House of Commons
Tuesday 10 July 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
University of London Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 17 July (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Offenders’ Access to Education and Employment
Reoffending costs society around £15 billion a year. We must support people’s rehabilitation through education and employment opportunities, both when serving their sentence and after. We launched the education and employment strategy in May, and our reforms will empower governors to commission bespoke, innovative education provision that meets the needs of their prisoners and links to employment opportunities on release. Our reforms will also engage and persuade employers to take on ex-prisoners via the New Futures Network. We have consulted governors and employers on proposals to increase the use of release on temporary licence to enhance employment opportunities.
May I press the Secretary of State on the release on temporary licence scheme? What are the measures of success? How useful has it been in getting prisoners out of prison and into full-time employment on an ongoing basis?
It is useful, but I want us to do more of it. The education and employment strategy seeks to expand the use of workplace release on temporary licence— ROTL—to get prisoners who have earned it and who have been properly risk assessed out of their cells and into real workplaces. That will enable prisoners to build trust and prove themselves with an employer. If people do ROTL, they are more likely to be employed, and if they are employed, they are less likely to reoffend.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Of the 4,221 prisoners who reoffended in Northern Ireland, over two fifths, 43.6%, reoffended within the first three months. Will the Minister outline whether any initiatives are specifically aimed at providing guidance in those all-important first three months?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Whether through the probation service, through charities or in prisons, we need to ensure that offenders get support when they are released. A lot of that work can be done within prison, which is why the education and employment strategy is so important. We want people to be geared up to go into employment when they are released, because if they are employed, they are less likely to offend.
I warmly welcome attempts to improve the employability of those in custody, but that will work only if the training relates to jobs that individuals want and for which there is a need in society. What steps are being taken to ensure that the resources are properly targeted at what will work best?
My hon. Friend is right. Returning again to the education and employment strategy, our emphasis is on ensuring that training is focused on what will help people into work, and we are giving governors greater control and discretion to ensure that they are well placed to do that.
The female offender strategy, which I outlined a couple of weeks ago, has by and large had a positive response, and our focus on residential centres has been warmly welcomed. Of course, there are those who are calling for us to go further, and we will continue to listen and engage, but the direction in which we are going has widespread support and fully recognises the hon. Lady’s important point that we need to address complex needs.
Data has highlighted that two thirds of young offenders have speech, language and communication problems. Does my right hon. Gentleman agree that, with joint working across the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and the justice system to bring forward programmes that will tackle the issue from birth, such as parental training, more health visitors and better advice, we could actually prevent many young people from ever getting into the criminal justice system?
My hon. Friend raises several important points, and I will try to address one or two of them. On the need for us to work across Government, many issues are not just for the Ministry of Justice, but for the likes of the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. It is also the case that we want to work upstream, because if we can address the complex problems that exist, we can stop people committing crimes in the first place.
Effective employment via the Through the Gate programme depends on effective community rehabilitation companies, which the Select Committee on Justice recently described as “wholly inadequate.” What plans does the Secretary of State have to fix community rehabilitation companies in Through the Gate?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Through the Gate service needs to improve, and we are engaging with CRCs on that issue. We recognise it does not meet the standards we require, and it is important that we engage. We have been clear with the CRCs that they need to improve their performance, and we are in commercial negotiation with providers to secure the quality of services, including Through the Gate services, that we need.
Youth Justice System
Since the creation of our youth justice reform programme in 2017, reports by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons have highlighted improvements in the youth secure estate. It is encouraging to see that our reforms are starting to have an impact on the ground, but there is more to do, which is why we are continuing to invest in system-wide reform further to improve safety and outcomes, and why we are expanding frontline public sector staff capacity at young offender institutions. That is why this is a priority for me and for the Secretary of State.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion to a ministerial role. Many children and young people in custody have poor educational attainment. What is he doing to ensure that children in custody have access to good education?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Her work with young people, on both their health and welfare, is well known.
Education should be at the heart of youth custody and must meet the needs of young people. It is there to prepare them for employment, an apprenticeship or continued education when they are resettled back into their communities. We are building more flexibility into the core day, which is designed to ensure that all children receive an individualised education programme tailored to their needs. We are working with each YOI on plans for improving delivery of education to those young people who are unwilling or unable to participate in the mainstream regime.
I also welcome my hon. Friend to his new role. Does he agree that, although these reforms are welcome, they form only part of the solution? Can he outline what work his Department is doing to support community-based projects, which can play a crucial part in preventing more young people from entering the youth justice system in the first place?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I agree that support in the community plays a vital role in our efforts to reduce the number of those entering youth custody. I am clear that custodial sentences should be handed down only when absolutely necessary, which is why we have provided £72 million to the Youth Justice Board for the youth offending teams that deliver youth justice services and for community-based interventions.
The hon. Gentleman highlights an extremely important point, because we know the evidence shows that first-time offenders, particularly youth offenders, often display a multitude of challenges in their background, including in their mental health. I have already had informal discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). She and I have regular bilaterals scheduled to discuss exactly this sort of issue.
Howard League research shows that children aged 16 and 17 who are living in children’s homes are at least 15 times more likely than other children of the same age to be criminalised. What discussions have Ministers had with other Departments about reducing the number of care leavers in our justice system?
I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to point to my future intentions. Having been in post for just shy of three weeks, I have not yet had any formal discussions; I have had the informal discussions I mentioned. I intend that bilateral meetings with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be part of my regular meetings programme.
I, too, warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. With nearly 80% of young offenders who are sentenced to a short term of imprisonment going on to reoffend, prison is not working. It is not working for them, or for the victims of crime, which means there are more victims of crime. Will he consider a presumption against short-term sentences and instead consider a rigorous community system with a focus on rehabilitation?
Although it is right that sentencing decisions should always rest with the judiciary and a custodial sentence should always be an option where the nature of the offence absolutely merits it, given the persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences are not the most effective way to secure rehabilitation and reduce reoffending, we will be looking at what more we can do to provide alternatives and to highlight that short custodial sentences should be used only as a last resort.
I, too, welcome the new Minister to his position. May I recommend to him the Lammy review? In it he will see that there is tremendous concern that the youth prison population now is 43% from a black or ethnic minority background. Will he look closely at its recommendations and can I meet him soon?
First, I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his work on that review, which is well known to this House and beyond. It is an excellent review, with an excellent report, which was one of the first documents I read upon my appointment. I considered all its 35 recommendations carefully and I am absolutely delighted to agree to meet him.
The last inspection report on Oakhill said that there is no evidence that the 80 children held there are adequately cared for. Oakhill is managed by G4S. I have been asking parliamentary questions about whether G4S is meeting its contractual obligations there and the answers are revealing:
“The Contract for Oakhill STC is between the Secretary of State for Justice and STC Milton Keynes Ltd (the Contractor), of which G4S is their Operating Sub-Contractor. We therefore do not have information on the proportion of contractual obligations that G4S has met.”
Does the Minister agree that that is yet more proof that outsourcing and privatisation should be ended in our prison system?
It is a pleasure to answer the shadow Secretary of State from the Dispatch Box. He highlights an extremely important issue. I believe there is a role for the public, private, and voluntary and philanthropic sectors in our justice system. He highlights the issues at Oakhill. Ofsted’s findings in the inspection report on Oakhill at the end of last year are unacceptable, and we took urgent action to address the concerns raised. We are robustly monitoring performance against the contract, and I am clear that all options remain on the table.
MOJ Staff on Low Pay: Wages and Conditions
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the staff of the MOJ on, and thank them for, all the important work they do across a number of spheres. The MOJ continues to pay the statutory national living wage or above to all its staff.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but will she explain why the same workers are paid the London living wage in the Department for International Development? Does she believe that a cleaner in DFID is worth more than a cleaner in her Department?
Obviously, I cannot comment on DFID, but I can comment on the MOJ. We pay a significant number of our employees the real living wage. As at 1 December last year, only 1,791 of more than 22,000 employees within the MOJ and its agencies, excluding Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, were paid below the real living wage. In HMPPS, only 540 out of more than 47,000 direct employees were paid below the real living wage.
No one has to be a public servant, and it is really important that prison officers get up in the morning and enjoy going to work. There were some worrying figures recently showing an increase in the number of prison officers leaving the profession. What more can we do on induction and supervision to keep our excellent prison officers in post, where they are desperately needed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are of course recruiting more prison officers. Enjoying one’s work is not just about pay, and the reward strategy in prisons is about officers working closely with their prison governors to ensure that they have an opportunity to develop in work and get the most out of their work.
I regularly ask parliamentary questions about staffing levels and conditions at the private probation companies. The answers from the Department are shocking. None of the community rehabilitation company contracts specifies that CRCs must maintain staffing numbers at a particular level. When Ministers bailed out the private probation companies last year with another £342 million, they did not bother to make staffing levels a contractual obligation. Why not? Does the Department not care about accountability? Or is it because, in the Secretary of State’s privatised probation service, profits always come first?
We believe it is important that systems work and that outcomes are effective. The contracts focus on ensuring that the right outcomes are achieved, not on the number of people who work under them.
Leaving the EU: UK Legal System
With the European Union (Withdrawal) Act having now received Royal Assent, we are ensuring that this country’s statute book will operate effectively after we leave the EU.
The application of new technology has the potential to make our justice system even fairer and more effective. Measures such as the adoption of the use of video technology in court by the Courts and Tribunals Service could aid speed and accessibility. Will the Minister tell me how the Government aim to encourage much-needed innovation in the justice and legal system?
The Ministry of Justice is doing a number of things to improve innovation. In the courts themselves, we have a £1 billion programme that is digitalising our court services and bringing them up to date. We are also ensuring that our legal services sector continues to thrive and prosper globally. Only yesterday, we had the first meeting of the law tech panel, which is supported by Government but led by the industry to support innovation and technology for our legal services sector.
Last month, the Scottish Government produced the latest in their series of “Scotland’s Place in Europe” policy papers. The paper emphasises the importance of co-operation with the European Union on criminal justice and law enforcement for Scotland’s legal system, which is of course separate from the legal system for the rest of the UK. Will the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with her Scottish counterparts about that policy paper?
The hon. and learned Lady makes an important point, because we have distinct legal systems in Scotland and in England and Wales, and we must recognise that. Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Clancy from the Law Society of Scotland to discuss a number of issues relating to Scotland. My officials meet regularly with their counterparts in Scotland.
We know from the Chequers agreement that the Prime Minister is relaxing her red lines on the European Court of Justice. The Scottish Government stated in the paper that I mentioned that they would welcome ECJ jurisdiction on data protection matters to maintain data sharing for justice and law enforcement purposes. Just last week, the Exiting the European Union Committee recommended that the ECJ should continue to have jurisdiction over aspects of data protection after we exit the EU. Does the Minister agree with the Scottish Government and the Select Committee that that would be a good thing?
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the ECJ will no longer have direct jurisdiction in this country. Where we continue to operate common rules, it will of course be appropriate that this country can look to the ECJ jurisprudence to decide the way forward.
Offenders: Help to Find Employment
The education and employment strategy will set each prisoner on a path to employment from the outset. Through work, people can turn their backs on crime. Good behaviour and hard work will be rewarded with opportunity. Since the strategy’s publication, more than 30 new organisations have registered an interest in working with offenders. Nine Government Departments are signed up to the Going Forward into Employment pilot to hire ex-offenders in the civil service, and the first cohort of offenders is already in post.
I thank my right hon. Friend’s Department for the interest it has already shown in a project to enable serving prisoners to undertake the theoretical exams required for a career in the haulage industry, which is currently very short of workers. As a result of the meetings I have had with the Department, a pilot project is taking place in south Wales. I thank Ministers for that and ask that they continue to show interest in the project.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. It is an example of where I hope that my Department and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service can work with employers to ensure that we help get more people into work, which is good for the individual offenders, good for the employers and society benefits as a whole because it contributes to reducing reoffending.
The Justice Secretary will know that there is no women’s prison in Wales and I am not advocating that there should be one. However, that will mean that there are considerable issues of geography for some women who do commit offences, so can he set out how he is able to support women who do offend, who live in Wales and who wish to relocate there in order to find employment in communities that they know and in which they have often grown up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I point him in the direction of the female offender strategy, which we published a couple of weeks ago. One point that we argue in that is that, in many cases, custodial sentences are not the right approach, particularly for female offenders who, disproportionately, are sentenced to short sentences that disrupt their lives and do little to help them rehabilitate. If we can do more about helping in the community and, for example, making use of residential centres, we can help ensure that more female offenders get into work.
Eighteen months ago, a constituent of mine who had left prison just before Christmas and been through perfunctory training and employment introductions found himself out of prison and living on the street within 36 hours. Before the new year came round, he had committed another offence and been given another 12 months in prison. Will the Secretary of State commit to making sure that packages that are aimed at getting prisoners into work after prison actually work and are not perfunctory and that, from the day a person enters the criminal justice system, they are trained to live a fruitful life once they leave it?
I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman’s point. He highlights an example—a sad example, but not, I accept, the only one—where people, too quickly, go out of prison and commit a crime and are then set in a cycle of offending and reoffending. The system is not working for them or for society. The purpose of the education and employment strategy, which is implicit in his question, is an important point, and we must ensure that we implement it successfully. The purpose of that is to address this very issue.
Some of the people who are disproportionately represented inside the prison system are ex-servicemen. What plans does the Secretary of State have to bring charities such as Care after Combat into the prisons to help to ensure that reoffending does not take place and that these people who are heroes one day are not villains the next?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. It is important for all offenders that we address this issue, but there is a particular point about ex-service people. He is right to highlight the very strong charitable sector in this area. I am determined to ensure that we continue to engage with those charities to provide people with the support they need, making sure in particular, in the context of his question, that those who have served this country are not disadvantaged.
Reducing reoffending rates is crucial. What information are the Minister and the Government providing in wider society to point out the benefits of a reduction in reoffending rates not just for prisoners, but for the wider society?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have just delivered a speech making that very point, so I am doing my little bit that way. That is a message that we need to be getting across. How do we reduce reoffending? We must rehabilitate and we must help people into employment.
Drones over Prisons
Reducing the use of drones in prisons means four things: we must tackle the criminal gangs that organise the drones; we must tackle the people who fly them over the wall; we must ensure that we have electronic jamming equipment in place; and we need physical security in the forms of nets and grilles to prevent the prisoners from accessing those drones.
I know that my hon. Friend likes nothing more than donning his budgie smugglers and sitting in the back garden on a Sunday afternoon. Drones can be a menace in that regard. Will he confirm exactly what he is doing in some of the measures that he is putting in place to combat drones in prison?
That sounds a very rum business to me.
You are right, Mr Speaker; it does sound a pretty rum business. The serious point about drones is that, rather than flying over my back garden in Penrith and The Border, they are bringing illicit substances into prisons. Of the four methods I emphasised, the key way of dealing with that—the one that is the most important of all—is physical security. If we have the right nets and grilles, it is simply impossible for the prisoner to put their hand out of the window and take the drugs off the drones. Of the four methods, perimeter security is probably the most important.
I thank the Minister for taking the issue suitably seriously. Is he aware of a particular issue in a number of prisons, including Wayland prison in Norfolk, where the drone flyers have been acting with impunity and have become ever more brazen in their conduct? Will the Minister tell the House how far he has got in implementing the measures he has mentioned? Is there not now an argument for a specific new offence of flying drones in that way?
We have made a lot of progress on the issue. In prisons such as Liverpool, where the new grilles are coming in, and Chelmsford, where we have the new protective equipment in place, we can see that it is more and more difficult to get a drone into a prison. When the nets are working and the grilles are up, it is difficult to do. There are other things we can do, too. One central thing is intelligence operations to identify organised criminal gangs. We are introducing sentences—in a recent case someone who flew a drone into a prison received a seven-year sentence.
It is estimated that more than 200 kg of drugs were smuggled into prisons in England and Wales in 2016. What proportion of that 200 kg does the Minister estimate was delivered by drones? What else is happening to stop the use of other methods of delivering drugs into prisons?
The payload of a drone is relatively limited. The amount of weight that it can carry tends to be 1 kg or 2 kg at the maximum. Therefore the majority of drugs that come into prison are almost certainly going over the wall by other means—thrown over or posted over impregnated in paper—or carried in by people coming into the prison. That is why we are investing much more now in different types of scanners to pick up any human bringing drugs into prison and are also ensuring that we have the perimeter security in place for the throwovers.
Mobile Phones: Smuggling into Prisons
It is central that we also tackle mobile telephones. The reason is that if we do not, crimes can be committed by people within prison reaching outside the prison walls, both bringing illicit substances into the prison and terrorising their victims outside.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) for the private Member’s Bill that she effectively took through on Friday. That is going to make it much more difficult for people to use mobile phones in prisons, by working with the mobile telephone companies.
I was in the Chamber to see the progress of my hon. Friend’s Bill on Friday. It is an exceptionally well put together Bill. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the implementation? When are we likely to see some progress?
I have met the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and we have looked at two areas. We have looked at devices that can be used within the prison walls. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) pointed out in his speech on Friday, and in his question today, there is much more that we can now do by working with the mobile telephone companies to identify the exact frequencies and strengths of transmissions, to locate the mobile phones, prevent their use and analyse the traffic data.
This is a very serious point and a very serious challenge. I will be following up this allegation with the governor. The governor has generally done a very good job in Berwyn, and the report that the hon. Lady raises is very disturbing. We must be clear that we have to support our prison officers. We are doing that through supporting a private Member’s Bill to double the sentence for assaults, and investing in body-worn cameras and trials of PAVA spray. But unless we have decent safety regimes, it is almost impossible to do other forms of rehabilitation. We need to learn from the prisons that are doing best in reducing violence. I pay tribute, for example, to Wandsworth, which has made a lot of progress over the past 12 months.
I am pleased that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out, on 27 June we published our new strategy for female offenders. This set out our vision and plans to improve outcomes for women in the community and in custody, but, most importantly in doing so, to help reduce reoffending and see fewer victims of crime. A key theme of the strategy is the need for a joined-up approach to addressing the often complex needs of female offenders, including through new women’s residential centres, which give judges an alternative to short custodial sentences.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new role. East Sutton Park prison in my constituency has a fabulous reputation for preparing women offenders for life back in the real world. For instance, 90% of its inmates do not reoffend within two years, which, as he will know, is much better than the general national statistics. While I welcome the plans to reduce custodial sentences for women, may I ask for his support for this model prison in my constituency and invite him to come and see it for himself?
As I highlighted in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), while a custodial sentence should always be an option, there is strong evidence that short custodial sentences do not achieve the best rehabilitation and reduction of reoffending outcomes. I recognise that women’s prisons, including East Sutton Park, of which my hon. Friend is a strong champion in this Chamber, are among our best. We will continue to work with it and I would be delighted to visit.
Given that Baroness Corston’s seminal 2007 review of women in prison set out a clear case for the benefit of women’s centres and said that they should be at the centre of a successful strategy on female offending, why are the Government insisting on piloting this when we already know that it works? Is it because of lack of funding?
I pay tribute to the work of Baroness Corston in her ground-breaking 2007 report, and indeed to the work of the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who took some of this forward in his time as a Minister. The landscape of the evidence base on reoffending has continued to evolve and change. We continue to work with that model. We believe that the steps we have set out for five residential women’s centres as a pilot is the right way to approach this, but it remains only a first step on a journey.
I welcome the Government’s new women’s strategy. May I encourage the Minister, who I welcome to his place, shortly to meet the all-party parliamentary group on women in the penal system, and to work with me and Baroness Corston to ensure that we can deliver these reforms at pace?
I pay tribute to Baroness Corston for her work. My hon. Friend is far too modest to highlight her own significant contribution in this area and her significant work with Baroness Corston. I have already written to the APPG that she chairs and would be absolutely delighted to come and meet it.
Well, it runs in the family, because the hon. Lady’s dad, as many will remember, was a very modest man, with nothing to be modest about.
New Hall, one of the largest women’s prisons, is close to my constituency. The message that I am getting from it recently is, first, about the evaluation of whether new prisoners are literate or numerate, and whether they have problems with autism. Secondly, it demands that all women prisoners should be safe and secure from sexual depredation when they are serving their sentence.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that safety should be at the heart of everything we do in our custodial estate, be that for female prisoners, male prisoners or young offenders. That is safety for the prisoners, safety for their fellow prisoners and safety for the prison officers who are looking after them. It remains a priority for me.
The Government’s Advisory Board for Female Offenders identified £50 million that had been earmarked for building women’s prisons. Can the Minister guarantee today that all of that £50 million will be reinvested in the female offender strategy, or is this just another example of the Government’s refusal to properly fund that strategy?
First, I pay tribute to the work of that panel and those on it. Although I have not yet had the opportunity to formally chair a meeting of the panel, I met a number of panel members at an informal meeting. The Ministry and this Government have never put a figure on the prison building programme. That is not a figure that I recognise. We have been very clear that our priority is investing in the strategy that the Secretary of State launched. We have already set out £5 million for that and made it clear that it is only the first step.
Prisoners: Access to Healthcare
Offender health is a key part of delivering a secure and safe environment for those in our custody. I will appear before the Select Committee on Health this afternoon to address questions on exactly that topic, and we continue to see investment in progress in this area.
My constituent has multiple sclerosis. He went to prison nine months ago, newly diagnosed and relatively healthy. Now he has two hearing aids, is partially sighted and has to use a wheelchair. Despite that extreme deterioration, he was only taken to see a neurologist seven months after his arrival in prison. As a vulnerable inmate, is he not owed a duty of care by the prison? At the very least, should he not be moved to a category D prison closer to home?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. While it is not for me to talk about the categorisation of a particular prisoner, and I cannot go into the specific details of that case on the Floor of the House, I will say, as I said in answer to her initial question, that the care, health and wellbeing of prisoners is all of our concern. If she feels it would be helpful to discuss the specific case she mentions, I am happy to meet her.
Probation Service: Recruitment and Retention in Oxfordshire
We have a series of challenges in relation to retention in Oxfordshire, some of which will be familiar to the hon. Lady. They are partly about the fact that people can get jobs in London, with London weighting, and they are partly to do with general problems around employment. We are, however, addressing them through a new recruitment campaign that is much more locally targeted, and I am pleased to say that we have managed to increase the number of applications from 500 to 5,000.
I thank the Minister for his well-prepared answer, but the fact is that the probation service in Oxfordshire is at breaking point. That is also to do with sky-rocketing workloads, the high cost of living and paltry pay rises since 2009. One officer told me that they are being forced to cut corners and feel they
“can no longer actively reduce reoffending or keep the public safe.”
How can we guarantee that these measures will actually work? Is it not time to consider a housing allowance?
We have been in discussion with the Treasury, and we got clearance this week to begin discussions with the unions on the question of pay. Of course pay matters, but we have also learned real lessons about recruitment. As I say, ensuring that we are not simply doing national recruitment campaigns but are specifically targeting Oxford markets and working in the relevant universities is really beginning to get results. We are filling places much more rapidly, and by the spring of next year, we should be fully staffed.
The hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) should worry not, because I am very much hoping to get to her question. She is not in isolation—she is the leader of a group—so I am not going to muck up the group by calling her now, but I am beavering away to get to Question 17.
Criminal Justice System: Contribution of Sport
There is good evidence that sport and physical activity have considerable benefits for the physical, mental and social wellbeing and motivation of prisoners while they are in custody and can improve their prospects for successful resettlement in the community. To understand the fuller picture, Professor Rosie Meek of Royal Holloway, University of London was commissioned to undertake an independent review of the role of sport in youth justice. Her report will be published shortly, and we will respond to it.
Programmes run by professional rugby clubs—such as the England-wide Hitz programme, which is run in my nearest premiership club, Wasps, and Saracens’ Get Onside in London—build up career aspirations for young offenders and those excluded from school. We have already heard that rates of reoffending are too high, but the Get Onside programme prevents 92% of the young offenders involved from returning to crime. Does the Minister recognise the benefit of these sports-based programmes?
I am absolutely delighted to join my hon. Friend in highlighting the important and successful programmes of this sort that are run by clubs such as Saracens. They are already using sport and team sports such as rugby to improve outcomes in prison effectively, but also, importantly, to reduce reoffending on release. He is absolutely right to praise them.
One of my constituents is concerned that her son has put on significant weight in prison. What are the Government doing to provide health education, sport and a better diet to help offenders?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight that all three of those factors play a part in whether a prison is a safe place and whether it looks after the welfare of those in it. As I have highlighted, we continue to focus on sport, and we have commissioned a review, and we continue, as does Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons in holding us to account, to deliver a healthy regime in prisons.
Prison Officers: Protection from Violence
Reducing violent behaviour in prison is absolutely vital, particularly for our prison officers, who are doing unbelievably difficult and challenging jobs and turning around people’s lives. We are addressing this through body-worn cameras and better use of CCTV, and we are ensuring—in supporting the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—that we are doubling the minimum sentences for assaults against prison officers.
When the new prison in neighbouring Wellingborough is open, it may create many new jobs for my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire. To encourage more people to apply for and then stay in prison officer roles, what thought are the Government giving to further deterrents and sanctions for violent prisoners?
My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor laid out in a speech this morning the incentives and earned privileges schemes that he will be pushing for, which are exactly intended to incentivise good behaviour and make sure we turn around people’s lives. On the subject of my hon. Friend’s constituents, and indeed those of any Member, I want to re-emphasise that being a prison officer is one of the most honourable roles in public service and does an extraordinary amount for public safety. It is a challenging, fulfilling and tough job, and we would encourage more people to apply for that role.
Non-road Traffic Accident-related Personal Injury Claims
On non-road traffic accident-related personal injuries, the decision has been made to increase the small claims limit from £1,000, where it was set in 1991, to £2,000 in line with retail prices index inflation. This is in line with what happens in many other European countries—in Norway, for example—in taking lawyers out of the smallest claims.
In the light of the Supreme Court ruling on the Unison employment tribunal case, will the Minister think again? Increasing the small claims limit would remove the ability of many people injured in the workplace to pursue claims against their employees. The Minister will know from the Justice Committee’s report that litigation is the main driver for maintaining health and safety in the workplace.
The important thing to understand about the small claims process is that the shift from £1,000 to £2,000 is simply to ensure that the original 1991 legislation keeps up with inflation—the RPI increase—in line with the Judicial College guidelines. This is not about people with catastrophic, life-changing injuries, but about people with injuries below the £2,000 level. We are making sure that the small claims process is fair, transparent and easy for the public to access without expensive lawyers.
In its report on the small claims limit increases, the Justice Committee noted the
“compelling evidence of the obstacles that would be faced”,
and concluded that the changes would
“represent an unacceptable barrier to access to justice.”
Will the Minister listen and think again before pursuing another attack on workers?
I am always prepared to meet the hon. Lady and to listen. I emphasise again that this is simply a change in line with RPI. The small claims limit was set at £1,000 in 1991. The proposal is now to move it to £2,000, which is simply in line with the retail prices index, so that we have the same fair policy today that we had in 1991.
We are currently in commercial negotiations with community rehabilitation companies, with the aim of amending contracts and improving operational performance. Once we have concluded those negotiations, we will be in a position to provide further detail about the changes that we intend to make.
Last year, the Ministry of Justice bailed out privatised probation companies to the tune of £342 million, leaving the public to foot the bill for their inadequate work, which the chief inspector of probation found to make a negligible difference. Will the Minister commit today that there will be no more bail-outs for those privatised probation companies?
We should be clear about what happened. Last year, we amended contracts to ensure that payments made to community rehabilitation companies were more in line with the costs that they incur to deliver core services. We are paying CRCs less than we originally intended when the contracts were let: they are receiving less than their costs, a consequence of over-optimistic bidding on their part. When we talk about bail-outs, we should be clear that those companies are receiving income that is less than it costs them to provide the services.
Why will the Secretary of State not accept the conclusion of the Conservative-led Justice Committee that this is, in its words, “a mess” and may never work? Why does he not stop throwing good money after bad, cut his losses, blame his predecessor and be applauded for bringing this vital service back in-house?
As I said in my earlier answer, we are engaging with the CRCs, which do need to improve their service. The model that we have has opened up the delivery of probation services to a range of new providers. It has extended support and supervision to an additional 40,000 offenders leaving prison. First-generation contracts can be difficult to get right—I acknowledge that—but we are taking all necessary steps to get the performance that we require.
Given the constant underperformance, high cost and deeply abject failure of private probation companies, is it not time to re-establish a professional, coherent and comprehensively public probation service?
I am not sure that the complaint about high cost holds together: the services are being delivered for less than we had expected, although we acknowledge that there are problems. The one thing we hear from the Opposition about justice is that the private sector should be kept out at all costs. I do not think that ideological approach is sensible. It is important that there should be a mixed market.
Last year, as we have heard, the privatised probation services got a £342 million bail-out despite underperforming. There are press rumours that the contract will be changed again. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the privatised probation services will not get a penny more until the Government have held a review into the botched privatisation of probation services?
I come back to my previous points. The CRCs have been receiving less income than it costs them to deliver the services. Because of the reforms undertaken a few years ago, 40,000 offenders get support who would have got nothing previously. The contracts can be challenging; it is right that we look at that and deliver good value for money for the taxpayer and good-quality services. That is what we are determined to deliver.
Today, I have announced an additional £30 million investment in our prison estate, including £16 million to improve facilities at 11 of our most pressed prisons. Some £6 million will enhance security and tackle those co-ordinating drug dealing from inside through scanners, better searching and phone-blocking technology. Since February, 12 such serious criminals have been targeted for disruption, with nine already having been transferred to other parts of the estate, including more secure prisons.
The Government are conducting a review of the impact of the swingeing cuts to legal aid since 2012, but they have so far refused to say whether more funding will be made available for legal aid. Will the Secretary of State confirm that additional funding will be made available if it is found to be required, or is the review simply an exercise in moving legal aid funding from one cause to another?
The purpose of the review is to assess what we need to do. That is the correct way to go about it. Obviously, we will need to engage with the Treasury in terms of future spending reviews, but we have a serious piece of work, with very substantial engagement with stakeholders, on which to make an assessment of how the legal aid system is working.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the important role of restorative justice. The Ministry of Justice supports the provision of victim-focused restorative justice as one of a range of measures to help victims to cope with and recover from crime. A recent evaluation showed that 85% of victims who participated in restorative justice said they were satisfied with the experience, which can, of course, bring benefits to the community as well.
In my first two questions today, I focused on the widespread failings of privatisation in our justice system. I have written to the Secretary of State about the close relationship that his Department has with outsourcing giant Serco, a relationship that is ever closer given that his new Minister was once its spin doctor-in-chief. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House today that he has reorganised responsibilities in his Department, so that his new Minister in charge of youth justice will not be involved in any way in any of the young offender institutions that Serco manages?
There has been no reorganisation of responsibilities. There is no conflict of interest here at all. The suggestion that because somebody has worked in the private sector for such a company, there is a conflict of interest is not accurate. The hon. Gentleman’s hostility to the private sector, in this sector and across the piece, is symptomatic of why the Labour party should be kept as far away from the Government Benches as possible.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight this important issue, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for successfully piloting the 2017 Act on to the statute book. Department officials are currently drafting rules of court regulations and a code of practice, so that those drafts can be finalised and consulted on. I am keen that we make as rapid progress as possible.
The hon. Lady highlights an important issue. As she will be aware, the rules that govern how the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority operates are set by this House, but it operates entirely independently of Ministers in its awards and in its application of those rules. She highlights an important issue, which I know the Secretary of State will have heard very clearly.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his campaigning on this issue. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, fentanyl is an incredibly dangerous drug, because in minuscule quantities, it can do more damage than heroin and cocaine. We have had nearly 240 deaths in Britain and the United States has had up to 20,000 deaths in a year from fentanyl, so the recent actions from the Sentencing Council and the Crown Prosecution Service to clarify how noxious this substance is are welcomed, and I repeat my tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue.
I would be very grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could write to us. We are in the middle of a £1 billion court programme, which includes a number of things, such as technology and improving other services such as family rooms, where people can spend time with their families. We are looking at a number of things that I am very happy to talk to him about.
Following the Chequers statement, will my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor lay before the House details of what active provisions his Department is making for a deal not being secured with the European Union?
At the Ministry of Justice, we are very much working to ensure that we get the best, and the right, deal for our country, but like all competent Departments, we are also working to ensure that if there is no deal, we are ready for it. We have £17.3 million extra from the Treasury to look into this and ensure that we have the right Brexit scenario.
First, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor announced this morning an additional £16 million to invest in decency—that is, bringing cells back into operation that have been taken out and making sure that the basic fabric is repaired. However, the most important thing is the building of 10,000 new prison places, beginning with Wellingborough and Glen Parva and moving on, to provide exactly the decent conditions that the hon. Lady raises in her question.
On Friday, we had an important debate in this House about telephony in prisons. On the back of that debate, will the Minister set out what more we are doing to tackle drugs in prisons?
Tackling drugs in prisons involves dealing with how the drugs get into the prison—either over the wall or on a person—the demand in the prison and the way that we search people within the walls. All these things need to be done simultaneously—supply, demand and searching—and the key to this is training, training, training.
I entirely understand the concern of the hon. Lady, many hon. Members and many members of the public about this issue and their determination to see this delivered. I share that determination, but it is important that, while we work at pace, we ensure that the rules of court are correct. I am determined to make sure that we do everything we can to speed it up.
What analysis has the Ministry of Justice done on how well the public sector is doing in taking on ex-offenders in employment? Does the Minister agree that we cannot just exhort the private sector to step up to the plate in this area if the public sector is not leading by example?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this point. Indeed, many parts of the public sector are stepping up and doing that—the Prison Service itself takes people on. We have a pilot programme in north-west England that is focused on this. My hon. Friend is tireless in campaigning for employers to take on ex-offenders, and I commend him on his activity.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the family drug and alcohol courts do great work. The fact that the Tavistock and Portman Trust is not going forward with the programme will not affect any of the existing courts. It is disappointing that the trust has chosen not to continue with the programme, and we will continue to look at the provision of this important service.
On behalf of the Government, I stood at the Dispatch Box beside the Treasury Bench and promised the country that we would have a victims law. May I ask the Minister where that victims law is?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question, and I know that the House is grateful to him for his work and his tireless campaigning in this area. We have made it clear that we are committed to bringing forward a victim strategy this summer, which will look at both legislative and non-legislative options for delivering what he mentions. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further.
Absolutely. We remain very committed to this. We have undertaken extensive consultation on extending the maximum sentences for causing death by dangerous driving, and we are looking at those for causing death by careless driving. We intend to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I think single-sentence questions are now required.
In the light of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), when is the Secretary of State going to reply to my letter asking when longer sentences for causing death by dangerous driving will be introduced into legislation, as was promised in October last year?
I refer to my previous answer. This is a priority for the Government, but we need to find the right legislative instrument for doing it. Be in no doubt—it will happen.
Pursuant to the Minister’s response about the issue, raising the small claims limit for employers’ liability will affect about 40% of claimants, many of whose employers claim that those individuals contributed to their own accidents through negligence. How are they supposed to stand up, unrepresented, to their employer and their insurance company?
The entire purpose of the small claims court is to make sure that minor injuries—in this case, the claims limit was set in 1991 at less than £1,000 and will rise to £2,000—are dealt with without lawyers. The same thing happens in most of our European partner countries. Norway is a very good example of a model in which exactly such cases are taken through without lawyers, up to a much higher value than would be the case here.
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), wants to close the magistrates court in Cambridge. What assessment has she made of suggested ways to keep a magistrates court in Cambridge, and when will she make a decision?
The decision about the magistrates court in Cambridge will be for me to make. I want to look at all the evidence and the representations that have been made, and I will make a decision in due course.
According to the Public and Commercial Services Union, there are almost 1,200 staff at the Ministry of Justice on poverty pay. Will the Minister support the union’s 5% pay claim for all public sector workers?
I have already set out the figures in relation to pay, and I think the hon. Lady will find that they are not at 5%.
Jerome Rogers from New Addington in Croydon committed suicide when he was 20 years old, after being hounded by bailiffs who broke regulation after regulation in their horrific handling of his initial—very small—traffic fines. Jerome’s family will be in Parliament next week for a meeting of the all-party group on debt and personal finance, and there is a programme about his life, “Killed By My Debt”, on BBC 1 next week. Will the Minister please meet Jerome’s family?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and she will be aware that we are looking at the question of the small number of bailiffs who are not acting appropriately. I would be very happy to meet her and the family.
Finally—in a sentence, I am sure— Mr Barry Sheerman.
Will the Secretary of State do something about the way in which we treat miscarriages of justice in this country, and will he meet the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice to discuss it?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the case that was before the Supreme Court recently. We shall see where that leads, but I am sure that a member of the ministerial team would be delighted to meet the all-party parliamentary group.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I am saving up the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). I call Mr Barry Sheerman.
This is a very busy time for Parliament, Mr Speaker. I do not know whether you have been able to see the queues that are gathering around the Palace, especially now, when so many schoolchildren are taking their last opportunity to visit. Is it right that the queues are so long, that security is so slow, and that most of the entrances to this great royal Palace are filthy, with the small of urine, with vomit and dirt, and—well, I do not want to go into the details of what you can see at those entrances. Is it not about time that someone did something about this royal Palace and the access to it?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am concerned when from time to time there are lengthy queues that inhibit people from getting into the building. It is true that last night someone who was due to be present at—and eventually came to—the function taking place in Speaker’s House was delayed as a result of a queue. I think it important to be clear that sometimes it is perhaps our fault, and sometimes people perhaps do not allow sufficient time for the fact of the security process that they have necessarily to undergo.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s concern about what might be called malodorous matters, I am not unconscious of that phenomenon, although whether it is quite as pervasive as the hon. Gentleman suggests is, I think, a matter of some uncertainty. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, I have always taken him immensely seriously, the more so now that he is in his 40th successive year as a Member of this House, and although I will probably regret saying this, I would exhort him, if he wishes to pursue the matter further, to write to me— although, as I say, I may very well regret tendering him that advice, for he normally requires no encouragement.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you are a very busy man, but may I invite you to join me on a walk around the Palace so that we can see it in person?
I can imagine few things in this life more pleasurable than undertaking a leisurely excursion anywhere, including the Palace of Westminster, with the hon. Gentleman. After all, I have visited the hon. Gentleman’s Huddersfield constituency, and I have visited and spoken at his local university, praising him to the skies in the process, so it seems only fitting that the other end of the equation should be met. I dare say we will have a little toddle round the Place of Westminster together when the hon. Gentleman has got in touch with my office to arrange it, which I fancy he will require no further encouragement to do.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I should be grateful if I could correct the record.
Last Wednesday, when I rose to ask the urgent question on Khan al-Ahmar that you had kindly granted me, I had just heard that bulldozers had arrived at the village, and that demolition had started. I reflected that in what I said.
Although demolition had indeed started at the nearby village of Abu Nuwar that morning, what I did not know was that the bulldozers had paused before commencing the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar. Whether that was because of the number of people who were there to protest—a number of whom were injured that day—or the presence of foreign diplomats, including those from the United Kingdom, I do not know. What I do know is that a court injunction has since been secured prohibiting the demolition until at least tomorrow. That makes the form of words that I used last week inaccurate, and I want to take this opportunity to correct the record.
In doing so, I thank Members in all parts of the House for raising their voices in opposition to the breach of international law at Khan al-Ahmar, which I am sure has helped to change the course of events in the past week. As the injunction is only temporary, however, pressure is still needed to keep the villagers of Khan al-Ahmar safe in the long term.
I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House, and to correct the record of last Wednesday’s exchanges.
I am moved to observe that the hon. Gentleman, who is a very dextrous and dedicated parliamentarian, stretched the elastic almost, but perhaps not quite, to snapping point in getting across a particular line of argument or set of observations that he wished to be recorded in the Official Report. However, I want to say two things in response to him. First, I thank him for his typical courtesy in giving me notice that he wished to raise this matter, and indeed for his promptness in correcting the record at the earliest opportunity. Secondly, of course I would accept his correction in any case, and I am sure that the House will, but I speak with some experience of the hon. Gentleman, because for nearly five years we served together on the Select Committee on International Development, and I know both the extent of his knowledge of the matters he has just raised and the absolutely undeniable sincerity with which he pursues what are not merely his concerns, but the concerns of a great many people. So I thank him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure you are aware that many Members of this House, and just as importantly the staff of this House, use the underground car park at Members’ entrance. I reported to the Deputy Speaker over a month ago that the emergency exits from the underground car park had been sealed off because of water ingress. This is very dangerous and, as a former firefighter, I thought it important now that I address the fact that yet again when I parked in the car park yesterday morning the underground emergency car park exit was sealed off on all floors, yet the signs saying it was an emergency exit were still illuminated. People would go to that should there be an incident, and they would not be able to get out. That is fundamentally wrong and dangerous.
If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to write to the director general of the House of Commons, who has overall managerial responsibility for the parliamentary estate and services delivered thereon, it is open to him to do so. I take very seriously what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but I know he would not expect me to furnish him with a detailed reply now.
No further point of order is required. The matter will be looked into and the right hon. Gentleman will receive an answer. Whether it will satisfy his palate is another matter, but we will do our best.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
When you are having a toddle around the Palace looking at entrances and other things, Mr Speaker, perhaps you could toddle down to the underground car park with me and see this for yourself?
I am not sure that we wish to conduct a procession on this matter, but I can certainly suggest to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that, if it suits him and he has no violent objection to the idea, our little toddle will include a search of that area. The right hon. Gentleman will know that I myself do not now use that area as my vehicle is parked elsewhere, and therefore I do not have reason, I must readily acknowledge, to go there with any frequency at all, but it would do no harm to do so, and if also—this is a bold expression of hope—it would bring a smile to the face of the right hon. Gentleman to know that his request had been complied with, I require no further incentive.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give the Environment Agency additional powers to control and reduce discharge from combined sewer overflows; to make other provision about bathing water quality and clean beach initiatives; and for connected purposes.
I rise to present this Bill in the name of myself and my hon. Friends. The environment is very important to my constituents. I spend a lot of time taking questions in primary and secondary schools in North Cornwall and one question always comes up: “What are you doing about the environment?” Bathing waters are one of the most important reasons why people visit North Cornwall. I have some of the most beautiful blue flag beaches in the whole of the UK, and some of the most spectacular surfing and waves around the country. However, we have a significant problem.
My constituency has an antiquated Victorian sewerage system, as do many areas around the UK. The system is completely incapable of dealing with the torrential rain events that we have seen in recent years. Furthermore, when Governments invest in infrastructure, they tend to like people to be able to see that investment, and to be frank, sewers are not really that sexy. However, they serve a valuable purpose in taking away our surface water, general waste water and sewage to process. Most of the country relies on the combined sewer network in which surface water and toilet water are combined and treated together. When we have these big downpours and rain events, the system simply cannot cope and water companies have to flush excess surface water and sewage into the sea. These incidents are described as combined sewer overflows, and they happen more regularly than many people think. When one of these events happens, my inbox is filled with surfers and swimmers asking me to do something. The purpose of the Bill is to do just that.
The Environment Agency publishes extensive data on individual bathing waters on its website, showing pressures on water quality on specific beaches and up-to-date sampling information. Real-time monitoring information websites are helpful to my constituents, but at present this is just information provided for the sake of it, and recent statistics from the World Wide Fund for Nature show that 77% of events do not result in a follow-up. I welcome and praise the work being done by South West Water in the west country and by other water companies around the UK, but we could and should go much further. Our environment deserves better than letting sewage spill into our oceans.
I know that many hon. Members feel that water companies have large payrolls and big corporate bonuses, and that more of their profits should be reinvested into the system. In fact the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently challenged the water companies to improve their financial and corporate behaviours in order to restore public trust in the sector. It is true to say that some water companies’ financial and corporate behaviours have eroded the public’s trust in the sector, and they must improve their financial and corporate behaviours and practices, increase investment and offer fair prices to customers in order to restore that trust.
However, I think it would be unfair to ask the water companies to update the antiquated sewerage systems, so we have come up with a different way of approaching the issue. The reason that the system cannot cope is that the surface water run-off is too heavy during heavy rainfall events. The Bill will give the Environment Agency powers to fine water companies that allow sewage spills into the sea, and to reinvest that money in three different ways. First, it would provide farmers with funds to store water in attenuation ponds to slow down the water flow. Secondly, we should create more lakes and reservoirs—a proposal that is supported by the Angling Trust. Thirdly, in the areas with the most severe problems, the water companies should provide funding for free water butts and the fitting of those water butts in residential properties. Managing surface water would stop the sewage spills and allow the water companies to manage our waste water better.
The monitoring of the spills is also quite inadequate, and the Bill would ask the Environment Agency to monitor them all year round instead of doing so only in the summer months, as it does at the moment. There are many hardy souls who brave the waves in Cornwall in the middle of winter, and they want the same protections that are afforded the swimmers and surfers on the beaches in the summer months. I was able to glean the following information on the beaches in North Cornwall in preparation for today. The beaches that have had no spills in the past five years are Trevone, Harlyn bay, Trebarwith Strand, Crackington Haven and Crooklets in Bude. There is absolutely no information on Porthcothan, Treyarnon bay, Constantine bay, Mother Ivey’s bay, Daymer bay, Northcott Mouth and Sandymouth. Even Booby’s Bay had no information. So we can see that we need better monitoring of these processes. Polzeath had no spills last year but four the year before. Widemouth bay had three spills this year and five last year. Summerleaze in Bude in my constituency had four this year and 15 last year. Those are the figures just for North Cornwall, but I know that these issues affect many coastal areas and I would expect to see similar data from many other areas around the country.
I have received a number of endorsements for the Bill. I had a phone call from Surfers Against Sewage yesterday, and they are very supportive of it. The Angling Trust says that although sewage spills along the coastline regularly hit the headlines, 89% of combined sewage overflows actually discharge into the rivers. The trust is very supportive of the Bill and its contents. Locally, I have the support of the fabulous Bude Cleaner Seas project, which has campaigned for so long on environmental protection around our coast. I also have the support of the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group.
The European waters directives have been good for protecting our bathing waters, but I believe that we can go further. My list of supporters for the Bill extends past the 11 names that I am allowed to read out today, and I apologise to those who have given me their support but who I am unable to name at this time. I believe that the measures in the Bill will address a problem that has existed for a long time in North Cornwall and around the country, and I hope that elements of the Bill or indeed the Bill itself can make progress through the House so that all my constituents will be able to feel that we are leaving this environment in a better state than we found it in.
Question put and agreed to.
That Scott Mann, Richard Benyon, Mr Ben Bradshaw, Robert Courts, Steve Double, James Heappey, Craig Mackinlay, Dame Cheryl Gillan, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Justine Greening, Tim Loughton and David Morris present the Bill.
Scott Mann accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 248).
Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill
Considered in Committee
Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair
Exemption for buildings used as nursery grounds
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dame Rosie. I should like to start by reiterating this Government’s commitment to supporting the sustainable growth of farming and horticultural businesses. We firmly believe that the agricultural exemption from business rates plays an important role in supporting this aim and boosting agricultural productivity. This measure will therefore help to drive our ambitions for a more dynamic and self-reliant agricultural industry. Until a Court of Appeal ruling in 2015, the long-standing practice of the Valuation Office Agency had been to apply the agricultural exemption to all plant nurseries. However, the ruling clarified that the exemption did not apply to plant nurseries in buildings that were not occupied together with agricultural land, and used solely in connection with agricultural operations on that or other agricultural land. This does not reflect Government policy, and neither does it reflect our commitment to growth in the rural economy. The Bill will therefore amend the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and enable the Valuation Office Agency to return to its former practice of exempting all plant nurseries solely consisting of buildings. It will also enable the VOA to exempt those plant nurseries that have been assessed since the ruling.
The Government have been consistently clear that they would take action on this matter. In March 2017, we set out our intention to legislate in a written ministerial statement. A further written ministerial statement was made in 2018, restating our intention to legislate and for the first time confirming that the measure would have retrospective effect in England from 1 April 2015. In Wales, the measure will have effect from 1 April 2017. The Bill delivers on that commitment and, once enacted, it will restore the previous practice and enable refunds to be provided to the handful of plant nurseries that have already been assessed for business rates as a consequence of the Court of Appeal ruling. While the Bill will restore the practice of exempting plant nurseries and buildings, it will not otherwise disturb the existing boundary of the agricultural exemption. The Bill amends schedule 5 to the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which determines the extent to which certain hereditaments are exempt from business rates.
Turning specifically to clause 1, it amends paragraph 3 of schedule 5 to the 1988 Act, providing that a building that
“is or forms part of a nursery ground and is used solely in connection with agricultural operations at the nursery ground”
will, subject to the passage of this Bill, be exempt from business rates. Clause 1 also contains a provision that the measure will have effect from 1 April 2015 in England and from 1 April 2017 in Wales, as requested by the Welsh Government. That will ensure that the measure has the intended retrospective effect and that refunds can be provided as necessary.
Dame Rosie, you will be pleased to hear that the Bill is non-contentious. It simply fixes the position as it was before the 2015 Court of Appeal ruling and, on that basis, the Opposition are happy to allow the Government to go ahead without objection.
It was said both in the press and when the Local Government Finance Bill was in Committee before the election that the Government were pledging to right the wrong of the Court of Appeal’s hearing after listening to businesses’ concerns, but several other similar representations have been made. For example, in towns where the banks have closed and there is no post office, a convenience store might step in to install a cash machine, but it would straight away be taxed on the turnover of the cash machine, which could take the store over the threshold for small business rate relief. There have been calls for that issue to be examined, but we are yet to see any progress.
Another big issue affecting many high streets and town and city centres is the impact of business rates on the viability of retail. We see companies go under on an almost weekly basis because they cannot afford to meet the high running costs of operating in primary locations. Communities resent seeing their local high streets and town centres go downhill, and businesses and representatives of other organisations have made the same point, but the Government have offered nothing comprehensive in response, because there would be a big bill.
However, the truth is that if we want to save our town centres and high streets, we must be bold and fully examine how such premises are taxed if they are to have any future. This goes beyond business; this is about communities. When people talk about how well or badly their communities are doing, they will often point to their town centres and high streets as a barometer. When people see the roller shutters pulled down or boards over windows, that has a material effect on how they feel about their community, and the Government ought to take note of that.
When the Local Government Finance Bill was in Committee, the Opposition made the offer that where there were non-contentious issues on which local government was seeking progress, we were happy to sit down and go through a plan for the legislation that ought to be brought forward. That would be done away from partisan interests because it is the right thing to do for our communities, and I look forward to the Minister arranging such a meeting.
I am delighted to speak in support of a Bill that rights a wrong that was clearly never intended in the first place, and I have the honour of being the Member who first raised this issue when the Local Government Finance Bill was in Committee last year. Unfortunately, however, the Conservative party’s majority was not the only victim of last year’s general election, because that Bill fell at that point and the amendment that was likely to be made to it could not be passed, hence the need for this new Bill.
Plant nurseries play a vital role in this country’s food production supply chain. At a time when we want to increase domestic food supply and become less reliant on imported food, it is right to do all we can to support an important industry and ensure that we do not impose a further tax on producers that would see them struggle with the additional costs. Many of them would face the possibility of going out of business, with the loss of jobs that that would entail. The Bill sets out to put in place what the Local Government Finance Act 1988 always intended and to ensure that the exemption for nurseries continues. It will support our rural economy, ensuring that we support food production and that jobs are retained in the industry. I am therefore pleased to support the Bill to ensure that it becomes an Act as soon as possible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a crucial Bill, because it gives hope to so many businesses that underpin life in rural constituencies such as his and mine?
I agree that it is vital to support those important businesses in our rural communities. If the jobs that they provide were lost, it would be difficult to replace them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is important for farmers wanting to intensify their businesses, because it will put it beyond doubt that any nursery operation will come under the scope of the exemption?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that good point. We should do all that we can to support our farmers who want to diversify and expand their operations to include growing plants in greenhouses and so on, and they should be able to do so with confidence and in the knowledge that they will not suddenly incur a business rates bill. It is therefore correct that we introduce clarity and put right the wrong that the court case created. As I said, I do not believe that that wrong was ever the intention of Parliament or the Government, and we should provide the sector with confidence that horticultural buildings and nurseries will continue to attract the agricultural exemption that they should rightly have.
I acknowledge the role played by the National Farmers Union in bringing the matter to my attention and lobbying on this issue. It has spoken up for its members, ensuring that their voices have been heard. I thank the Minister and the former Local Government Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), for listening carefully to the arguments, agreeing to take this measure and ensuring that the matter is corrected. I welcome the Bill and trust that it will pass unopposed with wholehearted support from across the House so that it can reach the statute book as quickly as possible to support this sector.
I rise to support clause 1. As ever, it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), although he has just reminded me of the Local Government Finance Bill and the many interesting and fun hours that we spent on it, particularly in Committee. Unfortunately, however, those hours were subsequently lost when the Bill fell, so it is good to see this measure coming to the House, as have several other provisions that were in the previous Bill.
The agricultural exemption for nursery grounds has been in place for a significant period, dating back to 1929. Indeed, this issue was raised during the passage of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, when Ministers gave a steer that there was a clear intention that nursery grounds should be subject to the same sort of exemption as other agricultural uses. The Court of Appeal case—the Tunnel Tech case—seems to have driven a coach and horses through the custom and practice since 1929 and the intimation given by the then Government during the passage of the 1988 Act that the status quo would prevail. To put it mildly, suddenly receiving a significant rates bill as the result of a Valuation Office Agency investigation and the subsequent Court of Appeal case has challenged a number of growers in the running of their businesses.
I am pleased in many ways to have played a small part in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay apprehended me in the Division Lobby one evening to explain the challenge he was seeing in his area as a result of this Court of Appeal ruling and the problems it was likely to cause growers. We subsequently had meetings with the National Farmers Union, which put a coherent and collegiate case for restoring the status quo.
I am glad that, when I approached the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the matter was put before Ministers—we do not always receive this type of response—the unanimous verdict was that the Court of Appeal decision was not the right thing for growers and other such businesses and was not consistent with the Government’s intention. I was delighted to publish a written ministerial statement confirming the Government’s intention to restore the position as it was before the Court of Appeal ruling and to allow the agricultural exemption in this regard, as was clearly intended.
My hon. Friend mentions the NFU’s contribution. Will he join me in showing appreciation for its work in representing our farming and agricultural industries, particularly when we are deciding on the future of those industries? Does he agree it is important that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in particular, continues working with the NFU to make sure we get the policy right?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important and pertinent point. The agricultural industry is very different from many other industries in this country. This country needs to be as self-sufficient as possible in food production, and we also need to consider that it is often difficult for producers in the industry to recover their costs. For example, there has been a perennial challenge for milk producers, which have not been able to realise even the cost of production. That is why organisations such as the NFU are extremely important in bringing such issues to the fore so that we maintain our food security.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, with Brexit, it will be ever more important that this type of horticultural industry is as competitive as possible? Countries such as Holland and Italy are increasingly competing with our industry, and it is much better to grow food here for phytosanitary, employment and all sorts of other reasons.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Again he is absolutely right that, wherever we can, we should be producing food in this country for those reasons.
Importantly, clause 1 is a retrospective measure. Such measures are often not retrospective, but it is important that the Bill is being implemented retrospectively, because a number of growers have already been caught by the provisions of the Court of Appeal decision and, as a consequence, have seen their business costs rise significantly. I have mentioned the challenges that agricultural producers often face, and those challenges are compounded when growers are retrospectively asked for an amount of money that they did not anticipate they would need to build into their business costs.
In this case, a number of growers will have already sold their produce and therefore will not have factored this into their price, if they were able to do so. The decision will put a significant strain on the businesses in question, so I am pleased the Bill is being applied retrospectively and that businesses that have already been caught by the Court of Appeal decision will be refunded any business rates they have paid.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that another reason why we need to keep costs down is to allow the industry to invest as much as possible in emerging new techniques and technologies for developing and growing food and increasing yield? An additional tax burden would reduce the amount of money the industry can invest for the future.
My hon. Friend is right. There is huge potential for such industries to grow—pardon the pun—but investment in technology is needed for them to do that. If the Government or, in this case, the Court of Appeal decide to levy an additional cost on such businesses, bearing in mind many of them are small and medium-sized businesses, the chances of their being able to continue investment will be diminished. The Bill will therefore help us to facilitate businesses in taking advantage of new technological advances. By being more likely to invest than they otherwise would have been, they will be able to further themselves, and hopefully not only will their prospects improve but they will add to UK GDP and add jobs in their local area.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is now taking the Bill forward. The Bill is a positive step to put right a Court of Appeal decision that most rational people consider to be wrong. I am extremely glad that the Bill is being applied retrospectively. As colleagues have said today, not only will it enable growers to continue growing produce to sell on to other growers, who can then provide the produce we all buy in the shops and subsequently eat, but it will enable growers to invest for the future. The Bill will make sure this country continues to be a leading player in advancing how we grow our food and sustain our population.
It is extraordinary that this House has spent so long talking about doing such a simple thing as undoing the errant court judgment, and I suspect we may even continue talking about it for a few minutes yet. However, that is only fitting, because, as has been said by a number of my hon. Friends, including the Minister, and by the Opposition, we are all here concerned about this issue as we understand the profound impact that a single court judgment could have had, not only on businesses up and down the country, but on the food chain and even on the communities and local economies that those businesses support.
I have talked in the previous debate on this matter about the individual constituency business that came to me to discuss the impact this court judgment would have had, not only on its business and bottom line, but, crucially, on the income to the local internal drainage board. This would have meant that in my constituency, which is the most at risk of flooding in the country, according to the Association of British Insurers, not only would businesses and livelihoods have been affected, as others have said, but, even worse, that huge swathes of the area would have been at greater risk of flooding. That would have posed a real threat to the broader economy, the food chain and huge numbers of people who live in areas at or sometimes below sea level and who rely on those internal drainage boards being able to function.
The Bill is therefore a hugely important tweak to the legislation that was inadvertently altered by the court judgment, and it is a fitting tribute to the change that the previous Minister and this Minister are initiating and seeing through respectively that we have devoted a reasonable amount of parliamentary time to it. However, it is worth pointing out that we would hope in future, in legislation generally, not just in this area, to avoid a single court judgment having the kind of ramifications that this one has had here. We would all like not to put our constituents through the genuine trauma of knowing that the business they work for might face real financial difficulties simply because of a single court judgment. Somewhat unusually, these people in my area may also face the risk of their homes and businesses being flooded, which is an additional factor.
Although it is good that the Government are fixing this and the Opposition parties have co-operated so readily in fixing it, we should also bear in mind that it would have been better not to have found ourselves in this situation in the first place. So my plea to the Minister is to see what he can do, working across the Government—I do not pretend that all the problems are in his Department, by any means—to avoid legislation where we have not thought through all the potential consequences of the precise wording. We spend a lot of time in Bill Committees and in Committee of the whole House going through pieces of legislation line by line, paying close and deep attention to every moment in those Committees, but sometimes such things lay themselves open to unintended consequences, so we would all welcome anything that can be done to try to avoid them.
Clearly, the Government have acted as quickly as they can, given the unfortunate situation with the previous Bill, to bring this piece of legislation back individually, notwithstanding the election interrupting the previous passage of the Local Government Finance Bill. Obviously, that Bill was going to do a number of things far wider than this one and it is clearly the right thing to have adjusted how the legislation has been formatted so that we can do this quickly. It is likely we would have ended up seeing businesses paying large sums and going through significant difficulty only then to be given that money back. Of course it is a good thing that this legislation has been moved on faster than it otherwise might, but I hope that we would all like to avoid this sort of situation in the first place.
I will close simply by saying that I hope the Minister will do all he can to avoid this sort of situation arising again, should he have the opportunity. I re-emphasise how good it is that we have been able to bring this matter to a relatively speedy conclusion and how heartening it is to see so many colleagues discussing a matter that otherwise would have passed with relatively little attention. This is a good example of the Government giving real attention to an important matter and acting quickly to correct a court judgment that was never intended by any previous Government. I welcome that actions that the Minister has taken and, as I said previously, that his predecessor has taken. Perhaps weirdly, I welcome, above all, the co-operation of the Opposition in getting on with this ever so quickly. I hope that the constituents who raised this issue with me see that this is an example of action being taken and are genuinely reassured.
It was particularly moving to be in here as we heard the sound of the RAF fly-past a few moments ago to mark 100 years of the RAF. It was 100 years ago this month that my great, great uncle John Headlam was killed while serving in the RAF, so it is nice to be able to pay tribute to his service and sacrifice.
We are a nation of gardeners, and it is important to us all that our nursery sector thrives. It is a particular pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) on the Front Bench as the Minister today, because my constituency abuts his and it is home to some of the nurseries that I know very well—Cherry Hill and Strikes in Stokesley, which was subject to a recent devastating fire. I know that I speak on behalf of lots of people in my constituency when I say that I hope Strikes is back up and running in its normal place as quickly as possible.
The nursery industry is extremely significant for growing produce for our home market and for ensuring the sustainability of our rural economy. At a time when there is fierce competition from the supermarket and similar sectors, there is no doubt traditional nurseries need all the support they can get. Agricultural land has been exempt from business rates for almost 100 years.
I want to pick my hon. Friend up on the point about supporting nurseries and this kind of industry. Does he agree that it would be right for this place to make a plea to our constituents, not just in this area, but across our high streets and in all sorts of other areas, to support independent local businesses such as these nurseries to ensure that they can continue to exist in the future?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and he is right in what he says. That is something people really care about, and people often regard these nurseries as a hub in the local community. They are not just another shop; they are often dearly loved, and this fits with the spirit of the time, when people increasingly want to buy local.
Until recently, the exemption that applied in this case had been assumed to be uncontroversial and would fit with the understanding of both rating valuers and practitioners. That was the situation until the 2015 court judgment in the Tunnel Tech case, which was a great mistake. I am delighted that the Government have taken steps to reverse it, as such judicial activism simply is not appropriate. The Bill will ensure that plant nurseries in buildings will once again benefit from the business rate exemption, which restores the law to the same state in which it existed before the Court of Appeal decision. I am pleased that the Bill will apply retrospectively, so that those nursery grounds in England that have been charged business rates will now be refunded.
The Government should be congratulated on acting so swiftly to rectify this wrong and on demonstrating common sense. This is so clearly the right course of action that there is no controversy anywhere in this House, and the Bill has received full support from the NFU. I pay tribute to the NFU, because I know full well the value of the work it does in supporting farmers in rural East Cleveland. Indeed, I had the pleasure of going on a farm visit with the NFU recently to see Capon Hall farm and Peter Humphrey. That is exactly the kind of work the NFU does day in, day out, and it should be saluted.
The legislation needs to be viewed in the broader context of the Government’s commitment and keenness to support our agricultural sector and small businesses, especially those in rural areas. Last week, I spoke out about my deep concerns regarding the future of business rates, but it is worth noting that as a result of measures taken by the Government, more than 600,000 small businesses—occupiers of a third of all properties—now pay no business rates at all. The Government doubled small business rate relief to 100% and raised the threshold from £6,000 to £12,000. At the same time, the Government doubled rural rate relief from 50% to 100% for eligible businesses. Such reliefs are hugely welcome for many small businesses in my constituency.
I am tempted to point out that the opportunity to use the “green shoots of recovery” line is simply too good to pass up in such a debate. It is with absolutely no hesitation that I support the Bill and the Government’s other continuing efforts to ensure that rural small businesses in this country get the best chance to succeed.
I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill. This is a most pertinent time to talk about measures that will aid our worthy horticultural industry—not least because it is the tennis season. In particular, it is the time of that most prestigious of world-class events, Wimbledon. What is even more important about Wimbledon than the tennis, Sir Lindsay? The strawberries. People were wondering how I could get tennis into the debate—
But more so the cream.
I have written down in brackets “and cream”. During the tournament last year, more than 166,000 portions of strawberries were served, with cream. That is 33 tonnes of strawberries. Were I not speaking in this debate, I would be at Wimbledon. That is how important I think it is that we get our business through.
Many strawberry plants, like other plants in the horticultural chain, start off life being propagated in nursery grounds, which are often the lifeblood of the horticultural industry. They are the hotbed of germination, propagation and cultivation, and we are discussing them because the Bill exempts from non-domestic rates buildings that are, or form part of, a nursery ground, as several hon. Friends have already said. It gives nursery grounds parity with their agricultural counterparts.
The south-west region, where I come from, is a rural region with a good climate for gardening, growing and horticulture, and it supports so many businesses in the sector, not least in Taunton Deane, which is one reason why I particularly wanted to speak in this debate. I also wanted to speak because in a previous life I worked for the National Farmers Union and got quite involved with the horticultural industry, and I was for many years a horticultural and gardening journalist and broadcaster, so this subject is close to my heart.
I certainly appreciate the hard graft—to use a horticultural term—involved in the industry and the very tight margins, especially for those at the start of the chain. It is difficult for them to pass on their costs: they cannot have huge add-ons because they do not deal with the general public. For this small sector of the industry to discover recently that it was to be penalised by having to pay business rates, when previously it had been exempted, like its agricultural counterparts, was a bitter blow.
Let me give some background. Nursery grounds were exempt from non-domestic rates from 1928 until recently when, through one particular court decision, about which we have heard from colleagues, it was found that the exemption was an incorrect application of the law. This was a bolt from the blue and, as can be imagined, caused a huge amount of angst in the nursery industry, which was already up against the tight margins that I mentioned. The Horticultural Trades Association reported that the change would be detrimental to the industry: if nurseries had to pay business rates that they had not paid previously, that would inevitably drive up costs that would be passed on to the consumers at the end of the chain. As Conservatives—we are the party of business—that did not sit easily with us. The HTA reported that some of its members could face bills to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds if the situation was not rectified.
I am delighted to say, though, that through the ripening of this small but perfectly formed Bill, the wrong has been righted. The fruitful outcome that we are witnessing today clarifies once and for all that the situation will again be aligned with the previous practice of exemptions. I am particularly pleased to hear that the funds will be backdated, as specified in the Bill. The Bill demonstrates that, in such an instance, where unfairness has so obviously been demonstrated, the Government, particularly the meticulous and attentive Minister, have listened—and they have not just listened but acted.
The Bill is fully in step with the Government’s commitment to a vision of a productive, competitive and sustainable UK agricultural sector, of which horticulture and the plant nursery sector are an important part. In fact, I believe there is great scope for the industry to grow and blossom, particularly as we exit the EU. With the right back-up, such as that demonstrated through this Bill, there is an opportunity to grow more of our plant material at home, to fuel our landscaping and ornamental plant industry, thereby avoiding the inherent plant disease and pest threats that are associated with importing plants for this trade. For example, we hear a great deal about the disease xylella, which is wiping out olive trees and many other herbaceous and woody commercial plants in Europe. We do not want that in the UK.
After the granting of Taunton’s new and most welcome garden town status, designated through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, I am working to see more trees included in our townscape. Would it not be wonderful if, at the same time as improving the environment and people’s health and wellbeing, along with all the other benefits that we get from trees, those trees were home-grown, so that the economy benefits at the same time?
Let me touch on the idea of growing the whole horticultural industry and why it is important to put in place measures such as the Bill to stimulate the industry. It is thought that there is great scope to grow the industry, perhaps by as much as an incredible £18 billion. In fact, tomorrow the all-party group on gardening and horticulture is holding an inquiry into how we can skill up the industry and what we need to do to make that happen. There is consensus from the Horticultural Trades Association that if the gross value added—that is, the goods and services that emanate from the diverse horticultural and gardening industry—was measured, which it currently is not, it would demonstrate exactly how valuable the sector is to the economy. It would then be easier to make a case for putting in the right measures, including research and development and so on, to grow the sector.
This small but perfectly formed Bill rights an injustice relating to the imposition of business rates on a special sector of the important horticultural industry, one of the very veins of the supply chain. In so doing, it benefits the industry by not saddling it with an unwelcome property tax and thus helps all those who work in the trade and the whole economy, by giving back to the industry one of the benefits that it needs to thrive. It will have particular resonance throughout the south-west, so I fully support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to respond briefly to the various points raised. I thank my opposite number, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), for the typically constructive way he has approached this type of legislation; of course, we do not agree on everything, but it is fantastic to be able to move these relatively technical matters through the House speedily.
The hon. Gentleman expressed, as he has before, a specific concern about whether the presence of an automated teller machine in a convenience store could take the rateable value of that small shop above the threshold for small business rate relief. Having looked into the matter, I am delighted to tell him that we do not believe that that should be the case. If an ATM is rateable, it would appear as a separate assessment on the ratings list and the ratepayer would typically be the financial institution that operates the ATM, not the shop itself. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the specific issues with the Association of Convenience Stores to ensure that its concerns are investigated and addressed.
The hon. Gentleman turned to the important topic of high streets. I know that all of us in this House celebrate our local high streets; they are vital parts not just of our communities, but of our economies. I am very pleased to tell him that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) is the Minister for high streets and is fully focused on the issue at hand through the Future High Streets Forum. More excitingly, he has just launched the Great British High Street Awards 2018. I will do a plug and call on all Members to nominate their local high streets. Nominations are open until the end of August. The last iteration of the competition saw almost 1,000 entries from across the country and hundreds of thousands of votes from the public to choose the eventual winner. There is a considerable cash prize on offer for the winner and, indeed, a new rising star category. The winner will also receive expert advice from industry professionals. I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that we take the issue of high streets very seriously indeed.
Let me touch briefly on some of the other contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) should take enormous pride in the role that he has played in ensuring that we are discussing this important issue today. Hopefully, this legislation will eventually receive Royal Assent and that will be in no small part owing to his efforts to put this issue on the agenda of Ministers, and he deserves enormous credit for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who had this job before me, put in motion the Bill that we are discussing today and engaged with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay on this important topic, ensuring that when I arrived in the Department this agenda was ready to take forward, and he also deserves credit for that. It is always intimidating to have to respond to him in this Chamber, as I am always reminded that so well did he do this job before I inherited it that the job had to be split between two different people. The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), sits beside me on the Bench. The two of us together do our best to replicate what he did before us and we are grateful that he left everything in such good shape for us to pick up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) has been a stalwart in speaking about business rate tweaks. I join him in hoping that there are far fewer of these to come in the immediate future, but thank him for his support of the Bill. He spoke eloquently about defending the rural interests in his constituency, which will benefit from this Bill, as he did when we enabled business rates relief for new fibre installations, a topic that is dear to his heart and which he pushed hard for. He should shortly be seeing the benefits of that policy in action across the country.
My constituency neighbour, my good hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), has, as I know at first hand, a very mixed constituency. As ever, he did an excellent and eloquent job in talking about the importance of small businesses across Teesside and the efforts that this Government have put in place to ensure that the tax burden on those small businesses is as low as possible. I welcome his support for the £10 billion-worth of measures to alleviate the burden of business rates on small enterprises across Teesside. I am glad that they are benefiting from that. In the rural part of his constituency in East Cleveland, the agricultural community will, I am sure, welcome his support and lobbying for this measure as it can ensure that its productivity remains high in the months and years to come.
What better place to end than with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow)? As ever, she gave us a brilliant defence and a brilliant celebration of our rural economy and everything that it contributes to our national life. We are, of course, grateful to her for gracing us with her presence today, when she could have been at Wimbledon enjoying the strawberries, the Pimms, the cream and everything else on offer. I must say that, when it comes to slipping requests, she clearly has a much better relationship with the Whips than I do, as my previous requests for various exemptions for cricket matches and tennis matches were firmly denied, so I have something to take up with the Whips in due course.
I am glad that we have had a very constructive discussion today and that there is widespread support for this particular clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment (Standing Order No. 83D(6)).
Order. As indicated on the Order Paper, the Speaker has certified that the Bill relates exclusively to England and Wales on matters within devolved legislative competence. As the Bill has not been amended, there is no change to that certification. Copies of the certificate and the consent motion are available in the Vote Office. Under Standing Order No. 83M, a consent motion is required for the Bill to proceed. Does the Minister intend to move the consent motion?
The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales) (Standing Order No. 83M).
[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I beg to move that the Legislative Grand Committee do sit in private.
As we both know, you cannot move that motion at this stage.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you clarify that the reason that I cannot move that motion is because I am a Scottish MP and have been rendered a second-class Member of the House as a result of English votes for English laws?
Mr Linden, you may wish to judge yourself as a second-class Member, but let me reassure you that I will always treat you as a first-class Member. On that basis, you will still not get your way.
I remind the House that only Members representing constituencies in England and Wales may vote on the consent motion. I call the Minister to move the consent motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee consents to the Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill.—(Rishi Sunak.)
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Lindsay, and, indeed, it is a pleasure to serve on this esteemed Legislative Grand Committee of England and Wales. I look forward to making a few observations on the Bill, which has been certified by Mr Speaker as competent for EVEL. It is of course a real pity that, should the Bill divide the Legislative Grand Committee, I and my hon. Friends from Scotland will be excluded from having our vote counted. Indeed, Scottish colleagues have to endure the immense indignity of being ordered by Government Whips to traipse through the Lobby to have their vote discounted in person. It is all incredibly sad. My immense sadness in this regard is founded upon the view that, during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and indeed after it, we the people of Scotland were told that Scotland is an equal partner of the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State for Scotland might have strayed off that line a couple of weeks ago, but I am sure that that was a mere oversight on his part.
Today, we have been relegated from legislators to narrators, and so can only speak in the Legislative Grand Committee—and speak I certainly will. Before I continue with my remarks, let me say that I am conscious that I must stick to the strict parameters of this fine Bill. I wish to offer, though, a few thoughts on the English votes for English laws mechanism and, in particular, Standing Order No. 83.
In essence, Scottish Members of this House have become second-class MPs in the House of Commons. EVEL basically excludes MPs from Scotland, and in some cases MPs from nations other than England, from voting on legislation that could have consequentials and affect other parts of the UK. There are also financial implications, as decisions taken for England only can lead to changes to Scotland’s budget from the UK Government.
I rather suspect that the days of the English votes for English laws are numbered, but, for so long as this legislative apartheid continues, I shall continue to be a diligent participant in the Legislative Grand Committee.
I just want to note the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is unable to be here, as he is in the Scottish Affairs Committee. Unfortunately, that brings my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) closer to beating his record of being the Member who has spoken the most often in the Legislative Grand Committee. The ironic thing is that Members from England and Wales never actually speak in the English Legislative Grand Committee.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. Perhaps today we might find that Members from English constituencies will rise to speak, but I would not necessarily hold my breath for that.
When I first looked at the Order Paper last week and saw that we were debating the Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill, I excitedly and somewhat naively thought that this was about nurseries in the sense of toddlers and early years. Here was me planning to come to the Legislative Grand Committee to talk about the SNP Scottish Government’s childcare revolution.
I should declare an interest: my three-year-old son, Isaac, starts nursery next month and is thoroughly looking forward to starting Sgoil Araich Lyoncross. The incredibly good news about that childcare revolution is something that will be welcome from Shettleston to Shetland.
Of course, had the Bill been about nurseries in the early years sense, I could have regaled the House with some wonderful nursery rhymes, such as my favourite, “The Grand Old Duke of York.” It rather reminds me of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), with regard to Brexit, particularly the lines,
“He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.”
Alas, the House will have to wait for another day to hear me pontificate about nurseries and nursery rhymes. Instead today, we have the delight of discussing non-domestic rates for nurseries of a plant variety, and what a treat that is.
The Bill’s purpose is to reverse the effect on valuation practice for non-domestic rating of the 2015 case, Tunnel Tech v. Reeves. In brief—I shall try to be brief, because I know other Members want to get on to other business soon—the case established that, where a business operates a plant nursery or nursery ground where agricultural operations take place entirely indoors, it cannot benefit from the general business rates exemption for agricultural land and buildings. The Government made a policy commitment to legislate to establish that nursery grounds should be entitled to an agricultural exemption and to apply that exemption retrospectively, back to the 2015-16 financial year.
The Legislative Grand Committee will doubtless be aware that, on 9 July 2015, the Court of Appeal gave judgment in the case of Tunnel Tech v. Reeves. I am sure that all members of this esteemed Legislative Grand Committee will have read in full that judgment from the Court of Appeal. The case concerned the rateability of a property occupied by the company Tunnel Tech in Stockbridge, Hampshire. The property was used for growing mushrooms from spores. I myself absolutely abhor mushrooms and feel that they can really ruin a rather good lasagne, but I do not want to digress too much from the subject at hand.
A mixed material was fermented and then used to fertilise
“mushroom mycelium grown through sterilised wheat or rye grain produced in laboratory conditions”.
After 20 days, mushroom tendrils have grown within the material. It is very interesting that, at that point, Tunnel Tech removed the material and transferred it to specialist mushroom farms. I have never had the pleasure of visiting a mushroom farm myself, but I am only young. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) has visited a mushroom farm. Perhaps he might extend an invite to me to visit one in his constituency. I am still relatively young; there is plenty of time left to visit mushroom farms in my life.
The court found that the property in that case was liable for business rates because the mushrooms were produced in order to be sold on to complete the cultivation process elsewhere, not direct to consumers, and because of that, the property did not attract an agricultural exemption. In rating terms, it was a “nursery ground” and not a “market garden”. It is very important that the Legislative Grand Committee takes that seriously.
The Valuation Office Agency rating manual defines a nursery ground as
“land in, or on which, young or immature trees and/or young plants are reared (not necessarily being grown in the actual soil of the nursery) until fit for transplanting or sale: the emphasis on young plants should be noted. Even though plants are raised in containers on the land rather than by rootstock in the soil, such ‘grounds’ should be treated as exempt.”
The rating manual defines a market garden as
“a holding cultivated wholly or mainly for the production of vegetables, fruit and flowers for sale in the course of a trade or business.”
The definitions are used for internal guidance purposes by the VOA and do not have the force of law, but they are based in part on case law discussions of the definitions of those terms.
On Second Reading, the Minister—who I know is playing very close attention to my remarks today—said:
“A nursery ground is where small plants or trees are propagated or sown with a view to their being sold on to someone else for growing on to their mature state, for sale to or use by the end consumer, whereas a market garden”—
this is where there is a differentiation—
“is where fruit, vegetables, flowers or plants are produced to be sold directly or indirectly to members of the public for consumption.”—[Official Report, 5 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 259.]
Agricultural land has been exempt from business rates since 1929. I do not want to test the patience of the House too much by going back to 1929. The House will be relieved to know that I do not plan to do that. However, areas within an agricultural property that are used for farm diversification such as a farm shop or holiday accommodation on what was previously a farm are liable for business rates. The current legislative authority for that can be found in schedule 5 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988. I am sure that all members of the Legislative Grand Committee have paid close attention to that. Before that, agricultural land had been subject to a 75% discount on rates from 1923, a 50% discount for poor law rates and a 75% discount for sanitary-related rates from 1896, known as partial derating.
I am really only clearing my throat at the moment, but I am conscious that scores of other right hon. and hon. Members, especially for English constituencies, will wish to contribute to the Legislative Grand Committee of England and Wales.
Before my hon. Friend comes to a conclusion, I want to reflect on his earlier point about “nurseries” and “nurseries”. It is a good opportunity to pay tribute to the Children’s Wood in my constituency, an outdoor play facility that hosts a nursery for young children but also has an allotment that in itself is a nursery for vegetables. It shows that the two things can be brought together and serve important educational purposes, and we should pay tribute to that kind of thing.
I do not want my hon. Friend to think that I am coming to the end of my remarks too early. I am only a third of the way through. He is right to pay tribute to the organisations in his constituency, and while I have the floor, I pay tribute to Eddie Andrews of Connect Community Trust in the Wellhouse area of my constituency, who does a sterling job of looking after that allotment. There is a long-standing problem that allotments have not been given the focus that they require, especially in Glasgow. We now have an SNP Administration—
Order. Perhaps I can help. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he needs an Adjournment debate, he should apply for one on allotments, because obviously we will not be discussing that as part of today’s debate.
I am grateful for your guidance, Sir Lindsay. That is much appreciated. I am conscious that scores of MPs from English constituencies will wish to take part in this important Legislative Grand Committee. Members fought for it for a long time; it was the English Parliament. I expect to see hundreds of MPs rush into the Chamber to stand to their feet and make their voice heard. There is still time for that, but I shall return to my own remarks.
Tunnel Tech sought to argue that its use of the property constituted that of a market garden. The term “market garden” has no statutory definition, but using several examples of case law, it argued that a hereditament is a market garden if any part of a process of horticulture is carried on there with a view to ultimate consumption by the public, even though the produce of the hereditament is not itself, when it leaves the hereditament, an article capable of consumption by the public or indeed intended for consumption by the public. For the purposes of time, I will not read out the full 2015 judgment; the Chairman is indicating that he would prefer me not to read it out. The judgment found that Tunnel Tech’s use of the property meant that it constituted a plant nursery and not a market garden. The produce of a market garden is suitable for direct or indirect sale to consumers, whereas the produce of a plant nursery is not. I found that fascinating when I read the briefing note for this.
This distinction was important because Tunnel Tech’s operations took place entirely within the buildings. The provision for the exemption of agricultural buildings is found in paragraph 3 of schedule 5 to the 1988 Act. It says, and it is important that the House understands this, that
“A building is an agricultural building if it is not a
(a) it is occupied together with agricultural land and is used solely in connection with agricultural operations on the land”
(b) it is or forms part of a market garden and is used solely in connection with agricultural operations at the market garden.”
The 2015 judgment noted that paragraph (b) does not include plant nurseries in the definition of agricultural buildings. It is important that we make that distinction. Therefore, a plant nursery that is located entirely indoors does not constitute an agricultural building and is not exempt from business rates. I am a frequent visitor to garden centres and there is one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). We in the SNP Whips Office have been there before to enjoy some tea and cake and I commend the garden centre to anyone visiting central Scotland.
It is worth noting that garden centres, including those calling themselves nurseries—I ran an election campaign from a nursery in 2016 in Barrhead in the constituency of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), but I will not go into that in great depth—are not considered to be agricultural land or agricultural buildings. They are subject to normal business rate liability and will continue to be so if and when the Bill receives Royal Assent.
I can see that some colleagues are getting a bit impatient at the length of my remarks—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) says, “Carry on!” I am tempted but I had better not. I know that countless hon. Members from English constituencies will be wishing to take part in this Legislative Grand Committee of England and Wales, so I shall conclude by thanking you for your forbearance, Sir Lindsay, and wishing this Bill a very speedy passage when it goes to their noble lordships.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed at the various stages of the Bill in supporting the measures involved and highlighting the contribution that it makes towards furthering the Government’s ambitions to support agricultural and horticultural productivity. I am grateful to the Clerks of the House and for the work done by the officials both in DEFRA and in my own Department.
I thank the National Farmers Union for its strong support for the Bill. We have worked closely with the NFU to make sure that nurseries benefit from the exemption in the Bill. I am grateful for its invaluable insight and expertise, which has helped to bring these effective measures to the House.
This Bill is just a small part of how the Government are using the business rates system to create opportunity and drive growth across the country. It has wide support, restores a long-standing policy position, and will support a vibrant and sustainable rural economy. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
[Un-Allotted Half Day]
Leaving the EU: Negotiations
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government’s negotiations to leave the EU have not progressed to the satisfaction of the people of the UK, with polls indicating that 69 per cent of the people now believe the exit process is going badly; calls on the Government to engage in cross-party discussions with a view to establishing a government of national unity; and further believes that the people of the UK should have the final say on the UK’s relationship with the EU through a people’s vote on the deal.
It is a pleasure to be able to introduce this Liberal Democrat debate on the Government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, the pleasure being greater because the opportunity is rather infrequent. I am aware that the House has had a pretty unremitting diet of Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit, but we judge that another helping is necessary because of the events that have taken place over the past few days. Yesterday we had an opportunity to question the Prime Minister on the Chequers agreement, but this debate gives Members an opportunity to develop their arguments in rather greater detail.
Of course, all this is being discussed in a Westminster bubble, and we will frequently be reminded that there is such a thing as the popular will. However, the popular will, as manifested in surveys of public opinion, suggests that at present about 70% of the public judge that the Government are handling the Brexit negotiations badly, and that figure has been on an increasing trend for pretty much the past year.
A lot of that disillusionment has to do with the way in which members of the Government have been conducting themselves. Over the past few days, we have had a treasure trove of quotations from senior members of the Government about what they really think about the Government’s negotiating position.
It would be seriously disrespectful and utterly counter-productive to have another referendum. Talking about quotations, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with himself?
I am perfectly happy to respect the referendum that we have had, but it is utterly respectful, and quite common practice in many countries, to have a confirmatory referendum when a Government have produced a deal. That is good constitutional practice and good politics, and Liberal Democrat Members argue for it strongly.
My right hon. Friend will of course remember that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) proposed exactly the same course of action whereby one could have an initial referendum and another that confirmed it later on. Does he agree with the right hon. Gentleman?
Yes. I think that most members of the Government, at various points, have subscribed to that perfectly correct constitutional position.
How does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the announcement that there was to be a second referendum would influence the negotiating position of our counter-parties? Would it incline them to be more forthcoming with the negotiations?
Since we are being pedantic about numbers, we are actually talking about the third referendum on this subject. The impact on the European negotiators would, I am sure, be absolutely negligible. They are fully aware of the chaotic and disorganised position of the Government and defining their negotiating position on that basis.
I turn to what senior members of the Government felt about the policy that is now being put forward. A couple of days ago, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), as I suppose we should now learn to call him, spoke to The Mail on Sunday, which I know from experience to be a very reliable newspaper, describing the Government’s policy as being like “polishing a turd”. He was also reported to have met the former Prime Minister—his fellow old Etonian—to discuss the problem a few days ago: the two gentlemen who have probably done more than anything else to precipitate the chaos we now have. Between them, they agreed that the Government had produced
“the worst of all worlds”.
In the slightly more dignified language of his resignation letter, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip described Brexit as “dying” and Britain being reduced to the status of a “colony”—less than an overwhelming vote of support for the Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) expressed his argument in somewhat more measured terms, saying that we have reached a point where we will be exiting the European Union in name only. If that is indeed what is happening, why on earth is Brexit proceeding, and can we not find a way out of it?
The striking thing about the comments that resigning members of the Government have made is the way in which they are managing to poison their own well. It is extraordinary the extent to which the word, “betrayal”, is entering the narrative. We risk getting to a point in a few months’ time—if Brexit happens; I think it is an if rather than a when—where the many people who regard Brexit as a disastrous error will be pointing out the many problems that arise from it, while those who have devoted their lives to fighting for Brexit will be arguing that it is a disaster because it is a betrayal. If Brexit day ever happens, it will be a day of mourning, and it is very difficult to see where the positive story is going to come from to help the country to turn over a new leaf.
Talking of betrayal, the previous Member for Sheffield, Hallam campaigned for a “real referendum on Europe” before the 2010 general election. A 2008 leaflet stated:
“It’s been over thirty years since the British people last had a vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union…Whether you agree with Europe or not, it is vital that you and the British people have your say in a real EU referendum.”
We have had that referendum. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the people have had their say and we have to abide by it.
My party has never had any problem with the idea of having referendums on the European question. We have always argued that on questions of major constitutional change—for example, entry into the monetary union or signing the Lisbon treaty, which has already happened—it is appropriate to have a referendum. It is common practice in many EU countries to proceed in that way, and we have no objection to it. We argue that there must be a proper process, which involves consulting the public on the general principle—that has happened, and there was a narrow majority one way—and then having a confirmatory referendum at the end to decide whether it is a satisfactory way to proceed.
I understand that the reason many people voted leave in the referendum was that they were fed up with the establishment telling them all the time that it knew better and that their voice and opinion did not matter. Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that by making this proposition, the Liberal Democrats are just confirming to those people that they were absolutely right—the Lib Dems think they know better than the people—and that the people’s voice no longer matters to them?
If people do in fact feel that way, they will presumably vote the same way again. We take the risk that we lose. That is the democratic spirit.
Why did the right hon. Gentleman not take the opportunity to vote for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty?
We did press for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, as it happens. That was not the view of a majority in the House at the time, but we had no problem with the concept.
Let me try to be a bit more positive about what the Government are trying to do. The first remark I want to make is about the conduct of the Prime Minister. I was going around the radio and television studios yesterday following Conservative MPs and commentators, none of whom had a good word to say about her. It is important to put on the record that she has pursued her course of action, however misjudged it may be, with a grim determination that is rather heroic. I have some admiration for the way in which she is going about her job. She may be wrong, but she is pursuing it in a rather steadfast way.
The second point I will make is about the content of the Government’s announcement. It is clearly an advance on where they were before. There is a recognition now that the Irish border question has to be addressed and that there has to be frictionless trade for industrial and agricultural products. That is now understood. The Government appear to have heard the message from the Jaguar Land Rovers of this world, which have complex supply chains, that it is not possible to stay in the UK if there is interruption of trade, so industrial and agricultural products will have to flow freely.
There is also an implicit acknowledgment that the default position of crashing out of the European Union is less and less plausible, and the reason for that is the changing international environment created by our visitor on Friday. The idea that the UK can fall back on World Trade Organisation rules in the default position is made increasingly untenable by the fact that the WTO has progressively less authority. The United States is not willing to abide by its rulings or to staff its judicial panels. As an organisation, it is completely hollow. Were we to fall back on WTO rules, we would effectively be falling back on anarchy. There is at least some recognition in Government of the dangers of that approach.
Those are the positive things. There is one other positive achievement by default, which is that the Government have effectively scuppered any prospect of reaching a bilateral trade agreement with the United States.
Well, there are Members of the House—I am one, and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) is another—who have experience of dealing with the United States through negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Several things were very clear. First, although the United States is important, it is considerably less important than the European Union in terms of our trade—it is about 18% versus 43% of our exports. There are undoubtedly some benefits to be obtained through a completely free trading arrangement with the United States; for example, there are few high-tariff points. However, by far the largest obstacle is public procurement, which is decided in the United States at state level, not federal level. The potential benefits of opening the US market are actually very limited.
The key point is that the United States made it very clear then and is now making it even clearer that it is only interested in entering into a bilateral trade agreement if it opens the market to American agriculture. That is not compatible with the Government’s commitment to maintain the regulatory rulebook on food safety and agricultural products. It is to the Government’s credit that they have agreed to do that, but it almost certainly makes it impossible to reach a trade agreement. Indeed, Wilbur Ross, the Trump Administration appointee, has made it clear that the United States will not enter into serious negotiations if freer agriculture for foodstuffs through regulation is not permitted.
On that basis, is not one of the challenges that the severe Brexiteers never mention the fact that the Americans use a great deal of chlorine in the preservation of food, and unless we have a proper regulatory framework, as we do currently, there is a real danger that those kinds of foodstuffs will come into the United Kingdom?
Yes. There is a whole series of well-known instances relating to beef hormones, genetically modified foods and chlorinated chickens. I do not know how well based the arguments are scientifically, but clearly that will demand a repudiation of those European standards. The Government’s stance—again, this is a positive—makes it clear that concessions cannot now be given on those items and that it will be impossible to reach a trade agreement with the Trump Administration in practice, if not in theory.
The negatives are even clearer than the positives. One of them is the sheer workability of the arrangements. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has said quite categorically that the arrangements he has been involved in designing for months are simply unworkable, and it is very clear why that is the case. If we have a differential tariff system, it is very cumbersome to enforce. There is an obvious temptation to smuggle. A company producing within the European Union but not in the UK will import through the UK at a lower tariff, and it would be necessary to have a sophisticated tracking system to identify where the product has gone. In complex supply chains with hundreds of widgets flying backwards and forwards, it is impossible to see how that could be done in practice. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was well aware of that, and the European Commission is well aware of it, which is why it almost certainly will not pass to the next stage.
I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and last February we went to Washington, where we had private briefings with State Department representatives about the trade deal. They were very clear that we must be absolutely clear about, for example, country of origin rules and that they do not want a part of a small trade deal—they will not “do skinny”, in their words. If that was their case last February, what does my right hon. Friend think they are making of the chaos of this Government now?
The European Union over many years has developed a sophisticated rules of origin system in order to develop an answer to precisely the problems presented by the complex nature of modern trade. They are quite right to say that in an environment of uncertainty, there is very little merit in pursuing an agreement.
The other major disadvantage of what the Government are proposing is, as several Members pointed out yesterday, the complete neglect of the services sector. It is not just 80% of the British economy, but includes extremely important industries—notably financial services, but also creative industries, the digital sector and entertainment, and of course much manufacturing happens through services exports. Rolls-Royce earns as much from its maintenance contracts as it does from selling its engines. When we send cars to the European Union, we sell them with a package attached to financial services. It is not at all clear how the Government propose to unscramble those very complicated relationships.
Does my right hon. Friend remember that when I was junior Minister to him as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, we spent a long time arguing for more liberalisation of services, because it was in the UK’s interest to widen and deepen the services market in the EU? Is it not therefore ironic that a Conservative Government want to turn their back on service liberalisation and put up barriers? We could not get a more anti-business approach from the Conservative party.
It is a lot more than ironic, because this goes back a long way. There has been consensus among successive Governments, starting with Mrs Thatcher and Lord Cockburn through the Blair Government and the coalition Government, on accepting that services exports to the European Union were a major objective of British Government policy. I recall being sent to Berlin and elsewhere to denounce the Germans for their failure to open up their market for services trade and the mutual recognition of qualifications. For example, European countries currently decline to accept British ski instructors, as they do not have mutual recognition of qualifications. A great deal has, however, been achieved, and the Government are now inclined to turn their back on it.
The reasons the Prime Minister advanced for doing so yesterday are partly simply foolish and partly bogus. The folly lies in saying that any services transaction that involves people crossing the border, however valuable, is adding to our net immigration target and is therefore unacceptable, regardless of the economic merit. The bogus argument is to say that this is a problem within the European Union, but it is not going to be a problem if we have trade deals with other countries, because we will be able to proceed with services agreements with them.
However, we already know from the two failed attempts so far to negotiate an outline agreement with India that services trade wherever it is—within the European Union or outside it—involves the free movement of people, and the Indians are insisting that if we are to have a bilateral trade agreement with them, part of the package will be importing Indian services in the form of IT consultants and much else. If we look around the other big emerging markets—Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria—we can see that what they have to export is people. This is going to be an enormous obstacle to the Government reaching any kind of agreement with any country outside the European Union.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way yet again. Does he remember that when he and I served on a Cabinet Committee looking at trade, we pushed just the arguments that he is now making, and the one person getting in the way of those arguments was the then Home Secretary—now the Prime Minister—who stopped a major trade deal that would be in this country’s interests?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We could of course have had a trade deal with India already under the auspices of the European Union, as we do with South Korea, Canada and various other countries. The country that blocked the deal was the UK, because increased services trade would involve increasing numbers of people crossing over to the UK.
I was struck by the comment by one of the more strongly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs—the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—when he was being critical of the Government yesterday. If I am correct, he said that he had no objection to cherry-picking, but that the Government are picking “the wrong cherry”. Actually, services are fundamental to our trade, and the Government have put us in a very difficult position.
The question now is: what should be done? The first step is for those on both sides of the House who believe that we should maximise the closeness of the economic relationship through the customs union and the single market—there are people of a similar persuasion in all parties—to try to achieve that. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden says we have a customs union already, which is exaggerating, but we can certainly converge to having a common approach. Of course, the nearer we get, the more the question arises of why on earth Brexit is happening at all. That leads us back to the question we started with about the need for the public to have a say on the final deal.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. I imagine that, like me, he gets a steady trickle of emails from Brexit supporters, all of whom say that the 17.4 million people who voted leave in June 2016 knew exactly what they were voting for, because the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) had spelled it out for them. Yet the former Foreign Secretary now only uses four-letter words to describe the proposed deal with the EU, and is so appalled by it that he has resigned from high office to spend more time with his photographer. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that no one knows how many of the 17.4 million now support the Prime Minister’s approach, and the only way to find out is precisely to have a people’s vote?
That is exactly right, and the current numbers suggest that a substantial majority believe that there should be a vote on the final deal.
If the Government were totally rational, they would see the arguments for doing so from their own point of view. The Prime Minister could say, “I’ve done the best I can to achieve a deal. It’s obviously difficult with the Conservative party in disarray, but I’ve done the best I can. I have negotiated hard with the European Union”—we would all believe that, because she is obviously conscientious—“and this is what I’ve got. Do you, the public, who voted for this originally, want to accept it, or would you rather stay where are and be in the European economic union?” That would be a perfectly honourable and sensible way for her to proceed politically, and it is constitutionally sensible. It reflects the fact that conditions have changed enormously since the original vote. I strongly recommend that approach to the House, and I look forward to hearing contributions from Members on both sides of the House in this debate on the Chequers statement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The way in which we exit the EU has already been subject to a great deal of debate in this place and of course outside it, but the Government’s resolve is absolutely clear. We are respecting the result of the referendum, and we are delivering Brexit. There will be no second referendum. As the Prime Minister said yesterday:
“This House and this Parliament gave the British people the vote. The British people made their choice and they want their Government to deliver on that choice.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 721.]
I fear that today’s motion reflects an ongoing pattern of trying to talk down the achievements that have been made, despite evidence to the contrary. We were told that we would not reach a deal on sufficient progress last December—we did. We were told that we would not reach a deal on an implementation period in March—we did. I remind the House that the negotiations so far have settled virtually all of the withdrawal agreement, and the implementation period we have agreed will provide businesses and citizens with time to prepare for our future relationship with the EU.
The Government promised the fishermen in my constituency that we would be out of the common fisheries policy completely at the end of next March. As a consequence of changing their mind on that, there will be a period of 21 months during which we will be subject to the common fisheries policy without having anyone at the table. Is that one of the achievements of which the Minister is so inordinately proud?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman enormously and to some extent I regard him as a friend, but I also recall that from time to time he indulges in pantomime in his constituency, and that may be the case today if he is arguing that we ought to be out of a policy that he in fact believes we should be in. I do not think that his is the consistent position.
Domestically, we have passed legislation preparing us for Brexit, such as the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 and, most recently, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill has also completed its passage through Parliament.
I am sure we will hear speeches claiming that a second referendum is the democratic thing to do, but that is not the case. The issue has been thoroughly democratically tested. Let me run through the ways. In the run-up to the 2015 general election, the Conservative party’s manifesto stated:
“We will...give you a say over whether we should stay in or leave the EU, with an in-out referendum”.
It quite clearly did not say there would be one referendum at the start of negotiations and another at the end. That manifesto commitment was given statutory footing through the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which specified there would be one referendum, not two. To recap so far, there was an election-winning manifesto and an Act was passed through this House, but perhaps that is not democratic enough for the Lib Dems.
As this House well knows, the referendum held on 23 June 2016 saw a majority of people voting to leave the EU. That was the biggest single democratic act in British history. Following that, the House of Commons voted, with a clear majority, to authorise the Prime Minister to trigger article 50, by passing the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. As hon. Members know very well, amendments were tabled requesting a referendum to ratify the deal negotiated with the EU. One such amendment, in the name of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), was defeated by a margin in excess of 10:1. That was democracy in action once again.
There is more in the democratic treasure trove. In last year’s general election, more than 80% of voters supported the Conservative and Labour parties. Both parties’ manifestos committed to respecting the result of the referendum. Let us not forget how many voters supported the position of the Liberal Democrats, whose manifesto called for that second referendum: 7.4% of them.
Most recently, of course, there has been the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, where amendments attempting to secure a second referendum surfaced once again. One, in the name of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), was defeated by a margin in excess of 13:1, yet he still has an appetite for this old democracy idea.
What the Minister does not appear to appreciate is that the referendum was a vote about departure, not destination—it could not be about destination because the leaders of the Brexit campaign never set out what the destination would look like. It is as if people who had been offered a wonderful mansion had ended up with a hovel with faulty wiring and a leaking roof. Does she not agree that they have the right to another say—the first say, in fact, on the actual detail? There has been no detail in anything that the Government have put forward so far.
I will tell you what I think the British people have the right to, Mr Deputy Speaker: trust in their politicians. As the Prime Minister said herself, this is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision that they took.
The Minister mentioned trust, and that is very important. The simple fact is that all we have heard from the Liberal Democrats and the Green in the Chamber today is that they do not trust the people. Regardless of what they say, if we had a second referendum and they got the wrong result again, they would want a third, fourth or a fifth referendum—they would keep going until they got the result they wanted because they do not believe in democracy.
I respect my hon. Friend’s intervention. I fear that such an approach would not be one of principle, and he is right to highlight it. Rather than undermine the British people’s democratic decision to leave the EU, let us get on and make a success of it.
On this point at least, the Minister is making a great deal of sense. Does she agree that the Lib Dems are more interested in being good supporters of the EU than in being democrats? They are following the long tradition of the European Union, exemplified by referendums in Ireland. When the Irish people vote against various constitutional amendments, they keep having to vote until they get the right answer—the one that the EU wants. That is the policy that the Lib Dems are supporting now—“Keep voting until you agree with us.”
I agree. Such an approach would be deeply unprincipled. What Government Members and all those who believe in the referendum decision want is the right deal for Britain. That is what we seek to achieve and what the Prime Minister set out yesterday.
I want to understand something. The Minister says that the Government are going to deliver the will of the people on Brexit, yet the two leading proponents of Brexit have walked from the Cabinet because they do not support the Government’s position. How can the Minister argue that the Government are delivering what the people voted for in the referendum?
The Government is comprised of people in the Cabinet, and the Cabinet is delivering what the Prime Minister set out yesterday.
Not only did we have a referendum, but we had a general election in which more than 85% of the public voted for Brexit-supporting parties. Around 5% voted for the Liberal Democrats. What right do they have to tell us what the people are thinking? The people are certainly not agreeing with the Lib Dems.
What we should do is trust the people themselves. Is that not the fundamental point? Their decision in 2016 was not made quickly after just a few weeks; it was made in the context of years of debate on the subject. The idea that they were able to take that decision was what governed the ability to have a referendum. To suggest that some people were wrong or misinformed, or made a choice that has to be reversed, does people down, does trust in politics down, does our country down and does our democracy down terribly.
The referendum question was agreed by Parliament and presented to the people with no conditions or caveats, but with a promise from the Government that we would implement what they chose. We should be coming together and getting on with it.
I am grateful to the Minister for being generous in giving way. What is her estimate of when the Brexit deal will be done? What will be the date?
In case anybody in this place is still somehow, miraculously, unclear on the matter, we will be leave thing European Union in March 2019—and so will the Liberal Democrats, whether they like it or not.
I turn to a few more points about Parliament. To try to undermine the result of the referendum by saying that it was somehow wrong does down Parliament, because it was Parliament that gave the decision to the people. We have always been committed to keeping Parliament fully involved in the process of leaving the EU and in determining the shape of the future relationship that we want to achieve. We have said consistently, and demonstrated through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which has just gained Royal Assent, that Parliament will have a vote on the final deal reached with the EU before it is concluded. That is now legally established. Members will have the choice to accept or reject the final agreement. That, and not a second referendum, should be the decisive vote. Let us give Parliament its rightful role.
I turn to the motion, which deserves a little attention. As the Liberal Democrat leader noted in his opening remarks, Liberal Democrat motions do not come along too often, although they are always a pleasure when they do. I am a little perplexed about why the motion calls for a second referendum in light of the record of the Liberal Democrats. We have probably all seen the classic Liberal Democrat leaflets that say one thing to one street and something else to another, but people cannot do that in Parliament. All seven of the Lib Dem MPs then in the House of Commons voted to give the European Union Referendum Bill, which specified one referendum, not two, its Second Reading. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman, was among their number. Why does he think today that he should change position and say something else in this motion? Maybe that is explained by the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats when article 50 was triggered; let us follow slightly more recent history. I seem to recall that, at the time of that vote, the Liberal Democrats were, frankly, all over the shop—there is no other way to put it.
Let me in passing, however, pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has just left his place. His constituency is near mine and he is a good man. He was the one Liberal Democrat Member who recognised publicly that his party’s position on Brexit was toxic. He feared that the party was not listening to people and was treating them with disdain. I pay tribute to him for his insight and courage in saying so.
Does the Minister share my view that we should not talk only about Liberal Democrat Members of this House? Liberal Democrat councillors, particularly in places that voted heavily for leave, such as Cornwall, are distancing themselves from their party leadership’s position on a second referendum because they believe that it is so toxic.
My hon. Friend speaks with experience from Cornwall, in the west country, for which I am delighted to say there is now Conservative representation in Parliament. I hope that he and his colleagues will continue to serve the people of that part of our beautiful country for many years to come.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but it does stink a bit of pot and kettle for her to claim that every party but hers is all over the place on this issue. If we are honest, there are divisions in all parties, just as there are in the country. Frankly, I do not agree with her argument that democracy is static. It is a dynamic thing, and there is no reason why people should not change their views as facts change.
May I ask the Minister about one particular fact? I am surprised that no one has taken her up on it. Can she please tell us what the resolution is to the Irish border issue? She wrongly stated that it had been resolved at the December Council. It was not. What is the solution to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland? The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is sitting next to her, shakes his head. Maybe he can get up and tell us what the resolution is to this issue.
My hon. Friend and I were shaking our heads because I did not say what the hon. Gentleman says I did. The Prime Minister’s statement yesterday made it very clear that the deal she proposes to put forward to the EU does address the Irish border question. That is where he will find the answer to his question. Today’s debate, however, is about having a second referendum, and that is what I am responding to.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
Before I give way to anyone else, I just want to take the opportunity, given that it has been rather handed to me on a plate, to remind the House that it is the Labour party that is all over the shop on the result of the EU referendum. Labour party politicians and supporters have suggested more than 60 times, I think, that the party is going to support a divisive second referendum. Whether that is or is not its party policy at this precise moment in time is anybody’s guess.
Let me move on to the final point I wanted to make about the Liberal Democrats before drawing my remarks to a close. I want to reflect on what I think is the right thing to say at this moment. It is this:
“The public have voted and I do think it’s seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive to say ‘Sorry guys, you’ve got it wrong, we’re going to try again’.”
I entirely agree with that, and I wonder if the hon. Lady might do too, because we all know who said it: the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable). It is a great shame that he cannot stick to those words. Could the hon. Lady explain why?
Sorry, explain why—
Why her leader has flip-flopped.
Order. I just remind Members that we cannot have both people standing at the same time. Please give way to each other. Minister, are you giving way to Christine Jardine again?
I wonder whether the hon. Lady can explain to me why, if it is so important to stick to one’s principles, the Scottish Conservatives, all of whom represent constituencies that voted remain, have now flipped and are voting for Brexit and paying no attention whatever to what the people of Scotland are asking for.
It would be preferable if those of us who are Unionists, and who feel very strongly that our United Kingdom has made a decision together and should be able to look forward to a good result of that decision together, could unite around that argument. It is really important that we secure a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom. I am very pleased that the motion refers to the “people of the UK”. The hon. Lady and her colleagues are right to put that phrase in the motion, because we are committed to securing a deal that works for the people of the UK.
On the subject of the deal, one thing that confused us in the Prime Minister’s comments on the Chequers statement was this: if the EU puts forward a new rule and Parliament gets a chance to vote on it—the Prime Minister is very proud of that—what happens if this House votes against it? That has not been made clear. Will the Minister make that clear now?
The Prime Minister took two hours of questions on the detail yesterday, and I really think there is very little I can add to the understanding of that. I am deeply sorry if the right hon. Gentleman does not yet understand the position, but the Prime Minister did go through it in detail.
If I interpret correctly what the Minister has just said, I rather fancy that she is making a false correlation between those of us who are perceived as Unionists and support for Brexit. I very luckily won my seat just over a year ago as a self-proclaimed remainer—there was a swing to the Liberal Democrats. I suggest to the Minister, with all due respect, that that was more about a repudiation of any notion of a second independence referendum in Scotland and perhaps a comment on the Scottish Government.
I am very happy to hear that argument from the hon. Gentleman. He is correct. I was making a parallel point rather than a correlative point about the need to seek a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom. What I would say is that those who respect the result of one referendum also need to respect the result of another. If the hon. Gentleman thinks highly of the independence referendum result, he might think again about the EU referendum result. If we respect one, it is important to respect the other for the same basic reason, which is that we are all democrats.
I do not know if other Members feel like this, but I feel like we have disappeared down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland” with the Liberal Democrats’ motion. They are calling for a second referendum, but the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) described those who voted leave in the first referendum as old people driven by nostalgia for a world of white faces. If he has so little regard for the majority of people who voted in referendum one, why on earth would we listen to him about having a second?
Those words were hugely to be regretted. They were a great shame. Perhaps we will be able to draw that point out a little more from Liberal Democrat Members in today’s debate.
Returning to the motion, it is a shame that its language is overblown to say the least. Apparently what we need at the moment is a Government of national unity. The last time we had one of those, if my memory serves me rightly, we were at war. We are, instead, in a constructive negotiation with the European Union. We are not at war with it, nor should we try to be.
As someone who commanded a checkpoint on the Northern Ireland border for two years during the hard border times, I point out that it is perfectly easy to have a border that does not require checkpoints. The Swiss border operates using pre-registration and technology, when one goes into Germany or France. Having done it, I can tell the House that that is perfectly possible using today’s technology and pre-registration. It can work.
I thank my hon. Friend for speaking from his experience. I will draw my remarks to a close, because many other Members wish to contribute to the debate—at least nine Liberal Democrats and perhaps one or two others.
The Government’s position is clear: we are determined to deliver on the decision of the British people. We are making progress on doing so, and there will not be a second referendum. Surely our focus should all be on making a success of Brexit and getting the best deal possible. It is the Government’s duty to do that. It is the Government’s duty to deliver the will of the people, as asked for in the referendum, and find the right deal for Britain.
Even by recent standards, this is a moment of extraordinary political chaos. Within the last 36 hours, the Prime Minister has lost her Brexit Secretary, her Foreign Secretary—although she probably welcomed that as much as the rest of the country did—and she has lost the support of her party. The Chequers proposals are clearly dead in the water, even before the White Paper is published and the EU has had a chance to respond. However, amid the turmoil and turbulence, it is comforting to see that there are still some certainties in politics.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Give me a minute—let me at least get started, and then I promise I will give way. Today, before the House we have a Lib Dem motion calling for a coalition with a discredited Tory Government and a referendum on the EU. This is from a party that propped up the Cameron Government for five years.
Will the shadow Minister remind the House how many shadow Front Benchers the Leader of the Opposition has lost since he has been in post?
We have had our moments, I do not deny it, but we sit here as a shadow Brexit team that is still entirely intact from the date of formation. I look over to the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who now casts a lonely figure on the Government Front Bench, as the sole survivor on his own team.
The Lib Dems have been calling for a referendum on membership of the EU since 2009—I could find it as far back as that, but it may well go further back than that. The Lib Dems, with their usual political foresight, argued back then that only a real referendum could settle the question of our relationship with the EU once and for all. A decade later, they still think that another referendum is the answer. I am certain that, in 2028, Lib Dem MPs will still be debating whether they should call for another referendum. This motion is a kind of greatest hits of Lib Dem policies over the last decade. I can only assume that an earlier draft had a promise not to raise tuition fees, but that must have been ruled out of scope.
There is no parliamentary majority for the Prime Minister’s cumbersome and costly facilitated custom arrangement and it would be a nightmare for business. It would mean the UK acting as the EU’s customs official and it relies on technology that does not currently exist to make it work. For perhaps the first time in history, I agreed with the now former Foreign Secretary when he described it in his resignation letter as an
“impractical and undeliverable customs arrangement unlike any other in existence”,
and these are the lengths that the Government have gone to in order to reject a comprehensive customs union.