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Commons Chamber

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023

House of Commons

Wednesday 25 October 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Single-sex Spaces

We are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. The Equality Act 2010 sets out that providers have the right to restrict use of services on the basis of sex where there is justified and proportionate reason.

A number of Members of the House have relatives or family members who are trans, and we will all have constituents who are members of the trans community. Does the Minister agree that trans people need safe spaces, too?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the tone in which the debate should take place. Just a few weeks ago, we had a debate in Westminster Hall where I absolutely made that point. This is not about pitting women against the trans community. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, but it is important that biological women have the ability to access single-sex spaces, too.

Candidate Diversity: Democratic Process

2. What steps the Government are taking to help increase the participation of minority ethnic groups in the democratic process. (906692)

15. Whether she has had discussions with stakeholders on improving the diversity of parliamentary candidates. (906705)

The Government have worked hard to remove any material obstacles to democratic participation for all eligible groups. Registering to vote is quick and easy, taking as little as five minutes. Any elector without an accepted form of photographic identification can apply for a voter authority certificate from their local authority free of charge, or alternatively they could vote by post or proxy.

I have a thriving British-Albanian community in my Chipping Barnet constituency, making a really positive contribution to our culture and economy. What more can the Government do to encourage them to be involved in campaigning at elections, voting in elections and standing as candidates in elections?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts in ensuring that everyone participates in the democratic process. I agree with her, but it is ultimately for local registration teams to ensure as best they can that all eligible electors in their area are correctly registered to vote. We want to ensure that all parts of the UK are equally represented in politics and the democratic system where they are eligible.

With almost a quarter of the UK’s population registered as disabled, does the Minister agree that all political parties need to try harder in the run-up to the next general election in selecting a diverse group of candidates, with perhaps slightly less emphasis on nepotism and more on the representation of ordinary voters, including those from all ethnic minority backgrounds?

The hon. Lady asks an excellent question, and I thank her for all the work she does campaigning for women’s rights. She has been at the vanguard of some contentious issues. She is quite right to raise candidate selection. All political parties have to make the very best of efforts in ensuring that a meritocracy exists and helping those including disabled people who might need additional assistance in participating through some of the difficult selection processes. I highlight again how diverse the Conservative party is, and the Cabinet in particular. That is testament to the fact that meritocracy works. We hope that others will learn from our example.

The Labour party has more women and ethnic minority MPs than the rest of the political parties put together. We know that that leads to better outcomes for British people, but there is always further to go. That is why we have committed to enacting section 106 of the Equality Act so that all political parties would be required to be transparent about the diversity of their candidates. Why will the Government not do the same?

At the end of the day, it is the electorate who decide who gets to represent them. The hon. Member might be cherry-picking statistics on which party is the most diverse. We can do the same and talk about how the Conservatives have had three female Prime Ministers when Labour has not had even a single leader. If she wants to dive deep down and be granular, we have more black men in our party than in all the other parties combined. This splitting hairs is not helpful; what we need to do is ensure that the process is as meritocratic as possible.

Women in STEM Jobs

We have made great progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. Our challenge now is to do more to get them into STEM jobs. To support that, we launched a scheme called STEM returners, as one of our programmes to grow the skills of people who have taken a career break. We have so far had 42 women in our first cohort and 54 have signed up for our second cohort, getting women with experience and skills back into STEM jobs.

While the UK-wide responsibility in areas such as energy and defence among others is reserved to this Parliament, education, skills, universities, colleges and apprenticeships among others are devolved. What discussions has my hon. Friend the Minister had with other UK Government Ministers and devolved Administrations to ensure that the opportunity for women to get their STEM education and skills, and to maintain their careers, is maximised across the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work, particularly around promoting the energy sector across the United Kingdom. We are making progress on trying to get women and girls into that vital sector. One of our Build Back Better campaigns is seeking to inspire women from all walks of life to work in the green energy economy and raise awareness of green education, training and careers. My colleague the Minister with responsibility for employment and I regularly meet devolved colleagues to discuss how we can have a United Kingdom approach to this issue.

Last week I met a group of life science apprentices, young women and young men, who have taken up some great opportunities with STEM employers. One issue they raised with me was the lack of information about non-trade apprenticeships when they were considering their career options. What more can my hon. Friend do to promote STEM apprenticeships for the 16 to 18-year-olds who may not want to pursue the university route?

My hon. Friend is a shining example of how women can lead in the STEM sector, with her own experience in clinical care before she came to this place. We are trying to drive forward apprenticeships, particularly in STEM subjects. Since May 2010, over 5 million apprenticeship starts have happened and our apprenticeship diversity champions are helping those aged 16 and over to get into apprenticeships, particularly in STEM subjects. Organisations such as UCAS and Young Women’s Trust are also doing that specific work.

The Scottish Government have a number of ambitions to address the lack of women in STEM occupations and settings such as schools. Those ambitions start early. The gender pay gap action plan examines how schools have a key role in helping young women make transitions into broader occupations, as well as setting out measures that address occupation segregation, leading to more women accessing STEM careers. What are the Government doing to provide that kind of support?

One key route is through apprenticeships. For many young women, being able to earn while you learn and getting that work experience is vital for them to progress through the STEM sector. We have 22,000 degree apprenticeships and seven masters degree apprenticeships. That is an increase of 14%. In STEM subjects in particular, we have 360 employer design apprenticeships, including level 3 cyber-security, level 4 software development and level 6 civil engineering. We believe apprenticeships are the way forward to drive more women into STEM areas.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In Northern Ireland, women are under-represented in STEM industries. Only 15% of women in Northern Ireland study core STEM subjects, compared to 36% of men. That is a clear anomaly that needs to be addressed. May I encourage the Minister to use her office to engage with the Department for the Economy to encourage more uptake in university STEM subjects? Women can do the job every bit as well as a man given that opportunity.

I thank the hon. Member for that question. That goes to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). We need a UK approach. Across the Government, whether in the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Education, we focus on trying to improve all avenues for those, particularly women, who want to go into STEM areas.

LGBT People

The UK has a proud history of LGBT rights, and one of the world’s most comprehensive and robust legislative protection frameworks for LGBT people. We have taken great strides as a country over the last couple of decades and it is my job to continue that journey.

The Minister is absolutely right: great things have been done for LGBT+ people in the last 13 years, including blood donation changes, the PrEP—pre-exposure prophylaxis—roll-out, and of course same-sex marriage. However, hate crime against LGBT+ people is on the up, conversion therapy still has not been banned and the UK has slipped down the ranking for LGBT+ equality. I know that this Minister takes these issues incredibly seriously, but how can he assure me that the Government take them seriously and that they will tackle them as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of all forms of anti-LGBT hate crimes. They are utterly unacceptable, and we have a robust legislative framework to respond to that. I met representatives of the Metropolitan police and other stakeholders just last week to ensure that everything possible was being done to crack down on such crimes. There will be further questions later about conversion practices, and we are considering all those issues. This is a complex area of work, but I give my hon. Friend a personal commitment that anything to do with LGBT rights and improving the lives of LGBT people will be high on my agenda.

A Bill banning the psychological abuse that some people call conversion therapy has been promised repeatedly in this Session from that Dispatch Box. Where is it?

I accept that, and I apologise for the fact that it has taken so long, but, as I have said, it is a complex issue. I have been personally campaigning for this for many years, but even I recognise there are deep complexities. It is right that we take the time to consider each of the issues carefully, so that what we have in place is consistent, robust and up to date, and tackles these appalling practices.

Almost 2,000 days have passed since the Government first promised to ban conversion therapy, and 533 days have passed since a conversion therapy Bill was promised in the last Queen’s Speech. The delays are not this Minister’s responsibility; according to the press, they are a result of differing views on the Government Front Bench, but because of that there is still no Bill. Can the Minister tell the House whether the next King’s Speech will include a commitment to a full, loophole-free ban on LGBT conversion therapy—yes or no?

I should have thought the hon. Lady would know that no one ever makes announcements about what is in the King’s Speech ahead of His Majesty’s delivery of that speech. Let me also say to her, respectfully, that she should not believe everything she reads in the press. As for the rest of her question, I refer her to the answer I gave a few moments ago.

I would therefore counsel the Minister to advise his colleagues to stop briefing the press on these issues and get on with delivering, because there are failures when it comes to delivery for LGBT+ people. Yesterday I met Michael Smith, who was viciously attacked at a bus stop simply for being with his partner. Police-recorded sexual orientation hate crime has increased by more than 70% in the last five years, and more than a third of all hate crimes are now “violence against the person” offences. I know that the Minister cares deeply about this subject, so can he please explain why his Government do not agree with Labour or with the Law Commission that every violent act of hatred should be punished in the same way—as an aggravated offence?

Let me say to the hon. Lady that as someone who was hospitalised after being attacked because of my sexuality, I know how difficult that is. It is not just the attack that is painful but what is left afterwards.

I will continue to raise each of these issues, but I want to make this point. I keep hearing that we do not care about LGBT issues. It was this Government who introduced same-sex marriage, and it was this Government who introduced it in Northern Ireland. It was this Government who introduced Turing’s law in 2017. We have modernised gender recognition certificates and made them affordable. We have removed self-funding for fertility treatment for same sex-couples, lifted the ban on blood donation, and tackled LGBT-related bullying in schools. We have apologised for the way in which LGBT people were treated in the armed forces, and we have provided funding to ensure that LGBT rights across the Commonwealth are protected.[Official Report, 7 November 2023, Vol. 740, c. 4MC.]

Pay Inequalities

Owing to my joint roles—I am also Secretary of State for Business and Trade—I have a unique understanding of unjust pay disparities, and I am proud of the steps that this Government have taken to tackle them. We will publish new guidance in April to help employers to measure, report on and address unfair ethnicity pay differences, and it was a Conservative Government who introduced gender pay gap reporting in 2017.

Nineteen US states have banned employers from asking prospective employees about their salary history, meaning that people are paid what the job is worth and not just what the bosses can get away with. This has had a massive impact on tackling unequal pay for women and black workers in particular. Having talked about piloting a similar salary history measure, why have the Government appeared to stall on what would be a really positive policy?

We are not stalling. Our pilot will support employers to take steps towards transparency in their own organisations, to see the impact for themselves. We know that this is not straightforward, which is why we will ensure that employers looking to implement greater transparency in their recruitment processes are able to access best practice and learn from each other.

The UK Government’s “Inclusive Britain update report” acknowledges the value of measuring the ethnicity pay gap and the Government have published guidance for employers noting that employers can use ethnicity pay gap calculations to consider evidence-based actions to address any unfair disparities. Despite that, the UK Government will not legislate to mandate reporting. Since employment law is a reserved matter, will the Minister urge her Government to do the right thing and mandate ethnicity pay gap reporting, or urge the devolution of employment law to Scotland so that the Scottish Government can?

Absolutely not. This is something that we will not be devolving and it absolutely should not be mandatory. Ethnicity pay gaps cannot be measured in the same way as gender pay gaps. I have said this to the hon. Lady at this Dispatch Box multiple times. We can measure a pay gap where a population is binary male and female but we cannot do it across a broad spectrum of ethnicity. We have published guidance for those employers who want to do this, but it would be absolutely wrong to mandate.

Disabled People: Additional Costs

6. What recent estimate she has made of the level of additional costs affecting households with disabled people. (906696)

We will spend around £78.6 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. No such estimate has been made but as a Government we are providing total support of more than £94 billion from 2022 to 2024 and we are determined to help all households and individuals with the rising cost of bills. This includes an additional £150 for more than 6 million disabled people.

That is great, but back in the real world the Minister really does know that the rising cost of living is having a disproportionately negative impact on disabled people. They face higher living costs as a consequence and they still face barriers to employment. Does she accept that targeted action, including disability pay gap reporting, is now needed to support disabled people?

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about his disabled constituents, I can point him to the household support fund, which is also helping those constituents and their carers. In his constituency—in his real world—an additional £4.4 million has landed to support him. This is not a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, but I am sure that it will have been heard.

My hon. Friend will be aware that funds are made available to get disabled people into employment via Access to Work. However, there are significant delays in those funds being made available, once granted. Additional costs to disabled people—for example, their paying £6,000 for powered wheels—come at more of a cost when they are obliged to pay for them on their credit card because they cannot access the funds in time. Will she please work with colleagues across the DWP to ensure that there are no delays in getting access to the funds that will help disabled people into work?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her point, which gives me the opportunity to say that from next Tuesday an additional £300 will be paid in cost of living payments to those who are eligible. Regarding access to work, there is a continuing focus on improving waiting times for customers and we are streamlining and digitising the process. Indeed, I spoke to the Minister for Disabled People this week on exactly this matter in relation to one of my own constituents, and I will see that he hears it again from my right hon. Friend.

Topical Questions

As the Minister for Women and Equalities, it would be remiss of me not to reflect on the way religious communities in the UK have been impacted by the terrible events in the middle east. All our citizens have a right to feel secure and at peace in Britain. One of the reasons we have been able to integrate people from all over the world is an unwritten rule that people with roots elsewhere do not play out foreign conflicts on the streets of this country. We owe a duty of care and civility to our neighbours, whatever their ethnicity, religion or background. All of us are free to practise our faiths and celebrate our cultures, but we must do so in a positive way, consistent with fundamental values that are the bedrock of Britain.

I am afraid to say that in recent days we have seen that social contract being breached. In particular, I believe that the hostility directed towards our Jewish communities, the calls for jihad, the ostentatious indifference to the victims of terrorism, the aggressive chanting by mobs brandishing placards of hate, and the odious people ripping down posters of missing children do not reflect our values as a nation.

We must all stand firm on the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, particularly in the public space that we all share. That is why today I am reminding public sector organisations that they have a legal obligation, as part of the equality duty, to consider how they contribute to the advancement of good relations in communities as they deliver public services. Where organisations are having difficulty doing that, I urge them to write to me as soon as possible for advice on how they can fulfil their legal obligations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There should be no place for hatred in our communities.

As a woman in her 50s—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—I know how challenging the menopause can be, especially when you have a busy job. What support is there for working women with the menopause?

I hope that my right hon. Friend feels that she is supported by all of her colleagues. I am delighted to let her know that there will be a full debate on menopause tomorrow, led by the Minister for Social Mobility. I am proud of the great strides that Helen Tomlinson has made since her appointment as the Department for Work and Pensions menopause employment champion. The report “No Time to Step Back” details this progress and looks forward to the next six months, including the sector-specific workshops.

T2. In less than a decade, the proportion of female pensioners in the UK living in poverty has risen by 6%, which means that one in every five female pensioners are below the breadline, despite the fact that the number of female pensioners has fallen due to the rise in state pension age, which disadvantaged tens of thousands of older women. Does the Minister for Equalities share my concern that in the UK today 20% of female pensioners are living in poverty, and what action will she take to address that? (906707)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point. In 2021-22, there were 200,000 fewer female pensioners in absolute poverty than in 2009-10, after housing costs. I point the hon. Lady to the Barnett consequentials of the household support fund in Scotland, which is there to be distributed by her Government to those in need.

T3. As you will know, Mr Speaker, Watford is a thriving multi-faith community, and it is a privilege to take part in so many celebrations and learn about the history of each culture that makes Watford unique and amazing. Will the Minister join me in encouraging colleagues to attend the event that I will be hosting with the Inter Faith Network on 14 November to promote a national organisation to understand how we can all engage better with the different faiths in our communities, and will he please also consider attending the event, if diaries permit? (906708)

Faith is a vital part of people’s identities and of their communities. We fully support the invaluable work being done by people around the country who are inspired by their faith. My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the work that goes on in his own constituency. I certainly encourage people to attend that event, and I will do everything I can to pop in myself.

T5. A year ago, the Public Order Bill was passed in this House, and with it my new clause, which was overwhelmingly supported in a free vote by MPs on both sides of the House, to stop women being deterred from using and entering the doors of abortion clinics by protests outside. A year on, intimidation is worse than ever, because the legislation is not being enacted. Will the Minister look into why that is and fix this now? (906710)

If the hon. Lady has a specific example of where that is happening, I will be happy to look at it if she raises it with me.

T4. In its 2021 census, the Office for National Statistics estimated that there are 260,000 transgender people in the UK. Does the Minister agree with the separate Office for Statistics Regulation that, due to skewed methodology, this number is likely to have been a huge overestimate? (906709)

I share the concerns that the Office for Statistics Regulation has raised and, in February, I asked my officials to explore with the ONS whether because of a lack of understanding of the question the census had the number right. We need to be very careful about language. People do not often understand what we mean when we use terms such as transgender and gender identity. We have to make sure that they understand them. The ONS will be conducting and reporting on research to explore that issue, and it should publish the results by the end of the year and will monitor them going forward.

T6.   Some years ago, the United Nations found that disabled people’s rights were being systematically violated by Conservative Ministers. Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that nothing at all had changed. Is the Minister not ashamed? (906711)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that matter. The point regarding the EHRC is that it is an independent and public body, but I do not think that any Member comes to this House to erode anybody’s rights whether they are disabled or have a health issue. I absolutely refute what the hon. Lady says. She should look at our actions and our record of the work that we have done around British Sign Language and more widely. We stand by all constituents whatever their needs.

Just before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to welcome to this Chamber the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the sympathies of the whole House are with all those affected by Storm Babet and in particular the friends and families of those who lost their lives.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing my sympathies to all those affected by the recent storms.

Two million people just cannot be sustained from 20-odd aid lorries. Utter catastrophe is being unleashed in Gaza. Does the Prime Minister not now see that only a humanitarian ceasefire can bring about the scale of emergency aid that is needed? Of course Israel has a right to defend itself in line with international and humanitarian laws, but we must also speak out when those laws are breached. Surely he agrees that depriving 2 million civilians—a million of them children—of food, water, medicines and fuel is not in accordance with international law. Will he press Israel to restore the supply of these essentials for the sake of innocent civilians and the future of the entire region?

It is important that we do everything we can to get humanitarian aid to those who need it in Gaza, which is why, on Monday, we announced a doubling of our international aid to the region and why the Development Minister is actively engaged with our partners on the ground to ensure that that aid gets to those people as quickly as possible.

Q3. Double child rapist and murderer Colin Pitchfork had yet another parole review hearing only a few weeks ago. I thank the Justice Secretary for having listened to me and engaging the reconsideration mechanism rule. I know that the Prime Minister does not have any decision-making role on the independent Parole Board. It is independent of Government, but it is a wing of the Executive; it is not the judiciary. Does the Prime Minister agree that, generally, as a point of principle, men—sexual offenders—who rape and brutally murder young women, as Mr Pitchfork did to Dawn Ashworth and Lynda Mann in my constituency, should remain in prison for most of their natural lives? (906716)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the public should be confident that murderers and rapists will be kept behind bars for as long as is necessary to keep the public safe. That is why we are reforming the parole system. Our Victims and Prisoners Bill will mean that minimising risk and protecting the public are the sole considerations in Parole Board decisions. It will also give the Justice Secretary the power to step in on behalf of the public and take a second look at decisions to release the most serious offenders, including murderers and rapists. Last week, we announced that we will be introducing longer sentences for dangerous criminals. For the most heinous crimes, life will mean life.

I join the Prime Minister in his comments about all those affected by the storms.

I start by welcoming my hon. Friend the new Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern)—the first Labour MP ever to represent those beautiful towns and villages. He defied the odds, history and of course the fantasy Lib Dem bar charts. I also welcome my hon. Friend the new Member for Tamworth (Sarah Edwards). She will be a powerful representative for her constituents. Is the Prime Minister as relieved as I am that those constituents are not burdened with his defeated candidate, who told them—do not worry, Mr Speaker; I am going to sanitise this—to eff off if they are struggling with the cost of living?

I am proud of what this Government have been doing to support the most vulnerable over the past year. In fact I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in welcoming the new Members to their places. After all, I suspect that the new Member for Mid Beds may actually support me a little more than the last one—[Laughter.] I did notice that the new Member said that they will be opposing new housing in their local area, while the new Member for Tamworth claimed that they will protect green spaces. I urge them to have a word with their leader, because that is not exactly his position—although with his track record of U-turns, who knows what his housing policy will be next week?

So much for being the change candidate! The Prime Minister cannot even distance himself from those appalling comments. I have to ask him, where on earth does he think his candidate got the idea in the first place that throwing expletives at struggling families was his Government’s official position?

Let us just look at the record of what this Government are doing to help those people: paying for around half of a typical family’s energy bill over the last year, support worth over £1,500; the most vulnerable in our society receiving £900 in direct cost of living support; record increases in the national living wage; record increases in welfare; and this winter, pensioners to receive an extra £200 or £300 alongside their winter fuel payment to help them through what we know is a tough time. All of that significant support, funded by this Government, would be put at risk by Labour’s reckless plans to borrow £28 billion a year.

The Prime Minister keeps boasting about how great things are; the voters keep telling him that he has got it wrong. I can see why the Tamworth candidate thought that he was just following Government lines. Annalisa and her two children lived in their home for eight years. In May, they were kicked out with a no-fault eviction notice. Despite his Government’s pledge to scrap no-fault evictions, this week the Prime Minister crumbled to the landlords on his own Back Benches and killed the policy. What message, other than the message delivered by his candidate in Tamworth, could Annalisa possibly take from that?

We have taken significant action to help renters like Annalisa and others. We have capped holding deposits at one week. We have protected tenants from rip-off tenancy fees, delivered almost half a million affordable homes for rent, halved the percentage of substandard homes in the private rented sector, and strengthened local authority enforcement powers, because the Government are delivering for renters. We are also trying to ensure that the new generation can buy their own home, so perhaps the Leader of the Opposition can explain to Annalisa and millions of others why when we brought forward plans to unlock 100,000 new homes, he stood in the way of that? [Interruption.]

Order. Just to say, it is Prime Minister’s questions, not Opposition’s questions. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Prime Minister; it is Prime Minister’s questions. I do not need you nodding against my decision.

I am sure that Annalisa and her children, who have now been evicted, will take great comfort from that non-answer.

Emma and her teenage son saw their mortgage go up by more than a quarter—[Interruption.] Government Members may think this is funny, but this is real life. After 16 years of dutifully paying the mortgage, for the first time she is having to choose between new shoes for her son and putting the heating on—all because the Prime Minister’s party crashed the economy, pushing mortgage rates to their highest levels in decades. He says, “Ignore all that”—ignore the fact that the guilty men and women responsible are standing again as his candidates and still setting his policy. Can he not see why Emma might think that his party is telling them exactly where to go?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman keeps talking about the mini-Budget; I will not ask him a question, Mr Speaker, but I will just point out that he actually supported 95% of the things in that mini-Budget, which I did not. He has had a whole summer to get on top of the details, but he is still ignoring the fact that rising interest rates are a global challenge. They are at their highest level in America and Europe for more than 20 or 30 years. Mortgage rates have doubled in America and trebled in Europe.

To help mortgage holders, we want to ensure that they can use the mortgage charter we have agreed with the banks. Thanks to the steps we have taken, someone with a £200,000 property with about £100,000 left on their mortgage could save more than £350 a month and lock in a new deal six months before theirs ended, and repossessions will be prohibited for 12 months from the first missed payment. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have missed that that policy is twice as generous as Labour’s.

Absolutely tone deaf. In every caff, pub and supermarket in Britain, people are having the same conversation: “We can’t afford that—put it back on the shelf. It’s too expensive.” The Prime Minister is completely oblivious, just patting himself on the back.

Emily and Jamie have worked hard and been saving to buy their own home. They were nearly there last year, but he scrapped house building targets because his Back Benchers pushed him around. House building has fallen off a cliff, shattering the simple dream of home ownership for people like Emily and Jamie. Can the Prime Minister now see that, actually, his candidate in Tamworth was just loyally following the party line?

These prepared lines really are not working for him any more. The right hon. and learned Gentleman literally asked me a question about the support we are providing for mortgage holders; I gave him the answer to that question and then he read from his script that I had not answered the question. We are providing significant help for all these people.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has moved on to housing targets. Here is the record: 2.5 million additional homes; housing starts double what we inherited from the Labour party; housing supply up 10%; on track to deliver a million new homes; and a record number of first-time buyers. He brought up his candidates in Tamworth and Mid Beds as we opened this session, and he is now saying he wants to build homes; well, both of those candidates say that they want to block new homes in their constituencies.

Across our country the British people are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it, doing their best in the face of a punishing cost of living crisis and a Government who have abandoned them—abandoned renters at risk of being kicked out, abandoned mortgage payers struggling to make ends meet, and abandoned people who dream of owning their own house. The truth is that the Prime Minister’s candidate in Tamworth summed up perfectly just how he and his Tories are treating the British public, so will he just call a general election and give the British public the chance to respond, as they did in Selby, Mid Beds and Tamworth? They have heard the Government telling them to eff off, and they want the chance to return the compliment.

As we saw with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s recent decisions on building new houses, politicians like him always take the easy way out, whereas we are getting on with making the right long-term decisions to change this country for the better—on net zero, on High Speed 2, on a smoke-free generation, on education and on energy security. Contrast that with his leadership: too cautious to say anything and hoping that nobody notices. Let me tell him: come that general election, the British people will.

Q5. That is the first time I have been confused with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Speaker. (906718)

And of all them are true, Mr Speaker.

Like me, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has the honour and privilege of representing a rural constituency. I am sure that he, like I, occasionally feels a certain degree of frustration that although progress has been made in this area, the rubric of funding formulae for things such as the Environment Agency, local government, the police and education still fails to adequately reflect the difficulties and challenges of delivering public services in rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the wider Government use the opportunities of the autumn statement and the forthcoming Budget to explore those issues further and make the delivery of services better for the Prime Minister’s constituents and mine?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue on behalf of his and my constituents. It is vital that we have the same high-quality services in rural areas as in our towns and cities. I am pleased to tell him that we are providing £95 million through the rural services delivery grant to help rural councils achieve exactly that. We are currently reviewing the police funding formula. I remember working with him to ensure that the national funding formula for schools takes account of the different characteristics of schools and their pupils. We will continue to keep all those things under review. I agree with him entirely: our rural communities must be given the same funding and public services as everyone else in our country.

Yesterday, the UN warned that hospitals in Gaza had just 48 hours of fuel left to keep their electricity going. That was 28 hours ago; the electricity runs out tonight. We have a human responsibility to all the people in Gaza, but we have a particular responsibility for UK citizens, some of whom are in those hospitals, with no food, no water, no medicine and no way out. How much worse does the situation have to get before the Prime Minister will join us in calling for a humanitarian ceasefire?

From the start, we have said that the first and most important principle is that Israel has the right to defend itself under international law—our support for that position is absolute and unchanged—but we have also said from the start that we want British nationals to be able to leave Gaza, hostages to be released, and humanitarian aid to get in. We recognise that, for all that to happen, there has to be a safer environment, which of course necessitates specific pauses, as distinct from a ceasefire. We discussed that with partners yesterday evening at the United Nations, and we have been consistently clear that everything must be done to protect civilians in line with international law and to continue getting more aid flowing into Gaza.

The growing calls for a ceasefire are also about calming the situation in the broader region, especially the west bank. UNICEF has reported over 2,000 fatalities and over 5,000 injured children since the conflict began, due to unrelenting attacks. If we ignore that, we risk pouring petrol on a fire in a place that only requires a spark to ignite. Can the Prime Minister understand that joining calls for a ceasefire is now the best—and maybe the only—way to stop this conflict escalating beyond all control?

We have to remember that Israel has suffered a shockingly brutal terrorist attack. Hamas are responsible for this conflict, and Israel has the right to protect itself in line with international law, as the UN charter makes clear. We will continue to urge the Israelis to follow international law, but we also have to remember that Hamas cruelly embed themselves in civilian populations.

We are doing everything we can to get aid into the region. I am pleased to say that an RAF flight left the UK for Egypt this morning carrying 21 tonnes of aid for Gaza. The relief supplies include more than 75,000 medical kits, solar lights and water filters for families, and warehousing equipment. Our team are on the ground, ready to receive. We will continue to do everything we can to increase the flow of aid, including fuel, into Gaza.

Q6. In the matter of Walleys Quarry, my constituents have been utterly let down and failed by the Environment Agency. Not only has it failed to prosecute a rogue operator for the repeated breaches of its permit; we now learn that for the past seven years, all of its monitoring equipment—including in your constituency, Mr Speaker—has been grossly under-recording levels of hydrogen sulphide by a factor of approximately two or three. That is the monitoring equipment that people have been relying on to tell them that their air is clean and safe to breathe. Given everything that has happened, we really need to see some proper action now. I have had enough of the EA, and my constituents have too, so will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to get a grip on this failing organisation? (906719)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns of his constituents. The Environment Agency’s criminal investigation is ongoing so, as I hope he understands, I cannot comment further on it. However, with regard to his concerns about the measurement inaccuracies, I have been assured—and have checked—that the Environment Agency is working swiftly to understand the scale of the problem. The Environment Secretary is monitoring the situation, and I have asked her to keep my hon. Friend updated regularly.

A few short months ago, the world came to Belfast to celebrate the Good Friday agreement. At the heart of that agreement was the realisation that we could not use violence as a tool for revenge or to achieve our political aims. As 1,400 Israelis and almost 6,000 Palestinians lay dying or dead, when will the Prime Minister say enough is enough? When will he call for a ceasefire? When will he tell Israel to stop meting out collective punishment to the people of Gaza, and when will he and other world leaders insist on a political solution that involves a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people?

As I said, an important principle is that Israel does have the right to defend itself under international law, to ensure that attacks like this one—which was brutal and horrific for its citizens—cannot happen again. We continue to support that position, but, as I said, from the start we have also wanted to ensure that humanitarian aid can go in and hostages and foreign nationals can come out. We recognise that that means there has to be a safer environment, which of course necessitates specific pauses, as distinct from a ceasefire. We discussed exactly this with our international partners yesterday at the United Nations and will continue to do so. As I made clear on Monday, we have doubled down on our efforts to find a better future for the Palestinian people. That has been a feature of all our diplomacy in the region, and we will continue to give all our efforts to making that happen.

Q7.   For too long, Bradford Council has failed to represent the best interests of my constituents, whether in its catastrophic failures on children’s services, its inability to invest our own council tax back into Keighley and Ilkley, or its refusal to instigate a review into child sexual exploitation across the Bradford district. Local residents and I are fed up of being ignored by Bradford Council, and we want out. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss my case for leaving Bradford Council and creating our own unitary authority that better represents Keighley and Ilkley, putting our priorities first? (906720)

I know my hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on this issue, having even introduced a private Member’s Bill on it earlier this year. I agree that his council should be working to ensure that it delivers good services for all its residents, including his constituents, and I will certainly arrange for the relevant Minister to discuss his concerns further with him. As my hon. Friend did not do so, maybe I can plug his event this afternoon in the Jubilee Room—a Keighley and Ilkley showcase. Perhaps the Minister can come to that event and discuss it in person then.

Q2.   Just a year ago, the new Prime Minister promised to unite our country, not with words but with actions. Quite rightly, voters make a judgment on actions, but in my constituency—as in many others—the Prime Minister has not delivered on his promises. Arbroath House in Easington Colliery is a GP practice without the funding to deliver basic community health services. Communities such as Shotton, South Hetton, Haswell and Horden lack the police officers to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. We see sewage being dumped on our coastline at Seaham and Blackhall without prosecution of the privatised water companies, and we see investment for levelling up blocked for Horden. When will the Prime Minister call a general election and let Labour rise to the task of rebuilding Britain? (906715)

The hon. Gentleman raised crime. I am pleased to say that crime is now down by over 50% since Labour was last in office, and that includes significant reductions in antisocial behaviour, which he mentioned. Indeed, earlier this year not only did we meet our pledge to deliver 20,000 more police officers—a record number on our streets—but our antisocial behaviour plan is already making a difference, delivering immediate justice and clamping down on that type of activity.

Q9.   I support the Government’s plans to build more homes and ease housing shortages. However, I have significant concerns about the impacts of developments on our ageing drainage systems and the potential flooding risk this poses, as we are seeing in places such as the Hazelwalls development in Uttoxeter. What steps will the Government take to ensure that, as more houses are built, existing infrastructure is upgraded and maintained by local authorities to ensure that it is not overwhelmed with additional use and less permeable surfaces? (906722)

As my hon. Friend knows, our traditional drainage systems are under increasing pressure, and that compares with the benefits of sustainable drainage systems, which work in a different way. It was already a requirement that sustainable drainage systems should be given priority in any major new development and developments in flood risk areas, but earlier this year we committed to requiring sustainable drainage systems in all new developments, on top of DEFRA’s plan for water, which puts a statutory duty on water companies to produce plans to set out how they will improve, maintain and extend our robust and resilient waste water systems.

Q4. This morning, I hosted the MS Society and people living with multiple sclerosis to hear about their experiences accessing personal independence payment. Ten years on from its introduction, people with MS and other fluctuating conditions are still too often being denied the support they deserve to manage the extra costs of their condition and to retain their independence for longer. Some 22,524 people with MS have signed a petition calling for a full review of PIP for fluctuating conditions, which is on its way to Downing Street right now. Will the Prime Minister listen to their call? (906717)

I am very sorry to hear about the experiences of those suffering with MS that the hon. Lady mentions, and I will ensure that the Work and Pensions Secretary looks at their concerns and writes to her.

Q10. We know that some duck serious questions today, aiming for electoral advantage in the future. May I note that the Prime Minister prefers to take decisions that will benefit the country now and in the longer term, so that we can have more jobs, better education and a shared prosperity? (906723)

Q8. While the final report of the infected blood inquiry has been postponed until March, Sir Brian Langstaff, the independent chair, has already published his recommendations on compensation for victims of that scandal. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government insist on postponing their response until after publication of the final report, kicking it into the long grass and delaying justice, once again, for my constituents Justine, Rachel and Paul, whose fathers died as a result of that scandal, as well as thousands of others across these isles? (906721)

As I have said previously from the Dispatch Box, what happened was an appalling tragedy, and my heart goes out to all of those affected and their families. I have given extensive evidence to the inquiry, so my position on this matter is on the record. What I would say is that extensive work has been going on in Government for a long time, co-ordinated by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, as well as interim payments of £100,000 being made to those who were affected.

Q12. The Prime Minister has been a great champion of transport projects on the Welsh borders, including the electrification of the main line in north Wales, the reopening of Corwen station and the Gobowen to Oswestry line, and also substantial levelling-up fund investment in the Llangollen and Montgomery canals. Will the Prime Minister now deliver on the long-awaited Pant-Llanymynech bypass and prioritise the dualling of the A5/A483 in Clwyd South and North Shropshire? (906725)

We are making significant improvements to our cross-border rail services across the Union. Thanks to our decision on HS2, we can now provide an unprecedented £1 billion of investment to fund the electrification of the north Wales main line, which will ensure reliable, punctual journeys between north Wales and multiple cities across the north-west of England. We are also continuing to develop the Pant-Llanymynech bypass scheme in our next round of the road investment plans, and a section of the A5 in England will be considered by National Highways as part of the midlands and Gloucestershire to Wales route strategy.

Q11. It is important that the covid inquiry has all the relevant documents; that is what the public, including thousands of bereaved families, expect and deserve. But despite being a self-described tech bro, the Prime Minister has been unable to locate and provide his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry. Does he agree that devices should be handed over to experts to retrieve this information? (906724)

Both the Government and I have fully co-operated to provide tens of thousands of documents to the covid inquiry, and I look forward to giving evidence later this year.

Q13. With the ongoing national crisis in NHS dentistry being raised here most weeks, can my right hon. Friend advise as to when the dentistry plan produced by the Department of Health and Social Care will be published? Can he ensure that any clawed-back unspent funds are ringfenced for NHS dentistry, so as to deal with emergencies and to help clear the backlog? (906726)

We are investing £3 billion in NHS dentistry, and the reformed dental contract is helping to improve NHS access for patients. I am pleased to say that NHS dental activity in the past year increased by almost a quarter compared with the year before, but the forthcoming dental recovery plan, which will be out shortly, will include action to incentivise dentists to deliver even more NHS care.

Q14. It is an honour to be elected to this place, and the standards by which we are expected to abide matter. Does the Prime Minister therefore accept that it was ill-judged for him to fail to declare to Parliament that companies linked to his wife had benefited to the tune of £2 billion from a fund he had set up as Chancellor? Will he correct the record now? (906727)

It is worth bearing in mind that Labour Front Benchers backed the Future Fund when it was introduced—indeed, they were calling for more funding for it, not less.

The House will be aware of my wife’s shareholdings in various British start-ups. That is her career. Those are on the record, and I am happy to put that on the record again. It is worth bearing in mind that the Future Fund helped more than 1,200 different companies. Neither the Government nor the British Business Bank chose any of those specific investments; it was open to any British firm that met the criteria.

Q15. The UK is at risk of being left behind on hydrogen internal combustion engines. The EU and the USA now recognise hydrogen combustion engines as zero-emission and are supporting those industries, as all viable zero-carbon technologies will be needed—particularly for our HGVs, according to the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance. I am working with BorgWarner, PHINIA and many MPs on HICE, because this issue is crucial for UK jobs, skills and manufacturing. Will my right hon. Friend commit to urgently extending the scope of the automotive transformation fund industrialisation grants to include hydrogen engines, so that we win the HICE race? (906728)

The Government are determined to ensure that the UK remains one of the best locations in the world for automotive manufacturing. Hydrogen fuel cells and their upstream supply chains are already in the scope of the ATF, and support for the fund has enabled Johnson Matthey’s £60 million investment in Hertfordshire to develop hydrogen technologies. I am told by the Secretary of State for Business and Trade that the Department for Business and Trade is continuing to look at the future possibilities for renewable hydrogen and will consider the fund’s eligibility in light of the new developments in this space.

There is an email in my inbox from a constituent who has family in Gaza. It reads:

“My heart can’t handle this anymore. We are being massacred, relentlessly bombed. Homes destroyed. No water, no food, no electricity.”

Save the Children reports that one child is killed every 15 minutes. As I speak, the lives of 130 babies in incubators are in danger if fuel does not reach their hospital in time. This is collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza, for crimes they did not commit. How many more innocent Palestinians must die before the Prime Minister calls for a humanitarian ceasefire?

I welcome the unity across the House on Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of an unspeakable act of terror, but it is also clear that we must support the Palestinian people; they are victims of Hamas, too. Hamas use innocent people as human shields, and we mourn the loss of every innocent life of every people, every faith and every nationality. We are working as hard as we can to get as much humanitarian aid into Gaza as quickly as practically possible.

Last week, Suffolk experienced its worst local floods for over 100 years, with communities in and around Needham Market, Framlingham, Debenham and Wickham Market particularly badly affected. Homes and businesses have been destroyed. In Suffolk, the community has rallied together, in a very stoic and pragmatic way, to support those in need at this very difficult time. What longer-term support can the Prime Minister offer to the people of Suffolk whose businesses and homes have been affected by these floods, to help them to recover and rebuild?

Flooding is a devastating experience, and I extend my sympathies to all those affected, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am pleased to say that, through the flood recovery framework, we are confirming additional financial support for the most affected households and businesses. This will include a £500 grant for households and council tax discounts and business rates relief of up to 100% for three months. Small and medium-sized businesses will also be eligible for a £2,500 business recovery grant, and there is a grant of up to £5,000 to make flooded homes more resilient to future flooding. We recognise the heroic efforts of local councils like my hon. Friend’s and of emergency responders everywhere who have been working tirelessly in affected areas. They have our thanks, and we stand ready to consider any requests from councils to support their recovery efforts.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House rises tomorrow for 10 days, I believe. Regrettably and sadly, it may be likely that a ground invasion of Gaza will commence during that period. This not only has consequences for the Palestinians and the Israelis, but could create turmoil and destabilise the whole middle east. I appreciate that it is the Government who determine whether or not Parliament is recalled but, in your conversations with the Government, will you advise them that the House should be recalled to debate such a serious issue?

You are absolutely right that it would not be for me under the normal rules, although I recognise the importance of a major escalation and what could happen in the middle east. You are correct that it would be for the Government—not for me, unfortunately—to recall the House. I will work through the usual channels to try to ensure that, quite rightly, we look to see what can be done in what would be special circumstances, because obviously the House will have prorogued. I do not lose sight of what you have said, and I take it on board. I will work with others behind the scenes to see how we would manage such a situation.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I can assure the House that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my office, and other Departments across Whitehall are very aware that this House will want to be kept updated about the ongoing situation. Many right hon. and hon. Members will have constituents directly affected, and we are working with the House of Commons Library to ensure that people are updated about the situation during the recess.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance to understand how we can table written questions about the Government’s policy of evicting Afghans from hotel accommodation—a project run by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs out of the Cabinet Office. I have given the Minister notice that I would raise this issue.

Despite the Minister’s having given multiple statements to the House this year on the housing of our Afghan friends, my Front-Bench colleagues and I are unable to table written questions to the Cabinet Office, which instead are being reallocated to either the Home Office or the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The Table Office staff are great, but I think a bit of parliamentary plumbing needs to be put in place to make sure that effective scrutiny via written question of the Minister leading this area is possible. Please could you advise how I can ensure that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs can be successfully scrutinised by written parliamentary question for the area he leads on in Government?

I am concerned by what the hon. Member has raised and grateful to him for giving me notice of his point of order. He will know that the Table Office is guided by Government Departments about the matter of which Ministers respond to questions and on policy areas. I will look into the matter; I take it very seriously and I am very concerned. We all know that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is very concerned about veterans, so I am sure he will be disappointed to know that those questions are not reaching him. I will investigate.

The Leader of the House is here, and I am sure that she will assist me. I am sure that we can work together, because no Member should be unable to lay questions to the Minister. Ministers are answerable to this House. All Members, from whatever party, should have that ability. I am very disappointed by what I have been told. We will get to the bottom of it.

Register of Derelict Buildings

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)12.41 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require local authorities to publish a register of derelict buildings in their area; to make provision in respect of the preparation and maintenance of such registers; and for connected purposes.

My home town, now my home city, is a place I am very proud of. Doncaster has many wonderful assets and the people are the best in the land. However, although 95-plus per cent. of it is great, some parts are not so. The Bill will make a real difference to that.

Derelict buildings are a problem. They blight our cities, towns and villages. This place has provided local authorities with powers to tackle derelict buildings. Sadly though, those powers are not being used as we intended. The Bill will provide an incentive to local authorities to do their duty and exercise their powers for the community as Parliament intended. It will start to address their dereliction of duty. We do not even know exactly how many derelict sites there are or precisely where they are. How can we as a society tackle the problem of derelict buildings until we truly know the scale of the problem? It is a problem of real significance.

As I come home on the train to Doncaster from Parliament on a Thursday evening, the first listed building I see is Denison House by the railway station. The windows are smashed, weeds are growing out of the guttering and there is general neglect—derelict. I walk through the station and see the Grand theatre, another listed building—derelict, again. I walk through town past Waterdale—derelict. I pass by the new expensive and shiny but half-empty council building, and on South Parade I see another Denison House—also listed, and also derelict. This is the former home of Sir Edmund Beckett-Denison, the man who in 1848 brought the railways to Doncaster. That building of his is now an eyesore—derelict, again.

As I drive to the towns and villages across my constituency, I pass Tyram Hall—derelict. I keep on driving into Thorne to view the works to reopen the leisure centre, and I drive by Haynes House—derelict. I pass Thorne brewery—derelict. I have a Secretary of State visit Doncaster, and I take him to Edlington’s leisure centre—derelict. Prince’s Crescent—many properties there are also derelict. The list goes on and on.

Why is this so? It is because there is no register, no personal responsibility and no example set by Labour-controlled City of Doncaster Council; the powers they hold are not being exercised. Labour’s care for our city is seemingly as derelict as the properties I have described. We cannot let this state of affairs continue; if we do, all we shall see is further deterioration and more derelict buildings. It drags us all down to their level—levelling down, not levelling up.

My Bill would ensure that all derelict buildings are identified. It would answer three questions: first, what is the definition of a derelict building; secondly, who will create and maintain the list; and thirdly, how will it be accessible to the public?

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said this about solving problems:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

I have given this considerable thought, and it seems to me that the first step must be to have a register of derelict buildings. The obvious body well placed for this exercise would be the local authority. Local authorities already have the necessary infrastructure and resources. They have a list of all the empty buildings already. They maintain records for council tax and business rates for properties, including those that are exempt. They will accordingly have a list of all buildings and structures within their area of jurisdiction, within their boundaries. It is important to note that their departments for planning and building control, as well as for council tax and business rates, will have records that can be cross-referenced. Not only are local authorities an obvious candidate, but they are the ones best placed.

There is no need to set up a quango, no need to spend enormous sums of taxpayers’ money and, as we have seen, local authorities already have the infrastructure and the records. It would merely be a question of identifying which of the empty buildings are derelict. They all have websites with information accessible by the public. The small steps required of them by the Bill would not incur substantial additional expenditure. Ongoing maintenance of the records would not require much time, effort or expense either.

My Bill will be the first step on this journey to addressing the blight of derelict buildings in our communities. This is the first step to the solution. By passing a law requiring all local authorities to identify derelict buildings in their area, we can start to make progress.

Let me start with the definitions. A derelict site is defined in my Bill as a site that has a structure or structures upon the land that are ruinous, derelict or in dangerous condition. The next step is to identify the derelict buildings and properties. Council officers would first check their existing records for empty properties. Most such properties, if not all, will be easily identified by their status regarding payment of council tax or business rates. A provisional list can be easily created which then should be published.

Additionally, all local authorities have district councillors, who should know their wards intimately—Conservative councillors do; that I do know. It seems to me that each councillor could easily provide the council with the details and addresses of buildings they believe are an eyesore in their locality, and they should be put on a provisional list. I would not expect there to be many that were not in that list. Those properties would then be visited by council officers to establish the condition.

The properties on the provisional list would then be classified as derelict and the owner given 28 days’ notice of the intention to give that classification to the property. Any owner would have the right to object, providing reasons in writing. These objections could then be reviewed. The local authority could then either withdraw the classification or confirm it.

So why is such a list of any value to us? The advantages are numerous. It would enable us first to know the scale of the problem. It would provide an incentive to all areas to see that list reduce, rather than increase. Should the buildings be left as they are, be improved or be demolished? These are questions that will arise, and the right answers may be different across the board. Should improvement works be exempt from VAT? Should compulsory purchase orders be made? Should owners be required to carry out improvements or demolition? Should they be persuaded to address that by carrot or stick, or indeed by both?

Many such questions arise. The Bill does not attempt to answer them. It would, however, enable us for the first time to understand the scale of the problem faced by every part of this wonderful country. I want to ensure that our cities, towns and villages are not blighted. Derelict buildings are a blight—there is no doubt about that. Let us identify the scale of the problem. Let us learn from the wisdom of Albert Einstein. Let us think about the problem. The Bill would enable us to do exactly that. Then, and only then, shall we find the solutions and return all our towns and cities to their former glory.

Question put and agreed to.


That Nick Fletcher, Dr Liam Fox, Antony Higginbotham, Mark Eastwood, Damien Moore, Paul Bristow, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Mark Jenkinson, Danny Kruger, Lia Nici, Alexander Stafford and Miriam Cates present the Bill.

Nick Fletcher accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 378).

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Consideration of Lords message

After Clause 180

Failure to prevent fraud

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment (a), and the following motion:

That this House insists on its Amendment 161A in lieu and disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment 161D in lieu.

I am pleased to bring this important Bill back to the House this afternoon, for what I sincerely hope is the last time, given that this will be the third time we have debated and voted on similar issues. I urge Opposition Front-Bench Members and those in the other place not to risk the safe passage of this hugely significant, near-400 page Bill by continuing to press these amendments.

The Government have appreciated the input of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House—including the right hon. Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill)—to help change the Bill for the better. We are discussing failure to prevent, together with the identification of doctoring. The Government are taking world-leading measures—I think this is the first time that a major economy such as ours has implemented them—which we should be proud we are implementing through the Bill. Of course, if the elected Chamber expresses its strong will on these remaining issues for the third time, I very much hope that the other place will agree that now is the time for it to accept that position. I think we would all rather have what we have done than see all this good work being in vain by letting the legislation fall.

Let me discuss the two issues in turn. I will keep my remarks brief as the arguments remain the same as on the preceding two times we have discussed them. I will first address Lords amendments 151E and 151F on the “failure to prevent” threshold. I will also address amendment (a), tabled last night by the right hon. Member for Barking, on a Government review of the threshold. While my noble Friend Lord Garnier’s amendment has moved closer yet again to the Government’s position by exempting micro-entities and small organisations from the offence, I am afraid that the Government will not support the lowering of the threshold at this time. Let me repeat the reasons why. It is already an offence to perpetrate fraud. The objective of the new offence is to ensure that there is accountability where fraud occurs in large organisations. There is simply no need to apply any such offence to smaller organisations.

Every time such an offence is introduced, business owners end up distracted from running their businesses by taking time to reassess their compliance risks, which often involves taking professional advice. We assess that the revised threshold proposed by Lord Garnier would cost medium-sized enterprises £300 million in one-off costs and nearly £40 million in annual recurring costs. We should be making it easier for businesses to operate in the UK and only imposing additional regulatory burdens when absolutely necessary. The Government completely reject the notion of using such an offence simply to raise awareness among business owners of the seriousness of the problem of fraud. There would be other, more proportionate ways to do that if necessary.

In response to the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking, the Government have already future-proofed the Bill by including a delegated power to allow the Government to raise, lower or remove the threshold altogether. Of course, as with all legislation, the Government will keep the threshold under review. I make a personal commitment to do that and to make changes if evidence suggests that they are required. I do not think that a Government review is necessary for that to take place, so I ask the right hon. Member not to move her amendment. We must bear in mind that a review does not guarantee change anyway. What guarantees change is having the right people at the Dispatch Box making changes, whether those are people from her party or my party, and both parties are equally exercised by these concerns. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support the Government motion to disagree with the Lords amendments to ensure that we take a proportionate approach and do not impose unnecessary measures on legitimate businesses that would curb our economic growth.

I turn to Lords amendment 161D, tabled by Lord Faulks, on cost protection in civil recovery cases. The Government remain of the view that such an amendment would be a significant departure from a fundamental principle of justice—that the loser pays—and therefore not something that should be rushed into without careful consideration. Furthermore, as I set out when we last debated this issue, we have seen no clear evidence that the amendment would increase the number of cases taken on by law enforcement. However, that is not to say that such an amendment is necessarily a bad idea. That is why we previously added to the Bill a statutory commitment to review the payment of costs in civil recovery cases in England and Wales by enforcement authorities, to publish a report on the findings and to lay that before Parliament within 12 months.

With regard to civil costs reform in England and Wales, the Government would normally look to consult appropriate consultees, including the senior judiciary, the Law Society and the Bar Council. Enacting the reform now without a full review would not allow judges and relevant organisations, or indeed their counterparts in Northern Ireland and Scotland, to comment on how it would be read and applied in practice. We therefore feel it would be irresponsible for us to rush into making such a significant change at the end of a Bill’s passage without full consideration by Government and further scrutiny by Parliament. I very much hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that that is the responsible approach to take and therefore support the Government’s position.

The Minister said clearly that there has been consultation with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Will he indicate who those discussions have taken place with? Was it banks, or the Departments looking after matters in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly? I am keen to know who does the work to ensure that there is accountability for everyone.

That is a good point. There are clearly different legal jurisdictions in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with of course the Court of Session in Scotland. From a legal perspective, the counsel in those jurisdictions are the people who discuss this. In wider issues such as failure to prevent, banks and many other stakeholders have people who will consult during the process. I am happy to keep up the conversation with the hon. Gentleman.

The reason I asked the question is quite specific, although it might not necessarily relate to the issue directly. The Minister refers to banks. A number of local organisations and community groups back home, which are registered and constituted as community institutions, have had their bank accounts closed. Banks have closed their accounts down because they say they are non-profitable. Is it right that banks should be able to do that? I know the Minister understands the matter—

Order. Can I just help a little bit? The hon. Gentleman is very good, but his intervention is very long. Why does he not put down to speak? It might be easier. I have to get other people in as well.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue relating to the concerns about de-banking that we have across the economy. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) is looking at it, as is the Treasury. In future, it is our intention to ensure that when banks close accounts they give a valid reason why, rather than closing them summarily. He is absolutely right to raise the point and I am very happy to engage with him on it, because it affects businesses as well as community groups.

To conclude, I encourage everyone to agree with the Government’s position on these two areas. It is vital that we achieve Royal Assent without delay, so we can proceed to implement the important reforms in the Bill as quickly as possible.

It is an honour to speak on the Bill again. I was hoping that we could conclude the proceedings on the Bill as soon as possible and it is disappointing that the Government are yet to make further compromises. The Bill is welcome in principle, but it should not have taken the war on Ukraine to prompt the Government into action. I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), and to Members across the House for working together to improve the Bill.

Economic crime poses a threat to our country’s national security, our institutions, our economy, and causes serious harm to our citizens and wider society. Conservative estimates place the cost of economic crime at £290 million a year, according to the National Crime Agency, and the failure to stop criminals benefiting from the proceeds of their crime can fund further criminality. That can include offences such as funding organised crime groups, terrorist activity, drug dealing and people trafficking—this is a very serious issue.

Economic crime, as the Minister knows, has many victims. For too long, the Government have turned a blind eye to corrupt and dirty money, allowing Russian illicit finance to flood into Britain. That lets Putin’s cronies stash ill-gotten gains and even recycle the proceeds of crime into luxury properties. That is well documented and has been highlighted by many Members across the House, as well as in Select Committees. According to analysis by Transparency International, properties to the tune of £6.7 billion have been bought through suspicious wealth. Of those, almost a quarter in value were

“bought by Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin.”

Most are held via secretive offshore companies. That drives up property prices for ordinary people in our country. More than two-thirds of English and Welsh properties held by foreign shell companies do not report their true owners. Research by the London School of Economics and Warwick University shows that the Register of Overseas Entities is not fully effective. For 71% of such properties, essential information about their beneficial owners remains missing or publicly inaccessible, despite the register. That means we still cannot know whether sanctioned individuals, money launderers or other corrupt individuals are benefiting from those properties.

We must not sustain economic growth off the back of dirty money. The Government have already delayed the Bill and these actions for too long. In that time, money has been lost, economic crime has become ingrained and the UK economy has once again lost out. Given that the nature and necessity of the Bill has already been discussed at length, I will focus on addressing the two amendments.

During the passage of the Bill, helpful alterations have been made to ensure that it is robust. The Lords amendments before us today seek to address two omissions. We are very disappointed that the Government are not willing to compromise and not willing to heed the wise and expert input of the Lords. That is deeply disappointing, because a great deal could be achieved if the Minister and his Government took note, including from hon. and learned Members on their own side.

If the Minister is brief, rather than talking the Bill out like he did last time, I will give way.

I will be very brief. On the question of compromise, the hon. Lady will have noticed that there was no “failure to prevent” offence when the legislation was first tabled, nor was there an identification doctrine. There has been significant compromise on the Government side. Our preference, clearly, is to move forward in that spirit of compromise. We have achieved a great deal with the Bill, which has moved from under 300 pages to 400 pages. I do not think it is right to say that the Government have not compromised.

When the Minister was a Back Bencher, he was a powerful advocate on the very issues we are discussing today. It is a shame he has been muzzled, but I appreciate that he is in a difficult position. I hope we can have some comprise, but clearly he has not managed to persuade senior members of his Government. I ask the Government to once again carefully consider these amendments, so that we can best tackle the problem of fraud and economic crime.

The Minister highlighted all the problems with the amendments, but I want to talk about their strengths. The noble Lord Garnier’s amendment on “failure to prevent” fraud, which exempts small and micro-enterprises, highlights that the criminal law should be uniform and apply to all in a similar way. This is not just a small insignificant amendment, but a change that would significantly alter law enforcement. For context, fraud is the most common crime in the UK, accounting for 41% of all crimes. Introducing a “failure to prevent” offence would help to deter companies from engaging in or facilitating fraud. To fully change corporate behaviour, we must ensure that the offence applies to all companies, regardless of size.

As has been stated on many occasions, since the “failure to prevent” bribery covers all companies, there is no reason why this measure should not also cover businesses of all sizes. It simply creates more discrepancies and confusion for businesses. The size of a business should not determine who is exempt. The Government have touted this exemption as a protection for small businesses against unnecessary red tape, but in reality this carve out deprives small and medium-size enterprises of the defence of having put in place reasonable anti-fraud procedures. Smaller companies will instead be covered only by the fraud offence itself, when large companies would be caught by the lighter “failure to prevent” fraud offence. The introduction of a new “failure to prevent” offence should apply to all, and the corresponding defence of putting in place reasonable defence procedures should be available to all. In effect, through this carve out, the Government are creating an uneven playing field that is biased against smaller companies. The Bill currently leaves large gaps for economic crime to not only persist but flourish, which I know is not the intention of the Minister. The amendment would have gone a long way to addressing those issues. I ask him once again to carefully consider the amendment, rather than reject it.

I want to turn to the amendment from the noble Lord Faulks, on cost protections in civil recovery cases. The amendment gives more discretion to court judges to alter the allocation of legal costs to ensure that extortionate legal fees are not a hindrance to justice. The spirit of the amendment is that it will help to prevent criminals benefiting from the proceeds of crimes, here or around the world. When it comes to cases where enforcement agencies are trying to prosecute high-level, large-scale economic crime, cost orders remain a serious barrier. I know that first-hand from evidence we received when I served on the Treasury Committee, where we conducted two inquiries on these issues. Our enforcement agencies need strong backing if they are to take on fraud, money laundering and other types of economic crime on the largest scale. Right now, the Government should be on the side of our agencies, rather than tying their hands behind their backs. The amendment would ensure that criminals, cronies and kleptocrats are not given cover by leaving the back door open for them to spend their way out of justice. That cannot be right. It would ensure that the size of their bank accounts and assets does not give them a guaranteed get out of jail free card just because they can afford to meet any expenses required to support their case. The Minister knows that this is a problem; he has heard evidence of it. He knows that it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

It has been disappointing to observe the Government’s lack of willingness to protect our law enforcement. It seems reasonable that a court could have discretion on how to allocate costs, especially when we know of previous cases, one of which resulted in a family’s seeking costs amounting to a staggering £1.5 million. That represents 40% of the National Crime Agency’s annual budget between 2015 and 2018.

The Bill is almost over the line, and I acknowledge that there have been some improvements, but we could do a great deal more. We have welcomed the Bill and we welcome the Lords amendments, so we are disappointed that the Government continue to fail to support them. We would be in a much better place if there were a compromise. The “failure to prevent” offence is a case in point. For years we have been calling for a replication of the successes of the Bribery Act 2010. Sadly, our capital city has been nicknamed “Londongrad”, and is now considered to be a capital where money laundering and fraud are rife. That means that we must do more to tackle these issues, but the Bill provides only part of the solution. The present circumstances require much more radical action than the timidity that we have witnessed both today and in the last Session.

It is saddening that the Government have missed such an important opportunity. We will continue to hold their feet to the fire, but given the lack of compromise, it will be for the next Government—the next Labour Government, I hope—to pick up the pieces and toughen up our response in order to end the corrosive impact of dirty money in our country.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me point out—it may not be obvious—that we only have until 1.51 pm to complete this business. I therefore appeal for brevity. I am not going to impose a time limit, because given that everyone present is a distinguished and experienced Member, we should not need one.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just want to be clear about this. I assume that we can speak until 1.51 pm, and vote after that. Is that correct?

There has been a great deal of improvement in the Bill, and much of its content is welcome. I recognise that, and I also recognise what the Minister has said, but I am sorry to say that the dead hand of the Treasury has yet again got in the way of our getting the Bill into the best possible state. Let us be blunt about it. The Government, regrettably, have not moved, which is why I support the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), which I have signed and which, I think, offers a sensible compromise. If it takes longer for the Treasury and other parts of the Government to be persuaded, well and good: let us have a proper review after 12 months. However, a serious issue has arisen, and I want to make two brief points about it.

Let me deal first with the point made in the other place by Lord Garnier about the inherent contradictions in a test of criminality based on the size of an organisation. I can see that there is a proportionality point to be made about very small enterprises, but there is good evidence—and anyone who practises in the field will know—that fraud and other illicit activity are often channelled through smaller companies, and the people in those companies are precisely the people over whom we do need to have a degree of control. Law enforcement is not, with respect, needless bureaucracy; it is fundamental to good business, and I think that that point is regrettably being missed.

It was a point underlined when we heard public evidence on the Bill. People explained to us how a number of different smaller companies might well be set up to become conduits for fraud.

That is a compelling point, and it accords with the evidence that the Justice Committee was given in relation to our inquiry into fraud in the justice system. The irony is that the Government’s current stance may well create a perverse incentive. That is certainly not what the Minister wants, and it is not what anyone in the House ought to want.

The point about cost caps is important as well, but I am particularly exercised about the “failure to prevent” offence. Everyone has argued for that, and we are nearly there. I hoped that the Government, being reasonable, would say, “Let us have a look at it; let us have a commitment in the Bill.” I accept that the Minister is an entirely honourable man, and I accept what he says, but I know from personal experience that Ministers do not stay forever. At the end of the day, we want an assurance that this provision will be written into the statute and there will be a review, because it is so important. I beg the Minister to reflect on that. Otherwise, those of us who want to be able to support the Government today will find ourselves in a position where we cannot do so, although there is so little between us. The ability to move just that little bit further would send a much better signal. As it is, the Lords passed these amendments last time with larger majorities than before, and they will be entitled to take note of that in the event that the Bill goes back to them again. I therefore hope that, even at the last minute, the Government will reflect.

I knew that when you referred to us all as distinguished and experienced Members you did not mean me, Madam Deputy Speaker.

This is the third time we have been back here, and I think it incumbent on the Government to listen to the Lords. They have made it clear that they feel strongly about their very reasonable amendments, which shows how important they are and how we should be getting this right. There is no question that, as the Minister suggested, we are going to let the Bill fall today. I think that if he were worried about that he would accept the Lords amendments this afternoon, rather than allowing the process to go on and on. We did not need to be here at the last minute; he could have accepted many of the amendments at a much earlier stage, because fundamentally he agrees with them. We know that, because he said it on many occasions before he took ministerial office. I think that a great deal can be done if the Minister will make that compromise this afternoon.

The notion that 99.5% of businesses can be exempted from the “failure to prevent” offence is absolutely mad. Small businesses are both part of and victims of economic crime. Some figures from UK Finance arrived in our inboxes earlier today. According to its findings, criminals stole £580 million through unauthorised and authorised fraud in just the first half of 2023. UK Finance says that that is a 2% decrease, but it is still a significant amount of money. Businesses as well as individuals are losing out, and the Government should be paying more attention to that.

The Minister described “failure to prevent” as a distraction for business. I wonder if he also thinks, for consistency’s sake, that the “failure to prevent bribery” offence in the Bribery Act 2010 and the “failure to prevent tax evasion” offence in the Criminal Finances Act 2017 are distractions for business. If he thinks that “failure to prevent” economic crime is a distraction for business, he must surely think that those other offences are also an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy that businesses have to carry out. It does not make any sense.

I fully support the level playing field for cost protections. We must give our enforcement agencies both the tools and money to do their job. No enforcement agency should be thinking, “We cannot afford to take on this case. We cannot afford to prosecute these economic criminals.” The Government should be supporting law enforcement, allowing this Lords amendment to go through, and ensuring that we make the best possible legislation. There is no excuse for the Government not to do these things. The Government agree with them, and we in the House agree with them on a cross-party basis. The Government should get on with it, and not return the Bill to the Lords.

I will certainly remember your exhortation to brevity, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you know, that is something of a challenge for me at the best of times.

I think my right hon. Friend may suffer from the same affliction, dare I say; but I will draw a veil of charity over that.

My hon. Friend—and my friend—the Minister has campaigned assiduously with us in the trenches on this issue for many years. I yield to none in my admiration for him, and I want to put on record how grateful I am that he is in this place, in that spot, doing the job that he is doing. We have come a long way. I well remember being on the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee giving authorisation for this Bill in the first place, and knowing then that it would require heavy amendment during its course.

It was inevitable that, in the light of the appalling incidents in Ukraine and the changed world situation, the Bill would develop and mature, and mature it has. The identification principle changes are truly radical and reflect a view long held by the Law Commission and others that we needed to update the Tesco v. Nattrass principle, which is now 50 years old. I salute the Minister and colleagues in the Lords for making sure that that has happened, but I must press him again about the basis upon which the Government make assertions, very much at the last minute, about the regulatory or administrative cost burdens on small and medium-sized businesses. I do not think that they are going to be as dramatically high as they assert. We have not had proper time to test the estimates, and I do not think that they stand up to scrutiny. They do not reflect the Government’s position on previous “failure to prevent” offences—namely, for tax evasion and bribery—and this begs a huge range of questions.

There is no doubt that my colleagues in the legal profession—I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on every occasion, and I do so now—will feast upon these threshold definitions. Worse than that, unscrupulous operators in the field will exploit these threshold definitions and find clever ways around the law. We know what that means. We will see shell companies and people of straw. We will see the same behaviour that we are rightly trying to eradicate because we want this country to be one of the best places in the world to invest.

This is chiefly an economic argument. Yes, there is a morality to it, but chiefly it is an economic argument. That is why, at the last minute as we come up to Prorogation, I remind my hon. Friend the Minister of the increased majorities in the other place for these amendments and in particular of the attempt we have made to compromise with the Government. At the last minute, I imposed myself upon the goodwill of the Clerks in order to get a further amendment in before the time limit. It was a manuscript amendment to increase the period of one year mentioned in the amendment to 18 months. It has not been selected for debate, but the important political point that we wish to make is that we are seeking at the last minute to come up with reasonable compromises.

I will give the Minister another idea. Bills normally come in with Royal Assent, which we imagine will happen either today or tomorrow with the Prorogation ceremony. Two months is the normal period for Bills to then come into force but he has the power to lay commencement orders to ensure that certain parts of this Bill do not come into force until a statutory instrument has been laid. He has that power, so why not use it in this case and accept the amendment tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge)? He can see that we are commanding all the ingenuity that we have to come up with reasonable compromises that will allow the Bill to pass in the best possible order. I make a last-minute plea to him to accept these exhortations and not to oppose the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and me. I can say no more to my hon. Friend the Minister, other than to thank him and ask him to go that extra yard.

This is another leg in a long journey. I want to focus on the amendment that stands in my name, which is supported by the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill).

May I place on the record my thanks to everybody across the House, some of whom are here today, for the way in which we have managed to work together as Members of Parliament and put our political affiliations behind us in trying to find a common-sense, pragmatic way to tackle a horrific problem and to improve the Bill that was laid before us almost a year ago? I also pay special tribute to Members of the House of Lords, who have again worked incredibly hard to improve the Bill in a practical way. In particular, I thank Lord Garnier, Lord Agnew, Lord Vaux and Lord Edward Faulks, all of whom have moved important amendments that have been supported by Members across the House, many of whom are members of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax.

I draw to Members’ attention what happened to the amendment to the “failure to prevent” measures. When it was first considered by the House of Lords it was passed by a majority of three. When it was considered a second time, it was passed by a majority of 26. When it was considered a third time, last week, it was passed by a majority of 41. So the strength of feeling in the other place about the importance of the propositions in the Bill simply grew over time, as the argument was heard by more and more members of the House of Lords, and I bet that if it goes back again, it will get through again with an even greater majority. I say to the Minister that people are voting for this and it is not just a partisan issue; Cross-Benchers and members of the Conservative party are either voting or choosing to abstain. That is why we are securing those majorities in the House of Lords.

Our amendment is moved in the spirit of compromise. All we are saying in that amendment is that we would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review a year after Royal Assent, with a report to Parliament within 18 months of Royal Assent, where it would assess the impact of excluding so many businesses from having duties to prevent fraud. It would also look at the impact of that on the incidence of fraud and assess the potential merits of bringing more companies into scope.

I want to take Members back to when the Government promised to introduce a “failure to prevent” offence on the basis of new clauses introduced by the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst when we considered the Bill on Report. They were detailed new clauses to which we had given great thought. The Government agreed at that point to adopt our proposals on the basis that we would not seek to divide the House on the issue. We kept our side of the bargain but, sadly, the Government have failed to deliver on their commitment. So Lord Garnier tried valiantly three times to hold the Government to their word, and every time he put it to a vote he got a greater majority in favour of what he was proposing.

This measure was first championed when the Minister was a Back Bencher, as he is well aware. He was the individual on our all-party parliamentary group who argued the case for it with the greatest passion and commitment, so it is especially sad that the effectiveness of the new offence has been so undermined and weakened by the changes he has chosen to make or been forced to make by colleagues in his own Department or in the Treasury. He often argues that we were the first country to introduce a “failure to prevent” offence. I agree with that, but I would simply say to him we are also the jurisdiction of choice for dirty money, so surely we have a duty, more than any other jurisdiction, to lead on reforms and to clamp down on this evil matter.

The Government’s changes have substantially weakened the power of the new offence, and the Minister has to accept that. He has taken out the failure to prevent money laundering, and the offence now covers only fraud. He has excluded all medium-sized, small and micro-businesses. That means that his carveout has excluded 99.9% of all businesses. It has excluded two thirds of all the people employed in private enterprise. It has excluded half the turnover that flows through private enterprise. I say to the Minister that this is a missed opportunity by his Government that represents a failure to act firmly and decisively against the scourge of dirty money.

The Government’s own report, “National SME Fraud Segmentation”, found that medium-sized companies employing between 50 and 250 employees were significantly more likely to experience fraud than larger companies. The Metropolitan police and UK Finance have warned that SMEs are particularly vulnerable to fraud, and the procedures to prevent companies from committing fraud are exactly the same as the procedures to prevent companies from experiencing fraud. Why on earth and on what basis have the Government chosen to excuse them? I cannot understand the logic.

Some of the most worrying actors that we know are engaged in either conniving or facilitating fraud are now out of scope. If we look just at law firms, we see that only 100 of the 10,400 law firms in Britain today are now likely to be in scope. Just yesterday I had a meeting with Lloyds bank, which described to me a terrible scam relating to house purchases whereby the purchaser has an endless round of emails with the solicitor about all the details of the purchase of a property, but then an email appears changing the bank details to which the purchaser should pay the deposit. As the solicitor does not have the systems in place to check on that, the purchaser pays into a fraudulent account and loses the deposit on the house, which is a massive amount of money. If the solicitor had had those procedures in place, that fraud might never have occurred. I repeat to the Minister that only 100 of the 10,400 law firms in Britain will now be in scope, if the Government’s will holds.

The right hon. Lady is making very important points. However, the “failure to prevent” offence, as drafted, would not cover that situation, because it covers only situations where the benefit is to the corporation concerned or an officer within it. A situation in which a third party hijacked systems would not be covered, whatever the threshold.

That is an interesting point. The simple response is that, obviously, the drafting of the “failure to prevent” offence needs further improvement to ensure that it covers that sort of instance.

There were similar arguments about the burden on SMEs when we introduced the Bribery Act 2010. In 2015, a survey of SMEs found that nine out of 10 had no concerns or problems with the Act, and 90% also said that it did not affect their ability to export. Although fears are expressed before legislation is introduced, once it is on the statute book people find that it actually helps them. Under the terms of the Bill, SMEs already have an appropriate defence, as the Minister well knows: that they should only take actions that are reasonable in all circumstances. That test of reasonableness would protect microbusinesses and SMEs from having to engage in overly bureaucratic procedures.

Although the argument is overwhelming, the Minister does not agree. We had hoped that the Government would support and accept our amendment. If they were to do so, we would not put all these amendments to the vote. This means that the next Government—a Labour Government, we all hope—will seize the opportunity that the Minister has missed and grasp the issue. Labour will become the anti-corruption champions, saving our country and our economy.

This Bill arrived in a sorry state and we have improved it—I accept that—with the identification doctrine, clauses on strategic lawsuits against public participation, the improvement of accountability with an annual report to Parliament, and the reluctant acceptance that there may be an increase in fees for Companies House. But there are still large gaps. Trusts have not been covered, as they should be, and authorised corporate services providers could end up with a future dud register. Cost caps, which other hon. Members have alluded to, are not in there, the whistleblower regime is not in place, and asset seizure still has to be tackled.

We hear whispers that there is a third economic crime Bill. I am pleased about that, but if we had achieved more with this Bill, we might not have needed another one. After all the work that all of us have done to achieve cross-party consensus, and given the values that we all share, I would hope that the Minister would be bold enough to accept our tiny little compromise and put this Bill to bed so that the proposed legislation could be passed by the time we prorogue.

I rise to speak in favour of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), which gives me an opportunity to thank her for her extraordinary leadership on this agenda. Our country is safer and stronger for the work that she has helped lead in this House over a long period.

Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I am grateful to the Minister for ensuring that, by and large, we have approached this Bill in the spirit of compromise. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, unfortunately, the Bill arrived in this place in a sorry state. Of course, the best way to examine that is to look at the fantastic manifesto of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, which, of course, the Minister used to co-chair. When I look at that manifesto, which we launched together in Westminster Abbey not too long ago, I see that this Bill covers a fair number of its proposals, but not all of them. That is why something of a mystery still hangs over the Chamber today, and that mystery is that we know that the Minister probably wanted to go much further in this Bill. He has been collegiate enough not to explain to us, either in public or in private, just how his hands were tied and why he has pulled his punches on so many of the policy proposals, including those that we are debating this afternoon.

I want to underline why the “failure to prevent” clauses are so important and why the responsibility for failing to prevent fraud and money laundering should apply to all companies, not just 9% of UK plc. We know, as my right hon. Friend said, that unfortunately this country is now one of the two global centres for money laundering and fraud. That is a badge of shame. There are think-tanks in places such as Washington that now write reports about what they call the UK kleptocracy problem. That is because we have left our financial services and Companies House too weak to police what is a growing problem.

To underline how fast the risk to our country is growing, I asked the House of Commons Library to look at the amount of foreign direct investment that was coming into our country. Foreign direct investment comes into Britain through companies that are set up at a moment’s notice, from UK offshore accounts, from dictatorships and from countries that are only partially free, and the reality is that that money has grown fivefold since 2010. A quarter of a trillion pounds of foreign direct investment has come into Britain from UK offshore accounts, dictatorships and countries that are only partially free. Overwhelmingly, I am sure, that money is clean and good, but we all know in this House that some of it is not. We have a responsibility in this place to make sure that our regime for policing corrupt money is as strong as it possibly can be. This Bill, although it makes progress, still leaves weaknesses in the argument.

The Minister has based his arguments more recently on whether we are creating undue, over-burdensome costs to business. Like him, I was in business previously—I was in the wrong place at the wrong time—and was elected to this place in 2004. I know what it is like to grow a business from two people around a table to a multi-million pound enterprise that employs lots people. I know about the responsibilities on company directors, but we grant special privileges to company directors in this country and we grant special privileges to companies. That regime was introduced in 1855. When Viscount Palmerston moved that legislation through the House, he said that the Limited Liability Act 1855 was important, because it would act for the common good of the country. Yet, if we have a regime that does not ensure that directors have responsibilities that match those privileges, frankly, that common good is undermined.

As my right hon. Friend said, we already have a regime in this country that bestows some important responsibilities on directors, including the failure to prevent bribery and the failure to prevent tax evasion. Therefore, there are already important regulatory requirements on directors, which we as a House have judged to be essential to keep our economy clean. Asking those directors to take one more responsibility, which is to prevent fraud, is not a significant extra burden.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that if we are to have a successful financial services sector, we will never get it on the back of dirty money? Therefore, it is ever more important that, in relation to both fraud and money laundering, we have a “failure to prevent” offence, which is not about banging up people in prison but about changing the behaviour of companies and those who work in them?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a point of cross-party consensus. I know it is a point of cross-party consensus because it was the Minister who used to use precisely the same argument to argue for some of the changes that we see in the Bill.

We all know that our country does well, because, by and large, we have a reputation for clean trade around the world. When companies file and incorporate in this country, that is a credential that does them well around the world. That is a credential that we must do everything in this House to protect, which is why the amendment is so important. We cannot leave a weakness in our armour as crime and fraud multiplies.

The Minister said that the proposal would be a cost to British business that we could not withstand or sustain, but the truth is that, while it might be a cost to some British businesses, it would also be a saving to British business, to the British economy and to British taxpayers, because it is always cheaper and more effective to prevent fraud in the first place than to have to police it or to prosecute fraud after the event. When 64% of businesses—small businesses—in this country are victims of fraud, we can only imagine how widespread that cost of fraud has now become. That average is much higher than international averages and therefore there is an additional argument that we need to go that one step further to make sure that we are doing everything in our power to prevent fraud from arising in the first place.

All we ask in this amendment is for the Minister to face the facts. He should bring the facts together, put them in a report, assess them, analyse them and present some conclusions to the House. How can we have a situation where the Minister is essentially asking for the freedom to look away? That simply cannot be the basis of good policy. I am grateful to my new colleagues on the Business and Trade Committee who agreed yesterday that we will ask representatives of Companies House to come before us for hearings. Frankly, if the Minister is not prepared to put the facts around fraud in one place, I shall ask the Select Committee to do the job for him.

With the leave of the House, I wish to thank Members who have contributed to the debate. We have much in common, despite the fact that some small differences still remain. As I said earlier, the Government have come a long way since the original tabling of the legislation. The number of pages have increased by more than 100, so the contents of the Bill now stand at nearly 400, which shows the importance of the legislation that we are debating.

I did not agree with the shadow Minister when she said that the Government have not been willing to compromise—that is not the case at all. The “failure to prevent” offence, particularly the identification doctrine, are key, world-leading measures. In my opening remarks, I made the commitment—and I make it again—that will we keep this matter under review, and that includes, in particular, the threshold. Even if there were a requirement for review in statute, there is no requirement on the Government to make changes following that review, so it is important to maintain the goodwill that we have experienced during the passage of the Bill.

Perhaps the Minister can tell me what he means when he says that he will keep this matter under review. What precisely does that mean?

The way that we have legislated here, and the reason for doing so in that way, have always been informed by information that has come from third parties—from Spotlight on Corruption, Transparency International and others—that have been interested in the Bill. The right hon. Lady and I have worked together on this issue in the past in various all-party groups. Those are the kind of bodies that will inform progress as we implement this legislation, which again I say is world leading.

The shadow Minister talked about a level playing field and said that these measures move away from that. I could not disagree more. The key thing is that we do not have a level playing field now. In small companies, it is much easier to identify who is responsible for a fraud. That is why it is more difficult in large companies, which is why we are applying this to large companies. Fraud is fraud whatever the size of the company. This legislation does not allow smaller or medium-sized companies to facilitate fraud—if they are guilty of fraud, they are guilty of fraud and it is far easier to identify the people concerned.

Let me address the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and thank him for all the work that he has done on this legislation and on the Justice Committee. I ask him not to doubt my motives; I have not been influenced by the Treasury at all. I am influenced by wanting to do the right thing in terms of both tackling economic crime and making sure that we do not put undue burdens on businesses. I can assure him that, for as long as I am in this role, we will keep this under review and make sure that the threshold is fit for purpose.

My hon. Friend talks about good business, but it is good business to make sure that we do not put undue burdens on business. I can promise him that, from my experience—while I was chief executive of my company—we implemented the rules on bribery and tax evasion, which were significant in our business. These would be significant measures for businesses. I say to him and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) that they will have a real impact on businesses and significant costs of implementation. I do not think that they would be proportionate or needed within smaller enterprises, because of the ease of identifying the people responsible if fraud were facilitated in an organisation.

I appreciate the kind words of my right hon. and learned Friend and the work that he has done. I remember lobbying him on this issue when he was the Secretary of State for Justice—and a fine job he did. We have got much further this time than we did at that time, which shows our collegiate way of working all the way through the Bill’s passage.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has also done fantastic work in this area, and I appreciate all her efforts. She says that we do not agree. We have a right to disagree where we disagree, and we honestly disagree about whether this proposal is required. We do not want to put unnecessary burdens on businesses.

I completely understand the strength of feeling of the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) on this matter. I, too, feel strongly about implementing the right measures to tackle economic crime while not putting undue burdens on businesses, so I say to her again, in the spirit of good will that we have operated under for many years, we will keep this under review. If the threshold needs to be changed, we can do that under secondary legislation.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on his election as Chair of the Business and Trade Committee. I know that he will do a fine job. He is right that, in that spirit of good will, we have achieved much in the manifesto that we launched just over the road. Again, I hope that he does not doubt my motives in what we are doing to tackle economic crime without putting undue burdens on business.

I urge everyone to support the measures that we have in place already, and I ask those in the other place to respect the clear will of this House.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Order. Before we proceed to the next Division, I must inform the House that it has been drawn to my attention that the election for the Defence Committee Chairman in the Aye Lobby was due to be open until 2 pm. That, of course, was interrupted by the Division, and I understand that one or two tardy Members have yet to vote.

I could, but I won’t. Following the end of all the Divisions, and time having been allowed for the necessary facilities to be reinstated, the ballot will be open again for the time lost: a further 11 minutes. You have been warned.

More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, 4 September). The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83G).

Main Question put.


That this House insists on its Amendment 151A and disagrees with the Lords in their Amendments 151E and 151F.

Order. There is no end to the variety and excitement that this House can offer. I am advised that the Order Paper, which we all know is gospel, says that the Defence Committee ballot should close not at 2 o’clock but at 2.30, so at least two Members—I know them both—will have another 41 minutes to vote after the next Division. Actually, it will be 45 minutes because, I am told, the facilities had to be cleared and will no doubt have to be reinstated. I suggest that Members who have not voted do so fairly quickly.

Motion made, and Question put,

That this House insists on its amendment 161A and disagrees with Lords amendment 161D.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As you know, the House will later vote on the issue of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and the Independent Expert Panel’s report. Of course, we do not have a chance to debate the issue, the content, or the pros and cons of that report: we merely vote on it.

It is in that context that I wish to raise with you a report on the BBC this morning, entitled “Peter Bone: Abuse by MP left me broken, former aide says”, which contains a very extensive, one-sided attack on the hon. Member for Wellingborough. This is not in any way to judge the rights and wrongs of this matter, but merely to put the principles of natural justice first. It is an anonymous briefing against a named Member of Parliament on a day on which, as the BBC accepted, MPs would be voting on this issue.

What I would like to know from you, Mr Deputy Speaker, is whether this is an undue attempt to influence Members of Parliament on the day of a vote that should be our business in this House, and indeed, whether it is an attempt to manipulate Members of Parliament. This does not just relate to this case, but to any case that we may have to consider in the future. I would like to ask you to ask Mr Speaker, who has always defended the rights of this House, whether he will take legal advice on whether this particular report today constitutes contempt for the House.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am not in a position to answer the specific question that he raises, but I do know that the director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation will be in this building later today, and if Mr Speaker chooses to ask to see him, I imagine that he will make himself available. I also know that Mr Speaker takes this very seriously indeed, and that legal advice is being sought.

Non-domestic Rating Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Non-Domestic Rating Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 24 April 2023 (Non-Domestic Rating Bill: Programme):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

Subsequent stages

(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Julie Marson.)

Question agreed to.

Non-Domestic Rating Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 1. If Lords amendment 1 is agreed to, I will cause the customary entry waiving Commons financial privilege to be entered into the Journal.

Clause 13

Requirements for ratepayers etc to provide information

It is a pleasure to return this Bill to this place after its positive reception, both here initially and in the other place more recently. Reforming business rates was a manifesto commitment, and having concluded our review of rates, the Bill seeks to deliver a fairer and more effective business rates system.

The amendments that the Government invite the House to support today are minor and do not change the policy intentions of the Bill, which we have debated before in this place. Two amendments deal with the penalties regime for the new duty on ratepayers in clause 13—they are designed to ensure that the penalties system is fairer—and the third is a minor and technical amendment that removes some obsolete wording as a result of another part of the Bill. I will deal with each amendment briefly.

Lords amendment 1 concerns the civil penalties that the Valuation Office Agency can apply if ratepayers do not provide information under the duty. These include an additional daily penalty of £60, which may only be applied if a ratepayer persistently fails to meet their obligations following an initial penalty notice. The Government have listened to the views of the experts in the other place and agreed to create an additional safeguard for ratepayers by capping the financial value of penalties that can be imposed under this provision. Daily penalties will be capped at £1,800, equivalent to 30 days’ worth of penalties. This change will also bring the valuation duty in line with the separate duty to provide His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with a taxpayer reference number, for which a cap on penalties is already in place.

Lords amendment 2 concerns the penalty for the criminal offence of knowingly or recklessly making a false statement, an offence that is subject to higher penalties than simply failing to comply. The Bill prescribes that for a higher penalty to be applied, the VOA must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the ratepayer has made the false statement knowingly or recklessly. Having reflected, we have recognised that we need to apply the same burden of proof to the procedure on appeal. The amendment therefore provides that the valuation tribunal must remit a penalty unless it is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the ratepayer has knowingly or recklessly made a false statement. This provides additional protection for ratepayers.

Finally, Lords amendment 3 is a minor and technical change to the Local Government Finance Act 1988, as a consequential effect of the provisions in the Bill concerning business rates multipliers. This is simply a drafting correction to improve the clarity of the statute book, and the Government do not foresee any practical effect.

The Government invite the House to agree to three minor amendments that were unanimously supported in the other place. Lords amendments 1 and 2 refine and improve the compliance framework for the new information duty, and Lords amendment 3 is a minor consequential change to improve the clarity of the statute book. I commend them to the House.

I am pleased to respond to these three Lords amendments on behalf of the Opposition. Clause 13 of the Bill introduces new duties on ratepayers to provide information to the Valuation Office Agency in order to support digitisation and a shorter revaluation cycle. It also introduces penalties to promote compliance and establishes an associated appeal system.

Through the Bill, ratepayers will initially face a penalty for failing to comply with the new duties the Bill introduces. If, having received that initial penalty, the ratepayer continues not to comply for a further 30 days, they will be liable for an additional penalty of £60 per day. As we heard from the Minister, Lords amendment 1 caps the total charge arising from that additional penalty at £1,800, equivalent to 30 days’ worth of daily fines. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) said on Second Reading, we are aware of concerns relating to the new duty and the associated penalties from those representing shops, and small shops in particular. Although I doubt that all the concerns of those representative organisations and their members have been addressed by the Government, we realise that this limit on the level of the penalty may help to protect ratepayers from much larger charges while still supporting the Valuation Office Agency’s move toward frequent revaluations, which we support. On that basis, we will not be opposing its inclusion in the Bill.

Through clause 13, the Bill also introduces a new criminal penalty, which applies if a person makes a false statement while purporting to comply with the new duties it introduces. The Bill sets out that the Valuation Office Agency will decide whether an offence has been committed, and its decision may be appealed to the Valuation Tribunal for England. As originally drafted, the Bill permits the tribunal to remit such a penalty when it is not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person had knowingly or recklessly made a false statement. Lords amendment 2 would require, rather than merely permit, the tribunal to remit the penalty in such circumstances. We believe that the amendment is sensible, so we will not be opposing its inclusion in the Bill.

Finally, Lords amendment 3 makes a technical change to the Local Government Finance Act 1988, omitting section 140(2)(b) of that Act. That section, which refers to Ministers making separate estimates of rateable value for England and Wales, has become obsolete as a result of clause 15 of the Bill, which makes a separate provision about the calculation of multipliers for England. As this is essentially a drafting amendment, we will not be opposing it either.

I am tempted to talk at much greater length about Labour’s plans to scrap the current system of business rates, replacing it with a system of business property tax that rebalances the burden of business property taxation away from the high street and retail firms towards online tech giants. However, I realise that that may be out of scope and that time is tight, so I will simply confirm our intention not to oppose any of these three amendments.

This Bill, unlike the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, on which we considered a further round of Lords amendments yesterday, has progressed through Parliament quickly. Second Reading in this place took place on 24 April, and the Bill will complete its passage today or tomorrow. It was a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment to carry out a fundamental review of the business rates system. This Bill is the start of that process, but it does not mark its completion, and on its own it cannot be described as fundamental.

The amendments before us are straightforward. Lords amendment 3 is a drafting correction to omit a requirement relating to Wales that is now obsolete. Lords amendments 1 and 2 relate to the new duty to notify. They cap the level of, and increase the burden of proof required for, penalties that will be applied for not complying with the obligation to give required information to the Valuation Office Agency. They are to be welcomed, but as highlighted on Report, this burden should have been much reduced and there should be reciprocal penalties on the VOA.

As I have mentioned, this Bill must mark the beginning of the reform of business rates, not the completion of the task. Business rates remain a heavy and uncertain burden on many businesses. They act as a brake on growth, disincentivise capital investments and are a barrier to levelling up. Reform must be more radical and must be carried out much more quickly.

I urge the Government to strive towards achieving the following goals. First, the uniform business rate multiplier must be reduced to an affordable level. The UBR currently sits at 51p in the pound. At such a high level, it deters investment and ultimately reduces the tax base. It should be reduced to the order of 34p, the level at which it was first introduced in 1990. Lowering the UBR would have the long-term effect of expanding the tax base. A failure to do this will ultimately see the Government increasing the UBR on an ever-shrinking tax base, and in doing so, threatening a vital source of local government revenue.

Secondly, as important as they are to so many businesses, we ultimately need to remove the myriad sticking plaster reliefs that are invariably lobbied for and announced at every spring Budget and autumn statement. They are an implicit admission that the UBR is too high. The Government have been forced to offer many of these reliefs as many businesses are unable to pay a UBR of 51p. By removing these reliefs and reducing the UBR, the Government would simplify the system and reduce the administrative burden on both ratepayers and the VOA. Instead of the annual cliff edges, as businesses lobby for and then nervously wait for a relief to be extended, such a reform would introduce an element of long-term certainty, which would encourage investment.

Finally, while the Government have taken a welcome step in the right direction by moving to three-year revaluations, they must keep going towards the ultimate goal of annual valuations. Shorter valuations are necessary to ensure that business rates respond to the dynamic and increasingly volatile movements of the market. It is vital that rateable values are assessed as frequently as possible to ensure that ratepayers are paying a fair amount.

My last point is to express regret at the curtailment in the definition of a “material change of circumstances”. This is a provision that gives ratepayers recourse to pursue a relief on their business rates bills when circumstances outside their control hinder their ability to run their businesses. Despite the Government’s protestations, the Bill in effect disapplies many common situations of material change that up to now have been acknowledged as such and are even described in the VOA’s own guidance.

In conclusion, this is the start of the reform of business rates, but it is not the finish. There is some way to go before we reach that Magnus Magnusson moment. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to my concerns during the passage of this Bill, and I am grateful to him for meeting me last month to discuss the situation. I have subsequently written to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury setting out some ideas as to how this reform process can be continued. I would be grateful if he and she committed to completing the task of the fundamental review of business rates that is so vital for businesses large and small all around the UK.

I will not seek to detain the House for any more than a few seconds. I express my gratitude to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), for his constructive comments and his willingness to support the amendments, as well as for resisting the temptation to go over again some of the things we have talked about in previous iterations of this Bill.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has been involved since the beginning. He has done the House a significant service in both reviewing the Bill and offering his comments during its passage. As he says, this is a significant change and one that I think everybody accepts is a big leap forward, particularly on the revaluation frequency moving from five to three years. While we are on the subject of late 1990s game shows, although in his view we have not yet finished this matter—I accept that we never finish—we are grateful for his “Mastermind” qualities in looking at this Bill over the past few months.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 and 3 agreed to.

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)


That the Order of 3 July 2023 (Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Programme) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Julie Marson.)

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee

New Clause 1

Impact assessment: trade and diplomatic relations

“(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must conduct an impact assessment of this Act's impact on the United Kingdom's trade and diplomatic relations with the following countries—

(a) Afghanistan;

(b) Bangladesh;

(c) Belarus;

(d) Central African Republic;

(e) China;

(f) Colombia;

(g) Democratic People's Republic of Korea;

(h) Democratic Republic of the Congo;

(i) Egypt;

(j) Eritrea;

(k) Ethiopia;

(l) Haiti;

(m) Iran;

(n) Iraq;

(o) Libya;

(p) Mali;

(q) Myanmar (Burma);

(r) Nicaragua;

(s) Occupied Palestinian Territories;

(t) Pakistan;

(u) Russia;

(v) Saudi Arabia;

(w) Somalia;

(x) South Sudan;

(y) Sri Lanka;

(z) Sudan;

(aa) Syria;

(ab) Turkmenistan;

(ac) Uzbekistan;

(ad) Venezuela;

(ae) Yemen;

(af) Zimbabwe.

(2) The Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must produce a report on the outcome of the impact assessment.

(3) The report mentioned in subsection (2) must be laid before Parliament as soon as reasonably practicable after the impact assessment has been conducted.”—(Chris Stephens.)

This new clause would require the Government to undertake an assessment of the impact of the Act on the UK's trade and diplomatic relations with the countries identified by the FCDO as human rights priority countries.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Economic impact assessment for Wales—

“Within three months of the passage of this Act, the Minister for the Cabinet Office must lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of the Act on the economy in Wales.”

New clause 3—Assessment of the impact of the Act on the provision of food compliant with religious dietary beliefs and on the prevention of discrimination—

“Within six months of the passage of this Act, a Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a statement on their assessment of the impact of the Act on—

(a) the procurement of food meeting religious dietary beliefs, and

(b) the prevention of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.”

Amendment 12, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, at end insert—

“(1A) But subsection (2) does not have effect in relation to a decision which falls within the competency of Senedd Cymru unless Senedd Cymru has passed a resolution granting its consent to the application of that subsection to such decisions.”

This amendment would require the consent of Senedd Cymru for the Bill to apply to decisions within the sphere of Welsh devolved legislative competence.

Amendment 26, page 1, line 5, leave out

“must not have regard to a territorial consideration”

and insert “must not act”.

This amendment, and Amendment 27, would remove the reference to a “territorial consideration” in the legislation.

Amendment 36, page 1, line 6, leave out from “would” to “was” in line 7, and insert “is”.

This amendment is to probe the use of a subjective, rather than an objective, test to establish whether a decision-maker has contravened clause 1.

Amendment 35, page 1, line 6, leave out from “that” to “influenced” in line 7 and insert “is”.

This amendment is to probe the use of a subjective, rather than an objective, test to establish whether a decision-maker has contravened clause 1.

Amendment 27, page 1, line 9, leave out subsection (3).

This amendment, and Amendment 26, would remove the reference to a “territorial consideration” in the legislation.

Amendment 37, page 1, leave out lines 20 to 22.

This amendment is to probe the impact of the legislation on individuals, such as those working within public authorities.

Amendment 34, in clause 2, page 2, line 4, at end insert—

“(1A) But section 1 does not apply to decisions of Scottish Ministers.”

This amendment would remove decisions of Scottish Ministers from the scope of the Bill.

Amendment 14, in clause 3, page 2, line 17, leave out subsections (2) and (3).

This amendment would remove provisions allowing Ministers to amend the Schedule, via regulations, to add a description of decision or consideration, or amend or remove considerations added under previous regulations.

Amendment 18, page 2, line 28, leave out paragraph (b).

This amendment, and Amendments 19 and 20, seek to remove Scotland from the extent of this Bill.

Amendment 13, page 2, line 40, at end insert—

“(4A) Section 1 does not apply to a decision which has been made in accordance with a Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights.

(4B) A Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights—

(a) is a public authority’s policy criteria relating to disinvestment in cases concerning contravention of human rights; and

(b) must be applied consistently by the public authority to all foreign countries.

(4C) Within 60 days of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish, and lay before Parliament, guidance on the form, content and application of Statements for the purposes of this section

(4D) Public authorities must have regard to the guidance referenced in subsection (4C) when devising a Statement.”

This amendment would exempt public bodies from the prohibition in section 1, where the decision has been made in accordance with a Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights. A Statement may not single out individual nations, but would have to be applied consistently, and in accordance with guidance published by the Secretary of State.

Amendment 7, page 3, line 7, leave out subsection (7).

This amendment would remove the prohibition on the Government specifying Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Golan Heights as a country or territory to which the prohibition on boycotts does not apply, meaning they are treated just as all other countries and territories.

Amendment 21, page 3, line 11, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).

This amendment would remove the existing stipulation that the power to exempt a country or territory from section 1 may not be used in respect of the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Golan Heights.

Amendment 2, page 3, line 13, leave out clause 4.

Amendment 3, in clause 4, page 3, line 18, leave out paragraph (b).

This amendment would remove the prohibition on a person publishing a statement indicating that they would have acted in a way prohibited by clause 1 if it were legal to do so.

Amendment 16, page 3, line 24, at end insert—

“(4) This section does not apply to—

(a) a local authority,

(b) an elected mayor of a local authority

(c) a mayor for the area of a combined authority,

(d) the Mayor of London,

(e) the London Assembly

(f) the Scottish Parliament, or

(g) Senedd Cymru.”

This amendment would exempt elected bodies from the prohibition on making public statements indicating that they intend to, or would intend to if it were lawful, act in a way that would contravene section 1.

Amendment 28, page 3, line 24, at end insert—

“(4) Nothing in this section requires any act or omission that conflicts with the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Human Rights Act 1998.”

This amendment would ensure that any act or omission under the “gagging clause” in clause 4 would not conflict with the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), in particular, Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the ECHR as incorporated by the HRA.

Amendment 29, in clause 7, page 5, line 8, leave out “, or is about to make”.

This amendment, together with Amendments 30 to 33, would remove the ability of information notices and compliance notices to be given to public bodies prior to an actual contravention of the ban.

Amendment 30, page 5, line 12, leave out “, or is likely to contravene”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.

Amendment 31, page 5, line 15, leave out “, or is about to publish,”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.

Amendment 32, page 5, line 18, leave out “, or is likely to contravene,”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.

Amendment 38, page 5, line 39, leave out from “legislation” to the end of line 41.

This amendment is to probe the way the legislation appears to “qualify” the data protection legislation.

Amendment 33, in clause 8, page 6, line 6, leave out “, or is likely to contravene”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.

Amendment 4, in clause 12, page 8, line 4, at end insert—

“(1A) But section 1 does not apply in relation to a fund investment decision made by such a manager if the decision has been approved by a majority of those voting in a ballot of the members of the fund; and section 4 does not apply to any statement—

(a) made for the purpose of preparing for or explaining the purpose of such a ballot;

(b) concerning a decision which has been approved by such a ballot.”

This amendment would allow a local government pension fund to act in a way prohibited by clause 1 if the decision to do so is approved by a majority of scheme members, and would prevent statements about or following such a ballot being prohibited by clause 4.

Amendment 19, in clause 17, page 10, line 38, leave out “Scotland”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 18.

Amendment 20, page 11, line 19, leave out “Scotland”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 18.

Amendment 5, in the schedule, page 12, line 21, at end insert—

“3A Section 1 does not apply to—

(a) a registered higher education provider in England, as defined by section 3(10) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017;

(b) an institution within the higher education sector in Wales, as defined by section 91 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;

(c) an institution within the higher education sector in Scotland, as defined by section 56 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992;

(d) a higher education institution in Northern Ireland, as defined by article 30 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.”

This amendment would remove universities and other higher education providers from the requirement to act in accordance with clause 1.

Amendment 6, page 13, line 5, at end insert—

“6A Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as it relates to conduct which it is the position of His Majesty’s Government represents a breach of international law.”

This amendment would permit decisions which would otherwise be in breach of clause 1 if they are taken in response to conduct which the Government considers to be a breach of international law.

Amendment 17, page 13, line 5, at end insert—

“6A Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the purpose of the decision is to prevent violations of international law including the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, the imposition of collective punishment on civilian populations, forced transfer of civilians, and other acts which may constitute war crimes.”

Amendment 22, page 13, line 5, at end insert—

“(2) Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in breaching international law, where that breach of international law is directly related to the decision.”

Amendment 8, page 15, line 22, at end insert “, environmental protection, environmental targets, environmental treaties or environmental law (as defined by the Environment Act 2021).”

This amendment would expand the environmental grounds on which a public body is allowed to make certain economic decisions.

Amendment 9, page 15, line 26, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—

“(a) reduces the level of environmental protection, including in a country or territory other than the United Kingdom, or

(b) caused, or had the potential to cause, harm to the natural environment, including the life and health of—

(i) plants, wild animals and other living organisms,

(ii) their habitats, or

(iii) land (except buildings or other structures), air and water,

and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.”

This amendment extends the definition of environment misconduct to include damage regardless of whether it is legal or illegal, and to include species, habitats and the natural world.

Amendment 10, page 15, line 29, at end insert “and the welfare of animals”

This amendment would add conduct causing, or having the potential to cause, significant harm to the welfare of animals to the types of conduct which constitute environmental misconduct and to which regard may therefore be had without contravening section 1.

Amendment 11, page 15, line 29, at end insert—

“(4) The conduct referenced in sub-paragraph (3) includes conduct which amounts to—

(a) an offence under section 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and

(b) an infringement or contravention of any of the requirements or prohibitions in Schedule 1 of the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing Regulations 2015.”

This amendment would clarify the meaning of “welfare of animals” for the purpose of Amendment 10.

Amendment 15, page 15, line 29, at end insert—

“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as it relates to the use of fossil fuels.”

This amendment would allow for a public body to consider the use of fossil fuels when taking certain economic decisions.

Amendment 23, page 15, line 29, at end insert—

“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in the crime of genocide as determined under international law, where that crime of genocide is directly related to the decision.”

Amendment 24, page 15, line 29, at end insert—

“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in the crime of ethnic cleansing as determined under international law, where that ethnic cleansing is directly related to the decision.”

Amendment 25, page 15, line 29, at end insert—

“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in the crime of apartheid as determined under international law, where that crime of apartheid is directly related to the decision.”

I call Anum Qaisar.

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I forgive you for that after your excellent address to the all-party parliamentary group on Cyprus last night; it was an excellent event.

I rise to speak to the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar). I indicate now that I will be looking to divide the House on amendment 28, to which I will confine most of my remarks. However, many in this House are deeply disappointed at what the Government are doing in proceeding with this Bill. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said on Monday,

“now is not the time.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2023; Vol. 738, c. 611.]

Let me say at the outset that we all condemn the killing of innocent civilians. We do condemn Hamas and their acts of terror on 7 October, and Hamas must release all hostages. We must equally recognise that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and it is legitimate to question the actions of the Israeli Government. It is perfectly legitimate to call for a ceasefire to address that crisis and let humanitarian aid flow in to save the lives of innocent Palestinian people.

There are vastly more people around these islands who are perplexed by the Government’s playing party political games when the middle east is in crisis and the rest of the world fears the start of an even broader conflict. This is not the time to seek electoral advantage through tripping up political opponents during semantic exchanges, exploiting small differences in language to pretend there is a vast gulf between positions, or selling that to the electorate as “one party good, all other parties bad.”

I commend the hon. Gentleman on the way he is making his comments. Does he agree that it is positively dangerous to do what this Government are doing when we see the huge rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia? Just now, our communities need us in Parliament to be showing a lead and to be united on this, and not to do something that is so divisive and so deliberately provocative and deeply damaging to the unity of our communities.