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Commons Chamber

Volume 748: debated on Friday 26 April 2024

House of Commons

Friday 26 April 2024

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163) and negatived.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and International Committee of the Red Cross (Status) Bill

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is an important moment for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Bill enables the Government to recognise both organisations individually as international organisations, conferring on them the legal capacities of a body corporate as well as specific privileges and immunities. While the Bill may be only halfway through its scrutiny process, as it will move on to the other place, today feels like a significant milestone. I underline that, at all stages, the Bill has received not only cross-party support, for which I am enormously grateful, but support from my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench. I thank each and every Member for their contributions to the Bill throughout its consideration.

I want to mention individually those who have been particularly supportive of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) must come at the start of that list, because he chairs the international executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. My immense appreciation goes to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Mr Stephen Twigg, whose passion and support for the Bill and for getting the change in status for the CPA has been clear throughout. My thanks go to all the hard-working and inspirational staff of CPA UK—including our new chief executive, Sarah Dickson, Helen Haywood, the deputy chief executive, and their teams—for their unwavering passion and commitment to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and continued support. Without them, this achievement would not have been possible. And I cannot forget Mr Jon Davies, Sarah’s predecessor, who I thank from the bottom of my heart for all his contributions while in office.

I thank the formidable team at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for the Commonwealth, and the Deputy Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is not on the Front Bench today—he is detained elsewhere—but has been ably replaced by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). Throughout, those Ministers have understood why the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association status needs to change, why this is an important Bill and why the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is essential in supporting the strengthening of democracy around the world. I thank them all and their teams of officials.

At this stage of proceedings, it is also important to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the Clerks of the House, and to thank them. Their guidance and recognition of the Bill’s importance, combined with the support from the Government, have helped get the Bill to where it is today. In particular, I say a huge thank you to Ms Anne-Marie Griffiths, the Clerk who has been advising us, for her assistance in getting the Bill to this stage. I hope you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, for thanking you, too. You have a very special place in the heart of the CPA, as does the Lord Speaker. You are our joint presidents, and in your work, you support us enormously.

Two organisations are supported by this Bill. I thank the International Committee of the Red Cross for its incredibly important work and for supporting me in the preparation of the Bill. I know how much time and consideration its London delegation has put in, and Eve La Haye in the ICRC legal team in Geneva has also been heavily involved. I thank all of them.

The unique international humanitarian mandate and mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross has been formally recognised by states in the Geneva convention and additional protocols. The Bill will accord it a status or treatment in the UK equivalent to that of an international organisation, with the relevant privileges and immunities. To date, more than 110 states have accorded the ICRC those relevant privileges and immunities, including all other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The content of the Bill, and the conferral of relevant privileges and immunity to the ICRC in the UK, is critical to enabling it to continue to operate in the UK in accordance with its international mandate, maintaining its strict adherence to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence and its working method of confidentiality.

For more than two years, there has been intense work to get to this stage—it has been described as a labour of love. None of it could have been accomplished without the esteemed individuals and organisations that I mentioned. The perseverance from everyone is starting to be rewarded now, but there is much more to do. I welcome the fact that the Bill and the amendments debated and agreed to in Committee have received cross-party support, again demonstrating the high regard and esteem in which both the CPA and ICRC are held not only in this place but throughout the country and internationally.

Members of a number of overseas Parliaments in particular have reiterated how important the Bill is. We have listened and learned and gone forward with this historic legislation, which is now well on its way to putting in place such a fundamental change.

The Bill is integral to the CPA and the ICRC, as it provides the necessary powers for both organisations to be treated in a manner comparable with an international organisation, of which the United Kingdom, or His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, are a member. Each organisation has its own role and constitutional arrangements. That had to be—and is— reflected in the Bill. Under certain clauses, secondary legislation can put in place the privileges and immunities that each organisation will need.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association element of the Bill will be widely and warmly welcomed by our fellow parliamentarians throughout the Commonwealth. I recall that on my recent visit to Kenya, the Speaker of that Parliament reminded me how vital it is to the African region of the CPA to achieve this new status for the organisation. Parliamentarians from Africa have long championed the need for this legislation and made the point that they want to continue to be part of the CPA because of the important work that it does, but they increasingly struggle to justify spending their taxpayers’ money with the CPA configured as a UK charity: a status that I believe we have long outgrown. Concerns about the CPA’s status date back more than three decades. If that can now be resolved, I believe that will serve to strengthen and renew the CPA’s mission, unity and sense of purpose.

I attended the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Ghana last October, where I saw once again the strength of feeling across the CPA membership about the status of our organisation. Mr Speaker, last month you hosted Speakers and Presiding Officers from the Commonwealth in London for Commonwealth day, where you ensured that they were briefed about the progress that we are making on the Bill. The response was extremely warm and positive: a collective sigh of relief that this issue might be reaching a solution.

I am mindful, however, that the Bill will need to pass through the other place to become an Act, so may I say once again that, without this legislation, there is a strong possibility that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association would relocate its headquarters outside the UK? By enacting the Bill, the UK can not only keep the CPA here but demonstrate our commitment to the Commonwealth itself in this, its 75th year.

I am delighted that key amendments were passed in Committee, the first of which recognises the unique and sensitive role of the ICRC, including visiting prisoners all around the world to help ensure their safety. It allows for protected ICRC information to be exempt from disclosure requirements imposed by an order of court or tribunal proceedings, other than criminal proceedings. The amendment is designed to protect information that the ICRC provides in confidence to His Majesty’s Government from being used in UK civil proceedings. That is necessary, as the withholding of confidential information from public disclosure cannot otherwise be assured. That reflects the ICRC’s standard working method of confidentiality, which is designed to protect not only its staff but its operations in active conflict zones. That principle also underpins the ICRC’s ability to operate in dangerous locations on sensitive issues, engaging with both state and non-state actors. Disclosure of confidential ICRC information could damage its ability to perform its sensitive functions when negotiating with conflict parties, and it could put its staff and operations at risk. There is a real risk and concern about ICRC information being used in legal proceedings—over the past 15 years, the ICRC’s confidentiality has been challenged some 20 times in the UK.

I tabled in Committee a probing amendment on the involvement of individuals in drawing up secondary legislation. I did not press it to a vote, and I thank the Minister in Committee, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), for his extremely reassuring response to the debate on it. The amendment sought to lay down a formal requirement on the Foreign Secretary to consult the chair of the UK branch and secretary-general of the CPA, and the president and director general of the ICRC, respectively, before finalising secondary legislation.

The Minister was able to confirm that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will consult all those parties ahead of secondary legislation being laid before the House, and will work closely with them to agree arrangements for the appropriate privileges and immunities for each organisation separately. That ensures that the Bill works exactly in the way that the relevant organisations need it to, and that the right individuals are consulted before secondary legislation is laid before the House and implemented.

The Bill demonstrates that the House of Commons values the Commonwealth, values the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, respects the importance of the ICRC and recognises that these organisations need to be recognised as international organisations. I thank colleagues for their support, and I wish my Bill well as it continues its journey to the other place, taken forward ably by my noble Friend Baroness D’Souza.

I thank Dame Maria Miller for everything she has done to ensure a solid future for the CPA. It is much welcomed and appreciated by all sides of this House.

I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I will start by paying warm tribute to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller). Since becoming chair of the CPA UK branch, she has spearheaded and forced this issue with Ministers in the strongest possible terms, including two or three—I cannot quite remember—Foreign Secretaries. She has been at the forefront of this work. One key reason why that work has been so important—the right hon. Lady has spoken at length on that, as you just did, Mr. Speaker—is that it sends a message to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that the UK Government and this Parliament are listening to what member states are telling us.

I am privileged to serve as one of three representatives from the CPA British Islands and Mediterranean Region on the International Committee of the CPA. There have been some very difficult conversations over the past two years I have served on that body, including in—this is not some travel guide, Mr Speaker, but it does come up frequently when you are travelling with the CPA—Gibraltar, Canada and, at our most recent CPA conference last year, Ghana, where I and the force that is the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) were, quite rightly, cross-examined by nearly all member states of the CPA International about when the Bill will move forward. I am delighted and slightly relieved that the various commitments that the hon. Gentleman, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and I have been giving to that body for the past two years are now at least at the halfway mark.

Two-and-a-half years ago, we felt like we were nowhere, so in that context, the speed of the last few months has been wonderfully refreshing. I pay tribute to the previous Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and the current Foreign Secretary and the Minister in the Lords for their genuine engagement with the process. One key element has been the ability of my own Front Bench and the Government to work cross-party on setting the standard, supporting the Commonwealth family and listening to the Commonwealth family of nations.

The Bill is about setting the CPA and the International Committee of the Red Cross on an equal footing with many other international organisations. We are, in essence, simply catching up, but nevertheless it is crucial to how we as a Parliament, UK Government and official Opposition work with Commonwealth nations. When doing those cross-examinations—I will put it like that —from member states, the key theme throughout has been that they would like the CPA International to remain in the UK. There has been no animosity about its remaining in London, but what they wanted was the status issue resolved. I recall an excellent conversation here with an Australian delegation, who talked about how they could help and work with the Government to try to ensure it was made very clear that member states across the world wanted the CPA International to remain in the UK.

This is a warmly welcomed Bill. It sends the right message, which is genuinely very important. When we head to Sydney later this year for the CPA International, we will now be able to say—all being well in the other place, of course, and I look forward to the Minister’s remarks—that we have delivered. I do think that is genuinely important. Finally, I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, because, as the right hon. Lady said, I feel that you have personally moved mountains on a lot of this work. It has been truly welcomed and valued by all of us in the CPA UK and by the CPA staff, both internationally and in the UK. I always warmly welcome your support.

I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for his speech, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the work you have done. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on bringing forward this important Bill. I welcome the support it has received from both sides of the House and I am pleased to offer my own support.

The Bill is quite technical in nature. It makes provision for two specific organisations to be granted international status, which, owing to their unique constitutions, could not be included under existing legislation. However, the wording of the legislation should not distract us from the organisations cited in it. Moreover, we should not overlook the primary purposes of these organisations, which are to strengthen parliamentary democracy and provide humanitarian assistance. In a world where we frequently witness the devastation caused by violence and war, and the growing threats to democracy, the importance of those causes and the organisations that pursue them cannot be understated. I therefore welcome the Bill, which grants international organisation status to both the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The new status will ensure that those organisations can continue to perform their vital work fully and without restriction.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seeks to promote the values of parliamentary democracy and good governance. It facilitates dialogues between Parliaments and draws on our collective knowledge to improve our procedures and address the wide-ranging challenges that we, as parliamentarians, may face. Its efforts have included the development of recommended benchmarks for legislatures and for a code of conduct for Members. Its efforts have included the development of recommended benchmarks for legislatures and for a code of conduct for Members. It has also provided guidance on specific and pertinent issues such as improving mental health provisions, the challenges of climate change and the growth of AI.

I welcome the Government’s unwavering support for the Commonwealth and its ideals. Article 1 of the Commonwealth charter outlines our responsibility

“for upholding and promoting democratic culture and practices”.

I would therefore ask what support the Government and Parliament have provided to the CPA to strengthen democracy across the Commonwealth.

The fundamental mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross is to protect victims of conflict and violence through the provision of humanitarian assistance. Its work, often in the most difficult and perilous environments, encompasses everything from mine clearance and providing healthcare and sanitation to combating sexual violence, improving respect for international humanitarian law and establishing economic stability. I am very proud of the United Kingdom’s record in providing humanitarian aid across the world—to Afghanistan, to South Sudan, to Ukraine and right now to Gaza. However, what support have the Government provided to the ICRC and what can we, as Members of Parliament, do to support the Red Cross?

Ultimately, if we are to grant international status to these two organisations, let us also ensure that we fully support them in their operations and in their aims, strengthening democracy and humanitarian aid.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for making progress with this important Bill, which will recognise both the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross as international organisations. These are important changes given that neither is recognised as such under UK law. Current laws cannot apply as neither is an intergovernmental organisation, so a new enabling power is necessary.

The CPA does vital work in promoting parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth, but its current set up as a UK charity is a cause for concern among some members and is somewhat restrictive. The Bill seeks to address that. The Commonwealth is a unique club of nations united by our shared historical and economic ties, alongside a shared belief in the value of democracy and the rule of law. In an increasingly hostile world where the rule of ruthless autocrats is on the rise and democratic rights are under threat, advancing those basic values and supporting the flourishing of parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth remains as important now as it was when the CPA was first founded in 1911. That is why the Bill is so important to ensure the CPA remains relevant and best placed to promote parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth. That will allow the CPA to participate more fully internationally than it does today, removing some of the restrictions on it.

More than 60 countries and jurisdictions participate in the CPA, as well as more than 180 legislators. It helps to increase the participation of under-represented groups in Commonwealth Parliaments, including women, disabled people and young people. The organisation also does vital work to help develop shared learning throughout Parliamentary democracies across the Commonwealth, facilitating knowledge-sharing and helping to strengthen our democratic systems.

The second organisation that the Bill focuses on, the International Committee of the Red Cross, does hugely important humanitarian work to protect victims of conflict and violence around the world. This week, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s commitment to increase spending on defence to 2.5%, which is incredibly welcome, particularly as it will be funded through much-needed efficiency savings in Whitehall rather than tax rises. It reflects the increasing threats we face from our adversaries globally in an increasingly insecure world.

The work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is more important than ever. Conflicts have ignited around the world, whether following Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, or the horrific turmoil in the middle east, in Gaza and Israel. In addition to Ukraine, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the ICRC has key operations in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, the Sahel, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In all such conflicts, innocent civilians are caught up in the violence and harmed by the results of war, and that is why the Bill is so essential.

Alongside the CPA, the Bill also seeks to recognise the ICRC properly as an international organisation. Under international law—through the Geneva convention—the ICRC already has a specific and unique humanitarian mandate to act in times of international conflict, and it has been given wider recognition internationally through the rights of a humanitarian initiative. More than 110 states around the world have already recognised the ICRC and given it equivalent status to an international organisation, so it is only right that the UK follows suit. That is particularly important as it would allow the ICRC to operate in the UK while preserving its core principles of neutrality and independence.

A number of amendments agreed in Committee further improve the quality of the Bill, particularly those on the importance of the confidentiality of the information that the ICRC provides to the Government and during legal proceedings. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, confidentiality is critical and remains a fundamental principle of the ICRC. Those changes are eminently sensible, given the sensitivities of the information that will often be dealt with in such circumstances. That is particularly important in protecting victims during conflicts and bringing justice through criminal prosecutions to those who commit such crimes.

I again congratulate my right hon. Friend and thank her for bringing forward the Bill. I wish it well on its continued passage through the other place.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker—long may you reign.

It is a privilege to speak in favour of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller). I pay huge tribute to her, as she has been the flag-bearer for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for the whole time I have been in this House—four and a half years. One of the first conversations we ever had was about how important it is, particularly for a new Member of Parliament, to be part of the CPA. I took her at her word, and I have been delighted to be involved in that brilliant association.

Can we also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for the work she did with new parliamentarians when we came into the House? She specifically promoted women in this Parliament in order to reach 50:50 status. This is about not just the work she has done for the CPA, but what she has done for women in this place.

Absolutely. I will not spare my right hon. Friend’s blushes: she is not only a brilliant parliamentarian, but she supports newer Members of Parliament, and I have been the beneficiary of her advice.

I have been the supporter of the incredible work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for many years, and this Bill will cement in law the difference it has made across our beloved Commonwealth over the past 76 years. I also welcome the Bill as it recognises the work the ICRC does to support regions in crisis. From Australia to Anguilla, from Botswana to the British Virgin Islands, the CPA is crucial in keeping all parliamentarians connected across the globe, sharing good practice, helping us to learn from each other and fostering friendly, positive and long-lasting friendships across the 180 Parliaments and legislatures that make up the Commonwealth family.

As my hon. Friend was making her remarks about how we learn from other Parliaments, I recalled sitting in the New Zealand Parliament for questions one morning, where the Speaker took an interesting role. If the Speaker was not satisfied with an answer the Minister gave, he asked for the question to be answered again. Does she think we should considering doing that here as well?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sure those on the Front Bench would be delighted to comment on it in their speeches.

The ICRC is an essential partner for achieving the three core objectives of the UK’s humanitarian framework, which are:

“Prioritise humanitarian assistance to people in greatest need and provide them with what they need the most to recover from crises; Protect the people most at risk, including from conflict-related sexual violence and barriers to humanitarian assistance; Prevent and anticipate future shocks and build resilience in long-running crises by tackling the underlying drivers of crises, instability, and extreme food insecurity”.

Nobody could ever argue with any of that.

The ICRC is much respected, not only in this country, but abroad. It carries with it an unparalleled ability to engage with all parties engaged in a conflict and it supports innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire. The amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend in Committee are crucial to the successful operation of the ICRC. Amendments 1 and 2 are designed to protect information that the ICRC provides in confidence to the Government from being used in UK civil court proceedings. ICRC information being used in legal proceedings is a real risk and concern. I was surprised to learn that in the past 15 years the ICRC’s confidentiality has been challenged some 20 times in the UK, be it in respect of disclosing information regarding its work with British forces abroad or of its dialogue with a variety of actors on the global stage.

Today, I will be focusing my comments on the CPA, as I have been fortunate to work closely with it during my time in this place.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of the ICRC, let me take the opportunity again to highlight the importance of the amendments introduced in Committee. She reiterated the number of times the ICRC has been threatened with having to divulge very confidential information. Does she, like me, hope that that is taken into consideration when the Bill goes to the other place? Obviously, providing that confidentiality and the need not to divulge such information except in criminal cases is an important step. Does she agree that we need to make sure those provisions are in place for civil cases as soon as possible? I hope that no debate in the Lords will delay their coming into effect.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention; she makes a serious point. If organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are to succeed in their objectives, they have to be trusted in the regions and countries they serve. They have to deal with people who we may not wish to deal with ourselves to bring an end to conflicts, or even to safeguard civilians’ lives and prevent sexual violence in conflict. I hope the other place, which tends to be clear when scrutinising Bills, will see her point and will accept those amendments and not change the Bill.

As I said, I would like to move on and concentrate my remarks on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association because of the work that I have been delighted to undertake with that brilliant organisation. As a one-term MP—I can confirm that I will be a one-term MP, because I am standing down at the next election—and as the MP for Cities of London and Westminster at this point, I have been proud to support the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. In fact, only this week I was honoured to speak to a delegation from the Malaysian Parliament, including His Excellency Johari Abdul, Speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as members of the House of Representatives’ special Select Committees and several parliamentary officials. It was fascinating as usual to learn how similar our parliamentary procedures are, such as timetabling, where our model very much mirrors theirs. That is barring the Malaysian Parliament’s provision in the procedures—you may be interested to learn this, Mr Speaker—for the Head of State to make a statement every morning. It could be interesting to introduce that practice here in the Commons. I am not sure whether His Majesty would like to come every day to make a speech. I personally—

I had forgotten that small point. Maybe we should just move on.

The Malaysian version of the Procedure Committee— I am proud to sit on the UK’s Procedure Committee—is called the standing orders committee. I was asked to speak to the Malaysian delegation about the procedures of the House of Commons—how business is tabled, the Standing Orders and my experience on the Procedure Committee. What a week to be discussing the procedures of Parliament. It was fortunate that I was able to use a certain Act, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024, which we saw this week with its extended ping-pong, to demonstrate how the UK Parliament works in practice.

Does my hon. Friend recognise not only that the work she does on the Procedure Committee helps shape this Parliament, but the importance of people visiting Parliament and seeing the procedures? When we talk about the life of an MP when we go to local schools, they always ask us, “What’s a typical day in Parliament?” It is so difficult to explain that, because there is no typical day in Parliament. Some days we can finish at 5 o’clock; some days we can be sat here at midnight. The work we do to teach others about the way this Parliament works and about our job on a day-to-day basis is so important.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it was fascinating this week for the Malaysian delegation to sit in on Deputy Prime Minister’s questions. It was quite a raucous episode this week, particularly given the first question. I did not see the delegation afterwards, but I would have been interested to hear their views on our procedures for DPMQs.

In 2022, I was delighted to address delegates from the Isle of Man when I represented CPA UK. I was able to discuss my experiences of managing parliamentary responsibilities, including Committee work, attendance in the Chamber, constituency work and personal commitments. That goes back to the point my hon. Friend just made: there is never a typical day in the life of an MP. I can come into this place with my meetings for the day in my diary, and then all of a sudden there is an urgent question or a statement that I want to be part of and then my diary is completely changed. It is a fascinating job to do, and I am sure it is the same everywhere—from the conversations I have had with parliamentarians across the globe, parliamentary procedures are never one-size-fits-all.

I personally find meeting those delegations, whether in this country or abroad, very enlightening. I encourage all Members of the House to work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to meet, learn from and share insights with other parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth, although there will be many MPs who will not be coming back to this place because of retirement or whatever.

On the point about Members’ engagement, the hon. Lady will know that I am privileged to be the treasurer of the CPA branch—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) is the chair—and we spend a lot of time trying to encourage both longer-serving and newer Members not to be afraid of the CPA, but to come and take part in inward delegations and, ideally, engage in our work abroad. My hope is that this Bill and this debate on the Floor of the House highlights again the successful work of the CPA that the hon. Lady is cantering through, which hopefully means that Members now and Members after a general election will be encouraged to work with it. Does she agree?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member. It is very important that any candidate who is seeking to become a parliamentarian and is successful, whenever a general election may be, does get involved in the CPA once they arrive here. It is an enlightening experience and it helps us as parliamentarians to be learning from others, not just in the United Kingdom, but across the globe.

It does feel as though my hon. Friend and I have been here for a lifetime, but when we entered as new parliamentarians, one of the fears over engaging with the likes of the CPA was the public’s reflection on the travel and so on. It is vital that we highlight in this Chamber how important it is for parliamentarians to be able to witness how Parliaments work in other parts of the world. Does she agree that it is important that, through these debates, we continue to highlight the importance of the CPA, so that Members do not avoid engaging with the likes of the CPA through fear?

I completely agree. Although this is the mother of all Parliaments—it has been here for a thousand years or more—we really should be able to learn from others.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. My other hon. Friend, the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), is right to point out the need for us to explain the benefit of the CPA, because much of our day-to-day work as Members is connected to the grassroots of what we do in our constituencies, but the role of a parliamentarian is so much greater than that. I will give an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) was talking about her meetings with the Malaysian Parliament earlier this week. I had the great pleasure of meeting the hon. Rodiyah binti Sapiee, who is a Member of the Malaysian Parliament and is a new regional representative for the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians network. We have not touched upon that organisation much in this debate so far, but it is there to support elected Members, very much in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn spoke about—supporting new Members to do their jobs as well as they can, and hopefully retaining them work in Parliament for longer. The Malaysian Parliament has 28 female Members, just 13.5% of their parliamentarians, and we discussed ways to increase the number of women parliamentarians. Does my hon. Friend agree that we can learn from each other about these questions in our Parliaments throughout the Commonwealth because we have such similar set-ups?

Order. I am being very generous in allowing the scope to be broadened somewhat. I now look forward to hearing more from Nickie Aiken.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I agree with my right hon. Friend about women supporting women. We do a great job of supporting women in this Parliament and I am delighted to be part of her cross-party women in parliament group. We have to have strength in numbers and we have to encourage more women to stand, whether in CPA countries or our own, because we have to hear women’s voices in politics.

Does my hon. Friend agree this is not just about encouraging women but—I consider myself to be a relatively young person—it is also about including more young people into parliamentary democracies across the Commonwealth?

I thank my hon. Friend for his point, and I believe the CPA can be a force for good in sharing good practice for encouraging people from all walks of life to enter politics. I am about to go on to talk about my experience with the CPA in Grenada, where there were many young people who had been elected for the first time. It strengthens all democracies if they represent the people they are there to serve.

As I am the youngest on our Benches —I am not 30 yet, thankfully—may I ask my hon. Friend to explain how Grenada managed to get young people into its Parliament and also how they can feel they can stay in the job? One of the problems young people, and all Members of Parliament, face is the rise in abuse on social media, which can strongly put people off entering this place. People enter this place to do good things for their constituents, and that is not always reflected through our media and social media. How are other Parliaments across the Commonwealth tackling that?

Order. This debate is about the movement and transfer of the CPA. I have got to be a little bit careful because other people may want to stretch the scope of other Bills when we do not want them stretched. This is an important subject and the House is very supportive, but we must ensure that we stick within the terms of the Bill.

I just reiterate that I support the points my hon. Friend has just made, because it is important that we make sure that the CPA is a force for good.

In the Cities of London and Westminster, the Commonwealth is right at home. We are fortunate to host the international headquarters of the Commonwealth secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation in Marlborough House, and of course the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for the United Kingdom operates from here in the mother of all Parliaments.

My hon. Friend is right to bring up the importance of the international secretariat being here right in the heart of Westminster, and that has enabled us to work with it as CPA UK and as the UK Parliament. Around International Women’s Day, for example, we worked with it to deal with online abuse, which has just been raised. We set up—as we can now with the advent of the widespread use of Teams and other facilities for online meetings—online training for women parliamentarians across the Commonwealth. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is just one example of how we can work as a team with the CPA, and how having it so close to us here in Parliament helps us effectively support its work in this way?

I absolutely agree. That goes to the heart of the Bill—the status of the CPA and whether we can consolidate it. We are just across the road from the Foreign Office, and this is about working together for the soft power element that the Government are focused on.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association works, as many here will know, to promote parliamentary democracy and good governance. It is completely non-partisan. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and getting to know parliamentarians from a wide range of countries and political parties. Back in March last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a member of the CPA UK delegation to the stunning island of Grenada in the Caribbean, where I was honoured to meet Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell. That was my first trip for the CPA, and what a fascinating one it was. I pay tribute to the CPA officer, Martin Vickery, who was outstanding on the trip, and I know that the Clerk at the Table, who was also there, will always remember it. It was my first experience of the CPA in action.

Grenada had had the same Government and Prime Minister for 22 of the previous 27 years, but Dickon Mitchell defeated the incumbent, Keith Mitchell, who was seeking his sixth term, in the 2022 elections. I wonder whether a Prime Minister had ever before succeeded another with the same surname. The incumbent New National party had had all 15 seats in the Grenadian Parliament, but after the 2022 election, it was suddenly in opposition, as Dickon Mitchell’s National Democratic Congress took nine of the available seats. The election brought about certain new challenges for the Parliament of Grenada, for the National Democratic Congress, which had no experience in government, and for the New National party, which had not been in opposition for decades.

That goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) about having new and young parliamentarians. None of the MPs elected for the National Democratic Congress had ever been elected or even been in politics before —the Prime Minister, Dickon Mitchell, had been a solicitor—so it was fascinating for the CPA UK to be invited over to undertake a series of workshops on how to be scrutinised, and, equally importantly, on how to scrutinise.

I was joined on the trip by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who was then a member of the Scottish National party at the time but has since defected to the Conservative party—although I would not take any credit for persuading her on the trip that she was a Conservative. In Grenada, I also worked very closely with Leo Cato, the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Grenada, and with Dessima Williams, the President of the Senate of Grenada.

Dessima Williams is a former communist who was very much part of the revolution in Grenada in the early ’80s. We—two women politicians from completely different sides of the political divide—bonded so incredibly well, and that underlines how important it is that the Bill secures the CPA’s status. Ms Williams said to me as I left, “Only the CPA could bring a communist and a conservative together.” I think that is a clear example of how parliamentarians, no matter their political persuasions, can put their political parties aside and work together for the greater good. That is the extraordinary power that the CPA provides.

During my trip, I also met women’s rights campaigners, people working to improve disability rights and services and, very importantly, the Youth Parliament and climate change campaigners. This goes back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said earlier. We met the Youth Parliament, and they were outstanding young people who want to make a difference for their country. As a women’s rights campaigner, I found it fascinating to talk to other campaigners who are working very hard to tackle violence against women and girls. Our trip coincided with International Women’s Day, and I was privileged to be invited to make a speech at the Prime Minister’s event to over 100 Grenadian schoolgirls—although, I did not expect it to be aired live on Grenadian TV, which was an experience.

I was then delighted to welcome Speaker Cato and the President of the Senate, Dr Williams, to my constituency only a few weeks ago during the 75th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Nations celebrations, which were presided over by Mr Speaker. My brilliant constituency team thoroughly enjoyed discussing with them the day-to-day work of an MP’s office, and heard how this differed from their experiences in some way but also mirrored them in others. We were also joined by Chantelle de Jonge, a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, in Canada. That is a clear example of how the CPA brings parliamentarians from across different countries together.

My hon. Friend is talking eloquently and with a great deal of passion about her visit to Grenada. Her visit was just one of a number of different delegations that the CPA UK sends out, thanks to the financial support of this place and the other place, to ensure that Members of Parliament can carry out the work and relationship development she mentions. Does she agree that it is very important that Parliament continues to reiterate its support for CPA UK, given the good store that Members of Parliament set by it? They feel very strongly about the work of the CPA; it is a real priority for parliamentarians. The CPA must therefore continue to be a financial priority for Parliament.

I completely agree, which is why I am fully supportive of the objectives of the Bill.

I also agreed with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) when she said in Committee that

“this Bill creates equal partners in the Commonwealth, rather than the more outdated model where the UK takes the leadership”.––[Official Report, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and International Committee of the Red Cross (Status) Public Bill Committee, 6 March 2024; c. 6.]

The Bill provides the necessary delegated legislation-making powers for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross to be treated in a manner comparable to an international organisation of which the UK is a member. Due to the powers under the International Development Act 2002 and the International Organisations Act 1968, which is even older than I am, the Government have not been able to treat the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the International Committee of the Red Cross as international organisations to which they are party, because neither organisation is an intergovernmental organisation. Instead, both have their own unique constitutional arrangements, reflecting their specific international priorities.

Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to establish special powers to enable the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross to operate in the United Kingdom. It is welcome that the Bill is supported by parties from across the House. It will provide the International Committee of the Red Cross with more protections for its work. The Bill will ensure that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association can continue to strengthen democracy and encourage cross-party work. I look forward to supporting the Bill through its stages and once again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke on her outstanding work to get us where we are today.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), whose dedication and commitment to this matter has been a labour of love over the past two years, and the reason we are all here today. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), whose work on the CPA, both here in the UK and internationally, has been critical in helping us get to where we are now. I thank the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for their support and for their eloquent speeches today.

The CPA is a highly valued organisation. Many of us on both sides of the House have benefited from its work and will continue to do so for years to come, so I am pleased to support the Bill today on behalf of the Opposition. It could not be better timed: we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Commonwealth earlier this month, with a two-day conference here in Westminster hosted by Mr Speaker. I thank him for doing so, and for his work in pulling the issues together and ensuring that they remain prominent.

The Commonwealth has grown from a group of eight countries in 1949 to a diverse body of 56 nations, with a population of 2.5 billion today. Its members range from large, developed countries to those that are emerging and developing, including some of the smallest nations on earth. I was recently fortunate enough to travel with a CPA delegation to Belize, and it was great to be there as part of my brief in the shadow Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office team, meeting Members of its Parliament and learning how it works, and meeting officials, committee members, members of the Belize Government and the Speaker. The visit allowed us to build critical relationships and an understanding of the challenges that the country faces. As we have heard from other Members on both sides of the House, these relationships are crucial throughout the Commonwealth, and I think we can all agree that today we should celebrate it for the modern institution that it is—one of which we can be proud.

I also want to put on the record that Labour is keen to ensure that the CPA headquarters stay right here in Westminster, in London, as the Bill intends. Labour is very proud of the CPA’s ongoing role in bringing together and liaising between the Parliaments in the Commonwealth family from the very building that inspired the way in which most of the Commonwealth is governed today. It is important for the CPA to be granted privileges and immunities similar to those enjoyed by comparable organisations such as the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning. That enhanced status will strengthen the influence of Commonwealth parliamentarians and give the CPA a more authoritative presence internationally, and I know that Parliaments and parliamentarians across the Commonwealth will welcome it, because it will have a positive impact on the wider Commonwealth and help to maintain unity and stability in times when the international order, parliamentary democracy and human rights face huge and serious challenges.

The hon. Lady has touched on the importance of the privileges and immunities afforded by the Bill, not only to the CPA but to the ICRC. Does she agree that it is important that the Government have given undertakings that those immunities, when they are set out in secondary legislation, will be discussed in detail beforehand with the necessary parties in both organisations to ensure that the Bill works in the way that is intended?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady, and I will ask that of the Government. I thank her for pointing it out.

I am pleased that the Bill seeks to grant the CPA a bespoke legal status, like that enjoyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Swiss law and by the Assemblée Parlementaire de la Francophonie, our French equivalent, in French law. Holding a legal status akin to our parliamentary strengthening counterparts should enhance the organisation’s standing. If the CPA is not granted this legal status, there is a real risk of inter-parliamentary division and fragmentation, which could have broader ramifications for the unity of the Commonwealth.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian organisation, mandated by the international community to protect and assist victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. The ICRC has been granted privileges and immunities by 109 states, and the UK is not one of them. That absence has resulted in significant operational challenges, and the granting of privileges and immunities has become a matter of urgency. Obtaining privileges and immunities in the UK would facilitate the ICRC’s operational capacity to fulfil its mandate and manage its resources in a manner most beneficial to all affected and impacted people. It would also protect the ICRC’s ability to act as, and to be perceived as, a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian actor, and it would protect the confidential nature of the ICRC’s work.

It is essential that the ICRC remains neutral and independent, as it is only through strict adherence to these principles that it can obtain the trust of parties to and victims of armed conflicts, as well as actors in other situations of violence. This trust is crucial in securing humanitarian access to some of the most contested conflict zones.

This Bill goes a long way in addressing the above and provides the means for the ICRC to obtain only the privileges and immunities strictly necessary for its functioning. This includes immunity from legal processes for the ICRC and its staff, the inviolability of its property, and the protection of confidential ICRC information held by the UK Government from disclosure in legal proceedings.

I ask the Minister to reaffirm his assurances in Committee that the required secondary legislation will be brought forward as soon as possible. Will he commit to consulting both the ICRC and the CPA ahead of that secondary legislation, to ensure the appropriate privileges and immunities for each organisation?

I am pleased to support this Bill on behalf of the Opposition, and I commend the work that has gone into it right across the House, and particularly from the right hon. Member for Basingstoke. If we fail to get this right, it would deal a real blow to the role of this House and the Government on the world stage. It would be seen as a symbol of our lack of commitment, and it would damage the potential of the CPA, a growing and unique global organisation, at a time when we should be redoubling our efforts to engage with our Commonwealth partners and seeking to expand the Commonwealth. I am confident there is a will on all sides to ensure that the Bill succeeds.

It is a genuine pleasure to speak at the Dispatch Box on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Foreign Secretary, and it is a pleasure for various reasons. I suspect this will be one of my least challenging appearances at the Dispatch Box, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) has garnered so much support for these measures across the House and in Government.

It is a pleasure to appear opposite, and respond to once again, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), who shadowed me in my role before she was moved to a different team. It is also important to put on record our gratitude, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) did. We are grateful to her, to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for his work, to Stephen Twigg and his staff, to Mr Speaker, and indeed to the Comptroller of His Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who with the Bill, as with many others, has done so much as the Whip to ensure that it has progressed smoothly and is—hopefully —within touching distance of becoming law.

I will pay my own tribute to the Comptroller of His Majesty’s Household later, when we come to my Bill. On private Member’ Bills, this shows the House at its best. I think these measures have been debated in a ten-minute rule Bill and a previous private Member’s Bill, and I infer from the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) that this was a presentation Bill. That shows the importance of the work of the House on a sitting Friday to push through to the other place such legislation, which is so important internationally to so many of our Commonwealth partners, as well as, obviously, the Red Cross.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I often say when I am talking to schools or more broadly in my constituency—I suspect he does so in his—that if our electorate want to see the House at its best, they should watch the Chamber on a sitting Friday when we are debating private Member’ Bills: there is often much cross-party co-operation and enlightening debate. One goes away not only having hopefully moved things forward and achieved something, but having learned something.

Before I turn to the substance of the Bill, I have a couple of other points to make. I turn briefly to the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) about, I think, the Canadian Parliament—

I am sorry; the New Zealand Parliament, which gave the power to the Speaker or the Chair that if a Minister had not been deemed by the Chair to have given a sufficiently accurate or appropriate answer to a question, they could have the question re-put to the Minister. I gently say to my right hon. Friend that while that is an interesting suggestion, it would be entirely redundant in this place, given how Ministers always answer directly the question posed to them as fully and helpfully as they can.

The other reason it is a genuine pleasure to be here is that the Bill has been brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) highlighted that she had been forcefully pushing this issue to a conclusion. I must say that, having had the pleasure of working with her on various amendments to legislation in the past, I have always found it wise to agree with her. I am therefore pleased to confirm the Government’s support for the Bill. It is wise to agree with her, not least because generally she is right in the points she is making, as I know from experience. So it is a genuine pleasure to speak on her Bill on this occasion. I recognise in doing so her work as chair of the CPA as well as her work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the huge value that that adds.

This is a hugely important Bill, reflecting on two important organisations. In what can appear to be a fractured and increasingly dangerous world, it is important that we remember and reinforce the role of democracy as a bulwark against authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and indeed the conflicts that can often flow from those.

In respect of the CPA, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) set out clearly the importance of its work to promote parliamentary democracy and good government through a range of activities and in a range of forums. It is open and wide-ranging in its promotion of democracy within the Commonwealth context. It is non-partisan and non-prescriptive. It does a huge amount of work to capture the best of parliamentary democracy across the Commonwealth, propagate it and reinforce it.

It is also important, as the shadow Minister did, to recognise the importance of the Commonwealth in that context. She rightly highlighted its 75th anniversary. It is an institution of enduring success and enduring value. We can genuinely characterise it as the Commonwealth family of nations, because we do view all the other members of the Commonwealth as family, as I hope they would view us.

The ICRC was founded 160 years ago. It is

“an impartial, neutral and independent organisation whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance.”

That is from the ICRC mandate. Its unique international humanitarian mandate and mission have been formally recognised, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North highlighted, by states in the Geneva conventions and their additional protocols. This organisation has unique legitimacy to engage all parties to conflicts and has unparalleled access to vulnerable groups in conflict situations. It is frequently the only agency operating at scale in many conflicts. As we look around the world at the conflicts raging, its work has never been more important.

It is a pleasure to confirm the Government’s full support for the Bill and to thank those Members who have contributed today. As set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, the Bill will enable the Government to treat the CPA and ICRC in a manner genuinely comparable to that of an international organisation of which the UK or His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom are a member.

The UK has, as I have highlighted, a huge and long-standing partnership with the CPA, and we recognise the work it does. The UK also views the ICRC as an essential partner for achieving our global humanitarian objectives, with the organisation having unique legitimacy to engage all parties to conflicts and unparalleled access. It also operates in some of the most challenging situations that anyone could face. Its specialised role in engaging with all arms bearers, including the growing number of non-state armed groups, is coupled with its direct delivery of a comprehensive range of integrated humanitarian assistance and protection programmes.

Treatment as an international organisation will allow both the CPA and the ICRC to deliver their objectives while operating in the UK. In the case of the CPA, it will facilitate the organisation to operate fully across the Commonwealth and international fora, including in areas where it is currently restricted by its charitable status. While it is not possible under the International Organisations Act 1968, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, to accord it the privileges and status it needs, this legislation fills that gap.

For the ICRC, treatment as an international organisation will critically enable it to operate in the UK in accordance with its international mandate, maintaining its strict adherence to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence and its standard working method of confidentiality, which is designed to protect its staff and operations in active conflict zones. The public disclosure of information that the ICRC obtains from confidential dialogue with conflict parties is likely to put that at risk. It is also a principle that underpins its ability to operate in dangerous locations on sensitive issues, engaging with state and non-state actors. The Bill has therefore been amended to include a provision for the protection of certain information related to the ICRC’s sensitive work that it has provided in confidence to His Majesty’s Government, to stop it being used in court proceedings, except for criminal proceedings. The Government consider this provision necessary, but proportionate.

Treatment as an international organisation includes the provision of privileges and immunities necessary to meet the functional needs of the CPA and ICRC in the UK. In providing these privileges and immunities, we will strengthen our partnerships with both the CPA and ICRC respectively. It will enable these two key partners to better deliver their objectives.

The list of privileges and immunities that might be conferred on the CPA and ICRC have been informed by the 1968 Act. That will allow the Government to agree a framework that is unique and appropriate to each organisation’s unique mandate. The actual suite of privileges and immunities to be accorded, including relevant exceptions and limitations, will be determined based on the functional need of each organisation and will be specified in secondary legislation and Order in Council. For example, the arrangements will make it clear, as is standard practice, that there will be no immunity from legal suit in the case of a motor traffic offence or damage caused by a motor vehicle.

The financial implications of the Bill are minimal, and there will be little or no loss of revenue as a result of the fiscal exemptions or relief, which again will be granted by delegated legislation through the provisions in the Bill. As is standard practice for international organisations, certain taxes will be refunded in accordance with the separate arrangements between the Government and the CPA and ICRC, respectively. In response to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke—the shadow Minister kindly gave me advance warning that she would also raise it in her speech—I am happy to reconfirm that the specific arrangements will be drawn up in active consultation with the CPA and with the ICRC, respectively.

I realise that the Minister is making a Third Reading speech so it is important not to go into detail, but this element was introduced in Committee, and we did not have the advantage of a Report stage. I would like to press the Government on this particular point, because the privileges and immunities section of the Bill is clearly set out but it is important that those affected by the Bill understand that those privileges and immunities are yet to be agreed with the Government. It is important that they are agreed well in advance of being laid before Parliament, so that everybody can be sighted on what they mean in practice.

As ever, my right hon. Friend is right. Therefore, subject to the passage of this legislation and prior to those regulations being introduced, until they come into force, they do not come into force. We will work closely with those organisations so that when those regulations are laid and approved, hopefully there will be no surprises in them because they will have worked collaboratively with us to draw them up.

The arrangements will detail the day-to-day management of the privileges and immunities granted to both organisations on a functional need basis, and other facilities. Furthermore, administration of the arrangements will be resourced from the existing resources responsible for managing privileges and immunities with international organisations in the UK.

The Bill strengthens our commitment to the work of the Commonwealth and our support of democratic legislators through our work with the CPA. It will also support the FCDO’s global humanitarian objectives, ensuring that the UK remains at the heart of an unrivalled global network for economic, diplomatic and security partnerships through our work with the ICRC.

Hon. Members raised a couple of points, which I will turn to before concluding. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for a wide ranging, informative and typically well-informed contribution. Craving your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I take just a minute, as I am conscious that my hon. Friend has announced that she will not seek re-election at the next general election, and who knows whether I will get another opportunity at the Dispatch Box? Let me put on record my gratitude to her for everything she has done. She and I served together as fellow ward councillors on Westminster City Council before I was elected to this place and she was subsequently elected. She is a fierce champion for what she believes to be right for her constituents and her community, and she has demonstrated that as a councillor and leader of the council and now as a Member of Parliament. She will be hugely missed by her constituents and by this House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) asked what support His Majesty’s Government will give, beyond this legislation, to both the organisations that we are debating. His Majesty’s Government give the ICRC £48 million of core funding annually, and up to £100 million in bilateral donations. We have a long-standing and robust relationship with the ICRC and a track record of supporting it. My understanding is that we fund CPA International to the tune of £196,000, and we give CPA UK £235,000. We support them through not only this legislation and what we say in this House but tangible financial support.

In an ever more challenging global context, His Majesty’s Government and my right hon. Friend the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary remain committed to working with and supporting the work of the CPA and the ICRC. This Bill gives both organisations the status in legislation that they need and deserve to continue their international operations without impediment; it reflects our commitment. I once again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. The Government continue to support the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I am grateful to everybody who took part in the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore)—I give him a special call-out, as he is the treasurer of the CPA—and the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). I thank them for their fulsome support for this Bill.

I particularly thank the Minister for setting out so clearly how he will treat the secondary legislation that is required to make this Bill work. I join him in thanking the Comptroller of His Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), whom I did not thank earlier. We are never quite sure how to thank Whips in this place, but I thank her very much for her incredible support—she is involved in all things to do with the FCDO.

I thank everybody in the House of Commons for their great support in recognising the ICRC and the CPA as international organisations. This Bill will help both organisations to do their jobs even better. I thank the Minister and his colleagues at the FCDO for their unstinting support, which I hope continues as the Bill passes to the other place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

High Streets (Designation, Review and Improvement Plan) Bill

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted to be able to express thanks to colleagues from across the House for their support for this important Bill. I am grateful to the Minister and his officials for their highly constructive engagement at every stage. It has been enormously helpful to draw on the Department’s formidable professionalism and expertise. I thank the Whips Office, and particularly the Comptroller of His Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for all her support. I thank the House staff in the Public Bill Office for their support. I also thank the many organisations and individuals who have helped to inform this Bill through conversations I have had with them and reports I have read over many years. I have managed to bring them together thanks to the private Member’s Bill ballot.

I am a passionate believer in local government. My experience at Stoke-on-Trent City Council as a cabinet member for regeneration, transport and heritage informs much of my keen interest in high streets and how to deliver the mechanisms that will co-ordinate preserving and enhancing them. From my most recent engagements, I particularly thank the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the British Property Federation, Power to Change, the British Retail Consortium and the Local Government Association for adding greatly to my thinking and my determination to secure a Bill with cross-party support. Many conversations with local bodies, individuals and businesses over the years have informed the Bill and I place on record my thanks to them all. Most recently, I met representatives of the Stoke-on-Trent business improvement district, and I am delighted that they support my Bill.

No Bill is without critics, but where I have encountered them, they have been good natured and constructive. For the most part, we have resolved our differences through clarification and amendment in Committee. It is a necessary debate and it has been conducted well. I seem to have struck a chord with Members across the House in arguing that local authorities should be guided towards better co-ordination in ensuring that they understand the dynamics of local high streets in our constituencies, and should work in concert with local communities, property owners and high street businesses to preserve and enhance those treasured places in a way that serves and grows our local economies.

Our high streets are the beating heart of our communities, which was again evident at the vibrant Longton carnival and pig walk parade in my constituency last weekend. It was incredible to see thousands of people flock to the town centre. Huge thanks go to all the volunteers, particularly those in Urban Wilderness and Longton Exchange shopping centre who helped organise the event. It is also fantastic to see the expansion of the number of retailers that are setting up and the businesses that are opening in Longton. We have seen a reduced number of empty spaces, particularly in the Longton Exchange shopping centre, with new independent retailers setting up. They include Keep It Local and So Very Dog and also, across the road from my office, the oatcake shop Linny’s Kitchen, which I occasionally like to pop into for my lunch.

I also detect a strong belief that we as Members should be active participants in agreeing local designations, contributing to reviews, and compiling or commenting on improvement plans for our areas. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) made an excellent and passionate speech in Committee in support of the principles of the Bill and how determined she is to see improvements in Erdington that she has been pushing for as a result of it. I know our high streets are close to her heart and I thank her for that powerful contribution.

Under the Bill, it will be for the Secretary of State to draw up the guidance. As he is an assiduous constituency MP, I am confident that he will have read the mood of the House that Members should be included as consultees. That is important, because it is also implicit in the Bill that local authorities will occasionally designate high streets that include property that belongs to bodies that are formally accountable to this House, rather than to local government. Network Rail is an obvious example. Indeed, in Committee, the Minister revealed that his own local high street area in Redcar includes Station Road, which I believe ends in Redcar Central station—but I will leave the local knowledge to him. It is important to leave as much of the process as we can as local as possible.

I stress that in Committee, following the passing of the money resolution on 5 March, the Minister explicitly promised money on the table for drawing up reviews of up to three high street areas per local authority This money, for up to three designated high street improvement plans, will be on top of that from the various grant-makers with pots of national money—bodies that are scrutinised by this House—to which any designated high street might appeal to realise improvements and, in particular, to preserve the important heritage and iconic character of many of our high streets. It is right that Members should be closely involved in helping to deliver on improvement plans, developing place partnerships that enjoy local support, leveraging both local and/or national funding and optimising the co-ordination of existing funding towards a compelling sense of direction for our high streets.

On Second Reading, I told the House about the aims I had for the Bill; the House kindly indulged my half-hour speech covering the issues, and Members across the House offered various constructive comments that have led to further improvements and clarifications through amendments that I was able to secure in Committee. I was not intending to speak for quite as long today, but I think the Whips are encouraging me to do so, so I will indulge the House a little longer.

We enjoyed a comprehensive and informed debate on Second Reading. Thanks to suggestions from that debate, specifically from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) and the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), the Bill was amended in Committee and now explicitly states that a high street can be designated to cover not just one road, but a collection of adjoining streets that are considered locally to be a high street area by virtue of the cluster of high street purposes served by those streets.

It is an important improvement to the Bill that it now specifically confirms that flexibility, which had only weakly been implicit in the right to vary designations and not explicit in making them in the first place. My aim has always been that the Bill should be demanding, but not onerous; it seeks to co-ordinate existing workstreams better, rather than add to net burden, and its provisions are deliberately as flexible as possible. It is vital for local communities to celebrate and preserve their local points of difference—all those things that make their particular high street a special place to be for residents and visitors alike.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an excellent Bill. Does he agree that the history and heritage of our town centres can be what really marks them out as different? Basingstoke is often seen as a new town, which could not be further from the truth. It has a 1,000-year-old market and was the birthplace of Jane Austen, the world’s greatest novelist. Does he agree that we should be making more of that history in our town centres?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent point and I entirely agree: that heritage, that historical character of our high streets in particular, in many of our towns and cities right across the country, is so important and we need to make more of that heritage, particularly when thinking about attracting new uses to our high streets. Many of those heritage properties can be converted into excellent spaces for a whole range of new uses, attracting footfall and new businesses to the high street.

As I was saying, the Bill is also about ensuring that local authorities conform to a national requirement and that they undertake the process of designation, review and improvement in accordance with their local circumstances, with assistance from national datasets and best practice analyses that already exist and can be signposted through the Secretary of State’s guidance. Getting the balance right between local differences and national requirements is a concern. It was clear from colleagues that the original Bill, which specified that the local authorities should designate no more than three high streets, was not getting the balance right, and that the maximum number of high streets designated in each area should be a decision for each local authority. That change was secured in Committee; if local authorities wish to fund designations and reviews in addition to the three that will be funded by Government, they now can do so.

Of course, there will be numerous disagreements around which areas to designate as high streets and when. My own area is a city made up of six towns, and there are many other high streets right across north Staffordshire. There may well be spirited debate locally about how to improve them. There will even be disagreement, I am sure, about what the Secretary of State’s guidance should include and what central funding, if any, should be available. This Bill sets out a supportive and predictable framework in which such debates can and must take place, bringing the focus and direction that our high streets desperately need.

The Bill directly addresses a problem highlighted in December 2021 by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in its excellent report, “Supporting our high streets after Covid-19”, namely the absence of a plan for ensuring that local authorities have a capacity to develop effective place partnerships and place leadership. The Bill introduces the mechanism of designation and review, under guidance, and this is supported with national funding for up to three improvement plans that will be developed in partnership locally, led by local authorities.

I completely understand the reaction that local government often has when it feels as though it is being told it needs to do more. My background is at the coalface of local government policymaking. That is why I stress that the Bill seeks to get local government not so much to do more as to co-ordinate what it does better, with wider input and agreement, and a wider contribution of effort, in implementation and delivery from a range of interested partners in our high streets, ranging from community groups to our high street businesses. I am enthused by those authorities that can already see the benefits of having an improvement plan, and I am pleased that the money resolution means that the authorities that have been held back by the cost of formulating a plan will have that barrier removed.

The Bill provides the policymaking structure for motivating action in the use of the many powers that already exist and are at the disposal of local authorities, and in giving better accountability as to their use. The Bill ensures that our communities and high street businesses are empowered to call for the improvements that should be outlined in each plan.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on a brilliant Bill that will make such a huge difference. Does he agree that the Bill will also give more power to local people, who will be able to hold their local council, its cabinet and their local leaders to account? If they are not doing exactly what the Bill’s objectives set out, people can vote them out and bring in a new council that will ensure that its local high streets are managed properly and people are given the powers they need to grow the local economy.

I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words of support. She rightly says that this is about accountability and ensuring that the people in our local communities are in charge of their high streets and can ensure that those authorities, which have the power to bring about change, are held to account for that and for their decisions.

Section 215 enforcement notices and other enforcement mechanisms will certainly be part of that mix. Unfortunately, section 215 powers, which are about enforcement where properties are in a bad condition and owners are not taking responsibility for their buildings, have not been used in our area. I made a freedom of information request recently about that and we found out that Stoke-on-Trent City Council had not used those powers once in the past 12 months. That is shocking, given the blatant need for a carrot and stick approach to address some of the concerns about our high street.

Change of use will also be another aspect of this, and having further reviews every five years ensures that improvement plans are living, nimble and able to respond to changing views and circumstances. Nor should we presume that a plan could consider every eventuality, so although it will be important to give consideration to improvement plans as part of local planning policy, they should not restrict and prevent positive development that may not have been envisaged when a plan was formulated.

Additionally, reviews can happen more frequently than every five years, if necessary. Again, that was further clarified through amendment in Committee. Importantly, the Bill does not prescribe that improvement plans must be fully implemented, complete and whole within five years. I want to clear up any confusion that there may still be about that. Rather, the Bill provides for plans to be more of a moveable feast, subject to periodic review to check on the progress towards delivery of what might be called an “ideal model envisaged”. That means that improvement plans can include longer-term ambitions, guiding principles and characteristics for high streets well into the decades ahead, with the ability to finesse those at least every five years.

Of course, there is the duty not to leave the plans covering dust on a shelf. Having a long-term vision that is delivered incrementally with maintained local support is the right thing to do. We can all think of examples of funding pots becoming available for so-called shovel-ready schemes, and many of us will have been frustrated when it turns out that nothing remotely shovel ready is on the books.

One of the great lessons of the high streets taskforce, which has been usefully embraced by a number of local authorities, including Longton, is the importance of getting a number of quick wins and a number of deliverable schemes within the shorter term, and having a longer-term vision and series of projects. The high streets taskforce has been an important and productive initiative for local councils of all colours, and I hope that its legacy, findings and best practice will live on through the Bill. It is work that deserves to be celebrated and continued, and we should all be grateful for the wealth of knowledge that the taskforce has contributed. The Bill is necessary to institutionalise that legacy further, developing it across local government and local communities. Having an improvement plan will help provide the basis for helping secure future funding, providing a more cohesive plan to help justify investment decisions, and will mean that certain schemes can be on the books whenever the funding is available. It also means that other projects that crop up can be knitted into the fabric to align better with the longer-term strategic vision and priorities for an area.

Without a clear vision of what a preserved and enhanced high street area would look like, I suggest that the spending would not be as optimal as it could, or should, be and the funding may not even be won at all. Much of the focus for Government investment would be better informed and would deliver better value for money through high street improvement plans. Indeed, local authorities and place partnerships will be able to engage with national bodies to push for certain optimal schemes or the refinement of them to help deliver greater benefits for our high streets within the spending envelope. That could mean infrastructure projects, such as with organisations like Network Rail and National Highways, environmental enhancements from organisations like the Environment Agency, or major housing delivery on some of our brownfields through organisations like Homes England. It is important that we improve the linkage of national organisations to better understand the needs of our local communities and high streets. Improvement plans can help do that through better co-ordination and clarity of direction.

High street improvement plans may also be important for Historic England in identifying areas in need of a partnership scheme in conservation areas, known as PSICA. The reviews of high streets will, in some cases, draw on conservation area appraisals as well. In some of those cases, that will expose the absence of appraisals and will help fill the gap, particularly where condition of those areas is poor. It has been exciting to work with Historic England in Longton to help save buildings on Market Street, and the heritage action zone funding we have secured has helped deliver on some of those buildings. However, it has not delivered on all those buildings, and we actually have a number of buildings that are still in a poor state. We have amassed knowledge and data about the ownership and condition of some of those buildings, and we need to move on to the next stage. I hope we will secure some additional funding for Longton through the heritage lottery fund to help improve and continue some of the good work already started through the PSICA scheme.

There is much more work to do, especially in ensuring that the traffic flow and public realm are optimised for footfall and dwell time in Longton town centre. I hope the use of some of the levelling-up partnership funding for the town centre will help. Also, some of the other plans that we have been developing, particularly around things like crime and antisocial behaviour, are important for many of our high streets and town centres. Longton has recently seen a spate of absolutely mindless crime and antisocial behaviour targeting a number of retailers. In the next few weeks, I will be meeting a number of them alongside Staffordshire police to discuss some of the issues.

I have been absolutely delighted to help secure more funding to address some of those issues. Working with our fantastic police, fire and crime commissioner, Ben Adams, we managed to secure extra Safer Streets funding for Longton, and for other parts of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, to help deliver the improvements and create the secure high streets we need to see. In our case, they include additional CCTV throughout the town centre and gating off some of the alleyways that have attracted crime and antisocial behaviour. Those measures will help to ensure that people feel safe to visit, and encourage more people to dwell and shop on our high streets.

Only a comprehensive improvement plan can pull together the many factors and aspects that need proper co-ordination for a compelling high street experience. All that can be addressed in the guidance from the Secretary of State. I hope there will be a role for the Office for Place, now based in Stoke-on-Trent, in optimising the guidance. And it will be guidance, not prescription. I stress here that the Bill does not remove the power of article 4 direction that local authorities already enjoy to remove permitted development rights, if they see fit. That is a decision for them, and it will no doubt be part of the designation process to consider any PDR issues around a high street. In many areas, permitted development rights will actually be key to the enterprising spirit needed to revive high streets. Forward-thinking councils know full well that they cannot succeed in their regeneration ambitions if they allow themselves to have a reputation among developers of “council says no.”

The improvement plan process will ensure that authorities are comfortable as enablers of preservation and enhancements. We are blessed in Staffordshire, like in many parts of the country and particularly in north Staffordshire, to have many iconic high streets, whether in the more rural market towns of Stone and Cheadle, or in the pottery towns of Fenton and Longton that make up parts of the city of Stoke-on-Trent. But nearly all of them across the country have faced multiple challenges from online, out of town, and, of course, covid-19.

To conclude, we must act to address that decline, building on the work already being done by the Government through measures such as those set out in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, and ensuring the powers in place have a higher likelihood of being utilised. It has been a pleasure to bring the Bill forward and to work with colleagues across all parties to discuss it, review it and improve it on its passage through the House. We all want to see our high streets reviewed and improved. We want them to be preserved and enhanced to celebrate their local character. We want greater footfall, driven by high streets that are safe and pleasant places to be. The Bill ensures that local authorities work with property owners, local communities and many others to realise that aim, according to their own local circumstances. It is muscular localism, and I commend it to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on bringing forward such an important Bill. I think every Member of this House will have a problem high street that they feel frustrated about and cannot get any work done on. I hope he will allow me to talk about the success in my constituency, which I think echoes the sentiment of the Bill and shows what can be done when some of the things he wants to see in the Bill are achieved.

I want to talk about my hometown of North Shields. North Shields is probably best known for the Fish Quay. The Fish Quay is a shadow of its former self in one way, but because of a lot of work that has been done on development it is now thriving. It is full of restaurants and shops, and we have the fantastic North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project, which has done a lot to highlight and record the history of our town. Next year, North Shields will be celebrating its 800th anniversary. I lived in North Shields from when I was born until I was 19. We lived in an upstairs Tyneside flat and then, when I was 19, my family were thrilled to move to another great area of North Tyneside, Wallsend, into a brand new council house, when we still had council houses being built on a grand scale. That was 1976, so we can work out my age.

North Shields has two high streets. The one that runs parallel to the river east-west is Saville Street. The one that runs north-south is Bedford Street. As in many other town centres, there has been so much decline over the years. Various schemes have tried to bring the town centre back to life, but there have always been reasons why it has not really thrived. Town centres and high streets are so important because they bring communities together, with friends and family shopping and meeting in the same area. When I was young we went shopping on a Saturday, and we would not get very far along the high street before our mother saw a relative or friend, and there would be little groups of people chatting and going in and out of the shops. Our high streets were great community spaces. Going to high streets now is very sad, however, because there is no life in them. People are just going into the shops; one or two might gather to speak to each other, but that buzz has definitely gone.

However, North Tyneside Council developed a masterplan for the North Shields area, doing exactly what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned: bringing communities together to talk about what they want. What has helped with that is that there has been funding. North Shields has nearly £13 million for a transport hub and a new town square to transform the town, making it attractive and family-friendly again with a vibrant, high-quality high street feel.

The transport hub opened last September, and I was pleased to be there to see that happen. It is amazing. The money that helped transform it—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will be able to mention this as an example—came from the transforming cities fund, which came via Transport North East with help from the North of Tyne Combined Authority and North Tyneside Council—as a proud former council member, I will never fail to sing the praises of the great Labour North Tyneside Council.

The transport hub is a major part of North Tyneside’s ambitious plan to improve North Shields. What is really fantastic about the hub is the public toilets, which are a vital part of any town centre and high street. In the past, because of antisocial behaviour, a lot of public toilets were closed, and shops do not always have toilets that people can use. Some people with medical conditions really need to know that there will be a toilet in the vicinity when they go out. I know someone with prostate cancer—this example is from my family experience—who carries a card that they can show to access a toilet, if no public toilets are available. But people do not want to have to do that; they want a bit more dignity and not to have to search around for a toilet.

The new bus station’s toilet facilities are fantastic. There are six individual cubicles, each with their own toilet and sink—everything is self-contained. I take the bus from Wallsend to North Shields, and so far the facilities are being well maintained. We might worry about what happens to such facilities in the town centre, but people are showing pride, and that is the key thing—the difference is that there is now pride in the town centre.

In the town square there is an area where people can sit—we are calling it the piazza, to be a bit posh in North Shields. Entertainment is also provided, and there is a big screen—we have already seen music there—and that is just off Bedford Street, which is now the main street. Saville Street, the other high street, is a lot quieter. People walk down Bedford Street and, halfway down, suddenly come across this wonderful piazza. Visitors who come on the metro or the bus get off and see this wonderful community facility in the heart of the shopping area. We have a green square a bit further over. The piazza is concrete—it has some plants—but it has a community feel.

The new hub is the council’s first building with fully carbon-neutral construction, and the council hopes to achieve carbon net zero by 2030. The hub is sustainable, and its design and materials are at the forefront. The building uses solar energy and manages waste surface water, which is particularly important. Art is being installed and, to include the community, there was a competition to design a memorial to one of North Shields’s most famous sons or daughters. The chosen memorial is to Thomas Brown, who received the George Medal after he retrieved the Enigma codes from a sinking boat, which shortened the war. He was only 16. Sadly, he died in a fire with his sister at their house not many months after coming home—he has a surviving brother and sister. He was overwhelmingly voted as the person who should be remembered in the town square, which will be named after him, which is lovely. I went to the opening of the memorial.

After developing somewhere on the high street to celebrate our local history and local heroes, North Shields now has a buzz about it. It looks good, and long may that continue. We have a shopping centre, the Beacon centre, from the town’s last revival 50 years ago, when I was in my teens—I keep wanting to think that it was only 40 years ago. [Laughter.] It is all right for you young ones.

I have always been proud of North Shields, and I have been saddened when our high street has not been able to thrive. I now see pride returning to the people of North Shields. People, young and old, are gathering, shopping and enjoying their high street. I hope this Bill can achieve for other town centres and high streets what North Shields has achieved by getting funding, and by people and communities working and coming together, to restore pride and interest in the town centre because of its thriving high street.

High streets are essential to our towns. They act as social hubs for our communities, and they attract people, which results in money being spent in our local economies. Across the UK, we have all seen high streets decline over the last decade. This can be put down to multiple factors, such as online shopping, energy costs and the pandemic. All of these things, and more, have meant that high streets are becoming emptier, and towns are the worse for it.

Businesses on our high streets were put under huge strain during covid. We saw large amounts of ingenuity from many who had to adapt and change their business models to survive. I saw many local businesses start delivery services or create new products that had not previously existed. In many ways, people adapted to a brand-new situation to keep their businesses alive. However, many were also supported by Government grants, and I was extremely grateful for that support, which was received by many businesses throughout Broxtowe that might not be operating today without it.

We have seen the loss of vital services from many of our high streets. In 2019 I discovered that we were losing our banking services in Stapleford, when a constituent spoke to me in the street to ask what could be done. This would have been a huge loss to our town. Online banking can be great, but it is not for everyone, so it is important that physical banking services exist in our communities. I got to work to ensure that banking services would be available in our high street. I finally managed to find Cash Access UK, which has now opened a new banking hub where customers of major banks and building societies can carry out regular cash transactions. That was a win, but other local services will also disappear if we do not look after our high streets.

There are many high streets in my constituency, with a huge variety of chain stores and independent businesses. In 2021, following a period of lobbying the Government, Stapleford received £21.1 million as part of a town deal, and its main road, Derby Road, has already benefited hugely from that funding. Independent shops such as Rowells received some of it to renovate parts of their businesses. Rowells has been in the town for 126 years, and I had the honour of taking Chris and Donna, its owners, to No. 10 Downing Street to thank them for what they do for Stapleford.

Bake Me A Wish, which opened last year, is a local businesses whose owners began baking in their home in Chilwell during the covid-19 pandemic. Following covid, they decided to open a shop selling delicious cakes and pastries—I recommend their honey layer cake—in a now up-and-coming Stapleford town centre, with footfall rising and far fewer empty shops than we used to have. That demonstrates the difference that the town deal has made.

In another part of my constituency, Beeston, many small and independent businesses have served the community for far longer than I have been around. Fred Hallam, a grocer’s and fishmonger, has been present on the High Road since 1908. I have previously taken the now Prime Minister to Fred Hallam to show him how much value it brings to our local town, and why it is so important that such businesses have the Government’s support. Another local business on the High Road that the Prime Minister had the privilege of visiting is Hairven, a hair salon opened by my constituent Collette. Hairven is not only an important fixture in the town, but provides apprenticeships for young people starting their careers in the hair and beauty industry. I am incredibly proud of the work it does. As we so often say in the House, university is not for everyone, and this and many similar businesses are providing an essential service in offering apprenticeships.

We need to ensure that our high streets are offering services that cannot be obtained online. They can also be a social hub: coffee shops and other such venues often provide a place to go for people who may live alone or feel isolated. Enabling them to be around others and visit a venue where they can meet a friend can go a long way towards tackling the endemic of loneliness that we are coming to see. I have been proud to speak in the House on numerous occasions about the need to do more to tackle loneliness and isolation, and I believe that high streets are essential in doing so.

The availability of accommodation in town is a further way of making high streets busier, but towns will not draw in individuals without having a variety of businesses. We have become more used to seeing empty store fronts along our high streets, which is a very poor situation, and I am therefore delighted that the Government’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 allows local authorities to instigate high street rental auctions of properties that have been vacant for more than a year. It will be up to them whether they take up those powers, but I hope very much that that will be done in Broxtowe to ensure that all our high streets are as attractive as they can be to both locals and visitors. I would add that I am very keen to see more high street businesses taken on by younger generations. Broxtowe has a huge amount of young entrepreneurship, and I am keen to encourage younger people to take on the challenge of opening high street businesses and bringing a fresh perspective to our high streets. Perhaps this is something the Government could look at following the debate.

The Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) is vital, as it requires that we do not let our high streets fall into disarray. It provides that local authorities must not merely review a high street every five years but actively lay out an improvement plan. That puts pressure on local authorities to ensure that our high streets are fit for local communities. I believe a large contributing factor to the amount of footfall on high streets is car parking. People can be hugely put off from visiting towns where they cannot park or where parking costs are extortionate. In Broxtowe we have had huge issues with parking. I implore our local council to do more to tackle this problem, as it has a huge impact on shops, business owners and local residents. It is essential that we have a car parking strategy in our town centres and ensure that throughout busy times of the day we have available and affordable parking for all.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for bringing this Bill to the House. High streets are in decline, and once we lose many of their facilities, they will not return. I am very pleased to see this Bill introduced, so that we can take action now to save our high streets and ensure they return to the buzzing social hubs we once saw up and down the country, including in my constituency of Broxtowe.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for this important private Member’s Bill. High streets are a fundamental part of any community, whether village, town or city—or two cities, in my case. They attract commercial activity to the centre, support the local economy and provide much-needed jobs for local people.

I welcome this Bill. By requiring local authorities to designate high streets in their area, publish reviews of their condition and develop action plans, it recognises the importance of enhancing our high streets. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are over 1,200 high streets in London alone, constituting almost 20% of the high streets we have in Great Britain. As Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, I know the importance of the high street, as we are home to what is often referred to as the nation’s high street: Oxford Street. It may be only one and a half miles long, but before the pandemic the Oxford Street district alone generated £13 billion of GVA. To put that into context, that is 25% of the entirety of Wales’s GVA.

In central London, 25% of visitors are international, but they account for 50% of all spending. As Europe’s busiest shopping street, Oxford Street plays a key role in enticing these tourists to our country. Many visitors emphasise that tax rates play a role in their choice of destination. Many businesses in my constituency rely heavily on the revenue generated by international shoppers, yet since the abolition of tax-free shopping, we have seen a trend of these consumers choosing to take their business to other European capitals, such as Paris and Milan. We know that such visitors are spending less in the UK than in other European countries. We know that such visitors are spending less in the UK than in other European countries. In 2022, spending in the UK by American visitors reached 101% of 2019 levels, but in France it surged to 226% of 2019 levels. That data makes a clear point: we need a return of tax-free shopping. I have repeatedly made the case for introducing tax-free shopping to provide a needed boost to a wide range of businesses on high streets across the country.

We must also ensure that renowned British high streets such as Oxford Street retain their global status. As we have heard, shops on many local high streets are empty or closing—businesses have perhaps not survived the pandemic—and the same can be said of parts of Oxford Street. Up and down Oxford Street, there are now too many candy shops and vape shops. I understand that the landlords want rent to ensure that their property is a going business, but I am deeply disappointed that Westminster City Council has still not been able to deal with the plethora of candy shops on Oxford Street. Many of the tenants use shell companies, which is another reason we need an urgent review of Companies House—but I digress, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Of course, Oxford Street is not the only high street in the west end. We have what I like to call the trinity of Oxford Steet, Bond Street and Regent Street. All are situated in the west end and play an important part in the cultural and entertainment powerhouse that is central London. The trinity boasts some of the world’s most famous department stores, including Selfridges on Oxford Street, Liberty just off Regent Street and, of course, Hamleys, the world’s oldest toy shop, on Regent Street. Bond Street is home to some of the most famous luxury brands: Burberry, Chanel, Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermès, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Ralph Lauren and Tiffany—I could go on.

The Bill goes to the heart of why we need to ensure the health of the local high street. An aspect that we tend to forget when it comes to the regeneration and protection of the high street is the role that business improvement districts play. In Cities of London and Westminster, BIDs play a massive part in ensuring that our high streets are used in the best possible capacity by making improvements to the public realm and enabling businesses to work together to ensure that the local high street is a going concern. In Westminster, we have a plethora of BIDs, including the New West End Company, the Heart of London Business Alliance, Northbank, Victoria, Baker Street Quarter, PaddingtonNow and Marble Arch London. In the City, we have Aldgate Connect, Fleet Street Quarter and many others. I pay respect to and thank the amazing Ruth Duston, the chief executive of an umbrella organisation that brings together a number of those BIDs. The difference that the BIDs have made to a swathe of high streets and commercial areas across my constituency is absolutely outstanding, and I thank Ruth for her service.

It is not just in the west end that the high street is important; the two cities are home to what I call villages or neighbourhoods: Elizabeth Street in Belgravia, Warwick Way in Pimlico, Berwick Street in Soho, Mount Street in Mayfair and, of course, Marylebone High Street—the high street for the village of Marylebone. All those neighbourhood high streets cater to residents and visitors alike, with their much-loved cafés and small businesses such as florists’, clothes shops, barbers, nail bars, grocers, bakers—you name it. Every one of our neighbourhood high streets has a small business, and behind those small businesses can be families. This Bill will do so much to support family-run businesses.

We have already heard today the huge part that our high streets play, whether in the capital city, an area like Stoke-on-Trent or anywhere. They can often make a village, a town or a neighbourhood in a city a special place to live for residents, including me. I am delighted to live in the village of Pimlico, where we have a whole number of brilliant local shops, restaurants and family-run businesses.

It is important that people can live near the high street, and building houses on land that becomes available is so important for footfall. Does the hon. Lady agree?

The hon. Lady is right, and what she says relates to an important point about the regeneration of our high streets. We have to have people around high streets to use them and to benefit from the facilities and the services that they offer. That is one aspect I looked at in the regeneration of Oxford Street when I was the leader of Westminster City Council. We were looking at changes to our planning policy, because we know that with the changes in people’s behaviour with online shopping, not as many people are now coming to buy. They may come in to browse, but they do not necessarily buy. That is why I consider that for somewhere like Oxford Street, we should protect the ground floor in particular, and perhaps the first floor and the basement, for retail. Above that, often there are five or six floors. Shops such as John Lewis and House of Fraser as was do not need all that huge floor space any more, because of the changes in behaviour. I was more than happy to look at introducing residential aspects or hotels.

I thought that if we could have residential in Oxford Street, the type of people who would live there, on a high street, would not necessarily be families or older couples. It would be somewhere that young professionals, students or whoever would live, and they want access to retail at all hours of the day, restaurants, cafes and whatever. The hon. Lady makes a good point that we need to look at residential aspects, but we do not want to turn our high streets just into residential areas. We need that commercial zone, but local authorities need to box clever when they are considering not only how they can help the existing small businesses in their high streets, but also how to attract new ones in.

The Government are committed to supporting retail businesses of all sizes. Investment has been made in the high street through the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, as well as the future high streets fund, which is worth £830 million. These initiatives help boost our local economies by creating more jobs and homes, while improving skills and infrastructure. We also had Government support worth £373 billion to the economy during the pandemic. We must never forget how much support this Government gave to secure hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country during the pandemic.

As I said earlier, online shopping continues to grow. The retail sector in high streets suffers from that. We saw that through the pandemic, and it continues to grow. Indeed, it is now easier than ever to shop online, with next-day delivery and free returns. There is less of a need for people to visit the high street to buy an outfit for that special occasion or the important interview they have coming up. This evolution of shopping is having an impact on the high street. Footfall is in decline, and the sector is grappling with a seismic shift in consumer habits. I therefore welcome the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, which gets to the crux of the issue. It is important that we support our high streets in the evolution that is happening as we speak. As I said in my intervention, I fully support how the Bill puts an onus on local authorities to step up and protect their local streets in the face of changing customer behaviour.

Although it is true that my constituency is home to many thriving high streets, we cannot ignore the significant change in how we use our high streets today. As I mentioned, the candy stores on Oxford Street are a problem, and I really hope that Westminster Council will sort that out. It is becoming an increasingly common problem around the country when landlords want to secure as much rent as they can—that is understandable—but that demonstrates how we need to adopt a long-term approach to ensure that our high streets can thrive in a sustainable way. The Bill promises to do exactly that by presenting an opportunity to push local authorities to better use the tools they have to address these problems. As I said, the Bill will allow the residents of the town, the city or the area to hold their local authority to account and have a say, and if they are not happy with what their local council is doing, perhaps they could even vote out their council.

One way in which I have seen the issue successfully tackled is by changing the use of properties from shops to activity-based venues. As I said, I had the idea of perhaps attracting more residential use into parts of Oxford Street, but, just down from here on Victoria Street, two units that I think were previously a clothes shop and a restaurant have reopened as a bowling alley and a karaoke bar. Now, that might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I have to say that I have partaken in the bowling alley activity; I took my team there last week. I will not give hon. Members the results of the competition, but I did not do very well.

There are also wider concerns about rising crime levels on our high streets. Shoplifting is at eye-watering levels. Late last year, I joined local people on a walkabout on Marylebone High Street and was shocked and appalled to hear that an increase in shoplifting has led several retail stores to lock their doors and allow people in only if they know who they are. I spoke to shop managers, particularly of clothes shops—those shops’ staff and managers tend to be women—who were very concerned about their own safety. People were coming in, grabbing clothes off the rails and running out.

We have heard a report today on the BBC about shoplifting in Manchester and the real threats that local shop staff face on a daily basis. Local people have reported that Waitrose on Marylebone High Street has removed products such as alcohol from its shelves to protect itself from being targeted by organised crime. It is often organised gangs who are involved in the dreadful crime of shoplifting. We call it shoplifting, but we should call it retail theft, because shoplifting does not really get to the crux of how it is theft, often with the threat of violence. We need to take it more seriously.

According to the Metropolitan police service, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street were hit by nearly 18,500 crimes in the year to July 2023, and more than 80% of the area’s crimes that year were theft. Police and crime prevention are key to preserving and enhancing the character of our high streets. I welcome the fact that the Government have prioritised the safety of our high streets and policing with their retail crime action plan and the safer streets fund. However, it is clear that our local authorities need to do more to support those efforts and I hope this Bill will help in that process.

Through this Bill, local authorities will be encouraged to work more with local businesses and stakeholders on our high streets to develop new ideas, to encourage growth and to tackle the obstacles facing our high streets today. I therefore welcome the Bill and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for introducing it. It presents an ambitious and necessary plan to reawaken our local high streets and bring them roaring back to life so that they can better serve our local communities and boost our economy by attracting more visitors.

I very much welcome this Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on getting it this far and on advocating so passionately for our high streets. This Bill, which requires local authorities to designate streets in their area as high streets and develop an improvement plan, especially without that upper limit of three streets that can be designated as high streets, will provide a framework for our many local authorities to do more to support this important part of what my hon. Friend called the beating heart of our communities. He is absolutely right to term it in that way.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken). I was particularly struck by her drawing out of the concept of neighbourhood high streets. Although she obviously represents a far more urbanised area than I do, in my constituency we have both a town centre and other neighbourhood high streets, which need the support and help of our local authority just as the town centre does. That is an important thing to think about as this plan goes forward, and I am sure the Minister will reflect on that in his comments.

A picture has been painted already of the importance of high streets, so I will simply add that a recent poll found that 80% of respondents thought it very important that their high street was kept alive and healthy. That said, our town centres are incredibly fragile at the moment and they do need more protection. I think this Bill will incentivise local authorities to do the right thing and to have plans in place.

The economic benefits of town centres to our local economies are huge and considerable. Certainly in Basingstoke my town centre and high street service and support one of the largest centres of employment in the south-east. Not only residents but workers who come to Basingstoke, day in, day out use it. Town centres and high streets in our town centres promote civic pride and social cohesion and, as the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) said, they are places where we gather. That is an important part of their role as well.

However, high streets and town centres face considerable challenges, which is why I am speaking in support of this Bill today. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster referred to shoplifting, and I think every hon. Member taking part in this debate will recognise the incredible way in which shoplifting has been turned into, frankly, organised crime. Individuals are organising themselves to go into shops regularly to steal large quantities of often high-value items.

I am pleased to say that the police and crime commissioner in my county of Hampshire, Donna Jones, has gone above and beyond in addressing the issue of shoplifting, particularly by supporting facial recognition technology, which will help our local retailers on our high streets immensely to do something about that appalling crime. She has reinstated the important beat bobbies in every single one of my communities—not just in Basingstoke, but throughout Hampshire—and made sure that they will be there to collect the evidence and intelligence on the gangs and individuals organising shoplifting. The police forces in our various parts of the country have an important role to play in the future health of our high streets. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will be looking for ways to ensure that they are absolutely at the heart of his Bill, so that our high streets are healthy for the future.

As has been said, the reality for many retailers and service providers is that what they traditionally offered face to face can now—perhaps more conveniently for some—be purchased or procured online. Shopping habits and consumer behaviour were already changing before the pandemic, but the change has accelerated enormously, forcing our high streets to think carefully about their role in the future. It is not just retail parks that are a threat to the future of our high streets; it is more fundamental than that, so it will be important that local authorities take consumers’ and shoppers’ behaviour into account when they look at the Bill as it is rolled out.

My “high street” in Basingstoke—the town centre is a network of streets and one very large shopping centre—has been considering this issue for a number of years. Back in 2021, thanks to the leadership of then council leader Simon Minas-Bound, we put in place a blueprint for our town centre that is very similar to what my hon. Friend is calling for in his Bill. It was approved in December 2022 under the then Conservative administration. It is called the “Town Centre Strategy”, and it is designed to attract more footfall to the town centre, based on changing consumer needs. It looks at how the environment can bring greater vibrancy, and therefore greater prosperity, to the town centre. The strategy was developed with extensive public engagement: there were more than 3,000 responses to the consultation. The masterplan that has been developed uses the historical layout of Basingstoke to reimagine the current town centre, not for the next five or 10 years, but for the next 30 years, so that our town is fit for the future.

That town centre plan must look at the heritage of our community. I felt it was important, at the heart of the future of Basingstoke, to recognise our incredible history. Jane Austen, the novelist, used to go shopping in Basingstoke, and I was very pleased to work with a number of local people, including the sculptor Adam Roud, to put a lasting memorial in my town centre to that incredible Hampshire citizen. The hon. Member for North Tyneside talked about remembering one of the sons of her community, and I made sure we were remembering one of our daughters. Jane Austen is a fantastic person to have as part of our history.

There is also the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery and the marketplace. All that history and richness has to be central to the way we press forward with Basingstoke. Consumers’ changing needs and demands mean that they may not go to their local high street only to shop, even though we continue to value the independent retailers and the pubs and clubs that populate our town centre. They are also looking for experiences and entertainment, and our history will enable us to make a unique entertainment offer in our town centre.

I absolutely agree that this Bill promotes a way for our local authorities to ensure that they do the utmost to support our high streets and make the most of them as a way of creating successful communities for the future. It will put the beating heart into our communities, and I very much commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for all the work he has done to bring forward the Bill.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate and we have heard a number of interesting and broad perspectives from Members of all parties. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for tabling the Bill and for working constructively with Members from across the House, with the many stakeholders who inevitably had a view and with the Department so that the Bill gained Government support. He described high streets as the beating heart of our communities, and that was an absolutely apposite description. I agreed when he talked about Members of Parliament having a leadership role in guiding their communities and making sure that they are fit for the future, and he drew attention to a very sensible amendment that added greater flexibility so that a collection of streets, rather than one street, could be determined by a local authority as a high street.

Recalling what the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) said about the historical elements of high streets, I want to reflect on my own town centre in Ellesmere Port, which is, of course, the one I know best. The original town centre was somewhere different to where it is today. It has been moving westwards and southwards over the years, but a number of important historic buildings remain in the older parts of the town that need a focus as well.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South also made an important point about how antisocial behaviour can be a blight on town centres and the important role of the police and other authorities in tackling it. He mentioned gating off alleyways, which has been a successful policy in my constituency. There is also a worry that it tends to move challenges and problems around rather than dealing with them entirely, but that is why enforcement is so important in such matters. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke gave an important perspective and articulated well the importance of crime prevention in making sure our high streets are attractive and welcoming places for people to visit.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) gave us a glowing gallop through her part of the world and spoke with great local knowledge and pride about North Shields. She was right that the key to all this is how we bring communities together. Her particular point about how town centres used to be the place where people would see friends once a week on a Saturday afternoon speaks to the challenge. Of course, thanks to the internet and mobile phones, we can pretty much speak to anyone we want to at any point, at any time of the day, from anywhere in the world, so the importance of that central meeting point in a community has diminished in recent years. My hon. Friend also spoke glowingly about the work her council does, and I think most councils work well within their limitations in trying to breathe life into their high streets.

Councils certainly have an important role as, for want of a better description, anchor tenants in the town centre. My council has made a strategic decision to base its headquarters for the whole of Cheshire West in Ellesmere Port, which has resulted in a certain critical mass of people coming into the town. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside also talked about the importance of public toilets. We sometimes overlook that, but we need to be confident that there is somewhere we can escape to in an emergency. It is also important to pay tribute to the council workers whose job it is to make sure that those toilets are clean and in good working order, because, as we know, from time to time they can attract the wrong sort of attention. It is important that we acknowledge the role of the entire public sector in making sure that our town centres are clean and inviting places. I know that my community in particular has a has a lot of respect for Bernie, who spends every day trundling up and down Ellesmere Port high street, making sure that the streets are clean and tidy. He is well respected and admired for that because, rain or shine, he is always there doing that important role.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) gave an important perspective when he talked about the impact of the withdrawal of banks from many communities. I congratulate him on his success bringing back some of that facility. I am afraid there has been a national exodus from the high street. I have spoken on other occasions about the importance of having a physical presence for important services such as banking, because some people will not want to or be able to deal with a computer. When talking about financial transactions, the security of a face-to-face interaction is important to people.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), perhaps understandably, had a different perspective about the importance of international shoppers to the high streets in her constituency. She identified a shared problem of all high streets: the rise of online shopping, which has made it much more of a challenge to attract people. It is great that we can now order anything we want at any time of day, and it will be on our doorstep probably the next day, but that has not come without downsides. That is why the hon. Lady’s point about a need for a broader approach to the high street was important, as was her discussion about residential and activity-based destinations. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke had a neat way of expressing that as experiences and entertainment—something that we all seek on a regular basis.

All Members spoke with great passion and sincerity about the challenges facing their high streets. It would be fair to say that there has been a decline in our town centres in recent years. Many are blighted by boarded-up outlets and pavements verging on empty. It is hard to escape a wider sense of malaise because, in many respects, town centres and high streets are the faces of the places that residents and visitors see on a daily basis. They are the individual identity of the area for those who work, socialise or shop there.

That importance has been reflected in studies conducted into the value of high streets to local people. Nationwide found in 2020 that more than seven in 10 people felt that their local high street was an important part of their community, but almost two thirds of people thought that high streets have been neglected and more than two thirds believed that they have fallen into decline. I am sure that those figures will be even higher in some constituencies.

Shop closures in recent years speak for themselves. The British Retail Consortium estimated last year that Britain had lost 6,000 retail outlets since 2018. That translates into vacancy rates that are unequally spread across the country and the type of shopping area. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) noted on Second Reading that the loss of shops was more pronounced in the north-east, where the vacancy rate is nearly a fifth, compared to a rate of one in 10 in the south of England.

A similar pattern is noticeable in the type of vacant shopping outlets. According to the Local Data Company, in the final quarter of 2023 high streets and shopping centres had vacancy rates of 14% and 17.9% respectively, yet retail parks had a vacancy rate of only 7.6%. That experience is mirrored in Ellesmere Port, where we have the high street, Port Arcades in the town centre, and we also have Cheshire Oaks as the out-of-town retail destination.

We have all seen the big names go and the shift away from in-person banking in our town centres, which has accelerated the decline that we all have been talking about. It is of note that the footfall in high streets last year was still 10% less than before the pandemic. That trend has a potential compounding effect on high streets and town centres, as the businesses that remain are harmed by the diversion of local people to alternative areas. It can be increasingly difficult on the back of that to attract new investment. There are huge challenges ahead to break the cycle of decline, and I see these trends in my constituency: where once we had a bustling town centre and big-name stores on every corner as well as an arcade full of shops, we now have far more empty shops and therefore fewer people coming to the town centre. What was once a lively place is now, sadly, looking a little empty.

People want to have pride in their towns and when they see boarded-up shops and empty streets they feel that something has gone amiss, so I can see the good intentions from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South in bringing this Bill forward. I think we all agree that something needs to be done to support our local communities and get them back to how we remember them—bustling, lively and full of energy and economic activity. However, the Bill also implicitly suggests the approach so far from the Government is not delivering the kind of changes we want. There is little indication that we are reversing the decline over recent years despite the many schemes launched by the Government —the strategy for high street regeneration, the future high streets fund, the high streets heritage action zones, the high streets task force, and most recently the long-term plan for towns and the high street accelerators. If all those schemes had been a success, we might not have needed this Bill now, but they are limited to specific areas or times and require competitive bidding processes, which, as the Public Accounts Committee has noted, have so far failed to deliver anything of note.

This Bill adopts a different approach, creating a duty on all local authorities to designate their high streets and create improvement plans, meaning in theory at least that all areas will be placed on an equal footing. These plans will set out proposals for the preservation and enhancement of designated high streets, with councils required to review them every five years and consider them when exercising planning functions. And as we heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, this will be a rolling review, and that is right: we should not let these plans just remain in stasis, because the retail environment is challenging and ever-changing.

It is refreshing that it is recognised that local authorities are the best vehicle to make decisions about their local areas. However, more needs to be done to tackle the problems our high streets face, because after a high street is identified and an improvement plan is made there appears to be no mechanism for the allocation of resources to ensure these plans are implemented. Given that council budgets have been stretched to breaking point since 2010, I see little scope for any improvement in the foreseeable future.

It would be useful to understand when the Minister responds what steps will be taken to ensure that local authorities are supported to deliver on the ambitions that we all share to regenerate our high streets. He made the important point on Second Reading that these plans should not be left to gather dust on the shelf, so what mechanisms does he envisage being made available to ensure there is real delivery of these plans? I hope—perhaps he will be able to explain and answer this—that the delivery of the plans will not depend upon councils having successful bids from whatever the next iteration is of the levelling-up fund and that there will actually be five-year investment programmes set out from central Government to match the plans. The reality is that any Government focus, however small, on regenerating high streets is to be welcomed, but much more needs to be done.

The most effective way of delivering substantial improvement to our high streets and cities across the country is not just through plans dictated from central Government, but through devolution and local government liberation. This will hand authorities, who have a much better understanding of the conditions on the ground, the right tools to make the right interventions for their local area. We support this Bill, but we also recognise that much more needs to be done to deliver the change we all want to see.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for his leadership on this very important and worthwhile private Member’s Bill, and for his unwavering commitment and efforts to champion our high streets.

This has been a fantastic debate. We have learnt a lot about the heritage of different high streets: Thomas Brown Street, in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), was named in honour of the world war two hero who retrieved the enigma codes at sea; the 800-year-old high street in Basingstoke was the home of the author Jane Austen; the 126 years of Rowells in Stapleford; and the most famous high street in the world, Oxford Street, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken). We also heard about the towns fund in Broxtowe, which has given £21.1 million to Stapleford, and the transforming cities fund in North Tyneside, which has contributed towards its new transport hub and piazza. Sadly, we did not hear from the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) about the levelling-up fund, which has given £13.4 million to transform Ellesmere Port town centre.

As we heard in the debate, everyone here recognises that healthy and vibrant high streets are vital not only for local economies, but for the quality of life and pride of local communities. However, the challenges currently faced by our high streets are significant, whether from the lingering impact of covid-19 on footfall or the ever-present challenge of competition with online retailers. While some have been able to weather the storm, many have struggled. The Government are committed to working with local communities to help turn that around. The Bill will play an important role in that mission, alongside other Government interventions, as part of our broader strategy to help high streets reinvent themselves. They include injecting billions of pounds into high street regeneration and renewal, including the long-term plan for towns, which will invest £1.5 billion across 75 towns to give them the tools they need to build a better future for local people.

One of the towns selected as part of our long-term plan for towns is Canvey, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). Canvey, like all the 75 towns in our long-term plan for towns, will receive £20 million over the next 10 years to invest in local people’s priorities. I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend, who has for so long championed the people of Canvey Island. Without her advocacy and brilliant campaigning, we would not be able to give them that £20 million cash.

Our long-term plan for towns will sit alongside high street rental auctions, which will require landlords to rent out vacant commercial properties to willing tenants such as local businesses. That will help to create lively high streets with increased footfall. Of course, no high street is the same, with local areas best placed to find solutions to local problems, which is why strong local partnerships on the ground are key to successful regeneration. We want to support councils, local businesses and local communities to give them the resources and powers they need. I think of high streets in my own constituency, such as those in Redcar, Marske, Eston or Normanby.

Normanby is probably the smallest of the towns I have just mentioned. At the moment, it is beset with roadworks that are expected to continue for around three months. That is already having a huge impact on local businesses. It is important, obviously, that when local authorities plan such major roadworks, they give serious consideration to the damage they can do to local businesses. Mr Deputy Speaker, I cannot mention Normanby High Street without thinking of the late Kenny Surtees, who for as long I can remember had a card shop on that street. I think he would have had a few choice things to say to the local Teesside Gazette about how those roadworks are going.

The Government recognise that many local authorities have regeneration strategies already in place, but the Bill will make the designation of high streets and the creation of high street improvement plans a statutory requirement. That will ensure local authorities not only prioritise the health of their high streets, but use their available powers to drive forward improvements, such as section 215 powers, to require land to be cleaned up when it is detracting from the surroundings.

The Bill will require each local authority to designate at least one high street or network of streets in their area. Local authorities will be able to designate as many high streets as they want. However, the Government have committed to funding the costs of up to three high street designations. Any designation beyond that number would have to be funded by the local authority itself. Local authorities will then have to create plans for the designated high streets, which should be reviewed at least every five years. Local residents, businesses, community organisations and others, including Members of Parliament, will rightly have a real say on the action plans, and the local authority will be accountable for delivering them.

Accordingly, the Bill will require local authorities to consult on which high streets are chosen. Different areas will have different challenges, so the improvements we can expect to see will vary. The focus in one area might be on tackling antisocial behaviour—again, something we have heard about in the debate, and we have heard some fantastic examples of what police and crime commissioners are doing to tackle it—while in others it could be creating more green spaces to rest and socialise. What is crucial, however, is flexibility to ensure that local authorities have the agency to enact the best change for their area.

The Bill will also create a duty on local authorities to take into account high street improvement plans when exercising their planning functions. That will support the already strong protections for mixed-use high streets and the complementing tools available to authorities, such as changes to the use classes order in 2020 to create the commercial, business and service use class—class E.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank hon. Members for their suggestions for strengthening the Bill during its passage through the House. We worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South to make some small amendments in Committee so that the Bill is as effective as possible. Those changes included ensuring that local authorities can make as many high street designations as they wish, with the Government funding up to three of those designations. That will give local authorities with a large number of high streets the flexibility needed to designate more than three, if they desire. I note my hon. Friend’s point that Stoke-on-Trent is a city of six towns, so there will clearly be more than three high streets that the local authority might want to intervene in.

We have also updated the wording of the Bill to allow for the designation of a network of streets, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, as the Government recognise that high streets are complex ecosystems that are not always limited to one street, but could be made up of a network of connecting streets.

Additionally, the Bill now sets out that local authorities must review their improvement plans at least once in every five-year period, with guidance to follow up on the circumstances in which local authorities should consider undertaking a review, such as where the area of the designated high street is expanded or reduced. That will ensure that plans remain meaningful and relevant. Following Royal Assent, we will issue guidance on developing the improvement plans.

The Government recognise that local authorities are best placed to know what their high street improvement plans should cover. Officials in my Department have already begun outreach with local authorities on the guidance and will continue to work with local authorities and other stakeholders as the guidance is developed. It is important that the plans are not left to gather dust but remain constantly relevant, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us. That is why the Bill requires local authorities to update their plans at least every five years, which we believe strikes the right balance between giving the plans enough time to have a meaningful effect and ensuring that they remain relevant to the reinvigoration of our high streets. We recognise that the measures should not come at the cost of overburdening councils that are already under pressure. As I have already mentioned, we will ensure that local authorities have the extra funding they need to be able to deliver the measures in the Bill effectively.

I am grateful that proposed new clause 1 was not moved on Report, as it would have removed all permitted development rights, not just those that change the use from commercial to residential lettings. I appreciate that that is a challenge in the constituency of the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), and I note that the LGA has echoed her concerns. I will meet both of them as the Bill progresses to understand the issues further and see what can be done to mitigate them.

As already stated, the Bill forms one part of a broader strategy to help regenerate and level up our high streets. Part of the solution is funding, with the Government investing billions of pounds into helping high streets navigate the difficult environment they face. The latest of that funding is the £1.5 billion long-term plan for towns, which will power ambitious regeneration projects over the next decade.

However, it is not simply about funding. With the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, we gave local authorities new powers to reduce vacancies in their high streets through high street rental auctions. That will help to create lively high streets with increased footfall and activity that attracts people and businesses, increases pride in place and avoids the long-term presence of vacancies.

The development of strong partnerships, be it between national and local government, or between local businesses and communities, will be vital to the regeneration of our high streets. One such partnership is the high street accelerator programme, which I have the pleasure of leading and which will bring together businesses, residents and community organisations, with their local authority, to develop a long-term vision for revitalising town centres.

In addition, we have introduced significant planning flexibilities so that local decision makers can better manage the use of buildings in town centres and ensure that high streets remain places of commercial and social activity. That includes by converting class E properties; allowing a change of use without the need for individual planning applications; and using permitted development rights to introduce movable structures in pubs, cafés and restaurants, and to allow local authorities to hold outdoor markets. Permitted development also provides freedom to change more premises from commercial to residential use, so that much-needed new homes can be created in high streets and town centres, providing a mix of users, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster led on during her time as leader of Westminster City Council.

Alongside that, as I have mentioned, we are investing in our high streets across the country, with £15 billion of levelling-up funding since 2019 going to communities the length and breadth of the UK, including in Hyndburn and Haslingden, where my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) has secured more than £50 million for her area. She has undoubtedly been the best MP that her constituency has had. I was pleased to visit it recently to see the historic town hall and the plans for the market hall, where, before serving as the MP, she used to have a stall, if I recall correctly. She is a brilliant champion for her constituents and I am pleased that we are able to help support her area.

Another area we are supporting is Nuneaton, which is also significantly benefiting from Government funding. I know that is particularly welcomed by the Deputy Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). It is receiving a town deal worth more than £23 million and future high streets funding of more than £13 million, thanks to his advocacy. As part of that funding, we will help to build Grayson Place, which is named after Nuneaton’s famous Larry Grayson. His famous phrase, “Shut that door!”, has a particular significance for me as the MP for Redcar. This is disputed by the Deputy Chief Whip, but the first time Larry Grayson said that was when he was doing a tour in Redcar and the wind from the seafront kept banging the door on Redcar pier—he said “Shut that door!” and so it became. I hope that the good people of Nuneaton will use their vote next week to back their fantastic Conservative council to finish the job and continue to improve their area.

Of course, I could not omit to mention Stoke-on-Trent, which has had not one, not two, but three successful bids for levelling-up funding, as well as a levelling-up partnership, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South is keen to see investment in Longton. Stoke-on-Trent has never had such a focus from any Government, and I credit him for all his campaigning as a great MP over the past seven years.

To conclude, this Government are fully committed to breathing new life into our high streets, whether that is through the long-term plan for towns, the high street rental auctions or this Bill. Like my hon. Friend, I appreciate just how much this matters to the communities that we represent. Again, I offer my gratitude to him for introducing this Bill, to the Members who have supported it throughout the entirety of its Commons stages, to the Clerks and to my fab team of officials, who have helped with the Bill. I also pay tribute to the many fantastic council officers, who are often unnamed and unknown but who work day in, day out to improve their communities. The Government are backing this Bill and backing our high streets to navigate this period of change and emerge stronger for it. I look forward to supporting the Bill from the sidelines as it progresses through the other place and eagerly anticipate its becoming law.

If there is a Division later, perhaps after 10 minutes I should say, in Larry Grayson’s memory, “Lock that door!” I might give it a go. [Laughter.] With the leave of the House, I call Jack Brereton.

With the leave of the House, let me say that we have had a fantastic and fulsome debate. I thank colleagues across the House for their contributions, particularly the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who referred to the impact of the transforming cities fund on her constituency. We have had similar in Longton in my constituency, and I am grateful for the funding for new lifts at Longton station

I thank the Minister for all the support he has given to my Bill. He has been doing an incredible job in the Department.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) for his support. He rightly referred to the importance of our high streets as social and service hubs. I was not thinking of Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Tiffany when I first introduced the Bill but, all the same, I very much appreciate the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken). Finally, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for highlighting how our high streets matter to all our communities.

I hope the Bill will continue to proceed in the other place and become an Act of Parliament as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Paternity Leave (Bereavement) Bill

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who have been involved in the Bill’s journey up to this point, particularly Widowed and Young, the TUC and Gingerbread. Clerks do not often receive praise in the House, but I thank Anne-Marie Griffiths, the Clerk of private Members’ Bills, who has done sterling work to support me in progressing this Bill.

From the outset, as I said on Second Reading, the Bill’s ambition has been to help as few people as possible. Nobody wants a mother to die in childbirth, leaving a partner behind. The grief is unimaginable, and a person does not have to be a parent to understand the horror for anyone who is left behind.

I remind colleagues that the main purpose of the Bill is to introduce a much-needed right to leave for bereaved partners from the first day of their employment. Such a provision will ensure that employed parents have time, support and security in cases where their partner, and the primary caregiver of their child, has died in the most tragic of circumstances.

Although the number of people who find themselves in this situation is mercifully low—in the UK, there are around 180 maternal deaths a year within 12 months of childbirth—it is crucial that parents in this position can take time away from work to care for their child, without needing to rely solely on the good will of their employer. I am pleased that the Bill will remedy this gap in the law.

As I explained on Second Reading, it was necessary to make significant amendments in Committee, so a motion for an instruction was passed to allow for the tabling of amendments that would have otherwise been out of scope. The changes will ensure that the Bill is not only well intentioned but is effective in achieving my overall ambition.

I will now summarise the new structure of the Bill. First, it was amended to reflect that paternity leave, rather than shared parental leave, will be used as the vehicle to deliver the entitlement. For a bereaved partner to qualify for shared parental leave, the deceased parent must have had a recent history of employment that met a strict set of requirements. If the deceased parent did not have such a history, such as in the case of a stay-at-home mum, there would be no shared parental leave entitlement for the surviving parent to access, which defeats my Bill’s objectives. By contrast, paternity leave is not dependent on any other entitlement. Opting for that approach means that more parents will be eligible.

1 make it clear that, although the entitlement uses the paternity leave framework, it will specifically provide for bereaved fathers and partners. It will also include provisions that will only apply to them in these particularly heartbreaking circumstances. The intention is that a bereaved father or partner will have 52 weeks of leave available during the first year of their child’s life, from the day on which the mother or primary adopter of the child has tragically died. That ensures that they can act as the primary caregiver for this crucial first year, and can focus all their attention on their newborn child.

Secondly, the Bill was amended to enable regulations to be made concerning the eligibility of adoptive and surrogacy parents for this entitlement. Once made, the regulations will allow the surviving parents of adopted children and of children born through surrogacy arrangements to be included. As a result, we will be able to offer the benefit of this entitlement to a wider range of parents than was possible when the Bill was first conceived earlier in the year.

Thirdly, the Bill removes the requirement for a continuity of service provision, so that employed parents who find themselves in the tragic situation of losing a partner at the same time as becoming a new parent can take leave when it is needed, and it will therefore be available to take on the first day of employment. Other amendments that were made will remove constraints on bereaved partners, enabling them to access the entitlement. For example, the Bill removes the requirement that a parent who has taken shared parental leave cannot then take paternity leave. That gives the Secretary of State the power to provide that a parent who has taken shared parental leave before the death of their partner can still take paternity leave in such circumstances.

The new Bill also allows provision to be made for circumstances in which the child also dies. That too expands on what the original Bill was going to achieve. It gives the regulations the flexibility in such cases to allow the employee to remain on paternity leave for a period, even though they would not be taking the leave for the required purpose of supporting the mother or caring for the child. I think that for any Member in the House losing a partner would cause an unimaginable sense of grief in which to raise a baby. As for the idea of losing a baby—I speak as a father—being there to support your wife or partner, and being able to manage that grief as best you can in the knowledge that you have a job to go back to, will at least provide a tiny piece of reassurance while you deal with the most unimaginable sense of loss, which none of us would ever want to experience. I am so pleased that the Minister was able to bring about that change in Committee.

The new Bill introduces two new powers, the first of which provides the ability to create, through regulations, enhanced redundancy protection for bereaved employees when they return from extended paternity leave. The second power enables regulations to be made to allow bereaved parents to have “keep in touch” days during their extended paternity leave, enabling employees to work for their employer for a limited number of days without their right to paternity leave being affected. While someone is looking after a child on their own, hopefully with the support of their family, having that option to slowly go back to work for a certain number of days will be an important part of, not recovering—I do not think anyone would recover from that scenario—but at least learning to cope with and manage the situation.

Finally, the Bill was amended in Committee to remove an additional and broad Henry VIII power which would have enabled it to amend any Act of Parliament previously passed. As most Members will know, I am an Opposition Whip, but I suspect that whether my party is in government or in opposition it is never a good idea to give the Opposition Whips Office control of all Government legislation, so I think most Members will be quite pleased that that power has been removed and will not appear in any future Bill. I think it will be viewed as a positive step.

I will say more about the contribution from the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) when I speak at the end of the debate, but the key for me is that the Bill has come about through genuine cross-party work and consensus. I would go as far as to say that there is no politics in bereavement. On Second Reading, when the Chairman of Ways and Means was in the Chair, I said that one of the surprising aspects of politicians was that we were all human—which is not always the perception of the broader public. I say that in jest, of course, but I say it for a purpose. We all grieve, and we all feel, in exactly the same way. At the time of the ballot, the hon. Member for Broxtowe came to me and said, “Would you look at this?”, and I did. It is through his work some two years ago that I am here today, and pleased to be here, presenting what I accept is a different Bill, but a Bill that is nevertheless the starting point of bringing about changes that I think are needed. It is welcome that we are able to do this on a genuinely cross-party basis.

I want to make one final point. The Minister and I have worked together over my entire eight years in the House, and he has been nothing but constructive. His officials have been super in engaging with my small office—my team of one researcher, as lots of MPs have —in getting the Bill to this point. It has been not only an easy process to work with the Minister and his officials but an important one.

All being well, when the Bill receives Royal Assent it will help people in their darkest hour. When the unimaginable sense of joy at being a parent becomes unimaginable grief at losing the person you were expecting to do that job with—being a parent is a job of work in every sense—and having to do that on your own, this legislation will mitigate the risks and insecurity that go with that. I pay warm tribute and express my gratitude to the Minister for the way in which he has conducted himself, as he always does, with great courtesy, and for the access he has given me to his officials to ensure we can deliver this small but important change to the law.

I could not be more delighted that the Bill has finally reached this stage today. I of course put on record my most sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). I was delighted when he was selected in the private Member’s Bill ballot and agreed to take forward this Bill. He has worked incredibly hard to get it to this point, and I am grateful for his and his team’s work toward getting this Bill to become law.

I have recalled Aaron’s story on many occasions now, and as today may be the last chance I have to do so, I will recall it again. In 2022, my constituent Aaron came to my local surgery in Stapleford with his new son Tim in his arms. Aaron had tragically lost his wife Bernadette in childbirth and found that he did not qualify for leave, as he had not been employed by his company for the required period of time. I was determined to change this, so that no one else would find themselves in the same position. Aaron’s company made good but was not compelled by law.

Aaron has been here at every stage of this Bill’s progression through the House. He is once again in the Gallery today. Aaron is testament to the power that constituents can have if they raise an injustice that they come across within our laws. Changes such as this come from individuals such as Aaron and his relentless fight to ensure that no one finds themselves in the same situation. As has often been said by the hon. Member for Ogmore and I and others, this change will not affect many people, but to those it does affect, the impact will be huge. The Bill will ensure that individuals who lose their partner during childbirth have a day one right to leave. Allowing an individual not to have to worry about their employment during what is an incredibly difficult time can have a huge impact on someone.

As the hon. Member for Ogmore mentioned, the cross-party support for the Bill shows the non-political nature of this measure. I was delighted when presenting a ten-minute rule Bill on this topic to receive overwhelming support from across the House, including from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) and for Gedling (Tom Randall) and many others who are not in their place today.

I put on record my thanks to those Members who have been with me, pushing for this change. My hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for enterprise, markets and small businesses, met with Aaron and I two years ago regarding this issue. He has consistently offered support and advice, and I know he has worked with the hon. Member for Ogmore on getting the Bill here today. I hope that the Bill does not have to be used by many, but it will have a huge impact on those who do use it during a stage of life when support is most needed. That is something that everyone supporting the Bill should be incredibly proud of, most of all Aaron.

I congratulate both the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) on bringing this Bill to the Chamber today and getting it through Parliament. It is a very important Bill. I have always believed that, as Members of Parliament, our duty first and foremost is to help our constituents, and it is commendable what my hon. Friend has done for his constituent Aaron.

It is a horrible situation even to have to consider. I do not have children myself, but I put myself in the position of one of my constituent’s partners. I have been campaigning for more support for women during their pregnancy because, sadly, one of my constituents committed suicide while pregnant with her daughter Elsie, and her partner, Eddie, was left on his own. That was due to hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme pregnancy sickness. Within the NHS we are now seeing more support for women throughout their pregnancy, due to the campaign that my constituent’s family have run. What the hon. Member for Ogmore has done today will make a difference—although hopefully not to a lot of people—so congratulations to both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe.

As many colleagues know, I spoke on Second Reading of this Bill, so I am delighted to see it progress to its final stages in the Commons. I want again to commend the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for progressing his Bill so amiably through to this stage. It is a highly emotive Bill; while the numbers who will benefit each year are thankfully relatively small, the impact on those families is huge. Reflecting that, it has been extremely positive to see the wide, cross-party support this Bill has attracted, especially of course from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry), who I know has long campaigned on this issue.

As I said on Second Reading, as a father myself it is hard to imagine the impact and trauma that a family must go through on the loss of a mother during childbirth. Tragically, however, those situations do occur, so we must put in place the laws needed to protect properly the rights of those who remain, to keep the family together and to support single parents in coping with raising a child or children alone, something that many will not have expected ever to face.

Any parent will know that juggling all the responsibilities of raising children alongside employment and everything else can be stressful at the best of times. This Bill helps to protect the rights of those families at the most traumatic and distressing point, as they get beyond the horrific loss of a mother, with all the stresses and strains that such circumstances will entail, and gives them the time they need to move forward as best they can, both physically and mentally.

I have read through the changes made in Committee and I think they are sensible to ensure that the Bill achieves the best possible desired effect. The most significant change now refocuses the Bill on addressing the specific issues through paternity leave, as opposed to through shared parental leave as was originally envisaged, creating day one rights for paternity leave. That is a particularly important change for those families where the deceased mother did not work. Under the Bill as first proposed, there would not have been any shared parental leave for the other parent to access, but paternity rights exist whatever the entitlement of the other parent. As amended, the proposed extension to paternity rights is the best possible choice and will ensure that more families in such tragic circumstances can benefit from the changes.

It is important that those rights are extended to cases where, as the hon. Member for Ogmore said, both mother and child do not survive childbirth, to reflect the impossibly challenging trauma of getting through losing both a partner and an expected child. Although I recognise that this Bill does not do everything that was originally envisaged to address the issue of pay—in an ideal world that would also be resolved—I think there is recognition that addressing pay is more complex. I hope that will continue to be considered further, and I will closely follow it.

It should be recognised that many employers will already go over and above to support employees during such circumstances, both with leave and financially. I hope the provisions will be treated as a floor, not a ceiling, for the support offered. There will also be other bereavement support for which individuals might be eligible.

The Bill is a major step forward in securing the rights of families going through the toughest of circumstances having lost a mother. It will have a major beneficial impact on those families when they are at their most vulnerable. I wish my hon. Friend continued success in this important Bill’s progress through the other place, and I look forward to seeing it become law.

It is a pleasure to speak on Third Reading of this important Bill, which has cross-party support, as we have heard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on his success in steering the Bill to this point. I am aware of how much work he has done with the Government to get their support and to ensure that the legislation can go through the other place and gain Royal Assent. I also recognise that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) has worked constructively on behalf of his constituent, Aaron, and with my hon. Friend, to ensure that the legislation will be in place. He spoke movingly about how the tragic circumstances of his constituent, who lost his wife, Bernadette, moved him to take action.

A number of Members have noted the importance of this work. The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) spoke about the work that she has done in light of the very tragic circumstances of one of her constituents. She showed how Members can work constructively—with the NHS in her case—to makes changes so that no one else has to go through the experiences that we have heard about. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) spoke with great sincerity about why this legislation is so important.

As we have heard, the Bill as amended will disapply the employment conditions to which an employee’s right to paternity leave is subject in the event of their partner dying. In effect, it will make paternity leave a day one right for the partner of a mother who has died, with no continuity of employment test. The right is also extended to the tragic circumstances in which both mother and child die, despite the fact that paternity leave is usually taken only for the purposes of caring for a child. As we know, partners of mothers who die in or just after childbirth are not currently entitled to paternity leave if they have not met the continuity of employment requirements. That means that some people find themselves in the unfortunate position of not being entitled by right to paternity leave. If their employer chooses not to show compassion by voluntarily providing leave, an individual could be left grieving for their partner, as well as undertaking the mammoth responsibility of being a single parent to their child, without workplace support. Like other Members, I find it very hard to imagine how anyone could face such a devastating situation with the added pressures of job insecurity on top.

It is right to acknowledge that most responsible and caring employers would react to such a devastating scenario with compassion and do the right thing by their employee, regardless of whether any law required them to do so. However, making it a legal requirement will mean that the vanishingly small number of employers who do not act in that way will now have to and the employee has one less thing to worry about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore said that he wants the Bill to help as few people as possible. That is an unusual statement to make in this place, but it is an important point. Thankfully, the legislation will apply to few people because death during or just after childbirth is very uncommon. The excellent work that our midwives and doctors perform means that the number of mothers who sadly pass away within 42 days of birth stands at roughly 12 for every 100,000 births. Of course, each death is a tragedy and a profound loss, but we should recognise that those tragic circumstances occur in only a small number of instances. The fact that it has taken Aaron’s situation for the matter to come before us means that it is important that we act to prevent people falling through cracks because of legislative oversight.

As we know, at present the only right to statutory bereavement leave is for parents who have lost children up to the age of 18. Leave is a day one right, but the entitlement to pay is conditional on their having been in employment and earning a certain amount over eight weeks. Shared parental leave provisions also may not always help people in facing the situation that this Bill was originally drafted to help. Not only is there a time restriction on access, but income requirements can differ for the mother and partner. The system is rather complicated, and we know that families have been discouraged from taking up shared parental leave; figures show that only 2.8% of partners decide to take it up. As we have heard, by virtue of the amendments agreed in Committee, by using paternity leave rather than parental leave as the vehicle for entitlement, hopefully more people will be protected. It would also mean that the surviving parents of adopted children or children born through surrogacy arrangements will be included, and we welcome those changes.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore for working constructively with the Department and the Minister to achieve the desired outcome. I also note with interest the new powers in clause 1(4), which provide for the ability to introduce regulations to enhance redundancy protection for bereaved employees when they return from extended paternity leave, and to allow bereaved parents to have keeping-in-touch days during their extended paternity leave. It would be useful when the Minister responds to hear whether it is his intention to use those powers to introduce regulations. In particular, as my assumption would be, will the regulations be analogous to current paternity leave provisions?

In conclusion, we are pleased to see the Bill reach this stage, and we now wish it safe passage through to the other place. Again, I commend my hon. Friend for his work on it, and I congratulate him on getting the Bill to this stage.

May I first express my thanks to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for bringing forward this important Bill and for his collaborative efforts all the way through. He is an absolute pleasure to work with and has always displayed a real Whip’s pragmatism in making sure we got this Bill to the right place so that it could proceed as smoothly as possible. It is great to see so much cross-party support for it.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry), who has long campaigned on this issue and brought it to my attention. In 2022, one of the first meetings I had in my ministerial role was with him. He joined me with Aaron, who is in the Gallery today, and his son Tim. We express our very best wishes to them for their campaigning. My hon. Friend mentioned the power that people such as Aaron have to influence thinking in this place, but that power has to be channelled through a willing and capable Member of Parliament—he will be a Minister in due course, I am sure—and he has displayed that throughout. He has been persistent and his arguments have always been compelling, and persistence is important in this space. He has always engaged with me, trying to find the best way to bring this legislation forward, and he has found it. I am grateful for his efforts, and so many parents will be, too, so I thank him very much for his work.

The hon. Member for Ogmore said—I think profoundly—that there is no politics in bereavement, and that is absolutely right; there should not be. It is always a pleasure for any Member to bring forward a private Member’s Bill, and these things are always team efforts. I was delighted to have that opportunity a couple of times myself as a Back Bencher with the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 and the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, which was first promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). I picked that up on the back of his persuasion when I was drawn high in the ballot. It is always a pleasure to say you have achieved significant change in this place, and both Members who have contributed today and made the largest contribution to bringing forward this Bill have done that in no uncertain terms.

Unlike entitlement to maternity leave, which starts on the first day of a woman’s employment, there is currently no day one leave entitlement for employed fathers and partners. As such, if a mother dies in the first year of a child’s life, a father or partner who has not met continuity of service requirements for paternity or shared parental leave will not have the statutory right to take leave so that they can care for their child. In those tragic, but thankfully rare, circumstances, they need to rely on the compassion of their employer to provide them with adequate leave and job security. It was good to note that Aaron’s employer did show compassion, but that cannot be relied on as a matter of course. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) said, we decided to use the paternity leave elements of our framework to deliver this legislation, which covers more circumstances. The new statutory entitlement will offer day one leave for fathers and partners in the event of the mother’s death in the first year after the child’s birth. Those are tragic circumstances, and it was very moving to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) talk about her constituent who is in that situation.

Members have asked in the past for the entitlement to be a paid right. In line with other entitlements, such as statutory parental pay, and for consistency of approach, the Government believe statutory pay should be available only to employees who meet continuity of service and minimum earnings tests. Other than in the case of small employers, employers are required to contribute towards the costs of statutory parental pay and meet the costs associated with their employees’ absence from work. Those requirements reflect the relationship between employer and employee, and are designed to ensure a parent has made a reasonable contribution to their employer’s business before that employer is required to administer statutory parental payments.

On the number of people the measure should apply to, as the hon. Member for Ogmore stated, there are about 180 maternal deaths within 12 months of childbirth per annum. For a variety of reasons, we cautiously assume that 50% of those eligible will take up the leave entitlement. For example, it is highly likely that those who are eligible for shared parental leave and pay will take that paid entitlement instead, and some employers may provide paid bereavement, compassionate or special leave. Although the numbers may be small—we estimate fewer than 100 per annum—we are committed to ensuring parents in that position have a dedicated leave entitlement.

Once in force, the Bill will give bereaved parents the support and protection they need during one of the most devastating periods of their lives. It will be available to employees, regardless of how long they have been working for their employer, provided they fulfil other eligibility criteria. Although we estimate that the number affected by those circumstances is low, the emotional strain and physical toll of caring for a new child while grieving the loss of a partner is unimaginable.

I am pleased that the Government can support this vital piece of legislation through the Houses. On Second Reading and in Committee, its ambition gained cross-party support. We continue to discuss our plans for the Bill with stakeholders, including the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the Confederation of British Industry and charitable organisations such as Working Families and Pregnant Then Screwed, and we look forward to working with them further to develop this legislation.

Losing a partner is a truly horrific experience for anyone, and combining that terrible grief with the challenges of caring for a new baby must be incredibly hard. I very much echo the sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Ogmore: I sympathise with anyone who finds themselves in that terrible situation.

The United Kingdom has a range of generous entitlements and protections designed to help parents balance their family and work commitments and maintain their place in the labour market. For example, the UK has one of the most generous maternity leave entitlements in the OECD. We also offer paternity leave and pay to fathers and partners, and enable a mother to share her maternity entitlement through shared parental leave and pay. We are also on track to deliver neonatal care leave and pay for those parents who need to take time to be with their baby when they are receiving neonatal care, with up to 12 weeks’ entitlement.

In all, there are seven new private Members’ Bills that expand entitlements in the workplace, and they include: this Bill; the neonatal care legislation; the right to request flexible working; the tipping Bill; carer’s leave, which entitles those with a dependant with long-term care needs to take up to a week’s care leave per year; the right to request predictable terms and conditions—predictable hours, if you like, Mr Deputy Speaker—and protection from redundancy for parents who are pregnant or on maternity leave when they return to work.

My hon. Friend is making a good point about the private Members’ Bills that have been coming through the House to help with employment rights in the workplace. He will recall that I had my own Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill. Does he agree that it is important that we do as much as we can to support people going through fertility treatment to get paid time off work?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner and has approached the issue in absolutely the right way. I know that she was keen for us to legislate in that area. We have made so many different improvements to workplace entitlements that we did not feel there was parliamentary time available for that, but I know that she will keep campaigning. In the background, prior to legislation happening, she has worked closely with many employers to ensure that they offer that support on a voluntary basis. She is setting the right standard in showing what can be achieved even without legislation in this place, and I very much support her efforts.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), asked whether we are considering greater protections against redundancy in certain circumstances. We are, and I am happy to have a continued conversation with him on that.

When in force, the Bill will ensure that a parent who is already grieving the loss of their partner does not have to worry about whether they will get the necessary leave from work to care for their child. As I stated in Committee, the Government wholeheartedly supported the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ogmore, which are crucial to ensuring the Bill’s effectiveness, fairness and inclusivity, and support the Government’s commitment to bolster the participation of parents in the workplace.

As with most family leave and pay entitlements, much of the detail will be delivered through secondary legislation, which will come before the House in due course. By introducing this change to the legislative framework, we will ensure that employees who lose their partner in the time surrounding childbirth or adoption have access to a period of leave to care for their new child. This change means that bereaved partners need not rely on the good will of their employer to take time off work—and, importantly, they can stay connected to the labour market until they can return to work.

I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions to the debate. The Bill is an important extension of the support and protection that we already provide to parents; in this case, it is for when they face one of the most challenging situations of their lives. As such, the Government take pride in endorsing this private Member’s Bill. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, other hon. Members who made contributions and, finally, the hon. Member for Ogmore for continuing to work with me to develop the Bill into a piece of legislation that will work effectively for parents and businesses alike. I also thank the officials, who have done such a fantastic job. As I said, it is not just this legislation, because we have six other private Members’ Bills. They have worked under huge pressure this year and done a fantastic job. I very much appreciate their efforts. I hope that the Bill will progress rapidly to the next stage in Parliament.

With the leave of the House, I thank all Members who have spoken in this debate, including the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has consistently supported the Bill, and I am grateful to him for always being here when the Bill was debated on the Floor of the House.

I said at the beginning that I wanted to thank the organisations that have supported the Bill and I do so again. The support of organisations such as Gingerbread, the Fawcett Society and the Childhood Bereavement Network has been invaluable not just in making sure that the Bill works for parents but in giving living examples of people who are left behind to raise a child. I have had several conversations with bereaved parents, some of whom were bereaved years and years ago, who have said what a difference this legislation would have made had it existed at the time. Nobody expects to lose their partner in childbirth—it is unimaginable in that sense—but now they are able to reflect on it in those terms.

I could not conclude without paying tribute to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry). He was instrumental in convincing an Opposition Whip to take on his Bill, and I said at the time that that was quite an achievement. But we are actually here today because of Aaron, Bernadette and Tim. I wish we were not, in truth, but we are, and that is because of people such as Aaron and their dogged determination to convince their MPs that the law could be changed.

I pay tribute to the officials again, and to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who is instrumental in ensuring that so many Bills are passed every sitting Friday, week after week. I can recall days when no private Member’s Bills were passed, Mr Deputy Speaker, under a previous Whip for PMBs, and that was the sport of the Friday. These days, many pass with good cause and I am so pleased that Members have supported the Bill’s progress to the other place. I look forward to it gaining consent from there and from His Majesty the King.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

British Nationality (Irish Citizens) Bill

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Just yesterday, I was asked by a constituent what relevance or role a Back-Bench MP has. God love that woman, Mr Deputy Speaker, because not only did she get the full precis of my contribution this afternoon, she got all the intricacies of the processes and the procedures and the hoops that we go through to make an impact —but make an impact we have. We cannot overstate the impact of such Bills—not only those that have progressed to Third Reading today, but those that I have had the privilege of hearing about and contributing to over the last number of months—or their importance to the lives of ordinary people in our country. Although there is not an awful lot of awareness of this process, or, indeed much coverage of it, I appreciate that it is there and the role that we play as Back-Bench MPs in making a difference to our country.

The British Nationality (Irish Citizens) Bill has been long in duration and in gestation. The Library was able to dig out initial references from 1985, I think, when the issue was first brought before the House of Commons. Here we are today, and I hope—if the House consents to Third Reading and we can get on to the Bill’s subsequent stages in the other place—we will have an opportunity to make a difference for the 31,000 citizens within Northern Ireland who would benefit from this. Across the United Kingdom, more than a quarter of a million citizens could take the opportunity to benefit from what I have described throughout the parliamentary process as the final piece in a long constitutional jigsaw.

To go into some of the history, just for completeness, for the last 224 years the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain have been one. They were connected in 1800, commenced in 1801, through the Acts of Union, and the lives of our citizens have been intertwined ever since. In 1921, when the island of Ireland was partitioned, the rights of citizens across the island to attain, hold and cherish their British citizenship pertained. The Irish Free State held dominion status within the British empire and anyone born within the Irish Free State was still entitled to, and many enjoyed, British citizenship. That came to an end in 1948 with the British Nationality Act and the creation of the Irish Republic in 1949, and it was from that point that people who were born in the Irish Republic but subsequently moved to the United Kingdom—who spent the remainder of their lives living, building families and working in the United Kingdom, and from my perspective in Northern Ireland—have been unable to enjoy the same privileges that were open to our forefathers.

We often talk about the clash between identity and citizenship on these islands, but the one piece of the puzzle that has been absent since the Good Friday agreement, when individuals with an Irish identity living in Northern Ireland were free to attain Irish citizenship, is that the same has not been true for those born in the Irish Republic who live, work and enjoy being in the United Kingdom. That is the essence of this Bill.

In order to bring that alive, let us consider my colleague in the other place, Lord Hay. He was born in Donegal in 1950, 15 months after the creation of the Irish Republic, but has lived almost his entire life in Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. He has been a public servant in Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom for almost 50 years. He joined the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1988 and became its Speaker in 2007. He stepped down as Speaker in 2014 and became a legislator in this place. He is a peer of our realm, but he does not have British citizenship.

The idea that somebody like that—someone who has lived almost their entire life in our country, contributed to it through public service, worked and paid taxes here, and positively changed lives in our country—should have to apply for naturalisation, ignoring the history of the intertwined relationships between our two islands, should have to satisfy a “Life in the UK” test and prove that he can speak English, when he is sitting in our Parliament, legislating for our country, really does highlight the nonsense. Now, I will not be dragged into questioning the ability of Members from far-flung parts of our community in Northern Ireland to speak English—the Londonderry accent is not the same as the Belfast accent, but it is English none the less.

Lord Hay provides a really good, tangible example of why this situation is a nonsense. We know that anybody born within our islands benefits from the common travel area. We know that anybody who holds Irish citizenship is free to work, study and vote anywhere in the United Kingdom, and they can benefit from education and healthcare in the United Kingdom. But the final piece is citizenship. They are not the same as somebody from another country in a far-flung place, simply because of our intertwined relationships and our history.

So from 1985 the parliamentary efforts to redress this issue have continued. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) was elected to this place in 2001 and has been campaigning on this issue since 2001. Lord Hay, having joined the House of Lords in 2014, has been campaigning on it since 2014. Now we have the opportunity to put that final piece in the jigsaw.

As I have indicated, 31,000 eligible people in Northern Ireland and 260,000 eligible people across the United Kingdom could benefit. When I started the private Member’s Bill process, my focus was on assisting those in Northern Ireland, predominantly from the three counties of Ulster that are no longer in the United Kingdom, who have moved across the border. In fairness, the Conservative and Unionist Government further opened the door and said that this does not need to be constrained to Northern Ireland, and that it should apply across the United Kingdom. I have never been resistant to that, but I recognised the constraints on private Members’ Bills, so I am delighted that we were able to expand the extent of the Bill in Committee so that it applies across the United Kingdom to over a quarter of a million people, including the London Irish and many interspersed throughout our communities and constituencies. It is a great boon.

Throughout the parliamentary processes on this aspiration, we have benefited from significant cross-party support, not just from the Conservative party but from the Labour party. I am grateful that Labour has been in lockstep with us on every opportunity that I have had to raise the issue.

Andrew MacKinlay, a great friend of Northern Ireland and the former Labour Member for Thurrock, addressed this point in 2009:

“we have an opportunity, which the House will probably not have again for some years, to right a wrong, provide parity of treatment for people who are Irish…and allow them to identify with their Britishness.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 220.]

He was right. The House was unable to land the opportunity in 2009, but 15 years later we can seize this wonderful opportunity.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee issued a report in July 2021—HC 158—that considered all of these issues, took evidence from Lord Hay and concluded that a citizenship test for individuals who, like him, find themselves in this situation would be not only “irrelevant” but “offensive.” I am glad that the Government have taken heed of that approach.

There has been continual discussion of fees during the passage of my private Member’s Bill. There is absolutely no reason why somebody who was born in these islands and who already benefits from all the entitlements from which you and I benefit, Mr Deputy Speaker, should have to pay £1,580 to benefit from citizenship of a country to which they have contributed all their life.

The Government are well aware of my position that there should be no need for anything over and above the cost of a passport but, in fairness to them, I recognise that it is not part of this Bill. A fees order would have to be made separately and subsequently, and the Government have been very proactive on this issue and have been very open to a discussion that would consider something far short of what is required today. I am grateful for their engagement with me in that regard.

No citizenship test or “Life in the UK” test; a considerably reduced fee; and an opportunity for us, as a nation, to embrace our nearest neighbours—individuals who are part of our families and our lives, but for whom the process required of them is just a step too far. Nothing about this Bill is coercive, but it opens the door to a wonderful opportunity for us, as a nation, to recognise our nearest neighbours and bring them closer still. People have been campaigning for this for 40 years, and there have been many false dawns in Parliament. In 1998, the Belfast agreement missed the opportunity to redress the balance when Irish nationality was offered to those in Northern Ireland who were born or naturalised as UK citizens. We had the opportunity to afford the same courtesy to those on the other side of the border.

I am delighted with the way the Home Office has engaged on this issue. The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border has been a joy to engage with over the past couple of months. I am sorry that he is not here today to see the final stage. I suspect that he is sorry too, but he has a most able substitute today, the Minister for Security, who has thoughtfully engaged on these issues around Northern Ireland, Ireland and the United Kingdom for many years—someone for whom we have huge regard. So if ever there was somebody to be here on behalf of the Legal Migration Minister, I am delighted it is the Security Minister and he is able to respond on behalf of the Government.

This is a great and wonderful opportunity for the people of our islands to unify, to strengthen bonds, and to get official and national recognition of the ties that bind us together; something that does not need to have discord and has not had discord. I mentioned Labour earlier. I should have mentioned that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), my constituency neighbour, was pleased to be a part of the Bill Committee. She has been totally supportive, as has the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) from the Alliance party.

If I have the leave of the House, I will probably have a few more thanks to offer, but having an opportunity in this way to progress, most substantively, a 40-year campaign is so wonderfully appreciated. I hope many across our country will benefit from it.

I would just like to put on the record my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and his hon. Friends on their persistence. Moving Third Reading with the support of the Government and the Opposition is a testament to what can happen in this place if people persist. I remember chairing a Westminster Hall debate in which the right hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends were putting pressure on the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). Basically, my right hon. Friend was unable to respond coherently to the pertinent points that were being made. No doubt that is one of the reasons why the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill has now gained success. He has successfully cross-examined Ministers into the ground and they have been unable to respond coherently, so many congratulations to him.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on bringing forward this important Bill, which I welcome and am very happy to support.

The Bill highlights the closeness of the relationship between the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It addresses the problem that somebody born in the Republic of Ireland, who is free to travel, work and vote across the United Kingdom, is still required to undertake a citizenship test when applying for British citizenship. It is an oversight that can be easily made to assume that an Irish citizen living anywhere in the United Kingdom, but especially in Northern Ireland, would already be entitled to British citizenship, especially given the uniqueness of our relationship and our close social, cultural and historical ties.

I therefore welcome the Bill, which removes a legal technicality and simplifies the process for Irish citizens wishing to officially become British citizens, but I would like to ask the Minister how it might operate in reverse. So, while I welcome the Bill, I would like some clarification from him on how that would work.

It is a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on his success in the ballot and on navigating his Bill through Second Reading, Committee and hopefully through these stages very shortly. As we heard in the previous debate, legislating via the private Member’s Bill route is a tricky art and anyone who reaches this stage deserves credit. I know the right hon. Gentleman has spoken at previous stages about his good fortune, and doubtlessly that is part of the process, but I thought when reading those debates that he was selling himself short to some degree. It is no mean feat finding an issue that is compelling and relevant and that support can be built around from across the House. That is part of the alchemy of a private Member’s Bill, and he has passed all those tests with this Bill and deserves full credit for that, because in those elements there is no fortune at all.

As my Front-Bench colleagues have put on the record previously, and as I am pleased to reiterate, Labour supports the Bill. It is a straightforward Bill, but one that I know will be appreciated by many people. Indeed, following the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the process put in place to ensure that those from Northern Ireland who wish to gain Irish citizenship would be able to do so, many would be surprised to learn that reciprocal arrangements are not in place to ensure that Irish citizens have a route to British citizenship if they so wish. We thank the right hon. Member and, as he has done, those who have come before him over not just years but, in this case, four decades. We thank those campaigners for putting this issue on the agenda and pushing for change, as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) says, using each and every device to push it forward persuasively. That is a real model for an effective campaign.

It is right that long-term residents of Northern Ireland—or the UK as a whole; we should recognise the Government’s wisdom in making that suggestion and change during the process—who are Irish citizens and wish to be recognised as citizens of the UK should have that right. On that central point, I reaffirm Labour’s support for the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Belfast East. Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and the Government for their wisdom in determining that there need not be a citizenship test.

I am a strong believer—I dare say the Minister might say this is not always true because, in Opposition, we love to point out exceptions to rules—in having regimes and structures. We can always come up with special cases to say that this or that should be different, but in most cases we must have a consistent regime. This, however, is a different case. The nature of the relationships between our nations and within our nations means that not exempting those individuals from a citizenship test would be not only, frankly, a waste of time, but in many cases deeply insulting, as the right hon. Gentleman says. That is wise, and again we very much support that.

That leaves only one more point of contention, and that is fees, which the right hon. Gentleman touched on, and I too want to press the Minister a little on this matter. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, we know that fees in this area are in the region of a little more than £1,500. That is a significant sum to anybody. I know we are to expect that the issue of fees will be settled separately in regulations, and the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged that too, and will be debated in the usual way by the House. We know that Ministers have engaged on the matter and, again, we welcome that, but I wonder whether the Minister might at least tell us the direction of the Government’s thinking in this regard, because it is significant in pertaining to how the Bill will operate in practice and how accessible the provisions of the Bill will be in future.

Will the Minister set out what further discussions he and his colleagues have had since Committee and whether the Government are working up potentially agreeable solutions particularly to test this basic point of substance, which I think the Government have accepted, that by waiving the citizenship test, the case involving Irish citizens is different to that of citizens of other countries who seek to obtain British citizenship? Again, that is a significant point, but a point of consensus. Does the Minister therefore believe that the same principle could be read across on fees as well? If so, will that give us a sense of what we might expect in regulations?

I am keen to hear from the Minister about the Government’s direction of travel on this issue, and perhaps when they expect to reach their destination and have something public to share about what they intend to do. At this point, I am keen to hear those reflections from the Minister and do not want to detain the House any further, so I will wind up there. I again congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and those who have worked with him for the success of the Bill so far, and I wish him every luck as it proceeds to the other place.

On behalf of the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), let me start by thanking all Members, from across the House, particularly those who served on the Bill Committee, who have engaged in debating the Bill’s merits on Second Reading, in Committee and today on Third Reading.

As many have said, this Bill is a huge credit to the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who has rightly championed people being able to have the right to recognition as he has set out. He has conducted himself in an exemplary manner, not only with my ministerial colleague, who speaks highly of him and has been grateful for the engagement he has had in recent weeks and months, but with Home Office officials. As others have noted, the right hon. Gentleman has been persistent, diligent and challenging where the answers have not always been forthcoming as quickly as he would have liked. He has managed to get the right answers and to get them written down, so it is a huge testament to him that the Bill has secured cross-party support.

On Second Reading, Madam Deputy Speaker noted the “good-natured and constructive debate” that had taken place. I am pleased that that has continued, although I am not surprised; in the Government’s view, this Bill is doing the right thing and will make a real difference to Irish nationals and to those who have made their homes here in the UK and want to take the next step to become British citizens.

As we sit here, I am reminded of the words of our late sovereign, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, when she spoke in 2011 on the occasion of her state visit to the Republic of Ireland:

“no one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the Governments and the people of our two nations”.

What the right hon. Gentleman is doing today is making that recognition a little clearer, fresher and more meaningful.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border also asked me again to reflect on the unique position that Irish nationals hold within the UK. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for straying when I reflect on not an arbitrary group of individuals, but my own family. Like many in the UK, I have family going back to what is now the Republic of Ireland but was then the island of Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. They were from Limerick, and my father exercised his rights and secured an Irish passport a number of years ago. That connection is something that many of us see not just in the living expression of our ancestry, but in the history of freedom that our citizens have secured together. We do not need to look down many of the memorials here in England before we start seeing names that are clearly from the island of Ireland and realise that our shared struggle for freedom is reflected, sadly, in the pain of loss of families across these islands.

Irish nationals already enjoy the right to work, study and vote, alongside having benefits such as access to our health service and social welfare. The common travel area arrangements for Irish nationals are now in statute under 3ZA of the Immigration Act 1971. That protects the ability of Irish nationals to enter and live in the UK without needing a grant of immigration, leave to enter or remain. That relationship is reciprocated by the Irish Government in regard to British citizens entering Ireland and this strengthens the relationship between our two countries. Indeed, the right to hold and to live both identities was also guaranteed in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and many people have exercised it. Indeed a member of my private office who luxuriates under the joint nationality exercises it to this day.

Irish nationals who are exercising their rights to live and work in the UK must currently undertake the naturalisation process to gain British citizenships. There are many requirements associated with naturalisation. There are many requirements associated with naturalisation, such as a period of residence—usually five years—which is replicated in the Bill. However, many immigration requirements for naturalisation are designed for those who require formal grants of leave. It is not right to fully apply those to Irish nationals seeking to obtain British citizenship. Equally, the need to demonstrate competence of language—usually English, although Welsh and Scots Gaelic are also options—and to pass the life in the United Kingdom test seems at odds with the position of Irish nationals in the United Kingdom. We are glad that they do not feature in this Bill.

This issue has been raised in the House previously by hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). Likewise, it has been discussed by Lord Hay of Ballyore, who sits in the other place—as an aside, a member of my private office has decided quite extraordinarily to go and run a marathon in Donegal this weekend, for which I can only wish him good luck. They have highlighted the strong feeling about the issue, in addition to the cost of naturalisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby would like to express his happiness with the Bill and the improvements it makes to our statute book.

Although the Government supported the underlying principles of the Bill, full Government support was dependent on the Bill being amended. Thanks to the right hon. Member for Belfast East and the constructive approach that has characterised the Bill, those amendments were readily included. Following the actions of Committee members who scrutinised and debated the Bill, the amendments have passed and the Government are able to offer their full, unbridled and unconditional support as it completes its way through the House and moves to the other place.

The Bill as introduced to the House allowed for only people born in Ireland after 31 December 1948, having been resident in Northern Ireland for five years, to register as British citizens. The right hon. Member and the whole House will know that before that date, citizens could not have been born in the Republic of Ireland as the Republic had not been declared, so they were automatically eligible for British citizenship.

The right hon. Member will forgive me for expressing that his modest initial proposal did not recognise the idea that he and I both share: the United Kingdom is whole and integral, and therefore citizenship laws that apply in Northern Ireland, as he has suggested, should apply to the rest of the United Kingdom, except when a particular treaty—the Good Friday agreement, for example—changes elements of that. I am glad that he has welcomed—as I knew he would—the expansion of the Bill to the whole United Kingdom.

Following the amendments made in Committee, the Bill’s provisions will apply to all eligible Irish nationals of all ages who live anywhere in the United Kingdom for five years. As noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby on Second Reading, the amendments made in Committee have done that, first, by making the route available to Irish nationals—regardless of how they became Irish—and not just those born in Ireland. Those covered by the provisions of the Bill as it was introduced will still be included, but the amended Bill is more expansive in approach. It will give all eligible Irish nationals a more straightforward pathway to becoming a British citizen.

Secondly, it does not have a requirement that an Irish national must have been born after a certain date. Under the amended Bill, people born on or before 31 December 1948 will have the same opportunity to make use of it as people born after that date. Thirdly, qualifying residents can be from any part of the United Kingdom, not just Northern Ireland. That ensures that all eligible Irish nationals resident anywhere in the United Kingdom will be able to make use of this important piece of legislation. That reflects the important point that becoming a British citizen is about a tie to the whole United Kingdom, not just one constituent part, even were we to expect its uptake to be proportionately more in Northern Ireland. I know that the right hon. Member for Belfast East agrees strongly with that.

The Bill will add a new registration route to the British Nationality Act 1981. It seeks to insert a new section 4AA to allow any Irish national who has completed the qualifying residential period in the United Kingdom to be registered as a British citizen if they apply and meet the requirements. The requirements are a period of five years’ lawful residence without excess absences, a specific assessment of the 12 months prior to the application, and being of good character. The Secretary of State would of course retain discretion over the residential requirements, allowing him or her to treat them as having been met even when they have not, where the exceptional circumstances of a particular case merit doing so.

In keeping with other applications for British citizenship, albeit not on the face of the Bill, Irish nationals would also be expected to enrol their biometrics and successful applicants aged 18 or over would be required to attend a citizenship ceremony. It would be remiss of me not to highlight that this Bill, alongside all other residential application routes for British citizenship, is subject to the relevant sections of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 on citizenship applications. I do not need to revisit the Government’s position in this area, as agreed by Parliament in passing that Act.

A question came up from my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) about reciprocal requests to the Irish Government. That is a matter for the Irish Government, but I have to say we have an extremely friendly relationship with the Irish Government; indeed, the elevation of the new Taoiseach in recent days was a matter for some celebration to many of us. He has been a friend for a number of years. I am sure he will serve the Irish people extremely well, and I hope that the friendship we have developed over the years may see an evolution in this area—but that is a matter for them, not for us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby would like to reiterate his acknowledgement that the right hon. Member for Belfast East is not in agreement with the Government over the aims of the Illegal Migration Act. However, it is necessary to ensure a consistent approach across the statute book, even if it is highly unlikely that an Irish national would ever fall foul of that Act’s provisions.

Furthermore, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby is cognisant of the discussion to be had around fees for this registration route and notes the questions and comments that were raised in Committee on that point. As Members of this House may be aware, the unit costs for border and migration services are reviewed annually, an exercise that is currently under way following the financial year end. The unit costs for the proposed route will form part of that annual review, to ensure consistency in that calculation; once that is completed, my hon. Friend will be able to engage further with the right hon. Member for Belfast East in that space.

I must make clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby also did, that this is intended not to be a profitable scheme for the Government, but merely a way of recognising that there is a cost, and it would be right that that cost fell on those exercising this right and not on every citizen. This Bill has enjoyed varied and cross-party discussion and debate on its journey through the House. That discussion facilitated the amendments passed in Committee, which will expand the number of Irish nationals in the United Kingdom who may make use of the provisions to obtain British citizenship.

From early in the life cycle of this Bill, it was and continues to be the Government’s belief that a dedicated route for Irish citizens will reduce the burden for such applicants and create a more straightforward process to becoming a British citizen for our closest neighbours. The establishment of a dedicated route could potentially also allow for a lower fee to be charged, although I have already highlighted that that must be considered in line with ongoing work surrounding the border and migration services fees.

The Government are unequivocal in our support for the underlying principles of the Bill, which was first introduced by the right hon. Member for Belfast East, and we are pleased to provide our full support for the Bill as amended in Committee. My hon. Friend the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border and I would like once again to concur with and congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his success in the ballot and on helping the Government to find a way to correct the issue in our nationality system. I personally congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and wish his important Bill well as it moves through to the other place. It will make a welcome amendment to our current legislation—one that I hope will be exercised by those who have rightly and in a most welcome fashion made their home among us and are part of our lives today.

As I said, Mr Deputy Speaker, this will be just a list of thank yous from me, and I thank you for your expert chairmanship. I thank the Minister for the way in which he has engaged and picked up the baton incredibly well—I appreciate it—and I thank the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), who has been great in his engagement. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), for his comments.

Anne-Marie Griffiths from the Public Bill Office has been very forgiving, given that I have continually asked questions that she has probably answered on four or five occasions. I appreciate all the assistance from the Public Bill Office. The Home Office officials have been incredible in their assistance, expertise, guidance, encouragement and support, so huge thanks go to Mr Darlow and his team. I thank James in my team for keeping me on the straight and narrow.

I thank the Comptroller of His Majesty’s Household, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). I could not explain to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the stress associated with organising private Members’ Bills Fridays, which she outlined for me, but you might ask her later on. I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) for her comments, and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), to whom I am grateful for remembering the Westminster Hall debate and our interactions with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).

The hon. Member for Christchurch wishes to follow my Bill with the Second Reading of his own, so with that, I shall sit down.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (Amendment) Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is the Bill’s first outing in debate, because although it was presented in the 2022 Session, unfortunately the House was unable to debate it. It relates directly to the beginning of the pandemic and the emergency measures that were taken by the Government and Parliament in implementing the Coronavirus Act 2020. At the time, a lot of concern was expressed about insufficient scope for parliamentary scrutiny under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, and how the level of scrutiny available under that Act compared unfavourably to that available under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Since that time, a number of academic and other articles have been written, and speeches given, in which the concern has been expressed that the Government used the wrong tool to implement restrictions on individual liberty during that pandemic, resulting in this House having an insufficient role in scrutinising that important legislation.

This issue was raised, very ably, by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) during the original debate on the Bill that became the Coronavirus Act 2020. He said:

“the whole purpose of the 30-day provision in the Civil Contingencies Act was for the Executive to be accountable to Parliament.”

The Leader of the House, however, responded to a point that he had made earlier by saying:

“we cannot use the Civil Contingencies Act…If we have time to bring forward legislation, it is proper that we do that, and anything we did under the powers of the 2004 Act would apply for only 30 days.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2023; Vol. 674, c. 132.]

Well, that is exactly what the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 is there to do. It was implemented to deal with emergencies even graver than that caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Civil Contingencies Act was the subject of detailed discussion before its enactment. Section 28 is entitled

“ Parliamentary scrutiny: prorogation and adjournment”,

while section 27 provides for “Parliamentary scrutiny” in other circumstances, stating that

“Where emergency regulations are made”

under the Act,

“a senior Minister of the Crown shall as soon as is reasonably practicable lay the regulations before Parliament, and…the regulations shall lapse at the end of the period of seven days beginning with the date of laying unless during that period each House of Parliament passes a resolution approving them… If each House of Parliament passes a resolution that emergency regulations shall cease to have effect, the regulations shall cease to have effect…at such time, after the passing of the resolutions, as may be specified in them, or…no time is specified in the resolutions, at the beginning of the day after that on which the resolutions are passed… If each House of Parliament passes a resolution that emergency regulations shall have effect with a specified amendment, the regulations shall have effect as amended”.

The Civil Contingencies Act therefore enables the regulations introduced under its provisions to be amended, unlike the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. The Government took advantage of that during the pandemic, and I am trying to put it right by including in my Bill provisions to ensure that there is scrutiny so that there will no longer be a perverse incentive for the Government, when faced with a pandemic or similar emergency, to resort to the use of the 1984 Act rather than the Civil Contingencies Act, on the basis that it would suit them to use the former rather than the latter because it would be subject to less scrutiny.

Clause 1 of my Bill provides that section 45D of the 1984 Act should be amended so that

“the appropriate Minister must lay before Parliament a statement that the restriction or requirement is proportionate under subsection (1)”,

and that

“In the case of English regulations, that proportionality must be demonstrated by a regulatory impact assessment that has been laid before Parliament.”

The importance of such a regulatory impact assessment cannot be overstated. We now look back on that period three years ago, and consider the consequences that flowed from the over-zealous restrictions that were introduced by the Government. Almost every day we hear of the adverse consequences for a whole cohort of young people who were excluded from school for extensive periods. As a result, not only has their education been damaged but their health, welfare and, particularly, their mental health. In my view, that is a direct consequence of this House not having had the opportunity to consider the costs and benefits of introducing such draconian restrictions on people’s ability to participate in their school education.

A similar point can be made about businesses being able to carry on what they were doing normally. I visited a garden centre a few weeks ago. In the height of the pandemic it was verboten that people could visit garden centres. For a time people were not even allowed to go to the refuse disposal points to get rid of their rubbish. They were not allowed to venture out and meet their loved ones, even in open spaces. As a result, a whole mass of people lost their loved ones without really being able to say goodbye to them, because they were incarcerated in care homes. We must never allow such a situation to be repeated in another health or other type of emergency without the proper scrutiny.

When one looks back over the course of this Parliament, it is possible to say that if we had been able to scrutinise the social distancing regulations to a greater extent, the Prime Minister in office at the time of the pandemic would still be in office today. The regulations and restrictions of which he fell foul would not have been in place, because somebody would have asked some sensible questions. The Government would have been persuaded that the workplace regulations should have enabled people working during the emergency to try to deliver benefits for the public to be allowed have a cup of tea or a bun together without falling foul of the law.

The use of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 may well have had the direct consequence—unintentionally, obviously—of depriving the former Prime Minister of his post. When the history books come to be written, these restrictions may be seen as a much more significant decision by the Government, though as the head of the Government, the Prime Minister himself at that time decided to use the 1984 Act rather than the 2004 Act regulations.

My Bill would ensure that we not only have proper parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations under section 45D of the 1984 Act, but that under section 45Q we introduce a provision that

“before such regulations may be made, a draft of the statutory instrument containing them shall be laid before each House of Parliament for a period of not less than twenty days on which that House has sat, and, if either House before the expiration of that period presents an address to Her Majesty against the draft or any part thereof, no further proceedings shall be taken thereon (but without prejudice to the making of a new draft statutory instrument) and that part of the draft shall not have effect unless both Houses by resolution approve it, or, if any modifications in that part are agreed to by both Houses, except as so modified.”

The consequence of that would be that there would be no incentive for a Government to introduce restrictions on freedom under the 1984 Act; instead, they would use the Civil Contingencies Act, which was of course set up for that very purpose.

I referred earlier to the public commentary about this issue. Most significantly perhaps, the noble Lord Sumption gave a lecture in which he expressed doubt about the legal basis for the draconian measures and argued strongly that we need proper parliamentary scrutiny. Another commentator, Tom Hickman KC, made the case not for using the 2004 Act but for having bespoke legislation to deal with such situations in the future.

The public health regulations that came into effect on 26 March 2020 set out criminal laws that required each person or household to remain in their homes until further notice. There were very narrow grounds on which people were able to leave their homes. The guidance that the Government issued was, as we eventually discovered through the courts, often over-claimed and overused by the enforcement authorities. We also found that those regulations essentially set up a system of false imprisonment, completely in breach of all principles of English common law. There were tremendous restrictions on people’s ability to go out and earn a living, and the reasonable excuses available to them to avoid the lockdown requirements were strictly limited.

Let us not forget the consequences for individual liberty, and for a whole generation of young and old people, who were particularly affected by these draconian laws, brought in by the Government under the wrong piece of legislation and insufficiently scrutinised by this House. Let that never happen again. Let us hope that Baroness Hallett, when she looks at this issue in the public inquiry, reaches the conclusion that the Government did indeed go too far in locking down, restricting freedom and preventing people from accessing education or seeing their loved ones in care homes. That inquiry will reach a conclusion in perhaps five or 10 years’ time—who knows?—but I hope that, if the Government do not support my Bill today, a future Government will be persuaded by Baroness Hallett’s report to do exactly the same thing and ensure the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 contains proper scrutiny provisions as safeguards.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) was a consistent campaigner against lockdowns during the pandemic and has continued to be since. The UK was badly unprepared. NHS waiting lists were at record levels even before the pandemic hit. We had staff shortages of 100,000 in our health service and 112,000 vacancies in social care. The Government’s handling of public health measures was chaotic as we jumped in and out of lockdowns, and the best scientific advice was frequently ignored.

The primary duty of any Government is to keep the public safe and to make sure we are prepared for national emergencies like the one we faced in 2020, but there are a few problems with the approach highlighted today. The Bill would require regulatory impact assessments to be conducted before any regulations could come into effect in England. Any regulations would have to be laid for at least 20 days before they could pass into statute. We know that in pandemics sometimes Governments have to move quickly, and the requirement to wait at least 20 days before regulations came into effect seems a potentially dangerous move. To my mind, the question that the hon. Member raises is more one of whether the Government are up to the task of dealing with another public health emergency in a way that ensures that democratic accountability and public confidence are maintained. If decisions are taken transparently and if everyone is seen to be following the rules, we stand a much better chance of maintaining public confidence and making better decisions.

I do not agree that this Bill, which risks tying the Government’s hands behind their back during a national emergency, is the way to do it. I would like to see what the covid-19 inquiry says about how that was handled and how we as a Parliament should deal with these issues in future.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) will want to welcome the news that in the past 12 months to March 2024, 63 million more GP appointments were delivered by our superb GPs and practice staff than in March 2019. That is more than 1.4 million extra per working day. I am sure she would be delighted to praise our GPs and health professionals for that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for providing the House with an opportunity to debate an important area of public policy. I am aware of his ongoing interest in this area. We have discussed the pandemic on many occasions in this place, and no doubt we will do so again. The particular issue his Bill raises is parliamentary scrutiny of emergency legislation made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. That is also a topic we have debated before, and a matter about which he has tabled two identical private Members’ Bills in previous parliamentary Sessions.

We take the parliamentary scrutiny of new legislation and of the measures that the Government took to respond to the pandemic extremely seriously. However, such scrutiny must be balanced against the need to act quickly and decisively to respond to a health emergency and to protect the public. During the covid-19 pandemic, the Government had to move quickly to introduce new laws and guidance to protect public health and maintain access to essential services. My hon. Friend will be aware that during the covid-19 pandemic, as decisions were made at pace, Ministers from the Department made regular statements to the House and invited scrutiny on policy—indeed, my hon. Friend spoke on many of those occasions himself—as well as regular calls for colleagues across the House so that they could ask questions and seek solutions for members of the public who were looking for answers. Moreover, the Government have responded to numerous parliamentary inquiries and Committee reports and responded on a range of issues, including legislative mechanisms employed during the pandemic response.

Turning to the private Member’s Bill before the House, my hon. Friend seeks to amend section 45D of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which imposes certain restrictions on the power to make regulations under section 45C. Section 45C relates to the domestic regulations that can be made to counter the spread of infectious disease.

Part 2A of the 1984 Act, under which those relevant sections sit, was added following the global severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2008. Parliament gave the Government broad powers to deal with precisely the same types of threats as those we faced during the covid-19 pandemic. Parliament empowered Ministers to use regulations to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to incidents, the spread of infection or contamination. Regulations made under section 45C that impose restrictions and requirements are subject to a requirement that there must be a serious and imminent threat to public health. That test was certainly met during the covid-19 pandemic.

The making of regulations is already subject to a test of proportionality, and where the regulations confer powers on others to impose restrictions and requirements, those persons must consider that their decisions are proportionate. So I do not support the proposal to make regulations under section 45C subject to additional—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 17 May.

Business without Debate

BBC Licence Fee Non-Payment (Decriminalisation for Over-75s) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Consular Assistance Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June.

Bereavement Support (Children and Young People) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June.

Members of Parliament (Oil and Gas Companies) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June.

Multi-Storey Car Parks (Safety) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 14 June.

Standards in Public Life (Codes of Conduct) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June.

Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (Amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June.

Public Procurement (British Goods and Services) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (15 March), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 7 June.

Public Sector Exit Payments (Limitation) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Green Belt (Protection) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Greater London Low Emission Zone Charging (Amendment) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (22 March), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 17 May.

Highways Act 1980 (Amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Payments Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Statutory Instruments Act 1946 (Amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (Amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Exemption from Value Added Tax (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Covid-19 Vaccine Diagnosis and Treatment Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Caravan Site Licensing (Exemption of Motor Homes) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

NHS England (Alternative Treatment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

British Broadcasting Corporation (Privatisation) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Children’s Clothing (Value Added Tax) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Regulatory Impact Assessments Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Barnett Formula (Replacement) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Rule of Law (Enforcement by Public Authorities) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Illegal Immigration (Offences) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

National Health Service Co-Funding and Co-Payment Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Caravan Sites Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Domestic Energy (Value Added Tax) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May.

Child Criminal Exploitation Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Petition

Recommendations of the Infected Blood Inquiry

The petition states:

The petition of residents of the constituency of Ogmore,

Declares that people who received infected blood and who have suffered as a consequence have, along with their families, waited far too long for redress.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to implement the recommendations in the Second Interim Report of the Infected Blood Inquiry without delay.

And the petitioners remain, etc.

[P002966]

Proposed Hospital: North Hampshire

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

For heart attack patients suffering from cardiogenic shock, every 10-minute delay in treatment equates to a 3.3% increase in the risk of death. That startling fact not only emphasises that every minute matters when it comes to emergency patients receiving treatment, but highlights the importance of locating our new hospitals strategically. After all, a hospital’s reason to be is to save lives, and we must use the most up-to-date clinical evidence to ensure they do that whenever possible.

Last year, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care confirmed the biggest infrastructure investment in my constituency’s history: £700 million to £900 million for a new north Hampshire hospital at the Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. We have just completed an extensive public consultation on how the new hospital will evolve, and on the provision of services at two of the hospitals in the HHFT—the Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital and the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester. The results of the consultation are due to be released in the coming weeks. Although I very much look forward to seeing the views of residents on those important plans, I also believe it is essential that hospital services are configured so that they can best deliver treatment to patients, and that must be done by listening to how clinical experts feel we ought to locate services on a hospital and departmental level.

Although funding was confirmed last year, work to identify potential sites for the new acute hospital began in 2019. A comprehensive search for the right location spanned north Hampshire, including Alton, Andover, Basingstoke, Eastleigh, Winchester and the surrounding areas, as well as practical considerations such as price, availability and size. Fundamental to HHFT’s criteria were a series of clinical considerations on how to improve patient outcomes and increase accessibility. In the end, two viable sites were identified, one of which is the trust’s preferred option, between Basingstoke and Winchester near junction 7 of the M3. The other is on the existing Basingstoke hospital site. During assessments, the current Winchester hospital site was also considered as an option. However, it was deemed too small to accommodate all of the services needed at our new acute specialist hospital and, besides, there is no adjacent land that could facilitate future expansion.

A key reason why junction 7 is the preferred site is that the ambulance service has argued in the past that it would enable the sickest patients to access care more quickly. Locating a hospital in the centre of a town or city may be convenient for patients attending elective surgery, but it is increasingly awkward for ambulances in a race against time. As the statistic about heart attacks demonstrates, ambulances are often in a race against time, and junction 7 is a convenient location between Winchester and Basingstoke with easy access to the M3.

Combined with the important access considerations, building a new hospital at junction 7 would also not disrupt existing services while construction takes place. These proposals are rooted in science and clinical experience, and they will save lives. It is clear to me that residents from across north Hampshire should follow the expert opinion and throw their weight behind supporting the junction 7 approach.

Not only is clinical guidance essential to the siting of the new hospital; so too is the location of specific services. The new HHFT hospital consultation introduced the trust’s new model of care, which centralises crucial services. That approach is underpinned by mountains of clinical evidence and research. Medical evidence suggests that centralising services in this way reduces duplication, increases the quality of care and is best for patients.

This model has already been rolled out in some departments, such as cardiology. A person who has a heart attack in north or mid-Hampshire will be sent to an amazing new heart centre in Basingstoke, where they are assured of top-quality care at all hours of the day. The results have shown that this approach saves lives. Members do not have to take my word for it, because seven of Hampshire’s top clinicians, including the chief medical officer, published an open letter in support of this approach:

“Bringing together more specialist services for the most seriously ill patients onto one site would mean we are able to bring services in line with best practice and national guidelines.

This means if you are critically unwell, you will be seen by experienced senior doctors and nurses who are experts in their field. This would have significant benefits for patients, both in terms of improvements to their care and their clinical outcomes.”

To bring the benefits of the new model into even greater focus, I will touch on two particular areas of service: maternity and emergency care. Neonatal care units are graded on a three-tier scale, ranging from level 1, which can treat unwell babies, to level 3, which can care for the most premature or unwell babies. The trust previously had a level 2 rating, which was temporarily changed to level 1-plus in November 2023 following an unannounced Care Quality Commission visit after a series of complaints.

Although the trust’s overall rating remained good, it was concerned that the neonatal units did not see enough seriously unwell babies for the staff to maintain the specialist skills needed for level 2 status. This relegation now means that, each year, around 100 very sick or premature babies have to travel to Southampton or Frimley Park hospitals for treatment. This is clearly not easy for families, but we have been gifted a golden opportunity to make sure the decision is reversed so that more babies can be looked after closer to their families.

Good practice and standards suggest that there should be 98 hours a week of on-site consultant cover, with 60 hours being the minimum requirement. At the moment, both maternity sites in Winchester and Basingstoke are able to provide only the minimum requirement. Were services not duplicated across two sites, the hospital could provide one unit with more hours of consultant cover, thereby reaching the recommended number of cases necessary to regain level 2 status.

The current level 1-plus status of our maternity service shows that the status quo is not an option. North and mid-Hampshire need a better service, and the surest way to secure it is by following the medical advice and centralising the services of the maternity units into one hub at the new junction 7 site.

Another area where the new model of care will have an enormous impact is emergency care, which is set to be reconfigured to reduce waiting times and streamline patients’ treatment. A large emergency department, complete with trauma unit and children’s emergency department, will be centralised at the new junction 7 site. It will specialise in treating the most serious cases. However, both Basingstoke and Winchester will have an urgent treatment centre, and each will be led and supported by advanced nurse practitioners, doctors and other health professionals. Both will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have been designed to provide quick treatment. It has been estimated that two thirds of cases currently being treated in A&E could be seen at an UTC, including all but the most serious illnesses and injuries. Restructuring facilities in this way will free up staff in A&E to focus on the most unwell patients, while simultaneously reducing the waiting times for patients with less serious ailments. Plans have been rigorously drawn up in a way that ensures patients are rapidly assessed, diagnosed and treated.

Both those cases, of maternity and emergency services, underline the importance of listening to and following clinical guidance when determining not only the location but the configuration of our new hospital services. The Government have made it very clear that they wish to see both Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital and Royal Hampshire County Hospital, Winchester continue to provide services. That has been reiterated by the hospital trust itself. The plans are about a significant reconfiguration of where and how those services are provided. The recommendations are based on expert clinical advice, because clinicians are best placed to identify the best way to treat patients. We would do well to listen carefully to their advice and, as far as possible, to follow the plans informed by their methodological research.

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight integrated care board is due to publish the findings of the consultation that has been carried out imminently. We are all looking forward to seeing those results, but the Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust must ensure, on behalf of residents and its patients, that the clinical evidence, best practice and expert experience of clinicians remains at the forefront of its mind throughout.

The £900 million investment in our health service in north and mid Hampshire is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve what is on offer to residents throughout those communities, but we only have one opportunity to get it right. I hope the Minister, in her reply, can confirm to me her intention to support Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to make sure that it follows clinical advice, while also ensuring that it has listened to residents.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on securing a debate on this really important issue. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Health and Secondary Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who tells me that she has been a tireless campaigner for Basingstoke on this matter, as well as on countless others.

The Government believe that the people of Hampshire should, of course, have a say on where their new hospital should be built. As my right hon. Friend said, we have asked people from across the county to share their views with Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. I am sure she understands, however, that it would be wrong of us to pre-empt their views, or indeed to interfere with their decision making, but I am happy to assure her that we remain committed to delivering the new hospital.

The trust and the integrated care board are going through the responses as we speak. They will submit a business case for NHSE regional approval through the ICB in a few months’ time. I should be clear that while the trust and the ICB do that, there will be no final decision on the new hospital’s location or the services it will deliver, but once a decision has been taken we will, of course, update the House. I am sure my right hon. Friend will have much to say about that herself, too.

I want to address the points my right hon. Friend raised on the importance of clinical guidance in forming decision making. She is absolutely right to say that decisions should be locally led and based on the best clinical evidence. That is why proposals must meet our tests for good decision making, which include a clear evidence base that is in keeping with clinical guidance and best practice. In developing the consultation, the trust has looked at a variety of options to deliver clinical care in Basingstoke and Winchester. Experts have been consulted at every stage of the process to provide appropriate clinical guidance. Two particular examples in the consultation demonstrate how the trust used clinical guidance to inform the options it has put forward.

First, on proposals around accident and emergency services, the trust received expert clinical guidance from local doctors, who strongly agree that maintaining emergency departments at both Basingstoke and Winchester would be unsafe and unsustainable. The trust also received advice from the South East Coast Clinical Senate, an independent panel of senior doctors who expressed concern over retaining an A&E department at both sites, due to serious concerns around patient safety. Instead, it has argued that acute medical services must be twinned with surgical services in order for patients to receive first-class care. Therefore, the proposal includes two brand-new 24/7 doctor-led urgent treatment centres and same-day emergency care to deal with most urgent care needs—one at the new specialist acute hospital and one at Winchester’s Royal Hampshire County Hospital.

Secondly, the proposals give the people of Hampshire an emergency department with a trauma unit and a children’s emergency department at the specialist acute hospital, which will treat the most serious conditions. As my right hon. Friend said in her remarks, it is essential for new mothers and mums-to-be to have the best possible care for themselves and their babies—she will know that this is an area of healthcare that is very dear to my heart. The trust has looked carefully at keeping obstetrician-led maternity services at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital, but found that many patient safety issues have left them not viable, particularly following the 2022 publication of the independent Ockenden review of maternity services at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS trust, which set out the need for obstetrician-led maternity services to be in hospitals that can also provide emergency surgery and critical care.

In Hampshire, those services could only be provided at the new specialist acute hospital, because the neonatal units at the Winchester site currently do not treat enough babies to meet the requirements for level 2 care, while consolidated services at the new specialist acute hospital will meet that requirement. The rationale is that the proposals will lead to fewer babies’ being transferred out of the area to receive vital neonatal care, and I think the whole House will agree that the last thing new mothers need after giving birth is an extra journey to receive critical care.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for continuing to engage with the new hospital scheme. She is a real champion for her constituents in this place, and they will have seen her fighting their corner today. We want to do everything in our power to get the people of Hampshire the world-class care they deserve. We will continue to support the trust throughout the development of the business case, to ensure that plans meet the needs of staff and patients as well as offering value for money for taxpayers. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle has recently committed to visiting Basingstoke and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke will take immense pride in showing him around one of England’s extremely beautiful towns.

I thank my right hon. Friend for confirming that her, and my, right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle will be taking the time to come and visit the new hospital. May I encourage her to encourage him to visit the new hospital site that the hospitals Minister has already announced that he is in the middle of procuring?

I shall certainly pass that message on to my right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, and I again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke on securing a debate on this very important topic.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.