 hours and there is a four-working-day period of detention, it will enable them to reunite the legitimate owners of a horse with their animal.
In common with the 1971 Act, when a detained horse is sold and there is money left over from the sale, any excess money, after the costs of the sale and of keeping the horse are deducted, can be claimed by the horse owner. For the most part, the horses that we are talking about will probably be of such low value that it is unlikely that there will be any money left after the sale.
The final element that I want to touch on relates to the concerns of welfare charities about the ambiguity of the definition of “stray” horses. Although the position has never been tested in the courts, the Bill seeks to address the concern that the 1971 Act is not designed to deal with deliberately placed horses. Clarifying the definition by making it clear that it includes horses that are there without legal authority is an important step forward.
I hope that consideration will be given in Committee to areas such as Exmoor and Dartmoor, with which the Minister is familiar, where there are wild ponies. How will one distinguish between animals that are being fly-grazed and wild herds?
My hon. Friend may well have the opportunity to raise those points as the Bill progresses.
The Bill represents an important step forward in promoting more responsible standards of horse ownership. It will uphold the need for owners to pay proper attention to their horses’ welfare and to avoid the burdens that fly-grazing imposes on public safety and private and public property.
I want to return to a point that I raised in the last debate on this subject. We must not lose sight of the potential to use the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to deal with this issue. In addition to the changes that the Bill will make to the 1971 Act, it is possible for local authorities to use a more streamlined antisocial behaviour measure under the 2014 Act, which came into force only this week. Local authorities and the police can issue a community protection notice against fly-grazers without having to apply to the courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, we recognise that in most cases the owner of the fly-grazing horse would have to be known, and in many cases that is not possible to establish without some form of investigation. To return to the point that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough made, however, it is important that we do something about owners who abdicate their responsibility and neglect their horses. The Bill will give local authorities the ability to pursue irresponsible horse owners. Two prolific and persistent fly-grazers have recently been issued with antisocial behaviour orders under the old-style measures, so although we accept that there are difficulties, we still believe that we should act.
Finally, I return to the extension of the Bill’s provisions to private land, which several Members have mentioned. Bearing in mind the significant effect of fly-grazing on private land, the Government support such an extension, which would be consistent with the scope of the 1971 Act. It will require the approval of the House for amending the scope and long title of the Bill, but given the importance of doing so, the Government are happy to support that on this occasion. Such amendments would give private landowners and occupiers the benefits of the changes to the 1971 Act that local authorities will gain in respect of public places. I can confirm that we will therefore table a motion to direct the Public Bill Committee that it can consider amendments to the Bill that would enable its provisions to apply on private land.
I believe that the changes will be welcomed by local authorities, landowners and the animal welfare charities that have done much to highlight the issue in recent years. I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, who looks set to be more successful with his private Member’s Bill than I was with mine some years ago. I am happy to confirm the Government’s support for the Bill, and I wish him the very best of luck in taking it through Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is an important Bill for solving the problem of health and safety interfering with small charities and community groups that are trying to do the right thing in their community but sometimes get bogged down in the bureaucracy of local government. The Bill will make local authorities accountable for health and safety decisions that they take about events, and it will offer citizens a route of redress when the local authority cancels events or when members of the public consider that the local authority’s conditions on an event going ahead are over-zealous, unreasonable or disproportionate. In particular, it will give members of the public the right to a review of a negative decision.
The Bill also makes specific provision for the local government ombudsman to treat complaints related to health and safety decisions about events differently from how it responds to other complaints. It provides for the possibility of a fast-track process to allow the ombudsman to examine those decisions and overturn them or recommend that they be reviewed rapidly—hopefully within 14 days. It is also intended that the Bill will go some way towards halting or even reversing the risk aversion that seems to have developed in our local authorities over recent years. That risk-averse culture is what makes the Bill so necessary.
The inspiration for the Bill comes from Lord Young of Graffham’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, which was produced after a Whitehall-wide review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture. In his forward to the report, the Prime Minister expressed clearly the genesis of the Bill when he wrote that newspapers were reporting even more examples of senseless bureaucracy that gets in the way of people trying to do the right thing. He said that we should put a stop to senseless rules that get in the way of volunteering, and that we need a system that is proportionate, not bureaucratic, that treats adults like adults, and that reinstates some common sense and trust. Treating adults like adults and not letting bureaucracy get in the way of communities coming together to hold events, celebrate local anniversaries or mark a special event in the national or local calendar is one aim of this Bill.
I am sure everyone knows a story about health and safety, or a decision taken by a local authority that could politely be described as over-zealous. I have a couple of examples with which I hope you will allow me to indulge the House, Mr Deputy Speaker. A pancake race was held on pancake day in St Albans, but health and safety officials decreed that because it had rained in the morning, competitors would be required to walk rather than run. Apparently the announcement was met with playful and friendly banter from the crowd, but one can only imagine how people will have responded on that occasion. There are examples of a ban on sparklers. Anyone who is planning on celebrating bonfire night in the near future will know how charming and decorative sparklers can be—indeed, I suggest they are almost an integral part of bonfire night, unless someone happens to be at a display in Newcastle, Gateshead, Manchester or Lambeth, where sparklers have been banned. One presumes that hot soup and sizzling sausages might also be banned on account of their danger.
Finally, a recent example of just how far the culture of an over-zealous, disproportionate application of an unbalanced approach to health and safety has spread can be found at a village cricket team in Norfolk—the county where the Minister has his constituency—which has been forced to relocate after the council introduced new rules banning the use of cricket balls on its pitch. I suffer at home because my wife has banned the use of cricket balls in the house—my son and I have both been disciplined for that—but a cricket pitch is probably a reasonable place to expect to use a hard cricket ball.
The Bill tries to redress some of those issues, and proposed new section 22A(2) to the Local Government Act 1974 states that if a local authority in England prohibits or restricts in some way an event on health and safety grounds, it must give written notice of the decision, and the reasons for it, to the applicant or event organiser. Local authorities should already be doing that; it is not unusual and we would expect that to happen, but it does not on every occasion. Proposed new section 22A would also require local authorities to carry out a review of the decision if requested, and reply within 15 days explaining whether it is to be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced or varied, and the outcome of that decision must be provided in writing. Once again, one would expect a local authority to do that already, but that is not the case in every circumstance. The Bill is silent on the mechanics of such a review, which allows local authorities to determine for themselves what process to go through and how it will work, so that they can design their own systems and the most cost-effective way of responding to applicants.
If local authorities behave as they should, there will be no extra cost whatsoever. The system will work perfectly well, and the current system of inspecting health and safety and ensuring that our constituents and local charities are safe will carry on as it always has. If they behaved as they should, a review would not be needed. Any local small charity that was holding an event would apply for a licence and be given permission, with no over-zealous constraints, so that the event could run as planned.
If an issue could not be resolved locally, a complaint could be made to the local government ombudsman. If the complainant considered that they had suffered an injustice arising from maladministration of that decision, they could forward it to the local government ombudsman. Clause 2 would amend section 28 of the 1974 Act to give the local government ombudsman power to adopt different procedures for different categories of any case, including a fast-track procedure for certain cases—so what I am proposing would be legally possible. The expectation is that the ombudsman would use the fast-track procedure to deal with complaints arising from decisions of local authorities to ban or restrict events on health and safety grounds, so that if the recommendation by the ombudsman were that the decision be revisited, the authority would have the opportunity to do so before the event took place. That is important. If someone is faced with such bureaucratic nonsense, the ombudsman would have the opportunity to step in to allow the local authority to rethink its decision and for the community event to continue as planned. Unfortunately, the ombudsman does not have the power to overturn a decision, but it can recommend that a decision be revisited. If that is not possible, the ombudsman does have the power to recommend compensation. If the time scale does not allow the event to go ahead, but the ombudsman finds in favour of the applicants, compensation could be paid for their losses.
The Bill would not affect the important and necessary health and safety legislation that exists to protect employees and the public in the streets. We need to curb the over-enthusiastic and over-zealous implementation of health and safety legislation without putting members of the public in any danger. If someone were to propose letting members of the public dive off a high board into 12 inches of water, common sense would say that that was dangerous and pretty daft. Health and safety legislation has a role in looking after our constituents, but when it gets to the stage of making the players of a game of conkers wear goggles so that they are not injured by flying sections of conker, we have gone from conkers to bonkers.
Occasionally, there is less to a story than gets reported, but the stories do seem to keep coming. The Health and Safety Executive has even set up a myth-busting section on its home page. I commend that website to Members and the public to educate themselves. Anyone who thinks that the health and safety culture is a myth should consider such examples as the library that instructed borrowers not to take books into the toilet, the school that banned a sports day morning session because of dew or the village hall that ruled that washing up after events could not be done by hand but a dishwasher had to be used. Those stories, and hundreds like them, make a compelling case that this is a serious issue.
Communities should not be dissuaded from coming together, whether it is to raise money or celebrate a local or national anniversary. The health and safety culture puts extra barriers in the way of those communities who want to get involved and support each other. The Bill should help to block the actions of some of the over-zealous members of our local authorities. It would not only make local authorities more accountable for their decisions but encourage them to think more carefully about them. It would give applicants and event organisers a means of redress when events are cancelled by an authority on health and safety grounds, if they consider the restrictions unreasonable, and, crucially, help to halt the risk-averse culture that has developed in our authorities.
I hope that in Committee we can examine how the Bill might effectively address issues that have arisen over the years and that small charities, women’s institutes and others will be able to hold community events without some local authority staff being overzealous in their application of the licensing procedures. It is a simple Bill, with not many lines to amend, and I am hopeful that the Government will support it. I thank the Minister and his team for their support so far and other Members who have pursued this matter, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who first raised it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).
Lord Young’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, which followed a Whitehall review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture, made recommendations on the compensation culture, low-hazard workplaces, raising standards, insurance, education, health and safety legislation and local authorities:
“Officials who ban events on health and safety grounds should put their reasons in writing… Enable citizens to have a route for redress where they want to challenge local officials’ decisions. Local authorities will conduct an internal review of all refusals on the grounds of health and safety…Citizens should be able to refer unfair decisions to the Ombudsman, and a fast track process should be implemented to ensure that decisions can be overturned within two weeks. If appropriate, the Ombudsman may award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. If the Ombudsman’s role requires further strengthening, then legislation should be considered.”
The Government accepted these recommendations, and the Bill addresses all of them, so I hope we can move forward with it.
The Bill would insert new provisions into the 1974 Act requiring local authorities to provide the event organiser or person applying for a decision with written notification of a decision when the authority stops an event or imposes conditions or restrictions on health and safety grounds. It also provides that the applicant or event organiser can request a review to be completed within 15 days and that the Local Government Ombudsman may identify categories of complaints and require that these be investigated faster than others. On finding that the process to arrive at the decision involved maladministration, the local government ombudsman can recommend that the authority undertake to pay compensation.
This is a timely Bill; indeed, it probably should have been brought forward a little earlier. Obviously, Government business has not allowed it to come to the fore hitherto. I hope that, with Government support and the support of my colleagues, we can move forward and put the Bill on to the statute book to allow those community groups to continue to do the good work they do in raising money for charities, marking anniversaries and celebrating the sort of community events that hold our society together. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is a great pleasure to speak again on this very active Friday and to congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on coming so high up in the private Members’ ballot, on tabling the Bill and on proposing its Second Reading.
I seem to be having a rather disquieting day in that I have to admit that I am agreeing with Conservative Members rather more than I am accustomed to! The Minister and I did not trade blows on housing earlier this morning; rather, we had a useful discussion on the first private Member’s Bill we considered. I fear that there is going to be another reasonable, balanced and consensual discussion about this Bill, too.
Let me present the Opposition’s position on the Bill. I understand that its purpose is to introduce a right of rapid appeal when a local authority proposes to prevent an event from being held or indeed seeks to impose restrictions on such events on health and safety grounds. The Bill places on local authorities a requirement for a written justification for such a refusal.
In common with the hon. Member for Sherwood, I am keen on community events—especially if they take place in my Wolverhampton North East constituency, but I support them in different parts of the country as well. Some of the examples given in the hon. Gentleman’s opening speech are indeed worrying. It is also true to say that local authorities, as he acknowledged, have a duty to their communities in preserving health and safety and ensuring that people are always safe. The hon. Gentleman provided an example at the other extreme—about diving boards and a lack of water—and we would of course not want to see that happen. This debate is interesting in that the most difficult decisions taken by local authorities are not often at either of those extremes, but either somewhere in the middle or at the margins.
Difficult decisions need to be taken by local authorities, sometimes in unusual circumstances. In my constituency and across Wolverhampton, for example, we have a healthy and vibrant Sikh community. One year, the local council cancelled the annual Vaisakhi event, literally on the very morning it was due to take place. It takes place every year on the first Sunday in May. I attend it every year. It was cancelled on the basis of very high winds and appalling weather, and I think the council was right to do that, as it looked pretty dangerous. A local authority does not take lightly its duties to protect health and safety; it takes them seriously.
The Bill would not affect those sorts of cases, as it attempts to strip out what the hon. Gentleman calls the most over-zealous applications of health and safety legislation. I understand his reasoning. We need to strike a balance between protecting the health and safety of those whom we represent and for whom local authorities work, and ensuring that community events are allowed to go ahead when there are no substantial risks
I hope that if the Bill is passed it will never actually need to be used, because a local authority and the organiser of a community event will have gone through the process of discussing health and safety before the point is reached at which someone would step in to stop the event. That is what causes the most frustration: a community group has advertised an event to the public, and then someone steps in and stops it at the last moment.
I understand that. In the example that I gave, extreme weather conditions prevented a community event from taking place. In such circumstances, it is difficult to give any warning. However, the examples given by the hon. Gentleman made clear that decisions are often made too late, and events have to be cancelled after a great deal of work has already gone into publicising and marketing them. Sometimes it is difficult to let everyone know that an event has been cancelled. The Opposition are sympathetic to the idea of fast-tracking the appeal mechanisms that the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce, because we think it right to give communities and those who organise community events more certainty and a better process to follow. We are keen to scrutinise the Bill in Committee to ensure that the appeal mechanisms are appropriate and proportionate.
I urge the hon. Gentleman and the Government to consult carefully with the Local Government Association, which I hope they are already doing. The association has made known its views on the Bill, and has asked for Government assistance. The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill will not require any taxpayers’ money, but—I am being devil’s advocate here—the association contends that it may end up doing so if spurious claims are brought against local authorities. I know that the LGA is particularly nervous about the Bill. I think that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, and his Department, should do some more detailed work to ensure that authorities are allowed to make the right decisions in the right way without finding themselves having to disburse what they say could be significant sums as a result of spurious claims. I am sure that that point will arise in Committee.
The Bill is intended to change the culture and try to introduce a more common-sense approach to the way in which decisions are made, and that is welcome. Sometimes, in difficult and extreme circumstances, local authorities have to change arrangements or refuse to allow events on the basis of health and safety. They will still be able to do that, but the Bill requires them to present a written report explaining their decisions. In fact, they are probably already doing that internally, but it seems right for event organisers to have access to a local authority’s justification, and, if they feel that it is not good enough, to be able to appeal.
We broadly welcome the Bill, although some of the details will need to be scrutinised in Committee. I must say that I hope this does not start some kind of case-by-case cross-party agreement with the Minister, because I think that that would make our lives in Parliament a bit boring. However, it is sometimes good when we agree because we are then able to get down to the nitty-gritty, and it is in that spirit that we will support the Bill’s Second Reading.
I am not quite as surprised as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that we agree; I always knew she would come round to our way of thinking eventually, and long may it last.
On a serious note, I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for his excellent work on this Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. I want to make it very clear what this Bill does not do before moving on to the drivers of the Bill—why it is needed—and its intended effect, because I do not want there to be any misunderstanding or confusion about the provisions in the Bill, their intended effect or what the Government are supporting. The hon. Lady is right that there will be things to talk through in Committee and the LGA will want to feed into it, although I would point out to the LGA that while local government is building up reserves of some £20 billion to £21 billion it should be focused on the savings it can make by not needing to have health and safety inspectors trawling around taking up too much time—and it will probably find there is a potential saving there as well.
We do need to make sure health and safety is taken seriously and addressed sensibly, however, so let me be very clear: this House will not weaken the very necessary and important health and safety arrangements that rightly exist to protect employees and the public health and safety regime in place nationally. The public, employers, authorities and enforcement organisations do have an important role to play in ensuring that not just our workplaces but our streets and recreational spaces are safe.
Proper and proportionate management of risk is, I think we can all agree, important, and where it is done properly it is to be commended, and in most of the country most of the time that is the case. We have no problem with adequate safeguards or with the proper and proportionate management of risk, nor will this place an unreasonable increased demand on the local government ombudsman’s resources, who also provides a valuable service, considering complaints from members of the public who consider they have suffered an injustice arising from maladministration in councils and other bodies.
The Bill does not change the remit of or impose extra burdens on the local government ombudsman, so what does it do? To begin with, it may be useful to reflect for a moment on the drivers for this Bill—on why it is necessary. My hon. Friend has outlined some of them. It could be said that the Bill has its origins in the rise of the risk-averse culture. By this I do not mean tall tales of health and safety gone mad—although, worryingly, it can be impossible to tell in some cases what is tabloid exaggeration and what is an actual decision about health and safety at an event that we could describe as an over-enthusiastic application of the health and safety culture. Rather, I mean the spread of a risk-averse culture where councils are taking decisions on the grounds of health and safety that either prohibit events from taking place altogether or place such heavy restrictions on them that the event is effectively prohibited from taking place.
These concerns were crystallised in Lord Young of Graffham’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”. The review found inconsistency across local authorities, with the rules on health and safety not being applied with a view to a proper risk management approach.
We are also talking about some of these events being prevented not for health and safety reasons, but for other reasons, where health and safety is cited as the purpose for blocking the event. Sometimes people use health and safety just as a reason from nowhere to try to block an event that they do not want to support or have not had the time to consider. It is those types of excuses, as it were, that I want to try to stop with this Bill.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event happening, rather than an organisation being honest about whether it wants something to happen or not, that does a disservice to the entire world of local government and health and safety because it dilutes the very important role health and safety can play in our lives.
The review also found that in some instances inspectors were giving poor advice to organisations and individuals who were in turn prevented from running an event, such as a school fete, when there was no legitimate health and safety reason. Currently, there is no requirement to put the reasons for these prohibitive decisions in writing, and the specific grounds for the decision are not required to be made transparent. That is where part of the problem my hon. Friend outlined is clear. There is also currently no system for appeal or redress when an event is banned or curtailed; event organisers are simply required to accept the decision and not go ahead with the event as planned.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us with organisers discouraged from planning such events for fear, or out of an expectation, that a local authority official will not allow it. That leaves us with communities frustrated in their attempts to come together to celebrate national events or local events, or to raise money for good and charitable causes. Today, we can start to bring an end to that situation. We can put a stop to the spread of this culture.
This Bill is not just about making councils put decisions about health and safety at events in writing—they should be doing that in any case. It is also not just about providing those organising the event with a right of appeal when they disagree with a council decision—again, councils should be doing that. The Bill is about making councils think—about reasonable risk and about a proportionate assessment of health and safety—before they act. The Bill’s aims are simple. Its provisions would require local authorities to give written notification of a decision relating to health and safety at an event and to undertake a review of that decision, if requested. The intention is that those measures will rightly lead authorities to give health and safety issues careful consideration, bringing an end to bans or restrictions on activities that are a result of a risk-averse culture rather than a balanced and informed assessment of risk. Quite simply, the Bill should put a stop to rash decisions based on a risk-averse culture and lead to local authorities making well informed and sound decisions.
The provisions of the Bill, and the need for the local authority to provide reasons for its decision in writing, would bring transparency and accountability to the decision-making process in a way we have not seen before, and would do away with the culture of decisions behind closed doors. Local authorities are accountable to their electorates in the decisions they make. It is right that members of the public should be able to see how a decision has been arrived at as well as why. If a local authority’s decision is informed and sound, there should be no reason for an applicant or events organiser to seek a review of the decision through the ombudsman and, therefore, seek recourse to the mechanism that the provisions in this Bill will provide. The Bill is as much about changing behaviour about local authority health and safety decisions as it is about ensuring the decisions are sound and well informed.
Does the Minister recognise that as a society we seem to have lost the ability to rank risk and understand risk? Members of the public sometimes obsess about things that show no risk at all. When we drive to a community event we probably put ourselves in more danger than we do at the event itself. We sometimes wrongly prioritise and misunderstand the proportions of risk.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me give him a very good practical example of what he is talking about. As hon. Members will know, I always like to refer to the fantastic area of Great Yarmouth, where I live and which I represent. We recently held an event there in September, extending the tourism season, called the Out There festival, and I want to describe one of the most fantastic things in it, which was the crescendo and which almost brought everything to a close. The media loved it, as did the public; we had a fantastic atmosphere. It was a party where everybody anywhere in Great Yarmouth got covered in paint. It was the most phenomenal colourful exhibition of fun and of a community coming together, despite the fact that everybody probably had large cleaning bills afterwards. It was fantastic, but it is exactly that kind of event that, with the wrong attitude, could easily have been stopped. That event was an amazing way of not only improving our tourism economy for the year, but bringing the community together, raising the profile of our area and bringing people together to have fantastic fun. Such events are important to our communities. Where there is risk we should be aware of it, but it should not necessarily stop a good event, good fun and sensible times being had by all.
We have all heard of incidents in which it is fair to say there have been questionable decisions about events—we have all heard our own stories—but we need to be fair. It is perhaps advisable to question the veracity of health and safety stories that occasionally appear in the press—for instance, about festive events involving reindeer being cancelled due to the threat of snow—where the reporting may have erred on the side of being enthusiastic, or where the true origin of a story, perhaps schoolchildren being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, has more to do with individuals being over-enthusiastic in ensuring playground discipline than any local authority decision.
Indeed, there are so many stories about ludicrous health and safety decisions being made based on a risk-averse culture that the Health and Safety Executive, as has been said, has an area of its website dedicated to myths. It started in 2012 and showed 325 cases by the start of this October, the latest of which is about passengers not being able to board an aeroplane while carrying hot beverages. It really is recommended reading if anyone is ever in any doubt whatsoever that there is an over-cautious approach to health and safety in local government and beyond.
A few highlights—or lowlights, some people may argue—include the case of the scouts who were not allowed to have an allotment. Apparently, a troop of scouts under the supervision of a leader was advised by the chair of its local allotment community gardens site that they could not have a plot for health and safety reasons. The scouts were keen to grow their own veg, and an allotment would have been ideal for a small group to get started with. The HSE’s site usefully includes its view of the case, and it strongly believes that this was an excellent opportunity for scouts to become involved in growing food and getting physical exercise.
I am afraid to say that this is not the only case of children being discouraged when attempting to grow their own veg. A pre-school that used a garden managed by the local parish council and a designated public open space was told that it could not leave pots of flowers and vegetables grown by the children in the garden, claiming health and safety reasons, and asked for them to be removed. The pots were placed by posts holding up a small patio area and on slabs surrounding a shed. The pre-school had been told that someone might trip over the pots and sue the parish council. It has removed the pots, but it is unhappy because the children no longer have the learning opportunity that the growing of plants and vegetables would have allowed.
The HSE’s safety supremo was far from impressed and claimed that it is potty—yes, I am sorry about the pun—to impose a blanket ban on those standard garden items. These are everyday risks, and the parish council appears to be risk-averse in case it is sued. If there are real concerns about people tripping over pots, the council should discuss them with the pre-school staff, instead of depriving youngsters of the opportunity to learn by growing their own food and flowers.
Then there is the case of council bureaucrats banning donkey rides for children at a village fete because of health and safety concerns. If we ban donkey rides, most of our seaside resorts are in big trouble. Of course, nothing in health and safety law stops children enjoying a holiday donkey ride or requires them to wear helmets to do so. The HSE was very keen to set the record straight and for this and future generations to continue to enjoy the traditions of the summer fete and the seaside holiday.
To continue the seaside theme—as MP for Great Yarmouth, people would expect me to do no less, I am sure—let us move on to chips. We have fantastic chips in Great Yarmouth market square. I highly recommend them to all visitors.
Before my hon. Friend moves away from donkeys, I should draw the House’s attention to the fact that this could be the first time that donkeys have featured in debates on two consecutive Bills. I wonder whether the fact that we are prevented from bringing hot beverages into the Chamber is a health and safety issue, or whether it prevents Members from having our own little picnic and not concentrating on the business of the day.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend’s desire for a hot toddy late on a Monday evening is one that I will leave him to debate with the relevant authorities in due course.
Let us move specifically on to chips not being served in a paper cone—something that would ruin my Friday afternoons most weeks when I am not here. When ordering chips from a chip shop to take away, a customer asked for her chips to be just put in paper and wrapped in a cone, rather than having them served in the normal plastic tray, so that they would be easier to eat and carry as she walked round the shops. However, she was told by the lady serving behind the counter, “We can’t do that. It’s against health and safety, in case you burn yourself on the chips.” She was advised that once they served them to her, she was more than welcome to remove the tray and wrap them up herself.
The Health and Safety Executive is obviously no stranger to how best to enjoy this traditional treat. I should say that that did not happen in Great Yarmouth. We are very good at looking after our customers, as my Yarmouth Greats campaign has shown, with our great chip shops. The HSE considered that the customer made a perfectly sensible request and there was no health and safety reason that would prevent the shop proprietor from doing as requested. It concluded that such cases of poor customer service need to be wrapped up and thrown in the bin—I am sorry, but I could not resist that.
Fancy a swim to work off those chips, as some Members might argue I should do more often? Just make sure you take all your own equipment. A poster at a public swimming pool stated:
“Due to health and safety regulations, we are unable to lend floats, goggles or woggles.”
I leave Members to look up the meaning of “woggle”. The Health and Safety Executive was having none of this. It was clear that no health and safety regulation prevents the loan of goggles and flotation devices at public swimming pools. Many public swimming pools continue to provide these aids to swimmers without a problem.
Then there was the case where a council managed to use not only health and safety but planning as an excuse to annoy the very community that it should be serving. As the planning Minister, I found this example astounding. A council planning department asked the public not to remove out-of-date planning notices in public areas. The public were doing this in an understandable effort to clean up their community, proud of the area in which they lived. The tone of the Health and Safety response can be described as indignant. Stopping these community-spirited people makes no sense at all, it wrote. The council should cut through some of its own red tape and support well-meaning local volunteers. Removing redundant planning notices as part of a community clear-up poses no significant health and safety risks and should not be an issue.
Finally, there was a case that illustrated not health and safety gone mad, but a sensible approach to a problem which, by the way, turned out to have nothing to do with health and safety. A borough council hung bunting carrying 20,000 small knitted Tour de France jerseys on lamp posts, but the county council asked for the bunting to be taken down owing to concerns about the structural integrity of the heritage-style lamp posts. It appeared that the problem in this case was not the use of bunting, given that the council was distributing quite a lot of it, to its own design, but the use of wire under tension to attach it to heritage-style lamp posts. Given that the lamp posts were seen to be leaning under tension, it was probably a good idea to remove the bunting. The solution lies in suggesting alternative means to display the magnificent work of the locals in creating their own tribute to the tour.
These cases demonstrate that the risk-averse culture extends beyond local government. If reports are to be believed, it can even extend to our chip shops. We in local government and central Government set a trend. We have the ability to set the tone and the direction of travel for others so that they understand the need for common sense, but it is clear that councils have proved particularly adept at banning or prohibiting things on the grounds of health and safety. What the Health and Safety Executive’s replies show, and it should know about these things with the experience it has, is that we can and should trust people to get on with things and look after their own lives. There is risk, and there is also reasonable risk. People should be free to enjoy gardening, donkey rides and hot snacks served in newspaper, should they so choose.
Simply put, this risk-averse culture must be halted, and if by means of the Bill we can introduce measures that will halt it in councils, we will have made an excellent start. Councils have authority. When they set a bad example, it is easy for others to follow. Let us encourage them to set good examples, to let children do gardening and to let their own public-spirited residents remove out-of-date planning notices if they want to. The story of the knitted jerseys in particular illustrates reasonable risk prevention. It was not the fantastic bunting that was the issue, but the decision to suspend the bunting using tension wire. One can understand why a local authority may take issue with suddenly being famed for its leaning lamp posts, but a simple solution was to use a different type of wire.
Reasonable risk, communities coming together, enjoyment and celebration without frustration—that is what the Bill seeks to achieve. It is true that there are stories about councils banning activities on health and safety grounds that, on closer inspection, turn out to have more to do with the desire to publish a good story than with what might actually have taken place. But what does the story about the council that required a pancake race to be held at walking pace tell us about health and safety? It sounds much less plausible than the story about a killjoy council stopping children enjoying a donkey ride, but it is true—that actually happened—and it is not the only example.
In short, there is a culture of local authorities making decisions about events based on the over-enthusiastic application of a risk-averse health and safety culture. Those decisions have a real effect on people and our communities. We have a great tradition in our country of communities coming together to celebrate, have a good time and raise money for good causes while doing so. It is wrong for councils for no good reason to prevent community celebrations and events that draw communities together.
The problem is this: local authorities have become overly cautious in respect of health and safety; not in all cases—let me be clear about that—and not all over the country, but certainly on too many occasions. Where health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event taking place, or to place restrictions on it, it is right that such decisions should be transparent and challengeable.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned, and as I have made clear, the Bill does not seek to ensure that the very sensible health and safety regulations that apply to the workplace, to public areas, to our streets and to our recreation spaces are disregarded. Rather, we want to ensure that on the occasions when health and safety is used as an excuse to ban or restrict an event—when the application of health and safety concerns is over-zealous or disproportionate, or when the restrictions on the event are unreasonable, either by requiring a fee or restricting an activity—the authority must first justify its decision and then, if required, review it. That process should bring accountability to health and safety decisions and, in so doing, result in minimal recourse to seeking to review a health and safety decision.
The proposals are straightforward, sensible and proportionate. The Bill requires authorities to undertake certain actions when they ban or restrict events on health and safety grounds. In particular, it requires that if an authority decided to prevent an event from being held, or imposes restrictions or conditions on it, it must put the reasons for such a decision in writing, electronically or otherwise. That written notification of a ban or restriction must be sent to either the person who made the application or the organiser of the event if no application was made. The written notification must be sent on the day the decision was taken or, if that is not possible, the first working day thereafter.
The requirement to issue written notification extends not only to a ban that prohibits an event, but to restrictions that might be judged so unreasonable as to amount to a ban. If the person who made the application, or the organiser of the event, is unhappy with the authority’s decision to ban or restrict the event on health and safety grounds, they may request that the authority reviews the decision. The authority must complete an internal review as soon as reasonably practicable after it receives a request for a review and, in any case, within 15 days of receipt of the request, and on completion of the review it must give written notification, in electronic form or otherwise, to the person who requested it. The outcome of the review is that the decision may be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced with another decision or varied, but only varied so far as the decision could have been one reached in the first instance.
Local authorities are accountable to their electorates for the decisions they make, so it is not unreasonable for us to expect an authority to put its reasons for refusing or restricting an event on health and safety grounds in writing for the people affected. That is the sort of good practice that authorities should be following—many already do—in bringing transparency to their decision-making process. True localism is about embracing the wishes of local communities. The provisions in the Bill put in place a framework that will allow localism, and not a risk-averse culture, to flourish.
Briefly, on the role of the local government ombudsman, we consider that it is right that local issues should be resolved at a local level, without a member of the public needing to have recourse to a national body such as the ombudsman.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister when he is in full flow, particular as he is agreeing with me so wholeheartedly, but I wanted to put on the record the fact that, as I am sure he recognises, most people who work in local authorities have the best intentions and want to support community groups, and it is only in a very small number of these cases that decisions need to be controlled and overturned.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He reminds me that I should have made it clear, for the benefit of all Members, that I am sure the Committee— the shadow Minister outlined her view that it should look at this thoroughly—will want to ensure that the Bill enables his wife, Mrs Spencer, to use health and safety measures quite widely to ban his internal cricket matches at home, which sound as though they may bring his cricketing judgment into question. I am sure that his family can deal with him appropriately when he gets home.
This Bill will ensure that local authorities do not make rash, unsubstantiated decisions. The provisions that require a local authority to set out its reasons for a decision, and allow a decision on health and safety grounds to be challenged, should lead to a more informed, sound decision-making process and ensure that matters can be resolved, where they should be so resolved, at a local level by local people accountable to their local communities.
However, if things cannot be resolved at a local level and the authority is at fault, it is right that the public have a right to redress through the local government ombudsman. I stress again that we are not changing the ombudsman’s remit. We are giving the ombudsman the ability to fast-track such investigations, at their discretion, so that where they do arrive at a decision that finds maladministration, the local authority is given the opportunity to review the decision to enable the event still to take place. The Bill therefore makes specific provision for the ombudsman to treat this particular class of complaint differently from other classes.
These provisions do not change how the ombudsman currently operates in relation to local authority complaints. We expect local authorities to comply with the recommendations of the ombudsman. The objective of the ombudsman is to secure, where appropriate, satisfactory redress for complainants and better administration for the authorities. If, following an investigation, the ombudsman determines that there has been maladministration in a local authority, the ombudsman can make recommendations for redress— for instance, an apology or payments of compensation —or recommend that the local authority undertake some remedial action or provide a service.
The ombudsman can already recommend financial settlements, where appropriate, to put right an injustice. The ombudsman recommends paying compensation in a very small number of cases. While the ombudsman has discretion in the remedies that are applied where a complaint has been upheld, a financial remedy is applied only where it is felt that this is the appropriate remedy to put right an injustice. It is true that the Bill’s provisions will allow the ombudsman discretion to award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. However, given the mechanism to accelerate a decision on health and safety grounds so that the local authority can still look to reverse that decision on review, it is highly unlikely that the ombudsman will need to seek recourse to this remedy. Indeed, I would go further and add that the threat of a remedy, including a financial remedy, should ensure that local authorities think very carefully about decisions on health and safety grounds.
As I have said, this Bill is as much about common sense, and changing the behaviour of local authorities in the way that a decision is arrived at, as about putting in place a mechanism for allowing a member of the public to seek redress when a decision is viewed as disproportionate and unreasonable. If we do this right, and the Bill goes through all its stages, its most vital aspect will be in changing people’s attitudes and getting us get back to trusting people to make decisions for themselves and their communities.
We consider that the provisions will perform a valuable function. It is right that if an authority takes a decision to stop or to impose restrictions on an event on the grounds of health and safety, it should put its reasons in writing. It is right that there should be an appeal mechanism where the decision is a negative one. It is right that the local government ombudsman should be able to fast-track complaints about such decisions, meaning that they can conclude an investigation before the event is due to go ahead and so facilitate that event. The provisions should put an end to the days of organisers being deterred from planning an event in the fear, or expectation, that some local authority official will not allow it. I therefore commend the Bill to the House as a common-sense, proportional measure.
I will take 30 seconds to once again thank the Minister, his officials and the official Opposition for supporting the Bill. I look forward to it going through Committee so that people can get on and raise funds for great causes such as tackling breast cancer. I hope you will not call me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, for pointing that today is “wear it pink” day and I am wearing my pink tie for breast cancer awareness. Many good causes will need this Bill to stop health and safety getting in the way of their excellent work.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am very pleased to have this surprising opportunity briefly to set out the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I should like to make sure from the start that we give all the credit to him: this is his Bill and it is superb. Members will only be disappointed that he is not here to propose it himself, because he could do so with much more skill and panache than I am able to muster. While I give him full credit for the Bill, I certainly take full responsibility for the poor quality of the speech proposing it on his behalf.
We do not have enough time to go into any great detail, but I want simply to set out what the Bill does and why it does it. It makes it a criminal offence to be an illegal immigrant in this country. At the moment, people can come here with impunity: they can come into this country as an illegal immigrant, try their luck and do their best to give it a good shot. Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent years, far too many people are successful at giving it a shot. They come into the country and if they get caught the worst thing that can happen to them is they will be kicked out, but, given all the human rights legislation we have, they would have to be particularly unlucky for that to happen. There is absolutely nothing in place to give any real, meaningful deterrent to prevent people from giving it a go in the first place. My hon. Friend is trying, rightly, to provide a real, proper, meaningful disincentive for anybody who tries to come into this country illegally by making it a criminal offence that can carry a sentence of imprisonment.
I am not naive enough to imagine that this Bill will, at once, clear up the mass problem this country has with illegal immigration. There is an awful lot we need to do. We need to get ourselves out of the European Union for starters and get back control of our own borders. We need to have much better controls over who is coming into the country, including knowing whether they have any criminal convictions. We also need to get rid of all the human rights legislation that stops people being deported when they are illegal immigrants.
My hon. Friend’s modest Bill makes it clear that being an illegal immigrant in this country should be a criminal offence and that a meaningful deterrent of a prison sentence should go with it. That may play a small part in deterring people from trying to enter this country illegally, and on that basis I commend the Bill to the House.
I genuinely feel that this a Radio 4 moment: I will speak for just over a minute—that is all the time I have—without repetition, deviation or hesitation. [Interruption.] I will try my best not to deviate.
It is very important that we in this House think carefully about the matter of immigration, which, as we all know from our time on the doorsteps, our constituents care about. It is an issue of integral importance to the people we speak to and represent, so it is vital that we take their concerns seriously.
The Minister has less than a minute left to speak, so may I help her by suggesting that, rather than just waffling on about the subject of immigration more generally, she explain succinctly why the Government think it is wrong that being an illegal immigrant should be a criminal offence?
To help the hon. Lady, may I ask her whether one of the consequences of the Bill would be that we have to build many jails in this country to house the armies of illegal immigrants with whom the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggests there is a problem?
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the Bill be resumed on Friday 7 November.
Business without Debate
House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November.
Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (Statutory Requirement) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February 2015.
EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November.
Wild Animals in Circuses Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last Friday, I wrongly accused the Deputy Chief Whip of being responsible for blocking the Second Reading of the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, which stands in my name. I wish to apologise to him for misleading the House, and to apologise to the House for getting that wrong. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has exercised his right to object to the Bill today. The Bill was objected to last Friday and the Friday before that by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). They acted as individuals, and I apologise to the Deputy Chief Whip for saying that he was responsible for something that was clearly nothing to do with him.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Damian Hinds.)
This is the fourth Adjournment debate that I have secured on the case of Christopher Rochester in the past 13 years. I and his family wish that it was unnecessary, after 14 years, to raise the case again.
Christopher Rochester, a 24-year-old constituent of mine from Chester-le-Street in North Durham, died in the Andreas Papandreou hospital on the island of Rhodes in Greece following a fall from the apartment complex in which he was staying on holiday. Despite falling from a balcony on to the concrete patio below, he survived, but he was allowed to die a slow, painful and lingering death due to the negligence of doctors at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes.
Christopher’s mother, Pam Cummings, and her family have fought a long and persistent campaign to secure the truth about the events that led to his death in 2000. This fight finally led to three doctors being found guilty of manslaughter through neglect. That was clearly down to the tenacious way in which Mrs Cummings and her family pursued the case. I again want to put on the record my admiration of their tenacity in having pursued the case to find out the truth about his death.
Unfortunately, that was not the conclusion of the case. The family have not been able to get closure because of a separate issue about what happened to Christopher’s kidney once he had died. When his body was returned to the UK for burial, it was discovered that one of his kidneys had been removed and was missing. At the time, Mrs Cummings contacted my predecessor Giles Radice—now Lord Radice—to ask why that was the case. He, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British consulate in Rhodes, got the Andreas Papandreou hospital to send the kidney back to the UK via the consulate. I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its staff for their work on this case because, over the past 14 years, they have been helpful in trying to move things on. They do not often get thanked, so I would like to put my thanks on the record.
For some unexplained reason, Mrs Cummings was convinced that the kidney that had been sent back from Rhodes was not that of her son Christopher. She therefore asked for the DNA to be tested. That was done by NorthGene, which is a leading genetic research agency in the north-east of England. To her horror, her suspicions proved to be correct. The DNA test confirmed that the kidney that had been sent from Rhodes was not Christopher’s.
Representations were made to the Greek authorities. Their ludicrous suggestion was that the British consulate in Rhodes had somehow mixed up the kidney and returned the wrong one. I am not sure how many kidneys the consulate in Rhodes deals with on a daily basis, but clearly that was a ludicrous suggestion. I pressed the case, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Greek authorities finally suggested that an independent test should take place in a third country to verify the facts surrounding the kidney that was returned to the UK. The family agreed to that and it was decided that Belgium would carry out the test.
The Greek authorities then insisted that in order to get a DNA sample from Christopher, his body would have to be exhumed, despite all the leading experts arguing that it was not necessary. That included Professor John Burn, who is not only one of the UK’s leading experts on genetics, but a world-renowned expert. I thank Professor Burn for his assistance with the case. It has been greatly appreciated by the family. Clearly, this was yet another tactic on behalf of the Greek authorities to put more pressure on the family. I also think the Greek authorities thought that the family would not agree to it.
It was a difficult decision for Mrs Cummings and her family, but they agreed that Christopher’s body should be exhumed. That took place on 27 June 2011 in the presence of officials from the Greek Ministry of Health. At this point, may I put on the record my thanks and the thanks of the family to Durham police for their assistance, in particular DS Ken Donnelly and DI Steve Murray, who assisted the family throughout the process? DNA samples were recovered from the body and sent to Belgium. Durham police also took samples from the body, which they still retain as part of the evidence in the case. Likewise, samples of the kidney that was sent to Durham were sent to Belgium for analysis.
A common problem in this case has been the length of time the family have had to wait for any kind of information. They had to wait another year, until May 2012, before receiving any news on the results, which they only received following a letter that I wrote to the Greek ambassador in London and representations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Office was simply advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the DNA analysis supported the conclusion that the kidney almost certainly belonged to Christopher. That is completely at odds with the tests that have been carried out in this country and with the review of Professor John Burn of the analysis of the kidney that was sent back, which showed that it was clearly not that of Christopher Rochester.
On 18 June 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a full report could be obtained only if an application was made by the family to a Greek court. Professor Burn has offered to have a look at the report and see what tests were carried out. However, making representations to a Greek court would clearly involve huge expense for the family, so they are unable to do so.
On 10 March this year, I wrote to the public prosecutor’s office in Rhodes and to the Greek Ministry of Justice with a signed letter of consent from Mrs Cummings authorising me to act on her behalf. Despite two follow-up letters, I have had no response to date. On 25 July, I wrote separately to the Greek ambassador in London, asking him to ask the prosecutor’s office to respond to those letters. The embassy confirmed by telephone that it would make representations, but to date we have heard nothing from it.
The case raises serious questions about how a British family can get legitimate answers to questions about the death of one of their loved ones in a fellow European country. Without a copy of the report of the DNA test that took place in Belgium, which Professor Burn has agreed to look at, the family cannot draw this sad case to a conclusion. I am not quite sure what the Greeks have to hide by not producing that report for the family, but will the Minister make representations to the Greek authorities about the issue? Will he also raise it directly with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and separately with the Greek ambassador in London? I have tried to do so through faxes, letters and e-mails, and I seem to get no answers. As I said, a common thread throughout the 13 years I have been dealing with the case has been that they seem not to reply to any representations on behalf of the family.
This is obviously a very sad case, but it also demonstrates the persistence and courage of a loving mother who will not let the case go despite the objections and obstacles that Greek officialdom puts in her way. I assure Mrs Cummings and her family that I will continue to do what I can to get them the justice that they deserve, so that they can have final closure on this very sad case.
I congratulate my old friend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for the strong support that he has given Mr Rochester’s family over what is now a long period. As he said, his predecessor Lord Radice did the same before him.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised a number of issues relating to the case with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I thank him for expressing his gratitude to officials for all the work that they have done over the years. I know I would have done precisely what he has done—at least, I like to think I would—had I been in his position. This is an extraordinary and unsatisfactory case. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has taken a close interest in it and met the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions to discuss it. I welcome this opportunity to respond on his behalf and on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
First, may I restate our deepest condolences to Mr Rochester’s family, who, as the hon. Gentleman explained, have lost someone dear to them in tragic circumstances? The death of a loved one is painful under any circumstances, but I am conscious that when a death occurs overseas, the cultural differences, the language barrier and the systems used by foreign authorities can be difficult to comprehend, making the grief felt by the bereaved family all the more acute.
As the hon. Gentleman set out in detail, the loss and grief suffered by Mr Rochester’s family have been compounded by the challenges that they have faced, not only in their pursuit of justice against those they see as responsible for contributing to his death, but through the damaging confusion over the repatriation of one of his organs. I would like to take this opportunity to confirm for the record the sequence of events as we understand them and the consular assistance that we have provided to the family.
After a series of court cases, both Greek and British authorities agreed that Mr Rochester did not receive adequate medical treatment following his fall. That was confirmed following the retrial in Rhodes on 5 February 2008 of the medical staff who treated Mr Rochester immediately before his death. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the court found one of the medical assistants guilty of homicide by negligence and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for three years. The other two accused were acquitted.
When Mr Rochester’s body was repatriated, the post-mortem examination in the UK found that he had been returned without his left kidney. At the family’s request, staff at our consulate in Rhodes helped to arrange the kidney’s return to the UK by liaising with all the relevant authorities, and funding its safe delivery to Dryburn hospital in Durham. On its return to the UK, however, the DNA testing requested by the family threw into doubt the identity of the kidney. I cannot begin to imagine the additional distress that that must have caused Mr Rochester’s family at that time.
Consular staff urgently sought clarification, and at the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman and Mr Rochester’s family, in 2002 the Greek authorities agreed on an independent DNA test to be carried out by a third country at the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology in Belgium. In order to complete that test, the Greek authorities stated that three samples were required, including one from Mr Rochester’s remains, as the hon. Gentleman has said.
Despite our representations on behalf of the family to explain their distress, Greek authorities remained firm on that point. They did not accept that it would be possible to determine once and for all the identity of the kidney unless the sample was taken from the exhumed remains. They would not accept skin samples that had been previously taken from Mr Rochester for an unrelated reason in the UK some time before his death, and they would not take samples from a next of kin.
It is testament to the fortitude of the family that, despite their concerns, they agreed to the exhumation of Mr Rochester’s body. The DNA test could then proceed, and in May 2012 a summary of the results was passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the office of the hon. Gentleman and the family. The summary stated that the kidney that was originally repatriated on 14 August 2000 did, with almost certain probability, belong to Christopher Rochester. The Greek authorities had initiated a criminal case based on the Greek organ trading Act, following reports that the kidney did not belong to Mr Rochester, but the case was then closed.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, the family have since made it clear—quite understandably—that they would like to see a full version of the results to assure themselves that they are valid. Our understanding from the Greek authorities is that those results would be disclosed in full only to someone with a vested legal interest in the case, such as a family member as next of kin, or their appointed lawyer in Greece. That would mean a family member either travelling to Greece, or appointing a legal representative there.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a signed letter from Mrs Cummings authorising him to act on her behalf, but as I have said, my understanding is that that can be done only by a legal representative in Greece.
What the Greek Ministry of Justice has been asked for is a Government document. Will the Minister make representations to his Greek counterpart to see whether there is some other method? This family is not in a position to get the finance together to do what has been suggested by the Greek authorities, but without that, and without a full copy of the report, as I have said, they will not get closure.
The hon. Gentleman is right—of course they will not get closure until they see the whole report. However, the Greeks are standing firm on this matter and have said that the results can be disclosed only to a next of kin or legally appointed representative. We will raise the case again although I suspect we will not get very far on that particular point.
It is not for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to interfere with Greek law on this point. But it is right that the Greek authorities should respond to the hon. Gentleman directly, and I am more than happy to write to the Greek ambassador. I am incredulous that the ambassador has not replied to the hon. Gentleman and I can only think that it is the result of an oversight that I am sure the ambassador will wish to right at the earliest opportunity. I shall point out to him as soon as possible that the hon. Gentleman still awaits a response. I will also ask our embassy in Athens to press the Rhodes public prosecutor’s office for a response to the hon. Gentleman’s letter and, of course, we can provide updated details for lawyers in Greece if that would be helpful.
Once again, may I say that my deepest sympathies go out to the family? It is only natural and understandable that they should seek closure on what must have been a terribly distressing period of uncertainty over Mr Rochester’s body—an uncertainty that has gone on for far too long. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to give all appropriate support to the family as they pursue this, and we will also give what support we can to the hon. Gentleman, who has been so dogged in his determination to get justice for his constituents.
Question put and agreed to.