Thursday 16 July 2015
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Sentencing (Cruelty to Pets)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered sentencing for cruelty to domestic pets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, although on this occasion I cannot say it is a pleasure to be here, because some of the incidents that have taken place in my constituency have caused a great deal of trauma, not only to domestic pets but to their owners.
Let me give a little insight into what has been taking place in some villages in my constituency. There has been a spate of domestic cat deaths, many of which have been linked to the consumption of antifreeze products. That has been confirmed by local veterinary surgeons after people have presented pet cats suffering terrible symptoms. The tragedy is that once cats in particular have ingested antifreeze products, there is very little that a veterinary surgeon can do to stop the inevitable process of very painful death. Ethylene glycol, which is the toxic ingredient in antifreeze, attacks a cat’s kidneys, causing excruciating pain. Sadly, the cat often has to be put down before it dies very slowly and painfully.
One village in my constituency lost 22 cats over one summer. It is important to emphasise that it was in the summer—not traditionally a time when people use antifreeze products. There is a lot of debate about whether people should put antifreeze into garden water features to prevent them from freezing over the winter, because pets can accidentally drink from them, but these incidents happened in the middle of the summer. Many people in the village concluded that someone local was maliciously targeting their pets. I cannot overemphasise the trauma that families go through when they lose a loved pet, which is why I am here to emphasise how the judicial system deals with people who are convicted of this horrendous crime.
I secured a debate some time ago that was responded to by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We looked at a number of options to try to prevent these poisonings, including introducing bittering agents to antifreeze products to try to prevent animals from ingesting them. Since then, I have been working with Nottinghamshire police, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Cats Protection to research the topic—I should credit the work of my colleague, David Sforza—and to see how we can help. I have come to the conclusion that introducing bittering agents into antifreeze products will probably not help a great deal, because by the time a cat has tasted the bitterness, it has, unfortunately, probably already consumed enough to kill it. Products are available on the market that do not contain the toxin, but they are very expensive compared with the ethylene glycol products. That is something to look into, but I called this debate to discuss sentencing.
Section 7 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 covers attempts to kill an animal by poisoning, and the sentence is currently set at a maximum of 51 weeks in custody, a fine of up to £20,000, or both. The guidelines recommend a 12 to 26-week sentence and a fine of up to £5,000. It is interesting to look at what other countries do. In Australia, the maximum sentence for a crime of this nature is five years. A little closer to home, in Germany and the Netherlands it is three years, and in Spain it is 18 months. I repeat: the UK guideline is a maximum of six months. That is not a strong enough punishment for this horrendous crime.
It is interesting to see what has happened in the courts. A custodial sentence has never been handed down for the deliberate and malicious poisoning of a domestic cat. I have a number of examples. A gentleman called Donald Waterworth poisoned five of his neighbours’ cats. The punishment for that crime was a £125 fine. To put that into context, that is probably not even the commercial value of one of the cats, never mind the emotional trauma experienced by the poor families and the animals themselves. Alan Gillibrand had a problem with his next-door neighbour’s cat, so he decided to leave poisoned chicken all over the neighbourhood to try to kill it. That resulted in many cats in the neighbourhood being killed. He received a 12-week suspended sentence for that crime. Charles Coulter poisoned his neighbour’s cat and showed no remorse, protesting that he did it to protect his pigeons. He was fined £140. RSPCA research shows that the general public find such sentences insulting and think it is time we took stronger action against the people who commit these horrendous crimes.
Part of the reason for such lenient sentences is that magistrates tend to see animal cruelty cases as fairly trivial and unimportant, but we are a nation of animal lovers, and I do not think the way magistrates are sentencing is in tune with the views of the general public. We have to find a way to train our magistrates and make them more accountable, and to give them a flavour of the strength of feeling on this topic. We need to issue improved sentencing guidelines to magistrates. I hope the Minister will comment on that when he responds.
It is worth mentioning that the majority of cases in which custodial sentences are handed down seem to involve fighting animals—when people have engaged in the abhorrent practice of dogfighting or cockfighting—but not malicious poisoning of animals. What is to be done? I would like to see a number of outcomes from this debate. Sentencing should be much tougher. We need to create a real deterrent, and in my opinion that has to be a custodial sentence handed down to people who are convicted of this horrendous crime. A £150 fine is nowhere appropriate for such an horrendous crime.
I would like the Government, through the Ministry of Justice and other Departments, to talk to companies that produce antifreeze products, because we need to find a more affordable non-toxic variety. One challenge is that the ethylene glycol products are very cheap, whereas the alternatives tend to be very expensive because currently very few people use them. Consumer power is the answer, and the Government should do what they can to highlight that so that consumers can look for and purchase pet-safe antifreeze products, which would bring their costs more into line with the ethylene glycol products.
As I have mentioned, we have to improve awareness and responsibility in the training of magistrates, so that they consider those crimes in light of true abhorrence people feel about them. We want magistrates to hand out sentences that match how dreadful those crimes are.
We also need to encourage people to contact the RSPCA, the body that often brings private prosecutions against the people who commit these horrendous crimes. We should encourage people not to be afraid to ring the RSPCA and to report incidents to it. The RSPCA is good at investigating gently, and if there has been no crime and no abuse, it is good at talking to people and explaining that it has had a report. I am sure that it could handle such situations well, so we should encourage people to work with charities such as the RSPCA and Cats Protection.
I am taking action locally, raising money through a community fund so that we can issue residents in some of my villages with GPS tracking devices for their cats. That might seem to be an extreme measure, but it is a way of saying to the people committing these crimes, “We are coming after you. We are not going to accept your committing these offences against our pets. The net is closing in.” We are working with Nottinghamshire police and the RSPCA to ensure that we catch the people, or the individual, committing the crimes. I openly admit that if someone’s cat is poisoned, it will probably still die, sadly, but we will be able to track where it has been in the previous 24 hours and to build a map of where the offences have taken place—a grid to assist the police in clamping down.
I do not intend to detain the House for the full 90 minutes allotted to the debate, but I hope that I have got across a flavour of how abhorrent these crimes are and the fact that they are not taken seriously enough by magistrates when people are prosecuted. We have a long way to go in the judicial system before we get the right punishment for inflicting a dreadful, painful death on a domestic pet.
Thank you, Sir Roger, for your understanding and consideration. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) for securing this important debate.
We are undoubtedly behind other countries when it comes to sentencing for these abhorrent crimes, which hit the sensitivities of many in the wider community and the animal-loving population—and we are a nation of animal lovers. Australia has a maximum sentence of five years for such crimes, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria three years and countries such as Denmark two years. In the UK, the maximum sentence is six months.
There has been action in the past. In 2012 fines were uprated, but with no actual effect on sentencing, and the offences are still dealt with in magistrates courts, which have limits because their powers have never been uprated. This is an inconsistency left behind by previous Governments and I hope that our Government will do something.
Prosecution rates for these crimes are low. In 2014, for example, the RSPCA investigated 159,831 cases, but only 2,419 were prosecuted. The burden of proof seems to be higher to an extent, because obviously the animals subject to these crimes and horrendous activities cannot speak for themselves, so there is always the issue of evidence. However, the number still seems to be low, given that prosecutions are brought in only about 1.5% of cases investigated by the RSPCA.
One of the challenges with the burden of proof is that a post-mortem by an independent veterinary surgeon is necessary to mount a prosecution. When a family has lost a loved pet, however, the last thing that they want to do, frankly, is allow their pet to sit in a deep freeze for weeks until it has had a post-mortem operation, only then to be used as a piece of criminal evidence, rather than being treated as a loved pet.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important and interesting intervention. He makes a good point about the procedure, and the sensitivity around it. I maintain that a prosecution rate of 1.5% in this country is still low.
Not only are we prosecuting far fewer individuals for these crimes, but when people are brought to trial and found guilty, the sentences that they are receiving are far too light by any international comparison. The RSPCA has made the good point to me that existing laws are not being used properly. The organisation’s government relations manager suggested, for example, that disqualification or deprivation orders could be
“a powerful tool in protecting animal welfare”.
The problem is threefold: light prosecution rates; poor sentencing; and existing sanctions not being used sufficiently.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The crime is abhorrent from a social perspective and it gnaws to the marrow of many Britons.
As a nation of animal lovers, we want to see proper sentencing. I have heard that many times from constituents when such matters are brought before them. Solihull in particular has a strong history of good and careful treatment of animals. When such cases are talked about, people’s first reaction is often, “They got how long?”, “They got fined how much?” or, “Are you sure that these people can keep an animal again?” All too often, the answers are inadequate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has made an important point today and I speak very much in support of the motion. I hope that the debate sends out a strong message that enough is enough. We want prosecutions and tougher sentencing for these offences to reflect the general abhorrence in which our society holds individuals who commit such crimes against defenceless creatures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Roger.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this important debate. I am aware of the work that he is doing in his constituency to tackle some awful instances of cruelty to animals. I have read about many other examples of cruelty to animals in the newspapers, and they make for the most unpleasant reading—cases of starvation, overcrowding or failure to obtain required veterinary treatment. Even more unpleasant, as the hon. Gentleman said, are cases of deliberate harm to animals and organised fighting.
It is a concern to read that the RSPCA has reported increases throughout England and Wales in the number of complaints of cruelty to pets, including complaints of direct cruelty, such as beatings, improper killings, mutilations and poisonings. Equally, though, the RSPCA reports that more people are accepting advice and assistance from that organisation; there were more than 80,000 examples of that during 2013-14. What we all agree on is that animal cruelty and abuse is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated in a modern civilised country such as the United Kingdom.
The laws and penalties are similar, but not identical, in Scotland, where the legislation was consolidated and brought up to date in the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. There, the maximum penalty on conviction for causing unnecessary suffering or for animal fighting offences is 12 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £20,000. Other offences, such as poisonings or mutilations, attract a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment or a £5,000 fine. During the passage of the Bill that became that Act, there was extensive debate on sentencing powers. Indeed, it was in light of evidence provided to the relevant Scottish Parliament Committee and debate there that a 12-month sentence was attached, in place of the six-month sentence, to the offence of causing unnecessary suffering, as well as to offences relating to animal fighting.
The suggestion of increased sentencing powers is far from unreasonable. As hon. Members have pointed out, certain jurisdictions apply heavier maximum sentences, but in other jurisdictions there are more limited sentencing powers. However, broadly speaking, I believe that the powers that the courts have now are just about proportionate to provide adequate sentences for those found guilty of animal welfare offences. I agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood that there is an issue about how the current sentencing powers are used. I agree that the sentencing powers should be reviewed from time to time, but more importantly and more immediately, we have to look again at judicial guidance and how the existing sentences are used.
What is also striking about the reports of animal cruelty in the newspapers is that although there are clear deliberate acts, which must be the priority for clamping down on, there are also many instances that relate to lack of awareness, transient personal problems, ignorance or even mental health issues. That is not in any way to negate the suffering caused to the animals, but we need to keep the issue in mind when considering a proportionate response.
In each year from 2009 to 2011, 1,100 to 1,300 people were found guilty in England and Wales of animal cruelty offences—and 100 or fewer each year were sentenced to custody. Similarly, in Scotland during 2013-14, there were 124 prosecutions and 99 convictions and just two custodial sentences were handed down. The Scottish courts, too, have yet to use the maximum penalty available to them.
Again, I believe that the issue is more about use of the current powers than about increasing the powers available to the courts. People are not necessarily committing these offences because they think that the maximum punishment is not particularly severe.
I was struck when the hon. Gentleman said that people are not committing these crimes because of the sentencing—in effect, it is not a deterrent at present. Surely the point of increasing the sentence is that it would stand as an exemplar. If people open their newspapers and see that someone has been sentenced to five years for one of these offences, perhaps that would bring up short certain individuals who may be treating their animals cruelly.
I agree that people are influenced by what they see in the newspapers. However, I think that it would be much more influential if, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, people became aware that the RSPCA and others were coming after them and that they were likely to be caught. That would be more influential than seeing the difference between a one-year maximum sentence and a two-year maximum sentence.
Do I really think that the person behind all the cat poisoning in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency would think differently if the maximum sentence was two years, three years or five years? I suspect that a twisted individual such as that is more likely to rethink what they are doing if they think that they are going to be caught, rather than by sitting down and thinking over the maximum sentence that they could receive if they were caught.
We need to consider other options. The hon. Gentleman mentioned looking at judicial guidelines on sentencing. Education is key. For example, the Scottish Government have published various codes of practice for the welfare of animals, including cats and dogs. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals undertakes a free prevention-through-education outreach programme. In 2014, education officers, animal rescue officers and inspectors delivered that programme to about 317,000 primary school children. Scotland’s Rural College has also been undertaking research into how a duty of care can be best promoted to our young people.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to ensure that people are aware of how to report suspected incidents of animal cruelty. We also need to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to ensure that people know where they can find help if they are no longer capable of looking after their animals. I agree that we perhaps need to look at sentencing guidelines. This debate is well motivated and we may well want to revisit this issue in the future, but I am still not quite convinced that the case for the particular solution that has been offered—increasing the maximum penalty—has been made out. There are other ways of tackling this problem and we should concentrate on those first.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing the debate. He has been campaigning assiduously on this issue, and I am sure that his constituents are very grateful to him. I am sure that his cat, which I believe is called Parsnip, is also grateful for the effort he is making.
This is an important matter. Our inboxes this week show, I am sure, how interested the public are in animal welfare. I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members have had several hundred emails about the proposed revisions to the Hunting Act 2004. That confirms for me that we are a nation of animal lovers and that the British public care deeply about animal welfare.
The hon. Member for Sherwood raised the tragic case of a spate of cat poisonings in his constituency. In doing a little research, I found that that is certainly not restricted to his constituency—it is a regular occurrence. Just this year, more than 140 cats have been poisoned across the country. One of the other victims—the hon. Gentleman may know this but I did not until I looked into it—is my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), whose own cat, Jaffa, was poisoned and killed in the same way. I should make it clear, having spoken to my hon. Friend, that it is actually his partner’s cat, but I am sure that it is a loss to the whole family. The fact that several hon. Members have been victims, or at least have concerns about this issue, shows just how common it is becoming.
I worry about the level of animal cruelty. Looking at the Library’s debate pack, which cites some horrific cases, most of them very recent, makes one wonder about the mentality of people who can engage in such actions. Earlier this week, there was a story in the Evening Standard relating to my own constituency. It was about a cat that was thrown out of a car on to the Hammersmith flyover—extraordinary, one may think. There was a happy ending, as it was observed by staff of Notting Hill Housing, who risked their own safety to go out and rescue the cat, now called Bridget and now recovering in hospital, with only a grazed chin, I am told. But it was an extraordinary event, and these are not isolated events—they are very common. I still say that we are a nation of animal lovers, as the response of the public in that case shows, but many cats, dogs and other domestic animals—pets—are not as fortunate as Bridget and are often the victim of horrible treatment, whether through cruelty or negligence, at the hands of owners who end up abusing them.
In anticipation of the debate, I asked the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a number of parliamentary questions. He confirmed that 752 people were found guilty in 2014 of causing, permitting or failing to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals, but only 76 of those—about 10%—received immediate custody, and I think only about half that number received a custodial sentence of more than three months.
It is clear that the public are increasingly concerned that some sentences do not appear to match the abuse suffered by the animal victims, especially in the case of extreme cruelty. We hear reports from reputable organisations such as the RSPCA, Cats Protection and the International Fund for Animal Welfare about serious neglect, cruelty and violence against animals every day. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is an exemplary piece of Labour legislation, and I believe we can all sign up to it because it advances the cause of animal welfare. We have some of the best animal welfare legislation of anywhere in the world, but that is not to say that sentencing could not be addressed and improved.
The RSPCA states that, during the past five years, the maximum fine imposed on anyone who has been prosecuted under the 2006 Act was a fine of £15,000, which was £2,500 for each of six offences. In the RSPCA’s words, the courts
“increasingly take the position that unless someone can repay a fine and costs incurred within a reasonable period there is no point in imposing large fines. This suggests that the focus should be on prison sentences.”
We have to be slightly careful about saying that, because people might not be able to pay fines, prison is therefore the alternative. Let me suggest two or three alternative avenues that the Minister might like to look at. The hon. Member for Sherwood mentioned that the maximum sentence for some offences is set at 51 weeks. The Government had a change of heart during the progress of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—I served in Committee—in relation to magistrates’ sentencing powers. The previous Labour Government introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 the principle that a magistrate should have the power to impose a sentence of up to 12 months for a single offence. We did not activate that section, and the coalition Government proposed to repeal it but, wisely, had a change of heart. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that that section is still not in force. Giving magistrates the power to sentence people for longer on a single offence may be a route to allowing greater sentencing powers on some of the more serious animal welfare offences without making them either-way offences.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, particularly when he is agreeing with me wholeheartedly, but I think the point is that whatever the maximum sentence is, it has never been implemented for a case of this nature. In one such case, someone had premeditatedly gone out, purchased bait—for want of a better word—and poison and distributed them far and wide. The fact that they received only a very small fine emphasises that some part of the system is not working.
There are a number of elements to that, as the hon. Gentleman implies, one of which is the sentencing guidelines. Interestingly, there are sentencing guidelines for some animal cruelty offences and not for others. The advice from the Attorney-General, in answer to a parliamentary question, was that one should read across from those sentencing guidelines to offences for which there are no guidelines. For example, for section 7 offences, which cover poisoning, there are no specific sentencing guidelines, but one should look at guidelines in relation to, say, section 4 offences to see, first, whether existing guidelines are being followed—I am not sure that they are in every case—and, secondly, whether they should be strengthened in any way. That is a matter for the Sentencing Council. The Minister will no doubt want to deal with the use of existing sentencing powers and the question of whether there is any will in the Government to increase sentencing.
There is always danger inherent in the escalation of sentencing powers, not only because of the financial cost of prison places and so forth, but because if we begin to ratchet up sentences for one offence, there will be an immediate demand to do so for others. The Minister might want to look at repeat offending, however. By analogy, we proposed in the previous Parliament that driving while disqualified, which is a summary-only offence, should become an either-way offence with a maximum sentence of two years. Many animal welfare charities advocate a similar proposal for animal cruelty offences, which they think should carry a two-year maximum sentence.
The hon. Member for Sherwood is right that maximum sentences are rarely used. By definition, they are used only in the most serious cases. There is always a discount, usually of up to a third, for a guilty plea, which of course includes remission. Typically, even for a very serious offence with a guilty plea, the offender will receive a four-month sentence and will be out within two months. The only way in which the situation can be remedied, if Parliament’s will is for there to be longer sentences, is to increase the maximum. I am wary of sentence inflation, but in the case of repeat offending, there could be a reason for considering that proposal.
I used the analogy of driving while disqualified because to treat a first offence as a summary-only matter may well be perfectly reasonable. A small minority of people, however, repeatedly abuse the law by driving while disqualified again as soon as they get out of prison, knowing that the maximum that they are likely to get on a guilty plea is another two months inside. That might also apply to the sort of callous and sociopathic people who repeatedly commit serious offences against animals. The Minister might want to consider increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers, and to consider the selective use of either-way offences or the sentencing guidelines. I would be interested to see what he has to say on those matters.
In a similar debate in 2013, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister said:
“The Government deplore acts of animal cruelty and believe that offenders deserve the full force of the courts.”
He expressed his belief that the current legislation was “fit for purpose” and pointed out that judges had
“a great deal of discretion”—[Official Report, 15 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 229-230WH.]
when it came to determining the appropriate sentence for individual cases. That might be what the hon. Member for Sherwood is complaining about—judges may use that discretion in the wrong way.
The Minister in that debate also noted that nobody had been given the maximum sentence available under the law, and that judges would be expected to explain why anyone convicted of animal cruelty offences was not subsequently disqualified from owning or keeping animals. That is an important point. The sentencing guidelines state, in bold type:
“Consider disqualification from ownership of animal”.
I believe that that power is too rarely invoked. I had some personal experience of the matter, because my godson’s young brother’s kitten was savaged and killed in his presence by a dog. The court returned the dog to the owner with a £280 fine, despite the fact that it was a serial offender—or rather, the owner was a serial offender at letting it get out and be abusive in such a way. The dog was being used, effectively, as a weapon, but in such a case or in the case of someone who repeatedly commits animal cruelty, I cannot for the life of me see why any court in its right mind would allow them to continue to keep an animal. I ask the Minister to address whether he feels that the judiciary have heeded his colleague’s words on section 4 and section 7. If not, does he intend to take any actions to encourage the toughening up of the law, or at least of the guidelines? Will he consider asking the Sentencing Council to look at it again?
I would also like the Minister to clarify his position on section 8 offences, which relate to animal fighting. As things stand, the maximum sentence is six months, but it is rarely handed out. Animal fighting offences are some of the most serious offences and there can be very little mitigation for matters such as organised dog fighting. Does the Minister feel that the law in that respect is sufficient, or will he consider reviewing the situation?
There are powers in the 2006 Act to impose deprivation and disqualification orders. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that guidance in that area is updated and republished to ensure that it is used better and more consistently? How can it be right for repeat offenders of animal cruelty, poisoning or fighting to get away without being disqualified from looking after animals and possibly mistreating them again?
I advise the Minister to read the Labour manifesto. His colleagues seem to be dipping into it from time to time, whether it is the Chancellor on minimum incomes or, this morning, the Lord Chancellor on better use of the court estate and amalgamating places where hearings should be held. On animal welfare, we said:
“We will build on our strong record on animal welfare—starting with an end to the Government’s ineffective and cruel badger cull. We will improve the protection of dogs and cats, ban wild animals in circuses, defend the hunting ban and deal with wildlife crime associated with shooting.”
We made six pledges, one of which was to improve the protection of dogs and cats. Our offer on animal welfare was very strong, and I hope the Government are prepared to work with us on achieving some of those aims.
Today we are discussing the protection of domestic pets, and too often we see inadequate dog breeding practices causing suffering to both the animal and its owner. More puppies are being bred than there are good homes available, and large-scale puppy farms and backstreet breeders operate in terrible conditions in which dogs are frequently sick or unsocialised.
The hon. Gentleman has made some fine and balanced points in his interesting speech. On puppy farming, is not one of the points about sentencing and the treatment of offenders that there are major profits to be made for professional breeders and those involved in animal-related issues? He talked about a case that resulted in a £15,000 fine, which is equivalent to five or six puppies of a premium breed. With such potential profits to be made, is it not true that the available sentences and criminal sanctions are inadequate?
Indeed, and the maximum £15,000 fine was for six separate offences. Most fines for individual offences are way below that level. I am not sure whether the maximum fine, which was increased to £20,000 by LASPO, is necessarily inadequate. It might just be that the courts are not imposing fines. Fines have to be proportionate, because it is pointless fining people who will never have the means to pay. We perhaps need to find an alternative such as community sentences. There can be no reason for not fining commercial enterprises, or people who are making profits from dog breeding, at or near the maximum.
The unlawful trafficking of puppies with little or no regard for their health means that many fall sick or die shortly after purchase, leaving their owners not only heartbroken but often lumbered with large vets’ bills. Such trafficking also results in unsocialised dogs that present a threat to humans and other animals. Dogs are effectively treated as mere commodities by the people who are selling them. There is ineffective regulation, a lack of information for pet owners and a failure to address irresponsible and cruel breeding practices. The coalition Government struggled with those issues, and I hope the new Government will make headway. If they do, they can count on our support.
We pledged to review the inadequate regulation of the sale and breeding of cats and dogs. Poor breeding and rearing practices contribute greatly to the number of abandoned animals in rescue centres, and tougher sentencing might play a part in stopping animals being abandoned. That will have a beneficial effect down the line, including for animal rescue centres, which do such a fantastic job. We urge the Government to build on the Animal Welfare Act and the strategy we proposed.
In Northern Ireland, just last year, a sentence was handed out to a father and his sons for extreme cruelty to animals. The shock among the community was such that elected representatives such as me, and many others, sought for the case and the sentence to be reviewed. We sought a custodial sentence that reflected the severity of the cruelty. Unfortunately, the reply stated that the judge was unable to give the type of custodial sentence that should have been given because the law did not allow that to happen. What the hon. Gentleman is saying, and what I suspect every other hon. Member has said, is that that needs to be reflected in the law of the land to enable judges, whenever the situation arises, to hand down a custodial sentence that reflects the severity of the cruelty. Society finds the current sentences distasteful when it sees such cruelty. We must ensure that people who commit such crimes receive the correct sentence.
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I hope the Minister will address all those issues in full, including the use of current sentencing powers—not only custodial and financial penalties but preventing offenders from keeping animals and monitoring repeat offenders.
Returning to my point, will the Minister commit to reviewing the existing regulations on the sale and breeding of cats and dogs? This has been an interesting week for animal welfare campaigners, who know that they can always rely on the Labour party. Perhaps they can now also rely on the Scottish National party, but no other mainstream political party can equal our track record on delivering for animals, be they domestic pets or wild animals. Whether it is legislating on hunting with dogs, fighting to protect wild animals that are being exploited in circuses or introducing the Animal Welfare Act, we have a strong legacy.
When the Animal Welfare Act was published, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), the then Minister with responsibility for animal welfare, said:
“Once this legislation is enacted, our law will be worthy of our reputation as a nation of animal lovers.”
Almost 10 years later, we need to ensure that the Act is working properly in relation to sentencing guidelines, and I offer the Minister our full support in ensuring that that is still the case.
I end by quoting Gandhi:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I am glad Bridget is recovering from her traumatic experience and I am glad there are some good stories, but in preparation for this debate I read some harrowing stories of animal cruelty. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s proposals for how we can discourage and punish such cruelty where it continues.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this important debate. He is right that the needless suffering of animals is always a concern, whether that suffering is deliberately inflicted, accidental or the result of negligence, and whether the animals are domestic or wild. It often happens because people are unaware of the effect of their behaviour, and sometimes simple steps can be taken to prevent animals from coming to harm—indeed, he set out a number of steps in his excellent speech.
The suffering of pets can cause considerable distress to their owner as well as to the animals themselves, as this debate has made clear. At a recent constituency surgery, a widow came to see me who strongly believes that her dog was stolen. In the two or three times that she has been to see me since, it has been vividly impressed on me that, to her, that is akin to a family bereavement. She lives on her own, and her dog was her only companion. We need to recognise how greatly the loss of a much loved domestic pet affects our constituents. Victim personal statements mean that courts, at the discretion of the judge, are able to consider the degree of harm caused by an offence, and they are open to statements from pet owners in such horrific cases.
I welcome this debate, which I hope will raise awareness of our responsibilities and of the legal measures that are available to us. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for ensuring that the courts have the powers they need to deal appropriately and proportionately with all the cases that come before them. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for animal welfare issues more widely, including ensuring responsible pet ownership and the wider protection of our pets and wildlife. The Animal Welfare Act is the main legislation that protects the welfare of animals, and the Government reviewed the operation of that Act in 2010. A report was prepared by DEFRA and shared with the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The report concluded that the Act had
“a positive impact on animal welfare. It has successfully brought together a number of different pieces of legislation into a comprehensive whole providing a duty of care for those responsible for animals.”
The report did not suggest that the available penalties are inadequate.
Legislation sets maximum penalties that the courts may apply. It is for the courts—usually magistrates courts in animal welfare cases—to take a view on what sentences should be given in individual cases, having heard all the evidence and taken account of the circumstances of the case. In coming to a view, the courts are helped by the sentencing guidelines produced by the independent Sentencing Council. The council, set up under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, consults widely before issuing guidelines, which are available on its website. Sentencing guidelines set out a recommended range of sentences and aggravating and mitigating factors that may make the sentence more or less severe in particular cases. The courts have a duty to follow the guidelines unless, exceptionally, it would not be in the interests of justice to do so.
Guidelines do not exist for every offence, but there are specific guidelines covering offences in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The Sentencing Council recently consulted on updating guidelines in response to changes to the 1991 Act contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Sentencing guidelines for magistrates include guidelines for offences of animal cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They help magistrates impose proportionate and consistent penalties. The guidelines were last updated in 2008 and reflect the current penalties available.
The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that courts have the powers to impose appropriate sentences. To that end, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal, with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
After this debate, will the Minister reflect whether the guidelines for magistrates are robust enough to encourage them to give out the correct sentence? We have heard of a number of crimes of premeditated poisoning for which no one has been given a custodial sentence on being convicted. Might he reflect on those guidelines and write to me with those reflections?
I am more than happy to do so. I meet the Sentencing Council reasonably regularly, and I will ensure that a copy of this debate is sent to the council so that it is well aware of the widespread interest in these matters in Parliament.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 also makes it an offence to fail to provide for an animal’s welfare needs, attracting a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. The courts also have powers to disqualify someone from owning an animal in future. Where they have that power but do not impose such a disqualification, courts must state why.
The Government have introduced new measures to tackle antisocial behaviour by allowing police and local authorities to issue warning notices to low-level offenders who allow their dogs to worry others. Dog owners, for example, could be asked to go on training courses with their pet. Those new measures form part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
Figures taken from the court database do not show that the courts are finding that their powers are inadequate. There have been around 2,000 convictions annually under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in recent years. In 2014, some 959 cases were proceeded against; 800 people were found guilty, 78 of whom received custodial sentences. The average sentence was about three months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) suggested that a higher penalty might have a deterrent effect. Research shows little evidence that this is the case; rather, it is the likelihood of being caught that has the deterrent effect. On that note, I particularly commend what my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is doing in his constituency with GPS tracking, which might provide evidence and act as a significant deterrent in his area.
We should concentrate on ensuring that animal cruelty is not overlooked or tolerated and that offenders are brought to book. The RSPCA and others provide us with valuable help to ensure that that message gets through loudly and clearly. I agree with the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), on the important role of education in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood told us at the beginning of this debate that there have been some horrific incidents in his constituency involving antifreeze. I cannot comment on individual cases, but it is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to poison wild animals, and under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to poison domestic ones. Whether the poison is intended for domestic or wild animals, its use is an offence in either case. There are offences and penalties to tackle such behaviour, and where it occurs it should be reported to the police or the RSPCA. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate before the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered sentencing for cruelty to domestic pets.
Police Procurement (Motor Vehicles)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered police procurement of motor vehicles.
I am grateful for having secured today’s debate in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).
As the Government struggle to find an answer to their woes about Britain’s lack of productivity and as globalised corporations continue to send more British manufacturing and engineering abroad—not because build quality is better, but simply to boost their own short-term profits—we still have a lead in one sector, in which we are globally renowned. That sector is the automotive industry, where the UK is steaming ahead with a global lead based on design innovation, engineering excellence, manufacturing quality, investment in skills and a commitment by managers and employees alike to work together to achieve common aims of success and, crucially, to share the fruits fairly.
The automotive sector in the UK presents an ideal opportunity for the Government to implement a positive procurement strategy. More than 600 automotive companies are based in the UK, employing just over 730,000 people and turning over more than £60 billion. The UK produces 1.6 million cars and commercial vehicles and over 2.6 million engines every year. We are now the second largest vehicles market and fourth largest vehicles manufacturer in the European Union. We are also the second largest premium vehicles manufacturer after Germany. Some 80% of all vehicles produced in the UK are exported and, for the first time since the 1970s, the UK has a trade surplus and a positive balance of payments for the auto sector. Take the Range Rover Evoque, built by Jaguar Land Rover in Halewood: demand is such that they cannot build the cars quickly enough. Think also of Nissan’s massive success with vehicles such as the Qashqai or the LEAF.
Yet for all its success, the automotive sector remains if not precarious, then never quite secure. Car firms are only as good as their next model, and the allocation of work to plants across a group will take place many years before production commences. In my former role as an official with Unite the union—I am still a member—and its predecessors, I twice joined in negotiations with the global management of General Motors to try to save the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. These are tough discussions with big global players that see local management and workers fighting together for their plant but often having to make difficult concessions on pay and working hours to remain competitive. Government assistance to support that competitive position is always welcome, because there is no such thing as long-term security in the car industry.
At this stage, the Home Office Minister may be forgiven for wondering whether it is he or I who is in the wrong debate, but we are sadly now at a point when the Home Office has a direct interest in the motor vehicle industry. Through the central purchasing system set up by the Government and administered by the Cabinet Office, a consortium of around 22 police forces, including my own in Cheshire, are on the verge of signing a procurement deal for police vehicles. Despite the abundance of quality in the UK car manufacturing sector, it is reported that the principal deal is likely to be with Peugeot. No other major EU country would betray one of its leading industries in this way. I challenge all hon. Members to go to Germany and find a police car that is not an Audi, a Mercedes or a Volkswagen or to go to France and find a police car that is not a Peugeot, a Citroen or a Renault.
We must recognise that the supply chain works right across Europe and helps both British companies and those who supply into the British-made market, but is not just the failure to buy British that is the scandal here. There is a double insult because Peugeot chose not to manufacture in this country. In 2006, it closed its plant at Ryton in Coventry and moved the work to Slovenia—lock, stock and barrel. It was not that Ryton was unprofitable or unproductive; it was simply that the global management of Peugeot believed that bigger short-term profits could be made by moving to a country where manufacturing costs are lower. That is its prerogative, even if it did put 3,000 skilled British workers out of well-paid jobs.
That being the case, why on earth, just a few short years later, are we considering rewarding Peugeot with a massive public sector contract, having seemingly forgotten its betrayal of a loyal British workforce?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Had he not done so, we would simply not have been aware that the deal is about to be done. I support him when he says that we should always seek to buy British, but does he agree that, provided that they buy British, it is right that police forces should collaborate in order to procure?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must surely welcome collaboration between police forces if it leads to greater efficiency and greater savings. We cannot dismiss that process, but wider considerations must be taken into account in the police consortium’s discussions, and I will talk about that later.
In times of austerity, it cannot be right that we are potentially taking millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ cash and posting it across the channel. Does that really represent value for money for British taxpayers? Part of the problem has been with how the Government transposed the EU procurement directive. By transposing the directive into UK law in a weaker form than that adopted by our EU partners, the Government have left the British manufacturing industry at a serious competitive disadvantage. Article 1 of the new directive states the fundamental principle of the right of member states to define and run their public services in their own interests, and as such they are not subject to marketisation under EU law. However, the UK Government decided not to transpose that section and have excluded any reference to that principle within the regulations.
The mandatory considerations in article 18(2) lay down the labour law standards and working conditions that must be respected throughout the stages of the public procurement procedure. Additional social, economic, quality and environmental criteria are those that provide the flexibility to enable contracting authorities to promote sustainable and positive procurement policies. Unfortunately, the Government have taken a distinctly minimalist approach to implementing that article.
Returning to the point that I made in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), all this means that the only consideration that ever seems to be taken into account is one of bare cost. I simply cannot understand why the Government, or other public authorities such as the consortium or police and crime commissioners, are so keen to open the doors to foreign corporate bidders and hand over huge public sums to globalised corporations that hold no loyalty to the UK, given that other corporations of similar size and stature have made a commitment to this country by choosing to site and manufacture here. One thing is for sure: it was not due to some Damascene conversion to the European ideal that the Government chose to water down the directive.
Returning to my right hon. Friend’s point, I accept that cost must be a central factor in procurement decisions, as is the question of whether the chosen equipment can actually do the job it is being purchased to do. However, in addition to those two principles, there must surely be a cost-benefit consideration for the British economy more widely.
We must support skilled employment, retain skills and provide opportunities for real apprenticeships, which the Government are keen to promote, as opposed to the more cheap and cheerful training courses. The automotive industry has led the way in providing quality training and apprenticeships, and in bringing real skills and design innovation into this country. It has given real value to the country, and we should be supporting it in its success. Instead, we appear to be failing to stand up for British jobs and skills by intending to reward a firm that specifically chose to turn its back on this country.
There is still hope, however. I ask the Minister to urge the police and crime commissioners to review the decision. He must urge them not to sign the contract with Peugeot—if there is still time—and to consider other British bidders. He must save the PCCs from shame and obloquy by preventing them from handing over huge quantities of taxpayers’ cash to a foreign corporation, when British firms would not have had the chance to do the same in other EU countries, which actually fight for their manufacturing base and as a result have a much more balanced economy.
I doubt whether, when the Minister took the Prime Minister’s call and accepted a position in the Home Office and the Department of Justice, he realised that striking a blow to Britain’s car industry would be at the top of his agenda within a matter of a couple of months. He has the power to call a pause to what I believe is a crazy, crackpot scheme. I urge him to use it and to fight for British jobs, British skills and the British working people, whom the Government claim to be so fond of championing. Now is the time to stand up for Britain. I ask the Minister to step up and meet the challenge.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am also grateful for the clear and compelling case made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). He explained the circumstances in which this matter has been raised.
The British manufacturing sector includes 11 of the world’s leading global vehicle and engine manufacturers: Aston Martin, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, Lotus, MG, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen. Several of those manufacturers are in close proximity to my constituency. The Vauxhall Motors plant in my constituency employs several thousand people locally and many more elsewhere in the supply chain. Motor vehicle manufacturing is a key part of the local economy, as it has been for more than half a century.
We recognise that police budgets are under pressure as a result of Government decisions. Central funding to police forces has fallen by £2.3 billion in real terms since 2010—a 25% reduction in five years—so the challenges faced by the police and crime commissioners and chief constables making such decisions are real. The need to ensure value for money for the taxpayer is greater than it has ever been.
As correctly highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the concept of a procurement consortium is good, because the combined purchasing power of many police authorities can deliver significant savings. I have seen many examples in local government of how that has worked to the benefit of the taxpayer. That power should be utilised to provide wider benefits. When looking for value for money on an issue such as vehicle procurement, it is important that we take a wider, more holistic approach than simply looking at individual unit cost. We need to look at the value, not just the price. That encompasses a range of issues, including fuel economy, servicing, maintenance cost, resale value, fitness for purpose and, most importantly, social value.
I share the anxiety expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester about having a narrow, short-term approach to procurement, which could end up costing us much more by providing poor value for money. That is particularly true when we look at social value, which seems to have been completely disregarded in this case. As my hon. Friend said, a cursory look at police fleets in other countries shows that we stand almost alone in failing to recognise the importance of social value as part of the procurement process.
In France, the police use Citroens, Renaults and Peugeots, produced in French factories. In Germany, they use Mercedes, BMWs and Volkswagens. In Spain, they use SEATs. In Sweden, they use SAABs and Volvos. In Italy, they have Alfa Romeos, Fiats and a few Lamborghinis—I am not quite sure what value those bring. All those countries are governed by the same directive as we are, yet they are all able to procure in a way that supports their own industries. I ask myself why police officers in Cheshire are using vehicles made thousands of miles away rather than those made down the road at the local Vauxhall factory.
We should pay tribute to the success of Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port in recent years. In the face of stiff competition from other General Motor plants across Europe, it has consistently seen off threats to its existence. Management and trade unions have worked together to show that British industry can be competitive and adaptable. Just this week, the plant is looking to recruit more than 50 young people in new roles as it prepares for the launch of the latest model of the Astra.
The continued revival of the UK car industry through initiatives such as the Automotive Council leaves us with the conundrum that one of our most dynamic and successful industries has been leading the way in our bid to increase exports but appears unable to compete with foreign manufacturers on its own patch. We should be proud of the success of Vauxhall and other British manufacturers, but we should not be complacent about the challenges they face. We should take every opportunity to bolster that success.
We seem to be procuring more skilfully in other parts of the public sector. I note, from a response to a written question I tabled recently, that the Government car service has shown improvement in that area. From 2011 to 2014, 80% of all vehicles purchased by the Government car service were manufactured in the United Kingdom. Clearly, I would like that figure to be 100%, but it is a lot better than the 0% for policing.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester in urging the Minister to get the police and crime commissioners together to find a way to support British business. Do we really want to make ourselves the laughing stock of Europe on this subject? Do we really want to miss this opportunity to secure more jobs and investment in our car industry? I understand that procurement processes have to be legally robust, but a comparison with other European countries shows we are missing a trick somewhere. I hope a way can be found to procure in a way that delivers value for money for the taxpayer and boosts our economic performance.
I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing this important debate, for his excellent speech and for his passion about the principle of buying British. I have some degree of sympathy for that principle.
Policing in Scotland is a devolved matter, but there is now a single police force in Scotland, which procures police vehicles through the Home Office contract. As far as I am aware, the Scottish Police Authority is part of the consortium of 22 or 23 police authorities that procure cars through the Home Office contract.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position in the House. Actually, it is not the Home Office contract, but a contract with West Yorkshire, which is the central procurement team for the forces. He is absolutely right that Police Scotland is involved in the procurement process, but this is not a Home Office issue. It is done through the constabularies themselves, and West Yorkshire leads.
Nevertheless, the hon. Member for City of Chester made some excellent points. Before I heard them, I intended to outline the procurement process in Scotland and the savings that the single police is making within it. However, given what the hon. Gentleman said, I am not sure the debate would be served by that analysis.
I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will approach the Scottish Police Authority and ask it about this issue. I will ask whether it is aware of the contract potentially being given to Peugeot and get its view on the matter. I will also liaise with the Scottish Government and talk to the hon. Gentleman about the results of that, so we can take that forward. I do not have the information he has about whether the contract will go to Peugeot, but if it is going to, I share his concerns.
I cannot add a great deal to what the hon. Gentleman said, other than to agree with the comments of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I think the procurement process is best served by a consortium for procuring vehicles, so we can take advantages of economies of scale and get more bang for our buck. We could make demands on price, and we could make things cheaper and more cost-effective for the UK taxpayer.
I will leave it at that. I give the hon. Member for City of Chester my firm commitment that I will contact the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Government, and liaise directly with him on this issue to see what we can come up with to take it forward.
I did not intend to speak in the debate. I saw the words “police” and “vehicles” on the Order Paper, so thought I would pop in to support my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). The debate is important. I will be brief because I have just three major points to raise and I know that the Minister and shadow Minister want to respond to what my hon. Friends said.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester on securing the debate. It opens up an area that we need to look at carefully. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has just been reformed and we are looking at our list of inquiries for the future. I checked today to see when we last considered procurement, and it was in our report on the “New Landscape of Policing” in 2011. We referred to vehicle purchase with reference to the new police and crime commissioners and the chief constables. The Committee felt that it was important for everyone to have a say in how procurement operated.
We have believed, in producing previous reports, that a system where individual police forces prosecute their own procurement policy is wrong. Collaboration, which the Government have done—and encouraged—extremely well in the past five years, is the right way forward, in our view. With collaboration there are economies of scale. There is a much larger purchaser, and a better deal can be obtained for those who end up paying—the taxpayers.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for being so generous in giving way, as always; I hope I always do the same for him. I shall probably be appearing before his Committee quite soon, so I am going to be nice.
In Leicestershire there is a fantastic chief constable and the PCC is doing exemplary work. Sadly—it may be because of procurement issues and already being locked into a contract—Leicestershire is not part of the consortium. I hope that it will join, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will join me in the hope that it will come forward to do so; it is important to get as many as possible. I respect the fact that the force may already be in a contractual obligation, although hopefully that will come to an end quite soon. If the right hon. Gentleman will join me, perhaps we can bring Leicestershire to the party as well.
I am happy to do so. That is the second thing that I have learned this afternoon. I did not know that, and I think that Leicestershire should be part of a consortium or collaboration because that is the best way, working together among the various police forces, that we can get the best possible deal for taxpayers.
We have not yet reached the Scottish situation outlined by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) in which there is one police force and one chief constable who can work with the national Government to procure the best deal. Who knows whether we may be looking in that direction? I have just been looking at the evidence that the permanent secretary at the Home Office gave on Monday to the Public Accounts Committee. He hinted at economies of scale with reference to mergers. I do not say that we are going to consider mergers, because that always causes a lot of concern among hon. Members, who are all keen to preserve their local police forces. However, value for money is an important criterion.
My second point, and I suppose a more important one for the present debate, is what kind of vehicles we would like our police officers to be in. Of course as British citizens we would like them to be in vehicles manufactured in our country. When we considered the issue of value for money, we found that cheapest is not always best. Of course we would want the best possible deal. I am not sure how the bidding process happens—whether by sealed bid or open negotiations; but I think that if there were a way for the consortium to put to a British manufacturer the deal that it had got with a foreign one, to see whether it could be matched in this country, that should be done.
The only way that can be done, of course, is if what has happened is properly examined. I promise my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester and for Ellesmere Port and Neston that I will write to whoever is the lead in the consortium—as the Minister has made it clear that he will not be signing the contract, at the end—and ask the reason for the decision. Buying British is not always the best option. We are not the ones who sit at the negotiating table, in the end. However, both my hon. Friends have made a compelling case for the matter to be looked at carefully, and of course we want the police to use vehicles made in this country, if that is possible.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the importance of buying British. Does he accept that there may be occasions when the model that would best meet the specifications is not made in the United Kingdom, but is made by a manufacturer that has made a commitment to the UK by manufacturing other models here? Perhaps that would not be ideal, but we might at least consider such manufacturers that have made a commitment to UK jobs, skills and prosperity.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and I support it. I have not heard it before. As to whether we should have a system of contract compliance for public sector contracts, I am quite attracted to that. I think a commitment to this country would be a good idea. I do not have enough knowledge of the detail, unlike my hon. Friends, but we need to consider that carefully. Even at what sounds like the 11th hour, I hope that those concerned will pause and consider what is happening. In bringing the matter before the House my hon. Friends have brought to my attention, and that of the Select Committee, something we did not know about before.
My final point is about the nature of the private sector’s relationship with the public sector. We examined that in the context of Olympic delivery, when a large Government contract was outsourced to G4S and we found that it was at fault; what it was prepared to deliver was wanting. That was the eve of the Olympics and there was not much chance to do much; we had to accept what G4S said. However, very large companies such as G4S and Serco, which are not necessarily British but may be global, with headquarters here and paying taxes elsewhere, may try to get the Home Office and other Departments over a barrel because of their size. I am sure that the Select Committee will want to look at that in the future, especially when we examine Mark Sedwill and his role as permanent secretary.
Those things come to Ministers at the end, and there is a lot of pressure on them to settle for the best possible deal, which sometimes means the cheapest. However, we know that in the present case the decision will not be made by the Minister who is here today. We will have to look at the issue again, because the private sector is powerful and has enormous sway over Government decisions. I hope that in future the Select Committee will look at what this afternoon’s short debate has opened up—the way in which private sector organisations deal with the Home Office, in particular—because that is our remit. That might have wider implications for other Departments.
I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester and for Ellesmere Port and Neston will be successful in getting a short pause to allow people to think again before the deal is signed. As we know, once a contract is signed—as we found with e-Borders and the cost to the taxpayer of, in the end, £750 million—there is nothing we can do. It is better to stop and consider carefully before signing the deal, and I urge those involved to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on obtaining the debate. They are right that we must work towards British bobbies buying British cars.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester was right when he referred to the world-class success story that is the automotive sector. I welcome the fact that the steps that the Labour party took in government for a dedicated industrial strategy and the Automotive Council UK were continued in the past five years. There has been a welcome continuity of policy in the automotive sector, designed to build on that success. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right when he said that we need constantly to bolster that success, particularly when decisions that can be influenced by the Government are being made.
We would not be having this debate in France. Sadly, I vividly remember what happened to the Peugeot factory in Coventry. I was involved in the efforts to persuade the company to change its mind. If we were having this debate in France and anyone said to the French Police Minister, “Will you buy British cars?”, I think the Minister’s response would be, “Pas croyable! On achète des voitures Anglaises, pour nos flics Français? Merde!” Or, loosely translated, “You cannot be serious.”
Part of the problem is the approach towards procurement. However, there is also the issue raised by both my hon. Friends in respect of the interpretation of the European Union procurement rules. I remember that in my former role as deputy general secretary of, first, the Transport and General Workers Union, and then Unite, we regularly sought to influence procurement decisions under successive Governments. The rather narrow interpretation of EU procurement rules in our country, compared with France and Germany, was stark. In one rather heated discussion with senior civil servants in the Treasury some years ago, they said, “Well, we would like to, but we can’t, because of the constraints of the EU procurement rules.” Perhaps my Catholic education lets me down, but my recollection is that when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, they did not have written on them EU procurement rules. EU procurement rules are manufactured by Minister and man and can, and should be, interpreted flexibly, exactly as happens in France, Italy and Germany, who traditionally hold their industrial base in much higher regard than we do, all too often.
I am aware of a Franco-Italian-Spanish collaboration. Interestingly, that refers back to the point made in an earlier intervention about countries making reciprocal arrangements that benefit the countries and industries involved.
There are two problems: first, the interpretation of EU procurement rules; and, secondly, the lack of a strategic procurement strategy. The Minister was right to mention the welcome step in the right direction in the 22 forces coming together and the role of the Crown Commercial Service, anchored by West Yorkshire—a collaboration not before its time. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless), the Scottish National party spokesman, that it is different in Scotland, where there is a national strategic procurement approach, but the problem is that while we have 43 forces in England Wales, taken as a whole, the story of our life is all too often separate decisions being made that do not necessarily make sense in terms of operational effectiveness and efficiency, and the best interests of our industrial base.
That long-standing problem has recurred under successive Governments, but under the previous Government a damning National Audit Office report mentioned a particular sum in respect of the procurement portal’s potential: if it were fully realised it could lead to a benefit of £50 million. However, what was being realised was peanuts, because there was only 2% take-up through the national procurement portal.
The official Opposition have argued that collaboration is crucial, but there needs to be a move one step further in a nationally driven strategic approach with the police service, including mandated procurement. Some of the work that we have done during the past two years has demonstrated that saving 25% of the £2.2 billion procurement budget, or £550 million, is eminently achievable, considering the experience elsewhere in the public and private sectors. By the way, that sum could save many police officers who would otherwise go. Whether in respect of a sensible approach to realising savings to enable investment in policing, or in respect of procurement and the industrial interests of our country, the time has come for a national strategic approach, at the heart of which should necessarily be—where appropriate and not in all circumstances—mandating.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, saying that his Committee might return to this at the next stages, not least because of the enormous benefits there would be for our industrial base in Britain, but also because we would have capacity to invest in policing, particularly front-line policing, at a time of continuing constraints on public expenditure.
We urge the Minister to consider two things during the next stages. First, a powerful case has been made for the pause, if I can use my right hon. Friend’s words. Concern has been expressed, rightly, about what may happen at the next stages—will a major contract be placed with a company that has not, in the past, shown quite the loyalty to this country that it should have done? My hon. Friends are right to raise that matter. I hope the Minister is prepared to sit down with those able to make the decisions and urge them to reconsider, very much along the lines that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Of course, we need value for money, but we should think of the wider and longer-term interests, including our country’s industrial interests.
Secondly, I would be the first to recognise that there have been some welcome steps in the right direction under this Government, but I hope they go significantly further in the aspect of procurement relating to hardware —to use the shorthand—whereby, working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the police service, they seek a strategic focus on getting the best for Britain out of procurement.
In conclusion, it goes without saying, but it is worth saying nevertheless, that the best should always be bought for our police service, because, particularly at times of stress and crisis, it needs to be absolutely confident that what is purchased for its use works and is of the highest possible specification, subject to value for money. We need to be confident that that is so. However, having said that, I do not believe that that contradicts a “Buy British” policy, for which my hon. Friends argued powerfully. No one is suggesting that always, on every occasion, nothing else is done, but we should have that approach. My hon. Friends have flown the flag for their two constituencies today, and our approach should be to fly the flag for the country as a whole.
Mr Brady, it is a pleasure, as usual, to serve under your chairmanship in my first Westminster Hall debate in the same role as I had in the previous Government, but doing more. The Prime Minister kindly inserted the word “Crime” into my portfolio—a short five-letter word that means I have apparently taken over most of the rest of the Home Office.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). It is a beautiful city; I know it well. It is a long time since I was there, so perhaps I need to go back soon and go out on patrol. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) also spoke in the debate. As a young fireman I did a bit of moonlighting in the Port Sunlight area, delivering quite a lot, and I used to drive through that part of the world regularly—well, I tried to drive, but it was like a car park on the motorway most of the time.
Anybody who knows me will know that I am ever so slightly Eurosceptic, so I have a great deal of sympathy with what has been said in this Chamber this afternoon. As a Minister with experience in five Departments now, I assure colleagues that I have pushed the parameters as far as I can when it comes to what I perceive—and what I am sure the Government perceive—as incorrect interpretation of EU regulations. My advice is that many of the things that Members have been asking be done—I will ensure that I check this when I write to them—are illegal under the EU procurement directive. Even looking at the matter again in 2015, as Members have mentioned, that would have made no difference to the geographical part of the procurement process. If I am wrong, I will certainly write to colleagues to correct it, but that is the advice I stand here with as a Minister.
As a Minister in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, I would not want to take on other responsibilities, but I promise to made sure that we look into that and get the facts on how other countries do it. Other countries interpret their membership of the European Union differently. I have committed infractions on more than one occasion in more than one Department, because my interpretation was different both from what my officials were pushing me to do and from the interpretations of courts in Europe.
If I was sitting on the Opposition Benches—I have sat there—I would be arguing for similar things. Whether we can physically do those things and how we get to the position where we can do them are important. To be honest, a Select Committee could look at this in procurement terms, so that we can be open and honest about what we can and cannot do. I thank the shadow Minister for his comments; we have come a long way in the past couple of months. We disagree that there should be a centralised purchasing system. We have freed up the police authorities to police their areas in the way that they feel they should. The police are doing fantastic work in Cheshire: crime has dropped with fewer police officers and less money, and the situation is exactly the same with West Midlands police.
One point that the shadow Minister and I agree on is that there is money to be saved in procurement. There is no argument about that; I was banging on about that long before I came into the House. As a fireman, I used to complain bitterly about the money that we spent. There were cupboards full of stuff bought 15 years before; it was sitting there and would never be used. I am desperately trying to push that spending down. To be fair to the PCCs and the chiefs, they are coming to the table. We created the PCCs to be independent and to be able to do what they want, and all I have said to them all along is that there has to be value for money. Some of them have clearly said to me, as Members have in this debate, that if they can buy locally, that should outweigh a little of the cost that they could have saved if they had got it cheaper elsewhere, and I understand that point. There are, however, huge differentials in what forces are paying, not only for cars, but for batons, shirts, fleeces and trousers. They are so huge that I have decided in the next couple of weeks to publish by police force the main things that they buy, so that the public can see what their force is spending in their area. We will make that information available, including for Cheshire, West Midlands and Leicestershire.
I was a tad cheeky in saying that Leicestershire was not part of the consortium of 22 police forces that has done the recent review. The West Midlands force, sadly, is not part of it either. I am sure there are reasons for that, and I am sure they will come to the party. We can get that 22 up, but it is not just about having all 43 forces. As we have heard, Police Scotland is part of the consortium, which is welcome as it helps us to get more bang for our buck, as are the British Transport police.
I will touch on the points raised on it being only Peugeot that won a contract, because it was not only Peugeot. BMW, Ford, Vauxhall and Peugeot were successful in the e-bid process that we have just come through. An interesting point was made about whether, when manufacturers have brought something else to the UK, that balances things out. That is similar to what the shadow Minister said about Italy buying 4,000 SEAT vehicles from Spain that were manufactured in Spain—some of the parts might have been produced here in the UK. We are a major exporter of car parts, and we should not underestimate that part of the system. BMW makes the Mini in this country, and that very successful product employs lots of people in Swindon. Sadly, Ford does not manufacture vehicles here any more. As a young fireman in Essex, I used to go to the Dagenham plant all too often—it was technically over the boundary, but we were often needed when there was an incident. The TCDI engine is a world-leading diesel engine that is exported all over the world. Some 80% of the vehicles manufactured in this country are exported, and Members have alluded to that great success story.
I must declare an interest: many of my constituents in the great constituency of Hemel Hempstead work in Vauxhall’s Luton van manufacturing plant, which is part of the consortium. Vauxhall vans will be with police forces, based on the process that took place, and Peugeot has also won a contract.
A new bidding process will take place this autumn. I am sure that Vauxhall, like many other manufacturers, will want to bid. Nearly every time I have visited a police force, I have been squeezed into the back of an Astra. The Astra is a bit of a Marmite subject for police forces. I love the Astra, and we have had Astras in our family, but colleagues who have been out on patrol will know that if there are two burly bobbies with all their kit and a burly Minister in the back, it can be interesting—but it does the job. Peugeot has won this contract, and I am sure that Vauxhall will be bidding for the other one.
What has happened here for the first time is economies of scale. I was a little bit cheeky by naming two forces that just happen to cover the constituencies of two of the most senior Members in Westminster Hall this afternoon. I am sure that there are contractual reasons for those forces not being in the consortium, because nearly all the chiefs I have met have said, “We’re going to be part of this. It’s very important.” I hope that forces join together at that level in other types of procurement. We see a lot of joint practice across different forces at the moment on HR and procurement in the IT sector. We have just announced a new IT company that will run the IT purchases for all 43 forces. I hope that Scotland will join us on that, because it would be brilliant to have an operable IT system. We need to work together on that with the National Crime Agency and organised crime units, and I will be working on it with Ministers in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The key is having the right vehicles for the right people doing the right jobs. I first became a Minister back in 2010. I never dreamt that would happen to me, but it did. Having been a shadow Health Minister for four and a half years, the Department for Transport was really interesting on the first day. One thing I worked on was the Government car service. I am sure that colleagues remember the Mondeos outside Parliament over the years, then the Priuses and the Honda hybrids, but they have probably noticed that we do not see those vehicles out there any more—certainly not the Honda hybrids and the Toyotas. I made an absolutely conscious decision to buy the Avensis for junior Ministers, because they were assembled and manufactured in this country. There was not another compatible vehicle that could do the job—we tried lots of other vehicles: we had a Qashqai on loan for a considerable time, but it did not work; Hyundai sent us some vehicles, and I think one of them is still hanging around. I took a little bit of flack, but I wanted that pressure.
There are exemptions. For instance, the Metropolitan police wanted to use BMW armoured vehicles because they come off the production line armoured, whereas all other vehicles, such as the Jaguar, are retrofitted. I think we will find that the Prime Minister is in a Jaguar. It took a little while, but we got there in the end. I do not criticise the Metropolitan police for taking that time, because they wanted to keep people as safe as possible, but I want to ensure we have vehicles that create as many jobs as possible in this country, and I have a track record of trying to do that.
The steps taken by the Minister in relation to the Government car service were very welcome indeed. However, the lesson is surely that the Minister was able to move to the overwhelming majority of requirements being met by way of a British manufacturing strategy because he had the power so to do and drove that decision centrally. Does he accept that if we continue down the path of hoping that collaboration will deliver the kinds of outcome we are debating today, it is highly unlikely we will ever succeed to the extent we could realise with a strategic, mandated approach?
We have debated this point before. I do not agree that the Home Office is the best place to control the procurement. In the example that I used, I was the Minister responsible, but I had to prove with cost analysis that it was the right vehicle. Of course, it was a very small procurement in real terms, but it sent a message.
I also make the point and advise that it would be illegal to look at the successful bid now and then, outside that, offer a British company the opportunity to match that bid. That would be illegal under EU procurement rules. Frankly, the e-auction mechanism would just collapse, because the process would not be in place.
We need to strike a balance between getting the best possible bang for our buck with the limited funds that we have at the moment in the difficult times we are still going through, and making sure that the police are happy with the vehicles they get and use, while at the same time bringing the forces as close together as possible to ensure that they build an economic argument. I can understand the point about Peugeot, but there are three other companies. There will be lots of jobs for my constituents building vans in Luton.
On the wider policy issue of how best to conduct procurement, I hope that on reflection, and informed by a Select Committee investigation, we will see progress in the next stages. In the here and now, however, a decision about Peugeot is imminent. Will the Minister agree to the very reasonable requests made by my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester and for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and at the very least use his formidable powers of advocacy to call in those who are making the decision and ask them, “Can you not think twice?”?
I speak regularly to West Yorkshire police, which is the lead force in the procurement process. I think we are beyond that stage, because we are already discussing the autumn auction, when there will be lots more vehicles out there.
The Crown Commercial Service facilitates the process within the Cabinet Office—it used to be done all over Government, with each Department doing its own thing, so at least it has now been brought together. Under the 2015 public contracts and social value legislation, the CCS has to look at the framework and set out—it is set out on its website, and I will get the documents sent out—how it has considered social value as well as cost analysis. That is enormously important.
The shadow Minister mentioned an investigation. I thought that Select Committees did inquiries rather than investigations—it sounds like I will have to swear an oath before I sit down. I honestly think that we should be having this debate in public, and we should be honest about the restrictions that result from our membership of the EU—what we have to do, how we interpret it and whether or not we are gold-plating it. If we are gold-plating it in any shape or form, Members who have known me for a long time will know that I will push back and push back. I have the Prime Minister’s permission to do that in as many areas as possible.
As I said earlier, if I was a Back Bencher, I would probably have been here arguing in exactly the same way as Opposition Members have today. Perhaps I have allowed a little more openness in the debate by mentioning the companies other from Peugeot which manufacture in this country, which is very important. No one was more disappointed than me when I heard that Peugeot was not going to do the work. Colleagues did an awful lot of work to get Peugeot to stay, but it made a commercial decision to go. Perhaps next time, it will make a commercial decision to come back.
Thank you, Mr Brady, for presiding over the debate. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for joining in, and pay tribute to the Minister for his characteristically forthright and honest approach. He asked us to look at his experience and track record, which suggests that he understands at least some of the issues we have raised, and I am grateful for that. The one question I would like him to ponder after the debate is why, if he has been advised that my proposals would be illegal, the same is not the case in our partner states in the EU, such as France and Germany.
We have some time, so it is important that I respond to that. As I mentioned earlier, when I go to ministerial meetings and meet ministerial colleagues from Europe, they often have a very different attitude to their membership. I will try to find out how they have done it. Someone mentioned Saab earlier; sadly, it went out of manufacturing and stopped producing cars. I love Saabs. I used to drive them, and they are great, fun cars to drive. I am a bit of a petrolhead, so I do get in trouble when I talk about these sorts of things.
I will find out about the legality issues relating to procurement, and I will write to Members, copying in the Chair of the Select Committee and the shadow Minister. If I have misled the House in any way, I did not mean to. I am not a lawyer, but I am trying to be as honest as possible.
I thank the Minister for that intervention and the interest he is taking in this issue. I am extremely grateful to the other right hon. and hon. Members who participated in the debate. The Minister mentioned future contracts; I can tell him and others present that with, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), I will be taking a very close interest in that process—hopefully from the start of the process this time.
Before we embark on that process, will the hon. Gentleman and, perhaps, the Minister commit to looking at the other side of the coin? I am not saying whether or not this is the case, but do our European partners procure items, such as vehicles, for their public services from the UK? Would it not be wise to investigate that possibility before coming to a decision?
It is absolutely the case that—I think that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) referred to this fact—the supply chain in the United Kingdom does supply to businesses across Europe. I say to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless): go to France and find a police car that is not a Peugeot, a Citroën or a Renault, and go to Germany and find one that is not made by a German manufacturer. This problem appears to be peculiar to the United Kingdom.
In conclusion, I thank you, Mr Brady, and other hon. Members again. The UK automotive industry is very successful and is always looking to the next model, but it is never quite as secure as it appears and needs support from the Government to maintain its success. I shall maintain my vigilance on the contracts in the coming months.
Question put and agreed to
That this House has considered police procurement of motor vehicles.