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.
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. Friend 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 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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 my hon. Friend for his campaigning on this issue. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, fentanyl is an incredibly dangerous drug, because even 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
Points of Order
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 smell 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.
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.
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 my name and those of 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 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 the 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 that 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.