House of Commons
Friday 23 November 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Stalking Protection Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Applications for orders
I beg to move amendment 1, page 1, line 16, after “police” insert
“for a police area in England and Wales”.
This amendment and Amendments 2 and 6 would allow the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence Police and the Chief Constable of the British Transport Police Force to apply for stalking protection orders and interim stalking protection orders, and to take part in related procedures.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, leave out from “police” to the end of line 27 and insert
“who applied for the stalking protection order and (if different) the chief officer of police for the area in which the defendant resides, if that area is in England or Wales.”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.
Amendment 3, in clause 9, page 6, line 2, leave out “within” and insert “before the end of”.
This amendment would ensure a person can give notice that they are going to use a new name before doing so.
Amendment 4, page 6, line 8, leave out “within” and insert “before the end of”.
This amendment would ensure a person can give notice that they are going to change their home address before doing so.
Amendment 5, in clause 10, page 6, line 30, leave out
“whose home address is not”
“who does not have a home address”.
This amendment would cater for the possibility that a person might not have a home address.
Amendment 6, in clause 14, page 8, line 9, at end insert—
““chief officer of police” means—
(a) the chief constable of a police force maintained under section 2 of the Police Act 1996 (police forces in England and Wales outside London);
(b) the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis;
(c) the Commissioner of Police for the City of London;
(d) the chief constable of the British Transport Police;
(e) the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence Police;”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.
Amendment 7, in clause 15, page 9, line 4, leave out from “force” to the end of line 5 and insert
“two months after the day on which this Act is passed.”
This week we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first woman taking her seat in this House. I am immensely proud, as a Devon MP, that that woman was Lady Nancy Astor, and I think all of us in this House owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for the work she did, particularly in fighting on behalf of women and girls. I am proud that this Government have continued that work. Indeed, Members from across this whole House have done so much to advance this cause.
Of course, stalking does not just affect women—it affects men as well, and it is a vile crime of an insidious nature. I am very grateful to all those, both within this House and beyond, who have contributed to the passage of this Bill, including with advice, which has caused me to table some important amendments. They are minor in nature, but I think they will greatly improve the Bill.
Amendments 1, 2 and 6 would enable the chief constables of the Ministry of Defence police and the British Transport police to apply for stalking protection orders and interim orders, and to initiate related proceedings in connection with the variation and renewal of an order. That is because stalking occurs across a range of contexts and situations, with devastating consequences, and it is essential that a stalking protection order is available to police in a variety of situations. There may be circumstances in which the British Transport police or MOD police are best placed to seek an order, for example if the stalking conduct has taken place on the railway network or a perpetrator lives or works in MOD premises.
Amendments 3 and 4 would modify the notification requirements on a person subject to a stalking—
I know that my hon. Friend was about to move on, but I just wanted to inquire about a thing not included in this list: the Civil Nuclear constabulary. The MOD police are included, and they protect particular areas. I welcome the amendments, but is there any particular reason why the Civil Nuclear constabulary is not included?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point, which we could consider in the House of Lords as the Bill continues its passage.
Amendments 3 and 4 would modify the notification requirements on a person subject to a stalking protection order. Under the notification requirements, as drafted, a perpetrator must notify the police within three days of a change taking place. These amendments simply enable the perpetrator to give such notice in advance of a change taking place, and I hope that colleagues from across the House will recognise that that is a small, technical, but important change.
Finally, amendment 5 also relates to notification requirements. It caters for circumstances where the subject of a stalking protection order has no home address. In such a case, the amendment provides that the perpetrator can instead notify of a place where they can regularly be found. That simply mirrors notification requirements related to registered sex offenders. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) also has an amendment in this group, but I do not see him in the Chamber today, so I think we will assume that he does not wish to press that amendment. For now, I commend the amendments standing in my name to the House.
What a pleasure it is to say a few words in this debate.
Before I move on to the specifics, it is important to look at some of the context, because of course it was not until fairly recently that stalking was made a crime. Before 2012, the concept of stalking was perhaps not taken terribly seriously at all—it was almost considered something of a joke—but over the past decade there has been a recognition that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, stalking is an insidious and wicked crime. I pay tribute to her work to ensure that society’s response truly fits the scale of the threat.
I was hoping to intervene on the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), but she concluded her speech very promptly. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment—it is critical that we focus on the outcome of the Bill, which is to deal with what even for one person in this country is such an oppression that none of us in this House can really fathom it, if we have not been on the receiving end of it. Stalking can consume someone’s life and be devastating, and it can have both physical and mental health consequences, so let us not forget the victims who have to contend with stalking throughout the country.
As always, the hon. Lady makes her point extremely well—she is absolutely right. When I came into this place in 2015, I really had only the most limited understanding of what stalking was all about but, exactly as the hon. Lady indicates, it has an incredibly insidious effect.
Like so many of us in this place, the circumstances in which I came to understand stalking revolve around a constituency matter. My constituent, Dr Ellie Aston, was a local GP, and someone started to stalk her. What was worrying was the extent to which the behaviour ratcheted up from something that was initially fairly innocuous in terms of attention from a patient to something that became concerning, and then deeply troubling, as the letters multiplied, as he started to attend her home address, as he then started to attend her children’s birthday parties and when there were concerns about the gas supply being interfered with. What is so troubling is that this went on for more than seven years. When the person was arrested, the police looked into his computer and found that he had searched for “How long after a person disappears are they considered dead?” When he was released, he sent a message to the victim saying simply, “Guess who’s back?”
No wonder, then, that many victims of stalking refer to it as murder in slow motion. That might sound like an entirely melodramatic phrase, but they say it because over time their freedom and ability to go about their business starts to be eroded. They are looking over their shoulders and increasingly become prisoners in their own lives. What is so worrying is that stalking can escalate to very serious violence, which underpins why we need to take action early.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I realised the extent of stalking when people brought cases to me. I was particularly struck when it involved an ex-partner and I saw how seriously the police took it. I had a case in which the person moved, and on the day she moved in, she received a card from her ex-partner. The police said, “Well, that’s just quite a nice thing to do.” Actually, it was clearly the ex-partner saying, “I know where you live.”
The hon. Gentleman might not know this, but I always sit in front of the memorial to my parliamentary neighbour Jo Cox. As the whole House knows, she was a victim of a type of stalking. I served on the anti-stalking commission, and that really opened my eyes to the misery of victims and the fact that very often they do not complain because they are terrified to do so.
That is absolutely right, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the rise of digital means of stalking has magnified the problem over the past decade or so. It used to be that the stalking might consist of the person turning up at someone’s home address and then doing that threatening but apparently innocuous act of driving past. Of course, people can now stalk others using multiple fake identities. I heard about an appalling case in which somebody had generated the identity of the victim’s dead partner—you could not make it up. They were seeking to harass, intimidate and upset that individual.
When I was working on this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), it became clear to us that although society and this place had started to react to the issue by generating the offence of stalking, the penalties that existed for it were manifestly inadequate. The penalty at the time of only five years’ imprisonment was less than the maximum penalty for the theft of a Mars bar, which is seven years, and less than the maximum penalty for non-residential burglary—lock-up burglaries and so on—which is 10 years or so, yet stalking can genuinely ruin people’s lives. The sentence was insufficient.
My hon. Friend is obviously a great expert on these matters and I do not want to divert him too much, but while probably all of us in this Chamber have been trolled—we have probably all been trolled repeatedly, with quite vicious language at times; it is a function of being in this place—hopefully most of us have not been stalked. Surely one thing we need to be clear on is the difference between the two. Presumably the lines will blur as cyber-crime grows and that sort of behaviour continues.
My hon. Friend makes an acute point. We must always recognise that whenever we legislate in this place, there is always the potential for the law of unintended consequences to apply. One thing that the courts will have to consider is precisely what stalking means, and that is covered by the Bill. Notwithstanding the possible pitfalls, there is no doubt that there was a gaping hole that needed to be filled. We in this country have moved much faster than most to seek to fill that gap.
I do not want to spend too much time looking into the history, but it is important to spend a moment putting the measures into context. The maximum penalty was five years’ imprisonment. When the judge came to sentence my constituent’s stalker at Gloucester Crown court, he said, “I simply don’t have the powers required to do justice in this case.” We know that if the maximum sentence is five years, which is of course 60 months, and the defendant pleads guilty—very often the evidence is so overwhelming that that is the only sensible approach for them—that takes it down to 40 months. They then serve half, and indeed they may even be released on a tag before the halfway point, so in reality the maximum penalty is around 18 months’ imprisonment. For a GP who has been stalked for seven years, driven to post-traumatic stress disorder and advised to come off the General Medical Council register, and who cannot begin to rebuild their life until they know that the person is in custody and they themselves are safe, 18 or 20 months is manifestly inadequate. I was therefore grateful to colleagues from all parties who came together to change the law and protect victims.
It is worth noting the work that my hon. Friend did with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) to produce a report that provided compelling evidence for why the House should change the law. It is appropriate that that is put on the record. Perhaps my hon. Friend may wish to reflect on the impact of that work.
It is very kind of my hon. Friend to say that. Our work has had an impact, but none of that would have been possible—as I say to Dr Aston and, indeed, as I say to the family of Hollie Gazzard, who was very sadly killed by a former partner in Gloucester—or achievable in this place without people being brave enough to support the campaign. When I sat down with Ellie, I said, “Are you prepared to put your name to this and to try to change things?”, because I was always concerned that it could reheat old traumas, but to her great credit that was precisely what she agreed to do.
Let me turn to the Bill. Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for the work she has done. With characteristic clarity, she has identified the importance of early intervention. The reality of this behaviour is first that it escalates, and secondly that it can become ingrained very quickly. For both those reasons, it is important to intervene, because the nature of this kind of offending is such that—and this is not a criticism of the police at all—the police intervene only after it has escalated and the behaviour has become ingrained.
Just imagine the circumstances in the example of my constituent. A GP says to the police, “I’m a bit concerned because I’ve had five letters from my patient.” The police officer says, “Well, it seems a bit odd, but probably no crime has been committed.” She then says, “Actually, it has now escalated, because he’s turned up at my home address. He didn’t say anything violent, but he didn’t have any particularly good reason to be there.” The police officer says, “Yes, well, that also sounds a bit odd, but it probably doesn’t cross the threshold for actually arresting or prosecuting someone.” One can imagine the drip, drip over time, and we are suddenly one, two, or three months down the line. Meanwhile, that behaviour and that fixation has become truly entrenched.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for very kindly giving way again. It is worth putting on the record one of the key points of this Bill that we have not yet discussed this morning: we know already that there are too many people across our country who have to bring forward civil action at their own cost in order to contend with this challenge, which can take years of some people’s lives. The real purpose of the Bill, and the essence of what we are discussing today, is to ensure that that does not have to happen and that we empower victims and give them the support that they rightly deserve and need.
That is absolutely right. We spend a lot of time in this House passing legislation, and we collectively tend to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Well, look, brilliant, we’ve done it.” But unless legislation can be enforced, it becomes a dead letter. That is conversations that we have in this place in respect of all sorts of things ranging from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to the Equality Act 2010 and so on. The concern here is that unless people can get ready access to these sorts of protections then they are, as I say, a dead letter. The point that the hon. Lady makes about injunctions is an extremely good one. How many people want to issue a writ in the county court, or indeed in the High Court, at significant personal cost? Litigation of any type is an uncertain option, and—this is the critical point—what would be the remedy in the event that that injunction is breached? What we need is a swift and muscular—if I may use that expression—approach in order to be able to intervene early. It also has to be fair. That is the point that I will come to after I have taken this one intervention, and then I will make a bit more progress.
The hon. Gentleman absolutely puts his finger on it. I will develop that point in a moment. One thing that I have experienced in my time in practice, particularly in relation to this kind of offence, is that the approach and the attitude of the officer in the case is absolutely crucial. If an officer understands precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, which is that individual instances are not necessarily picked up and allows them to slide, then it can become a problem. On the other hand, if a police officer, because he has been properly trained or is particularly engaged in the case, is excellent at collating that evidence and material to build that picture, that can have a dramatically different impact, first, on the way the victim feels about it, and, secondly, on the remedy that they are likely to get.
I want to develop this other point. One thing that we have not dealt with in this piece of legislation, and that we need to go on to, is to look at the role of technology in all this. What do I mean? An individual victim will always be better and more effective at recording the litany of instances than the bureaucracy of the police. That is not a criticism of the police, but a statement, I would imagine, of the blindingly obvious. What we need to do is to put into the power of individuals the right, in appropriate circumstances, to record and list episodes as they take place. We might say, “Well, hang on, why don’t you just do that on a sheet of paper?” No, what we should be doing is potentially looking at an app, so that when the police, for example, authorise an app and say that they are going to open an investigation, the complainant or victim can, when there is an incident, record it on this app—what happened, the time that it took place and any photographs that go with it—and that can then be reviewed and assessed by police officers in due course. Otherwise, the danger is that if a person has to go down to a local police station every time their stalker walks past their house, it is terribly bureaucratic and inefficient.
I do not want to go down a rabbit hole, but there is an important role in ensuring that victims are best able to record and collate what, ultimately, will make the difference to an effective prosecution in due course. It becomes 10 times more powerful if the individual can say, “I remember that, at that precise moment, he walked past my house, or he knocked on the door, or he put the letter through my door, or he terrified my children and I will record it at that precise moment, and this is the evidence that I have collated.” That is powerful evidence and we should be helping to facilitate that.
My hon. Friend is making a very persuasive speech. Of course, what will be required is for the police to prioritise their resources to police this new offence. What that will also mean is that they may have to deprioritise other areas, or receive additional resources. I understand that an extra £410,000 is being allocated. Does he think that that will be enough to deliver the measures that he rightly talks about this morning?
It is an extremely important point, and it does build on the point that I was making just now. There is no doubt that if this is not handled correctly—if it is not arranged correctly—there is a danger that it becomes more onerous than it needs to be. The example that I want to develop is the one on which I have just briefly touched. Principally, the old analogue techniques are that if somebody is robbed in the street, the police officer will say, “You are making a complaint, I understand that. Please come to the police station on a certain date and we will sit down and prepare a statement. You, the complainant, will make the allegation of what happened to you in the street. I, the police officer, will write it down. It will be in longhand, running to various sides of paper. You will then sign each page and so on.” That process could easily take an hour and a half. It then gets logged onto a system and so on.
That might be perfectly appropriate where the allegation relates to an incident that took five minutes in, say, a high street, but where the allegation relates to a cumulative total of ongoing events, innocuous in isolation but insidious in combination—to coin a phrase—we need to have a more digital approach. That is why I invite the Home Office to consider digital techniques to allow the police to work as effectively—and to take up my hon. Friend’s point—and efficiently as possible, otherwise there is, of course, the danger of resources being mopped up. The only point that I would say on this resource issue is that there can be few more compelling priorities in circumstances where the evidence suggests, compellingly, that if we do not address this behaviour early it can have very serious consequences. In other words, this is a worthy candidate, I respectfully suggest, for the prioritisation to which my hon. Friend refers.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, and this is a very good Bill. May I just come back to a point that he made earlier? I know that he had extensive legal experience at the Bar before coming here, so can he confirm his view that there is no adequate provision in existing law for this sort of thing to be brought forward by a victim or by the police—for example a restraining order—and that this effectively fills a gap that currently exists?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is true to say that there are measures that could be imposed to say to a would-be defendant, “Don’t do this.” The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) talked about injunctions. It is true that there could be bail conditions further down the line, or indeed restraining orders. What this Bill does is provide for much earlier intervention. That is the critical point. It would mean that a chief police officer, under clause 1(1), could apply to the magistrates court for an order in respect of the defendant if it appears that the defendant has carried out acts associated with stalking and so on and so forth. I respectfully completely agree with the points that were made about the amendments. The reason why it is important is that a person then gets a hearing before the court in short order and it is a judicial process.
By the way, this is the other point that we need to be crystal clear about: just because we think that these allegations are serious, and just because we know that they can lead to very harmful consequences, it does not mean that we should jettison a proper judicial process. People should be made subject to these orders only if evidence is called—cogent, compelling and admissible evidence—to ensure that individuals are properly subject to these orders. We should make no mistake about this: they are deliberately onerous and deliberately restrictive, because they are designed to protect the individual, but also, and importantly, they are designed to provide the courts with the tools they need to seek that early intervention and rehabilitation of the complainant. I am pleased to note also that duration of orders comes under clause 3, which provides that the stalking protection order has effect until a further order. In other words, if things have changed, and if as we all, I am sure, hope get to the point where an individual defendant finds themselves rehabilitated, they can come back to the court and apply to have the order discharged if that would be the appropriate thing to do.
The point that was made very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) is about providing a new tool in the armoury. The reason why it is in the armoury, so to speak, is that there are serious consequences in the event that someone breaches it. Clause 8, which covers the offence of breaching a stalking protection order, provides a power of imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, a fine or both.
I am finding my hon. Friend’s speech both interesting and persuasive. Does he agree that we must be very clear that these powers are in addition to the powers that the police and the courts already have, and that they should in no way be seen as an alternative? If someone has committed an offence under existing legislation with the penalties that it carries, then that should be used? This measure should be viewed as a way of protecting someone in addition to those powers, and not as a replacement in any way?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; this is in addition.
Many victims have told me that by the time a perpetrator can be convicted under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, when the court says, “Yes, an offence has been committed, the defendant has been convicted and we will now impose a restraining order,” they want to say, “Well, thank you very much, but the damage has been done,” because the concerns are in place and the behaviour is entrenched. Therefore, although one would not wish for one moment to remove that power—it remains an important tool for the courts—this provision fills that gap earlier in the process.
I have spoken for far too long, Mr Speaker. [Hon. Members: “No, no!”] Hon. Members are very kind. In conclusion, we as a society have come an awfully long way on this issue, and we have done so as quickly as any other peer nation. It has been a process, and we are now close to, if not completing that process, getting to the point where these tools are available to the authorities. Ultimately, however, what will make the difference, whether in the criminal justice system or in any other part of public life, is the individuals who actually use these powers.
I wish to pay tribute to Gloucestershire Constabulary, whose police officers have put so much effort into this cause. They are leaders in their field. They have seized the baton and run with it, because they recognise the implications for people in our county—Hollie Gazzard is an obvious example, and Ellie Aston is another. Ultimately, it will be the officer who receives the complaint from the victim who, through their compassionate and organised response—I say “organised” because it is about collating so much data—will make the difference in whether justice is done. I think that that conscientious, professional officer will now have the tools that he or she needs to keep victims safe. On that basis, I am delighted to support the Bill.
I must say that it makes a pleasant change to be called to speak so early in the debate, because usually I have the joy of almost having to sum up, particularly on a Friday. It is a pleasure to speak to the amendments tabled by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). It was a joy to serve on the Public Bill Committee for this important legislation, which will provide protection for many victims of stalking.
This debate is timely, given the experiences of Devon and Cornwall’s police and crime commissioner, who we have learnt has been a victim of domestic violence and stalking offences. Of course, the Bill relates more to victims who have not been in a relationship with the perpetrator, but it is very welcome that she has spoken out, and hopefully her experience will inspire other victims of stalking to realise that they need not stay silent.
Turning to amendment 1, I think that it makes eminent sense to be clear that the Bill applies to virtually every police force operating in England and Wales, and not just to the geographical police forces. The inclusion of the British Transport Police makes sense, given the obvious potential for stalking offences on public transport. For example, a stalker could follow their victim on to the train they take to work each day. Trains coming into London can be particularly crowded, and the four minutes to 4 train from Exeter to Paignton can be exceptionally crowded. That could give stalkers an opportunity to be in close physical contact with their victim. Normally that is just considered part of commuting. We have all experienced the joy of taking the tube at about 20 minutes to 9 in the morning, when the trains are packed. It is a chance to get very close to our fellow passengers, although not by choice. The inclusion of the British Transport Police is therefore welcome.
I should be clear that I support the amendments. I note that amendment 6 lists the police forces involved. That brings me to a query about whether the Civil Nuclear Constabulary ought to be included—the Minister might like to reflect on this—considering that these provisions could apply in instances where there has not been an intimate relationship. For example, someone working at a nuclear establishment could be stalked purely on the basis of their views on nuclear power generation. The same could be true for those who protect sites such as Sellafield. Or would that be an encumbrance in the legislation? That is more of a query, rather than something I think should necessarily be amended immediately.
I note that the Ministry of Defence police are included. I should explain, for the benefit of those following our proceedings—I always think that it is important to help people understand this point—that they are different from the military police or the naval provosts, who enforce military law against service personnel. The Ministry of Defence police are very visible in Plymouth, where I grew up, because of their role in enforcing the law at Her Majesty’s naval base Devonport and the submarine refit complex. They are police officers who work with the military; they are not the military police. It is important to be clear about their role.
The Civil Nuclear Constabulary operates as a fully armed constabulary, given the nature of its officers’ work and the sites they protect, and particularly given the threat of terrorism. Again, should they be included in the Bill? I see the Minister dutifully noting down these queries, so I am sure that we will have a full response when the time comes. We should consider whether these would be useful additions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes touched on when I intervened earlier. Of course, although we in this House will complete our consideration of the Bill today, it is still to go through the other place, where this matter might be considered further.
It makes eminent sense to tidy up provisions for when someone might need to give notification and how they are to do so. The Bill needs to be robust and we must not create any loopholes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) explained in his excellent speech, because many of those engaging in this kind of behaviour not only ruthlessly work out how to intimidate their victims and gain power over them, but research the law in an effort to stay just this side of committing a criminal offence. My hon. Friend described the impact on his constituents, which was welcome, because this is not some dry debate about legal orders that prevent people from doing something; it is about real victims.
Do we not sometimes lose sight of the overall context? In this country today, deep into the 21st century, we have a tremendous problem with violence against women. There is not just stalking; there are gangs up and down our country—gangs of men of Pakistani origin prey on young girls and even children—and domestic violence. There is a real problem in our country with violence of all kinds against women. This Bill is part of the fight to roll that back.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right to highlight that there is a real issue. It is not just physical violence; it can be verbal violence. It is about someone trying to gain power over someone and have them under their control, whether through direct violence, intimidation or other actions, such as constant emailing or the sending of cards, as we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham made the point that sending a Christmas card might seem innocuous, but it must be seen in the context of the overall behaviour. It can be about the perpetrator being constantly in the victim’s life.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned violence against women. I am a supporter of the white ribbon campaign in my constituency, and I hope he is doing the same—I am sure he is—in his own constituency. This is about men standing up and saying that other men’s violence against women is unacceptable. I have a close relative who experienced a violent relationship for a significant period. She was physically abused—in one case, she was hospitalised by the attack launched against her—but what sticks is the constant name calling and running down. One of the points she used to make was that if someone who did not know them had observed what was going on and then asked what her name was, they would have been given not her name but two swear words put together. I do not need to repeat such language in the Chamber; Members can work out for themselves what sort of language I am referring to. She felt that that was how she would be known.
There was constant denigration and running down, and then when trying to move away from the relationship, there were constant phone calls and texts. Bluntly, it was only when BT’s choose to refuse service became available that a lot of that could finally be brought to an end through blocking the numbers. I wonder whether, if something like the Bill had been available, it might have helped to build confidence in tackling those situations.
It is right that we have clear penalties. We have been clear that this is an additional way of protecting potential victims of stalking, not about replacing existing legislation. For me, this is not just about those who have been in relationships. As I touched on in my comments about the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, such actions may in effect be stalking but are due to other reasons, such as political reasons.
Yesterday, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) and the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), I had a very interesting visit to the Community Security Trust, which works with the Jewish community, and heard about the experiences of some of the people there. The reason for someone in effect stalking or harassing in such cases is based on their faith. Again, it would be interesting to hear what the Minister thinks about someone engaging in the completely unacceptable behaviour of targeting people for that reason, but doing so in a way that looks very much like stalking. She is an eminent lawyer in her own right—a learned Member—and I am sure she will outline how some of these powers might be of assistance.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree with me—I make this point not specifically to my own Front Benchers but about successive Governments—that although Parliament is very good at creating new laws, if money, resources and guidance are not provided, the authorities responsible for enforcing those laws cannot deliver on that, which calls the laws into question in the first place? I found that as a district councillor under the previous Labour Government and I am afraid it is happening again. I absolutely support this Bill, but there is a wider point. When Parliament passes a new law, should there be a money resolution not for the Bill to be carried forward but to make sure that it can be enforced and delivered on the ground? Otherwise, we are, I am afraid, misleading people.
My hon. Friend is right. There clearly needs to be an intention not just to pass a piece of legislation—it makes us sound very virtuous, and we can pop our speeches on to our websites when we get back to the office—but to ensure it has a real and clear effect. I am sure that the Minister, who I see has already made some notes, will talk about how the Home Office will seek to work with police forces to make sure this power is used and brought into effect.
I have one slight disappointment. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) was due to talk this morning on his amendment 7, which is about when the Bill will be brought into force. Again, when we move on to Third Reading—I hope the Bill will be given a Third Reading later today—it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts about when she intends to bring it into force. We do not just want to pass the Bill and then leave it sitting on the statute book, but to bring it into force.
On the question raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill a few moments ago—[Hon. Members: “And Battle.”] Let us not forget Battle. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) asked about funding. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government intend to increase funding to combat violence against women by £100 million between now and 2020? That may go some way to addressing the concern that our hon. Friend has raised.
I thank my hon. Friend for yet another very well thought through and incisive intervention. I am obviously encouraged to hear that news, as I am sure Members from across the House will be. We probably should be clear that this law is gender-blind—the victim of stalking could be male or female. I remember a case in Coventry, where a male vicar was targeted by a female stalker. I absolutely welcome the funding, which is a sign of the intention to tackle a problem from which, sadly, too many women suffer. When a relationship is breaking down, or even when it is still going, it can go from love and affection to aggression, control and domination.
My hon. Friend should give himself more credit. This comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). The Government of course focus resources on certain policy areas. I absolutely agree. They have spent £802 billion—that is what this Government do and they do it well—but when we state that we are spending this amount on a generic area, and that it is not ring-fenced to a particular offence or new legislation, people are somewhat left short. I am thinking of the free bus passes that the previous Government brought in. I was a district councillor, and we found that they were not funded at all, and the district councils took the rap.
My hon. Friend—I visited the Battle part of my hon. Friend’s constituency, at his invitation, earlier this year—makes a valid point. When I was deputy leader of Coventry City Council, the funding for free swimming passes was distributed. Bizarrely, some councils with swimming pools struggled with the amount of funding they received, yet one council received the funding even though it did not have a swimming pool. One council got the bill and another got the funding, so it was a bizarre situation.
To return to the Bill, I know that the Minister, who is in her place on the Front Bench, will be keen to reply to us to confirm how we see it being taken forward, implemented and explained in guidance. We should not get drawn into the amount of additional resource because this is also partly about the police officer who is looking for legal options to deal with a case and a victim. The Bill gives them that option. In many cases, that can be done with existing resources. It is about assisting officers in dealing with a situation that may otherwise escalate into a worse one—with a much more serious crime being committed, necessitating even more police resources—or one where they have to let it run, because at the moment the law does not quite kick in. The Bill gives officers an opportunity to make an application. I am certainly satisfied that the protection of requiring the application to be made to a court means that there will be a fair process, and this cannot just be used arbitrarily. As Members will have noticed, there is also provision for an interim order, pending a full application, if the court feels that is appropriate.
I would not necessarily say that this should be codified in an amendment, but it might have been helpful if my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch had spoken to his amendment to allow us to discuss the exact time the measure will be brought in. However, we certainly want to reflect on the fact that we need not just to pass legislation, but to provide an element of funding to ensure that it becomes of real help on the ground.
The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes make eminent sense. They will strengthen the Bill and introduce additional tweaks to those measures introduced in Committee, and they will make the Bill even more robust as—hopefully—we send it in the not-too-distant future for scrutiny by their lordships. The Bill will be welcomed. I hope that hon. Members will support the amendments and that we will not be forced to spend time on Divisions that could otherwise be spent on Third Reading. I congratulate again my hon. Friend on the progress of the Bill so far.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). He said that the House probably did not want to hear more, but he does himself a disservice. I was certainly left wanting more, and I look forward to hearing him speak on other matters, possibly later today. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for introducing this important Bill. As a child I remember being a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett, and the episode that scared me the most was “The Solitary Cyclist”—
The Minister clearly shares that recollection. As a child I found the concept of a lone female on a bicycle being followed at distance by someone else on a bicycle absolutely terrifying. That was a drama, and without giving a spoiler to anyone who does not know the story, the gentleman was not quite as nefarious as perhaps the lady had feared at the start, but in summarising the sense of fear produced by stalking, that story left an indelible mark.
I wish to refer to a specific constituency case regarding this Bill, but I will keep it for Third Reading when I hope to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, because it is more a point of principle. It is a matter that I have previously discussed with the Minister, and I think it may well be raised in another place, perhaps by Lord Deben or the newly ennobled Lord Garnier. The point is incredibly important to me personally and to my constituency, so I shall keep it for Third Reading.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay I welcome amendment 1 on the Ministry of Defence police and the British Transport police, and I shall focus my remarks on that. South Suffolk contains the village of Wattisham. Strictly speaking the Wattisham Army airbase is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but many service people reside in my constituency. They live either on the base or in the nearby town of Hadleigh.
To underline the importance of that base, at the Remembrance Sunday service in Hadleigh the entire regiment and town come out, and we have a fly-past by Apache helicopters. I do not know what the probability is or what the statistics are on stalking occurring in those residential homes, either within the base or for service personnel who live in towns, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay that there is every reason to extend these powers to those officers because stalking could occur. Stalking is not confined to any part of society—it embraces all of society, including my constituents, and it affects men and women as both victims and perpetrators.
The British Transport police are often undervalued, but they perform a fantastic job protecting the transport network. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay referred to being on the tube at twenty to nine in the morning, and being uncomfortably and involuntarily close to people and their armpits—[Interruption.] I am sure you have experienced it too, Mr Speaker, and that is the nature of the tube at busy times. It can be quite unpleasant, but we grin and bear it so to speak. The point is that someone could be on that tube following, pursuing or stalking someone. I do not necessarily understand exactly when the order could be placed, and whether it would be done by the normal constabulary in respect of the person being stalked and their home address, or whether the British Transport police would have specific responsibility for doing that. I will leave that to finer legal minds than mine, but the logic of extending those powers seems straightforward, and I am happy to support the amendment.
I want to build on my hon. Friend’s powerful point by saying that, in my community, public transport is essentially how everybody gets around. People often travel on the overland or underground late at night, and this is a crucial amendment to a crucial Bill that I very much support. I am pleased that my hon. Friend supports the Bill, and I add my support to his.
I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s detailed remarks and his usual analysis of the Bill. Does he agree that involving the British Transport police—or, for example, the Metropolitan police—means that either/or, or even both could apply to the court? That is the approach they should adopt, rather than waiting to agree or thinking that the other force will act. Each force has the ability to apply once the evidence is there. Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging information sharing between the forces so that we do not have half the evidence required with the British Transport police, and half with the Metropolitan police, without the two being put together?
That is a good point, and the fact that I am unable strictly to comment on it underlines why politicians should probably not have a role in frontline policing matters. We do, however, have responsibility for making the law and resourcing the police, and I want to focus on that point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) made a good point about public transport. We have public transport in South Suffolk—indeed, many of my constituents wish we had more buses and so on, and there is one train station—but in rural constituencies people overwhelmingly rely on cars. This is an issue of police resources. On many occasions I have been happy to defend the Government’s position of enabling police and crime commissioners to decide whether to raise the precept to fund the police, but if we pass laws that may result in more being asked of the police, we must ensure that they have the resources to carry out those tasks.
Putting aside the money coming from the precept, we feel concerned that the funding formula penalises Suffolk. Norfolk is a very similar county in many ways—of course, it is not quite as good in some respects—and it receives about £1 million more per year than Suffolk for no obvious reason, and significantly more per head, which is even more indefensible. I very much welcome the funding to deal with violence against women, but will it be distributed to forces under the current formula, and how will that be determined? Stalking is a terrible crime that we all oppose—that is why we are here to support the Bill. If it is that serious a crime, and if the police are to be given more resource to deal with it, how will that resource be distributed and where will it come from?
I support the amendment but I have a caveat about resourcing. As the Minister will be aware—perhaps the note from the officials is on this point; I hope it is—on funding we must take rurality into account, and not just in terms of reliance on the car. I submitted a written question to the Home Office to ask whether it has considered the difference in cost between rural and urban policing, and it responded that no such study has been undertaken.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the impact of rurality. Does he agree that in that context it is even more important to consider technological solutions, so that individuals are able to record and report allegations that relate to stalking or other offences, without necessarily having to make long journeys to local police stations to make a statement? Only by properly harnessing technology can the police truly build effective prosecutions that lead to justice.
My final point on funding relates to pensions. As I believe all hon. Members are aware, the police will be required to make additional pension contributions and they will have to be funded. There is no choice in the matter. On the strategy of using the precept, whether to raise funding for more resources to deal with stalking or any other crimes or issues that present a resource challenge to the police, it is one thing for me to say to my constituents in Suffolk, as I do, that I defend the use of the precept by saying, “You know that every pound raised is spent in Suffolk on our police”. However, if we are to raise that money and give it to the Treasury to fill a pension deficit, I think that argument becomes harder to make. On that basis, it would not be unreasonable for the centre to say, “Look, we’ve had to make an adjustment here. It wasn’t expected. Chief constables were not expecting this and therefore there should be central recompense.”
That is a pitch I make to the Minister because this is an incredibly important Bill. Stalking is a terrible crime: a crime of cowardice and bullying. On Third Reading, I will refer to a constituency case that comes under that heading. If the police are to deal with these measures adequately, whether the British Transport police, the Ministry of Defence police or the constabularies in our counties and cities, they will have to be adequately resourced.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster), and in particular my hon. Friend for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who speaks with great knowledge of these issues. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on introducing this very important Bill.
I would like to speak briefly to a few amendments. There is complete agreement among Members that stalking is an abhorrent behaviour that can have terrifying consequences for its victims. It can cause significant psychological damage and worse. Sadly, I have heard from constituents who have been victims of stalking just how it can take over their lives, not only when the stalking is happening but for years afterwards. It is therefore very important that we take action.
The House heard during our previous consideration of the Bill how the powers currently available to the police to intervene in stalking cases are insufficient. The responses to the Government’s consultation demonstrated that “stranger stalking” in particular is a form of crime that is not adequately addressed by existing laws. The passing of the Bill will send a very clear message to victims and perpetrators alike that stalking in all its forms is despicable, will not be tolerated and will have serious consequences.
Thanks to the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, the Bill has cross-party support, as well as the backing of the Government, so there are very few amendments for me to address at this stage. However, I would like to talk about a few. I welcome the broadening of the Bill’s scope that amendments 1, 2 and 6 would bring. We all recognise that there is a gap in the existing protective order regime, particularly in terms of provisions for early intervention in stalking cases or addressing emerging patterns of behaviour. Under the current regime, it is difficult to take any action in cases in which the criminal threshold has not yet been met, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham articulated, in which the stalking occurs outside a domestic abuse context, or in which the perpetrator has not been intimately linked with the victim previously.
One of the Bill’s most important benefits is the fact that it transfers the onus to take action away from the victim, giving other bodies—the police and the courts—the additional tools they need to intervene in stalking cases at an early stage. The amendments will ensure that access to the new tools created by the Bill is not limited solely to local police forces in England and Wales, but given to the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence police and the chief constable of the British Transport police. It can only benefit the victims of stalking if we ensure that those other branches of our police forces are able to act on their behalf.
The technical changes made by amendments 3 to 5 put in place important safeguards that should reduce the likelihood that perpetrators of stalking could evade the Bill’s provisions. As colleagues will be aware, the Bill creates a new civil stalking protection order that will enable the imposition of both prohibitions and requirements on individuals who are deemed to be perpetrators of stalking. One of those requirements, introduced by clauses 9 and 10, is that any person subject to a stalking protection order would have to give their name and address to the police by attending the local police station and also notify the police if their address changes. There was, however, a lack of clarity in the Bill about when persons subject to an order would have to notify the police of any changes to their registered details. Amendments 3 and 4 provide important clarification by requiring individuals to give notice of their intention to change their name or address, rather than being able to inform the police after the fact.
Under the Bill as originally drafted, there was a danger that perpetrators with no fixed address could evade the requirement to register their details with the police. Amendment 5 addresses that directly by explicitly catering for the possibility that a perpetrator may not have a home address. All the amendments are eminently sensible and receive my support. I support the Bill and I look forward to speaking on Third Reading.
It is a pleasure and privilege to speak on Report. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on promoting such an important Bill. I steered a private Member’s Bill through this place in my first year as a Member, so I know the many demands that can suddenly appear in the inbox and arrive down the telephone line the moment one is drawn in the ballot, as there are any number of competing calls from non-governmental organisations and campaign groups. I can think of very few issues that are more worthy to pursue than the one that my hon. Friend has chosen.
It was a particular privilege to serve on the Bill Committee with my hon. Friend and to hear some of the examples from Members on both sides of the House. The core purpose of the Bill is to fill gaps in existing legislation and to ensure that our laws keep up with the changing pattern of stalking offences and developments in our understanding of them. It is a testament to the skill with which my hon. Friend has steered the Bill that it received overwhelming support from both sides of the House and that our proceedings in Committee were so straightforward. There was strong support for both the principle and the detail. She has rightly continued to work to ensure that every t is crossed and every i is dotted so that the Bill can fulfil its potential.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) in speaking very briefly to the amendments, which will make this very good Bill even better. I think that most Members will welcome amendments 1, 2 and 6 as common-sense clarifications. We would expect most applications for protection orders to involve police forces that cover geographical areas in England and Wales, but it would clearly be undesirable to allow specific cases to fall between the gaps purely because the jurisdiction they occurred under was covered by the British Transport police or the military police. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) suggested, the Civil Nuclear constabulary would be a sensible addition to those bodies, should the opportunity arise at a later stage of the Bill’s passage. Those three amendments clarify that the orders are not confined purely to what we might think of as police forces, but cover all parts of our police service.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire pointed out, when one of the core provisions of the orders is notification requirements, it is very important that those notification requirements are sensible and comprehensive. It would be frankly absurd to preclude people covered by the orders from being able to notify the appropriate authorities before they changed their name or address, but the Bill as originally drafted could easily have been interpreted as saying that the sole period within which people could make notifications was during the three days immediately after the changes came into effect. In tabling her amendments, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has provided clarification and brought forward what most Members would see as common-sense provisions. Similarly, there is further clarification on people without a home address—particularly those of no fixed abode—and clearly, it would not fit the purpose of the Bill if orders could not apply to people in such circumstances.
I think that this is an extremely important and welcome Bill, and the amendments will make it even better. I hope to catch your eye on Third Reading, Madam Deputy Speaker, to speak about the Bill more generally.
May I say what a pleasure it is to support the Bill and these amendments today? The whole House thanks my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for her incredibly hard work on the Bill, helped by her members of staff. This has been a shining example of the House of Commons at its best: we have cross-party agreement; we know the direction of travel and the destination we want to get to; and we have had constructive criticism, questions and so on to help us to improve the Bill. In that spirit, I thank all Members who have contributed on Report.
If I may, I will reflect on my hon. Friend’s comments about Lady Astor being the first female MP. I have the pleasure of representing a seat for which the second female MP stood—we always remember the firsts for landmark events, but we tend not to remember the second. Margaret Wintringham represented the seat of Louth in 1921. She was the first ever British-born female MP—the second ever female MP—and she took a slightly different approach to campaigning than I or any of my colleagues, because she took a vow of silence during the campaign, which might commend itself to some of us in future.
In that spirit, I welcome these modest refinements to the Bill. Amendments 1, 2 and 6 will expand the list of chief officers who will be able to apply for the orders to the Ministry of Defence police and the British Transport police—we have heard from colleagues about the benefits that this could have—and they will be able to initiate related proceedings in connection with the variation and renewal of an order.
I listened very carefully to the observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about the Civil Nuclear constabulary. Its role is to provide security for nuclear material and sites, and of course we recognise that that covers workplaces. I am mindful of figures that were released only yesterday by the Office for National Statistics. It compiled a bulletin of data from the national stalking helpline, which is run by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. In an analysis of the calls to the helpline, which is an incredibly important facility, it looked at the types of stalking behaviours experienced by callers who reported stalking by an ex-partner or family member, so it was restricted to, as it were, intimate relationships, as opposed to stranger stalking. None the less, I note that 4% of calls reported stalking in or through the workplace, so my hon. Friend raises a very good point regarding the Civil Nuclear constabulary, and we will look into that as the Bill proceeds through another place.
I thank the Minister for her detailed response and agree with her proposed approach. As I said, the reason why I raised the point was that the Ministry of Defence police focuses fundamentally on securing a base, but may react to incidents on the periphery of the base. It is about the police being part of the process, but I welcome her proposal.
Indeed, and I note that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) raised a more general point about service personnel. The Bill already covers acts of stalking by forces personnel against civilians, and stalking offences apply to service personnel automatically by virtue of the Armed Forces Act 2006. However, I will look into the points that he raised.
Stalking occurs across a range of contexts with devastating consequences. It is therefore essential that the orders are available to different police forces, and I am delighted that the amendments will help us to achieve that. While I am speaking to clause 1, and I have notified my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes about this—who knows, it may be that my legal skills are causing me to examine the text too carefully—I want to commit to clarifying the terminology in the clause, which moves between “defendant” and “person”. I want to make it absolutely clear for the police, those who litigate on their behalf and magistrates how the Bill should be navigated, so I will provide clarity on the use of terminology in the other place.
Before I move on to amendments 3 and 4, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for his speech. I will be more loquacious about his contribution to this issue on Third Reading, but I note his point about the police updating their processes to include, for example, the use of apps to help to record instances of stalking. I will explore that with the police, because it seems to be a very valid point.
I am grateful for the observations from my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on police resourcing. We make an economic impact assessment of the effects of any Bill, so one has of course been conducted for this Bill. I heard what they said about the police settlement, which they will both know is coming forward in December. We have managed this year to provide a further £460 million for policing, with the help of police and crime commissioners, but it is very important that we listen regarding any further support that can be given in pressing the case for dealing with the challenges of changing crime in the 21st century. The full economic impact is a reason why we have not placed a commencement date in the Bill. That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, and I will deal with that at the end of my speech.
Amendments 3 and 4 will modify the notification requirements on a person subject to a stalking protection order. I am pleased that they have the approval of the House. Under the requirements as drafted, a perpetrator must notify the police of a change of name or address within three days of that change taking place. It enables the perpetrator to give such notice before the change takes effect. Amendment 5 caters for circumstances in which the subject of a stalking protection order does not have a home address, and mirrors the notification requirements relating to registered sex offenders.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay examined the issue of commencement dates. We propose to deal with that through regulations, and he will know that that is the usual way of enacting provisions in any Bill that receives Royal Assent. We have gone for the traditional or usual way of commencement because we are mindful that if the orders are to be used as effectively as all colleagues wish, there will be implications for the courts, legal aid, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Prison Service and the National Probation Service, as well as the police who will require training and who will make the applications. We want to allow a little time for that to bed in, and guidance will be issued as part of that.
I thank the Minister for the details that she is providing on commencement. Would she provide a rough timeline for the benefit of those following our proceedings? It makes eminent sense to give those organisations time to prepare, but I assume that we are talking about a matter of months, not years.
Most certainly. My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot give precise dates, but it is certainly months. We want to get this on the statute book, and put it in force as soon as possible. We have a date for consideration in the other place early in the new year, and we want the measure to be put into force as soon as possible. May I thank all hon. Members, including my hon. Friends, for their contributions to this stage of scrutiny, and commend the amendments to the House?
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Variations, renewals and discharges
Amendment made: 2, page 3, line 24, leave out from “police” to the end of line 27 and insert “who applied for the stalking protection order and (if different) the chief officer of police for the area in which the defendant resides, if that area is in England or Wales.”— (Dr Wollaston.)
See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.
Amendments made: 3, page 6, line 2, leave out “within” and insert “before the end of” .
This amendment would ensure a person can give notice that they are going to use a new name before doing so.
4, page 6, line 8, leave out “within” and insert “before the end of” —(Dr Wollaston.)
This amendment would ensure a person can give notice that they are going to change their home address before doing so
Method of notification and related matters
Amendment made: 5, page 6, line 30, leave out “whose home address is not” and insert “who does not have a home address” .—(Dr Wollaston.)
This amendment would cater for the possibility that a person might not have a home address
Amendment made: 6, page 8, line 9, at end insert—
““chief officer of police” means—
(a) the chief constable of a police force maintained under section 2 of the Police Act 1996 (police forces in England and Wales outside London);
(b) the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis;
(c) the Commissioner of Police for the City of London;
(d) the chief constable of the British Transport Police;
(e) the chief constable of the Ministry of Defence Police;” —(Dr Wollaston.)
See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
May I begin by thanking the Minister and all her officials for the extraordinary amount of work that they have put into assisting with the Bill, and for everything that the Minister has done to progress the violence against women and girls agenda in the House? I also thank Daragh Quinn in my team for his work and for doing so much to co-ordinate and help with the preparation of the Bill. I also thank the many individuals and organisations outside the House that have made such a difference. I am thinking of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, Paladin, the Gloucestershire Stalking Advisory Service, the National Stalking Consortium and many others, such as police and crime commissioners for Sussex, for Northumbria, and for Devon and Cornwall, as well as officers from Thames Valley police and Devon and Cornwall constabulary, I thank them for their valuable advice, and I also thank the stalking lead for the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
I would particularly like to pay tribute to colleagues and Members across the House for their work. Having listened to the characteristically thoughtful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), I pay tribute to the work that he has done, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), on stalking, which has made an extraordinary difference.
I thank everyone who has contributed today with thoughtful speeches and interventions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), my neighbour, whom I join in his tribute to the police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall for her courage in talking about her experience. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), and for Dudley South (Mike Wood), for their thoughtful interventions. I thank the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp), and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for their ongoing and long-standing work. I greatly appreciate all the support I have received from colleagues across the House.
As we have heard, stalking is an insidious and dangerous crime with devastating consequences for victims and their families. Acts that initially appear, as we have heard, to be trivial, when seen as a whole have an extraordinary effect, not just on the individuals immediately affected but on everyone around them. Stalkers contact not just members of the family—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham spoke about his constituent, Dr Aston—but people’s workmates and neighbours. There is a sense in which it never stops. As we heard from my hon. Friend, it is often described as murder in slow motion. It affects people’s physical and mental health, leaving them feeling isolated and fearful. It can escalate rapidly. In the context of domestic violence, about 50% of threats of violence are acted on, and there are many examples in which stalking has escalated to rape and murder.
Stalking behaviour is much more common than people realise. About one in five women and one in 10 men experience some kind of stalking behaviour in their adult lifetime, according to the crime survey for England and Wales. It typically takes about 100 episodes of stalking behaviour for victims to come forward. That is what the Bill is partly about. It is also about raising awareness and allowing this to be taken seriously. We hear time and again of people coming forward to report stalking behaviour, but it is dismissed as somehow a compliment.
I am impressed by what my hon. Friend is saying, as it shows the great passion that she has brought to the Bill. We would all agree that it adds huge value by protecting our constituents and bringing greater security and peace of mind to those who have suffered from this, knowing that others may be better protected in future.
I thank my hon. Friend.
Raising awareness will help to encourage more people to come forward. There has been some encouraging progress. In the 2017-18 crime survey for England and Wales, there were more than 10,000 recorded offences of stalking, almost double the previous number of 5,313. The increase is likely to be due to improvements in the recording of the crime, rather than an increase in stalking. That is an important point: laws in themselves will not protect victims. A key focus is to make sure that we have better recording so that victims are more confident about coming forward. That does not mean that every instance of unwanted attention will lead to prosecution for stalking—of course not.
Stalking is a type of harassment characterised by fixation and obsession. As hon. Members have said, the Bill will allow earlier intervention, rather than allowing that to become a deeply ingrained pattern of behaviour that carries on for decades. We heard that Emily Maitlis’s stalker pursued her for more than two decades and even, disgracefully, managed to continue his behaviour from prison. There is a possibility that, if we can intervene at an earlier stage, we can stop this behaviour in its tracks, and I think that that is an important aspect of the Bill.
I pay tribute to the courage of all the victims who have come forward and spoken out. I am not talking just about celebrities; as we have heard, stalking affects people in their everyday lives, and stalking patterns of behaviour sometimes follow relatively trivial encounters. I pay particular tribute to Alexis Bowater, from my own area, for her long-standing work and her campaign for changes and increased protections.
I, too, welcome the courage of the people who have been able to speak out, but we should recognise that hundreds, if not thousands, of people throughout the country are unable to do so. I have heard victim impact statements read out in court from people who have not been able to come forward because the stalker’s behaviour has had such a negative impact that it has affected their mental and physical health, and their ability to conduct their daily lives. That has impeded them from speaking out, although they may have wanted to.
That is an extremely important point. There is, of course, another group who cannot speak out: those who have lost their lives at the hands of stalkers. Some of the most moving testimonies that I heard when I was preparing the Bill have come from families who have been bereaved by stalking. I am thinking in particular of the family of Alice Ruggles. I pay tribute to all those people, and I am grateful to the Minister for meeting some of them at a roundtable. I think that we were both struck by their personal courage and bravery in trying to change a hideous experience into an attempt to protect others in the future, and I thank them all.
Another point that has been raised today concerns the growth of online stalking. There is nothing new about stalking, but, sadly, what is new is the increase in the number of avenues that are open to stalkers. That is one of the reasons the Bill does not strictly define stalking. This is a rapidly evolving, changing field, and it is important for us to retain some flexibility. The number of avenues that are open has increased even over the last few years, and if we defined stalking too tightly, we might restrict future opportunities to head off stalking behaviour. The Bill leaves the definition open, giving examples of the kinds of behaviour that could constitute stalking. As I have said before, the point about stalking is the fixated and obsessive nature of it, and the fact that it is a form of harassment. That needs to be recognised as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham made an important point when he said that an app should be considered. That would enable the full picture to be seen, and I hope that the Minister will consider adopting my hon. Friend’s welcome suggestion.
The Bill is important because it fills a significant gap in the law relating to those who are subject to so-called stranger stalking—that is, stalking by someone who is not a former, or indeed current, intimate partner. It is also important because it takes the onus away from the victim. It means that someone else can come forward to apply for a civil stalking protection order on the victim’s behalf, rather than the victim’s incurring a huge amount of expense and trauma in trying to establish protections on their own behalf. That is one of the key features of the Bill. Moreover, because this is a civil order, it can be imposed on the balance of probabilities—although, importantly, breaching it is a criminal offence. There are real penalties, which I think have been lacking in the past. Stalking is punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment. However, the protection order is not intended to replace a prosecution for stalking. When the criminal threshold has been met, we would expect the police and the whole criminal justice system to go down that route, but we know that a case can take time to build. The point about a stalking protection order is that it could be there while that case was being built for a full prosecution.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point, not least for this reason. A substantive and full prosecution could allow the court to consider the entirety of the conduct in its full context, to ensure that the punishment was truly fitting and appropriate. If the prosecution related purely to a breach of a stalking protection order, the courts might not have the powers that they required, because the offending itself would not be fully set out. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Absolutely. Following the important work that my hon. Friend has himself undertaken, longer sentences are available following a full prosecution for stalking. However, as he will know, it takes time to build a case, and in the meantime the behaviour is allowed to continue.
Another feature of the stalking protection order is that it has both positive and negative requirements. It is a bespoke order, so it can allow the court to include a requirement to undergo a psychiatric assessment or, if necessary, to take part in a perpetrator programme. I hope that the Minister will look into perpetrator programmes, and what we can do to ensure that more of them are available where they could help.
The Bill also makes it possible to consider the full range of stalking behaviour in imposing prohibitions. For example, much more of such behaviour now encompasses online stalking. The orders would ensure that perpetrators not only registered their names and addresses, but registered all their names and addresses, and the aliases that they used. They could be required not to have encryption software on their computers, so that it could be demonstrated whether or not they were continuing to contact their victims using another means. If, for example, they did have encryption software, that in itself would constitute a breach of the order and a criminal offence. A bespoke order allows us to be flexible about all the different methods that perpetrators are currently using.
Some people may fear that we would use the orders in inappropriate circumstances. Others have suggested to me that a person who complains of being stalked may, in fact, turn out to be the stalker. That is why this must be a very careful process, and the orders must be demonstrated to be necessary to protect. They must pass that test. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has already pointed out, there needs to be a very effective process for people to be able to come back and challenge the orders, and that, I think, is another important aspect of the Bill.
Overall, the Bill improves protection for victims against what is a really horrible crime, which is much more common than people realise. It fills a gap in the law for those who are victims of so-called stranger stalking, and I think that it has shown the House working at its best. Colleagues on both sides of the House have recognised the gap in the law and made constructive suggestions for improving it. I am grateful to everyone who has supported the Bill and helped it to make progress.
I would like to start by congratulating wholeheartedly the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who, with her characteristic diligence, perseverance and cross-party approach, has succeeded in uniting the House behind these important measures that will protect victims and save lives. I can think of few tasks more important to this House than keeping our constituents safe, and she has done all our constituents a huge service through this Bill.
We have heard the emotional and chilling testimonies of constituents who have brought their cases to their MPs. They show why this Bill is so important, and it will undoubtedly ensure better and earlier protection for victims of these terrible crimes.
Far too many stalking crimes go undetected. In 2015, there were just 194 convictions for stalking offences. Yet, the crime survey suggests that one in five women and one in 10 men will be affected by stalking in their lifetime, while the under-publicised national stalking helpline has responded to almost 14,000 calls since it was established in 2010. Clearly the conviction rate is barely the tip of the iceberg.
Providing the police with the vital additional tool of this Bill is important to protect victims, and, importantly, puts the onus and the priority on the police. The hon. Lady knows that we wholeheartedly support this Bill and will continue to do so as it makes its way through the other place.
However, as is clear from this debate, it will be important to continue to keep the measures under review and look at what more might be needed in future in order to build on this architecture to ensure long-term safety and protection for victims. There are simply too many gaps in the current legislation as it stands. With increased technology and globalisation it is important that legislation covers cyber-stalking and crimes carried out from other countries, and it is also important that measures extend to strangers.
Last year the House amended the law so that perpetrators of stalking may now receive much longer maximum sentences. We know that the way that victims are dealt with is simply not good enough, however. Charges are amended and dropped with no notice and victims can be cross-examined by their own tormentor in court. It is a matter of deep regret that the Government have failed to bring forward a victims law, as promised in successive manifestos. It would enshrine the rights of victims in law and create important new measures to support victims. If the Government chose to bring forward such a law, they would have the full support of Labour for the creation of an independent victims advocate, who would help the victim navigate their fundamental rights at a traumatic time, when the array of services and institutions they have to deal with can often be overwhelming and bewildering. The rights of victims often end up, almost unwittingly, falling by the wayside in this process.
The measures in this Bill are essential for early intervention, not just because prevention is always better than cure, but because even before arriving at sentencing, victims of stalking face additional hurdles in their treatment by the criminal justice system. It has been shocking to hear that victims experience on average 100 occurrences before coming forward to report the crime. As with all serious crime, the police and the entire criminal justice system need an integrated and informed approach if the issue is to be tackled effectively. Better detection and better treatment of victims must be their priorities. That has been very apparent in today’s debate.
This insidious form of harassment has been acknowledged and recognised only over the last few years, and the impact on, and implications for, victims and the difficulties they face in attempting to get the authorities to take them seriously has been described by several Members. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) made an excellent speech, in which he compellingly described this form of crime as “murder in slow motion”. He talked about how the victim’s freedom is constantly chipped away and horrendous psychological damage caused, and the feeling that the crime will not be taken seriously by the authorities. As constituents of mine have experienced, such crimes are sometimes taken seriously only once an actual violent crime has been committed.
Despite the obvious progress made since 2012, I have repeated conversations with the police about the difficulties they face in bringing successful prosecutions. As we know, access to the police and support for victims is at an all-time low, and there is serious concern that despite all the tools the police undoubtedly now have to tackle harmful crimes such as these and crimes of domestic violence and coercive control, they do not have the resources to devote to the kind of service necessary for the support of victims and for the required level of investigation to secure a successful prosecution. The numbers of these crimes are rising year on year while prosecution rates continue to fall.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) made the important point that, with such limited resources, it is inevitable that if the police are to focus on these crimes they will deprioritise other areas. He said that the Government have a duty to ensure that resources are continuously available to enforce the legislation that we bring forward in this place. The police are constantly frustrated that we reach for a legislative response in dealing with serious issues and crimes while not ensuring that they have the resources on the ground to get the job done.
That issue was raised by several other Members, too. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) raised the issues that Suffolk experiences because of the funding formula; next-door Norfolk, with very similar issues and priorities, receives significantly more funding. The issue of the pensions gap was also raised, and the £165 million of further cuts for 2019-20, which is forcing police and crime commissioners to use their precept to plug the gap. The hon. Gentleman rightly said it was indefensible to ask local people to pay more in rates to plug a gap for the Treasury when that money should only be spent in the local area on local policing priorities.
Indeed, an unusually high number of Conservative Members have raised the issue of resources today and the fact that the police simply do not have the resources that need to be devoted to investigations in order to secure prosecutions for these crimes. Despite the rise in serious crime, this Government have cut the number of police officers by over 21,000 and continue to make cuts, with below-inflation budget rises even given the precept flexibility—and now there is the £165 million pension gap. Those cuts have consequences, and they are having consequences in every community in our country.
When our officers face this much pressure, it leads to the downgrading of crimes; that has been reported on a number of times over the last four or five years. To add to that, officers have not been sufficiently trained to tackle stalking crimes. That decreases the chance of prosecution even with new legislation. Police forces need the specialist resources required to address crimes such as stalking which touch on and concern violence against women in particular.
The measures in this Bill are vital but not sufficient. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes again and all who have supported the Bill’s safe passage through the House, particularly the Minister and her officials. It is a privilege to support this Bill and I wish it speedy passage through its remaining stages.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for introducing this important Bill, and for her assiduous work in bringing it forward. I also thank Opposition Members, including the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for contributing powerful arguments this morning and situating this Bill and this change in the context of a wider agenda to prevent violence against women. Today we are taking an important step to protect victims of stalking, but it will not, of course, be the final step.
One reason why I am keen to speak in this debate is that I have constituents who have been the victims of stalking: the family of Alice Ruggles, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has mentioned. Alice was murdered in 2016 by Trimaan Dhillon, who has now been sentenced to life imprisonment. Alice’s story is a perfect example of so many of the problems that my hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to solve. Alice had twice told police that Trimaan Dhillon was harassing her. He was given a police information notice, but that did not stop his obsessive behaviour. Later, it emerged that police had previously given Dhillon a restraining order for harassing another ex-girlfriend. Alice’s family have established the Alice Ruggles Trust to make the case for changes to protect future victims of stalking, and I pay tribute to them for their incredible courage.
I am therefore very pleased to support this Bill today. It will fill a clear gap in the protective order regime and protect people like Alice in the future. It will enable effective action to be taken against stalkers whose actions are not yet provably over the criminal threshold. As my hon. Friend set out, the instrument being created today is highly flexible and will enable us to cover all the different new types of stalking behaviour. At present too many people who pose a real threat to life are simply being repeatedly cautioned and given PINs, or action is simply not taken against them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes pointed to the fact that there has been a huge increase in the registration of stalking cases, and that is welcome. It suggests that the police are now taking this more seriously. I hope that creating this new tool for the police in the form of the stalking protection order will help to solve the problem. The sanctions that it will create will help to stop stalkers whose behaviour is escalating, and the prohibitions it creates will help victims to live without fear. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) made a powerful speech in which he talked about “murder in slow motion”, and about the fact that cases can go on for years and years.
This is a hugely important new instrument, and I hope that, as well as providing these direct benefits, its introduction will be a catalyst for the police to improve their handling of stalking cases more generally. A report published last year by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service found that people who had suffered repeated harassment or stalking were frequently being let down by under-recording, by inconsistent services and by a lack of understanding in the criminal justice system.
In one of the most powerful parts of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, he described why these cases are so hard to tackle, and how something that can start off seeming slightly unsettling can shade off into something more sinister and then become more and more worrying. At what point do the police, who are busy all the time, take action? That is why this is such an important piece of legislation, and I hope that it will trigger police forces to review how they handle stalking and to start following the best practice guidance set out by the charity Paladin. This is a hugely important piece of legislation. It is not the end of the story, by any stretch of the imagination, but the flexibility the Bill creates will allow stalking protection orders to be useful in a wide variety of circumstances. It will improve lives and I hope that it will save lives. I support it in the strongest possible way.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien). Let me join other hon. and right hon. Members in extending my warm congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has conceived the Bill and steered it so expertly through the various stages of the legislative process. She does the whole country a great service in the work that she has done, and I am sure that all Members across the House are grateful to her for her hard work and for the expertise and dexterity that she has brought to bear in bringing this legislation almost to its final stage.
I was not going to make my own contribution today, but I should like to echo what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the cross-party spirit in which the Bill has been brought forward. It is also no mean feat to get a private Member’s Bill passed. We all know colleagues on both sides of the House who have secured their place through the ballot and presented a Bill to the House but who have not secured cross-party or Government support. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on the fact that we are here today supporting this Bill, and I look forward to its making progress and being passed.
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s comments. The House of Commons is at its best when we come together and find cross-party consensus on these issues. This is often evident only on a Friday when private Members’ Bills such as this are being debated. Perhaps it would be better if we could find similar common ground on other days of the week. Who knows, maybe we will do so in due course.
My hon. Friend’s Bill fills a lacuna in the current legislative framework. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) laid this out with his characteristic forensic attention to detail during his speech on Report a short while ago. He made it clear, very powerfully, that the tools available are not adequate to deal with this particular category of emerging stalking that we are addressing today. For example, the measure of taking out an injunction in the civil court is extremely complicated and expensive, so it is unreasonable to expect a victim of stalking to have to take out their own injunction in the county court or the High Court. Restraining orders generally follow conviction, or at the very least they follow court proceedings, so that occurs only when the problem has become so serious that the threshold of criminality has clearly been crossed and, generally speaking, adjudicated on by a criminal court. Bail conditions only follow arrest. So the measures of restraining orders and bail conditions cannot be used at an early stage in the pattern of offending. That is why the measure that we are debating today is so welcome; it gives victims protection at a very early stage in the process of the offending behaviour.
In the consultation that the Government ran on this legislation, 69% of respondents felt that the current legislative arrangements were inadequate and that something more was required. There is no question but that these stalking protection orders will fill the gap identified by those respondents. The gap is powerfully illustrated by a conviction that was handed down yesterday by the Crown Court in Hove in Sussex. The defendant who was convicted was in fact a resident of my borough, Croydon, and unusually it was a female defendant. Most defendants in these cases are male. This defendant, Lina Tantash, aged 44, is a resident of Croydon and she was jailed yesterday for four years for stalking offences that had carried on over a period of 10 years. The conviction applied to three of those years. She had persistently harassed and stalked the victim by turning up unexpectedly at his place of work—even turning up at his office Christmas party—by making thousands of phone calls and by offering money to his colleagues to provide his personal mobile phone number. Eventually, the victim had to leave the country.
This was a serious pattern of behaviour that took place over many years. When the sentence was handed down yesterday, it was accompanied by a restraining order to prevent any repeat of the offence, but by then it was far too late. Had this legislation been in place some years ago, it would have been open to the victim to go to the police and ask them to seek a stalking protection order. That would have prevented the offending from getting to that serious stage and it would probably have prevented the need for a criminal conviction. It would have protected the victim, but in a sense it would also have protected the perpetrator, because they would never have reached the point of facing a four-year prison sentence. This legislation would have benefited both the victim and the stalker, because it would have prevented the stalker from ending up with a criminal conviction. One of the most powerful elements of this proposal is that it can prevent the offending from escalating in a way that is damaging to everyone.
I have listened attentively to what the hon. Gentleman has said about that specific case. I served on the original stalking commission. Stalking is wrong, and it is women who are affected in a huge proportion of cases. Does he not think that this country should have some sort of universal Bill of Rights for women to be free of violence? We need to guarantee that women can be free from the fear of violence, whatever their ethnicity and whatever part of the country they come from.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that the vast majority of victims of these terrible crimes are women. He is also right say that we should ensure that women from all backgrounds are protected. He made reference to a Bill of Rights that was gender-specific, but I believe that rights are universal and that they should be enjoyed by people regardless of their gender or race. However, his objective—that women should be completely protected—is one that I wholeheartedly agree with.
I made a speech in Westminster Hall in 2009 about what I knew to be going on in the gangs working across our cities who were preying on women and on children in care. At that time, the police were saying to me, “Well, guv, it’s difficult. It’s expensive. And in their culture, certain things are acceptable.” No violence against women is acceptable in my book.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There can be no excuses, based on cultural background or anything else, for the mistreatment of women in any way, whether that is stalking, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. All those things, and others, are abhorrent. No woman of any age or of any ethnic background should experience them, and categorically cultural background is no excuse; it does not make it okay.
Members on both sides of the House— and I hear agreement coming from the Government Front Bench—should all make it clear that it is totally unacceptable. There can be no excuses, and there can be no tolerance for these kinds of offences on any grounds at all. I am at one with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the prevalence of these offences. Indeed, there were 1,000 reported cases of stalking in London in 2017, and there may, of course, be many more that were not reported. There were a further 12,000 cases of harassment. This clearly is a wide-scale problem, and the police need to focus on it.
I am pleased to hear that the Metropolitan police—I am a London MP, so I pay particular attention to the Met—have recently set up a stalking unit, but that unit has only eight officers. Clearly, if there are 1,000 stalking offences being reported, eight officers strikes me as quite a small number. I encourage the Metropolitan police to consider increasing the size of its stalking unit, bearing in mind the scale of the problem.
This is an excellent and welcome Bill. Its provisions should in no way deter the police or the Crown Prosecution Service from pursuing prosecutions where they find evidence of criminal behaviour. This does not replace criminal sanctions; it is an additional tool that should be used at a very early stage in the pattern of behaviour.
Clause 12 provides for the Secretary of State to issue guidelines suggesting to the police how and when these powers might be exercised. It is important that the police are proactive in this area and that, when a victim comes to the police, they respond energetically and proactively. Those guidelines are important to making sure that police forces across the country actually use these powers. This worries me sometimes. We pass legislation in this Chamber on all kinds of topics, but legislation is impotent and ineffective unless it is used and implemented by the public bodies it empowers. In this example, it is critical that the police actually use this legislation when they are approached by victims, and the House should keep a close eye on it to make sure that, once this legislation becomes active, it is used by police forces across the country.
A chief constable told a group of us only two weeks ago that the Crown Prosecution Service is very restricted in resources at the moment in taking cases forward. That was the police saying, “We can’t get the action because the CPS is in that position.” The budgetary concerns are broader than just the police.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that concern on record. As we go through the comprehensive spending review next year, laying out departmental spending limits for the four or five years to come, it will be a good opportunity for Members on both sides of the House to make submissions to the Treasury on such issues to make sure that the resources are in place to enable the CPS and the police to prosecute people, as appropriate.
My last observation, in passing, is that I notice there is no formal definition of stalking in the Bill or in the interpretations at the end. When stalking is referred to, it is with a lower-case s. Stalking does not seem to be formally defined. I consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, who drew my attention to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which lists some examples of stalking behaviour, but again it does not provide a precise definition. I wonder whether at some point, in future legislation, it might be worth our creating a more formal definition of what constitutes stalking to help police forces and the CPS in their work.
This is an excellent Bill and, again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on her fantastic work, her legislative dexterity and her perseverance in getting this Bill to Third Reading. The Bill fills an important gap in our current legislative framework. I am delighted to give it my enthusiastic and vocal support and, if necessary, to support it in the Lobby.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on bringing this important Bill to this advanced stage. My only disappointment is that, in its current form, it does not apply to Scotland.
In Scotland stalking is covered under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, section 39 of which includes some of the measures we discussed this morning. Section 39 specifically mentions conduct, especially the different kinds and modern forms of stalking. The conduct defined in that Act includes: following someone; contacting or attempting to contact them by any means; publishing material relating to, purporting to relate to or purporting to originate from them; monitoring their use of electronic communication; entering premises; loitering in any place; interfering with their property; watching or spying on them; or acting in another way that a reasonable person would expect to cause the victim to experience or suffer fear or alarm.
The 2010 Act has no provision for a stalking protection order, which my hon. Friend seeks to introduce today. If the Bill is successful, we can work with colleagues in the Scottish Parliament to make sure there is equality of law and equality of the protection of rights across the United Kingdom.
This truly is a British problem. In 2017-18 there were 1,376 reported cases of stalking in Scotland, up from 495 in 2011-12—a 170% increase in the incidence of stalking. I know from the personal experience of constituents coming to my office that geography is no hindrance to such crimes, and it is important that, across the United Kingdom, our citizens have the same rights and protections.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke on Report about the British Transport police—an issue that has been a bone of contention back home and has been debated here and elsewhere. It is particularly important that these powers include the British Transport police, because these crimes have no respect for geography. He accurately highlighted that busy commuter trains and other forms of transport are where individuals can be at the greatest risk, especially in this day and age when a mobile phone can be used to take a picture or a video of someone sitting on a train, reading a paper in a tube carriage or doing anything else on public transport. That is another realm of risk, and many years ago, or even in the 2010 Act, we would not have appreciated the current extent of that risk. Including the British Transport police and making sure we have a co-ordinated and joined-up approach across the United Kingdom are both important.
Many Members have spoken today about their experiences as Members of Parliament, and about the experiences of their constituents. A number of constituents have approached me with varying degrees of relationship and other issues, and whether they go to the civil courts or cross over to the criminal courts, it is important that such personal and individual matters are given the right expression and protection in this place.
Individuals can be affected in incredibly negative ways when what originally seems to be innocent following turns a lot more malicious. It is important to make sure that the protections are there for these individuals, which is why I started my speech by talking about the different forms of conduct. It is important that we consider the breadth of conduct.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), who talked about a definition of stalking. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) has just raised that matter again. The real problem sometimes is that what seems innocuous to most people preys on the mind of the person who is being stalked, so a little thing that we may think is nothing actually has a huge impact. That is one of the problems of defining stalking.
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes, as always, a very wise contribution that is very welcome. As I was saying, it is important that we protect these individual rights and make sure that, no matter how seemingly innocent these actions are, people have the right protection so that the experience is right for them because it is about their own fear of harm and harassment.
I welcome the provisions to extend this to the British Transport Police and to make sure that the protections for individuals are there. I hope that, if my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes is successful with the Bill, she will work with colleagues in the Scottish Parliament as well to make sure that we have equal rights across our United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham). Although this Bill does not apply to Scotland, it is great to see representation for Scotland in the debate—and eloquent representation it was, too.
It is a pleasure to join other Members in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). Sometimes, I feel, we do not agree on other subjects, so it is excellent to be able to contribute to a debate in which we are perfectly aligned, the alignment being not just on our side of the Chamber but on both sides.
We have heard some excellent legal minds give their insightful view on this Bill, so I want to adopt a slightly different approach and use the latitude that is sometimes afforded to us on Fridays to give a public information broadcast. First, anybody who is at risk of stalking, experiences stalking or has family members who are being stalked should contact the national stalking helpline on 0808 802 0300. That line is run by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. The interesting thing about it is that it is a freephone number from landlines, but it also free from a number of mobile service providers. Also, the number will not show up on someone’s phone bill if they are phoning from a BT line, which might be important for some people who are concerned about stalking and do not want information to be shown on their telephone bill.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is a great source of information on stalking. Let us just briefly remember why the trust was set up. Suzy Lamplugh was 25 years old in 1986 when she disappeared, and her parents, Paul and Diana, set up the trust to provide incredible support to people who are victims of the type of terrible tragedy that they have experienced and to others who are victims of stalking. The trust receives money from the tampon tax fund, from which the Government contribute approximately £15 million a year, using money taken from VAT on sanitary products to support organisations that provide support for disadvantaged women. The trust is one of a number of organisations that that supports. It is a fantastic charity. Suzy Lamplugh was very tragically in the news most recently because police excavated the site of John Cannan’s mother’s house to try to finally find evidence to attribute the crime to him.
The trust is not the only charity that provides support in this field. In preparation for this debate, I also came across the Hollie Gazzard Trust. Last night, I tried to download the Hollie Guard app, which I thought I might be able to utilise to offer some feedback to the House on its efficacy or otherwise. Unfortunately, it is necessary to register to use the app and I am still awaiting notification that I can be registered as a user. However, I believe that it provides a valuable tool. If someone is walking home and feels that they might be vulnerable, the app enables them to register their start and final destination. It will track their progress and, if they do not arrive at that destination within a prescribed time, it can alert people they have predetermined from the contacts in their phone. It can also turn the phone into an alarm so that it gives out a high-pitched noise and the torch comes on as well to attract attention.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for doing the research and finding out about that. I know Nick and Mandy Gazzard, the parents of Hollie Gazzard, and they will be absolutely thrilled to hear that he has, first, researched it, and secondly, accurately identified precisely what it does. Good for him—I am very grateful.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would like to further endorse the work of Nick Gazzard. In December last year, West Midlands police operated a Facebook page where people could type in comments if they had concerns about stalking, and Nick was responding to those comments with Detective Inspector Jenny Bean from West Midlands police. He is doing incredibly valuable work and supporting people, following the terribly tragic circumstances of his daughter’s death in February 2014. The joint report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the CPS inspectorate identified 112 stalking cases that were not dealt with correctly, and in 60% of cases a risk assessment was not prepared. Clearly there is some work to do, but it certainly sounds as though West Midlands police are doing their best to make sure that they address this.
I would also like to mention Black Country Women’s Aid, which set up a stalking support service in January this year, also funded by the tampon tax fund. I thank Lorraine Garratley for her support and the information that she has provided me with in preparing for this debate. The group provides support for women and young girls over the age of 13 to help them through this difficult experience.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. I completely endorse this Bill.
I, like every Member in this House today, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for bringing forward this Bill. I pay tribute to the work done by the Ministers, officials and many people across both sides of the House in making sure that this happens. I look forward to voting in favour of the Bill in a short while.
As I said on Report, stalking is an abhorrent behaviour, and its victims often suffer devastating consequences that should not be underestimated. It has widespread ramifications for the victim. It not only severely impacts their mental state but can affect their careers, their relationships, and so many other things. The relentless nature of stalking, often over a period of many years, can leave the victims feeling absolutely helpless. This is exacerbated by the high threshold that must be met under the current regime for police to be able to intervene. There are many improvements in this Bill that will change things substantially.
Stalking is commonly misunderstood. Reporting unsolicited advances or a bombardment of messages can seem trivial if not considered as part of an overall pattern of harassing behaviour. Some victims have said that they were made to feel as though they were overreacting, or even wasting valuable police time, when trying to report their experiences. As one constituent of mine said about their own experiences of being stalked: “No one considers me seriously. There is no emergency but I am living with things that I simply should not have to live with.”
We should also remember that stalking can be a gateway to other criminal behaviour and often escalates, sometimes to the point of rape and murder. I welcome the fact that this Bill makes it clear that, where the police are empowered to apply for a stalking protection order on the basis that it is necessary to protect a person from risk, this risk can be of either physical or psychological harm. The risk element is key. Much progress has been made on the reporting of stalking offences over the past few years, but much more needs to be done. Although the number of recorded stalking offences has trebled in England and Wales since 2014, prosecution rates have significantly declined. It is clear that there is a gap in the law and the powers available to the police are not sufficient to tackle stalking in its various forms. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, an astonishing one in five women and one in 10 men have experienced stalking behaviour in their lives, and this Bill will help police effectively to address the huge volume of cases that have not become criminal but are nevertheless emotionally traumatic for the victim.
I suspect that there is a problem between the stalking and the reporting of it and, in some ways, a higher level of reporting is a good thing because it means that more people are coming forward with their concerns. I do not think we will ever be able to get a fully accurate record because there will always be situations and circumstances where some people, for whatever reason, do not wish to report.
Three or four years ago, the stalking commission looked at this issue. Anonymity and social media are very much at the heart of this, as there is this wicked ability for people to insinuate themselves into someone else’s life anonymously through social media. The people who run social media have a lot to answer for.
The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point, and I certainly hope that the online harms White Paper, which will be coming out before the end of winter, will address some of these issues, too. I understand that the White Paper is being produced jointly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, and I am sure this will be much debated again. The social media companies have a lot of power and a lot of responsibilities, but they have to take those responsibilities seriously.
I spoke earlier about the dangers of stranger stalking and I will not repeat those comments now. I just want to say in conclusion that this Bill sends a clear message that stalking is a crime that the Government take seriously and that all of us in Parliament take seriously. It has a devastating impact on people’s lives, and I fully support all the measures in the Bill.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on successfully steering this important Bill through the House. May I also take this moment to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham), both of whom have done so much work over the past few years to ensure that those who are convicted of the terrible offence of stalking meet the justice they deserve? My thanks also go to Conservative colleagues, and to colleagues from across the House, many of whom speak to me quietly behind the scenes about cases that concern them and that their constituents have suffered. Those Members know who they are, and I thank each and every one of them for their help.
Stalking is a terrible crime that still affects literally millions of people and often makes their lives a misery. The title of last year’s inspection report, “Living in fear”, sums up well what it feels to be as a victim of stalking. I am proud of the actions that this Government and their predecessors have taken to reduce that fear, from the original Protection from Harassment Act 1997—we heard from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) about the role he played in that—to introducing the specific stalking offences in 2012 and the funding we have given to the excellent national stalking helpline.
At this point, may I just thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) for his speech, which was public service broadcasting at its best? He made the important point that there is help available, albeit we sometimes need to search for it, and that is something that I have very much taken away with me. That helpline has helped almost 14,000 callers since 2010, as the shadow Minister said, and 94% of those callers say that they feel better about their situation immediately after making contact with that helpline. There is clearly a need, and the helpline is playing a huge role in helping victims.
Other projects are going on across the country to deliver innovative solutions to tackle this terrible crime. The Metropolitan Police Service, in partnership with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, has received more than £4 million from the police transformation fund for a multi-agency stalking interventions programme to share best practice and learning on developing interventions to tackle stalking. Northumbria has received more than £600,000 under the violence against women and girls service transformation fund for the Northumbria Building Capability project, which includes a specific project on cyber-stalking. Several projects to tackle stalking are funded through the tampon tax fund, including the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which has received money to scale up its casework support service for women who are being stalked. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North mentioned Black Country Women’s Aid, which has received more than £200,000 to pilot the first specialist support service for victims of stalking across the Black country area and to conduct research on stalking.
The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), with whom I work on other campaigns, made a brilliant public service broadcast, but one thing he missed out was saying that when people are in trouble with stalking, MPs can help. MPs and our staff are very skilled at helping—we know about stuff—so please let us not underrate the job that MPs can do.
I very much agree. Cross-party co-operation really can and must happen on such issues. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that Members of Parliament can do a great deal to help, and I thank him for his work on this topic.
A project called YOU Trust is another example of work to help to tackle stalking specifically. It provides a victim support service to women who experience stalking, risk assessing all cases and delivering solutions appropriate to that risk. We are working closely with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other partners to raise awareness of stalking and to ensure that appropriate guidance and training are in place. Colleagues have been right to express concerns about the initial response of some police forces—although not all, by any means. It is right that we focus on the training offered to the police and ensure that their conduct is examined in inspections. That is why the findings of last year’s joint inspection report are so important. They are being addressed through a national oversight group chaired by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and the action includes revising the legal guidance on stalking and harassment and delivering updated mandatory training for prosecutors. [Interruption.] Sorry—would somebody like to intervene?
May I apologise to the Minister? A very good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), was just passing and said, “You’re the first man to wear a roll-neck sweater in the Chamber.” It was a terrible diversion from the Minister’s good speech.
I do not know quite how to respond to that, so I shall move on quickly.
The 2017-18 performance data indicated that joint police and CPS work to take forward more prosecutions for stalking rather than harassment, when that is the right course, had a positive impact. I listened carefully to the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), who quite rightly made the point that stalking protection orders are in addition to the ability to prosecute, not instead of it. He asked about putting a definition of stalking into the Bill or the underlying 1997 Act. As he rightly said, there is a checklist of behaviours in that Act, but we are conscious that types of stalking behaviour can change. Indeed, in 1997, when that Act was passed, cyber-stalking was unheard of—it simply did not happen. Sadly, time has shown that nowadays it can and does happen. I hope that the list of examples helps not only my hon. Friend but practitioners on the ground to understand what can fall into the category of stalking behaviour.
I acknowledge the observations of my hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who both referred to the breadth of practices in stalking behaviour. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned specifically conduct against people’s political and religious beliefs, which was of course a very valid point.
At this point, may I also thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who is no longer in the Chamber? I look forward to joining her on Monday in this place for a day of commemoration and solidarity against those who continue to behave disgracefully towards Jewish people and to give support to the Jewish community.
I just want to put it on record that there is cross-party support for this excellent Bill. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on introducing it.
The Minister mentioned behaviour. Surely one thing that we should be looking at is educating people about the behaviour that leads to stalking. Does she have any thoughts about what can be done to educate people to stop them stalking in the first place?
Very much so, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Again, I am happy to acknowledge the work, co-operation and collaboration on the Bill of Members across the House, for which I thank them. There are a number of projects, some of which I have already referred to, including in London with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, to help to intervene with perpetrators as well as to support victims. I hope that one of the most exciting aspects of the Bill is the potential for positive as well as negative requirements under the orders, such as requiring the perpetrator to seek mental health treatment if that is appropriate. I hope that the orders will bring about innovative thinking that is very specific to the person against whom the order is applied to help them to tackle their behaviour so that they do not continue to offend.
We all acknowledge that there has been a gap in the system, as was revealed in the public consultation in 2016, particularly around how to bring security to victims in the early stages of so-called stranger stalking. Early intervention is always important when tackling crime, but it is fundamentally so in the case of stalking, when apparently innocuous behaviour can often escalate into something more sinister, as hon. Members have been very good at describing today. I am delighted that this Bill will plug that gap and provide additional security to victims.
These orders will be a vital tool that the police can use to protect victims and to control the behaviour of perpetrators. As has been noted, one of their greatest virtues is their flexibility, permitting positive and negative requirements that will help to stop perpetrators from behaving as they have been. Of course, the ultimate sanction is available through criminal sanctions should people breach the terms of these orders.
Stalking can have devastating effects for women and girls; indeed, it can for men and boys as well, but we know from the evidence that the vast majority of victims are female. This measure will, I hope, be passed by the House just two days before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is on Sunday.
The Government are carrying out a whole raft of work on tackling violence against women and girls, not least by refreshing the VAWG strategy alongside introducing the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which I hope to bring to this House before not too long.
I must finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for introducing the Bill, the officials who have advised me and who have worked so hard on the Bill, and hon. Members across the House for their help with the Bill, including those who served on the Bill Committee.
I finish by reflecting on the people whom this Bill seeks to protect: the victims of stalking and their families. My hon. Friends the Members for Totnes, for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), for Cheltenham and for Walsall North, as well as other Members, referred to families who have lost loved ones as a result of stalking. I have had the privilege of meeting Mr and Mrs Ruggles, Mr Gazzard and others during the passage of the Bill and through our work more generally on stalking and harassment in the Home Office. This Bill is for them. It is to protect their families, their friends, their work colleagues and so on, and it is about trying to ensure that the terrible, terrible cases of stalking that we have heard just a little about today do not happen in future, and that we keep the victims of stalking safe.
I thank the Minister, her officials and Members on both sides of the House. This debate has shown Parliament at its best. I look forward to the Bill making progress in the other place, and I thank Baroness Bertin for taking it forward.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Parking (Code of Practice) Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
I inform the House that the Scottish Parliament has approved a legislative consent resolution relating to the Bill, which is available in the Vote Office.
New Clause 1
Appeals against parking charges
‘(1) This section applies if the parking code contains guidance recommending that all parking appeals are dealt with by a single person who is independent of persons providing private parking facilities.
(2) The Secretary of State may, for the purpose of enabling or facilitating persons to act in accordance with that guidance, enter into an agreement with any person who appears to the Secretary of State to be so independent for that person to deal with parking appeals.
(3) An agreement under this section may provide—
(a) for payments to be made by the Secretary of State in respect of dealing with parking appeals;
(b) for the person to have power to charge fees, payable by persons providing private parking facilities, for dealing with parking appeals;
(c) for the maximum amount of any fee chargeable by virtue of paragraph (b).
(4) A person authorised by an agreement under this section to deal with parking appeals may not authorise any other person to perform that function.
(5) In this section “parking appeals” means appeals against parking charges imposed by, or on behalf of, persons providing private parking facilities.’.—(Sir Greg Knight.)
The new clause provides that, if the parking code recommends that all appeals against parking charges are dealt with by a single independent person, the Secretary of State may enter into an agreement with such a person for that person to deal with appeals against parking charges.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 7, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, after “State” insert “within twelve months of the day on which this Act is passed.”
Amendment 8, page 1, line 3, after “must” insert “use his best endeavour to.”
Amendment 1, in clause 6, page 3, line 14, leave out from “may” to “functions” in line 20 and insert “—
(a) enter into an agreement with a public authority authorising the authority to perform any functions of the Secretary of State under sections1 to4 (other than the function of laying a code or alteration before Parliament);
(b) enter into an agreement with a person authorising that person to perform any”
This amendment enables the Secretary of State to delegate functions relating to the investigation of breaches of the parking code to bodies that are not public authorities.
Amendment 2, page 3, line 28, leave out “public authority which is” and insert “person”
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.
Amendment 3, page 3, line 34, leave out “the final version of”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 5.
Amendment 4, page 3, line 35, at end insert “for approval”
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 5.
Amendment 5, page 3, line 36, leave out “The” and insert “Once the Secretary of State has approved the code or alteration, the”
Amendments 3 to 5 make clear that, where the Secretary of State has delegated the function of preparing the parking code, the Secretary of State must approve the final version of the parking code (or any alteration to it) before it is laid before Parliament.
Amendment 6, in clause 7, page 4, line 3, at end insert—
“() where the Secretary of State has entered into an agreement with a person under section (Appeals against parking charges) (appeals against parking charges), the establishment and maintenance by the person of a service for dealing with parking appeals (within the meaning of that section).”
The effect of this amendment is that, where the Secretary of State enters into an agreement with a person for the person to deal with appeals against parking charges (see NC1), the costs of establishing and maintaining that parking appeals service may be defrayed out of the proceeds of the levy imposed on accredited parking associations.
Amendment 9, in clause 11, page 6, line 29, leave out from “force” to the end of line 30 and insert “two months after the day on which this Act is passed.”
Amendment 10, page 6, line 31, leave out subsection (3).
Following previous stages of our consideration of the Bill, and having received a number of representations, it is apparent to me that it can and should be strengthened further. One point of concern that has been raised, including by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), relates to the appeals services available to motorists. Currently, when a motorist receives a ticket, they must first go to the parking operator to challenge it. If the challenge is rejected, they may go on to an appeals service provided by whichever accredited trade association the parking operator is a member of. Parking on Private Land Appeals and the Independent Appeals Service are the appeals services of the British Parking Association and the International Parking Community respectively. However, POPLA does not operate in Scotland, so motorists who receive parking tickets from British Parking Association operators in Scotland are denied an independent appeals service entirely, which I do not think is right.
The Bill provides an opportunity to raise the standards of the private parking industry and create more consistency in the process. My amendments would expand that opportunity, providing the Secretary of State with the power to appoint a single appeals service for the whole industry, providing greater consistency for motorists in England, Scotland and Wales, as they would know exactly where to go when they want to appeal a private parking ticket.
May I be the first to congratulate my right hon. Friend on piloting his Bill thus far? Many of our constituents who are caught up in these schemes are among the most vulnerable. Will he reassure my constituents who have been caught up in the past that in future they will be able to go through a much clearer and more straightforward process?
I am happy to give that assurance and to confirm that the appeals process will be free of charge.
The new clause and amendment 6 are the substantive amendments and would allow the Secretary of State to appoint a single appeals service for the private parking industry. They would also amend the proposed levy powers in order to use the levy to cover the costs of establishing and maintaining such an appeals service. Amendments 1 to 5, which also stand in my name, are largely technical and would amend the Bill to allow the Government flexibility to delegate their functions for investigating breaches of the code. They would also ensure that, where the Secretary of State has delegated the function of preparing the code of practice, they must still approve the final version of the parking code.
The current provisions mean that the Minister can delegate only to a public authority, but my amendments would allow the delegation of the investigatory function to private bodies. That would allow subject matter experts from private industry to conduct the function, thus offering a greater range of options and value for money. Lastly, my final amendments cover where the Secretary of State has delegated the code of practice, as I have said, but is still required to give final approval to it. I commend my new clause and amendments to the House.
I commend the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) for his Bill and for the very sensible amendments that he has brought before the House. I assure him that I am not going to speak at length. I rise at this stage just to congratulate him and to assure him that he has the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
May I address some remarks to the amendments in my name, particularly amendments 7 and 8 to clause 1? Like everybody else in the Chamber, I think this is a really good piece of legislation, but it is dependent on the good will of the Government to ensure that something actually happens.
Too often, we pass legislation in this House, and months or years later we find that nothing much has happened as far as the Government are concerned. I give as an example the primary legislation passed in this House to limit public sector exit payments to £95,000. That was contained in the Enterprise Act 2016. The Government have still not implemented that provision. Despite promises more than a year ago that they were about to bring forward regulations, they have not even fulfilled those promises. The most recent information I have is that there will be a write-round before Christmas, and then they may have a consultation on the regulations next year. When the Government say, “Yes, we’re definitely going to do something about this”, as they did when that law was passed, there is quite often a gap between what is said and the reality.
It is against that background that I am seeking, in amendments 7 and 8, to tighten up the requirements on the Government to bring forward the code of practice. Currently, all the Bill says is:
“The Secretary of State must prepare a code of practice containing guidance”.
However, he may not prepare that code of practice for many months or many years, and we should learn from past mistakes.
May I just say to my hon. Friend that so far, throughout this whole process, I have found the Government very helpful, with no sign of procrastination? Indeed, they have been very astute in already seeking views and starting the consultation process, with a working group looking at some of these aspects. I am certain his fears are unfounded.
I hope that is so. One way of establishing that my right hon. Friend is right would be if the Government readily accept amendments 7 and 8. Doing so would reinforce the good will of the Government in ensuring that they will bring forward their parking code in good time.
That is exactly the purpose of my amendments.
Amendment 7 would insert, in the first line of clause 1, that the Secretary of State,
“within twelve months of the day on which this Act is passed”,
must prepare a code of practice. That is pretty clear in bringing in a time limit and a requirement. I hope the Minister will be able to give an undertaking that the Government will bring forward a code of practice within 12 months. Some people may be impatient and say that they want it sooner, but under the terms of the Bill the Government have to consult before producing a code of practice, so I think it is reasonable to allow a period for the code of practice to be drawn up and consulted on.
If that amendment goes too far and is too extreme for the Government, amendment 8 is a modification as it would mean that the Secretary of State must “use his best endeavour” to prepare a code of practice. I do not know whether the Minister will say that those words are a meaningless addition, or that they would impose too tight a legal requirement on the Secretary of State.
As always, my hon. Friend and neighbour considers these matters carefully, and I am listening carefully to his proposals. Given that the Bill’s sponsor has received reassurance on this point, surely the phrase “best endeavour” would be otiose, because the Government and the excellent Minister have said that these things will be brought forward. We simply do not need those words.
May I say gently to my hon. Friend that if his amendments are accepted, they may cause some difficulty? If the Bill becomes law, the Government will need to go through a procurement process, which will take several months. The arbitrary time limit that he seeks to impose might mean that that procurement process could not properly take place.
With the greatest respect, perhaps my right hon. Friend’s point is relevant to my other amendments that relate to the time the Act must be passed. I do not see how having to go through a procurement process will interfere with the code of practice, unless the Government propose to delegate the drawing up of that code to some consultant—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend says that the Government might want to do that. They might also feel the need to comply with the European Union procurement directive on this matter, but that is speculation.
My right hon. Friend has been, not obsessed, but very concerned about the abuse of private parking facilities for a long time, and this is a great opportunity to get legislation on the statute book and get something done. However, I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have great trust in the Government, that even if the Minister does not obstruct the Bill and exercises good will, as we have seen with public sector exit payments, there can be a big gap with those good intentions. I think the whole House supported the idea of a £95,000 cap on exit payments, yet two and a half years later there is no sign of that coming into effect, and the latest projection is that it will be sometime next year.
That very challenging question is not dissimilar to the questions that I asked the Government and Prime Minister about what enforcement mechanism there will be to ensure that “best endeavours” as referred to in the withdrawal agreement will be implemented. In answer to a parliamentary question from me, the Minister replied on 22 November:
“The reference to best endeavours in Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement is a legally binding commitment that requires the United Kingdom and the EU to conduct themselves so that the negotiations on the future relationship are meaningful. It prohibits inflexible or obstructive behaviour and obliges the parties to pay reasonable regard to the interests of the other party.”
So in answer to the hon. Gentleman, that is the precedent that would be established. If he thinks that that is full of clarity, then I am sure he will be eager to support my amendment.
Presumably, whether best endeavours have been followed in the Brexit negotiations is likely to capture slightly more media coverage than whether best endeavours have been used in the introduction of the civil car parking code of practice.
With the greatest respect, I do not understand why my hon. Friend says that. According to the Government, “best endeavours” is a legal term, so why can we not incorporate it in the Bill in the same way that it has been proposed that it should be incorporated in the EU withdrawal legislation?
My point is that in this instance best endeavours would always be in the eye of the beholder. The hon. Gentleman does not explain, in his amendments, how Ministers could be judged on whether they had used their best endeavours and what the consequences of any such judgment would be. Therefore, as an amendment—I know he is very careful about these sorts of things—it does not survive minimal scrutiny.
In my submission, if an aggrieved member of the public felt that the Government had not been using their best endeavours to bring forward the code of practice and were thereby delaying the implementation of the will of Parliament, it would be open to that person to raise the matter by way of a judicial review, so there would be an enforcement mechanism.
Is this amendment not a licence to take power away from this House and put it into the courts? This House should be responsible for its own legislation. If there had been a failure of a dilatory nature from the Government, then my hon. Friend could no doubt call them to account in this House. However, ceding power to the courts to make a decision on whether best endeavours have been used seems to me to be a complete abdication of responsibility.
What my hon. Friend says is interesting if one applies the analogy of best endeavours to what is being discussed in the context of article 184 of the EU withdrawal agreement. In answer to another parliamentary question, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) the Minister with responsibility for exiting the European Union stated:
“the primary remedy would be that the party in default would be obliged to return to the negotiating table and modify its position. In the event that there was further non-compliance, remedies may be imposed under the processes established by the withdrawal agreement.”
It may be that my amendment is just as weak as article 184 of the proposed EU withdrawal agreement seems to be.
I think my hon. Friend is seeing shadows on the wall where they do not exist. The Government have made it quite clear that they are very supportive of the Bill. If I give him an undertaking to harass the Minister and make his life a misery if I think he is dragging his feet, will my hon. Friend agree not to press his amendments?
Is my right hon. Friend saying that he himself will undertake to harass the Minister? I am afraid that in the past my efforts at harassing the Government have proved manifestly unsuccessful. Of course, my right hon. Friend carries with him the distinction of being a former Deputy Chief Whip, so perhaps he has more influence than I have.
My hon. Friend should not be so dismissive of his own impact. As he will know, I was a sponsor of the Middle Level Bill, which is now the Middle Level Act 2018. His dutiful use of the procedures of the House ensured that it was a changed Bill. We do not necessarily need this at the moment, because we can rely on him being a dutiful parliamentarian, scrutinising constantly and ensuring that the House holds the Government to account for implementing the law that is passed.
Gosh, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am being flattered into submission. Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to say that the Government have also conceded on the amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I tabled saying that we need more Fridays on which to consider private Members’ Bills. That amendment has been accepted by the Government, and I understand that they are going to put forward a motion for debate on Monday that incorporates it. I can accept—
I shall use my best endeavours to comply with your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I think that was a useful walk around amendments 7 and 8. Let me refer briefly to the other amendments in my name, which deal with when the Bill has to be enacted. At the moment, clause 11, on the commencement, extent and short title, says that “section 8” and
“any power to make regulations”
will come in
“on the day on which this Act is passed”.
However, the clause also states that the
“remaining provisions of this Act come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by regulations appoint.”
My amendment suggests that that should be two months after the day on which the Act is passed, again to ensure that the pressure is kept on the Government to bring the measures forward as quickly as possible. There is massive public demand for them, and I fear that if we do not tie the Government’s hands a bit more than the Bill does currently, we may have to rely, to a very great extent, on the muscle power of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. I do not really think we want to have to do that, which is why I tabled the amendments. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on his commitment to ensuring that we have parity and fairness in private parking—it is matched only by his dexterity on the drum kit and his ability to keep time in the parliamentary rock band, MP4. This is a very fine Bill, and I will come to the code of practice on Third Reading, because it is really important that we get a better understanding of the Government’s intentions on the code of practice, which is a most important feature.
I support the right hon. Gentleman on new clause 1 and the subsequent amendment. It is very important to ensure that we get clarity on the appeals process. He is right that we are not covered by POPLA in Scotland. If a car parking operator is part of the independent parking community, we can appeal to the Independent Appeals Service, but that leaves a rather big gap in the opportunities in Scotland to appeal against some of these parking restrictions.
The right hon. Gentleman will know my interest in all this. The city of Perth is totally plagued by private parking companies, making life a misery for my constituents and the many people who come to visit that beautiful city. It is important that we get the Bill done and address this issue. On appeals, a member of staff who works in my office in Perth spends a good part of his day having to deal with complaints and assist people with appeals about the operation of parking companies in my constituency. Something has to be done. The procedure is that someone can appeal against private parking operators, but they are self-regulating. It is up to them whether they take it seriously and to make a ruling and a judgment if they think it is fair—if they think the appeal should be progressed—and then to make a response to the complainant. Clearly, that course of action is unsatisfactory.
This comes down to the British Parking Association’s set of regulations. It introduced POPLA in England and Wales several years ago, which, as I have said, does not cover Scotland. People can appeal to POPLA only if they have failed to secure a successful outcome in appealing to the private parking operator in the first place, and there is a £20 charge. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that the new independent appeals process that he outlines in the new clause will be free of charge. That is important, because I have seen some of these fines range to over £100—I think the top one I have seen, at the end of one of the very many threatening letters that are used by debt collection companies, was in the region of £140 to £160. The added cost of the appeal is another burden and feature that has to be endured by the hard-pressed motorist.
I think 50% of MP4—[Interruption]—sorry, 75% of them are in the Chamber. Perhaps they will give a rendition before the end of the debate. Can I check, whatever we agree, that the measure will apply in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament will back it?
Absolutely; it is important that that happens. At the beginning of his speech, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned that a legislative consent motion has been passed in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that this Bill covers Scotland and that those aspects that require this House to legislate on behalf of the Scottish Parliament are secure. Every part of the Bill applies to Scotland, so it will be national, which is important for many of the fine English visitors who come to my constituency and enjoy the delights of Perthshire. They will be protected if they park in my constituency, and will have the same rights of appeal and process as everyone else.
The hon. Gentleman has set out very clearly the concerns in his constituency. He has been an MP slightly longer than I have, but is he shocked by the sheer amount of correspondence in his inbox and postbag on parking charges? The Bill gives us a chance, particularly in Scotland, where the appeals process is slightly more iffy, to achieve clarity and fairness for our constituents against many of those—as he rightly says—rogue independent parking operators.
Absolutely. It is not just my city of Perth—I understand that there are issues across Scotland, where we have particular difficulties. I will come on to rogue operators on Third Reading, as it is important that they are identified and sharp practice is outlined to the House. What has happened is clearly a problem, and the hon. Gentleman is right that we require these measures. That is why I am proud to sponsor the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, and it is really important that we get it through the House today. I am pleased that we are here to ensure that a thoroughly good Bill gets through the House.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent and passionate defence of the Bill, which is excellent. A few moments ago, he mentioned the threatening letters that were sent. Does he agree that, like my constituents, his more robust constituents can shrug them off, but the more vulnerable are caught up, and for them the charges, when set out in detail, are more worrying and impactful if they end up having to pay them?
Absolutely. I have seen examples of correspondence from debt collection agencies, and the increasingly aggressive and intimidating tone that is taken in subsequent letters. It gets to a stage where some of my constituents and visitors to my constituency feel that they may be taken out and shot at dawn because they tried to park a car in a parking space. I wish to return to this, because the Minister will probably have hopeful things to say about debt collection. I understand that that is one of the areas he is looking at, and I hope to secure good news from him on Third Reading about how that will be incorporated in the code of practice so that we can end the more intimidating features of debt collection agencies.
I do not want to say anything else other than to totally support the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire in what he is trying to achieve in his amendments. May I tell the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), who is engaged in a conversation with his Whip, that I do not think that I can support him? That is a shame, because we have both served on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. He was a doughty and—I shall use the term—challenging Member to the Chair, as I was at that point. I very much enjoyed his contribution, as he scrutinises things personally and ensures that he tries to test things to the absolute limit, but I do not think that I can support him, given all the concerns about procurement raised by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. I understand that that is not decided yet, and there might be a need for such measures, but I cannot support anything that might get in the way of the Bill taking effect.
Reflecting the comments made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, the Minister has been nothing other than totally efficient and effective in dealing with the Bill. He has responded generously, which is an example to other Departments and Ministers when we try to get such legislation through the House. If he is prepared to say that this is happening within the timescale allocated in the Bill, I would be more than happy and satisfied, having worked with him and seen the way in which he approaches these issues. I encourage the hon. Member for Christchurch not to press his amendments, as they would not have the support of practically anyone in the House, but I am more than happy to support the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire.
I want to speak, very briefly, about new clause 1 and amendment 6. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on the progress that his Bill has made, and particularly congratulate him on the new clause and amendment, which clarify the possibilities for a truly independent appeals procedure.
Landowners clearly have a right to decide on reasonable and fair terms for the way in which their land is used, but, as we know from our constituency postbags and email inboxes, in too many cases those terms do not seem fair. The processes for contesting unfairly issued parking tickets are expensive and drawn out, and motorists who are willing to contest a ticket through the courts take a disproportionate risk in the form of a dramatic escalation from the original fine as well as, of course, the legal costs. While we would not wish to prejudge the outcome of the parking code, one possibility that should be considered is the handling of appeals by a single independent person, and the measures allowing that person to be appointed and the funds to come from fees collected from the private operators covered by the scheme are therefore sensible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that generous intervention, but I fear that it may be a little too generous. The work that he and his team, and Ministers, have done has been key to the Bill.
I will certainly support both my right hon. Friend’s amendments and the Bill’s Third Reading, but I am afraid that I do not find myself able to support amendment 8, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). I think that we have a responsibility to ensure as far as possible that the provisions in our legislation are enforceable, and I therefore question the wisdom of legislative provisions requiring best endeavours on the part of the Government, although I have no doubt whatsoever that Ministers will at all times exercise such best endeavours. I am particularly reassured by the undertakings given by my right hon. Friend to harry Ministers if that becomes necessary, and I am in absolutely no doubt that he is perfectly capable of making Ministers’ lives a misery, just as he has promised.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of this important Bill, and I commend the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) for his hard work in championing it and enabling it to reach this stage. I also congratulate all the Members who have worked on it with him.
The Bill will, I hope, lead to long overdue change in the car parking industry. It is alarming to hear from Citizens Advice that parking companies are issuing 13 times more tickets than were issued a decade ago. This is a business model that is designed to exploit motorists rather than fulfilling its purpose. It is a case of several cowboy parking companies treating motorists in the most unfair terms, and it cannot be allowed to continue. Throughout our debates we have heard of a range of problems that motorists have faced, from poor signage and broken machines to appeal systems that lack transparency and fail to apply any common sense. Today we have the opportunity to ensure fairness for British motorists.
I totally agree. It can be difficult for the general public to understand these machines; they are set up to be confusing and then people get trapped. We are passing a Bill that will oblige the Government to introduce a new statutory code of practice to spell out what behaviours can be reasonably expected from private car parking operators.
As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, who is in charge of this Bill, highlighted on Second Reading, there are almost 19 million journeys a day that end at a parking space. This is truly a Bill that will affect almost every person in this country in some way; it is an issue that hugely affects my constituents in Warrington South, as it affects the constituents of many other Members here. I have been contacted by a number of people who have told me of issues they have faced with parking companies. In most of these cases, my constituents are being penalised for breaking an obscure term of the car park, or they are being falsely accused of not purchasing a parking ticket.
One constituent told me that she had purchased a ticket but made a genuine mistake and failed to enter her vehicle registration number correctly. As a result, my constituent was sent a number of letters threatening court action if she did not pay a substantial fine. Despite the innocence of her mistake, the letters scared my constituent into offering up the money.
Such threatening and exploitative behaviour is totally unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue, and this is far from a one-off incident. I have been contacted by several constituents who made similar mistakes, often entering a single digit or character of their vehicle registration incorrectly, and have then been faced with fines and threatening letters.That is wholly unacceptable, especially as these mistakes are often made because of parking companies’ deliberately misleading signage and complicated machines.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on introducing this timely Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about parking companies that almost set motorists up to fail to be able to meet their terms, but it is not just the small operators who do this. It is alleged that NCP—National Car Parks—in the centre of Crawley has been charging motorists for illegal parking when it does not even have planning permission for the CCTV to monitor those cars. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the large companies must also comply with best practice?
I totally agree: all operators, whether large, medium-sized or small, should be part of this code of practice.
Some of my constituents are being targeted with letters demanding money and threatening court action. Indeed, some people have contacted me to tell me that the situation has become so bad that motorists are being discouraged from visiting some of the town centres for fear of being targeted by rogue parking companies. This is a deeply sorry state of affairs; it is bad for my constituents and bad for our local economy, especially in the run-up to the festive season. High streets and town centres are already struggling. Rather than coming into town to spend money on the high street, people are choosing to stay at home and shop online.
The regulation of private parking companies that this Bill proposes is long overdue, and I am pleased that it has secured cross-party support. If this Bill is passed today, it will be welcomed not only across this House, but across the country. It is good to see that in a time of much division in this place there are still opportunities for colleagues to put aside their differences and work together to improve the lives of their constituents.
What a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) and his excellent contribution. I could not agree more with the points that he has made, and I entirely endorse this Bill. I just want to make a few additional remarks. The overarching point —it has been indicated before but it bears emphasis—is that so many of these companies are a law unto themselves, and it is important to iterate the distress and concern that their actions can cause. When someone is faced with what looks like an official letter demanding considerable sums of money, they can become enormously distressed by that. The concern is that these individuals are making these demands on an entirely specious basis, and I want to give the House two examples—
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is about to come to the amendments. We are now discussing the amendments that have been tabled by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), and we are all desperate to make our Third Reading speeches, which will deal with some of the finer features of the Bill. I want to know what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) thinks about the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire’s fine amendment about the appeals process.
I will be getting to that point, but it is important to set the context as well.
My first example affects one of my own constituents. I was making a point about the distress that can be caused by these demands, many of which are being issued on a specious basis. I had a constituent in Cheltenham, in a road near Montpellier Terrace, who received a letter demanding that a fine be paid. However, it turned out that the company demanding the money was seeking to claim a parking ticket in respect of land that belonged to the person receiving the ticket. That was an extraordinary situation. In other words, the company had not bothered to check with the Land Registry to find out who owned the land. When I looked into it, it turned out that the parking company had been called in because of a vexatious neighbour dispute. The neighbour had called in the parking company to try to get at his own neighbour. This is a prime example of why we need a sensible system of regulation, to ensure that the system is not misused in that way.
The second example that I want to give, before turning expeditiously to the amendments that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has mentioned, relates to my own situation. Seven years after the event, a parking company wrote to me to suggest that my car, which had long since been sold on, had been wrongly parked. I knew that this area of law was covered by contract law, and that this was way out of time in any event, even if the underlying suggestion was correct. The truth is, I could not remember, because it had happened seven years previously. However, such an episode would be upsetting for people who did not have that knowledge and who would not realise that such a demand was time-barred.
I shall now turn to the new clause and the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), whom I congratulate on bringing forward this brilliant Bill. He is right to have a single point of appeal; that is enormously sensible. There is not a great deal that I want to add to that, other than to say that I hope that the clause will be flexible enough to ensure that there are sufficient resources to deal with these points. The reason I say that is that new clause 1(1) states:
“This section applies if the parking code contains guidance recommending that all parking appeals are dealt with by a single person who is independent of persons providing private parking facilities.”
All I can say is that I hope there will be more than one person, because there are likely to be a great number of appeals. I hope that it will be appropriate for the singular to include the plural. I am sure that that point will be dealt with, but there needs to be more than one person.
I also want to deal with the proposal from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about the use by the Secretary of State of “his best endeavour”. I understand the logic behind his proposal, but I respectfully suggest that it is unnecessary in this case. The point has been made that there is a danger of seeing ghosts where none exists, so to speak. The wider point, however, is that, were this provision to be required, it would surely be required in every piece of legislation that this House passes. That would transfer power from this House, where hon. Members can properly hold the Executive to account for allegedly dilatory behaviour, to outside the House because, as my hon. Friend rightly acknowledges, the issue would become justiciable. We could then have a situation where a person could serve a writ suggesting that the Government had not used best endeavours to bring legislation into effect, which would cost a huge amount of time, expense and inconvenience. More importantly, this House would effectively be precluded from discussing it, because it would then be a matter under discussion by the High Court, which would be an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
As ever, my hon. Friend is using his forensic intellect to consider these matters, but is not the situation worse than that? Even if it were justiciable, the phrase “best endeavour” is simply too vague. It would be impossible to judge, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) pointed out in an earlier exchange, whether a Minister had or had not used best endeavour.
Absolutely right. The Court would not thank this House at all for requiring it to make that kind of assessment. One could imagine how the evidence would have to be provided on both sides. The Minister would provide timelines, and then the Court might have to consider what the Opposition had to say. How on earth would the Court be meant to make a judgment?
Does the hon. Gentleman suspect, as I do, that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) has tabled his amendments to make a point about Brexit, rather than about this Bill? We would therefore forgive him if, at this stage, he chose not to press his amendments, having made that point so well in his contribution today.
The hon. Gentleman recognises that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is a Member of great distinction and resourcefulness. It may just be possible that that is his intention. If it is his intention, he has certainly made the point with his customary eloquence and effectiveness. Yes, I think this would be an excellent moment for him to recognise that the point is made, and he could therefore graciously not press his amendments.
My amendment 8, which seeks to incorporate the phrase “best endeavour”, is completely nugatory in terms of legality or enforceability, and I take the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) that “best endeavour” is a meaningless phrase. I therefore will not press the amendment. We would not want to litter our statute book with meaningless phrases, whether it be in the withdrawal Act or in this Bill.
That was elegantly done. Well, on that basis, I do not have much more to say. I have made the points I wanted to make.
With the Bill being improved in the way that has been proposed, I end by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. This is past time, and the Bill will be welcomed in my constituency, by the constituent I mentioned, by me and, I am sure, by Members on both sides of the House.
It is wonderful when both sides of the House come together to support and put in place legislation that will make a practical difference to the day-to-day lives of the millions of people we represent. In that vein, I wholeheartedly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on highlighting this issue, and on the tenacity and diligence with which he has brought the issue to the Floor of the House and to Committee. I pay tribute to him, and many people will be grateful for his efforts.
I will speak briefly now, and perhaps respond to hon. Members’ comments more generally on Third Reading. For now, I will limit my remarks to the various new clauses and amendments.
New clause 1 will appoint a single appeals service to create further clarity for consumers, giving a well-signposted route to appeal a private parking ticket. I am delighted on behalf of the Government to support the new clause. It and the associated amendments will ensure that there is a fair, transparent and consistent appeals service for motorists. This has been warmly welcomed by consumer groups and the parking industry alike.
I am pleased to tell the House that Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, has said:
“we particularly welcome the proposal for a single, independent appeals service, which, together with a single, clear code of practice should establish a better, clearer framework and a level playing field that is fairer for all”.
The foundation has challenged the effectiveness of self-regulation in the parking industry. Only this week, it drew attention to the fact that in the second quarter of the financial year, private parking companies sought yet another record number of vehicle keeper details from the DVLA with which to pursue ordinary drivers and motorists.
The chief executive of one of the industry’s leading trade associations, the British Parking Association, has said that the association welcomes the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, commenting that they
“chime with our call for a single standard body, single code of practice and a single independent appeals service. This framework provides a unique opportunity to deliver greater consistency and consumer confidence”.
The BPA looks forward to pushing
“for a positive outcome for all.”
It is therefore with pleasure that the Government can support new clause 1.
I am also pleased to support, on behalf of the Government, amendments 1 to 6, which are pragmatic alterations that will support the Bill’s delivery through secondary legislation. They will give the Secretary of State the ability to delegate functions to non-public bodies, such as experts in auditing, as seems eminently sensible. They will clarify the role of the Secretary of State, in that he or she will have final approval of the code of practice and any subsequent alterations that will be submitted to Parliament. Finally, as my right hon. Friend stated, the amendments will expand the existing levy under the Bill to cover the cost of appointing and maintaining a single appeals service. The Government support all the amendments.
Let me turn briefly to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). I welcome his broad support for the Bill’s measures, and share his commitment to, and enthusiasm for, ensuring that the measures start making a practical difference to people as soon as possible. However, following the arguments that have already been made by various Members on both sides of the House, I, too, do not believe that the amendments are necessary. I can personally assure my hon. Friend that the Government and I are committed to creating and publishing a code of practice for the private parking industry as soon as is practically possible. I can confirm that considerable work has already gone into this, and I will happily walk the House through that in a second.
More generally, placing an arbitrary timeline on the process of developing a code and implementing the Bill would compromise our ability to make sure that the Bill comes into force in the way that we want it to, and with the impact that we all desire it to have. For example, a consultation with the public is necessary. Given the scale and volume of the correspondence to our postbags and email inboxes, which are already full regarding this topic, one can imagine that that consultation will be of extreme importance to many people whom we represent. They will want time to have their say, and we should make sure that that is possible. Furthermore, as has already been outlined, procurement practices might be required, and if they should be required, they will be subject to statutory timelines that need to be obeyed. Lastly, if the code of practice was going to put in place new provisions around such things as standard signage, standard forms of parking tickets or standard language, it would be appropriate for a suitable transition period to be put in place to allow companies to adjust to the new, fairer measures.
I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise answer to that question, simply because, in the first instance, I am not in control of the parliamentary process in the other place, as he will be aware.
However, what I can do for my hon. Friend and the House is to give some evidence as to the pace and commitment with which I and my team are working on this issue. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), had already, even before the Bill’s Second Reading, asked the director of the RAC Foundation to form a working group to start developing an outline code of practice. That working group contains multiple stakeholders from across the industry, including the two main trade associations—the BPA and the International Parking Community—the Welsh and Scottish Governments, and bodies such as People’s Parking, the RAC Foundation, the traffic penalty consortium, the British Retail Consortium, and the DVLA. The body has already met four times—each time extensively, for over two hours—to debate all the issues. I personally have spent time with the director of the RAC Foundation and the BPA, and I am shortly to meet the IPC. My officials have had more than 30 bilateral meetings with members of the working group. At my instigation, my officials have hosted a parking operator roundtable in the Department to fully engage the industry to help to develop the code of practice.
All that work has not been in vain. It has informed a draft code of practice, which has already been published and shared with the Public Bill Committee, and I would be delighted to place a copy of it in the Library for hon. Members to see. I hope that, collectively, this will give all hon. Members the reassurance they need that the Government and I are firmly committed to developing this code of practice, and ensuring that the legislation is enacted as quickly and practically as is possible.
I thank all Members who have contributed today, in Committee and on Second Reading. That has helped to inform the draft code of practice. Every conversation I have had about this issue, every piece of correspondence and any example that I have heard about has fed into how we will develop the code. We can discuss this on Third Reading, but I am pleased to say that almost all the examples I have heard about today will be dealt with in the code of practice, whether we are talking about poor signage, grace periods, threatening letters purporting to be from solicitors, or indeed the relationship with debt collectors and bailiffs. The new code of practice can solve those practical problems.
I pay tribute again to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire for all his work. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am delighted the Government can support the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will not wish to press his amendments to a Division, in view of the reassurances I have given.
May I just echo the Minister’s final comment? I, too, hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), having heard the pledges of support for the Bill and the clear expressions of good will, particularly from Front Benchers, will not press his amendments to a vote.
Thank you. It is very good to have clarity for the Chair.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
Delegation of functions
Amendments made: 1, page 3, line 14, leave out from “may” to “functions” in line 20 and insert “—
(a) enter into an agreement with a public authority authorising the authority to perform any functions of the Secretary of State under sections1 to4 (other than the function of laying a code or alteration before Parliament);
(b) enter into an agreement with a person authorising that person to perform any”.
This amendment enables the Secretary of State to delegate functions relating to the investigation of breaches of the parking code to bodies that are not public authorities.
Amendment 2, page 3, line 28, leave out “public authority which is” and insert “person”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.
Amendment 3, page 3, line 34, leave out “the final version of”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 5.
Amendment 4, page 3, line 35, at end insert “for approval”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 5.
Amendment 5, page 3, line 36, leave out “The” and insert
“Once the Secretary of State has approved the code or alteration, the” .—(Sir Greg Knight.)
Amendments 3 to 5 make clear that, where the Secretary of State has delegated the function of preparing the parking code, the Secretary of State must approve the final version of the parking code (or any alteration to it) before it is laid before Parliament.
Levy for recovery of administrative and investigation costs
Amendment made: 6, page 4, line 3, at end insert—
“() where the Secretary of State has entered into an agreement with a person under section (Appeals against parking charges) (appeals against parking charges), the establishment and maintenance by the person of a service for dealing with parking appeals (within the meaning of that section).” —(Sir Greg Knight.)
The effect of this amendment is that, where the Secretary of State enters into an agreement with a person for the person to deal with appeals against parking charges (see NC1), the costs of establishing and maintaining that parking appeals service may be defrayed out of the proceeds of the levy imposed on accredited parking associations.
Queen’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had a good-natured and constructive debate throughout our proceedings, and I wish to thank everyone who has taken part. In particular, but not exclusively, I would thank the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), and his predecessor, who first indicated to me that the Government were willing to support this measure. I also wish to thank Sarah McLean and Phillip Dunkley, her predecessor, who managed the Bill in the Department and have been very helpful to me. There are many other people I wish to thank: Steve Gooding of the RAC Foundation; my parliamentary colleagues who served on the Committee; members of the advisory group, which I have also attended and played a part in, who have discussed these matters; and, last, but certainly not least, the official Opposition for their support for this measure, the Scottish National party and my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—and he is my hon. Friend—who pledged his support, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who is also my hon. Friend and is a sponsor of the Bill. I am also grateful to the many people throughout the country who have contacted me with stories of how they have been unfairly treated by parking operators under the current voluntary regime.
As I have said, parking is an indispensable part of motoring, as if someone undertakes a journey in a vehicle, they will need to park it. According to the DVLA, there are 38 million vehicles on our roads, approximately 19 million of which will be driven each day and will then undertake at least one parking transaction. The number of penalty notices issued every year from private car parks continues rise, so it is essential that the Bill makes further progress. It is essential that those who park on private land are treated fairly and uniformly.
Motorists should have certainty that when they enter a car park, they are entering into a contract that is reasonable and transparent, and that involves a consistent process. That is not just my view: in 2015, some 78% of respondents to the Department’s discussion paper on private sector off-street parking stated that there were significant problems with how the sector conducts its business. Poor signage, unreasonable terms, exorbitant so-called fines, aggressive demands for payment and opaque appeals processes need properly to be outlawed.
Some private parking operators still deploy tactics that are clearly unacceptable. I have previously referred to an appalling case involving a pensioner called Angela, whose car was ticketed for £70 for exceeding the time permitted in the car park. Angela is 5 feet tall and although she had not initially noticed the parking sign, when she came back to her car she looked for it. It was mounted so high up on a pole that she could not read what it said. That is clearly unacceptable.
Another motorist, Mr O’Keefe, whose case I have also mentioned before, was driving on a private industrial estate, searching for a particular business that he was having difficulty finding. He stopped in an empty lay-by for around 15 seconds to reset his satellite navigation system and was filmed by a passing security van equipped with a video camera. One week later, he received a penalty invoice for £100 for stopping in breach of a sign that was situated not in the lay-by itself, but some distance further along the road. He realised that he had passed it at 30 mph. The parking company accepts that he was parked for only around 15 seconds, but when he used its appeals procedure, he still received threatening letters.
The hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) mentioned one of many cases in which usually pensioners, although not always—some of the cases that have come to my attention have involved pensioners—type one digit of their registration number into the machine incorrectly and the machine does not allow for any correction of the details already entered. The fee is nevertheless paid, but a ticket is issued. So, for many people, parking on private land can be a traumatic and expensive business.
One of the reasons why we need a mandatory code now is that technology is being used to provide evidence. The growing misuse of automatic number plate recognition cameras is a particular worry to me. Cameras ostensibly enable private parking companies to keep a record of exactly how long a motorist has remained in a car park and provide photographic evidence if they exceed the time they have paid for. They say that the camera never lies, but things are not always as they seem.
In one car park at a fast food restaurant in Nottinghamshire that is policed by CCTV, drivers are told they must not enter the car park when the restaurant is closed. However, the signage telling them that is located inside the carpark itself, along with the details of the opening times of the restaurant, making it impossible for a motorist to know before they enter the car park whether they will receive a private parking notice.
At another private car park at a fast food outlet in Enfield, a driver was recently issued with a parking charge notice for overstaying. In this case, the motorist visited the restaurant twice in one day. The ANPR cameras recorded her leaving the car park on the first visit and returning for the second. By using the photos the wrong way around, the car park operators tried to charge her a penalty for a period when she was not even in the car park.
My right hon. Friend is continuing to make a powerful argument. One of my constituents recently parked at a McDonald’s so that he could go in and complain that his drive-thru order was incorrect, and he received a penalty notice. It is not only the small rogue operators that abuse the system; some large companies are also sailing extremely close to the wind.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. These examples are all, clearly, very distressing for the motorist concerned, as are the language and the threats that are often used—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). It is, however, important to remember that these companies have no legal power to fine motorists. That is something only the police, local councils and those enforcing railway byelaws can do. As a result, some private parking companies deliberately make their parking charges look very similar to official penalty charge notices. When the police or the local authority issue a fine, it will often be labelled as a “PCN”—a penalty charge notice—and may come in an official yellow cellophane wrapper. Some private companies are now using similar packaging and are even labelling their notices with the word, “PCN”, but this time it stands for parking charge notice. Often the term enforcement is used, but these companies do not have any enforcement powers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole purpose of this Bill—I will come on to this in my own speech in a minute—is to create a clear and single source for the code of practice and regulation so that the rogue operators cannot shop around, and also if those operators are not approved, they cannot approach the DVLA? What is at the absolute core of this Bill is stopping this flagrant abuse that is going on.
Indeed that is the case. In reality, these private parking notices are not fines, but invoices. It is the law of contract that governs the relationship between the parking company and the customer, as has previously been said. In other words, they are a demand for payment, because the car parking company says that a driver has breached their terms and conditions. They are private parking notices, and the code should require them to be described as such in future, and I am sure that the Minister will do that and that those companies will not be able to use threatening language or imitate or copy a ticket received from the police.
My Bill is designed to bring these bad practices and bad behaviour to an end. It requires the Government to create a mandatory code of practice across the parking sector to end inconsistent practices and unfair treatment of motorists. It will ensure that the terms on which private parking is provided, including the rights and obligations of each party, are fair, clear and unambiguous. The mandatory code will assure drivers that private car park operators will in future treat them in a reasonable and proportionate manner. If they do not, motorists will have access to a robust and independent appeal service. As I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), erring car park operators will be put out of business by being denied access to the DVLA database. May I repeat again that I am most grateful to have the support not only of the Government, but of the Official Opposition and the Scottish National party? I say to the House that, today, we can take a big step towards making private parking a fairer and more predictable experience for us all. I commend my Bill to the House.
Once again—this is now getting to become a feature—I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on progressing this Bill through the House with such dexterity, skill and consensus. I welcome the fact that, after today, this will soon become law. I also extend my congratulations to everyone involved, particularly to the Minister, who, as I mentioned in my earlier remarks, has been nothing other than consensual, effective and efficient in ensuring that this Bill has got through the House, and to everyone else who was on the Bill Committee with the right hon. Gentleman.
For me, this Bill cannot come soon enough. We need a firm of code of practice that will constrain the worst excesses of these private parking companies. I do not know what Perth has done to deserve the attention of some of the more sharper practices of the parking operators, but for far too long we have been blighted by some of the worst excesses of these parking operators. They almost act, until this Bill, as a law unto themselves. I refer to them as parking cowboys, because that is exactly what they are. They harass and frustrate our constituents and drive tourists away from our town and city centres.
I am sick and tired of receiving emails from people complaining about the behaviour of parking companies, telling me that they will never again visit Perth city centre because of the negative experience they had when they had the misfortune to end up in a car park operated by one of these companies. I have received more complaints about one car park in the city of Perth than about any other issue. That car park is operated by the lone ranger of the parking cowboys: the hated and appalling Smart Parking—I see that many other Members are unfortunate enough to have Smart Parking operating in their constituencies. It has reached the stage where one member of my staff now spends a good part of each day just helping my constituents and visitors to my constituency to navigate the appeals process.
I am indeed the hon. Gentleman’s neighbour, and I can confirm that I, too, receive many complaints about that same operator, from constituents in South Perthshire and from people in Clackmannanshire who visit Perth. I therefore want to say how much I support the Bill. Hopefully our staff will soon be able to focus more on the things that really matter to our constituents, rather than having to deal with car parking complaints, which really are the companies’ responsibility to fix.
I understand totally the frustration felt by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have to park in Perth city centre. I hope that we will both see the amount of correspondence we receive in our mailbags on this issue decrease significantly as a result of the Bill.
Another frustration is that Smart Parking is singularly unresponsive. It does not reply to representations from Members of Parliament or have meetings with us. It does not even start to engage with some of the difficulties we identify with its operation. I wish to commend The Courier newspaper in Perthshire for the campaign it has mounted about the situation. One of the reasons I am down here today as the Member of Parliament is the very fine work that The Courier has done on the situation right across Perthshire. I congratulate it on that.
The Bill means that these companies will no longer be able to get away with that type of behaviour. The days when they could distribute fines like confetti, and when they could confuse and frustrate our constituents with their so-called smart technology and poor signage in order to harvest fines, are coming to an end. The Bill is evidently necessary, because self-regulation has been a resolute failure. The toothless regulators, such as the British Parking Association, are singularly incapable of dealing with the sharper practices of the rogue operators.
The British Parking Association actually lists some of the operators as its members. I had a meeting with it this week, and it gave me a copy of its magazine, which includes a list of all its members, and who should be listed there, in bold letters? It was Smart Parking. The BPA does not have the ability to regulate these companies and has shown no sign whatsoever that it is trying to get on top of some of the sharper practices. The BPA gives a veneer of legitimacy to some of the more outlandish rogue operators by including them in their membership, allowing them to continue to operate. The Bill will oblige operators such as Smart Parking to amend their practices.
I want to mention another practice that I have observed in a retail park in my constituency—this is actually worse than Smart Parking. Two private parking companies operate one huge car park at St Catherine’s retail park in Perth. One company circled the car park with signs telling motorists that, if they had the temerity to leave the part of the retail park where they had used a parking space to access shops in other parts of it, they would be fined. It did that, and it actually took photographs of people leaving their car and going into other parts of the retail park where the facilities are covered by another parking operator. That is what it did, and this is the extent to which some of these private parking operators work. It is not good enough, and it has to end.
I want to say to the Minister that I think what he is doing is fantastic. I have seen some of the details he is going to put into the code of practice and I think they are fantastic. I congratulate him on taking the maximalist approach. I think the Government will approach this by ensuring they will do the utmost they can to protect the motorist from this type of practice. They will put in place a set of regulations that will ensure the best result we can get when it comes to these things.
Among the things I want to make a plea for including in the code of practice—given what I have heard from the Minister, I am pretty certain that he will be looking at them—are equipment and technology. We have to make sure that we get the signage absolutely right and that surface markings are clearly identified and regulated properly. There should be clear and accessible displays of the terms and conditions of the car park. We have already heard examples of when that does not actually work. I know that the Government are looking at consideration periods to allow motorists sufficient time to decide whether they would like to park, and grace periods to allow motorists time to pay and leave the car park. All of this would make a real difference to the parking arrangements in our cities and town.
I believe these parking companies intentionally deploy poor signage. The fact that motorists can be fined simply for entering a car park to look for a space is simply and clearly unacceptable. One of the car parking operators in my constituency actually fines people for entering a zero instead of the letter o. Apparently, the smart technology cannot cater for that, but the operator takes no recognition of that when people appeal on such a basis.
Another of my pleas to be included in the code—the Minister may be able to help us with this one—is capping fines, a feature that I think we all agree must happen. The fact that someone can be fined £140, £160 or £180 for parking a car is simply and utterly absurd. I think, and I hope, that this will be addressed. My suggestion is that fines or parking charge notices in private car parks should be no more than those of the local authority. I think it is fair that there is a uniform cost that people pay in any city or town across the country, and I am pretty certain that we will get to such a place.
I know the Government’s intention is to ensure that what are called PCNs will no longer be able to look like fines from the local authority, and that is really important. Will the Minister tell us how this will be done and how he intends to ensure that that happens? Parking companies have to get away from this confusion with local authority penalty charge notices, and they must do so without using the threatening and intimidating language on these tickets.
What I would like to see on such tickets is the full legal basis on which they can be distributed. As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said, this is a contractual arrangement, so they are not fines. If the private parking company is to pursue such a case, it has to take it to the civil court to demonstrate clearly that the motorist has breached the terms and conditions of using the private car park. That should be mentioned on the parking ticket, as issued by the private operator. I think that would be fair.
I would argue that if the parking operator takes an erring motorist to a civil court and it is shown in court that the form of private parking notice was not as laid down in the mandatory code of practice, that should be a case for dismissing the claim.
I totally and utterly agree. I will come back to access to the DVLA register later in my speech. The key to all this is the DVLA register and ensuring that access to it is predicated on good behaviour. If there are any examples of any of these companies going back to such sharp practices, they should be dealt with effectively and not given access to the DVLA register.
I am particularly delighted that the Government are looking at debt collection issues. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government will state explicitly that operators cannot sell or assign debt to a third party, as that has to happen. The use of aggressive debt collection companies is probably the most grotesque, threatening and intimidating feature of parking companies’ behaviour, and the part of their operation that concerns me most. I cannot remember which hon. Member mentioned vulnerable customers who receive some of these letters, and what it must do if they receive a letter that tells them that the charge will impact on their credit rating. I think that is illegal—perhaps one of the greater legal minds here will clarify that for me—but that is the sort of thing that those letters include.
Debt collection companies increase the tempo and rate of intimidation and threat. One of my constituents received 10 letters from a range of different companies, with an increasing tone of belligerence and threat. It is right for private parking companies to expect settlement, and to deploy reasonable steps to recover it, but we cannot continue to allow threatening and aggressive letters that demand payment simply for parking a car.
Access to the DVLA is the prize that parking companies require to ensure they can continue to operate. The Government will introduce conditions for access to the DVLA database—perhaps the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire will confirm that—so that proper auditing must be conducted before an operator can join a parking association, and that compliance must be demonstrated. I believe it should be incumbent on parking operators to demonstrate fully that they are a responsible operator in order to get DVLA access, and if there are examples of bad practice, that access must be removed.
I am grateful that the entire Bill covers the whole UK and will be applicable in Scotland. We have agreed a legislative consent memorandum in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the Bill will apply across Scotland, and it is right that we have uniform measures such as this. I travel down to London and park my car here, just as hon. Members come to beautiful Perthshire to enjoy the fantastic features of my constituency, and it is right for everyone to expect the same level of service and regulation throughout the United Kingdom.
We have seen what this issue does to towns and cities. Parking is an essential requirement for any town or city centre, and the right hon. Gentleman was right to highlight how many trips are made and how many parking experiences are involved as we go from A to B. It can have a devastating effect on local economies if we do not get the issue right, so parking is an important ingredient in our community and the local economy.
In my experience, people are happy to pay for parking—I have never seen anybody suggest that we should get parking for free, and any place where free parking has operated has become a disaster and a free-for-all. We need efficient and effective parking in our towns and cities. People are even happy to pay parking fines if they know they have been wrong and perhaps overstayed, or something happened and they received a fine. What they cannot stand, however, and why we receive so much correspondence and so many complaints in our inboxes, is when the fines are unfair and imposed disproportionately, or when people are pursued by parking companies. Ultimately, it is not beyond our wit to design an arrangement where someone parks a car, makes a payment, and is assured that that is the end of the matter. Needing to ensure a code of practice shows how bad things have become, which is why we must address this issue.
I hope that this is high noon for the parking cowboys. I hope they are brought under control and that I will not have continually to respond to constituents and visitors to my constituency about the behaviour of a certain company. This is a good Bill, and we must now see the code of practice. I know the Minister will ensure that we are involved in designing that code, and when he responds to the debate I look forward to hearing some of the features that will be included. Finally, I congratulate once again my good friend, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, on sponsoring this Bill, which I am sure will be successful today.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on finally bringing this madness, quite frankly, to an end with this Bill.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have talked about their constituents’ experiences of receiving unfair parking enforcement notices. I declare an interest because I have experienced the exact same situation. I drove into an underground hotel car park, got my bag out and went into the hotel. A member of the hotel’s staff then told me how much the parking charge was—it was more expensive than the hotel room—but that there was a really good local authority car park around the corner. I took that advice. I got back in my car, drove out and parked in the local authority car park without any problem. However, I received a fine from a parking operator because I had driven in and driven out of the hotel car park five minutes later. I won my appeal, but the hotel company said that it would discipline its member of staff for advising me to park elsewhere. Perhaps that is a private Member’s Bill for another day.
On the border of my constituency, there is a local authority car park. Bizarrely, part of the land is privately owned. People park there because they think they can park for free, just as they can for the local authority part. There is no signage on the part that is privately owned and people do get charged. It is an absolute sting.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point. That is why it is essential that the code of practice has a transaction period that is free. In other words, it would give motorists thinking time between entering a car park and deciding whether or not to stay. In some parts of the country, car parks are situated in conservation areas where, for planning reasons, signage is inside. We need to give motorists time to go in and think, so they can say, “No, this is not for me” and leave without facing a penalty.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are talking about contract law. If people pick up an item in Boots priced £5 but at the till they are charged £10, many people think they can actually get the item for £5. In fact, under the offer and acceptance of contract law, the contract is formed only at the time of execution. Yet when one goes into a car park, one can be charged before executing the transaction. That has to be a breach of contract law.
On the charging mechanism, there is no proper definition for what is a reasonable and proportionate charge. That is of particular interest, because my former chambers sought a legal opinion from the Royal Automobile Club. The feeling was that the legal definition of reasonable and proportionate would be the cost of administering the charge. What was unusual was that the Supreme Court was asked to decide and found that £85 was reasonable and proportionate. The QC, however, felt that it was several times higher.
Perhaps the Minister could commit to guidance on what the charge should be. If that were to follow local authority charging, which outside London would be £60, I would perhaps stray into another area and say that I do not believe £60 is reasonable and proportionate. Local authorities will say that that is the cost because they do not make any profits, but I believe that they do. I believe that local authorities, time and again, use the money they raise from parking to pay for other areas of their spending. They are not supposed to do that. Barnet Borough Council, which was taken to court and lost, freely admitted that it was levying excessive charges to raise money for other services. No othe