Skip to main content

Public Bill Committees

Debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: James Gray

Antoniazzi, Tonia (Gower) (Lab)

† Bacon, Gareth (Orpington) (Con)

† Bell, Aaron (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)

† Butler, Rob (Aylesbury) (Con)

† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)

† Davies-Jones, Alex (Pontypridd) (Lab)

Donaldson, Sir Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)

† French, Mr Louie (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con)

† Hopkins, Rachel (Luton South) (Lab)

† Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)

† Levy, Ian (Blyth Valley) (Con)

† Millar, Robin (Aberconwy) (Con)

† Murrison, Dr Andrew (Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families)

† Pollard, Luke (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Sunderland, James (Bracknell) (Con)

† Thompson, Owen (Midlothian) (SNP)

Chloe Freeman, Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 15 March 2023

[James Gray in the Chair]

Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill

I welcome Committee members to this line-by-line consideration of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Aberconwy. The order of batting is on the selection list in front of you. For clarity, I intend to call the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Midlothian as one group and then move on to the stand part consideration of the clauses, which will be rather like a Second Reading debate.

Clause 1

Veterans advisory and pensions committees

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—

“(2A) The regulations must provide for the membership of committees to include at least one representative of a UK veterans’ association.”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 1, in clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

“(3A) The regulations may give the committees functions relating to—

(a) monitoring and holding to account Veterans UK in the discharge of its functions; and

(b) oversight and review of decisions made by Veterans UK.”.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 5, at end insert—

“(4A) The regulations must specify that the committees’ functions apply to British Armed Forces veterans who are resident overseas.”.

Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 2, line 21, after “education” insert “social care, employment, immigration”.

I do not intend to detain Members overly long. In moving the amendments, I am perhaps chancing my arm. They are not in any way meant to take anything away from the Bill, which is a very good Bill. I commend the hon. Member for Aberconwy for the work he has done to get it to this stage, and I look forward to its progressing further, hopefully with the support of all Members. However, I could not let such an opportunity pass without once again making efforts to try to address some of the issues that have arisen with Veterans UK over several years. For the record, I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that I am a vice convener of the all-party parliamentary group for veterans, and we have undertaken a fair bit of work looking at the experiences of veterans with Veterans UK.

My intention is not to detract from the Bill, which does a lot of very good things and moves very much in the right direction. It raises awareness of vital services that are available to veterans, but there is an opportunity to do just that bit more.

There is an opportunity here for us to reshape the relationship between veterans advisory and pensions committees—VAPCs—and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, giving that office the formal task, on a statutory footing, of holding Veterans UK to account, and providing a kind of ombudsman service. That is the purpose of amendment 1. At the moment—we have heard this from a number of Members in debates—Veterans UK, to a large extent, is judge and jury when it comes to deciding outcomes. The Bill could provide a potential mechanism for a third party to oversee those processes. I do not think that that asks too much in addition from the Bill.

Amendment 2 seeks to make provision about the membership of VAPCs. To my mind, it is a relatively straightforward proposal. Those who are part of veterans associations know our veterans better than anyone, so formally ensuring their inclusion in VAPCs is a sensible proposal. They may well be on those committees anyway, but let us just make sure that they form part of them.

On amendment 4, I have one particular question for the Minister. It was unclear from my reading of the Bill whether it covers any of our veterans who now live overseas. Amendment 4 seeks to make it absolutely clear that it does, because I do not feel that that clarity is there at the moment. I may have missed it—if I have, I welcome that. However, let us just be clear and make sure that all veterans can access the support that is available.

Some clarity on both the territorial extent of the Bill and veterans living overseas would be helpful, including the Bill’s application to veterans living in overseas territories and Crown dependencies, as they sometimes sit in a different category from veterans living overseas. Does the hon. Member agree?

I absolutely agree. It is simply a matter of clarity. I do not think there is any intention to exclude anyone here, and I am not trying to suggest that there is. We need some clarity around that, to be sure.

Finally, on amendment 3, the Bill refers to covenant matters in relation to housing, education and health, but those are not the only things our veterans need help and support with. I hope that the measure might be expanded to include social care, employment, immigration and that sort of thing. I do not think it would be unnecessarily complicated to add those to the Bill, and I look forward to hearing the thoughts of the hon. Member for Aberconwy and the Minister on the proposals.

I am not here to detain anyone for longer than is necessary, and this is a good opportunity for us to continue the work that is clearly under way better to support our veterans. After all, they have given so much to support the nations of these isles, so it is not too much to ask that we do everything we can to support them, particularly when they need it most.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian, whose work in this place on behalf of veterans I acknowledge. I recognise the points the hon. Gentleman has made, which came up frequently in discussions I have had about the Bill. They represent legitimate concerns.

The amendments would widen the scope of the committees in relation to their interaction with Veterans UK, the VAPC membership and territorial extent, and, effectively, add social care, employment and immigration to the definition of the armed forces covenant. The intention of my Bill is to recognise how committees have operated in practice in recent years and enable them to carry out additional functions in relation to other aspects of the services provided to veterans and their families by the Ministry of Defence. However, those are subtle but important distinctions.

Amendment 2 would prescribe that the regulations that establish the VAPCs provide that there must be at least one committee member who is a representative of a UK veterans association. There is no question about the importance of the relationship between VAPCs and the UK veterans associations at local, regional and national levels. However, those committee members will be appointed by the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families following an open and fair competition that involves the civil service appointment process. Representatives of UK veterans associations are therefore welcome to apply for membership of the committees through that process.

The wording of clause 1 allows flexibility in how the regulations are framed, including in relation to the composition of committee memberships, precisely because different compositions might be appropriate across the different regional committees. The amendment is well intentioned, but it would start to encroach on how the committees are constituted, which would prevent the very flexibility that the Bill aims to afford, and which is necessary for VAPCs to operate differently across different regions.

Amendment 1 would give VAPCs functions in relation to holding the Ministry of Defence’s Veterans UK service to account in the discharge of its functions, and give oversight and review of decisions made by Veterans UK. Again, I recognise those points from comments made by Members, veterans groups and veterans themselves in the weeks and months leading up to these debates, and the hon. Member for Midlothian is right to raise them. However, in addressing the amendment, it is useful to consider the recent all-party parliamentary group on veterans survey. Many issues raised by the veterans who responded related specifically to the armed forces compensation scheme, which is subject to quinquennial review. That review is due to report fully in the spring.

We must also look to the future. I am mindful of the fact that the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs have commissioned a review of Government welfare provision for veterans, which includes services provided by the Ministry of Defence under the banner of Veterans UK. VAPCs will be within scope of that wider Government veterans review, which will be led by a senior civil servant, with the independent veterans’ adviser and other key stakeholders providing advice. The review will last approximately three months. A copy of the review and the Government’s response will be placed in the Library of the House.

The Bill will give the Secretary of State the powers to make changes that he—or she, if it is she by then—considers necessary based on recommendations deriving from those reviews and surveys. Without knowing the outcome of those reviews or any forthcoming recommendations they might make, it is difficult to see how the amendment, which would provide VAPCs with a function to review Veterans UK, could operate in practice.

Amendment 4 prescribes that regulations must specify that the committees’ functions apply to British armed forces veterans who are resident overseas. That point was, again, well made by the hon. Member for Midlothian and echoed by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. However, the additional functions that my Bill gives to VAPCs relate to MOD services and armed forces covenant matters relating to veterans and their families. Therefore, the Bill specifically relates to services provided by the MOD to veterans and their families within the UK.

The Armed Forces Act 2021, which introduced the armed forces covenant duty, sets out that the focus of covenant legislation is access to UK-based public services and is therefore not applicable to those living overseas. The legislation refers to those

“ordinarily resident in the UK”.

Therefore, armed forces covenant matters, as defined in this Bill, must apply only within the UK.

Veterans who live overseas and are having issues with accessing public services in the countries they are resident in will find that those are best raised with the relevant UK embassy or high commission, which can advocate locally on behalf of the veteran. Again, that may be something worth raising with the Minister on another occasion.

Amendment 3 changes the definition of “armed forces covenant matters” to include issues relating to social care, employment and immigration. The definition of “armed forces covenant matters” in this Bill derives from the Armed Forces Act 2006 provisions on the armed forces covenant. When the Armed Forces Act 2021, which introduced the covenant duty, passed through the other place last year, it defined the duty as focusing on the three core functions of healthcare, education and housing. That reflects those already in statute, which are the most commonly raised areas and are where variation of service delivery across localities can inadvertently disadvantage the armed forces community, including the veterans and their families who are the focus of this Bill.

Again, the hon. Member for Midlothian has made a point worth raising. However. areas of concern relating to the armed forces covenant can be addressed as and when they arise, through the powers introduced in the Armed Forces Act 2021, which allow the Government to widen the scope of the covenant duty, subject to consultation or where there is evidence and support to suggest it would be beneficial, through secondary legislation. That is the process by which any amendments to the armed forces covenant duty might be made—not through this Bill.

The hon. Member may be aware that the Government have committed to reviewing the operation of the covenant duty during 2023. The review will encompass the operation of the new duty across the UK and will consider whether it would be beneficial to exercise any of the powers conferred by the 2021 Act to add to its scope. That will include specific consideration of whether central Government and the devolved Administrations could usefully be added. The Government will report on that review as part of their covenant annual report in 2023.

I hope that, following those assurances, the hon. Member for Midlothian will agree not to press his amendments.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for his remarks, and the hon. Member for Midlothian for his amendments, which are thoughtful. I rise, really, just to support my hon. Friend’s response to those amendments, and I urge the Committee to politely reject them. My hon. Friend has laid out the reasons for that elegantly.

Regarding amendment 2, I must say that I would prefer to have the flexibility in appointing Members of VAPCs. During my time as a Minister, I have seen how that process works. It is robust and credible, and, looking at the people who populate VAPCs—all 12 of them—it seems to me that the veteran community is heavily represented. They are the sort of people who are likely to be drawn to that job, so I think, perhaps, the practicality of it is that the voice of veterans is already loud and clear. Indeed, I would say that the value of VAPCs is very much that they are rooted in the veteran community.

On amendment 1, the mechanism cited is certainly worthy of consideration, but, again, I urge the Committee to resist the function the amendment proposes. This is quite a robust piece of legislation, which has its origin in amendments tabled in the Lords in response to the Armed Forces Act 2021. For that I am grateful to my noble Friend Lord Lancaster, whose amendments at that juncture were rejected by the Government on the promise that we would facilitate a Bill of this sort. Many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Midlothian were addressed at that time, so I would resist amendments 1 and 2.

Amendment 4 states:

“The regulations must specify that the committees’ functions apply to British Armed Forces veterans who are resident overseas.”

I understand it and I get it, but the 2021 Act talks about people who are

“ordinarily resident in the UK”,

and for rather boring technical reasons it would be very difficult indeed to extend that to veterans who live overseas. I am sorry that that is slightly unsatisfactory, but I am confident that VAPCs will cover much of the ground and material that would be germane to people serving overseas.

I see the logic of the Minister’s argument, but can he clarify the pensions issue? Can the many veterans who retire to live abroad still raise issues with the pensions advisory board?

That is an interesting point. Like me, the right hon. Gentleman will get correspondence all the time from people who live overseas. I do not know what his practice is, but mine is to engage with their inquiries and where it is clear that people have a strong connection with my area or have lived there for a reasonable period, I take those up on their behalf. I will not lay down here that VAPCs should do so, but it is more than likely that those issues would be covered in any event. I hope that is a comfort to the right hon. Gentleman.

I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian for tabling the amendments and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for addressing them. I hope the hon. Member for Midlothian is content.

I will not press any amendments to a vote today, but it was important to flag the issues. If we cannot amend this Bill, can we find a mechanism to facilitate some of the things that we were trying to achieve here? It is not about putting in place a wrecking mechanism; this is all about putting in extra support. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I am grateful for the support from you, Mr Gray, and all members of the Committee, as well as from Members who could not be here, but who supported the Bill on Second Reading. It has enjoyed cross-party support, and support from Members of both Houses.

The veterans advisory and pensions committees have been a less well-known part of Government support for veterans for almost a century. Formerly known as the war pensions committees, they advise and liaise with veterans, their families and relevant organisations on their needs, issues and concerns. There are 12 VAPCs across the UK, and they are distinctive, identifiable and independent points of reference for veterans. They are staffed by volunteers. It has been a real privilege for me to meet current and former volunteers while preparing this Bill.

This reform has the potential to improve life for veterans. First, the VAPCs lack a clearly defined remit. As a result, relationships with stakeholders can be frustrated. Secondly, the monitoring of and advising on the war pensions and armed forces compensation schemes is an important but limited function. There is a much broader range of support now available to veterans, and a real opportunity to make a difference by linking and co-ordinating Ministry of Defence services for individuals. Broadening the role of the VAPCs enables the committees to better identify gaps in provision and co-ordinate MOD services for veterans.

Thirdly, the Bill will widen the cohort of veterans and families who are able to access support from the VAPCs. Currently, only those in receipt of war pensions and help from the armed forces compensation scheme are guaranteed help from VAPCs. That hinders the committees’ ability to provide the broad range of social support that families and ex-service people often need. It also limits their ability to communicate with the wider service community, and so to advocate for veterans and provide representative feedback. Technically, the Bill will achieve that in three ways.

First, we are moving the statutory power establishing the advisory committees into the Armed Forces Act 2006, which is fitting, given the subject matter of the Bill. That, secondly, will allow the Secretary of State greater flexibility to amend the functions of the committees over time, so that they can best serve the needs of veterans and their families. For example, they could be amended in response to the quinquennial review. Finally, the Bill expands the scope of the VAPCs’ role and responsibilities. By expanding the remit of advisory committees to all veterans and their families, regardless of length of service and compensation entitlement, the Bill with both strengthen support services and provide all veterans with a clear means of having their voice heard in Government. I accept that the Bill is quite technical and dry, but it will have an impact on veterans and their families, who may rely on it.

I turn to the specifics of the Bill. Its primary purpose is to modernise and bring the VAPC statutory framework into Ministry of Defence legislation. It will also enable VAPCs to carry out additional functions in relation to veterans’ issues; that will bring their statutory functions into line with how they have operated in practice in recent years. Clause 1 creates an enabling power in the Armed Forces Act 2006 through which the Secretary of State can to make regulations to establish VAPCs for specified areas. Those regulations can make provision about the membership of VAPCs, and can confer statutory functions on the VAPCs relating to eight topics. Those include the four existing functions—war pensions, war pensioners, the armed forces compensation scheme and recipients of AFCS benefits. The four additional functions on VAPCs relate to former members of the armed forces; their families; the services that the MOD provides to those former members and their families; and matters relating to the armed forces covenant. In order to future-proof the legislation, the Secretary of State can set out in the regulations how the VAPCs will perform their functions. The regulations will be made under the negative procedure.

It is necessary to repeal section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989, as it is being replaced by a new enabling power in the Armed Forces Act 2006. Clause 2 provides for the repeal of section 25 of the 1989 Act. In total, the Bill amends 11 Acts. Clause 2 provides for consequential amendments to those Acts to ensure that they refer to the correct statute. The clause sets out that the Secretary of State has the power to make consequential amendments to secondary legislation, which may be required as a result of the Bill. It also clarifies that regulations under clause 2 can be made under the negative procedure. That means that the regulations will be made and then laid before the House, rather than being laid before the House in draft. That is appropriate and proportionate, given that the subject matter of the regulations is not controversial.

Clause 3(1) confirms that the Bill extends to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Subsection (2) confirms that amendments or repeals made under clause 2 have the same extent as the provision that has been amended, repealed or revoked. Clause 3(3) sets out when and how the provisions of the Bill will come into force. Clauses 1 and 2(1) will be brought into force by commencement regulations, and clause 2(2) will be brought into force on Royal Assent.

Clause 3 sets out the power to make transitional and savings provisions by regulation as required. Transitional provisions may be necessary for practical reasons when migrating from the old regulations to the new. The clause also confirms that the short title will be the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee Act 2023.

I welcome the Bill that the hon. Member for Aberconwy is seeking to introduce; it seems perfectly sensible. However, I have a few questions for the Minister.

In the very useful impact assessment to the Bill, section D on risks assumptions and limitations states that the MOD

“has yet to complete its own review of the VPACs.”

It says that there is a risk that future legislation will be required if that review is not completed before this legislation is taken forward. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out whether the review has been completed, so that we can be sure that we are not risking a requirement for additional legislation. On a point about language, section D also states:

“There is a risk that the widened cohort of veterans in scope will increase the number of personnel receiving support from the VAPCs under option 3”,

which was the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Aberconwy. I think that is not so much a risk resulting from the legislation as its intention, so that is interesting language to use.

May I ask the Minister about the terms of reference for VAPCs? From various explanatory notes, it seems that the last terms of reference were issued by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, yet the explanatory notes to the Bill suggest that the Ministry of Defence will now issue them. I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify whether it is the OVA or the Ministry of Defence issuing the terms of reference from now on.

Finally, I had a look on the VAPC website to see what is going on, and I would like to praise all the volunteers for their work. There are many minutes on the website, and the number of issues considered in them shows that there are some incredible volunteers working their socks off, but I encourage the Minister to ask his officials to update the website a wee bit. Some regions, such as Yorkshire and Humber, seem incredibly active and are very efficient at getting their minutes posted on the website. Other VAPC regions are, I am sure, meeting and writing minutes, but those minutes do not seem to be as prominent on the VAPC website.

Another question is how people can contact members of VAPC regional committees. There are frequent lists of names of those whom the Secretary of State has appointed to the VAPCs, but there is not any obvious way for people to contact them. If the intention is not for people to contact the regional chair, but to make contact via a different method, it would be helpful to say what that method is when listing the members of a committee that people are being encouraged to contact. Other than that, this looks like a sensible piece of legislation.

This Bill is intended to regularise what has become custom and practice. There is nothing particularly new here, but the Bill does give VAPCs, which we have decided are worthwhile, a statutory basis. I hope the Bill will be seen in that light.

Under this legislation, VAPCs would have a statutory remit to do more than engage locally with recipients of war pensions or the armed forces compensation scheme. They will cover a broader range of issues; they may, for example, gauge veterans’ views on the support they receive from the Veterans Welfare Service, and raising awareness of the armed forces covenant. I hope the Committee will accept that the Government’s intent, through the legislation and the various reviews under way, is to ensure that the interests of veterans are furthered. That Government are sensitive to their concerns about how they are dealt with under the armed forces covenant.

The VAPCs will provide the Ministry of Defence and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs with a source of independent advice about how the MOD should support veterans and their families. Families are very important in this. One of the changes that the legislation will certainly bring is a focus not just on war pensioners and recipients of benefits under the armed forces compensation scheme but families and the wider defence community. I should highlight that the Bill also allows for recommendations to be adopted from the ongoing independent review of the VAPCs under the Cabinet Office public bodies reform programme, which is due to report at the end of this month, and from the recently announced independent review of the role and scope of the Government’s welfare provision for veterans, including by the MOD under the Veterans UK banner.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, which reflected the perfectly understandable concern that there is a lot going on at the moment, and that there is a risk of overlap. I hope that the timeline that I have given, and the fact that this is enabling legislation—further regulations would have to be made as statutory instruments—mean that, in reality, the whole thing is pretty much covered off. Of course, rather than running these things in parallel, we could have run them in series, but I am persuaded that we need to crack on with this issue, and I do not necessarily want one to follow the other.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and to Mr Gray for allowing an intervention—I am conscious of falling foul of the tube strike this morning. Having chaired the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I have taken a huge interest in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, and I commend him on bringing it forward, because it covers the things that we did not quite get to in that Committee. Does the Minister agree that what is exciting about the Bill is not the statutory change itself, but the opportunities now available to the VAPCs? The Bill is about giving them some teeth, and perhaps also holding Veterans UK to account.

Yes, and that was the subject of one of the amendments that we discussed earlier. The Bill will give the committees teeth—that is the intent—so it will make the veterans’ voice louder in this domain.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport rightly made the point about terms of reference. VAPCs will sit within the Ministry of Defence’s remit, so the terms of reference will rest with the MOD rather than the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. He also made a point about websites, which had not struck me, but I am sure that VAPCs will have heard what he said. I do not want to mandate how they do their business, and there is a balance to be struck between their independence and what the MOD would like. I have a natural instinct towards regularising stuff, but in this instance it is important to give them a little wriggle room to do their comms piece as they see fit. The hon. Member’s point is well made, and I hope that those who are perhaps doing less well will have heard what he said.

Mr Gray, you will be delighted to hear that I have taken a red pen to a lot of my speech, because having sensed that the Committee is broadly content with the Bill, I do not see any point in dragging out the Committee, but I want to make a quick comment about the devolved Administrations. The committees will work closely, as they do now, with the devolved Administrations, and as they become aware of issues, they can raise them with Ministers. Ministers can then direct their officials, as they do now, to work with their devolved counterparts on the issues and find a workable solution. My general experience of working with the devolved Administrations in the area for which I am responsible has been positive.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for his hard work on the Bill, for which I am extremely grateful, and the enthusiasm with which he has approached the task. The Bill has our wholehearted support, and I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Before I put the final Question, I note, with great personal satisfaction, that some two thirds of the members of the Committee are graduates of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which shows the work of the scheme.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.

Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) (No.2) Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: †Sir Christopher Chope

Amesbury, Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)

† Brereton, Jack (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)

Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

† Ferrier, Margaret (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)

† Gullis, Jonathan (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)

† Jupp, Simon (East Devon) (Con)

† Linden, David (Glasgow East) (SNP)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Rodda, Matt (Reading East) (Lab)

† Shah, Naz (Bradford West) (Lab)

† Simmonds, David (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)

† Trott, Laura (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)

Vaz, Valerie (Walsall South) (Lab)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

† Wild, James (North West Norfolk) (Con)

Chris Watson, Anne-Marie Griffiths, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 15 March 2023

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) (No. 2) Bill

Clause 1

Automatic enrolment: persons and earnings affected

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert—

“(2) In section 3(1)(a), for “22”, substitute “16”.

(3) In section 5(1A)(a), for “22”, substitute “16”.”

This amendment would reduce the age at which automatic enrolment begins to apply from 22 to 16.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, in clause 1, page 2, line 8, leave out “3(1A), 5(1C),”

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 2, line 10, leave out “3(1A), 5(1C) or”

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 14, leave out “3(1A), 5(1C) or”

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North on getting his Bill through Second Reading, and I certainly commit my party to supporting the principles of what he is seeking to achieve.

Automatic enrolment of pensions is not an issue on which I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. It is probably the only issue on which he and I agree these days—that says more about our political differences than anything else. In a similar vein, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who initially introduced the Bill before he moved on to the dizzy heights of ministerial office at the Department for Transport.

It would be fair to say that the finer details of pensions policy do not generally get people’s excitement levels rising, although Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, the hon. Member for Reading East and I find this stuff quite fascinating and exciting, so we rub along quite nicely. Although there is not excitement around pensions policy, there is scope for more political consensus. I believe that is true of automatic enrolment, which has generally been a success for our society. My only real criticism of AE is that there has not been a big enough attempt to include low earners and those of all ages. The Bill certainly makes great strides towards tackling that inequity, and it should help with some of the structural problems, such as the gender pensions gap, which does not get as much political attention as the gender pay gap.

I have no great desire to detain the Committee for any length of time today. I appreciate that the action is very much elsewhere—of course, I am referring to the local housing allowance debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon. The Minister knows and, I believe, understands my long-standing interest in extending automatic enrolment to everyone over the age of 16, not 22 or even 18, and for it to kick in from the first pound earned. The latter is particularly important for women, especially those who work part time and have not previously hit the threshold.

These are probing amendments. I am sure the Committee will be glad to know that I do not intend to press them to a vote. If Members want to be elsewhere, fear not; I will not press them to a Division. Amendments 1 to 4 seek to amend clause 1 to ensure automatic enrolment in a pension kicks in at the earliest stage—the age at which tax kicks in. They would put on the face of the Bill that automatic enrolment begins to apply from the age of 16, not 18, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North proposes. Amendments 2, 3 and 4 are merely technical amendments and are consequential in nature, so I will focus on the thinking behind amendment 1.

We all recognise that there are changes to the labour market, and that people’s employment journeys are changing. Many of us left the Chamber during the Chancellor’s speech when he was just getting on to that section of the Budget. He recognises that there are changes to the labour market. Likewise, the Work and Pensions Committee, on which I sit, is currently undertaking an inquiry into the plan for jobs and is trying to better understand some of the changes behind working practices and economic inactivity.

None of us—not even the Chancellor—has a silver bullet suggestion for how we fix the issues relating to under-25s and over-55s not participating in the labour market at the level they were before the pandemic. Following our recent cross-party trip to the USA, I know that I and others on that Committee certainly see apprenticeships as just one example of how we can offer a different path into the labour market.

That brings me very much to my own experience. When exam results are sent out, we politicians rightly talk about there being no wrong path for people’s employment journeys. Some, after school, move straight into further and higher education. Increasingly—this is my personal belief—they do so sometimes disproportionately for our economy. I use this analogy to explain it to folk: if I have a leaking roof or a leaking pipe, I do not want a doctor or a lawyer—I want a plumber. Perhaps, as an economy, we need to pivot a bit more towards some of the trades.

For others, and I am an example, the path on leaving school is a vocational qualification at first, such as an apprenticeship. It is with that in mind that I have tabled the amendments. We know from House of Commons Library research that, at any one time in the UK, approximately 572,000 people are undertaking an apprenticeship, sometimes for up to four years with the same employer, and from age 16. The Bill before us would exclude those apprentices from inclusion in automatic enrolment. I do not know why that is, especially when they are likely to have four years of contributions.

In responding to these probing amendments, will the Minister outline why the Government’s preference is for age 18 and not 16? Have they undertaken a specific impact assessment to age 16? If so, will they publish it? I know that the Government have published an impact assessment for age 18. It came through within the last hour, and I have looked at it, but it seems to extend only to age 18, not 16.

We all agree that automatic enrolment has been a success and extending it further to younger cohorts is clearly a good thing. On that, we will not disagree, but I do not understand why the proposal is to stop at age 18, not extending it all the way to 16, bringing it in line with the point when income tax kicks in, and including all workers. I very much look forward to the Minister outlining the Government’s rationale, and explaining why they would have any difficulty accepting amendment 1 to what is an otherwise excellent Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to you and to fellow Committee members for joining me today to scrutinise this important legislation, especially on Budget day.

The Bill before us contains two clauses. I am grateful to hon. Members for their support for the expansion of automatic enrolment into workplace pensions, a long-standing public policy objective that enjoys widespread support in this House and the other place, and therefore allowing this Bill to proceed to Committee, despite the lack of opportunity for a debate on Second Reading.

The Bill has a clear and straightforward purpose: to allow the Government to lower the age at which qualifying workers are automatically enrolled into a workplace pension scheme from 22 to 18, and to allow the Government to increase the overall amounts being saved by abolishing the lower earnings limit of the qualifying earnings band for workplace pension contributions.

I acknowledge the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden)—my office buddy in this place—who championed a previous Bill in this Session with the same objectives and has handed the baton on to me, to carry forward improvements to retirement provisions for millions of our fellow citizens. He is a doughty champion for people up and down our country, as well as those of North West Durham. We are very lucky to have such a Member in the House.

Order. The hon. Gentleman may be anticipating that we will get past this group of amendments, and we will then have a debate on clauses 1 and 2. I hope he will address his remarks to the specific amendments that we are debating at the moment.

I am more than happy to do that, and to return later on to the clauses, Sir Christopher.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East for his amendments, which I understand aim to remove the regulation-making power to reduce the age of automatic enrolment, and replace it with a new minimum age of 16 for automatic enrolment and re-enrolment, and make consequential amendments. I am grateful for his explanation as to why he believes a lower minimum age would be beneficial. I would certainly support sitting down and discussing it with him at a later date, but this Bill seeks to amend the legislative framework for automatic enrolment to deliver the measures set out in the 2017 AE review, which considered the matter of a lower minimum age, weighed the evidence and concluded that starting from age 18 was the right approach. I am not convinced by the hon. Member’s arguments to depart from that finding today. As he knows, the Bill gives regulation-making powers to the Secretary of State to lower the age, subject to a statutory review and the use of the affirmative procedure. He will therefore have a further opportunity to make his case to colleagues in this House and other stakeholders when that consultation takes place. I look forward to working with him on that. If I may, I will return to some wider comments—

Order. We are discussing the amendments only. We will have the opportunity to discuss things more generally when we get to clause stand part.

Does the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West wish to participate in this debate or in the more general debate?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I will address my remarks purely to the amendments.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East for his work on the subject. He made a deeply personal and heartfelt point about his own experience. However, there has been a wide range of discussion and debate on the matter, and I believe that this afternoon we ought to focus on the Bill itself. I am aware that time is pressing, and given the matters being discussed in the main Chamber, I will leave my remarks at that for now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I have respect for the hon. Member for Glasgow East, as he knows. I listened carefully to what he said. He set out his personal story beforehand, and it is very powerful. I reiterate the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and by the hon. Member for Reading East. This was looked at as part of the 2017 review, and there will be a statutory consultation to follow it up.

I must say that in moving the amendment, I had rather hoped that more consideration and debate would be given to it. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Reading East, I am baffled that the Labour party has nothing to say. Perhaps that is consistent with its policy positions these days. It was not that long ago that hordes of young people at Glastonbury were chanting the name of the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). This rather strikes me as a bit odd. I understand that the Government have not always been the kind of folk who tend to have lots of lovely things to say about the labour movement or young people, but I am particularly baffled that this Labour party has nothing to say, nor any explanation as to why it has arrived at this policy position, other than to say, “We agree with that lot.”

With that in mind, I have sought to stimulate debate—rather unsuccessfully—but I look forward to the Bill making progress, I hope. I do not disagree with the Bill itself, as I said, but when we come to later stages I hope that we can agree to improve automatic enrolment further and to give this a little more consideration than it has been given today. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Thank you for educating me on Committee procedure, Sir Christopher. I clearly need to read up a lot more in “Erskine May”. I look forward to learning it at a later date.

I put clearly on the record my thanks to the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. This gives me the opportunity to thank her for securing Government support for the Bill, which she has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to do since entering her office. She has been working to get it into Parliament and, I hope, implemented as quickly as possible to ensure this for young people, apprentices, in particular, two of whom I have in my constituency office. Jessica and Mya are 18, paid well and will now be able to start building up their pension, which is totally brilliant for them. I look forward to having ensured that they provide for themselves in future.

The automatic enrolment framework was introduced by the Pensions Act 2008 and was gradually brought in for all employers across the UK, starting in 2012. By January 2023, 10.8 million people had been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension and 2.2 million employers were complying with their duties, with about an additional £33 billion in real terms saved in 2021, compared with 2012.

In 2017, the Government carried out a year-long review of automatic enrolment, with a panel of independent, expert advisers, resulting in a report, “Maintaining the momentum”, which set out recommendations to expand the workplace pensions framework. The proposed measures were widely supported by parliamentarians, stakeholders—including those representing employers and workers—and of course the pensions industry. The Bill is the first crucial step in implementing those recommendations, in that it will provide the necessary legislative powers. Helping people to save for later life should be one of the Government’s key priorities, particularly as the Bill will have a significant impact on the delivery of long-term investment to areas outside metropolitan London where there are fewer young people in part-time jobs.

This expansion of auto-enrolment will mean that everybody has their own pension in addition to their state pension in retirement, and has comfort in old age. Research from Onward shows that the Bill will have a positive impact in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Around 25% of employees in my area are not auto-enrolled in a pension scheme. The Bill tackles that, creating more stability in the long term.

People who earn £9,000 from two separate jobs, and who work 12 to 18 hours a week, perhaps juggling their jobs around childcare or caring responsibilities, do not currently get the benefits of auto-enrolment at all. For part-time workers, the auto-enrolment rate stands at 60%. That compares with a rate of almost 90% among workers in full-time jobs. According to Onward, the Bill will result in roughly an extra third of the part-time workforce being auto-enrolled, which is an increase of 50%. Research by Onward suggests that the change will add almost £3.5 billion to the total life savings of people in our area. That will transform the life of everyone in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove, Talke, and the whole country. The Bill will help put cash into communities, and will help people to help themselves. It will provide extra private sector money to deliver the levelling up that we so desperately need.

Under the Bill, regulations can be made, using the affirmative procedure, to amend the automatic enrolment framework set out in the Pensions Act 2008. Those powers can be used to reduce the age of automatic enrolment from the current minimum of 22, and to abolish the lower earnings limit of the qualifying earnings band for pension contributions, so that contributions become payable from the first pound of earnings. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be required to carry out a public consultation on the proposed use of the powers, and to report the findings to Parliament, before making regulations under the Bill. As the regulations will follow the affirmative procedure, hon. Members will have a vote on any proposed secondary legislation.

Clause 1 does five things through regulation-making powers. First, it allows the Secretary of State to amend the automatic enrolment framework to reduce the age at which an employer must automatically enrol a qualifying worker into a workplace pension scheme. Secondly, it allows the Secretary of State to reduce the age at which a qualifying worker can be automatically re-enrolled by an employer. Thirdly, it allows the Secretary of State to make reductions in the lower earnings limit for pensions contributions, abolish the lower earnings limit and, if required, abolish a category of worker known as workers without qualifying earnings, who can currently ask to be placed in workplace pensions but do not receive an employer contribution. This worker category would no longer exist if the lower earnings limit were abolished, because any worker automatically enrolled, or opting into a workplace pension, would, as a result of the abolition, be entitled to an employer contribution.

Fourthly, clause 1 allows the Secretary of State to modify the requirement in primary legislation for annual reviews of the lower earnings limit of the qualifying earnings band to take account of any changes to the lower earnings limit, and to make consequential amendments. Fifthly, if the Secretary of State makes changes to the Pensions Act 2008 under the clause, they must use the affirmative procedure, so that Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the secondary legislation. In addition, the Secretary of State must carry out a public consultation on the proposed use of the powers before making regulations, and must make a report to Parliament about the consultation.

Clause 2 does three things. First, it sets out the territorial extent of the legislation. By convention, Northern Ireland legislates separately to ensure that the automatic enrolment framework applies in the same way in Northern Ireland as it does in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Executive are expected to take forward their own legislation in respect of clause 1(2) to (4) prior to the regulation-making powers being used by the Secretary of State. Clause 2 also makes provision for the coming into force of the Bill, and sets out the Bill’s short title.

In conclusion, I am extremely pleased and proud that the Bill will set us on the path to the next successful chapter in the story of automatic enrolment. It will bring the undoubted benefits of pensions saving to our younger people, and to those hard-working, lower-paid workers who deserve the opportunity to build a more secure retirement for themselves and their family. It will help us to build a stronger, more inclusive retirement savings culture for future generations—for people from Kidsgrove to Consett, and across our United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I would like to make some brief comments of support, as this Bill sits in the reserved space and naturally will apply in Scotland on Royal Assent.

We have already seen how automatic enrolment has successfully brought many more members of the public into a pension scheme, which will only serve to benefit them in later life and in retirement. Particularly as we are facing a cost of living crisis and many people are finding it much harder to put away spare cash for a rainy day, it is important and right that contributing to a pension from a younger age is made easier. For the younger generation just starting out in the workplace, retirement looks like a speck on the horizon—too far off to think about for some time yet. I am sure we all remember feeling the same; pensions were the last thing on our mind at that age. It is crucial, however, to start making those savings earlier in life, so that there is less pressure later, as retirement approaches and people have the realisation that they have not saved as much as they need.

A general lack of understanding about pensions is a real problem when it comes to future planning. Research by the Social Market Foundation has shown that most of the population nearing retirement age do not actually know how much money they will need to see them through retirement. The typical person aged 50 to 64 has pension savings that are 58% short of what they require. That adds up to a total annual savings gap of £132 billion across the country for those reaching retirement age.

I hope that this legislation, if passed, will have some positive impacts for the harder-to-reach groups in society: women, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities. They already have substantially lower-value pension pots on average. However, I wonder whether, when eliminating the lower earnings limit for contributions and laying regulations, the Secretary of State might consider this being for employers only, and having a higher threshold for employee contributions in the light of the current economic difficulties.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North on successfully steering his Bill through its legislative stages so far. Last year, I was lucky enough to see my own private Member’s Bill through to Royal Assent—incidentally, it was also on pensions policy—and I know how much hard work that is for the Member and for those supporting him, so well done.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I commend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for his work on this Bill, and, indeed, other Members from across the House and the wider policy discussion about the importance of auto-enrolment. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West rightly said, pensions adequacy is a very important issue facing the whole of our society; it is a matter of great importance. We should, across the House, be encouraging people to save for their future, so it is important to debate this issue today.

I particularly want to say, in the time that I have, that auto-enrolment in itself is a great public policy success of the last few years. It dates back to the work of the Pensions Commission for the last Labour Government. The coalition Government implemented this change in 2012, and there has been growth in the number of people saving for a pension as a result. That is a commendable step forward.

However, pensions adequacy remains an issue and it is important for us to continue to go forward. In doing so, we need to work in a gradual, sensible and practical way to try to encourage auto-enrolment, and to work with stakeholders such as businesses, savers themselves and, indeed, society as a whole to try to take this work forward. In that spirit, I have some questions for the Minister.

This Bill will clearly offer real advantages to many younger people, who will be saving not only a greater sum, but from an earlier point in their life. That will help to build a much better pension pot for those pension savers. My questions for the Minister are primarily about the nature of the consultation, because as we have heard, it is hugely important that we work with pension savers themselves, with employers and with other stakeholder organisations to ensure that there is consensus on this issue and that policy is developed in a sensible way. Therefore I would like the Minister to explain to the Committee a little more about the nature of the consultation: in particular, what work the Department has done to encourage pension savers, especially young people, to be aware of the potential to save more for a pension in the future; the discussion that she has had with employers, both individual employers and employer organisations; and what she will do to continue to work with them, because when this legislation is implemented, it is a step forward for them—it is a greater contribution. We need to work with them.

I would like to know what work the Minister is doing with trade unions. They have a very important part to play in the roll-out of auto-enrolment. I was glad that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned that and acknowledged the significant work that they do. I am also interested in the consultation, in so far as it has reached out to advice organisations such as Which? and many others that have an important role in the wider money and savings debate. I hope that she is discussing with them the importance of this.

My second question is about when the Department hopes to use these powers. As has been said, the Bill allows the Government the power to do this and explains how it would happen through a statutory instrument. However, the Bill does not specify when this might happen. The Minister has talked in the past about the mid-2020s. I would be grateful if she clarified how she defines mid-2020s, and whether she will take into account any other factors such as the overall performance of the economy and the nature of any continuing cost of living crisis as we approach that time.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for his work on this matter, and I thank colleagues from across the House. I look forward to further answers from the Minister about the importance of consultation and bringing stakeholder groups with us on this important journey.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and, in absentia, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, on this excellent Bill, which will expand the benefits of automatic enrolment into workplace pensions to younger people and lower-paid workers.

I think we all agree that automatic enrolment has been a huge game changer in the workplace pension savings market over the past decade. Private sector workplace pension participation among eligible employees has increased by 44 percentage points since 2012, to 86% in 2021. As has been mentioned a couple of times, it has been especially transformative for women, low earners and young people, who historically have been poorly served by or excluded from workplace pensions. The proportion of women in the private sector participating in a workplace pension reached 87% in 2021, above that of men and more than double what it was in 2012.

Thanks to automatic enrolment, the overwhelming majority of eligible workers are now enrolled in a workplace pension, saving an asset for the future. Automatic enrolment is re-establishing a culture of retirement saving for a new generation. However, we know that there is more to do. The Government have made it clear that their ambition has always been to deliver on the 2017 automatic enrolment review measures. The review proposed two key measures: extending AE to young adults aged 18 to 21 by lowering the age criteria for enrolment; and removing the lower earnings limit, which would improve saving levels among low and moderate earners.

Since I took up my role as Minister for Pensions, I have been determined to make progress on AE expansion, and I am therefore delighted to confirm that the Government are supporting my hon. Friend’s Bill to do exactly that. The legislation will mean that younger workers and those who are in lower-paid employment—often because they work part time owing to personal circumstances, such as caring responsibilities—will be able to participate fully in automatic enrolment. For the first time, every worker will benefit from an employment contribution if they are enrolled or opt in; that is key to boosting the overall amounts being saved into a workplace pension. The powers in this Bill allow a Government-defined authority to deliver the changes set out in the 2017 review reforms, which Parliament has debated on numerous occasions, and I think there is broad agreement that it should become law.

On the questions from the hon. Member for Reading East, the Government are clear that implementing the expansion of automatic enrolment can only take place following consultation. That will be a consultation on the implementation approach and the timetable. He mentioned employer and employee engagement in particular. We absolutely need a full comms campaign, and—to the points raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow East—we could also look at what we can do for 16-year-olds. Even if we do not get quite where the hon. Member for Glasgow East wants us to with the age, I think there is more we can do to encourage them to opt in. We can discuss that as part of the consultation.

Trade unions were part of the original 2017 work, and I am very grateful to them for that. We have spoken to them frequently since, as we have to employer organisations. We will hold a series of roundtables now as we move towards the consultation, and we will involve them in the consultation. On timing, I would like to launch the consultation in the autumn, with this Bill going through, I hope, in the near future. I cannot say anything further than “mid-2020s”, I am afraid, but as soon as I am in a position to update the hon. Member for Reading East, I will of course do so.

Our objective is to maintain the broad political consensus for workplace pensions, which has been an important part of the success of the reforms since the beginning. The approach taken in the Bill to guarantee meaningful and detailed consultation to help implement the changes will help to build enduring support for this important work to boost the retirement aspirations of millions of our fellow citizens. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and I commend the Bill to the Committee.

May I put on record my thanks to you, Sir Christopher, and to everyone who has contributed to this short, constructive debate? I thank all Members who agreed to serve on the Committee, in particular the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, who has become a good friend in the House and a done a lot on pensions. Also, he may not want to admit it, but the hon. Member for Glasgow East and I are good friends, but I am sure that he will not put that on any endorsement leaflets any time soon.

On a point of order, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the Committee inadvertently. We cannot have that on the record; my constituents will deselect me.

I look forward to doing a podcast with the hon. Gentleman very soon to discuss all the great work that he does in the House as a SNP Member.

The Bill makes certain that people in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, where nearly one in four people are not auto-enrolled in a pension, will have more financial security in the long term. It will simplify the process to mean that for just a few pounds a week, and through the power of compound interest, people could be £30,000 better off in retirement. That is absolutely transformative, which is why the Bill is critical.

I also thank the hon. Member for Reading East, whom I hugely admire in the House. I assure him that I too will keep the Government’s feet to the fire from the Government Benches so that we get an actual implementation date, because I do not like references to wishy-washy mid-2020s. I want to see a date firmly in writing. I am delighted that the consultation will take place in the autumn and I look forward then to hearing about a firm date.

I want to finish by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham—he deserves another shout-out—for his support throughout the passage of the Bill and for putting the case forward with Onward, a fantastic think-tank, which has done a lot of work with him to put the argument. I am delighted and proud that he was very kind in asking me to carry on his great work as he ascended to higher office and as I descended at the same time. I thank the Minister for getting the Bill supported by the Government, and for how she has worked with me, officials and obviously the Treasury, twisting arms wherever necessary to get the Bill over the line and, I hope, on the statute book.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

On a point of order, Sir Christopher. I thank you for chairing the proceedings in Committee and pay tribute to the Clerk, Chris Wilson, for his help in drafting amendments. I look forward to the Bill proceeding to the other House.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, and I am sure that he speaks for everyone in expressing thanks to everybody. I add to that thanks to our hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who has facilitated more progress on Private Members’ Bills during this Session than I think we have ever seen in the past.

Today is a very poignant day to be debating this particular Bill because the Chancellor has made quite an important announcement on the issue of pensions. As I was leaving the Chamber in order to be on time in this Committee a number of people said, “Now you are going off to top up your pension immediately following the announcement.” That is by the bye. I thank everyone for attending the Committee sitting, and congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North on introducing the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.

Firearms Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Sir Gary Streeter

† Bacon, Gareth (Orpington) (Con)

† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)

† Baynes, Simon (Clwyd South) (Con)

Chamberlain, Wendy (North East Fife) (LD)

† Davies-Jones, Alex (Pontypridd) (Lab)

† Dhesi, Mr Tanmanjeet Singh (Slough) (Lab)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)

† Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

Fletcher, Mark (Bolsover) (Con)

† Gibson, Peter (Darlington) (Con)

† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)

† Lynch, Holly (Halifax) (Lab)

† Pollard, Luke (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Spellar, John (Warley) (Lab)

† Sunderland, James (Bracknell) (Con)

† Webbe, Claudia (Leicester East) (Ind)

Dominic Stockbridge, Liam Laurence Smyth, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 15 March 2023

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Firearms Bill

Welcome, colleagues, to this important Committee. My selection and grouping list for today’s sitting is available online and in the room. We will have just one debate, on the selected amendments and on clauses 1, 2 and 3 stand part of the Bill. I will first call Holly Lynch to move amendment 1. At the completion of the debate, I will ask her whether she wishes to withdraw her amendments or press them to a Division. As Shaun Bailey, who introduced the Bill, is now a Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretary—congratulations, Shaun, I think—I will call Simon Baynes to speak to the Bill, and other Members will then be able to catch my eye and be called to speak. It is a narrow, two-purpose Bill, and the amendments are very narrow. I have a reputation for being very fierce on Second Reading speeches in Committee, when we should be focusing on amendments.

Clause 1

Miniature rifle ranges and shooting galleries

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 19, at end insert —

“(4B) Before a firearm certificate may be issued or renewed for an operator of a range or gallery under this section, the chief officer of police must be satisfied that there is nothing in the social media profile of the applicant for an operator’s licence to indicate that the applicant is not fit to be entrusted with a miniature rifle or ammunition for a miniature rifle.”

The intention of this amendment is to ensure that social media profiles are taken into account in the granting of the firearms licences which will be required under this Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 19, at end insert—

“(4C) Before a firearm certificate may be issued or renewed for an operator of a range or gallery under this section, the chief officer of police must meet privately with members of the applicant’s family or household before deciding whether the applicant is fit to be entrusted with a firearm under section 27 of this Act.”

Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 23, at end insert—

“In section 32ZA (Fees in connection with authority under section 5), after subsection (3) insert—

‘(3A) Any regulations relating to fees for licences issued under section 11 of this Act relating to miniature rifle ranges must require payment equal to the expected cost of issuing such licences.’”

Clause stand part.

Clauses 2 and 3 stand part.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, in these important proceedings. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich West on the progression of his private Member’s Bill and the hon. Member for Clwyd South, who is the custodian of the legislation this afternoon. I will speak to amendments 1 to 3, which are in my name, and clauses 1 to 3.

We very much welcome the fact that the Bill will clamp down on loopholes related to miniature rifles. Clause 1 is fundamental to that; it makes limited changes to the Firearms Act 1968 by introducing a requirement for the operators of miniature rifle ranges to obtain a firearm certificate and by restricting such ranges to .22 rimfire weapons only. Clause 2 will introduce a new offence of possessing component parts of ammunition with intent to manufacture, and provides clear definitions and sentences. We recognise that the Bill follows the publication of the firearms safety consultation, which sought views on improving the controls on miniature rifle ranges. Some 73% of those who responded to the consultation agreed or strongly agreed that the operator of a miniature rifle range should be required to have a firearm certificate.

We support the legislation, but there is concern that it is very limited in scope and misses an opportunity to deliver a significant and long-sought-after tightening up of the firearms licensing regime more broadly. I have spoken to police officers involved in firearms licensing, who tell me that there are examples of miniature rifles being adapted into more dangerous weapons and used to facilitate criminality. It was felt that the requirement for someone who is operating a miniature rifle range to apply for a firearms licence should be accompanied by further conditions, in recognition of the fact that they are running such an establishment, rather than simply possessing a firearm. It was also felt that the running of the range itself should be subject to routine checks on compliance, but that is missing from clauses 1 and 2.

Generally speaking, we rightly have robust firearms laws in the UK, which have broad and enduring support. Firearms incidents are rare, but all Members will be deeply troubled by recent examples of the fatal use of firearms by licensed firearms holders. We have tabled amendments 1 to 3, while recognising the scope of the legislation, in the hope that they could be rolled out to firearms licensing more broadly. They seek to introduce sensible and proportionate changes to the licensing regime, taking into consideration the learning from recent atrocities.

Amendment 1 would ensure that a person’s social media presence was taken into account when an application for a firearms licence under clause 1 was being considered. Members will be aware of the report summarising the Independent Office for Police Conduct investigation into the prior contact between Devon and Cornwall police and Jake Davison, who committed the Plymouth mass shooting, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will go into in more detail. The report stated that Davison

“posted prolifically on Reddit… about incels and incel ideology”.

Although he did not express an overt wish to harm anyone, he was involved in the heavily misogynistic and violent incel online community, and

“He also discussed his poor mental health, disillusionment with life and relationships, and dislike of his mother on Reddit and YouTube.”

The report did not identify any individual instance of misconduct or poor performance from Devon and Cornwall police in relation to the vetting of Davison’s social media during the licensing process, as at that time the statutory guidance on firearms licensing included limited advice on conducting social media checks.

In its six recommendations, the Independence Office for Police Conduct stated that statutory guidance on firearms licensing should be amended

“to require that open-source research is conducted for all applications, with more intrusive checks for high risk applicants.”

Amendment 1 reflects that recommendation. Again, it is within the scope of the Bill; I hope that the Government will recognise that and adopt he amendment.

Amendment 2 states:

“Before a firearm certificate may be issued or renewed for an operator of a range or gallery under this section, the…police must meet privately with members of the applicant’s family or household before deciding whether the applicant is fit to be entrusted with”

a firearms licence. In its December 2022 report, “Firearms licensing regulations in Scotland”, following the Skye shootings, the Scottish Affairs Committee recommended that

“the UK Government change the statutory guidance on firearms licensing to more strongly recommend that police forces involve present and former conjugal partners in the application and renewal process. Echoing the system used in Canada”.

In the most recent instances of unlawful and fatal use of licensed firearms, family members of the perpetrators faced the greatest risks. Amendment 2 would place a duty on police forces to discuss the applicant’s suitability for a licence with their family members in private meetings. That would significantly enhance the referee system. The Scottish Affairs Committee report stated that it had significant concerns about the process,

“which must be addressed before it is fit for purpose.”

It noted

“concerns about applicants canvassing for referees, and lack of mandatory consultation with people close to firearms licence applicants.”

Amendment 3 is almost consequential to amendments 1 and 2, but provides for a long overdue rebalancing. It is the first ask of any police force when we raise firearms licensing with it. The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire said on Second Reading that the Government

“have committed to consulting this year—probably in the summer or early autumn—about increasing…fees to make sure that the full costs are recovered by police forces.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2023; Vol. 728, c. 1076.]

I very much welcome that. I hope hon. Members will agree that the proposals are entirely appropriate, and that the proposals for additional checks are grounded in clear recommendations born out of painful lessons learned.

The financial implications of licensing are addressed in amendment 3. On Second Reading, the Minister revealed that as of 2 March, four constabularies in England and Wales had unacceptably high backlogs for firearms licences, including temporary licences. I suspect that resourcing is part of the challenge for forces, but do any of us constituency MPs want officers to come off the frontline, and step away from neighbourhood policing, in order to bring down the backlog in firearms licensing?

Under the amendment, only the costs of the process would be recouped, but even that would be a significant rebalancing for police forces. I hope the Government will accept the amendment. They could run a pilot scheme covering miniature rifles, with a view to considering its merit, and then extend it to all firearms. I hope the Government and the Minister are listening. We certainly welcome this Bill; we just wish there was a little more in it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to take the Bill forward on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West. As the hon. Member for Halifax said, I am the custodian of the Bill, which is a big responsibility, and I greatly appreciate the role. I also took the Bill through its Second Reading in the Chamber on 3 March.

It is widely acknowledged that the UK has some of the toughest gun controls in the world, but it is important that the Government keep those controls under review and take action to strengthen them further when evidence suggests that that is necessary. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax for her comments. Before I speak about the clauses, I will address her proposed amendments. I value her comments, and she made some valid points, specifically about social media profiles, the chief officer meeting applicants’ families and households, and ensuring that payment equals the cost of issuing licences. I trust that the Minister has heard and taken on board those points, but given the narrow, very specific scope ofthe Bill, I question whether this is the correct place for the discussions brought about by the amendments. Amendments 1 and 2 pose wider, valid questions to explore. Amendment 3 could perhaps be covered by secondary legislation. As the hon. Lady said, these points need broader discussion, but that is not possible within the scope of the Bill and given what we hope to achieve today. However, I appreciate her bringing the amendments forward.

The clauses will further strengthen firearms controls by addressing two vulnerabilities that could be exploited by criminals, terrorists, and those with malicious intent. Clause 1 removes the exemption in firearms controls that allows a person to operate a miniature rifle range without first obtaining a firearm certificate from the local police. The Bill will place a requirement on them to obtain a firearm certificate, and they will therefore be subject to the important police checks that are done before a certificate is issued. Those checks cover the suitability of a person’s having access to firearms for a legitimate purpose—in this case, to operate a miniature rifle range—and ensure that the firearms and associated ammunition will be handled and stored safely. The firearms used in miniature rifle ranges, which are rifles chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, must in all other circumstances be held on a certificate issued by the police. Clause 1 will helpfully clarify in law that these are the firearms used at the rifle ranges, and will bring their control in line with controls on those firearms in all other circumstances.

Clause 2 gives the police the power that they need to prevent criminals from manufacturing unlawful ammunition. The key components of ammunition are the propellant, which helps to propel a projectile from a firearm by burning rapidly, and the primer, which is an explosive chemical compound that ignites the propellant. Both are already controlled, and there are offences relating to the unlawful possession of complete ammunition. However, the police have expressed concern that these controls are not sufficient to prevent criminals from acquiring the components and going on to unlawfully manufacture ammunition. The clause will close that gap by making it an offence to possess the components of ammunition with the intent to manufacture unlawful ammunition.

I am advised that there will be law-abiding shooters who may have components of ammunition that they use lawfully, for such purposes as reloading ammunition, which they are legally able to possess by virtue of their firearms certificate. The offence in clause 2 has therefore been drafted in a way that will not criminalise such lawful activities. It requires first that the person committing the new offence has any of the components in their possession; secondly, that the person has the intent of manufacturing ammunition; and thirdly and critically, that the person would have no lawful basis for having the ammunition once it was assembled and complete. In that way, the clause ensures that those who are able to hold ammunition by virtue of a firearm certificate issued under section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968, or who are registered firearms dealers under the Act and permitted to possess or manufacture such ammunition, will not be caught by the new offence when going about their lawful activities.

This is a small but important Bill. Events such as those in Plymouth in August 2021, or more recently at Epsom College, are clear reminders that we cannot afford to be complacent about the risks that firearms can present. The Bill will seek to address two identified vulnerabilities in this country’s robust firearms controls, and it is right to take action to address those vulnerabilities. I have pleasure in presenting the Bill to the Committee.

Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the hon. Members for West Bromwich West, and for Clwyd South, for promoting and sponsoring the Bill. It is a welcome change to the gun laws.

As alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, in my constituency we suffered a tragedy in August 2021, when five members of our community were shot by someone with a pump-action rifle. That experience will inform my comments on the amendments. I hope that the Minister will pass them on to the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, who will, towards the end of the month, meet face to face members of the Keyham and Ford communities affected by the tragedy, to look at what came out of the prevention of future deaths report.

The Bill will make a welcome change to the Firearms Act 1968, which is outdated. As we can see from the amendments that the Bill will make to the Act, it needs further improvement. There is a case for not only passing the Bill, but using it to further review not just the 1968 Act but all our firearms legislation, to ensure that it is fit and proper for the 21st century. Ad hoc updates are welcome, but they prove that, overall, the collective body of gun laws needs to be examined prudently to ensure that it is fit for purpose. A full review of gun laws and licensing should be an important part of that.

The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax are useful, and are informed by our experience in Plymouth. There is a big distinction between police forces when it comes to looking at social media profiles. There is a clear need for national training and standards on the assessment of social media profiles. It seems logical that when someone is applying for a gun certificate for a miniature rifle range or for any other firearm, their social media should be assessed properly. That is not easy. As you might know, Sir Gary, I tweet fairly regularly—you might tweet slightly less—and there is a lot of content out there. The question of how that is assessed is important. Is it done by a human or an algorithm? If by an algorithm, what key words are we looking for? How often does someone have to say a word for it to be a concern? Does that ultimately go to a human being to look at? The House needs to debate the details of social media checking to ensure that it is appropriate.

The principle, however, is that everyone who applies for a gun certificate or its renewal, be it for a pump-action firearm or a miniature rifle, should be able to pass rigorous, basic qualifications—not infringing on freedom of speech—as to their suitability to hold a weapon. That seems to be an important principle. Amendment 1 is reasonable, although I suspect that the Government are not too keen on it. I would like the Minister to consider the principle further, however. Some changes in this direction have already been implemented, which I welcome, but more can be done.

Amendment 2 on household checks is also welcome. It does not necessarily apply to our experience in Plymouth, but there is a correlation between domestic violence and gun incidents. Applicants’ suitability to hold or keep a firearm—they may eventually get other firearms on the basis of that certificate—should be based not just on their social media or whether they have legitimate use for a firearm, but on the experiences of those around them, and whether they can be vouched for. That raises the question of the number of referees required; the topic is out of scope of this Bill, but if we ask a household member for their views, how robust a reference will they be? The system of review could benefit from this amendment.

Finally, on full cost recovery, the principle that the cost of a firearm certificate should be borne by the applicant is important. I welcome what the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire said in the House recently on the Plymouth shootings. In effect, he said that a consultation will be forthcoming, and the Government are likely to consult on full cost recovery. Applying for a firearms licence costs only £79, and a renewal is only £49. That in no way covers the policing resources required to look at the suitability of an individual adequately. Full cost recovery is a really important bar. It would ensure that when someone applies for a firearm or shotgun certificate, whether for a miniature rifle or any other firearm, the police force had adequate resources to deal with that. Devon and Cornwall has the most guns of any part of the country. The gap between the cost to the police of licensing firearms and the income from those certificates is huge, which means that resources that should be spent on frontline policing are being diverted to reviews of people’s suitability to hold a licence.

There is a case for responsible gun ownership. I spoke to members of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation recently, who feel strongly about that. If we are to have a system in which a responsible gun owner can possess a weapon, there should be adequate checks, so that a gun owner has certainty that whoever they are shooting next to, however they shoot, is as qualified as they are, and as fit and proper a person as they are, to possess a weapon. I imagine that views on who those people should be, and what the criteria should be, will vary across the House, but cross-party support for the principle of full cost recovery is growing fast. Amendment 3 on this subject, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, is a good one.

Clause 2 is about possessing component parts of ammunition. As I mentioned, I want firearms laws to be fit for the 21st century, which means addressing the impact of 3D printing on the availability of firearms and some components of ammunition. At the moment, 3D printing is used mainly for handguns. A design can be downloaded from the internet, and someone with a 3D printer can print a handgun and other kinds of weaponry. It is also possible for them to print elements of ammunition that fit the gun. On my reading, the clause does not cover 3D printing; I would be grateful if the Minister had a look at whether it should be covered, and whether providing a 3D printer for the purpose of illegally manufacturing ammunition should be included in the Bill, perhaps when it reaches the House of Lords. Through the clause, we want to prevent people who should not have ammunition from getting it, but modern technologies may be a route through which they can get it. They need not have a 3D printer; it could be that they are provided with one for that purpose. Although this is a technical issue, it is worth looking at, so that we can future-proof the legislation.

There is cross-party support for the community in Plymouth, after what it has been through. I am grateful for all the support that has been offered to my community. The most important thing that we can do in Plymouth is prevent another tragedy from ever happening. The best way of doing that is to review gun laws calmly and coolly, cross-party and non-politically, so that we improve them, and so that any faults can be removed. That is why I welcome the Bill, but I hope that it is the start of a much larger, cross-party review of legislation, to make sure that we have gun laws that are fit for the 21st century.

I declare my interest as chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council. I have to start by saying that I was somewhat surprised to see the measures presented in a private Member’s Bill, rather than Government legislation. There was a full Government consultation on the issue, with a very large number of responses. It came to a consensus—I think that has been generally recognised this afternoon—but one does still wonder: why a private Member’s Bill? Having said that, the Bill is good, including from the BSSC’s perspective. I congratulate the Bill’s promoter—or should I say promoters? We need to thank the very large number of people who contributed to the consultation, and to the drafting of the clauses, not least the National Small-bore Rifle Association, which created the framework of clause 1 on miniature rifle ranges.

On clause 1, target shooting with small-bore rifles is a challenging sport that is open to men and women of all ages, and accessible to competitors with a wide range of disabilities. British shooters regularly achieve international success, and since 2000, the home nations competing at the Commonwealth games have won seven gold, eight silver and eight bronze medals in small-bore rifle shooting. The law allows people to use small-calibre rifles at miniature rifle ranges without holding a firearm certificate. That exemption has provided an opportunity to introduce scouts, cadets, youth organisations, schools, colleges, universities and the wider public to the sport of shooting. I welcome the fact that the Government recognise the value of that exemption and are retaining it.

The BSSC agrees that the operator of a miniature rifle range should hold a firearm certificate in order to purchase, acquire and possess firearms and ammunition. That will ensure that they are subject to the same checks as other firearm owners and that they are responsible for the security of the firearms and ammunition. Miniature rifle ranges have traditionally used .22 rim-fire rifles. I agree that that should remain the case. I am pleased that the Government have clarified the point, and that it has appeared in the Bill.

Firearms law is administered by the police, in accordance with guidance issued by the Home Office, and no doubt the Minister will explain that the guidance is to be amended to recognise the new legislation. The non-statutory guidance sets out the “good reason” that is required to justify possession of a firearm. I will be grateful if the Minister confirms that the operation of a miniature rifle range will be regarded as a good reason for possessing suitable firearms and ammunition.

Large numbers of law-abiding shooters reload their own cartridges. They do so to save costs, to improve accuracy and to provide them with ammunition that is not commercially available—for example, for vintage or historical firearms. Viable ammunition requires a primer and a propellant, and there are already controls on those components. Some elements of the drafting of clause 2 on ammunition components—specifically, bullets and cartridge cases—mean that those are not controlled. That may need some review for clarity. I hope that the Minister and the Bill’s promoter can engage on that as the Bill proceeds.

Completed cartridges, to which section 1 of the 1968 Act applies, may be possessed only with a suitably conditioned firearm certificate. Any ammunition loaded must conform to the calibre and quantity specified on the firearm certificate, and cartridges must be stored securely to prevent access to them by unauthorised people. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South recognised that in his remarks. Shooters who hold the relevant, valid certificates, permits and licences, and who load section 1 cartridges authorised by their certificates, do not commit an offence.

The BSSC was consulted on the changes proposed by the Government and discussed those matters with them. It will no doubt remain a matter for the police and the courts as to how intent to manufacture ammunition unlawfully is to be proven. However, I am satisfied that in the case of lawful shooters, reloading ammunition that they have authority to possess, no offence is committed under the proposed legislation.

On the Opposition amendments, I note that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Halifax, referred to recent incidents. I understand her wishing to debate such issues—I do not in any way discount them, or indeed the comments of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport in that regard, because they are important—but I hope that the Minister believes that we need to stand back, review the facts, the coroners’ reports and other evidence, and consult, rather than legislating immediately in a private Member’s Bill.

I am delighted to speak in the Bill Committee, not least because I was for a decade a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ firearms committee, working alongside NABIS, the National Ballistics Intelligence Service. I therefore welcome the Bill, which is much needed.

For more than 25 years, we have prided ourselves in the UK on having the best firearms legislation in the world. We only have to look to places such as America to see how good the UK is, and we cannot deny the strength of our firearms legislation. However, there is a clear need, 25 years on, to address some problems with it.

We need new legislation partly because the internet has grown, and there is now 3D printing, which can produce 3D guns. The internet also allows people to order ammunition, leading to the disruption we have seen. People receive parcels of ammunition just through using the internet.

Guns are being manufactured to exploit loopholes in the law. We should address that and the growth of the internet in relation to weapons that were not legislated against 25 years ago. I therefore welcome the actions of the hon. Member for West Bromwich West in promoting the Bill. I also welcome the important amendments that the hon. Member for Halifax tabled.

We have an opportunity to address aged legislation, and it is important to deal with all the loopholes. I will not say much more because many have campaigned long and hard on the issue. When I sat on the ACPO firearms committee, it was as an independent, but we sat with all parties that were interested in firearms—those who supported the growth in firearms as well as those who opposed them.

We know the deep damage that firearms can do. That damage affects whole communities and neighbourhoods, not just single lives. We need to move further to tackle the loopholes and it is therefore important to address people’s suitability to hold a licence, and to have the ability to look at their online behaviour.

I tabled a new clause—I will not go into it because it was not selected—to address air weapons. That is a big loophole, which should be tackled. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said, I hope that the Bill is the start of trying to address the loopholes in firearms legislation. That is vital for significant communities.

I came to the ACPO firearms committee because of the disproportionate effect of gun murders on black communities in London. I spent a significant amount of time working with the police to address the disproportionate impact of gun violence and gun murders on specific communities. The fact that the number of firearms has not grown exponentially, as it has in other countries, particularly the US, is partly because of our legislation, but also because of the activism of groups on the ground. When groups such as the Gun Control Network highlight the loopholes, we should listen to them and give the important issues that they raise a greater airing.

We can do much more through extending the Bill’s provisions. I hope that we all support the Bill, but I believe that we can do much more to tackle the loopholes so that we do not have the sort of incidents that we have seen. They may be small in number, but they have a massive impact. We must never forget that.

Sir Gary, it is a pleasure to appear in front of you. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West for promoting this modest-in-size, but very important Bill. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South for being its custodian. I thank Opposition Members for the consensual way in which they have worked, and for the eloquence shown today. I thank all those who have contributed. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has a lot to contribute in this area, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon has a lot of expertise, and I thank the hon. Member for Leicester East for her interest in this subject.

At the outset, I should declare that I may be one of the few members of this Committee who had a hobby as a keen handgun shooter. It might be a matter of interest to the Committee that I left it until the very last day to hand my Browning in—it was a wonderful present that I treasured and looked after—and that was the same day as my second son was born. That was an interesting day for me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] That was the second of my four sons, who are now all grown up.

I will speak briefly about the amendments and clauses. Amendment 1 would have the effect of mandating in law that the police must check the social media profile of any person applying for a firearm certificate for the purposes of operating a miniature rifle range before issuing such a certificate, and to be satisfied that the checks do not reveal anything that suggests that the person should not have access to a miniature rifle or ammunition for such a rifle.

Clause 1, to which the amendment relates, removes the existing exemption in firearms controls that allows a person to operate a miniature rifle range without first obtaining a firearm certificate from the local police. That means that, in future, any person who wishes to operate such a rifle range will first need to apply to the police to obtain a firearm certificate, issued under the Firearms Act 1968. The applicant will therefore be subject to all the checks relating to suitability that the police conduct on all applicants who seek to obtain a firearm licence. Those checks are set out in the statutory guidance to the police on firearms licensing that came into effect in November 2021 and which was refreshed and strengthened on 14 February this year—there is no relevance to Valentine’s day.

The statutory guidance requires the police to consider conducting an open source check of social media presence and the activity of the person who applies for the firearm certificate to establish whether he or she has openly or repeatedly expressed or sympathises with views that may suggest that their access to firearms would be inappropriate. The checks that are sought by the amendment would be considered when a person applies for a licence to operate a miniature rifle range, or indeed for any other purpose, and not just for those seeking to operate a miniature rifle range, which would be the effect of the amendment.

The police have a legal obligation to have regard to the statutory guidance, which will be reviewed, in exercising their firearms licensing functions. The Government have said that we will keep the guidance under review and will not hesitate to refresh it and to strengthen it further whenever the evidence suggests that that is required.

The Government will consider such further changes to the guidance now, and possibly further changes in the law, following the outcomes of the recent inquests into those who were tragically shot dead by Jake Davison in Plymouth on 12 August 2021, and the expansive recommendations made by the coroner. Those recommendations sit alongside the outcomes and recommendations made by the Independent Office for Police Conduct following the investigation into the issue of a firearm licence to Jake Davison, and also recommendations made by the Scottish Affairs Committee, following its review of firearms licensing. It is clear that the Government will further strengthen the checks and controls on firearms licensing in the coming weeks and months.

Specifically in relation to social media checks, the Government have noted in the statutory guidance that the National Police Chiefs’ Council will develop a new national model, which I am sure will be helpful. When ready, it will assist all police forces in conducting social media checks in cases, to help them meet the requirements of the statutory guidance. It will be very useful to have a national scheme so that we do not have pockets or silos of good or bad practice, which is very important. Against that background, I would be grateful if the amendment were withdrawn.

I move briefly to amendment 2, which would have the effect of mandating that the police must meet privately with members of the family or household of a person seeking a firearm certificate in order to operate a miniature rifle range before they make a decision on whether to grant such a certificate. The underlying purpose of the amendment is clear and sensible. Those who know the applicant best and those who have a unique insight into the applicant’s temperament or behaviour may be particularly well placed to provide information about suitability. It may of course be difficult in some circumstances for an applicant’s partner or close family member to provide information that directly results in the application being refused. That person could be subjected to reprisals if the applicant considers that that person is to blame for the refusal. The statutory guidance for the police on their firearms licensing functions, which was refreshed by the Government on 14 February, covers that point explicitly in relation to partners where domestic abuse may be an issue.

I recognise that the scope of the amendment is not restricted to domestic abuse, but has rather more general applicability. In that context, it is worth noting that the statutory guidance to which I have referred invites the police to consider whether to interview individuals other than the applicant or their referees. It mentions the applicant’s partner specifically, where the police consider that contact to be necessary to assess suitability. Again, we are looking to good practice throughout, which is very important. The guidance does not mandate that contact in all cases, which may be the purpose of the amendment, but it draws attention to the fact that the amendment as it stands would have the effect of mandating an interview with members of the applicant’s family or household only in the cases of those wishing to operate miniature rifle ranges rather than in the generality of firearms applications. I know that perhaps that is not the amendment’s intention, but that is what it would do.

The Government feel that that the distinction is unhelpful, however they are keeping the statutory guidance as a whole under review and will consider further changes which may or may not include the terms of the amendment following the outcomes of the recent inquests. I am certain that the Government will consider whether it would be appropriate to amend the guidance to address the specific points addressed by the amendment.

A further review of referees will be undertaken and its results will be incorporated in the statutory guidance, resulting in stronger and more robust checks. I know that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will be happy that that is the way forward.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South said, the Government take the subject very seriously. The UK Government have some of the toughest gun controls in the world, but, as the hon. Member for Leicester East said, it is important that we keep all controls under review and take action when necessary to strengthen the laws further where the evidence suggests that that must be the way forward.

I have been impressed by the nature of the debate and the sincerity with which all speakers have contributed. I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate the Bill and ask that it be allowed to proceed.

I thank the Minister for her thoughtful contribution to the consideration of the Bill. She has put to me that scope is the reason why our amendments will not have the desired impact. She is entirely right, and I put to her that scope is exactly why the amendments will not have the desired impact. That does not mean that there is no merit in the amendments, and it is clear from today’s contributions that there is broad consensus that the amendments have been born out of the important lessons learned, having had a good look at recent tragedies.

I hope that there is progress on this matter, and a commitment particularly on amendment 3 to consult on the cost of firearms licensing. I hope that the Minister takes back to her Home Office colleagues the sense of consensus and the urgency with which we would like to see that work progressed.

I thank again my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who spoke so powerfully with the weight of the experiences of his constituents; his was a powerful contribution to the debate. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I hope that the Minister holds true to her word that there is a commitment to continue to move in the right direction on the matter.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.