House of Commons
Friday 16 January 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).
Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 1
“In observing the provisions in this Act, councils shall keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundation of the United Kingdom.”—(Sir Edward Leigh.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 4, page 1, line 15, clause 1, at end add—
‘(4) Subsections (1) and (2) do not reduce the obligations of the authority not to discriminate against—
(a) those with religious beliefs different from those supported or espoused in the prayers or other observances referred to in this section; or
(b) those without religious beliefs,
and to treat them equally in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010, section 149.’
I warmly welcome the Bill, which seeks to provide a legislative basis for continuing the tradition, wherever it may be desired, of prayers before meetings in local government. The purpose of new clause 1, without at all inhibiting the freedom of councils and local authorities to employ or not employ prayer at their meetings, is to ask those bodies to keep in mind the religious heritage of our country and the religious foundations of the state, which are of a Judaeo-Christian nature. That is what my new clause proposes—having regard to the Judeao-Christian nature of our country.
Helston town council in Cornwall came in for a bit of flak in 2010, when resident Pat Woodhouse attacked the council for having “Christian-only prayers”. The local newspaper reported her to have said:
“Let’s face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now.”
What authority has determined that “we” are “supposed” to be politically correct? Why should citizens of any philosophical or religious world view unthinkingly surrender to the totalitarian and ever-shifting ideology of political correctness? In the Helston case, Ms Woodhouse is reported to have said:
“If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn’t right. With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?”
Note that she uses the word “if” anyone took offence—we are dealing with a pure hypothetical.
Doubtless, opponents of Christian prayer can cite actual cases where offence has been taken by someone, but I suspect it is pretty rare. We are supposed to be mature adults. I believe that anyone who is grievously offended by the Christian nature of prayers in councils needs to have some regard to the roots of our country. I am sure that both sides of the argument agree that we should not be a nation of triumphant Christian supremacists, but nor should we be a nation of molly-coddlers seeking to wrap the entire population in a protective layer of liberal gauze. We should abide by the principles of tolerance and respect: tolerance for belief or non-belief, twinned with respect not just for this country’s present, but its history.
We in Britain are known for our adherence to tradition. I would argue that this Parliament is the most beholden to tradition of any legislature in the world. Chesterton famously described tradition as
“the democracy of the dead.”
For when we make our decisions today, why should we not take into account the Britons of centuries past? Of course, the reality today is that the Christianity associated with the state—prayers before meetings, Remembrance day services, the role of the Church of England—is a thin whitewash over the official reigning ideology of liberalism. That is true, but these acts, be they prayer or worship, tie us intimately with our ancestors. I believe that that is what conservatism is all about. They connect us, I dare say, with the communion of Saints, four of whose number—George, Andrew, David and Patrick—serve as the traditional patrons and protectors of these nations. One can see their images in mosaic form looking down upon us in the Central Lobby of this Palace. Even in law we have the four quarter days of the year: Lady day, the feast of the Annunciation; Midsummer, the feast of St John the Baptist; Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael; and Christmas, the great feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord, which is celebrated so widely among those of profound religious belief or of none. The reason the tax year starts on 6 April is that it is the Gregorian equivalent of Lady day in the old Julian calendar that we in Britain held out in using for so long.
It is important to recall that other laws reinforce the Judaeo-Christian foundations of our society, and they should be celebrated in prayers before our meetings. Nobody is suggesting that should be compulsory; it is simply the decision of the council. Schools are still required to provide
“daily collective worship wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.
That is in our legislation. The Guardian finds that “incredible”, and it is worth noting that while we Conservatives can take credit for this requirement in passing the Education Reform Act 1988, The Guardian says that this was last reaffirmed in 1998 under new Labour—so presumably it is not that controversial.
It should be recalled that the etymology of the word “worship” comes from “worth ship”, the act of attributing or recognising worth, honour, esteem or distinction. With their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon kings could no longer exert an arbitrary power over the kingdoms and peoples, but were subject to and restrained by, they realised, a higher power. This worship or esteeming of God laid the foundations for His creation—man—with numerous consequent ideas flowing forth about the dignity of the individual and our freedom of conscience. After all, what value is there to worship if it is not done as an act of free will?
Even more recent aspects of British society have Christian roots. Lord Alton, a former Member of this House, now in the other place, has written eloquently about the Christian foundations of the welfare state, noting that
“the thoughts, words and actions of the Christian community were central to bringing”
the welfare state “to fruition”.
Is it any wonder that what we can fairly describe as traditionally Christian countries are the ones that are today so tolerant of those of other faiths or indeed of none? The traditionally Christian societies are the most successful economically because they are tolerant of all other beliefs. It is that tolerance that has laid our economic success.
When we look at the past 50 years and observe officially atheist states such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China or officially Islamic republics such as Iran and Pakistan, we find their level of tolerance disappointing at best. Would someone rather be an atheist in Tehran where the mullahs rule the roost or in Beirut where the political and legal culture took root during the decades in which Lebanon had a Christian majority? I suspect that the overwhelming majority of British atheists are mature and respectful people, tolerant and perhaps even appreciative of the Christian foundations of the state and society. Rare is the man or woman given to sudden fits of apoplectic rage at the appearance of a nativity scene in public around Christmastide.
It has been rare in our time that an event has promoted as much comment and discussion on the nature of freedom and its responsibilities as the recent tragedy in Paris. France, of course, has a unique status in British society, serving simultaneously as our favourite traditional enemy as well as our closest friend, whose culture we most enjoy, love and revel in more than that of any other country. Britons will be the first gently to mock the French and some of their silly ways—and we have some silly ways— but our reaction to the recent atrocities committed in Paris has shown that we are the first to rush to their defence and express our solidarity with the French people. Chesterton was very prescient when he restated that to have a right to do something is different from being right in doing so. We believe in the freedom of speech, and while we hope that this freedom is used responsibly, we know that any attempts by the state to act as a determinant or guarantor of what is and what is not said is not a responsible exercise of freedom and is inherently threatening to our liberty. That is why I was a prominent supporter of the Reform Section 5 campaign about the right to offend other people. In this society, we have a right to offend others. If, dare I say it, prayers before council meetings offend some people—I doubt if anyone will be very offended—I believe that it is an inherent right nevertheless and it should be exercised.
It may astonish the House for a moment, but I confess that there are some aspects of political correctness that I find welcome. Political correctness to a certain extent incorporates a good old-fashioned sense of politeness. I am not a Muslim, so satirical depictions of Mohammed are ostensibly none of my business, but I do not understand the mentality that seeks intentionally to degrade and insult someone else’s most deeply held beliefs. To me, it seems plainly rude and ungentlemanly, and while these terms are viewed by some in our society as old-fashioned, it is just such forms of tradition and social dignity that say we should not deliberately intend to insult someone’s religion. That is up to the individual, not the state. It is such ideas, too, that affirm that we should not go slaughtering people because they insult us and our religion. In the end, being outrageous is all too often employed by the unoriginal and uninspired as a handy substitute for talent.
This is an opportunity to think more generally about the role of religion in our society and the world. What a shame, but also how natural, that religion is so often in the headlines because of warfare and conflict—we are all familiar with the so-called Islamic state. However, there are no headlines about the small kindnesses, the little acts of love and dignity, that people all around the world undertake, inspired either wholly or in part by their faith. I see no harm in councils’ proclaiming that faith before their meetings.
Recently, in the House, we debated the subject of Britons who have gone abroad to commit acts of terror and fight as jihadists. What is striking is that so many of them are not immigrants to this land, but were born and raised here. Perhaps a generation before them was raised in a religious context, whether individuals were personally pious or not. The increasing absence of religion from our society makes it more difficult for us to comprehend Islam. That absence also creates personal difficulties for many people who seek a deeper meaning in life. I believe that a little religion, such as prayers before council meetings, actually prevents outrageous intolerance.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point in support of his new clause, but will he confirm that, because of the way in which it is drafted, nothing in it would restrict prayers to those from the Judaeo-Christian tradition? It only requires that that tradition be kept “in mind”. Could not prayers from other religions take place as well?
I drafted my new clause carefully. It is meant to constitute a serious contribution to the debate. I am not arguing that there should, or must, be prayers before a council meeting. Of course, no one needs to go to them anyway. It is simply a decision that is made at the time of the council meeting. Nor am I arguing that the prayers must be of a Judaeo-Christian nature. I am, however, making the serious point, in this House of Commons, that this is our past. This is our foundation. This is what has made us free.
We cannot just say that we must have a “time for reflection” before council meetings, and that anything goes, because if we do that we lose contact with our history. I think that in losing contact with our history of tolerance—which is the foundation, or essence, of the British state—we actually encourage religious extremism. It is often people in whose families there is absolutely no religion who are led astray into following bizarre sects and the like.
It is not just our past, though, is it? It is also our present. In Parliament, we start every day with prayers, and those prayers are Christian prayers; they are not from any other religion. However, people do not have to participate in them if they do not wish to. My hon. Friend is much more religious than I am, but I am not aware of anyone who objects to starting the day with prayers. It is actually a rather good way in which to start the day. Wouldn’t it be nice if local authorities started their proceedings in the same way as Parliament?
In Parliament, when we start our day with Prayers, we obviously start our day with prayers of the Church of England, which is the established faith in our country. If my hon. Friend wished to enshrine the traditions of this country in the Bill, did he not consider enshrining the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Church of England rather than any other Judaeo-Christian tradition?
I think I would have been criticised if I had done that, although I should have been happy to do it. Speaking for myself—if it is at all relevant—I am very ecumenical. I serve on the Lincoln cathedral council, and I have absolutely no objection to taking part in Church of England services and Church of England prayers; nor, I am sure, does anyone else who is sitting here. However, I think that if I had tried to lay down a particular denomination, I would have been severely criticised. As far as I am aware, the Church of England is a Christian denomination. A broad encompassing new clause which talks about Christianity does not prevent Church of England prayers from taking place. So I am afraid that I cannot accept that argument, but if my hon. Friend—who tabled the Bill—wants to advance it, it is for him to do so.
Secular liberalism often purports to have the answer to religion. Everyone and everything is free, and people can do whatever they want. Yet there is a curious aversion to those who choose to do religious things, especially if they are done in public. Why do some people have an aversion to others having prayers before Parliament and before council meetings? I am not sure that I understand that aversion, although I am sure it is sincerely felt.
In reality, the liberal secularist perspective is as much an all-encompassing and behaviour-determining world view as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any religion. In purporting, whether explicitly or implicitly, to be “above” religion, liberal secularism is making truth claims just as strongly as religions do. Somehow this can be viewed as reassuring, as we are just dealing with one religion or world view as we have dealt with others. The new clause seeks to reaffirm our connection to the past through the actions of the present. There is a grave danger of we in Britain becoming severed from our roots, and lacking an understanding of our history. Such a deracinated population would be much easier to manipulate, whether by a Hitler, a Stalin, or some other modern-day tyrant whose dominion we fear. Asking not even that we affirm the Judaeo-Christian tradition of our country, but merely that councils keep it in mind, is one small way of keeping us in touch with our roots. That is why I propose my new clause.
May I end by reading out that marvellous prayer which we used to say in this House, and which is worth quoting from? We used to say that we
“humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes, and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the Queen, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same”.
What glorious language from our established Church, from the King James Bible, from the Prayers before Parliament. I commend my new clause to the House.
I do not want to take up too much time because there is a lot of business to be got through this morning and I do not want to hold it up. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) says. He speaks, of course, as a prominent Roman Catholic, so I thought his answer to the last intervention on him was glorious. I have a probing amendment—amendment 4—which I almost certainly will not press to a Division.
I am a politician so my natural course is to wish to please people—if someone does not have that trait, they are unlikely to be elected—and so it is rather odd that I shall spend much of this morning disappointing people. First, I shall disappoint people by saying I am not in the least religious. My father was once the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and I was christened and confirmed, but since then I have lost those beliefs and the faith that I once had, and I am perfectly comfortable with that. This is the first time, however, that I have ever acknowledged that in public. It may be true that the pressure on a Conservative politician in particular to keep quiet about not being religious is very similar to the pressure that there has been about keeping quiet about being gay. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not gay either, but I just want to say that it is telling that it has taken me 28 years in this House—and, frankly, the knowledge that I will not be standing at the next election—to make this point.
I remember that when Peter Walker was a Minister answering questions in the House, he was asked something like whether his motivation for supporting a particularly right-wing policy had been sycophancy or cowardice, and his answer was, “Almost certainly both.” I would like to give the same answer for my having kept quiet about not being religious. So I shall disappoint some of my constituents, some members of my family—many of whom are strongly religious—and some hon. Members and hon. Friends by saying that I believe that the National Secular Society has a point: not everyone is religious.
In order to reserve a seat in the House on a crowded business day, such as Budget day, we have to put in a prayer card and come into the Chamber for Prayers. I do not have a major problem with that because I was brought up in a Christian household in a country that has an established Church of England, but really, why should I have to do that if I am not religious? It does seem to be a relic of the past. My hon. Friend said that this was our past and, although he was brought up short by an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I think he was right. More importantly, the requirement to pray in order to reserve a seat seems out of touch with the country that we politicians are meant to represent.
That is a fair point, and I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the potential contents of the prayer.
I was saying that the practice seems out of touch with the majority of the people we represent, because only a tiny proportion of our constituents go to church. According to the 2006 Church census, just over 6% of British people go to church. In a YouGov poll in 2011, 34% of UK citizens said that they believed in God or gods. However, according to the 2008 European social survey, 46.94% of UK citizens—nearly half—never pray. I find that an odd statistic, because it implies that 20% of UK citizens pray but do not believe in God.
Part of the Bill is about celebrating and protecting the traditions of our land. Of course, I believe in Father Christmas, which is one of the reasons that I am happy to celebrate Christmas, but how many people who celebrate Christmas still truly believe in Father Christmas, as opposed to appearing to do so simply because they enjoy the traditions and celebrations of that time of year?
My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons used to give a speech about the really difficult questions that a Leader of the Opposition could ask the Prime Minister. The most difficult question that he was able to come up with was “Does the Prime Minister believe in Father Christmas?”, because whatever answer the Prime Minister gave, he would frankly be scuppered. So I shall not answer my hon. Friend’s wonderful question. Instead, I shall move on to tell him what is wrong with his Bill, if I may. I shall do so in the most gentle way, because I know that he is motivated by the good of the country and of the people he represents.
Of course I know that my hon. Friend’s Bill would not force people to pray, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has just said. I know that it would not force councils to decide to include prayers as part of their business, although the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) proposes that councils “shall”—rather than “may”—include time for prayers. I shall come to that point later. I also know that the Bill would leave the decision to local authorities, and what could be fairer than that?
However, the Bill would allow the majority of local councillors to include, as part of the council’s business, a practice that might be embarrassing and possibly even anathema to other councillors. Prayer is not anathema to me, as I was brought up in a Christian household; I just find it rather quaint. If people think that their god listens to what they ask for rather than what their god thinks is right and appropriate, that is a matter for them—it does not bother me. But why need I sit through it? Let me move on to the possibility of it being anathema. What am I to do if I am a local councillor where religious observance is to be part of the business? What am I do to do if the prayers offered actually are anathema to me?
Let us suppose that a council is made up of a majority of fundamentalist Muslims, who decide that the religious observance should be not only Islamic, but radically and possibly violently so. Then let us suppose that a prayer is offered which calls for retribution on those who draw cartoons of the Prophet. I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that what Charlie Hebdo was doing was impolite.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises, as most people in the Chamber will, that in such circumstances the appropriate behaviour would be to call the police immediately, because the gentleman in question who was giving those prayers would have incited people to hatred?
Yes, but one can create a prayer that does not incite people to hatred but which nevertheless remains anathema to the people listening to it. Let me give the hon. Gentleman another example, in a Christian context. What happens if the prayers call on God to grant enlightenment to those who support gay marriage? That might be anathema to some of the councillors who do support gay marriage. What should one do as a councillor in those circumstances? Should one heckle the priest or the imam? Should one walk out, even though, as a councillor, it is one’s right and indeed one’s duty to be in the council meeting, preferably for the whole time.
So the National Secular Society, which I would like to thank for drawing some of these issues to my attention—I am not a member of the NSS and I doubt I ever will be—has a point when it says:
“The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings does not impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray.”
If local authorities want to hold a moment of reflection at the beginning of a meeting, they can do so. If councillors wish to meet for prayers before the meeting, they can do so, and no change in the law is needed to achieve it. So it is the principle of the Bill that is of concern to me, but the proposal tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough highlights some of the concerns that undermine the value of the principle of the Bill.
My amendment 4 is about the public sector equality duty, whose effect is similar to the first amendment to the US constitution, which states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
That has been interpreted in the United States by a majority opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was decided in May of last year, to require that prayer said before local authority meetings should not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer.
The rather odd effect of that decision was that at a meeting of Lake Worth city commission last month the invocation was given by an atheist called Preston Smith, who began it with the words:
“May the efforts of this council blend the righteousness of Allah with the all-knowing wisdom of Satan.”
The fact that the effect of the public sector equality duty on this Bill is that local authorities choosing to hold religious observance in their meetings will not then be able lawfully to discriminate against the observances of the religion of Satanism might surprise my hon. Friends, but it seems to me to be a clear and unavoidable interpretation of the effect of the two statutes.
Each time I have risen in support of this Bill, I have sought to emphasise my reason for doing so, and it is that this Bill seeks to protect a freedom of choice, and indeed a freedom of local choice. This Bill makes it clear that the choice of including prayers, or not, is for the local authority alone. Equally, I do not believe that it is right to go further than that. To go further would undermine our trust in local authorities to take account of the views and traditions of their communities and to make the right decisions.
I speak from my own experience in local government, in an area of many and diverse faiths and of strong communities, religious and non-religious, where the inclusion of prayer was something that united those communities rather than divided them. In our council, prayer and reflection was an opportunity to bring people together. So many of our prayers, which were led each year by the chaplain to the mayor—of whatever faith—contained universal messages that underlined shared values, a sense of unity and community that reflected our diversity. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), as I am minded not to support his proposed new clause today should he push it to a vote. It seems to me that we would be stepping beyond the important line and risk fettering the discretion that we want to give to public bodies to make their own localised decision.
I say to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot)—he is indeed a gentleman and I shall certainly miss him when he leaves this House—that I agree with the sentiment and intentions behind amendment 4. But I am confident that local authorities and public bodies, all of which are already subject to the public sector equality duty, will exercise their choice with the utmost sensitivity to their communities. We should trust their judgment and believe that they will make the right choices and not the wrong ones.
It is important that we maintain that trust in anticipation that local authorities will be sensitive to local communities and their responsibilities within the law. I remain hopeful that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on his work on the Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. There was a useful discussion about the Bill in Committee where support for it was clear. There was recognition that the Bill is really about freedom rather than compulsion: the freedom to pray or not to pray; the freedom for a local authority collectively to make a decision to hold prayers as part of official business, or not; and the freedom of individual councillors to attend the meeting during that item of business, or not—there would be no requirement to sit through it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) described the Bill’s provisions on giving local authorities the freedom to hold prayers as part of official business as a measure so gentle that someone would have to work very hard to find a way of taking any sort of umbrage or insult from it. That is an excellent way of describing the provisions and intent of the Bill; they are indeed gentle. It is worth reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. The Bill gives councils that statutory power and gives them the freedom to pray.
I will not be supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). It is not consistent with the spirit of the Bill, which is about trusting local people to make local decisions. We should trust them to do that. It would be wrong to single out any one particular faith or to identify any one particular tradition. The Bill as drafted is absolutely correct to celebrate our multi-faith society and because it gives local authorities freedom rather than compelling them to take certain actions, it is not necessary to require them to be mindful of their obligations not to discriminate against those with religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs. There is no requirement for anyone who does not wish to attend town hall prayers to do so, so this provision is not necessary.
With those reassurances, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will not press the new clause and the amendment.
I have a lot of sympathy with the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), as it sits very closely with my own beliefs. I believe that there is a direct link between praying for things within one’s own religion and things happening in one’s life. I am a Christian and I am proud of it and, in a way, the Bill has given me the opportunity on occasion to bear witness to my own faith and the belief I have in the power of religion in our society.
Although I agree with the sentiments of the new clause, I do not think it should be supported, largely because the Bill is permissive in nature and has sought to encompass the wide group of faiths in our society today. Much of the criticism of the Bill has focused on the fact that people of different faiths or no faith at all would be or would feel discriminated against in the council chamber if prayers were to be held. I do not think that the Bill as drafted could be accused of that, and it was described in Committee, as the Minister has just said, as the gentlest of Bills.
It would be a mistake to single out any particular religion on the face of the Bill. We are a multi-faith society. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough spoke of the different faiths in our society and of how people of all faiths and of none enjoy living in a society that acknowledges and respects their faith, so it would be a mistake to remove from councils the freedom to decide their own business. The entire Bill has been about freedom and the freedom of local authorities to make individual decisions about how they conduct their business.
Can we be clear? My hon. Friend refers to taking away the freedom of local authorities to decide these matters, but I do not think that anything in the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) takes away any freedom. If it were to be passed, it would merely require that they keep in mind the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour in Bury North for raising that point. I understand it, but in a multi-faith society in which all faiths are respected and acknowledged and in which people of no faith are also respected and acknowledged it is important that we do not prefer in legislation one particular faith. He might disagree with that view, but I think that the Bill as drafted is acceptable to people of all faiths and of none and I fear that to start preferring one faith might create division in our council chambers where none needs to exist or should exist.
My hon. Friend mentioned Ms Woodhouse, who objected so strongly to council prayers. If the Bill is enacted, there is a way for her to make her objections heard: she can stand for the local council, get elected, argue in the council chamber that there should not be prayers and win the support of the majority of her colleagues. There will then be no obligation on them to have prayers. If she finds the issue so offensive, that course of action is open to Ms Woodhouse.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made an interesting and thoughtful speech about the pressure that colleagues sometimes feel to profess faith when they have none or not to profess faith when they have a deep-seated belief. That shines a light on the pressure that there is in public life and the interplay between faith and politics.
The Bill does not seek to define what constitutes a prayer—nor, importantly, what constitutes religion. Prayer will be different for every individual Member who prays, has ever prayed or has ever thought about praying, and so will religion. Even an individual’s prayers, whether daily, weekly or in the evening, will be done differently each time. The Bill provides a practical, workable, sensible approach, giving councils the opportunity to include in their business time for prayers, other religious observances or observances connected with any philosophical belief that they think appropriate.
Tolerance and religion are joint values that bind society together. We are a multi-faith nation, and we are stronger for that; that is why this is a multi-faith Bill. The Bill’s strengths lie in its simplicity—it makes provision not for any particular faith, but for all faiths. As has been said repeatedly during its passage through the House, the Bill does not compel anyone to take part in prayers.
I hope that, with those assurances, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough will withdraw their amendments.
I’ll get over it.
I am also disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) does not want to accept my amendment. I repeat that my amendment does not require prayers in the Christian tradition. It was put forward in a serious way, but my hon. Friend says it is not appropriate for this country, which is a multi-faith and presumably multicultural society. Without wanting to repeat what I said in my speech, I should say that that was precisely my point. We should have regard for the fact that our roots are of a Judeo-Christian nature. I was simply asking councils to have regard to it.
Much as I feel strongly about the issue, I am aware that the Lobbies of the House may not be seething with hon. Members this morning; if we were to have a vote, there might not be the required number to enable the Bill to continue. I cannot risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is too risky to have a vote for that reason. However, I still have one or two friends left in the world and some are in the other place. I shall have a word with them in the hope that the other place might return to the issue. Meanwhile, in a spirit of good will, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Powers of councils
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, page 1, line 5, after “may”, insert
“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.
Amendment 12, page 1, line 5, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, at end add—
“( ) in no case may more than three minutes be devoted to business under this section.”
Amendment 6, page 1, line 17, at beginning insert “Subject to section 138BB”.
Amendment 2, page 1, line 17, after “may”, insert
“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.
Amendment 7, page 2, line 7, at end insert—
“138BB Local referendum on religious observances
(1) If a local authority wishes to use powers under sections 138A or 138B, it must obtain the consent of the electorate through a local referendum.
(2) The referendum is to be held on a date decided by the local authority and may be held on the ordinary day of local elections.
(3) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum are those who, on the day of the referendum would be entitled to vote as electors at an election for councillors of the local authority.
(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the conduct of referendums under this section.
(5) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138A, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to hold religious observances as part of the formal business of council meetings. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.
(6) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138B, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to support and/or be formally represented at religious events. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.
(7) If the majority of persons voting in the referendum under either subsection (5) or (6) approve of the proposal, the local authority may use the powers under the respective sections 138A or 138B for four years from the calendar date of the referendum.
(8) In no event may a further referendum be held within four years of the day on which a referendum under this section has been held.”
There are several amendments in my name. The first is on the need to have a local referendum before the issue, which in some cases is controversial, is decided. All I ask is that we should give the local electorate power to make this decision. What could be a greater example of localism than that?
Amendment 1 suggests that there should be a two thirds majority of councillors called in a council meeting specially designed for the purpose. That is in order to ensure that the councillors themselves decide the matter by a strong majority, rather than it being delegated, for example, to the mayor or even to officers of the council to make a decision. Again, that is a good example of localism. Amendment 3 proposes that any such religious observance should be limited to three minutes because, in view of what I have already said at some great length, I do not think we want to have these religious observances extended too long.
I hope that those simple amendments might find favour with my hon. Friend the Minister, but if not I shall withdraw them.
I intend to follow the lead of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and be brief. I agree with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), that many of us will miss my right hon. Friend when he is no longer in the House. He has had a great impact on my time here. I am very grateful to him for that and wish him well for the future.
I should make it clear from the start that my amendment 12 was always designed to be a probing amendment intended to stimulate a debate. I have no intention of pressing it to the vote. It changes the word “may”, with reference to having prayers at council meetings, to “shall”. The only reason I tabled the amendment was to give the opportunity to debate what is so wrong with this as a practice that councils follow.
I am surrounded by Members who are much more devoutly religious than I am. I am not coming at this as some sort of fundamental Christian—far from it. However, one of the things I have been struck by in my time in Parliament is the worth of Prayers at the beginning of the day. Even though it would not be my normal practice to engage in Prayers, I think it sets us up well for our day in Parliament. I will give an illustration; my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) did something similar. When we start our day with Prayers, what strikes me are the following words—it is amazing how many people quickly forget the Prayer the moment they have said it, which to some extent argues against me, but saying it and hearing it is worthwhile—
“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.
I do not believe that I am the only person who is always touched by that part of the daily prayer. It seems to embody what we are here to do. Every day it is a worthwhile reminder of that for us all. What is wrong with that? How can anybody find that offensive, no matter what their religious belief is?
The hon. Gentleman said that although we say those words, sometimes they are not observed in the subsequent proceedings of the Chamber. I recall the words of Claudius in “Hamlet” after he had been praying, ostensibly, when he said:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Order. I might be able to help a little bit. We are not discussing the Prayers of the Chamber. I recognise the benefits and there is an analogy between the two, but the debate is about local government prayers. I have allowed a lot of leeway, but I am sure we will hear the connection made shortly.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Politicians, whether in the national Parliament or in local government, should always be mindful of these things when they start their proceedings. I am not aware that anybody, whether they have no faith, a Christian faith or some other faith, objects to our starting our proceedings in that way or finds it offensive. For people who do not want to participate in prayers, there is no obligation on them to do so; they can sit them out, as some do, and I fully respect them for that. It should not be compulsory for individuals to have to engage in prayer, but I do not see the objection to people in politics—people serving the public—starting with a reminder of their duty to the people they are elected to serve. That is why I tabled my amendment.
I would go slightly further than my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I think it is important that we start with Christian prayers. We are a Christian country and that is our heritage; we should never be ashamed of it. I do not think that people of other faiths are offended by the fact that we are a Christian country either. We still have an established Church of England, and I do not see the problem with that, whether or not we all support it personally. That is our heritage in this country; it is what our values are based on. We should not be ashamed of that; we should be proud of it. It should not cause any offence if everybody started their proceedings in this way.
This is a probing amendment and I do not intend to press it to a Division. I just wanted to stimulate a debate and make people think about why this is not such a bad thing.
I have a couple of points to make on this group of amendments.
Amendment 7 deals with a requirement on a local authority to determine this question by holding a local referendum. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said that he would not press the amendment to a Division, because in view of the financial position of the country and of local authorities, it would make complete nonsense of the Bill. One of the great beauties of this Bill is that it does not impose any financial obligation on local authorities. The amendment would impose a completely unnecessary burden and make a mockery of all the other decisions that local authorities take.
As I understand it, the Bill already has a money resolution, so I think we can be satisfied on that point. The amendment would certainly increase the amount from what was originally envisaged; it is for others to determine whether that requires a change to the money resolution.
In view of all the matters that local authorities decide for themselves without the necessity of a referendum, requiring a local authority to hold a referendum across the whole district merely to determine whether it holds prayers is bordering on the faintly ridiculous. I therefore oppose the amendment.
My second point is on amendment 12, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which would replace the word “may” with the word “shall”. My clear view is that all council meetings should start with prayers and they should be of a Christian nature, but I am against making it mandatory. I think it should be for local authorities to determine for themselves whether to hold prayers.
Let me put to the Chamber a particular scenario. This might be unlikely, but it just might happen that, for whatever reason, all the elected councillors in a particular area have no religious belief whatsoever. They might all be atheists. It would be absurd, would it not, if they were required by the Bill to hold prayers before their meetings? That might not happen, but it should be for the councillors to decide for themselves.
We are all about localism; we are not about imposing obligations on local councils. It should be up to the individual council to decide for itself whether it holds prayers. I hope that they will all decide, without any difficulty, to have a few minutes of prayers and reflection before each council meeting and that those prayers will be of a Christian nature. That is my view, and I oppose my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
That is the same as me—my constituency is Somerset North East and we North Easts have to stick together in the broad scheme of things.
I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I always believe in trusting the people. I like having referendums because the assent of the people shows where their spirit and mind are. I happen to think that most people would turn out in a referendum and vote in favour of prayers if the council thought that was a good idea. I think we would find that people are very much in tune with the history of the nation and that they like the fact that, even if it is not their Church —it is not mine—this country has an established religion. I happen to feel that the ceremony, tradition and link with our history that that brings is broadly popular, even with people who are not of that faith, and, therefore, that the referendums would pass. I would be more than happy, however, to put that to the vote, to see whether my speculation is right or whether the view of secular society is right.
My hon. Friend is being extremely kind and, as always, courteous and articulate, but if I were to join him in calling for a vote on the amendment, the entire Bill might collapse. That is not necessarily what I want to achieve, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) is promoting the Bill with the best possible motivation. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would like to reconsider his position.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I am well aware of the numbers issue and, for obvious reasons, I would certainly not want to see a Division in which fewer than 35 Members participated. If my right hon. Friend chooses to withdraw his amendment, I shall not shout—or even mutter—against that. I shall certainly support him if he does that. I simply support the underlying principle of his amendment.
I disagree to an extent with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on the cost. Of course, there will be some cost, but a referendum could be held on an ordinary council election day—it would not need to be a special election day—on the first Thursday in May, so I think the cost is broadly affordable. One should always be willing to put one’s own view to the test of the view of the British people—the electorate—and have confidence that they will come to the correct decision.
There is an extraordinary trend of radicalism in being on the side of the secularists, and I am not entirely sure that I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which is a very rare event, because he is one of the wisest Members of this House and almost invariably right. However, I feel that “shall” does not go far enough and goes too far at the same time. I would be in favour of a Bill saying that every sitting of every council should start with an extraordinary form mass—the Tridentine mass—as that would be absolutely splendid. Ideally, it would be a high mass with so much incense that people started sneezing. It would be a fine piece of legislation, but it is not what the Bill is trying to do; it is simply to enable people to pray if they want to. The word “shall” would take this Bill too far, but if one were introduced in the next set of private Members’ Bills to re-establish Roman Catholic worship at the beginning of all such sessions in our public life, I would certainly not oppose it.
On this group of amendments, I will reiterate what I said earlier. I am confident that councils will make decisions on how they choose to vote or decide to include prayer in a way that suits their local circumstances. A council may well choose to adopt prayers on a majority, a two-thirds vote or an alternative proportion, or under a different procedure. Likewise, it may well decide that prayer should last no longer than three minutes, or it may decide alternative parameters. Such a matter is up to the council, so I say gently to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) that it should be a local choice, built on an understanding of individual local communities and circumstances. I hope that he will therefore understand why I cannot support his amendments.
I have already made the point that the measures in the Bill should not be prescriptive, and I gladly make it again. This is permissive, enabling legislation, and choices and judgments should be made locally. That is particularly important with regard to amendments 5 to 7, which would require public bodies to undertake a referendum to decide whether to include religious observances at meetings. Although I agree with the thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), at a time when finance is scarce, I do not want to put new burdens on local authorities, and we certainly should not require them to incur additional financial cost. Referendums are expensive and, especially in these straitened financial times, councils would not want to commit to those costs.
I was agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry: I know it is not normal, but Fridays are unusual, and we just have to ride with it.
Frankly, if we insisted on a referendum, unlike the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) I do not think that everybody would necessarily turn out to vote. If we enabled local councils seeking the power to hold prayers at meetings to hold referendums, I fear that the turnout would not justify the cost. To introduce referendums on the subject would provide a clear disincentive for councils to consider the inclusion of prayers at all. I therefore cannot support the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire. We need to provide local councils with the freedom to choose to hold prayers or reflections, without fettering that discretion or imposing new financial and administrative burdens on public bodies.
On the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I am sure that it will not come as a surprise to him that, although he read out my favourite part of morning prayers, I cannot support any suggestion of making prayer compulsory. I would not support the amendment if he pressed it to a vote.
The Government have worked hard to get rid of burdens on local authorities and empower the public to hold local authorities to account, and we therefore believe that the amendments are unnecessary. However well intentioned, I am concerned that they could be a burden on local authorities and hence the taxpayer, and they could obstruct rather than enable the intention of the Bill, which is to allow local authorities to hold town hall prayers as part of official business if they wish. There is no need for an amendment to require a two-thirds majority to enable the local authority to hold town hall prayers. Such a measure would mean that a minority might vote against prayers but still stop the council holding them as part of official business, and a minority stopping a majority from taking part in an item of business that nobody is compelled to take part in is what the Bill intends to put to an end.
In addition to provisions on town hall prayers, the Bill will ensure that local authorities are able to support, facilitate, and be represented at events with a religious element. It is, sadly, not too much of a stretch to imagine that individuals or organisations with an axe to grind might also choose to attack the proper role that local authorities play, for example by organising a Remembrance Sunday event by closing a road. That should never happen, and the Bill will help to ensure that any such challenge will, quite rightly, be a non-starter.
An amendment to make the provision subject to a vote has the same possibility of a perverse outcome, with minority opinion resulting in the council being unable to exercise functions that it may already be exercising, as well as preventing it from taking part in activities that the majority wish to participate in. The Bill intentionally does not define what “prayer” or “observance” is, and the amendment that seeks to limit the time that the council may spend on an item of business—in this case, town hall prayers or an observance connected with religious or philosophical belief—to three minutes, is indeed odd. I presume it is to ensure that town hall prayers do not take up too much valuable time, but I question whether it is necessary. Protracted sermons may be a stock feature of some comedy novels featuring the clergy, but I question whether such an issue would arise in the council chamber, especially as that chamber is open to the scrutiny of the public who can film, tweet, blog or otherwise report the goings on of the local authority. We should trust local authorities and councillors to serve the interests of the public to whom they are accountable, without the need for a steer on how long they should take over this or that item of business.
Continuing the theme of scrutiny, trust and accountability, I am concerned about the amendment that would make any local authority decision in the Bill first subject to a local referendum. That seems unnecessary gold plating, and an unnecessary expense for the taxpayer. There are also technical issues to be considered, such as how the referendums would work with those local authorities exercising the general power of competence. The Bill is to enable smaller parish and town councils, and other local authorities such as single-purpose authorities, to hold town hall prayers as part of their business if they wish, but those local authorities are not mentioned in the amendments.
Amendment 12 is perhaps my greatest concern. The freedom not to hold town hall prayers is the choice of the local authority, and just as important as the freedom to hold them. Compelling a local authority to hold town hall prayers, or an observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief, is against the spirit of the Bill, and it would no longer be the gentle and inclusive measure that celebrates all faiths that is intended. I hope that the message is clear that we should trust our local councillors and the public with the measures in the Bill, and that the amendments will not be pressed.
I have several concerns about the group of amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), but they have been helpful in enabling us to discuss and further explore the extent of the Bill. I have a particular concern about the proposal to limit prayers to three minutes. We have talked about the parliamentary Prayers with which we start every day here in Parliament. I glanced over my shoulder this morning just as we finished our prayers to see that they lasted three minutes and 40 seconds, so parliamentary Prayers would offend the proposed three-minute limit. I do not think that in religious observance of any kind there is room for a stopwatch.
I can think of several church services I have been to recently where I might have wanted to take the egg timer with me. I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend in a moment. I look forward in particular to supporting his Bill, following the next private Members’ Bill ballot, to reintroduce a full mass before every sitting of the House.
I came to this place in 2010. I, and colleagues, have had the privilege often of being in this Chamber when huge events of national importance were about to take place and we were about to consider and debate them. I think particularly of the riots, where Parliament was recalled, and the parliamentary votes on whether to take military action in Libya and in Syria. On each occasion when I attended Prayers, they extended beyond three minutes. The Speaker’s Chaplain the Rev. Rose, who is a wonderful and inspirational preacher, extended the prayers to discuss—they are held in private, but if I may just lift the veil briefly—the matters being considered later that day. I am sure colleagues of faith and of no faith enjoyed the extended opportunity to consider the very difficult decisions we faced, and enjoyed the style and eloquence with which the Speaker’s Chaplain conducted proceedings. If the three-minute rule were introduced in local authorities, where they have similar difficult decisions to make on issues of local importance—opening schools, closing schools or cancelling bus services—they would be hampered by the time limit.
I am also concerned about why it should be necessary for a council to have a two-thirds majority to have prayers. If we were to have a two-thirds majority for prayers, why should that not be the case for everything else? I am sure local people would feel that lots of important issues of day-to-day relevance should be decided by a two-thirds majority—moving from weekly to fortnightly bin collections, for example. Such issues have more relevance and impact on people’s lives than council prayers. The decision on whether a council is able to pray should be made by a simple majority. I will be resisting the amendments and hope that they will not be pressed to a Division.
The proposal to hold a referendum every four years is unnecessary and overly bureaucratic. It should be for councils to decide locally, in their town hall, what goes on. Everyone who opposes the decisions they make already has a vote in a referendum every four years: they can sack all of their councillors. I have known some very lazy councillors in my time—I will not name them—and I would encourage people to sack them at local elections.
If people oppose what is done, either in Parliament or in the council chamber, they now have many ways to communicate it. They can contact their representatives on Facebook and Twitter. They have even been known occasionally to send Members of Parliament e-mails—several hundred a day. They do not need a referendum if they are unhappy with decisions; they can vote out councillors every four years and, in between, have many, many ways of making contact and corresponding with them. I am grateful for the amendments that have been tabled. They have improved the debate today, but I do not think they are necessary and I hope they will be resisted.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is also valuable in enabling us to discuss the Bill’s provisions and how they would affect local people. I am an advocate of and a believer in localism. I do not think it is for Whitehall to dictate to councils how they should conduct their business; the town hall should be free to do so. We should not seek to mandate from this place or even move towards mandating from this place how local authorities conduct their business, especially in such a sensitive area as religious belief. The Bill is, as has been stated repeatedly, about freedom and about empowering and entrusting that freedom to our local authority councillors, the vast majority of whom, if not all, are excellent individuals who have sharp and keen minds capable of making the decision locally about how to conduct their business.
Finally, I promised to return to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The idea of his private Member’s Bill for starting all proceedings in local authorities with a mass and incense might be an idea with legs, so I will watch with interest where he comes in the private Members’ ballot next year. I may be prepared to become a subscriber to his Bill, although I am not sure that I would support the abolition of the Church of England and the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church. There are, of course, Anglo-Catholics who are almost more Catholic than the Catholics in some of their tastes and traditions for their own Church, so this could be explored further on a future date.
With all those assurances, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will be willing to withdraw his amendment and that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will not press his.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I shall not detain the House for long. We have had a good debate today, and I have enjoyed it immensely. I am grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), the Minister and the shadow Minister.
Let me briefly put on the record my thanks to the Minister for her support of this Bill and my profound thanks to all the officials from her Department who have been excellent. Whenever I had a question to ask, they were happy to help and advise. They have been instrumental in ensuring the smooth passage of the Bill through the House. I thank the shadow Minister and Opposition Members for their support. It is clear that this Bill can unite parties and people across the House in support of providing freedom for people to pray.
It has been a great privilege for me to have the opportunity to bring forward a private Member’s Bill in an area that is of particular interest to me—religious freedom and faith. It is a great privilege to have this Bill now being read for the Third time. I have been contacted by churches and people of faith in my constituency, including imams and representatives from our local mosque. The Bill has not only been discussed here, but has been held in the prayers and religious observances of many people across Rossendale and Darwen. I am sure from the number of people who have written to me to wish us luck that many across our nation have been inspired by the Bill.
I said at the time of the money resolution that I believed—and I still believe—that there is more power in prayer than in the stroke of any Minister’s pen, than in the power of the Chair—and you were in the Chair at the time, Madam Deputy Speaker—or than in any Division of this House. I am extremely grateful to people all over the country, and more particularly in my constituency, who have held this Bill and its passage through Parliament in their prayers. I hope that they will continue to hold it in their prayers as it proceeds through the other place.
It is a privilege to rise again in support of this Bill. Let me express my thanks once again to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for taking it through the House with such confidence, style and aplomb.
Last week’s discussion in Committee indicated a breadth of support from all parts of the House, and I am pleased that the point was made—time and again—that this Bill fundamentally protects freedom of choice. I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on seeking to preserve the balance in the Bill, and I applaud the gentleness of the language. The word “may” as proposed in clause 1 is crucial. It is not for us to determine whether prayers should be included; it is our role simply to enable those decisions to be taken at a local level and based on individual local circumstances.
As I have said, I come from a multi-faith community—one that celebrates diversity of religion and culture. Our gurdwaras, our mosques, our temples and our churches of all types and denominations are full on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Having served as a local councillor, I know it was our tradition to have chaplains of all faiths exercising their role in the council chamber. Prayer was used as a means of bringing people together and highlighting the common ground that is found in many, if not all, faiths.
The Bill does not make prayers compulsory. It is simply about giving councils and public bodies the right to include prayers if they so wish. It is right that these decisions are taken locally, that they take into account the range of traditions, cultures and views of communities and that councils are sensitive in exercising their discretion. Should they decide to incorporate prayers or reflections of whatever tradition, councils will be able to take decisions about the detail of arrangements to ensure that they are inclusive and that no one is left feeling excluded or alienated. We must trust that our councils are best placed to make decisions that accurately reflect the needs and wishes of their own communities.
I welcome the Bill, which delivers the same degree of choice for a wide array of public bodies listed under clause 2. I think it is a clever way of emphasising that all public bodies, of whatever stripe, have a role to play in supporting communities and promoting community cohesion, as well as encouraging faith and non-faith groups to engage with those public bodies and contribute to that cohesion. I thought that was really well done.
I support the hon. Gentleman, too, in his efforts to ensure that all types of local authorities are entitled to make a decision of their own and to contribute in the same way as larger bodies. I am grateful for the clarification he brought to underline the opportunity for local authorities to contribute to religious events. He illustrated clearly in Committee, and again today, that the Bill will protect traditions that we take for granted at the moment.
At its heart, the Bill is about maintaining the right balance, providing choice without prescribing measures; enabling prayers to be included, while also making it clear that this is a localised decision to be based on local circumstances. I believe the hon. Gentleman has got the balance absolutely right, and I am happy to support the progress of his Bill.
I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill. As the House will be aware, the Bill received what I described in Committee as the equivalent of a bye in the first round of the FA cup in that there was no debate on Second Reading. There was a brief discussion about the Bill when the money resolution was passed. Apart from that and the Committee debate, today has been the first—and, indeed, the only—occasion on which the Bill has been discussed on the Floor of the House. Let me thank my parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for introducing the Bill.
From time to time, we are faced with situations brought about as a result of an unexpected turn of events in the courts. Judges sometimes reach decisions that throw into question the whole basis on which we have previously conducted our affairs in this country. In 2010, earlier in the present Parliament, there was a court case involving Bideford town council, a member of which, with the support of the National Secular Society, objected to the holding of prayers at the beginning of council meetings. Prayers were included on the agenda as the first item, before apologies for absence. Although the council member tabled motions to end the practice, they were rejected, so—again, with the help of the National Secular Society—he took the council to court, where it was argued that the council had no power to hold prayers as part of its formal business. Everyone in the land had always assumed that councils did have that power.
It is testimony to the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen that he has managed to pilot the Bill to its current stage, with the result that it is now crystal clear that councils have the power to hold prayers as part of their proceedings. It also clear that councils can take part in and facilitate religious events. That is particularly relevant to remembrance, and specifically, in my own local authority in Bury, to the marking of Gallipoli day.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point about councils needing to be represented at remembrance events, but, speaking as one who does not have a belief in God, I wonder whether those events need involve God. I think it is very important for us to commemorate, honour and respect veterans and those who have died fighting for their country, and I have no objection to this part of the Bill, because I think that councils need to be represented at such events, but I find it regrettable that those events must necessarily involve something in which many people do not believe.
No one is suggesting that those who have no faith should not be equally able to commemorate events of the past in their own way, but we have a long-standing tradition in this country of commemorating them by attending a religious service. Of course, there is no reason why those who have no faith whatsoever cannot organise a separate event with no religious content. However, I think that most authorities hold religious services. Bury council has a long tradition of commemorating Gallipoli day, marking it with a special Sunday on which it holds a civic service every year. The centenary of Gallipoli will be commemorated this year, not just in Bury but across the country.
For all those reasons, I am pleased to be able to support the Bill. I am sure that it will be given a Third Reading, and I wish it a speedy passage in the other place.
I do not wish to delay the House, but I think it is worth our reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. It is necessary because in 2012 the High Court ruled, on the basis on a narrow interpretation of the Local Government Act 1972, that councils had no statutory power to hold prayers as part of official business. The Bill will give councils that statutory power, and gives them freedom to pray.
As has already been made clear, the Bill does not compel anyone to pray; nor does it define what constitutes prayer, or what constitutes religion. It does not contain an exclusive list of religions or a definition of what constitutes prayer, because it gives bodies and individuals freedom to determine those matters for themselves. It takes a workable approach, giving local authorities freedom to include in their business time for prayers or other religious observance, or observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief. It also enables them to support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element.
Throughout the Bill’s passage so far, I have had in mind an event in my constituency: our Remembrance day service in Portsmouth, which, as would be expected in Portsmouth, is a pretty spectacular event. Representatives of all the main faiths in the city give readings and say prayers, which are interspersed with secular poems and hymns. It is an amazing event, which gathers huge crowds. I think that it is much stronger for the participation of all the city’s faith groups, and I say that as one who did not swear on the Holy Book when I affirmed my allegiance to Her Majesty and took my seat, but made a secular affirmation. I recognise the important role that religion plays in civic life, and I think that my local branch of the Royal Navy chaplaincy would have been very concerned to hear the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot).
Faith can be a unifying force for good. Faith organisations are intertwined with our communities. Councils, and councillors, should be free to allow faith to play a part in their business should they wish it to do so. The Government support the Bill because it gives authorities freedom to pray if they wish. The choice will be a local one. It will be for councils, and for the public who elect their councillors, to decide whether meetings will begin with a prayer, a reflection, or neither. It will be for councils to determine the content of prayers, which may, for instance, reflect the faith composition of their local areas. We consider that the Bill performs a valuable function. It is right for an authority that makes the decision to say prayers as part of its formal business to be able to do so. We should trust local people to decide.
I commend this straightforward, sensible and proportionate Bill to the House, and I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry).
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Control of Horses Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Powers of local authorities in England to detain horses
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, page 2, line 35, in clause 2, leave out
“to whom the horse belongs”
“both to whom the horse belongs and an address within the United Kingdom at which proper service as defined under this section may be made”.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 36, in clause 2, at end insert—
‘( ) For the purposes of this section proper service of a notice may be made by posting by first class post to the address of the person to whom the horse belongs a written notice—
(a) stating that the horse has been seized and the date and time at which it was seized; and
(b) giving details of how contact can be made with the person detaining the horse.”
It is strange that I should have views on both this Bill and the one that preceded it. I entirely support this Bill, which does something necessary and helpful.
Amendment 1 clarifies the definition of “horse” in clause 1. I just suggest that it should, as the Welsh equivalent Bill does, make it clear that the word “horse” includes ponies and jennets.
I am not trying to be clever or unhelpful, but I do think that the normal definition of a horse would include anything that was of the same species as a horse—that is to say equus ferus caballus—which ponies and jennets are. Donkeys are separately identified because they are not the same species. They are equines, but they are equus africanus asinus, if I remember correctly, and therefore they have to be defined separately, but—
Please forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not been in the House for very long, as you know, and that is a mistake that incomers make. I do apologise. I also sound like I am lecturing the right hon. Gentleman, but I am not trying to; I am simply saying that I think his amendment is otiose.
As it happens, until a couple of years ago we had, in the meadow next to our house, a pony—that sadly died at the age of 35, which I think is going it some, frankly. It was as a result of the knowledge of our own pony, who was called Porky, that I moved this amendment. If this amendment is unnecessary and we do not need to describe what a horse is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) suggests, I will move on to my second and third amendments.
I think these two amendments are more important. I think they genuinely address what may be a problem with the Bill, but my hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt set me right on that when he comes to speak. I think the problem may be this: the detention of a horse under the provisions of this Bill could be continued beyond 24 hours if the person who detains the horse does not know to whom the horse belongs, provided he tells the police about it, but it could not be continued beyond 24 hours if the person who detains the horse does know to whom the horse belongs, but does not know how to get hold of him. These amendments are intended—despite my own, no doubt, cack-handed drafting—to deal with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome will no doubt tell us whether they achieve the clarity and helpfulness I intend to achieve, but that is the purpose behind them.
One can only speculate as to why the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) has brought forward this group of amendments. However, Opposition Members would not wish them—or amendment 4, which is to be debated later—to delay the passage of the Bill, so I will be brief.
Amendment 1 attempts to clarify further the definition of what actually constitutes a horse, and I would encourage the Minister to put on the record later in the debate a full definition and whether, indeed, this covers a jennet or a pony. The term “jennet” is used to describe a Spanish jennet horse. It is, I understand, a fairly new breed registration dedicated to an attempt to recreate the coloured variety of gaited horses that resembles the historical jennet or “Spanish jennet.” It would seem obvious, therefore, that the term “horse” as already used in the Bill would cover a jennet, but I await the Minister’s response.
The term “pony” is used to describe a small equus which, depending on context, can be a horse that is under an approximate or exact height at the withers—usually 14.2 hands, if memory serves, with the hand being 4 inches in imperial measure—or alternatively is a small horse with a specific conformation and temperament. Again, the Minister may wish to elaborate.
Amendment 2 would require the detaining authority to inform the owner of the horse, if the identity of such a person is known, at an address within the UK. Amendment 3 allows for such notice to be given by way of a written communication, delivered by first-class post. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, however, the vast majority of horses it deals with do not have any identifiable owners. Clause 3 already states that when a horse has been detained the detaining authority should give notice of the detention to an officer in charge of a police station and, if known, the person to whom that horse belongs.
These amendments appear well intentioned, but they are potentially cumbersome. The right hon. Gentleman who has moved them has elaborated on their intention, but I am afraid has not, to my satisfaction, made a case strong enough to warrant Opposition support. Of course the guidance that emerges from this Bill may well detail good practice, which involves notice being given wherever possible at a specific address and, where it is warranted, this being given by way of first-class post. On that note, I await the Minister’s response.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) for tabling these amendments and asking some important questions about the Bill.
Amendment 1 seeks to add ponies and jennets to the definition of a horse covered by the Bill and, in turn, to the provisions on horses in the Animals Act 1971. It may be helpful quickly to explain how the provisions in the Control of Horses Bill amend the Animals Act 1971. The Bill carves out special arrangements in the 1971 Act for stray and fly-grazing horses and other equidae. Its leaves the measures in the 1971 Act as they apply to other livestock unchanged. The provisions cover a range of equidae. As well as horses, the Bill’s provisions apply to asses, mules and hinnies. These equidae need special mention because, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) pointed out, they are not horses. Each is a different species. Horses are of the equus ferus caballus, and ponies are of the same species, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. It might also be worth clarifying that the legal definition of a donkey is an ass, so they are also covered.
A pony is just a small horse and does not need to be specified, so they are already covered. Similarly, a jennet is a small breed of horse. Thus neither ponies nor jennets need to included in the definition of horse.
For completeness, I should say that I asked a number of questions about the definitions when scrutinising this Bill with officials, and I therefore point out that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, and a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey. That is made clear in the legislation.
I understand the reasoning behind amendments 2 and 3. My right hon. Friend just wants to make it clear that there is a proper process for contacting the owners of a horse, where this is known. Unfortunately, it is not always easy for a person or local authority detaining a horse to identify the owner and then serve them with a notice of detention. Many fly-grazed horses cannot be identified through microchipping, as required by law, and even when a horse can be properly identified, the person detaining it might not be able to access its identification data.
We considered these points and decided that the police should remain the central point of contact for reporting detained or missing horses, and that notice of detention should be registered with the police in any case, even when the person detaining the horse is able to notify the horse’s owner. Under the existing provisions in the Animals Act 1971, the police have systems in place for registering this kind of information, which is often shared with local authorities. Horse owners should therefore contact the police immediately if they are concerned that their horse might have been detained.
The Bill leaves it open to the person detaining a fly-grazing horse to contact the owner directly, if the owner is known to him, but I believe that it would be a backward step to prescribe what form such action should take, such as sending a letter by first-class post, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire suggests. The person might know which caravan the owner lived in, for example, and could go and knock on their door and talk to them. Alternatively, they might know the owner’s e-mail address. It would be wrong to be prescriptive in this regard.
I asked questions about this again when we were considering the Bill, and I want to reassure my right hon. Friend. Clause 3(2) of the Bill states:
“The right to detain the horse ceases at the end of the period of 24 hours”,
and goes on to say that the person detaining the horse must notify the police and the owner, if they know who that is. If the Bill had required notification of the police or the owner, but not both, he might have a stronger case for requiring more clarity. I believe that the requirement to notify both, and to contact the police in any event, will provide sufficient clarity. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), pointed out, we are keen to get the Bill through and it would be wrong to introduce measures that were inconsistent with the 1971 Act. I therefore hope that, in the light of these clarifications, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire will be able to withdraw his amendment.
It is a pleasure to speak briefly to amendments 1, 2 and 3, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I must also put on record my thanks for his support for the Bill. On amendment 1, the Minister has already set out how a horse is defined for the purposes of the Bill. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), has set out his position on that as well, and I do not need to say more on that.
I should like to speak briefly to amendments 2 and 3. I completely understand the very sensible intentions behind the amendments, but I believe that the police must remain the central point of contact, as the Minister has said. It is also clear that there has to be flexibility in these circumstances. First-class post might be the most appropriate way of notifying an owner in certain circumstances, but it is essential to have flexibility on that decision, and not to specify in statute exactly what should be done. The Minister talked about the time involved, and using first-class post might delay the notification so that it did not arrive within the required four clear days.
I fear that the introduction of detailed specifications of how notifications should be served could unnecessarily delay what should be an immediate process relating to animal welfare. Such delay must be avoided in the interests of all parties involved, not least the fly-grazed horses, in the light of the welfare issues involved. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will not press his amendment to a vote.
I am not entirely convinced that we have dealt fully with the circumstances in which someone might know the owner but not know how to get hold of him. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) will consider this point further when the Bill goes to another place, but in the circumstances, and given the gracious way in which he has dealt with the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Commencement, extent and short title
I beg to move amendment 4, page 4, line 20, leave out “and Wales”.
I have tabled this amendment because I am puzzled. In 2014, the Welsh Assembly passed the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014 to deal with this issue. As this is now a devolved matter, there is no reason why it should not have done so; indeed, there is every reason why it should. Clause 1(1) of this Bill states that
“a local authority in England may detain a horse”,
and the entire Bill seems to apply to England until we get to clause 5(2), which states:
“This Act extends to England and Wales.”
That leaves me wondering what on earth Wales is meant to do with the legislation, and how it can extend to England and Wales. I therefore suggest that we leave out “and Wales”.
I rise again to speak briefly to this amendment. It is not unusual for Bills passing through this place to include Wales in their jurisdiction. My understanding is that Wales is included in the Bill for technical reasons. The Animals Act 1971, which the Bill amends, extends to both countries, and any Bill that amends that Act needs to apply its provisions to both countries. However, because the Welsh Assembly has legislated for fly-grazing separately in the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, the provisions of this Bill will in effect apply only to England. The 1971 Act does not apply to either Scotland or Northern Ireland, so they do not need to be included in the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister reassured the House that the provisions in the Bill will apply in effect only to England. If that is the case, we would not wish to support the amendment.
Amendment 4 seeks to limit the extent of the Bill to England only, and not to England and Wales as currently drafted. I realise that it might be confusing to have a Bill that extends to both England and Wales but has provisions that apply only to England, but I can reassure hon. Members that this is not a mistake. The Bill extends to England and Wales for legal reasons. As the shadow Minister pointed out, the Bill amends the Animals Act 1971, which extends to England and Wales. Because the 1971 Act extends to England and Wales, any Bill that amends it must also apply to England and Wales.
I shall give the shadow Minister the reassurance that he seeks. Although the Bill extends to England and Wales, none of the provisions will apply in Wales. Furthermore, none of the amendments that are made to the Animals Act will apply to Wales. I should also point out that we took soundings from the Welsh Government when considering these matters, to ascertain whether they wanted Wales to come under the scope of this Bill, but the feedback that we received was that because they had introduced their own legislation in this area, they did not want to confuse matters further by extending these provisions to cover Wales. That is why the Bill explicitly excludes Wales. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) will not press his amendments to a vote.
Again, it is a privilege to speak to amendment 4. As the Minister rightly says, the Bill extends to England and Wales, not because of a mistake but for legal reasons. Although it extends to England and Wales, none of its provisions will apply to Wales. An important reason for that is what the Welsh Government put in place in 2014 and I pay tribute in this House to the Welsh Government for acting and introducing what became the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. One reason I introduced my Bill was to follow on from that to make sure that this is covered in England, too.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
It is huge privilege to speak on Third Reading. First, I must draw the House’s attention to my declarations in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As hon. Members will be aware, my background is in farming, and it is from a deep affinity for the land and countryside that my interest in this Bill first arose. Thankfully, I have not suffered from the devastating effects of fly-grazing personally, but I have witnessed at first hand the problem it causes farmers, the unfortunate horses themselves and unwitting motorists in my constituency.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting his Bill through to this stage and, indeed, on introducing it? He is a great champion of his constituents, but I can assure him that on this issue not only they but many of my constituents will be grateful. This is a Bill and we are all grateful to him for the way he has steered it through.
I very much thank my hon. Friend for those kind words. I know only too well that not only in his constituency but across our great county of Yorkshire we have areas that suffer greatly from fly-grazing horses and the problems that go with that. The issue does not just affect our great county of Yorkshire—it goes right across the country. Other hon. Members in the Chamber have issues to deal with in their constituencies and counties. That came across loud and clear in Committee, when a lot of hon. Members raised valuable concerns and gave examples of the impact that fly-grazing had had on their constituents and in their area.
I wish to thank all those who have contributed their time and energy to getting this Bill to Third Reading. After some disagreement last year with those who manage the time in this House and seek to control this place—such disagreements can be fatal to such proceedings—few thought this Bill would ever see the light of day, let alone make it to Third Reading, so I must also thank all those who have helped to remove the obstacles to this Bill. I especially wish to thank the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its support from day one, when I was drawn in the ballot. I am also especially grateful to a large variety of animal welfare charities, including World Horse Welfare, the British Horse Society, HorseWorld, Redwings and Blue Cross. I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that such animal welfare charities set an example to us all in their tireless work to improve the lives of those who have no voice of their own.
My Bill is somewhat unusual as it is also supported by a large variety of rural and countryside organisations, which do not always see eye to eye on some issues with the animal welfare charities I just mentioned. I am also grateful for the support of the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance. All these organisations have worked together on an animal welfare issue that unites them. It is an important issue, which is why I was delighted to introduce my Bill—indeed, it is so important that it unites organisations that are apart on certain issues.
I also wish to thank the original supporters of the Bill, without whose earlier, much-needed support it would never have been possible. I am also grateful to Members from both sides of the House who served in Committee last week, in addition to the Bill’s sponsors. The cross-party support the Bill has received is a fantastic example of how, even in the run-up to what some might say is the most important general election for a decade, those on both sides of this House can look beyond party boundaries and work together in the interests of the common good. I wish to thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for her work. We have enjoyed numerous meetings together to discuss the contents of the Bill. As I said in Committee, I know at first hand of her commitment to the Bill and to animal welfare more broadly. She could not be here today as she had hoped to be, but I wish to thank the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) for attending in her place.
I am also exceptionally grateful for the steadfast support I have received from the Public Bill Office and the Clerks there, to whom I remain greatly indebted, particularly with regard to some of the House’s more detailed procedures. I recommend to anyone wishing to obtain a deeper understanding of the parliamentary process that they undertake a private Member’s Bill—it has certainly been an illuminating education for me. Many Members in the Chamber today already know all about that, because they participate in many Friday sittings and have participated in many private Members’ Bills.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wish to thank this Minister and Lord de Mauley, and their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials. I have had the privilege of working closely with them, receiving their full support. That has been transformative for the Bill’s prospects, and I am grateful for all their hard work in this process.
Animal welfare forms the backbone of the Bill, which, in its amended form, will go a long way towards improving the existing legislation on fly-grazing. Our ability to protect horses from a life of neglect on both private and public land will be greatly enhanced. From my numerous meetings with animal welfare charities it has been clear that the existing laws are having a negative impact on everyone, apart from those who seek to abuse animals. Clearly, we need to tackle fly-grazing consistently across the whole of England, on both public and private land, and that is the Bill’s aim. If we do not do that, this mobile problem will continue to move from farm to farm, and from council to council, with no respite in sight for the horses involved.
The problems that animal welfare charities are having to cope with are all too clear. It has been widely reported in the local media that parts of the country are under siege from thousands of fly-grazed horses and their irresponsible owners. That presents a danger to not only the horses, but, sadly, the wider public. In Committee, hon. Members recounted vividly some shocking examples of how abandoned horses have particularly affected their constituencies and constituents. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned in Committee, a horse escaped on to the M25 last week, resulting in the motorway having to be closed for more than an hour. That caused commuters horrendous disruption, but, luckily, a serious accident was averted. However, the horses themselves have not always been so lucky. The RSPCA reported last week that at least five horses being fly-grazed in a field near Leighton Buzzard had all died from contracting the small redworm parasite. The horses were reported to be underfed and severely unkempt. They had not received the proper care and attention they deserved and needed. If they had received such attention, they would have still been alive today.
Furthermore, towards the end of November, the British Transport police reported that 12 horses had been killed near Cambridge. The animals were struck near the Fen road level crossing in Milton by two trains travelling in opposite directions. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was devastated to learn of the horrible tragedy. Four seasoned inspectors attended the scene and said that it was one of the worst things they had ever seen and that they would never forget it. Emergency services, including firefighters, police, paramedics and air ambulance crews attended the collision, which blocked the track in both directions and caused major travel disruptions. A number of minor injuries were sustained, but, thankfully, no passengers were seriously injured.
Unfortunately, fly-grazing has caused a number of problems in my own constituency. Just before Christmas, a dozen horses on council-owned land near Osbaldwick had to be seized by the local authority due to welfare concerns. In September, an accident on the A64 between York and Scarborough involved two abandoned horses and a cement mixer. One horse died immediately, and a second had to be put down soon afterwards. It is my understanding that the owner of the horses has yet to come forward to claim responsibility for the appalling lack of care.
Last November, three abandoned ponies in an extremely poor condition of health were rescued by officers. They were categorised as emaciated by the attending vet. Although the RSPCA was advised on the identity of the owner, it was unable to prove ownership, so the case did not proceed to court. Thankfully, the ponies in question have been safely rehomed.
A further case from my postbag involved a horse being hit by passing traffic on the A1079 from York to Hull. When the owner learned of the accident, he did not come to the horse’s aid, but callously decided to leave the animal in a terrible state and in pain in a nearby field without any veterinary attention.
Such examples clearly make the case for why we need the Bill to be on the statute book as soon as practically possible, so that such abuse can be swiftly dealt with. Indeed, the Bill does not only seek to remedy the current weaknesses of the law, but has at stake a wider point of principle. As I said on Second Reading, no one should be above the law. There are those who attempt to frustrate the laws by which everyone else lives. Abandoning a horse to a life of neglect has no place in civil society and we should not turn a blind eye while people’s land is seized without their permission purely so an owner can avoid the responsibility of caring for their own horse.
It is impossible to know how many horses have been abandoned across the country, but animal charities estimate that at least 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone. The problem is acute and expensive for landowners, local authorities, enforcement agencies, welfare charities and, ultimately, taxpayers. The lack of care the horses receive and the intentions of their irresponsible owners are threatening the livelihoods of farmers and landowners, creating significant horse welfare problems, depriving people of the use of public spaces and risking the lives of motorists. The current lack of clarity in the legal process to deal with the problems is only making matters worse.
The current lack of clarity in the legal process only makes matters worse. It has also been pointed out that intimidation and violence are commonly used against charity workers and good Samaritans who try to hold to account the irresponsible owners. Those who have suffered from fly-grazing are all too often powerless to remove horses from their land. Although several pieces of relevant legislation exist, none provides a definitive answer to the growing problem and all contain loopholes. A major stumbling block is the requirement to identify the owner of any horse being fly-grazed unlawfully. However, more than 70% of abandoned horses are not identifiable, which demonstrates the physical scale of the problem.
The main mechanism for dealing with fly-grazing has been the Animals Act 1971. Under the Act, after 14 days landowners may detain horses that stray on to their land and sell them at auction. The legislation was drawn up at a time when animals fetched a good price and not so many horses were being fly-grazed. The Act 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, which is affecting not only my constituency—the great county of Yorkshire—but areas right across the country. For example, the Act 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 altogether.
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 micro-chipped by the person or the local authority responsible for the horse’s initial detention. Thus, the irresponsible horse owner who engages in fly-grazing at the expense of others receives the windfall of a fully vetted and legally compliant horse at little cost. The current law, therefore, has the effect of allowing the abusers of animals to benefit from their actions, leaving local authorities, farmers and taxpayers to pick up the bill.
Welfare charities have argued passionately for a mechanism whereby the horse being fly-grazed can either be rehomed or, in some circumstances, humanely destroyed. Sadly, World Horse Welfare says that rehoming centres are full of unwanted horses. It is therefore essential that the cycle of fly-grazing is brought to an end, before the number of unwanted horses grows out of control.
The loopholes in the current law must be closed, and this Bill will make several small but significant amendments to the 1971 Act in order to make it easier to tackle fly-grazing head on. The Bill gives local authorities and, since it was amended in Committee, landowners and occupiers in England the power to detain a horse on their land when they have a 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 deliberately placed there by irresponsible owners. The measure is similar to the powers available to local authorities in Wales under the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, from which I received my inspiration for the Bill. After detaining a horse, the local authority or person must inform the local police within 24 hours of its right to detain the horse, as well as informing the horse owner if their identity is known. Once the police have been informed, the horse may be detained for a total of four working days from when it was first detained.
If after that time, the horse has not been claimed, the horse may be disposed of by selling it, arranging for it to be humanely destroyed or by gifting it to an animal welfare sanctuary. 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 have previously explained, it is essential that the Bill applies not just to public land but to private land and I am delighted that it has since been amended to include all land in England. It would be ridiculous for private land to become the unintended refuge for suffering and abandoned horses with landowners ill-equipped to alleviate the animals’ suffering.
It has been made clear that fly-grazing affects a great number of people in many ways and Members have given vivid examples on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report of how it affects their constituents and constituencies. In almost every case, an innocent, law-abiding person is either endangered or taken advantage of. It is my sincere hope that this will be the last winter in which abandoned horses are left outside in the cold without the protection of local authorities and private landowners acting in the animal’s best interest. I believe that the Bill will go a long way towards tackling the scourge of fly-grazing and I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Bill and warmly congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who has achieved two things that I have been unable to achieve. First, as a private Member he has steered a Bill to this stage in proceedings, something I have never achieved in 18 years in this House. If the Bill passes through the other place, he will also, as a private Member, have put in place legislation on antisocial behaviour which it is an open secret I would have liked to implement when I was a Home Office Minister. This is a signal victory for common sense in dealing with an issue that is a real problem in many of our constituencies.
I first came across the difficulty some years ago when a constituent came to see me in my advice surgery. She was in despair because she had horses on her land and there was absolutely nothing she could do to remove them—she had looked into it. She felt that the law was simply inadequate to meet her needs. Subsequently, I heard of many cases, particularly in the Frome area of my constituency and the parish of Selwood. I had a very valuable meeting with Selwood parish council, the members of which were very exercised by the issue. Anecdotally, I understand that one gentleman in my area owns up to 80 horses but no land. They are all grazed on other people’s land, and that is theft; it is antisocial behaviour, irresponsible and a dereliction of the duty of care for those horses. I think that the Bill will go some way towards rectifying the situation.
Of course, this is not just about rural areas, as the hon. Member for York Outer correctly says. It applies across the entire country and in some areas it seems to be a particular scourge. I remember having a very valuable meeting with the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who described the difficulties in his area and his feeling that something along the lines of this Bill would be helpful.
The hon. Member for York Outer has done a great service to many landowners around the country in introducing this legislation. Does it do everything that is required? No, of course it does not. It makes a contribution and certainly improves the situation in legislation, but there is still a significant issue that I have never found a way of successfully addressing: the question of strict liability on the part of the landowner for animals on their land. It seems completely wrong to me to have insult added to injury by not only having a horse one does not want on one’s land but being responsible for any actions of that horse and for its welfare. For somebody who does not want the animal, that is a preposterous position to be in, but that is perhaps for another day.
I hope, assuming that local authorities and police take it seriously and use the provisions within it, that the Bill will make it easier to secure the early removal of horses that are illegally grazing on land that is not in the ownership or possession of the owner of the horse. It will make it easier for horses to be removed even where it is difficult to know exactly who owns them, which is part of the problem. Such horses are often not chipped, so it is difficult to establish ownership, and that is one way in which people deliberately evade their responsibility.
The Bill is warmly to be welcomed and I hope that it will have a swift passage in the other place. If that is the case, as one hopes that it will be, the hon. Member for York Outer will have done a great service to many people around the country who are looking to this House to address what they see as a significant issue. He has done that, so well done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on his success in the ballot—I think he came eighth, and he has done better than some who came higher up in piloting his Bill through to Third Reading. I thank him on behalf of my constituents on the western side of the Pennines; I thank him from Lancashire, as he represents a Yorkshire constituency. I recall one case in which a constituent found it necessary to complain and bring to my attention an apparently abandoned horse. The Bill will benefit not only horses but landowners.
Had the Bill not been amended in Committee, I would have found it more difficult to support. It could have led to a ridiculous situation in which private landowners found the problem increasing rather than decreasing, as it would have had the unintended consequence of making those who wanted to fly-graze or abandon their horse to do so on private rather than public land. The Bill would not have stopped them, so I am pleased that that quite obvious loophole was closed in Committee. I hope that the Bill will receive a fair wind in the other place and that there will be sufficient time for it to find its way on to the statute book before the Dissolution of Parliament.
I, too, heartily congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). This is an important Bill for many people in this country concerning a matter that needed to be tackled and required attention. The serious issue of horses illegally grazing has vexed many individuals and organisations for a long time and has been getting worse year by year. I hope that the passage of this Bill will ensure that those problems are brought to an end for many people.
Recently, the RSPCA, the Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings produced a damning report that has informed much of the thinking on this Bill. That report, “Left on the verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales” catalogued appalling neglect and animal welfare abuses all over the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Although it is important to stress that there are many good horse and pony owners who behave responsibly, a minority do not care about animal welfare and frequently put the welfare of their horses and ponies at risk by dumping them on other people’s land, allowing damage and other dangers to occur as a result of their irresponsible actions.
There is no doubt that irresponsible breeding and a significant drop in the value of horses has provided an inauspicious context to the development of the fly-grazing problem. The issue is also not helped by the complexity of outdated legislation, which allowed unscrupulous owners to dance around the authorities and enforcement agencies, often at great expense to taxpayers.
The problem is also expensive; the RSPCA alone spends in the region of £2.95 million a year on horses that it has taken into care. That figure excludes the veterinary costs. Many of the animals illegally fly-grazed are still not cared for and often in very poor health. The Opposition are convinced that it is vital that the issue be dealt with—not just to help communities plagued by the problem, but because we need to tackle the welfare issues arising from the illegal activity, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
As an Opposition, we have for some time been calling on the Government to act on this issue and we are pleased that the Bill is making progress through its legislative stages. We also welcome the Government’s U-turn on the inclusion of private land; one can only speculate about why private land was not included from the start, but I acknowledge that the problem has been resolved and the Opposition are thankful for that.
We have been consistent in our approach to this legislation and have co-operated fully with the Government because we recognise its importance. We want the Bill to complete its Commons stages and progress to the other place—if it fails to reach the statute book, that will not be because we have stood in its way. However, if the Bill does fail, I assure the House that, if we form the next Government, we will be determined to introduce measures that ease the burden imposed on communities and local authorities by illegal fly-grazers. On that note, I shall conclude as I do not want to jeopardise the progress of this important Bill.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on getting his private Member’s Bill to this stage. I have been in the House for only five years, but I did have a private Member’s Bill in the first year of the Parliament. It was not successful, I am afraid; it did not even get its Second Reading, let alone progress to Committee, Report and Third Reading.
The Bill addresses a serious and growing problem. There is a charity called the Flicka Foundation in my constituency; it is a donkey sanctuary, which also looks after some ponies. Its representatives tell me that in recent years they have seen a huge increase in the number of abandoned donkeys and ponies that they are asked to re-home. Other equine charities say the same.
There are a number of key implications to the situation: the impact on the welfare of the ponies; the hazard on the roads—as my hon. Friend pointed out, accidents can be caused; and the huge burden on landowners unable to do anything about the abandoned ponies they have been left with. Sometimes, people game the system. People have abandoned their ponies on somebody’s land for up to 14 days and then, just before the order to seize the horse, they move it on to somebody else’s field and start the whole process again. As my hon. Friend said, there have even been instances of people abandoning their horses without a microchip and buying them back at auction after the landowner has been required by law to have them microchipped.
The problem is serious. My hon. Friend has championed the issue for many years; his first parliamentary debate on the matter was in 2012. A number of other hon. Members have also been consistent champions. The first time I debated the issue was in Westminster Hall in November 2013, a debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I have received a great deal of correspondence from concerned colleagues on this issue.
Throughout the debate, there has been a suggestion that we should adopt an approach similar to that implemented in Wales in 2014. It is worth pointing out that there has always been a range of other legislative tools in the box. I will reflect on those, as I highlighted them in earlier debates. First, there is the Animals Act 1971, which this Bill seeks to amend. There is also the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Highways Act 1980, which deals with stray livestock. The new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 could also be used in this area.
All that said, as the debate progressed, particularly after the 2013 Westminster Hall debate, we conceded that a number of important things had changed. First, the requirement to microchip horses had increased the costs and burdens on landowners who took remedial action when horses were abandoned on their land. Secondly, the original legislation restricted disposal methods to sale at auction. When the law was originally put in place in 1971, people could expect abandoned ponies to fetch reasonable prices at auction. That is not the case now. As the shadow Minister pointed out, there has been a period of irresponsible breeding of cob ponies, which have very little value so landowners are unable to recover their costs in auctions. We recognised that two important things had changed since the 1971 Act and that there was a gap that we should seek to address, borrowing elements from the approach adopted in Wales.
The Bill creates new options for disposal, including the ability to gift abandoned ponies and horses to charities; that is not possible under the existing legislation—first, they have to go through an auction process. For the worst cases, the Bill creates the possibility for euthanasia. Nobody wants that to happen, but welfare charities would point out that having a large number of ponies abandoned on verges and starving is not good from a welfare point of view. Sometimes in those cases, euthanasia can be the right approach.
The second and most important feature of the Bill is that it condenses the time scale of the detention period from 14 days to four working days. It also reduces the notice period from three days to 24 hours. When withdrawing his amendments, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said that he hoped I would give further thought to his points, which he did not feel had been adequately covered. I owe it to him to have another go at persuading him that we do not need to change things as he suggested.
We think four working days a reasonable period for detention, and sufficient to enable people to report the situation to the police, because the animal welfare codes for looking after horses are clear: people should attend to their horses—checking that they are okay—at least once a day. If somebody has not reported a missing horse to the police within four days, that is a pretty good indicator that that horse is not being cared for correctly. In normal circumstances, we would expect somebody to realise within 24 hours that their pony had gone missing—escaped out of a field or jumped the hedge. They would then immediately report that to the police. Having a notice period of 24 hours and a detention period of four working days provides ample time for the situation to be picked up and for legitimate owners who have legitimately lost their horses to be protected.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but if he thinks it is sufficient to give notice to the police, the Government ought to consider dropping the point that if the person detaining the horse knows the person to whom the horse belongs, notice should be given to that person as well. If notifying the police is sufficient, that subsection should be dropped.
We put the subsection there as an additional mechanism. I do not see a reason not to have it. If the person detaining the horse feels they know the owner, they can tell them directly and quickly, but that does not remove the requirement for them to tell the police in any event. The starting point is that if they decide to detain a horse, in any event they must notify the police. If they happen to know the owner of the horse, it is reasonable to put on them a due diligence requirement to notify the owner at the same time.
In Committee we broadened the scope of the Bill so that it covered detention of horses not just on public land, but on private land. As the hon. Member for York Outer pointed out, that is important. If the scope had been limited to public land, as is the case in Wales, there is a danger that the problem would merely be displaced to private land. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly. The Animals Act 1971 deals with both public and private land and we concluded that it was essential that the Bill should be consistent with that Act and cover private land as well.
In conclusion, I am very pleased that my hon. Friend’s Bill has reached this stage. The Government fully support it and hope that we can get it through in this Session, before the break-up of Parliament, reassured that we have full support from the Opposition Benches and cross-party support. I wish the Bill a fair wind as it goes through proceedings in the other place.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Control of Offshore Wind Turbines Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the first opportunity I have had in my time in this place to introduce a balloted Bill as a private Member’s Bill. I was lucky enough to come 17th in the ballot and I took a punt on whether it was likely to find time to debate the issue if I put my Bill forward for this day. I am delighted that the stars have been so aligned that I have the opportunity to speak at greater length on the subject than I was able to do last year, when a similar Bill called the Control of Offshore Wind Turbines Bill 2013-14 had its Second Reading debate on 17 January. Unfortunately, on that occasion the debate started at 2.25 pm and lasted for only five minutes, although even during that short debate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), the present Secretary of State for Defence, who was then the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, was able to say that he could not support the Bill.
In the hope that I will be able to persuade the Government of the merits of my Bill, I have expanded its scope slightly for this Session. I also have some heavyweight supporters—my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), and for South Dorset (Richard Drax), the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), for Poole (Mr Syms) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans)—a formidable collection. I am delighted to see my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) in the Chamber today.
I am not sure that it would be destroyed by the Bill. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we had a debate about that in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago, and I heard then the case for north Wales. The point I put to him is that if that great development in north Wales is so good, why can it not be sustained without taxpayers’ subsidy?
The issue is not just the taxpayers’ subsidy. Clause 1(1) states:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected within fifteen miles of the coast of England and Wales”.
Clause 1(3) states:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed . . . if it would form part of a group of wind turbines which totals more than one hundred”.
In my constituency area we depend on a large amount of investment, which would be destroyed by both aspects of clause 1.
It is disappointing for me to hear that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) supports the Bill, which would be very damaging to East Yorkshire and my region, Hull. We have just attracted a £310 million joint investment from Siemens and Associated British Ports—an investment in my area which will transform the prospects for people in the city and the wider region. The Bill would clearly damage something that has not quite started yet.
I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but surely it is important that we should have an industrial policy which does not require indiscriminate taxpayer subsidy. What the hon. Gentleman describes is a situation where, because the Government are intent on the manic proposal to develop so many offshore wind farms, and because most of the technology is from overseas and almost all the profits from those wind farms go back overseas, the Government have decided that the only way they could try to mitigate the situation—and it is only a small amount of mitigation—would be by putting additional subsidies into supporting the manufacturing industry in places such as the hon. Gentleman’s area.
Clearly, the hon. Gentleman does not support his party’s manifesto, but that is a side issue. The issue for me is that in Hull, Siemens will manufacture wind turbines to be exported around the world. It is a fantastic opportunity for people to get into good quality employment in my area. It is terribly disappointing that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague who has a seat in the region is attacking that idea.
The hon. Gentleman says that the wind turbines are to be exported around the world. In fact, we are being used as a test bed for developing offshore wind activity at a time when many other countries are reining back on it. Ironically, Denmark, from where much of the technology emanated and where there are already many offshore wind farms, has decided that enough is enough and it is not going to build any more, because of the ludicrous waste of taxpayers’ money in subsidising them. Similarly, Germany has decided to rein back on offshore wind. We are on our own in this. The hon. Gentleman is suffering from a delusion if he thinks the development in his constituency will be on the back of an enormous global export business. The Government have decided that in order to make a presentational case, they will subsidise the manufacture of the turbines in the United Kingdom.
Has my hon. Friend noticed the remarkable situation in that it was not long ago that the Labour party claimed to be the champion of low energy bills, yet now Labour Members in the Chamber are arguing vociferously for a form of energy that does more to put up energy bills than anything else? Has my hon. Friend noticed the great contradiction in the points made by Opposition Members?
This Bill is about offshore wind turbines, and the subsidies going to those are twice as much as any subsidy going into the nuclear industry. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what was said in an article in The Economist on 4 January 2014:
“Unfortunately, offshore wind power is staggeringly expensive. Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University, describes it as ‘among the most expensive ways of marginally reducing carbon emissions known to man’. Under a subsidy system unveiled late in 2013, the government guarantees farms at sea £155…per megawatt hour for their juice. That is three times the current wholesale price of electricity and about 60% more than is promised to onshore turbines. It is also more than the £92.50 which Britain’s new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point will get—though that deal is for 35 years, not 15.”
That is the situation succinctly expressed, showing beyond doubt that the taxpayer subsidies going into offshore wind are obscene. The only people who support offshore wind are those whom I must describe as subsidy junkies.
My constituents already face the extension of an existing wind farm, Scout Moor. Can my hon. Friend assure them that this Bill would not increase the pressure to have more onshore wind turbines? That would be a cause of great concern for my constituents, who are of course completely landlocked.
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the ironies of the situation is that because of pressure from people such as my hon. Friend and members of the public concerned about onshore wind turbines, the Government reduced the subsidies for onshore wind turbines, but in so doing chose to increase the subsidies for offshore wind turbines. I am sure he will be pleased to know that one of our hon. Friends is to have a Bill on the Order Paper to remove subsidies from onshore wind turbines as well, and that will have my support in due course. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
On that buoyant note, let me go on to describe the provisions of this Bill. As is implicit in the fact that support for it is largely centred on Members of Parliament in the area around Christchurch bay and Poole bay, a developer is intent on constructing there a wind farm that would be the largest in the world and would have an enormous environmental impact on the local community. It is a joint venture between Eneco Wind UK Ltd and EDF Energy Renewables. The developer wants to construct and operate what it calls Navitus Bay wind park, which would be bigger than any other wind farm currently in operation and the first to be proposed adjacent to a vibrant leisure economy, adjoining a coast of outstanding natural beauty, and bordering a world heritage site. It would comprise up to 194 industrial-scale 200-metre-tall wind turbines; each one would be 15% taller than the Spinnaker tower. They would dominate Poole bay, occupying 153 sq km—an area similar in size to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole combined. At their nearest points, they would be 9.1 miles from Swanage, 10.9 miles from the Isle of Wight, and 13.3 miles from Bournemouth. The Government guidelines say that no wind turbine should be constructed offshore within a 12 nautical mile limit, and these proposals do not comply with that.
The wind farm is controversial and contentious. As evidence of that, the plans for the development have received almost 2,700 interested representations—the highest number for any proposed offshore wind farm that the Planning Inspectorate has handled. I have not been able to bring along the filing cabinet containing all the representations that I have received from outraged constituents, but I know that I am speaking not just for my constituents, but for those of my hon. Friends along the south coast, in expressing our concern and outrage at what is being planned.
Bournemouth borough council believes that the wind farm
“will cause serious harm to the intrinsic appeal and beauty of Poole Bay’s natural seascape. The industrialisation of our beautiful coastal setting will have an unprecedented and damaging effect on the local economy.”
Surveys carried out by the developer in 2012 and 2013 show that over 1 million visitors a year will stop coming to the area, taking more than £100 million of income from the local economy. As a result of taxpayer subsidy going into developments in Hull, the economy there may receive a temporary boost, but as a direct consequence, on the admission of the developer, there will be a loss of £100 million a year to the local economy, mainly the tourist economy, in the area that I have the privilege to represent. That loss of real spending in our area would negatively affect local businesses and potentially result in business failures, with an estimated loss of some 2,000 jobs. For that reason, the local councils have joined together to spend a lot of money on campaigning against this wind farm development.
I think it is a useful exercise to reinforce those concerns by introducing this Bill. Clause 1 covers the location and height of wind turbines. Subsection (1) says:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected within fifteen miles of the coast”.
That is a necessary minimum requirement that has particular regard to the Government’s guidelines.
Subsection (2) says:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected within twenty miles of the coast…to a height exceeding 100m as measured by the highest point of the turbine blade above sea level from the date of commencement of this Act.”
That means, in effect, that if there are going to be very tall wind turbines that will be more visible, they need to be situated further offshore than those that are not so tall. The article in The Economist referred to the situation in Edinburgh, where a wind turbine under construction was nudging 200 metres in height—and what a monstrosity it was. We are talking about not just one such turbine, but getting on for 200, off the coast of Dorset. Subsection (3) says:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected off shore if it would form part of a group of wind turbines which totals more than one hundred and no group of wind turbines shall be constructed or erected off shore within fifteen miles of any other such group.”
That is designed to reduce the visual and other impacts of such developments, and to stop them appearing like an industrial landscape out at sea.
We now come to a very sensitive matter. Subsection (4) states:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected offshore within twenty miles of any World Heritage site.”
I would have thought that that was a fundamental point and I am amazed and extremely disappointed that the Government have been so laid back in their response to UNESCO’s concerns about the impact of the Navitus Bay wind park on the world heritage site known as the Jurassic coast. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is supposed to be the guardian of the Jurassic coast. It is promoted as a great tourist centre and we are trying to attract visitors to admire the coast.
UNESCO says that the project’s potential impacts on the natural property of the Jurassic coast
“are in contradiction to the overarching principle of the World Heritage Convention as stipulated in its Article 4, as the completion of the Project would result in the property being presented and transmitted to future generations in a form that is significantly different from what was there at the time of inscription and until today. Specifically, the property will change from being located in a natural setting that is largely free from human-made structures to one where its setting is dominated by human-made structures.”
That is slightly flowery language, but what UNESCO is saying, in essence, is that putting 200 wind turbines so close the Jurassic coast would turn it from being a natural landscape into an industrial landscape. UNESCO wrote in its letter to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on 4 May 2014 that it wanted its comments to be taken into account in deciding whether the matter should even go to a public inquiry. Instead of responding to that request, DCMS Ministers simply shuffled off UNESCO’s representations to the public inquiry itself, which was a completely wrong-headed way of dealing with such major concerns.
There are a lot of examples around Europe and the rest of the world of UNESCO withdrawing world heritage status from sites that have been adversely affected by development. Only yesterday, a colleague from elsewhere in Europe drew my attention to the fact that, because of an insistence on building an unsightly bridge, part of the city of Dresden lost its world heritage status. We cannot be complacent. We need to look at the substance of the issue. Surely it does not make sense to build such monstrosities so close to a world heritage site, and that is what clause 1(4) covers. Subsection (5) sets out the way in which the
“distance between a wind turbine and the coast shall be measured”.
Clause 2 covers the operation of wind turbines and states:
“No wind turbine situated in or within five miles of an established area used by migrating birds shall be operated during the season for bird migration.”
This is a very big issue. Unlike perhaps the coast of north Wales, the coast of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is frequented by migrating birds. It is extraordinary that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has not been more active in campaigning against the development, because it could have an enormous adverse impact on the migrating bird population.
In the summer months, almost all of the 4,500 nightjars in this country are located in and around New Forest and the Dorset heathland. People cannot develop within 400 metres of the heathland because their dogs or cats might attack the habitat of nightjars, Dartford warblers and so on. We are at great pains to protect the habitat of the nightjar on the Dorset heathlands, but when those nightjars wish to migrate in August they will have to go through a mass of enormous wind turbines extending to 200 metres in height. As their name suggests, nightjars travel at night and the impact of the turbines on their migratory pattern will be immense.
One of the main reasons there has been a significant decline in the number of migrating birds coming into the United Kingdom—this has been witnessed by lots of bird watchers—is the impact of wind turbines, not just off our shore, but off the shores of other countries through which those birds migrate during spring or autumn.
Yes, the United States—the hon. Gentleman may not have heard of it. The material shows clearly the impact of wind farms on migrating birds. Obviously, given that these wind turbines are stuck out in the middle of the ocean, it is very difficult to show that so many birds have been killed by their rotating blades at night. We should, however, give the benefit of the doubt to the migrating birds, and one way of doing that would be to ensure that the wind turbines do not operate during the migrating season. That should not be a great burden, because whenever there is a patch of really cold weather, they do not operate anyway, so when we really need that energy and have high pressure, if there is no wind and the turbines do not rotate, they do not generate any electricity or make a contribution to the national grid. Clause 2, therefore, states that we should extend the non-operation of wind turbines to the period when birds migrate, rather than confine it to those times when there is no wind. If we were talking about just one or two wind turbines, it would be possible to argue that the birds can go round them, but we are talking about wind turbines that are close together and that each has a 200-metre wide reach—there is also vortex that they generate—and birds in their vicinity almost certain to fall foul of them and die as a result.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, certainly from the evidence I have seen, bird numbers as a whole are suffering as a result of pesticides and other pollutants? Many of them come from coal-fired power stations, of which, after getting rid of wind turbines, he would no doubt want to see more?
I am a great bird lover, and I do not want any decline in the bird population, but we are talking about particular species that migrate to the south of England after travelling hundreds of miles. We already have restricted numbers of them, and certain species of migrating birds will probably be in effect wiped out at a time when we are saying that we want to look after heathland habitats, which I support.
The hon. Gentleman is pursuing an interesting line of inquiry. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), may I ask what data the hon. Gentleman has about the impact of catastrophic climate change on migrating bird numbers and patterns?
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means by “catastrophic climate change”. The Chinese have said that they will continue to increase their carbon emissions until at least 2030. If we are trying to counter that by putting our migrating bird population into such jeopardy, we have a completely distorted sense of priorities.
The hon. Gentleman must know only too well that the Chinese have in fact said that their emissions will peak no later than 2030, with the expectation that they may well peak earlier. In relation to the carbon footprint of China, they are operating at a far lower per capita level than we are.
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am sure that that will be a great consolation to the bird population. We in our country are responsible for less than 2% of global emissions, and the idea that we have to invest—if that is the right use of the word—or put subsidies into the most uneconomic form of renewable energy seems to me to be absolutely senseless. We do not have to do that; we could invest more in nuclear power or other renewables that do not have such an adverse impact on migrating birds.
My hon. Friend is talking eloquently about the effect of wind turbines on the bird population. One thing missing from his Bill, which he may seek to correct at some point, is the impact of wind turbines on aviation, and particularly on radar. Is he aware of the aviation industry’s concerns?
I am aware of that, not least because Bournemouth international airport is in my constituency. One irony in relation to the developers’ proposals is that such issues have been left to bilateral discussions after the public inquiry, with people being told, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ll sort that out between ourselves and the airport after the inquiry.” Our hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), a private pilot, is concerned about the strong vortex that wind turbines can generate and its impact on those engaged in private recreational aviation. We know that if wind turbines are more than 100 metres high, they must be illuminated so that they can be seen from aircraft, which makes them look even more unsightly on the horizon. That is an issue, as the developers accept, but instead of being dealt with in a public inquiry, it is being kicked into touch to be dealt with later, which is thoroughly unsatisfactory.
Clause 3 covers the length, location and environmental impact of the connecting cables. One would have thought that the cables from an offshore wind farm would be connected to the national grid at the closest possible point on the shore, thereby minimising the need for disruption on land. In my representation 1713 to the Navitus Bay wind park inquiry, dated 19 June 2014, I referred to such an impact, among others:
“The off shore cables should be connected to the national grid at the closest point to the sea which is Fawley Power Station. This would avoid the need for twenty two miles of connecting cables over ground across sensitive habitats.”
Members of Hurn parish council, particularly Councillor Margaret Phipps, have produced a really compelling case against laying the cables across Hurn forest, which includes an area of special scientific interest. They are concerned that there is an unnecessary additional adverse impact on the environment just from the cabling. There is no reason why the developers should not link up to the national grid at Fawley power station if they so wish. The Bill would require them to do so, rather than to create further adverse environmental impacts with cables crossing the New Forest national park, areas of special scientific interest and special areas of conservation.
Under clause 3, rather than having cables in cut-and-cover connections or left on the surface, cables would be placed in a tunnel under the ground. The main pipelines from the on-land oil development at Wytch Farm in Dorset were put underground, which minimised the impact on nature and the environment. Clause 4 is about subsidies.
The Bill is not confined to the Navitus Bay wind park development, but it would ensure that such an obscenity could not be proposed again, with all the uncertainty and opposition that such developments generate among local people. Surely we are mad as a country to invest tens of millions of pounds in subsidising a development that will have an adverse impact on one world heritage site at the same time as we are quite rightly proposing to protect another, Stonehenge, by building an enormous tunnel nearby to reduce the impact on it. We are prepared to put subsidies into saving one world heritage site, while at the same time using taxpayer subsidies to wreck another. That seems mad to me, and I am sorry if it is Government policy—I fear that it is not so much Government policy as Liberal Democrat policy.
Last week I said that the Bills I was promoting were in a sense a contribution to the development of the Conservative party manifesto. If Ministers are not free to adopt the Bill today because of the constraints of coalition with the Liberal Democrats, I hope that they will be free to do so when we have a majority Conservative Government after 7 May.
I intended to participate in the debate on the next Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), but he has so enlivened the debate on this Bill that I feel it offers me an opportunity to put on the record the fact that his view is not universally shared among Members of the House. I take the view—as, I am sure, does my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds)—that offshore and onshore wind energy plays a valuable role in helping us meet our environmental targets in energy production. It is also key to the future of manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter on a number of occasions. He will know that my part of the world in north Wales is a significant contributor to the UK offshore wind economy. Over many years the former Labour Government, and indeed the current Government, were supportive of the development of offshore wind energy in my constituency and its adjacent areas. I recognise that the Bill is not retrospective, but it is important that we recognise the contribution made by the wind farm and energy industry in places such as north Wales in meeting our carbon commitments, and in stimulating and creating jobs and employment in an area such as mine, which was reliant on the coal industry but now has an alternative energy source that is second to none.
The hon. Gentleman’s list of supporters did not include anybody from north Wales, but Burbo Bank on the north Wales and Liverpool bay coast is a significant contributor to the industry, as is the Gwynt y Môr offshore wind farm and—I do not think you are related, Mr Deputy Speaker—the North Hoyle development off north Wales and Liverpool bay. All those developments are between four and eight miles off the north Wales, Wirral and Liverpool bay coast, and they would not have been approved if clause 1(1) of the Bill had been enacted. The Gwynt y Môr wind farm and other large developments would not have been permitted if clause 1(3) had been enacted, because that prevents the development of a group of wind turbines from numbering more than 100.
The Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of my constituency will comprise 160 turbines although it currently has around 80. In due course it will provide enough energy to meet the needs of 400,000 homes. That project is worth £2 billion. Let me say that again: £2 billion for that one wind farm project. I think that we could and should be—and indeed are—world leaders in offshore wind, and £2 billion for that one offshore site at Gwynt y Môr is valuable investment that helps generate the energy needed for 400,000 homes. Had the Bill been enacted, that development would not have been allowed to progress. There are many examples off the coast of East Anglia, Scotland, north-west England and north Wales where there is potential for further development. If this Bill is enacted, that will not happen.
In 2007 under the Labour Government, 27 nations in Europe agreed to a legally binding target of 20% of all energy to be supplied by renewable sources by 2020. How does the hon. Gentleman think that will be done if we put a stop to offshore wind?
Importantly, I considered a moment ago the knock-on effects of this Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said that Siemens has announced that it wants to build an onshore wind development of offshore blades in the great city of Hull, and that is investment in manufacturing industry. At the moment, the hon. Gentleman will know that much of the technology and hard core infrastructure is imported from Scandinavian countries and elsewhere in Europe, but we now have a manufacturing opportunity in the city of Hull—indeed, I am surprised that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) has sponsored the Bill.
In my constituency, Vestas is working out of Mostyn docks and providing support for new offshore turbines. It is manufacturing those turbines on the Isle of Wight—not un-adjacent to the area represented by the hon. Member for Christchurch. Is he saying that the manufacturing industry on the Isle of Wight should cease because of his ill-thought-out proposals for the future?
I do not wish to delay the House, but although the hon. Gentleman’s view is legitimate, it is not the sole view on this issue. There is real scope to develop offshore wind, and it contributes to our energy needs and supports manufacturing industry. It has also regenerated places such as Mostyn docks in my constituency, which would not exist in their current state were it not for the relationship between the offshore wind industry and employment onshore.
In my view the Bill should be withdrawn—let us not say rejected—and given greater thought. I hope the hon. Gentleman does that so that we can get on to the other matters that I originally intended to discuss.
I do not intend to delay the House for long, but I want to put on record my support for this Bill. I hope that all constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) have seen him in action today—I am sure they regularly watch the Parliament channel—and seen how effectively he represents their interests in Parliament. His speech, as ever, was a master class, and shows how lucky the people of Christchurch are to have him batting for them on this issue and many others.
Not many constituencies in the country are more landlocked than Shipley—that is one reason why I will not detain the House for long. We are about as far from the coast as one can get, so the problems that my hon. Friend describes are not ones that people in Shipley will easily recognise unless they have a particularly powerful pair of binoculars. We can sympathise, however, because we have the problem and blot on the landscape of onshore wind farms. It seems to me that if an onshore wind farm is a blot on the landscape locally, an offshore wind farm will equally be one for people who live on the coast. The two issues are connected.
Apart from representing the interests of his constituents, my hon. Friend has also shone a rather useful light on the muddled thinking of the Labour party. Two or three years ago Labour Members made big play at their party conference of the problem of energy prices—[Interruption.] I notice the deputy Chief Whip busily taking notes on the Front Bench, and I am not sure whether I will get another black mark in his book by saying this, but I think the Leader of the Opposition hit on a good point. Many of my constituents are very concerned about the price of energy. We very much welcome the reductions we have seen in recent weeks. They would not have happened if Labour party policy had been implemented, but that is by the by. The Leader of the Opposition was absolutely right to draw attention to, and shine a light on, the problem of energy prices.
It is, however, bizarre that the party that makes a big thing about how problematic energy prices are to their constituents then decides to pursue a policy that can lead to only one outcome—even higher energy prices—by trying to cover the countryside and offshore with as many wind farms as possible. We all know that wind energy is the most inefficient and most expensive form of energy, so why on earth would a party that is so bothered about energy prices want to add as much of that energy as possible when it will only to add to prices?
I am heartened to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s support for Labour’s price freeze, which I will pass on to the Leader of the Opposition. In all seriousness, does he not see the benefits of protecting his constituents from the volatility of fossil fuel prices? I am sure he is an avid follower of the work of the Energy and Climate Change Committee. It has modelled what it believes to be a lower bill scenario through a transition to a low-carbon economy and low-carbon generation.
On a point of clarity, I did not say at all that I support Labour party policy on freezing energy prices. I just made it clear that, if we had followed that policy, we would not have had any of the reductions in energy prices that we are seeing at the moment. I am for low energy prices: I want them frozen at a lower level. The Labour party wants to freeze them at a high rate, which seems to me to be a nonsensical policy.
I do not want to get sidetracked. The fact of the matter—the hon. Gentleman could not deny it in his intervention—is that his party’s policy will lead to higher energy prices by supporting a huge expansion of wind energy. My constituency is landlocked, but it will be my constituents, just as much as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who will be paying the price for extensive offshore wind farm developments. That is where my interest lies. I want my constituents to be able to have access to the cheapest energy. I do not want them to have access to the greenest energy, irrespective of the cost.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), speaking on behalf of the north Wales economy, rather led with his chin when he mentioned how wonderful offshore wind farms are for manufacturing industry. There is a lot of manufacturing industry in my constituency. I am delighted that, under this Government, manufacturing is thriving again, unlike under the previous Government, but the one thing manufacturing is most concerned about is high energy bills. The fact is that wind energy does not help manufacturing industry. All it does is make it even more uncompetitive against businesses in China and America, which benefit from much cheaper energy bills. The extension of wind energy that the right hon. Gentleman wants to see is not helping manufacturing industry in this country; it is the death knell for manufacturing industry in this country. That is why it is so important that we stop this ridiculous expansion of wind energy.
I have a concern about my hon. Friend’s Bill. I might add that if clause 4, on subsidies, was passed it would make the rest of the Bill redundant. If subsidies were taken away from the offshore wind industry, all the measures on planning would be redundant because nobody would want to start a wind farm offshore. Clause 4 is therefore by far the most important clause, because we want to stop the subsidies to stop the higher energy bills for our constituents.
If my hon. Friend’s Bill goes through, I would not want to see an extension of onshore wind, which is just as nonsensical and has a big impact on my constituency. I am very pleased that I helped to object to the latest wind farm development in Denholme in my constituency. Clause 1(4) states:
“No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected offshore within twenty miles of any World Heritage site.”
I just wondered whether my hon. Friend thought it would be far better if it said that “No wind turbine shall be constructed or erected within 20 miles of any world heritage site anywhere.” My constituency has a world heritage site, Saltaire, which is well worth a visit for anybody who has not been. It is a marvellous tourist attraction. It was set up by Sir Titus Salt, a great industrial philanthropist. If no wind turbines were allowed within 20 miles of any world heritage site, it would neatly make sure that there could not be any wind turbines in my constituency at all. That would go down very well with me and with my constituents. What I do not really understand is why my hon. Friend thinks there should be no wind turbines within 20 miles of his constituency’s world heritage site, but that there should be within 20 miles of my constituency’s world heritage site. I hope that that is an anomaly that can be corrected at some future point. I would not want to see, as an unintended consequence of the Bill, more onshore wind farms.
I am against expensive forms of energy that add unnecessarily to the bills of my constituents. The Labour party’s vocal support for wind energy is bizarre. It is, in effect, taking money off poor householders, through their energy bills, and giving it, through huge subsidies, as the party has made clear throughout, to massive corporations and landowners. I have no idea under which part of Labour party socialist thinking that kind of redistribution of wealth was ever envisaged. I always thought that the premise of socialism was to take money from rich people and give it to poor people. The Labour party has stumbled on a policy that is all about taking money from poor people and giving it to big multinational corporations—no wonder it is leaking votes to UKIP at a record rate with that kind of muddled thinking.
I support my hon. Friend’s Bill. My constituents in Shipley, although landlocked and therefore not facing the problems of offshore wind farms, can sympathise, given their own experience of onshore wind turbines, with the issues he has brought before the House today.
I will end where I started by saying I very much hope all of his constituents have seen his speech today, because they can be sure that they are incredibly well represented by him in Parliament.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for bringing forward the Bill, as it gives us the opportunity to discuss what I believe are the erroneous views on offshore wind energy that it seems are held by a significant number of Conservative MPs.
As I begin my remarks, I thought it might be useful to the House to place on record the contribution that wind energy is making as the debate takes place. I have the figures with me here. As we conduct the debate, wind energy is currently providing 8.5% of the UK’s energy generation mix. In the past 24 hours, it has provided just under 13% of the UK’s new domestic generation. As so much onshore wind is embedded in the regional networks, a substantial part of that will come from offshore wind generation.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has a consistent record on this area of policy. He was one of just five Members who voted against the UK’s world-leading Climate Change Act 2008. As a result, I am not sure that we will find many areas of agreement on the specifics of the Bill, but I give credit to the hon. Gentleman in one regard: his Bill is, at least, brief. In little more than one page, he seeks to annihilate the UK’s world-leading offshore industry in its entirety—an industry with approximately 5 GW of capacity in operation or construction, with a further 3.2 GW awarded under early contracts for difference. The industry directly employs nearly 7,000 people and many more in its supply chain. It is fantastic to see in the Chamber today representatives from east Hull and from Delyn who have been able to articulate the benefits that the industry brings to their areas.
The hon. Member for Christchurch is a strong supporter of nuclear power, as am I. Labour supports the construction of new nuclear power stations at Hinkley and elsewhere. Where the hon. Gentleman and, I am afraid, too many of his Conservative colleagues get it so badly wrong is that they do not appreciate or understand the need for an energy mix. That means new nuclear, carbon capture and storage technology and, fundamentally, renewables such as onshore and offshore wind as well as solar, wave and tidal. That is what we mean by a mix. We cannot meet our carbon reduction commitments or avert catastrophic climate change unless we follow the route to such a mix.
The Bill, if brought into law, would kill the UK’s offshore wind industry. That, on the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, is the Bill’s aim. As he has described, it would mandate that no offshore wind turbine could be situated within 15 miles of the shore or 20 miles for turbines exceeding 100 metres in height. For good measure, the fourth part of the Bill would strip offshore wind of any financial support, as is currently provided under the renewables obligation or contracts for difference. What does not come across from hon. Members who take this view is an appreciation that some form of subsidy is involved in nearly every form of new regeneration in the UK.
Opposition Members agree that, as with all clean energy technologies, the costs of offshore wind must continue to fall. The way to generate the clean energy we need at a price that consumers can afford is not by completely killing the offshore wind industry. It is by fostering innovation, economies of scale and crowding in investment.
Labour is committed to setting a 2030 power sector decarbonisation target—something that the industry has called for—in order to provide the long-term certainty that it needs. In that regard, the Bill is entirely contradictory. One of its clauses is, as we have heard, to limit the maximum height of wind turbines, yet the new generation of more efficient turbines coming on stream has been designed to maximise the energy yield in deeper waters. These turbines, such as the latest products from Vestas and Siemens, will certainly exceed the 100 metre height, with blades perhaps 75 to 80 metres long. These taller, more efficient turbines will help to drive down cost reduction, not to mention the benefit to the UK’s manufacturing investment. The Bill is pursuing two contradictory objectives in those two clauses.
I understand that the hon. Member for Christchurch was one of more than 100 Conservative MPs who wrote to the Prime Minister, demanding that the Government withdraw support for the UK’s onshore wind industry as well. In that regard, they were successful. The Conservatives have now proposed an effective moratorium for onshore wind, which is, of course, the cheapest large-scale form of renewable energy. Indeed, between June 2013 and September 2014, the Communities Secretary intervened in 50 onshore wind applications—projects that could have powered more than 250,000 homes.
Those Conservative Members thus appear to have been successful on that score. Clearly, the Conservative party does not like onshore wind. They also appear not to like solar power, which they have sought to suffocate through endless consultations. The Environment Secretary has managed to extract further cuts by insinuating that solar power was a threat to the security of our supply of apples! Now, almost inevitably, the Conservatives have turned their fire towards offshore wind. The Conservatives do not like onshore wind; they do not like solar; they do not like offshore wind. The question for us today, then, is whether there are any clean energy technologies that they do support.
Thankfully, the Conservatives’ irrational dislike of clean energy is not supported in public opinion. According to their very own figures, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has noted that 74% of people support offshore wind, two thirds support onshore wind and a whopping 80% support further solar development. The hostility to green energy runs counter not only to our energy security needs, but to public opinion.
One colleague who joined the hon. Member for Christchurch in the lonely No Lobby during the vote on the historic Climate Change Act 2008 was, of course, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who made a final, desperate point of order just before the House divided. Although the House was passing the Climate Change Bill that evening—based, he said, on the supposition that the climate was getting warmer—he pointed out that it was snowing outside, even though it was October.
This is not a debate about climate change, and nor would I wish unfairly to associate the words of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden with those of the Member for Christchurch, but I think we can all agree that climate is different from weather. If we cannot, there is very little point in discussing the intricacies of how far turbines should be from land or what the right strike price is for offshore wind, nuclear or anything else.
The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided overwhelming and compelling scientific evidence that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity and that it will have disastrous consequences if urgent action is not taken to cut our carbon emissions and invest in mitigation.
I am always willing to have a debate about offshore wind, about how we can get investment up and bring costs down. However, no debate centred on a Bill that would implement a de facto ban on offshore wind could, I think, be considered a serious one. Labour is focusing on how we can best navigate the energy trilemma that all economies face. Instead of a tax on clean energy, Labour is providing—through widely supported policies such as our 2030 power sector decarbonisation target—the certainty that is needed if we are to attract investment and bring costs down. Clean energy is crucial to our energy security. Labour is focusing on helping our clean energy industry to succeed, and ensuring that United Kingdom consumers are given a fair deal in respect of their secure, clean energy.
It is a great pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on what is not his first and surely will not be his last private Member’s Bill. I know that he has a long-standing interest in seeking to ensure that the United Kingdom has secure and economic energy, an aim that the Government fully support. However, having listened to the debate, I am not sure that I shall be able wholly to satisfy his demands.
The Government will oppose the Bill because of the impact that it would have on our policy of supporting appropriately sited offshore wind. Given that the vast majority of proposed offshore wind farms that could be built between now and 2020, and beyond, are either wholly or partially located within 20 miles of the coast, that impact would be wide ranging. In particular, there would be an impact on the agreed planning process for offshore wind farm projects—as Members will know, decisions about the impact of offshore wind are a matter for the planners—and a potential impact on our legally binding 2020 renewable energy target and longer-term decarbonisation targets.
I am aware that my hon. Friend has expressed concern about a proposed offshore wind farm which, if it went ahead, would be built close to his constituency. However, a decision about that project is still some way off. The consent application is still being examined by the Planning Inspectorate, which will ultimately make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. I hope that my hon. Friend understands that it would not be appropriate for me to go into the details of that particular application, but I can say one thing to him. He said that UNESCO’s comments about the application were going to the Planning Inspectorate. That is exactly where they should be going, because the inspectorate can then take them into account in the report to the Secretary of State.
May I press my right hon. Friend a little on the timing? The inspectorate has said that it will allow until 4 March for the receipt of further representations. Does that mean that it will not be possible for it to provide a recommendation, and for the Government to respond to that recommendation, before we enter the period of purdah, and does that, in turn, mean that this will be a live issue during the general election campaign?
It is normal for the inspectorate, once it has received all the documentation and representations, to take some time to consider them, and then for the Secretary of State to take some time to consider the application. Given that there are only 26 days between the date that he mentioned and the expected date of the start of purdah—the end of March—it would be a rapid turnaround if the process were completed before the start of purdah, although I cannot rule out the possibility. If I can give any firmer information after looking into the matter in detail, I will write to my hon. Friend.
The Bill is not only about that constituency case, but about the broader impact of a change in the rules governing offshore wind. The House will know that the UK is blessed with a number of advantages for offshore wind. We have relatively shallow seas, we are a very windy country, and the wind is even more pronounced offshore, and it makes sense to seek to take advantage of this resource. We are the clear world leader in offshore wind, in terms of both installed capacity and investment. We worked hard and were proud to secure the investment of Siemens near Hull, which is an issue that I worked on, as did my predecessor as Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). Many others across the Government worked hard to bring that investment to Hull, too.
This Bill could cause real damage to the prospect of creating much needed jobs in my constituency. Members of Parliament in Hull and the local authority worked very hard together for a very long time, and for a Member of this House from east Yorkshire to support this Bill, which I have described as a silly Bill, is actually pretty dangerous.
The hon. Gentleman is getting a little ahead of himself. The Government’s support for the project at Siemens is rock-solid. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), sitting on the Front Bench next to me now, worked on the project securing the road investment that is critical to unlocking it.
Offshore wind is producing enough energy to provide the annual electricity requirements of about 2.8 million homes. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) read out the proportion, which people can easily read off their Energy UK app on their smartphone, and it is typically between 10% and 15% of the energy requirements of the UK. Then there are the jobs that are supported in the supply chain, although we should be direct about the reasons for supporting renewable energy.
To respond to a point made from the Opposition Front Bench, we are strong supporters of solar energy, especially as it closes in on being grid-comparable. There is a big opportunity for solar, not least because 1 million people now live in homes with solar panels on the roof. One of the exciting moments for the improvement in the mix of energy in the UK will be when solar becomes grid-comparable without subsidy, and it suddenly becomes cost effective without the involvement of the Government for millions more to put solar panels on their roofs.
We always knew that the early offshore wind projects would cost more. The costs are now coming down, and we have tried to put in place a system that promotes certainty, but we are deeply mindful of the need to protect consumers, and ultimately the long-term goal is for low-carbon technologies to compete on price with other forms of generation.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) says, and certainly with a lot of what he said today, such as when he pointed out the utter inconsistency of the Opposition Front-Bench position, arguing without any caveat for renewables and without concern for the fact that there is a subsidy. We have introduced a cap on that subsidy through the levy control framework, and made sure that the subsidy that is available is auctioned and provided through a market process. In that way we get the best possible bang for the buck from the subsidy, instead of just laying it on without limit.
My hon. Friend also pointed to the utter inconsistency of calling for urgent action on a price freeze and then complaining that prices are not falling fast enough, when prices for consumers would be £100 higher if the Opposition had had their way a year and a half ago when they called for an immediate energy price freeze. Their squirming and wriggling this week, trying to say that in fact their policy was only ever a cap, while launching it next to an enormous block of ice, shows just how ridiculous and absurd it was in the first place. It has now been thoroughly exposed and we will relish the opportunity over the next three and a half months to point out to anybody who cares to listen that if someone calls for an energy price freeze and when energy prices start to fall complains that they are not falling fast enough, they do not have a shred of credibility left.
I do not believe that the Minister is as silly as his remarks might suggest. I think he is perfectly aware that it was always intended to be a freeze on rising prices, with the potential to deal with a fall. He has been gracious in letting me intervene on him, so may I ask him a specific question? He said that we were in favour of decarbonised electricity generation without having regard for the impact on consumers. It is the Conservative party, however, that is proposing a ban on onshore wind development, which is the cheapest form of renewable energy. If he is to stick to the legally binding commitments that this country already has, how will he square his lack of support for the onshore wind industry with his concern for consumers?
We argued successfully in Europe for a decarbonisation target for 2030, to ensure that we could decarbonise at the lowest possible cost. The cheapest way to decarbonise our economy is to make it more efficient. That cuts not only carbon but bills, which is what the public are looking for. They want a policy that allows us to tackle the long-term threat of the risk of climate change at the lowest possible cost while providing certainty for investors.
The hon. Gentleman has demonstrated the pickle that the Opposition are in by his use of convoluted language, which differed from that of other Opposition Front Benchers who this week tried to argue that they had always been in favour of a cap. Well, there was no mention of a cap in the motion that they put before Parliament six months ago when they called for a freeze on energy prices. That freeze has been exposed as an utter joke.
The Minister is trying to dodge his previous statement by making points about efficiency, which he knows I agree with—hence our ambition for a much more successful energy efficiency policy than the one his Government have pursued, which has been in most aspects an outright disaster. I say to him again that he is talking about decarbonising at the lowest possible cost while simultaneously ruling out the most cost-effective form of renewable electricity generation. How does he square those two objectives?
Order. Will the Minister pause for a moment? I am sure that he and the Opposition spokesman will accept that the argument that is going on between them, in which other Members are not taking part, is not completely essential to debate on the Control of Offshore Wind Turbines Bill. A general discussion on energy policy is perfectly acceptable, and I have let their argument continue this far, but I am sure that the Minister would not wish to stray much further from the subject of wind turbines.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. On exactly that subject of offshore wind turbines, which we were discussing—broadly—it is important to ensure that those turbines are part of the mix, but in a way that takes consumer costs into account. One of the reasons that we have introduced the contracts for difference is to ensure that the subsidy for offshore wind turbines gives the best possible value for money.
I have already mentioned a number of the benefits of offshore wind, but we must also take into account the wider economic benefit across the UK. The Siemens project near Hull is creating 1,000 direct jobs. The decision to locate the project there was based largely on the expected size of the UK market. Indeed, we have an industrial strategy for offshore wind because of the ability to take advantage of global offshore wind as a world leader in the supply chain. UK Trade & Investment is heavily engaged in enhancing our offshore wind capability, and leading offshore wind suppliers in Germany and Denmark have been attracted to the UK, making investments in Teesside, for instance. Many other UK businesses are also engaged.
The Bill would also have an impact on the planning process and the consideration of applications for development consent for offshore wind farms. In high-level terms, the planning system has been designed to ensure that wind farms are built only where the impacts, including visual impacts, are acceptable on the basis of a thorough consideration of the benefits and impacts of the proposed schemes. The system requires wide-ranging consultation, and it is important that judgments on the acceptability or otherwise of particular projects are made on a case-by-case basis, not on the basis of a one-size-fits-all approach. The appropriateness of the height, location, number and operation of turbines is already considered on a case-by-case basis against the criteria set out in the national policy statements, and statutory restrictions on these factors would be inconsistent with the process described in the national policy statements. The Bill would also regulate the length, location and environmental impact of cables relating to the turbines and offshore wind farms within its purview. Those aspects are also covered by the planning process, and it is our position that it would be inappropriate to set restrictions that are inconsistent with that planning process.
Therefore, the Government remain committed to offshore wind, not unconditionally at any cost, but because it is an important part of the energy mix. Our policies have been specifically designed to achieve that. The potential benefits to the nation are significant and are beginning to materialise. We believe, therefore, that the policies we have in place are working and that the Bill would risk that and should be opposed.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me, in summing up this debate, thank everybody who has participated. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) has given me cause to wonder whether on the next occasion I bring forward this Bill it should apply just to England. That might remove one of the big objections.
He is shaking his head, but I thought one of his big objections was that the Bill did not take account of the special situation in north Wales.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his generous comments and for his support. As has been pointed out, he and I were two of the five people who voted on Third Reading against the Bill that became the Climate Change Act 2008. I am sure we have no regrets about having taken that decision. Indeed, a lot of our colleagues who were in the House at the time come to us every now and again to say, “I wish I had been with you in the Lobby.” The more that time passes, and the greater the subsidies and the implications for the British taxpayer and energy user, the more that people realise that that Act was a very extreme measure. It is probably totally inconsistent with our long-term economic interests. The Minister is looking at me straight in the eye, and I hope that, in due course, when we have a real Conservative Government, we will take another look at whether or not it did set an example to the rest of the world and cause them to reduce their global CO2 emissions in the way we thought it would. I think that wearing the hair shirt we have potentially done more damage to our own manufacturing industry and our own economy, and benefited those in other countries who are less principled. I continue to be concerned about that Act.
On jobs, my right hon. Friend the Minister rightly says that because of the industrial policy, Siemens has come here with its technology. It has not transferred the technology; it has come here and is making money from offshore wind turbines. Let us not forget, however, that the projected impact in just the Christchurch bay area is the loss of some 2,000-plus jobs from the tourism industry as a direct result of putting up wind turbines, which we are subsidising. So let us keep those jobs in the equation before we say that any jobs generated as a result of turbine manufacture must be a good thing. Let us keep some perspective on that. It has been said that the Bill would effectively close down the industry, but it would not do so, as the industry should be able to develop wind turbines of more than 100 metres in height in deep water beyond the 20-mile limit. That may be available in the future, so the Bill is not quite as restrictive as some claim.
I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made that just dealing with offshore wind turbines does not address the whole issue. Perhaps next time I will come back with a Bill that covers both onshore and offshore wind turbines.
We heard in the last debate on the control of horses that trying to get the Government to change their mind is an iterative process. Sometimes one cannot do it in one Session, and obviously I have failed so to do this time. But when the Minister comes back after the next general election, hopefully as a Secretary of State in a purely Conservative Government, I hope that he will be more sympathetic to the revised Bill that I hope to bring forward in that first Session.
In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.
Asylum (Time Limit) Bill
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is yet another personal contribution to the manifesto development of the Conservative party before the next general election. With only two clauses, including the short title and commencement provisions, it is a short Bill. It requires that asylum claims in the United Kingdom be lodged within three months of the claimant’s arrival in the United Kingdom, and that persons who have already entered the United Kingdom and wish to make an asylum claim must do so within three months of the passing of the Act.
The whole purpose of asylum is to provide help and a safe haven to people who are fleeing from persecution. Under the refugee convention, we quite rightly say that if somebody is fleeing for their life and they come to us, we should, all other things being equal, give them a safe haven. But what has happened is that, over a period of time, the whole concept of asylum has been distorted so that we now no longer talk about refugees—people who have been granted asylum—but asylum seekers. Often, people start off as economic migrants, but when they are brought to book, they try to translate themselves into asylum seekers, often with the advice of rather dubious firms of advisers and even lawyers.
If somebody comes to this country because they are seeking asylum—they want refuge because they come from a country where it has become impossible for them to continue to live—they should, at a reasonably early opportunity, perhaps as soon as they arrive, say, “I’m here and I wish to claim asylum.” Then they make their claim. What is happening at the moment is that people can stay here for months or years and then suddenly the authorities catch up with them and they say, “Oh, I forgot that I really wanted to claim asylum.” If someone wants to claim asylum and to fall upon the mercy and good will of the United Kingdom, they should do so in a timely fashion.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I just wondered where the three-month time limit came from. I am pretty sure that many constituents would say, “Why should it be three months?” Three days is more than enough. Surely it should be on the day that they arrive. Why should we be so tolerant as to give people three months to decide that they are fleeing persecution? Surely they must know that the moment they arrive in the United Kingdom.
I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point, but I am trying to propose a Bill that will get the support of the Government and I thought that nobody could argue that three months was not a more than reasonable time. His point is that three months is a more than reasonable time in which to decide to apply for asylum, which is why I hope that he can accept the Bill.
Once the Bill is on the statute book, the limits could be tightened further but in the first instance we must alert all those people who are already in the country and who are here illegally—we know that there could be between 500,000 and 1 million of those people at least—that if they wish to claim asylum they have three months in which to do so. That would be a reasonable time during which the word could spread on the street that if they were going to make an asylum application, they would have to get it in before the given date. Having decided that we would give a reasonable period of time to people who are already here, it seemed to me that to fit in with that I should say that the same three-month limit should apply to people who arrived after the Bill became law. That was my thinking, but I am prepared to accept the implied criticism from my hon. Friend that I have been far too reasonable and understanding on this point.
I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of being far too reasonable or understanding. I ask him to accept that many people who come to this country seeking asylum are severely traumatised and have often experienced torture. Many of them do not speak the language. That is a very good reason why he should not seek to tighten the limits in the way proposed by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Many people are afraid of approaching the authorities because of the experiences they have had in their homeland. That trauma is deep and real and needs to be taken seriously by this House.
The hon. Gentleman is now shaking his head, so I do not know whether I can expect his support.
If somebody comes here who is heavily traumatised, there must come a time within which they must face up to whether they wish to claim asylum rather than waiting months or years before doing so. Quite often, people who have not suffered trauma come here and when the authorities catch up with them and realise that they are illegal migrants coming across as economic migrants, they try to buy time by falsely claiming asylum.
I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that point.
This is a small issue, but if we put this measure on the statute book, it would generate support from the public and send out a clear message to people who wish to seek asylum and help from our country that they should do so in a timely fashion.
It is a pleasure to contribute to another debate from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). The Opposition recognise strongly that Britain has a proud history of offering asylum to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people who have come to this great country over the years seeking refuge and asylum from horrors elsewhere. For example, it is to Britain's credit that we welcomed German Jews in the 1930s and ’40s, survivors from Rwanda in the ’90s and more recently those who have suffered the horrors and atrocity being committed in Syria.
At first glance, the hon. Gentleman’s proposal might seem to have some limited attractions, but when we consider it in detail I think that even he would accept that it has some real limitations. I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I think that it is important that we look at the Bill in detail. The hon. Gentleman seems to imply that someone who applies for asylum in country rather than at port is less likely to have a credible claim. I accept that it is important that people arriving at Heathrow airport, at Gatwick or at Dover who seek to claim asylum because they are fleeing persecution, seeking political asylum, fleeing domestic abuse or whatever else declare that wish at the first port of entry.
Let me expand the debate slightly, if I may. I have discussed this matter with members of the Refugee Council, acknowledged experts in the field. They have made it clear that figures on asylum acceptance do not bear out the suggestion that simply because an application is made in country, rather than at the port of first entry, there is no validity to the application. Neither does it need to have been made within the three-month window suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Take as an example an individual studying at a university—it could be Southampton university, close to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Someone else might be working at a factory on a legitimate work visa, helping develop the British economy. People could be visiting on a visitor or tourist visa and have been here for three, four, five or six months visiting relatives. There might then be a situation such as the ISIL uprising in the middle east that makes them feel that returning home would be personally dangerous to them.
Who would have predicted in December a few years ago that the following January there would be the Arab spring in Egypt, Libya or other parts of north Africa? Individuals might be in this country for legitimate reasons for longer than the three-month window suggested by the hon. Gentleman, and they might have to seek asylum for a range of genuine political and social pressures in their home countries. Those would be considered by the Home Office in a reasonable and practical way. If they had a legitimate claim, that would be accepted; if they did not, as now, the claim would be refused and other arrangements would be made—either visas or some form of deportation. The Bill would mean that nobody who had been in this country for more than three months could have recourse to political asylum. That would be wrong-headed.
I absolutely agree with and endorse the remarks that my right hon. Friend has just made. Many asylum seekers are trafficked here; they may fall victim to the traffickers, be imprisoned or be engaged in the sex trade. There are all sorts of reasons, such as being restrained by their traffickers, why people may not be physically able to make the necessary arrangements.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the scenario, painted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), of people coming in as economic migrants, being rumbled by the authorities and then, in effect, playing the asylum system to delay an inevitable removal from the country, often using human rights laws as well to effect further delay? If he does recognise it—and I think many around the country do—what is his solution?
The asylum system needs to have integrity. There are mechanisms, which I am sure the Minister will strongly outline, that show real integrity and that if an individual falsely claims asylum they will be removed in due course. It is important to recognise that robust systems are in place and that we try to enforce them. We must not let people play the system, but we must recognise that genuine asylum claims can be made later than the proposed three-month limit.
I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). It will not have escaped your notice, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we have been dealing with the Modern Slavery Bill in this House and another place, where it currently resides. That Bill tries to ensure that we deal with the slavery and trafficking that my hon. Friend mentioned. Individuals may have believed, because of language or cultural difficulties, that they came to this country for work or other reasons, but found themselves trafficked, imprisoned or abused. The Government have recognised the issue by introducing the Modern Slavery Bill, and we have supported them on that.
Under the Asylum (Time Limit) Bill, victims of such horrendous crimes—who may have been forced to come to the UK, who may have lived the life of slaves for many months or years but have been resident in the UK—would have no means of claiming asylum because they had been brought here by traffickers. Those are important circumstances that the Bill misses because of its cut-off date of three months.
The Bill is flawed and unworkable. There is a robust system in place. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments, which I am sure will reflect the fact that such a system exists. I would welcome the hon. Member for Christchurch reflecting on the fact that situations change outside the UK, affecting people who may have been here for more than three months, and that through no fault of their own they may need to apply for asylum after that date. As a stark example, if a German Jew were at university in the UK in March 1938 and suddenly realised that they could not return to Germany because of potential difficulties with the fascist regime there, and if they had been here for longer than three months and the hon. Gentleman’s Bill was in place, they would have to be sent back to Germany and ultimately to their death. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not wish such a situation to affect future asylum claims. He should also reflect on the security provided by the Modern Slavery Bill. Whatever the Minister says, I hope the hon. Member for Christchurch will think carefully about these matters and agree to withdraw his Bill.
I fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) brought his Bill before the House today. He did so with the right intentions, but like the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), we feel that there are serious problems with its drafting. I understand that my hon. Friend is trying to address the abuse and misuse of the asylum system that this generous country has in place for those who need it.
I welcome any contributions to the forthcoming manifesto, which others will be looking for from these debates. As I said, the Bill seeks to address the abuse and misuse of our generous asylum system. The Government have already taken many steps to restore control of the asylum and immigration system that we inherited. Let me outline the situation that we inherited. Asylum applications peaked in this country in 2002 at 84,132. I fully accept on behalf of the Government that last year asylum claims went up by 2% to 24,257. If we look around the world, especially at events taking place in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east, which the right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned, we can to some extent understand that rise.
The Government are determined, and legislated in the Immigration Act 2014, to tighten our borders and our immigration laws to make sure that asylum is not used as an excuse by someone against whom we are about to take enforcement action because they do not meet the requirements to stay in this country.
Two aspects of the comments from the right hon. Member for Delyn and the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) struck a chord with me. As a new MP in Hemel Hempstead, a seat that I was not exactly expecting to win, although I was immensely proud to do so and am immensely proud to represent, I met a Tamil man aged 24. He came here to study—a very clever man—and went on to become a very good doctor. He is progressing towards becoming a consultant now. While he was here, his whole family in Sri Lanka was wiped out. Death threats against him and his brothers were displayed across the media in Sri Lanka, just because of his parents’ beliefs and birth. He had been here for 18 months. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not have wanted that young man to be sent back to Sri Lanka under his Bill. That, personally, is why I cannot support it, and why the Government will not support it either.
We do understand the need for alternative measures. That is why, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Brent North said, we introduced the Modern Slavery Bill. There are people in this country who perhaps never wanted to be here but were brought here under false pretences, bundled into the back of a lorry and abused in ways that we cannot imagine and perhaps prayed would never happen in this country in the 21st century— but the Government know that it has happened, as did the previous Administration. It was a difficult piece of legislation to bring forward, but it is the right legislation.
If someone had been forced to come to this country and, say, forced into prostitution, and we knew that if that person went back to their place of origin after three months they would not only be persecuted again but their lives would be under threat, not least if they gave evidence against the people who had committed those crimes against them, I do not think we would send them back.
I really do understand why my hon. Friend has introduced this Bill. I hear concerns about this in my constituency as well. We are right to be a generous nation, going back further than the events before and during the second world war and the persecution of the Jews—way back to times when we have assisted vulnerable people from around the world. Yes, we want people to declare that they are in a safe place long before they get to this country if that is possible. Yes, some of them are enormously vulnerable and very traumatised when they arrive. I have met such people—some, sadly, within our criminal justice system, where we have people with mental health issues, whether they are British nationals or non-British nationals who needed help long before they came here.
I accept that the Bill has every understandable intention in trying to stop bogus asylum seekers abusing our system and speed the process up, which is what the Government are trying to do as much as possible, as well as, wherever possible, encouraging asylum seekers to look elsewhere. The most recent figures show that in the rest of Europe asylum applications have reached the highest point since the peak of 2002, but our figures are still way below that. However, that is not because we are not a generous nation. I think the rest of the world is starting to realise that we are not a soft touch, but we do have a generous system. Sadly, we cannot support the Bill because it has anomalies that I personally, and the Government, find difficult.
I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and my right hon. Friend the Minister for their comments on the Bill. While I think they both accept that there is a problem with people abusing the asylum system, they identified certain cases that would potentially be caught by the Bill in its current form. However, this is precisely the sort of Bill that should go into Committee so that exceptions to the bald provisions of clause 1 can be defined.
We want to ensure that we can consider asylum claims from people who come to this country for whatever reason and whose circumstances back home change after their arrival—that is, in essence, what the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend were concerned about—irrespective of how long ago they arrived in this country. That is a specific category of exception. I think that any reasonable person will accept that such an exception should be incorporated within the Bill. I am disappointed that rather than looking at this in the context of accepting clause 1 and then saying, “Can we introduce some exceptions?”, the line seems to be, “Because it’s not perfect we’re not going to accept it and allow it to go further.”
I am also disappointed that, although my right hon. Friend the Minister accepts that there is a problem with people coming here as economic migrants and then, when they are confronted by the authorities, claiming asylum in order to play the system, irrespective of how long ago they arrived, he has not come up with a way of dealing with that. I think that my formula of placing a time limit—perhaps, following this debate, there could be some exceptions—would be a way of doing so.
The mood of the House seems to be that this Bill is not perfect—very few of my Bills ever are—so the best thing to do would be to withdraw it and build on it for a future occasion. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.
Bat Habitats Regulation Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill has attracted a lot of outside interest. Indeed, there was a letter in The Times earlier this week saying what a brilliant Bill it is and that it should command the support of hon. Members. It builds on the concerns that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has raised in debates in Westminster Hall and those expressed by church conservation authorities.
I hope it is not out of order to say that, in his Christmas card to me, the noble bishop whose diocese is situated in my constituency wished me good luck with my bats Bill. The reason for that is that this is a narrow but significant issue for churches up and down the country and for our built heritage, including the fabric of churches, whether it be their stone or marble structures, and the brasses and other artefacts inside them. It also applies to people: we may be able to tell those who worship at the church that they should keep wearing their hats if there is a problem with bat infestation, but that does not really work if a children’s day centre or nursery group meets there: we cannot expect all the children to wear bonnets to protect themselves against the bat infestation.
The Bill seeks to increase the number of bat habitats while at the same time introduce measures to prevent bats from being in what might be described as the wrong place. Clause 1 sets out provisions to enhance the protection available for bat habitats in the non-built environment. In that respect, I hope the Bill will find favour with organisations such as the Bat Conservation Trust, because by enhancing that protection we will be able to support our bat population.
Interestingly, a 2013 survey by Hurn parish councillors in my constituency identified eight different species of bats in Hurn parish and Hurn forest in particular. They are concerned about the adverse impact of the cabling for a proposed wind turbine development on that bat habitat. Such situations are covered by clause 1, which would ensure that when a problem in the non-built environment may affect bats adversely, developers should take remedial measures, such as providing a bat box or artificial roost for each bat species located in the vicinity. It would also prevent onshore wind turbines from being constructed unless a local bat survey had been conducted and had established that there was no bat habitat in the vicinity, because of the direct adverse effect of wind turbines on bats.
Clause 2 deals with the issues raised by the Churches Conservation Trust and others about the impact of bats on our churches and those who worship in them. Currently, the habitats regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 work together basically to make it impossible for bats roosting and living in our churches to be controlled in any way whatever. In essence, they are above and beyond the law.
If the Second Church Estates Commissioner says that it is absurd that the EU habitats regulations should apply to our United Kingdom domestic bat population and that we should use our common sense, it seems to me that that should be reflected in legislation. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—I am delighted that he will reply to the debate—has Eurosceptic credentials second to none. I hope that he shares my concern about the European Union dictating to us what we can and cannot do with our domestic bat population. We are not talking about migrating mammals—bats are of course mammals, not birds—but our own domestic bats. Surely this is an issue for subsidiarity, to use that ghastly EU word, and an area on which we in the United Kingdom Parliament know what is best for our own bats.
I naturally agree with that sentiment. Why is my hon. Friend seeking to apply the clause only to places of public worship, because I am pretty sure that its provisions would equally apply to other buildings from time to time, and that that would be very much welcomed in different communities, depending on their circumstances? Why is the clause restricted to places of public worship?
As the Bill is a private Member’s Bill, I was trying to restrict the degree of controversy that might develop about it. I know that the mere prospect of legislating on bats has already created an almost hysterical reaction among some members of bat conservation societies. I am therefore loth to make the Bill wider than is necessary to deal with the immediate problem, which has been drawn to my attention by the Churches Conservation Trust and the Countryside Alliance. They are concerned about the adverse impact of bats and bat roosts in buildings used for public worship. I recognise that other buildings could be similarly embraced by the Bill, and perhaps if it goes to Committee, an order-making power might extend the provisions to other areas in due course.
I am promoting this Bill because everybody recognises that there is a genuine problem. The Church Monuments Society is collectively tearing its hair out at its inability to do anything to address effectively the problem of bat damage that is affecting the conservation of furniture, liturgical objects, funerary and ensemble, works of art and so on, in buildings used for public worship and community functions. I hope the Minister will not say that having no control at all over bats in such places is reasonable. Surely we need some sensible control, and I hope the Bill finds favour with the House.
I rise briefly to expand on why I support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and to say why it may be worthwhile extending its provisions.
Recently in my constituency, the great town of Bingley was desperate to see the old Bradford and Bingley headquarters demolished. The building was lying empty and is, I am delighted to say, currently being demolished, although that could have happened much earlier. The building was owned by Sainsbury’s, which decided that it did not want to build a supermarket but would demolish the site and move it on. However, it was told that it could not do that because a bat had been spotted in the building.
We seem to have got ourselves into a bit of pickle. There are bat habitats nearby and I am all for taking measures to encourage bats to move to other habitats—I do not want to destroy wildlife or anything like that, but that seems perfectly reasonable. We seem to have got ourselves into a muddle with the current planning system, because the simple mention that a bat has been seen basically stops anything whatsoever happening. Some of us were rather cynical about Sainsbury’s motives, and suspected that it might want to hold on to the site until it became more valuable, but, as events have transpired, that was probably an overly cynical view. However, the situation was not helped by the fact that the whole process was stopped completely and the regeneration of Bingley was put on hold because of an alleged sighting of a bat.
When I asked Bradford council whether it could verify the sighting or whether it had seen a report to back up the fact that a bat had been seen—one bat, I might add—nothing was produced to show that there was indeed a bat. There was no report or verification. It was based simply on somebody’s word that a bat had been seen. That is what halted the essential regeneration of Bingley. There must be some alternative route and we should apply common sense. In effect, a whole town’s regeneration was held to ransom by the alleged viewing of a bat, even though it was never verified and there was no report of it before or since.
My hon. Friend’s Bill is an excellent first step, but why can it not be extended to help places such as Bingley? If the Bill had been enacted and extended in the way I suggest, it would have provided a perfect opportunity for that development to go ahead without unnecessary delays. As it transpired—I am sure the House will be interested to know this, for completeness—it seems that the bat had disappeared by the time anybody had bothered to go and do a proper report. The demolition could therefore go ahead, but I suspect it could have gone ahead a lot sooner had we had more appropriate laws in place.
I support my hon. Friend’s Bill. I hope the Minister will consider it seriously, because I think it would make a big difference. I would like to the Bill to be extended to other areas. There are many other common sense examples where an opt-out of current legislation would be sensible.
The Bill may remind some hon. Members of episode 39 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Unfortunately, the Bill does not, in the immortal words of Michael Palin:
“shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.”
It seems more like the stuff that that phrase was describing. I will briefly address the three issues raised by the subject of the Bill: bat habitat in the non-built environment; bat habitat in the built environment; and the legal protection of bats.
First, on bat habitat in the non-built environment, during the 20th century bat numbers plummeted in parallel with dramatic changes in the countryside. Several species of bats were seriously threatened. In the past two decades, one species, the greater mouse-eared bat, became extinct as a UK breeding species. Although all the species monitored appear to be either stable or increasing according to 2014 records, those positive results should be considered in the context of historic severe declines in bat populations. That decline was particularly great in the second half of the 20th century. More sustained population increases will be needed to indicate recovery from that extended period of decline.
The increase in bat populations between 1999 and 2012 should be celebrated as a success of the current regulations. It was also a success for the Bat Conservation Trust and the public, private and voluntary organisations involved in bat conservation. However, it should not be an excuse to set aside the regulations that have precisely achieved that success. We should remember that one year of poor summer weather in 2012 caused a very sharp dip in the population.
The Bill seeks to prevent the occupation of a new building in an area where there is existing bat habitat unless a bat box or artificial roost for each species of bat located in the vicinity is put in place. In so far as that goes, that is welcome. However, it might be more logical to say that the building could not be occupied if it was taking the space where that bat habitat had previously been unless the new bat boxes and the artificial roosts that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to provide were also occupied. That might indicate that some translocation had taken place and provide a degree of comfort, but that is not in the Bill.
It also seems somewhat odd that the same provision, as contained in clause 1(2), has not been inserted into clause 1(3), because in it we find that
“No wind turbine for which planning permission is required shall be constructed unless prior to its construction a local bat survey has been conducted and it has been established that no bat habitat is located in the vicinity”.
It might be more logical, and certainly more in keeping with the first two subsections, if the hon. Gentleman had said that it should not be provided where bat habitat is found, unless, as he has proposed in subsection (2), that
“a bat box or artificial roost for each species of bat located in the vicinity”
has been provided. There is an internal inconsistency in the Bill, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise and seek to rectify and remedy.
The information currently available on bat behaviour in the UK is not sufficient to assess the threat that wind turbines may pose to populations. Anecdotal records of individual collisions exist, but no quantified data at the colony or population level are available. Natural England and Bat Conservation Trust guidance should be followed. That is all we can say based on the evidence we have, so the hon. Gentleman’s efforts go beyond what the evidence base suggests.
Let me turn to bats in the built environment. Bats and people have been sharing dwellings for thousands of years. In the UK, this is most notable, of course, in our churches and cathedrals, as natural roosting sites have become scarce due to development and land use change. The number of artificial roost sites has increased in the form of houses, bridges, mines and barns, but particularly churches and cathedrals.
Natural England, English Heritage, the National Churches Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings all have excellent advice available on how to manage a building where bats are also present. If work is required on a property that has the potential to disturb a bat roost or if issues arise as a result of bats and humans living in close proximity, that advice is available for any dwelling or church.
Due to the good will and expertise of a very large number of licensed volunteers in the UK, there are many instances where such advice can be offered free of charge. It is offered in the form often of a phone call or an e-mail or sometimes in the form of a physical visit to the building to inspect. The visit will result in a letter detailing how to carry out the work with the least disturbance to the bats. This might mean that the work has to be carried out at a particular time of year, which might in some instances cause some of the delays to which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) alluded. Bats are usually only seasonal visitors to roosts. Sometimes the particular materials that can be used might be affected, but it is neither possible nor desirable—nor, I believe, necessary—to take the actions set out in the Bill.
The suggestion that we should remove certain buildings from the habitats directive altogether is, frankly, absurd. It serves only as a superb example of how an obsession with Europe and a disregard for our natural environment can be combined with a dislike for wind turbines. There is no reason and no excuse for watering down legal protection for bats. We should let the work of Natural England—it is already engaged with this work—improve the regulation. It should run its course and we should revisit the issue when we have adequate evidence and viable alternatives on which to base a debate. The Bill is ill conceived, inconsistent and I urge the House to reject it.
In debates such as this one, we learn something new every day. I learned this morning that there are no fewer than 17 different bat species in the UK. Most evolved to live, breed and forage in or around trees and caves, but many have now adapted to roost in buildings, including barns, houses, churches, tunnels and bridges, because so many natural roosts have been lost through modern agriculture and forestry practices as well as urban growth.
Artificial roosts have thus become essential to the survival of many bat species, but with so many man-made roosts under threat from the demolition of old buildings, barn conversions, an increasing use of artificial lighting and the move towards airtight buildings, the remaining roost sites are of increasing importance. Decreasing the protection afforded to bats in these important sites is therefore likely to have an impact on the conservation status of bats in the UK.
In the light of their vulnerability, bats have been subject to national protection, most recently under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. At the European level, this was augmented by protection under the European habitats directive in 1994. In accordance with the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, which transpose the habitats directive, it is a criminal offence deliberately to kill, injure, take or disturb bats. There is also a strict liability offence of damage or destruction to their breeding site or resting place. Additional Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provisions protect bats from disturbance in their place of rest or from the obstruction of such locations.
The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) proposes that surveys must be undertaken before any new buildings are built to assess the presence of bats in the area, and that if there are any bats present, the building should proceed only if bat boxes are provided with the building. However, the requirement to be aware of the existence of bats, and to consider the impacts of any building on their numbers, already exists. Local planning authorities already have a duty to take biodiversity and the requirements of the habitats directive into account when considering developments. Mitigation of damage to bat roosts and resting places may be required, but bat boxes and artificial roosts are only two of the possible measures that can be implemented, and each case should be considered on its merits. Furthermore, bats require not just protected roost sites but suitable habitats in which to feed, and the Bill does not take account of that.
The Bill requires a bat survey to take place, and prohibits the placing of wind turbines in the vicinity of any bat habitat. However, bat surveys are already undertaken at potential wind turbine sites when bats are nearby. An interesting discussion is taking place about evidence of the impact of wind turbines on bats. That evidence is fairly mixed. Some studies in the United States and Canada suggested that there could be an impact, but, in order to clarify the position in the United Kingdom the Government are conducting their own research, which will be completed later this year. If that research establishes that the current approach to planning in respect of wind turbines is insufficient to protect bats, we will review our approach at that point.
The Bill proposes that bats should be excluded or removed from any place of worship unless it has been demonstrated that their presence would not have an adverse impact on the users of such a place. Apart from the fact that the Bill is rather loosely worded—for instance, it does not define an adverse impact or a place of worship—such a blanket prohibition does not take account of either the potential importance of some churches to vulnerable bat populations, or the work that the Government are doing to alleviate the impact in such places when bats are causing a nuisance or distress.
In a changing landscape, where hedgerows and other linear features that are so important to bats have been lost as roosting sites, churches can be important to, in particular, some of our rarer birds. However, the Government recognise, and are sympathetic to, the concern of parishioners who are suffering from the effects of bat droppings on pews, precious artefacts and equipment in the public and private areas of their churches. To address that concern, we have invested considerable resources in research and development to establish how we can reduce the impact of bats in churches.
A three-year research project was completed in March 2014, and a current project, led by English Heritage, is devolving a toolkit to assist churches with significant bat-related problems. That current project is also bringing benefits to some of the worst-affected churches. Natural England, as the Government’s licensing body, is producing a licensing framework as part of the toolkit, which will be the mechanism through which the research will be delivered. External funding is being sought to support the roll-out of the toolkit, and to create an effective national support network for churches with bat-related problems. Major strides are being made. For instance, at one church in Yorkshire, St Hilda’s, work instigated by Natural England has dealt with the problem comprehensively, while ensuring that bats are able to roost in the roof of the building.
My hon. Friend alluded to my Eurosceptic credentials, and asked me about the impact of the habitats directive in this country. He may be aware that the European Commission has committed itself to reviewing certain elements of the directive to establish whether they are proportionate. So, in addition to all the work that we are doing nationally, a European-level review is under way. However, I think that the work that we have done locally and nationally demonstrates that peaceful co-existence is possible, and that we can deal with the problem without necessarily removing bats.
In the light of what the Minister has just said, I hope that a review of the bat habitat regulations and the directive will be one of our main renegotiating points when we come to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union. While noting some of the measures that the Government have put in place, I also have to note that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs among people involved in church conservation. They believe something much more stringent and urgent needs to be undertaken, which is why I would like to continue this debate—
The debate stood adjourned, (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 23 January.
Business without Debate
Energy (Buildings and reduction of Fuel use) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January.
Houses in Multiple Occupation (Energy Performance Certificates and Minimum Energy Standards) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January.
Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January.
Defence Expenditure (nato Target) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January.
Convicted prisoners Voting Bill
Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (5 December), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 23 January.
Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January.
Road Traffic Regulation (Temporary Closure for Filming) Bill
Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (7 November), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 23 January.
Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill
Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (24 October), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 23 January.
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 23 January.
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 23 January.
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 23 January.
Adoption of Sewers (Home Improvement)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)
It is a great pleasure to see you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Chair this afternoon and to see the Minister for farming, food and the marine environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), at the Dispatch Box.
Many Members will be aware that new legislation was passed by this House in 2011 meaning that the ownership of private sewers and lateral drains was transferred to the 10 statutory water and sewerage companies. This welcome change, which had been sought over many years, came about in no small part as a result of the tireless work of my constituents, and particularly of Pam Brockway of the Woodlands Residents Association in Rugby. I drove through the estate this morning when I was dropping my daughter off at school, and I was reminded of the problems the estate had faced many years ago when the sewers, which had not been adopted by the water authority, failed. This resulted in great expense for many residents and led to the residents campaigning for many years for a change in the law.
The Water Industry (Schemes for Adoption of Private Sewers) Regulations 2011 were eventually introduced. This was a victory for home owners as they were no longer liable for unexpected and often large bills if anything went wrong with the private sewers on their land. They often did not know that they had responsibility for those sewers. When my constituent, Mrs Brockway, was faced with a £1,000 bill because her sewer collapsed, she decided to take action to bring about the much-needed change in the law.
Members of Parliament often get involved in matters brought to their attention by their constituents, and Mrs Brockway took the matter to the then MP for Rugby. It took 12 years, but the new legislation was eventually passed thanks to her determination, her industry and her refusal to give up, and thanks to the support of other residents, including Roy Barnes of the Woodlands Residents Association, along with the help of my predecessors, the former MP for what was then Rugby and Kenilworth, Andy King, and his successor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). I pay tribute to all of them for their hard work. It is only right that in my opening remarks I should acknowledge the efforts of my constituents to get the law changed, because every home owner in the country owes them and all the other people who campaigned on this issue an enormous debt of gratitude.
I raise this matter today not with the intention of bringing about any changes to that hard-fought-for and much-welcomed legislation but to draw attention to the issues now being faced by many home owners when they seek to improve or extend their homes. They have to contact the water companies in these circumstances, and conflicting information is often given out. Also, the water companies often levy excessive charges against them when their proposed improvements extend over, or within 3 metres of, a sewer on their land. This is owing to the requirement for the home owner to apply for a building-over agreement.
Rugby is the fastest-growing town in the west midlands. It has double the rate of house building of that in the country as a whole, even before taking into account the sustainable urban extension of 6,200 new homes, whose development is just starting on the Rugby Radio site. I am very supportive of development; indeed, I am probably as pro-development as any MP in the House. I fully recognise the Government’s work to stimulate development through the adoption of the national planning policy framework, which has led to planning permission for 200,000 new homes being granted in the last 12 months. I also recognise the economic growth that arises from the building of new homes and the contribution to the economy that is made when people extend and improve existing homes.
I understand why the Government introduced legislation to simplify the planning system by allowing home owners to improve their properties, often without the need to apply for planning consent, although I do believe that there is a strong role for the planning system in preventing neighbour disputes. We are now in a situation in which the planning changes are making it simpler for home owners to extend their property, but the adoption of private sewers is pulling in the opposite direction. It is estimated that around 80% of home owners seeking to extend their property will need the consent of the relevant water authority, because the planned extension will go over or near what was formerly a private sewer.
There are important consequences of this situation. There have been examples of water companies refusing to give permission for home owners to extend their property owing to an expected repair to a sewer at some unknown point in the future. This has been known to happen after the planning application fees have been paid, which only adds to the great frustration of the home owners. In other instances home owners are being forced to absorb the cost of repairs to adopted sewers in order to gain permission from the water authorities, which can add significantly to the cost of improving their homes —conceivably, more than the cost of the improvements themselves. The additional costs may prevent the home owner from adding value to their property through improvements, as may the costs of the works, where they exceed the value of the improvements. The home owner may, thus, not benefit from any added value.
There are six key points to consider. The first relates to the concerns over the legal requirement to obtain a building-over agreement. Different information is available from different water companies. Some distribute information stating that building-over agreements are a legal requirement for home owners looking to build on or near to a sewer when in fact they are not. The second point relates to the excessive and divergent charges being levied by water companies—there is significant variation in those. The charges often include a map fee, which determines the presence of a sewer, an application fee and, in some instances, the cost of a CCTV examination of the sewer. Map fees can range from as little as £18 to as much as £60, and application fees can reach more than £500, adding to the significant bill for the home owner. I understand that in Wales the cost can prove even more excessive, as home owners are also required to amend the deeds of the property. Of course, the result of these little charges is that home owners may abandon their proposed works.
The third issue relates to variations in the amount of time the approval process can take. Although there is a set period of eight weeks within the planning system for routine planning applications to be decided—there is a requirement on the local authority to adhere to that—there is no such obligation on the water companies. In the absence of an agreed time limit, home owners often have to wait weeks, even months, before they know whether their improvements can commence.
The fourth issue relates to the cost of possible future repairs. I have alluded to instances where water companies are refusing to give their permission. I have been made aware of a number of cases where home owners are being forced to absorb the cost of repairs to adopted sewers in order to gain permission—the additional costs incurred can total several thousand pounds. The fifth issue relates to the fact that approximately 50% of sewers are currently not mapped by water companies. In some instances the home owners are being required to pay for the map, which can cause additional costs. There are no clear guidelines in a situation where no map is available, which can jeopardise any improvement project. The sixth issue relates to the permitted development rights that the Government have brought forward with the objective of cutting red tape. However, the requirement for permission from the water authorities is acting in the opposite direction and adding red tape, and results in additional costs and delay.
What can be done to remedy this situation? Despite the home improvements industry receiving assurances from the water companies that guidance would be issued, there is no industry-wide set of procedures and cost guidelines. I understand that the Government have previously declared their support for such a solution in guidance issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when it said it was doing work
“with a view to establishing a streamlined process for approval of building over (or close to) small, shallow sewers, which represent the majority of transferred sewers.”
I, like many home owners, would very much welcome a move by all the water authorities to work together to adopt a set of guidelines to ensure that the system is transparent and that home owners have more protection. That could form a national code of conduct governing the process of securing a building-over agreement, and setting consistent costs for the application, map and CCTV fees. That would go a long way towards rationalising the application process, and would give a degree of practical certainty for home improvement projects.
Nobody is arguing for a return to the pre-2011 situation, where householders were vulnerable to unexpected and often substantial bills to remedy faults in sewers they were not aware of or where potential liabilities would lead to the reduction in the value of properties and difficulties in achieving sales prices. My constituents have played such an important part in effecting change to that situation. This is a serious matter. The ability of a home owner to make improvements or extend is a key part of the aspiration of home ownership—an aspiration that this Government fully support. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and the position of the Government in respect of reassuring home owners who are being subjected to uncertainty and additional costs when looking to improve their properties.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for raising this important issue. As he said, before 2011, home owners were responsible for their sewers and pipes. Should anything have happened to those pipes, it was down to the home owners to cover the expense, and attempt to recover costs from those neighbours who shared the same pipes.
In October 2011, the Government implemented the water industry regulations transferring the ownership of, and responsibility for, private sewers and lateral drains to the water and sewerage companies. My hon. Friend rightly pays tribute to the sterling efforts of his constituent, Pam Brockway and others, in bringing this unfair practice of passing the cost on to individual home owners to the attention of Government, which resulted in those legislative changes.
I have also had experience of this matter in my own constituency. I remember meeting in one of my surgeries an elderly lady who was being bullied by a cowboy builder to sign on the dotted line to say that she would pay £10,000 towards the upkeep of a private sewer that was collectively owned. She resisted that, but I have heard of many other such practices, often involving vulnerable people.
In addition to preventing unexpected and substantial sewer repair bills going to individuals, the 2011 transfer has also meant that the sewer network can be systematically upgraded over time. The consequence has been a regularly maintained and more resilient sewer system.
The 2011 transfer has resulted in a greater focus on the 2010 building regulations. The regulations set out how buildings should be built or improved. Although no changes were made to the 2010 building regulations, the transfer regulations enabled building regulations more effectively to achieve their aim of ensuring that new buildings and extensions are constructed in a way that does not adversely affect the sewers. Given the general lack of awareness among home owners before the 2011 transfer, private sewers were at great risk of compromise or damage when construction took place—ultimately at the considerable expense of individual home owners.
The local authority, or approved private sector building control body, has the final say on whether any works comply with building regulations, although they must have regard to any views expressed by the sewerage undertaker, such as when a sewer is within 3 metres of the proposed works. Furthermore, even if the developer disagrees with the building control body, there is the option to apply to the Department for Communities and Local Government for an independent determination.
I wish now to address some of the points made by my hon. Friend. He pointed out that the 2011 transfer could not resolve all the issues. He has highlighted six important issues including: the legal requirement for a build-over agreement; charges levied by water companies for build-over agreements and works to be done; the time taken for the process of agreement; and the paucity of information about where the sewers are located.
First, there is no formal legal requirement to obtain a build-over agreement. However, it is considered good practice to obtain the permission of the water company responsible for a sewer or drain affected by any proposed building project, and that is also encouraged by the approved building regulations guidance. Water and sewerage companies are best placed to advise on suitable actions or possible risks to the sewerage network as a result of building work.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point regarding the variance in the charges levied by water companies for build-over agreements. We all want to see that any such costs are reasonable, proportionate, appropriate and consistent; otherwise we will have saved home owners one expense through the 2011 transfer only to expose them to new costs.
My hon. Friend highlights the importance of guidance. He is right that the solution to these and many of the other issues would be a joint industry-developed code of practice governing the processes of securing a build-over agreement and bringing transparency to the costs involved. A code of practice could also address any issues concerning timing and make it clear where responsibilities lie for repairs to sewers when the construction is being carried out or who retains liability for the quality of the construction and its potential impact on the sewer underneath in the long term.
The Glass and Glazing Federation has already taken the initiative in drawing up a draft. The Government have been talking to the water companies about working with the Glass and Glazing Federation to reach a common approach and I am told that we can expect positive developments soon. I welcome that, but I want to see even greater momentum behind the idea of the code of practice. In advance of the debate, I contacted the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who is responsible for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management. The Under-Secretary intends to write to Water UK, the organisation that represents the water companies, to encourage that development. I hope that from this debate we will see momentum behind the idea of a code of practice, because given that there is no formal legal requirement for the build-over agreements, which are only set out in guidance, home owners are in a strong position to get credible guidance that prevents water companies from charging excessively for these agreements.
They are incorrect in that. There is no legal requirement for a build-over agreement, but it is set out in guidance. The legal requirement is that people should have regard for the views of water companies, so they should consult them. There is no statutory requirement for a build-over agreement, but it is set out in guidance that they should be encouraged. I hope that that clarifies the position.
My hon. Friend raised an additional concern that many sewers are, as yet, unmapped. Section 199 of the Water Industry Act 1991 places a requirement on sewerage undertakers to maintain an up-to-date map of their sewers. However, ownership of some 220,000 km of unmapped sewer and lateral drain pipework transferred overnight in 2011. The impact assessment for the 2011 transfer estimated that mapping all that pipework as part of a distinct project would cost more than £1.3 billion. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that to avoid unnecessary costs for water bill payers, water companies are updating their maps during the course of their normal activities. If the sewer or lateral drain does not appear on the sewer map, there is no requirement for the building control body to consult the water company.
My hon. Friend refers to the Government’s aim to cut red tape and the positive steps taken to streamline the planning regime and help stimulate the building industry. The building regulations set out requirements for construction and how structures are built. Fair and effective building regulations are vital to ensure that the public and the environment are suitably protected. None the less, I reiterate that there is no formal legal requirement to gain permission from water companies, although it is recognised as good practice in building regulations guidance.
In conclusion, my hon. Friend has raised an important point. I agree that the answer is to have a voluntary code of conduct supported by the industry and I believe that home owners are in a strong position given that there is no formal legal requirement for a build-over agreement. I encourage him to engage with the Under-Secretary and perhaps with Department for Communities and Local Government Ministers to make progress on the idea of a voluntary code.
Question put and agreed to.