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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Thursday 18 November 2021

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill (Third sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Yvonne Fovargue, James Gray

† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)

Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

† Brown, Alan (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)

† Browne, Anthony (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)

† Cairns, Alun (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)

† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)

† Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con)

Duffield, Rosie (Canterbury) (Lab)

† Fletcher, Mark (Bolsover) (Con)

† Hands, Greg (Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

† Owen, Sarah (Luton North) (Lab)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Wallis, Dr Jamie (Bridgend) (Con)

† Whitehead, Dr Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

† Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)

Whittaker, Craig (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Sarah Ioannou, Rob Page, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 18 November 2021

(Morning)

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill

I have a few preliminary reminders for the Committee. Please will you switch all your electronic devices to silent? No food or drink is permitted during sittings of the Committee, except for the water provided. I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. That is in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues will be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

We now begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room and it shows how selected amendments have been grouped together for the debate—there is one change. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same or a similar issue. Please note that decisions on amendments do not take place in the order in which they are debated, but in the order they appear on the amendment paper. The selection and grouping list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment are taken when we come to the clause to which the amendment relates. Decisions on new clauses will be taken once we have completed consideration of the existing clauses of the Bill. Members wishing to press a grouped amendment or new clause to a Division should indicate when speaking to it that they wish to do so.

We will start with amendment 1 to clause 1, but first, Dr Whitehead, did you wish to talk about the change to the selection list?

Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I want to say two things before we go into detailed line-by-line discussion: one is on the order in which we are debating the Bill—clause 1, clause 2 and so on. The other is to say to the Committee before we start that Her Majesty’s Opposition voted in favour of the Bill on Second Reading and, therefore, we hope that the amendments before us will be seen and discussed in that light, which is that they seek to strengthen the Bill and to address specific concerns that we have about elements, in particular the RAB—regulated asset base—process.

Order. This should just be about the amendments and groupings; there can be no general statements about the Bill. Is everyone content to group amendments 1 and 2 together?

Ms Fovargue, I draw the Committee’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a matter of public knowledge that I worked in the nuclear industry before my election to this place.

Clause 1

Key definitions for Part 1

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—

“(6) ‘Owned by a foreign power’ means owned by a company controlled by a foreign state and operating for investment purposes.”

This amendment is a definition of “foreign power” set out in amendment 2.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 2, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the nuclear company is not wholly or in part owned by a foreign power.”

This amendment prevents the Secretary of State designating a nuclear company owned or part-owned by the agents of a foreign power.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. The amendments you have grouped stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test.

Taken together, the purpose of amendments 1 and 2 is to ensure that in enabling nuclear companies to benefit from the RAB model and for the Government thereby to bring a large-scale nuclear project to a final investment decision by the end of this Parliament, as they are committed to do, the Bill nevertheless makes it clear what kind of companies it would be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to designate for that purpose. In moving the amendment, my assumption—Government Members may correct me if I am mistaken—is that the Committee as a whole would accept that it would be inadvisable to allow some nuclear companies to own and/or operate a nuclear reactor on British soil. That is because civil nuclear power is, without question, critical national infrastructure, the compromise of which would have real implications for national security, given that any company owning and/or controlling such infrastructure would have direct access to the national grid.

Conservative Members, or indeed the Minister when he responds, may argue that the amendments are unnecessary, because no Secretary of State would choose to designate a nuclear company to benefit from the RAB model that posed any threat to national security. Yet it is precisely because previous Secretaries of State have been content to allow companies that the Opposition would argue should never have been given the opportunity to own and operate UK nuclear plants that we believe we need such additional safeguards in the Bill.

Put simply, we want to ensure that the legislation is amended so that this Government, or any future Government who might wish to use the RAB model for new nuclear, cannot make the kind of error that was without doubt made in recent years. Namely, a company owned and directly controlled by a foreign state—a state that the integrated review is clear poses a systemic challenge to our security, prosperity and values—was given the opportunity to own and access critical national infrastructure.

I will touch on the way in which the Government might, if they were minded to accept our amendments or table modified versions of their own on Report, differentiate companies owned and directly controlled by a foreign power and those in which a state merely has a majority financial stake. Before that, I will examine the error that I have mentioned and the lessons we might draw from it to improve the Bill.

On Second Reading, we made it clear that our strong view is that although the Bill has the appearance of a general piece of enabling legislation, it is in practice concerned solely with the future of Sizewell C, as the last potential nuclear project that could conceivably begin to generate by the end of the decade.

I note that the hon. Gentleman was choosing his words carefully. We all know that it is about the China General Nuclear Power Corporation; many people have concerns about its involvement in the nuclear sector, which I echo. He talked about when a state is a majority shareholder, which includes EDF in France, but surely the amendment says

“not wholly or in part”.

As France is a majority shareholder in EDF, would that not eliminate EDF from participating in the RAB exercise for Sizewell C?

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I will come on to say. We are keenly aware of the need to differentiate different types of companies, which is why, thankfully, the Chair has allowed me to group this amendment with amendment 1, which clearly defines what we mean by “owned by a foreign power”. It is not just owned by in terms of a majority stake, but directly controlled by in the way that I would argue EDF is not.

To return to the involvement of the China General Nuclear Power Corporation in UK nuclear more widely, we believe that the case of Sizewell C illustrates precisely why amendments 1 and 2 are required. Driven by an almost embarrassing enthusiasm for Chinese investment, which was shared and arguably surpassed by the coalition Government that preceded it, the Cameron Government eagerly embraced Chinese involvement in UK civil nuclear energy. As a result, Hinkley Point C, while largely financed by EDF, is underpinned by effectively foreign Government part-financing in the form of a 33.5% interest on the part of China General Nuclear Power Corporation.

When the final investment decision for Hinkley Point C was approved, associated heads of terms were agreed for CGN to take a 20% stake in Sizewell C and to secure majority ownership, complete control of planning and financing, and unfettered operation of the nuclear plant at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex that would incorporate, subject to generic design approval, a Chinese-designed Generation III Hualong One reactor. Bradwell B was always the ultimate prize for CGN and why it was willing to take a significant stake in the Hinkley plant and a minority stake in the development work to progress Sizewell C toward a final investment decision.

As far as we can ascertain, although the present Conservative Administration have never said as much—I invite the Minister to remedy that if he wishes—there is now a general acceptance that acquiescing in the construction of a piece of critical national infrastructure at Bradwell that would be designed, planned, owned and operated by a subsidiary company of a Chinese state-owned enterprise, and, as all SOEs are in China, controlled ultimately by the Chinese Communist party, was perhaps not the wisest decision that the Cameron Government made.

Furthermore—I do not believe a Minister has said this explicitly, so I urge the Minister to provide greater clarity to the Committee when he responds—I take it as read that the present Government now take the view that such an arrangement is no longer tenable, and that it is their intention to remove the influence of the People’s Republic of China from the Sizewell C project entirely, and, should any new nuclear view on that project prove necessary, the future UK nuclear programme more widely.

The press release accompanying the publication of the Bill stated:

“The RAB model will reduce the UK’s reliance on overseas developers for financing new nuclear projects”.

The Committee will appreciate that that statement is not a clear declaration of intent when it comes to rolling out foreign Government part-financing, ownership and control of civil nuclear power in this country. If it is the Government’s intention to end foreign Government part-financing and ownership of new nuclear projects, the Committee should be told what that means in practice for the October 2016 Sizewell C strategic investment agreement, as well as what the Government’s reneging on that deal would mean for CGN’s 33.5% stake in Hinkley Point C. More specifically, it is right that the Committee is also given a sense of how, assuming it has been determined, the Government intend to remove the CGN minority stake from the Sizewell C company, or, if it has not, the various options being considered.

That brings me to the £1.7 billion committed to nuclear in the recent Budget, the purpose of which, according to the Red Book, is

“to enable a final investment decision for a large-scale nuclear project in this Parliament”—

the very same intention that we are told is the purpose of the Bill. As I am sure Members will appreciate, that statement contained in the Red Book is wilfully obscure. Given that Sizewell C is, as I have said, the last potential nuclear project that could conceivably begin to generate by the end of this decade, and the fact that this Bill creates the funding model that will almost certainly enable a final investment decision on it to be made, the Minister needs to be more transparent with the Committee about the future of the CGN minority stake, because the answer could have real implications for the applicability of the funding model set out in this legislation, and, as a result, the bills that consumers in all our constituencies will pay in the years ahead.

We heard from Professor Stephen Thomas in our evidence session on Tuesday that the cost of buying out the CGN minority stake in Sizewell C is likely to be a tiny fraction of the £1.7 billion allocated to nuclear in the Budget, so what will the rest of that public funding be used for? Will it in whole or in part be used to finance Sizewell C beyond financial closure? If so, how do the Government intend to require the consortium to allow them to participate, and will the investment of direct public funding, if made, have any impact on the amount of RAB financing that will be required for Sizewell C to proceed?

Whatever the £1.7 billion committed to in the Budget is ultimately used for, the involvement of CGN in UK nuclear power over recent years illustrates the risks associated with foreign states, particularly ones of an authoritarian nature, financing and operating critical national infrastructure. We should not only learn the lessons of that, but ensure that clauses 1 and 2 are tightened so that the Bill cannot be used to facilitate such involvement in the future. That is the purpose of amendments 1 and 2. Taken together—this follows on from the point made in the intervention earlier—they would ensure that the Secretary of State cannot designate a given company to benefit from the RAB model provided for in the Bill if the company in question was owned and directly controlled by a foreign power. Their combined effect would not be to prevent the coming together of consortia that are not UK majority-owned. That would almost certainly render future projects unviable or more costly, but the amendments’ incorporation in the Bill would ensure that consortia drawing upon the RAB model could not include investors owned and controlled by a foreign state.

The use of the word “controlled”, as per amendment 1, is critical. This follows on from the point I made in response to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. We are acutely aware that in attempting to amend the Bill to prevent a company such as CGN from benefiting from the RAB model, we would not wish to prevent all companies in which states have a majority interest—EDF is the most obvious example—from doing so. That is why amendment 1 specifically defines “owned by a foreign power” as one owned and controlled by a foreign state.

I hope the Minister responds to the amendments in the constructive spirit in which they have been tabled and that the Government will see the value of incorporating them into the legislation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Fovargue. In my intervention, I wondered if the amendments would technically preclude EDF under the RAB scheme. I hoped that the amendments were a stalking horse for Labour to come round to our way of thinking regarding a new nuclear power station, but unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

That said, I support the amendments. It is crazy that decisions have not been made before now about excluding China General Nuclear from critical infrastructure. The UK Government probably acted on the back of the United States’s actions to remove Huawei from critical telecoms infrastructure, so it makes no sense that a Chinese state-operated nuclear company is allowed to participate and invest in and possibly, if it gets its way, construct a new power station at Bradwell. That makes no sense. I would like to hear what the Minister has say about that. In principle, I support the amendments, although, ideally, I would rather we were not doing new nuclear.

Continuing briefly from my initial remarks, I want to make it clear that the amendments—and all our other amendments—are based on the idea that the Bill should be strengthened, not subverted in any way. I can assure the Committee that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun’s hope that these two amendments are a stalking horse to remove EDF from the project is certainly not the intention. The intention is precisely to ensure that the nuclear programme in this country is sound, robust and integral to our security in all senses of the word.

We do not think the amendments will do anything other than put us in a much better position to ensure that the financing of nuclear is done on a clearer footing and on the basis that we know who is putting money into the project, in this instance Sizewell C. I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that effectively the Bill is pretty much about how Sizewell C gets going, comes to financial closure and gets into its construction period so that it produces electricity in good time for the grid.

It is important that the Committee thinks carefully right at the beginning of its proceedings about how we want to framework that nuclear financing; how we want to framework the arrangements which, after all, will be the umbrella under which we have all our other discussions in Committee. The framework that we have at the moment, particularly for Sizewell C, as my hon. Friend has set out, is a sequence of memorandums and a number of things further to memorandums, which appear to lock our nuclear development into an arrangement with the Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation, which is very much an instrument of the Chinese state. Although companies have been set up—set up for the purpose of engaging in Hinkley—with one nominated director, given who those nominated directors are and how they go back to China it is very clear that those companies are centrally state-controlled, and are state-controlled vehicles for investment—just as we have stated in our amendment—for the promotion of that particular foreign power’s interests, in this instance in nuclear power.

Given those interests in nuclear power, it is important that we do not lose sight of the overall scheme of things in considering investment or otherwise in Sizewell C. It is important to understand that the deals, as it were, that were made between 2013 and 2016 were very much about that sequence of events leading from investment in a power station with a minority stake, with a reactor that would be built in France, within a framework of a company controlling that, that is a private company but has substantial state connections, but nevertheless is a very different model from what we are faced with regarding the CGN investment.

So there has been a sequence of events that starts with Hinkley C, with a minority stake, a French reactor and a French company with its own investment in the majority of the plant, and then a contract for difference at the end of it for production, moving to the second event in the sequence, which was envisaged at that time to be Sizewell C, with an undefined arrangement at the time for investment elsewhere in the plant, but a clear stake in that plant, beyond financial closure, of the Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation, coming to 20%. And then would come the prize at the end of the sequence—certainly the prize for the Chinese Government—of the entry into European nuclear development for the first time of a Chinese reactor, the Hualong One. That would be the basis of a Bradwell nuclear plant. That reactor would separately go through a generic commissioning process; the initial moves towards that are being made. That reactor would then be at the core of the Bradwell plant, and Bradwell would be majority-owned, run, controlled and operated by the Chinese state nuclear corporation.

So, leading down the path of that sequence, Sizewell C being a stopping-post in that sequence and the end of it being Bradwell, is obviously the nuclear project that we are discussing at the moment. Therefore, the part-ownership of the nuclear company must be seen as integral to that overall process and that overall agreement; and if we do nothing and say nothing about that involvement, we are effectively condoning that whole sequence of agreements.

Those agreements were initially made in the form of a memorandum of understanding on civil nuclear collaboration in 2013, and effectively those stakes that I mentioned were set out then. George Osborne, the then Chancellor, stated that Chinese companies were taking a stake, including potential future majority stakes, in the development of the next generation of British nuclear power. So, it was pretty explicit, certainly from the UK Government side, what they thought that sequence was going to be about, and it was actually pretty similar to the idea that the Chinese had, as far as their involvement in nuclear was concerned.

That was followed, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in 2015, by a “Statement of Cooperation in the Field of Civil Nuclear Energy”, which welcomed the minority investment and the proposal for a Chinese-led project at Bradwell B in Essex. What is less well known is that that was followed by a very lengthy document, “Secretary of State Investor Agreement”, which was primarily about investment by a number of parties, including CGN, in Hinkley but which also related to the whole sequence. It is arguable, therefore, that there is a substantial lock-on of Chinese involvement not just in 20% of Sizewell but in the whole sequence, as laid out in the various memorandums of understanding and the investment agreements undertaken between 2013 and 2016.

The question is: what are we going to do about it? The proposal is for a RAB scheme to cover the project’s investment costs. A decision will have to be made about how the RAB scheme will work and we will discuss the detail later, including how Ofgem will set out the allowable costs that form the backbone of a RAB agreement. Ofgem will have to assess the overall allowable ceiling for the project costs, particularly in its construction phase but also during its production phase. That will form the basis on which the money to meet those costs will be taken in from the general bill-paying public. The ceiling for those allowable costs will be determined to a considerable extent by how much investment is likely to be required and, therefore, how much of it will have to be underpinned by the RAB arrangement at the Sizewell plant. If a substantial part of the plant is to be financed by the China General Nuclear Power Corporation, then logically the allowable costs would relate to the rest of the required investment, rather than all of it. Crucially, the decisions and discussions that this Committee is going to enter into will be determined by what that 20% consists of.

The Red Book offers a tantalising clue as to what that might be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, a total of three lines focus on the £1.7 billion of new direct Government funding being made available, essentially for the Sizewell C project. He said that the Red Book is possibly wilfully obscure; it is certainly obscure, and for a number of reasons. All the Budget and spending review document has to say about the £1.7 billion Government funding is that it is being provided

“to take a final investment decision this Parliament, subject to value for money and approvals.”

What the Minister has already said, in response to previous inquiries I have made, is that Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation remains a 20% holder in the nuclear company up to the point of a final investment decision. That means that the cost of all the work needed to reach a final investment decision—legal documentation, initial site planning arrangements, possibly some site clearance arrangements, and facilitation to enable the project to present itself in a clear light—will be borne by the present owners of the Sizewell nuclear company, which is 80% EDF and 20% CGN. In a way, that is a given, so the Secretary of State’s statement about Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation being a 20% owner of the company at this moment in time is a bit of a statement of the obvious.

What is less obvious, however, is the extent to which Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation will be involved in the costs of the nuclear company up to the point of investment decision closure. We heard in evidence from Professor Thomas, and indeed I have heard from a number of other people, that it is extremely unlikely—to the point of not being likely at all—that the cost of those arrangements and activities will be anything near £1.7 billion. It will probably be a few hundred million pounds at most.

If I know that, then I am sure the Government know it, so they must have taken it into account when they calculated the sum of up to £1.7 billion for the Red Book. Surely they must have calculated that only a portion of the £1.7 billion allowed would be for those sorts of costs, and that if Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation were to cease its activities at the point of the investment decision, then it might reasonably expect to have some of its costs repatriated, and presumably those costs might be met out of the £1.7 billion. That would leave perhaps £1.5 billion unallocated and unknown, as it were.

I do not know what the Government’s intentions are for that substantial part of the £1.7 billion, but it would be very interesting if we were told. Not only would it be very interesting; I also think it is vital that we know. Does it mean that the Government think that Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation might take up the offer, set out in the memorandum of understanding and so on, that it not only takes part up to the point of a financial investment decision, but actually then invests in the project as a whole? Do the Government intend to buy out what might have been in that investment element as the construction period continued? If they do, that does not look like it is enough to buy out something that was going into the company subsequently, but it looks too much to buy out what might have been in before the investment decision was reached.

There is a big question for the Minister: what is most of that £1.7 billion intended to cover? It is important that we know the answer for our discussions in the Committee. Without knowing it, there will be some difficulty about which decisions to take about the RAB procedure as a whole. I await with interest what the Minister has to say about the money from the Red Book.

I also await with some interest what the Minister has to say about the mechanisms for breaking the cycle that I mentioned earlier—Hinkley, Sizewell and Bradwell being stepping-stones to the complete Chinese control of a nuclear power plant—assuming that the Minister wishes, as I think we all do, to break that cycle. Does the Minister agree that it is a bad idea to keep that chain intact and not try to break it at some stage? Does the Minister agree that, in order to break that chain, some method must be put in place whereby it can be broken?

Does the Minister also agree that if that chain is broken we must be clear about the consequences in terms of the actions of the Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation, not just in relation to future projects but in relation to this project? Does CGN withdraw at this stage, before financial closure? Does it exercise its options and have to be bought out of those options? Does it insist upon that continuing? Does it insist on the whole chain continuing? If it does insist, what might be the financial consequences of buying out its interests in the entire chain and, of course, its interests in Hinkley C? I assume that the—I think—33.3% interest that it has in Hinkley C would continue because, if it did not, there may be some additional funding implications for Hinkley. It may be that the £1.7 billion has those implications in mind.

It is not satisfactory that, at this stage of the procedure, we are talking about all this with so little information about the Government’s intentions, and so little information about how they intend to go about—if, indeed, as has widely been trailed in the press, they intend to—at the very least loosening CGN’s hold on Sizewell, and not proceeding at all with the Bradwell project subsequently. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on all those fronts. If he is not able to this morning, we will certainly pursue this as the Committee progresses, because it is vital that we get it right as we go through the Bill and are not sorry afterwards.

Order. We will suspend for a few seconds to enable the sitting to be broadcast more clearly.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I look forward to working with Committee members as we scrutinise this important and timely Bill. To begin, I want to briefly remind Members of the purpose and background of the Bill.

As all Members will agree, it is vital that the UK continues to lead the world in tackling climate change. That is why we have committed to a 78% reduction in emissions compared with 1990, as well as fully decarbonising our power sector by the year 2035, which will mean ensuring that the UK is entirely powered by low-carbon electricity, subject to security of supply. To deliver that, we will need new nuclear power plants, which are the only proven technology deployed at scale to provide continuous, reliable, low-carbon electricity.

The Bill is mainly about Sizewell C. Can the Minister tell me where any European pressurised reactor is operating at scale connected to the grid at this moment in time? He is talking about proven technology.

I am speaking in a general sense about nuclear being a proven technology, deployed at scale. That has been the case since 1957 or ’56, with the very first nuclear power plant in the world here in the United Kingdom at Calder Hall just by Windscale.

However, it is clear that we need a new funding model to support the financing of large-scale and advanced nuclear technologies. The Bill will deliver that, in the form of the regulated asset base model. I am sure the Committee will discuss the detail throughout our sittings, so I do not intend to go into the minutiae now, but I want to outline the Government’s position that this is the best way of delivering new nuclear projects while delivering value for consumers.

I am glad that the Opposition recognised that point through their support for the Bill on Second Reading. That support has been reiterated today by Her Majesty’s official Opposition, if not by the Scottish National party. I am grateful for their useful contributions on Second Reading and look forward to further discussions in Committee. Similarly, I recognise the interesting points raised by the SNP in that debate. I recognise that the SNP has a principled—if, in my view, irrational—objection to new nuclear projects. Nevertheless, I am pleased to subject the Bill to the SNP’s careful scrutiny as well.

I hope that as we move through Committee and the rest of proceedings on the Bill, we can work in collegiate and co-operative ways, considering the individual clauses of the Bill to ensure that it can meet its objectives. I think that was the position laid out by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition at the start of the debate.

I turn to amendment 1, tabled by the hon. Members for Southampton, Test and for Greenwich and Woolwich. It is linked to amendment 2 to clause 2, and I am happy to debate both together. The amendments seek to insert as a criteria for designation that the company is not wholly or partially owned by a foreign country. I want to touch briefly on the implications that the proposed definition could have for the wider policy of financing nuclear projects in this country.

If the definition as drafted could rule in all companies that were seen to be controlled by state sponsors, it could thereby rule them out of eligibility for a RAB. The RAB allows us to bring new sources of financing into nuclear projects and reduce our reliance on overseas developers, but it is not credible to introduce a blanket exclusion on developer participation in RAB companies, many of whom are to some degree state-sponsored, including some of our closest international partners. One has already been named during proceedings on the Bill and in Committee this morning.

I am sure that the intention of the hon. Members does not lie in that direction, as that could make it much harder to bring new, appropriate projects to fruition. We should never forget that the Bill’s purpose is to make it more possible to finance nuclear projects in the future, not less so. However, I welcome the focus on national security in one of the UK’s key infrastructure networks, a point made by Her Majesty’s Opposition. We will no doubt focus on that matter fully in our consideration of all the amendments.

I will take the points raised in turn. The hon. Members for Southampton, Test and for Greenwich and Woolwich both asked what the £1.7 billion in the Budget and spending review is made up of. We had an extensive debate on the Budget—I think it was four days in all—and there was a chance to examine this, but I will now reiterate the purpose of the money.

The funding is to bring a project to final investment decision this Parliament, subject to value for money and all relevant approvals. This could include development stage funding to support the maturation of a project and to de-risk it. It could also include some Government investment at the point of a transaction. This will help to mobilise other private sector capital into a project, and that is very important. We are in active negotiations with Sizewell C on its nuclear project—the most advanced currently in the UK. The funding could be used to support development and investment in the project, subject to value for money and relevant approvals. It is an active negotiation.

The Minister will have noticed in the evidence session on Tuesday when I put the question to the Sizewell C company about the derivation of the £1.7 billion and what discussions the company had had with the Government about that, the lady did not seem to know, or to believe there had been discussions with the Govt. How does this £1.7 billion get defined if the Sizewell C company does not know its derivation?

To be fair, I also listened carefully to Sizewell C’s evidence, and the company will be as aware as we are that this is an active negotiation. I was not in any way surprised that Sizewell C’s representative did not wish to be drawn on the question of exactly where the £1.7 billion would be deployed. We have outlined in the Budget document the sorts of areas that would be in scope. None the less, this is an active financial negotiation.

Does that mean that the evidence that was given to us in our session with Sizewell C was not correct, or was ill-informed? Or was it informed, but matters have moved on since then? Or was it—

Was it, indeed, as the hon. Member for Bolsover suggests from a sedentary position, diplomatic? If so, was that diplomatic answer given after any sort of instigation from the Government, or was it just diplomatic on the basis that Sizewell C did not want to tell us?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is correct. It is not fair to conclude that the evidence from Sizewell C was incorrect, or that it was ill-informed in any other way. This is an active commercial negotiation. We have laid out the parameters of the £1.7 billion, and is in no way surprising that our negotiation partners may not wish to comment on what they think it is likely to be spent on. After all, it is taxpayers’ money, which will be deployed by this Government to move forward a nuclear project.

The Minister made a key point: this is taxpayers’ money. Surely, we as taxpayers have a right to know, even roughly, what services will be procured from this £1.7 billion. I would still expect the Sizewell C company to have discussions with the Government and say, “We need to do x, y and z in order to de-risk this project and get it to the final investment decision stage”.

I would say two things in response. First, Sizewell C may not feel it is appropriate to comment on the deployment of taxpayers’ money. Secondly, I know from long experience of Government that often the best way of securing taxpayers’ money in a negotiation is not to reveal too much about what approach the Government might be taking. We have laid out in the Budget document, which was quoted by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, what we think is going to be in scope—what the £1.7 billion might be spent on.

The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich asked a more general question about China. He asked whether this was about sending a message to China, or words to that effect. The answer is no. The UK welcomes foreign investment in our infrastructure, but as we have always said, that should not come at the expense of our national security. It is already the case in UK law that all investment involving critical nuclear infrastructure is subject to thorough scrutiny and needs to satisfy our robust national security and other legal and regulatory requirements. The National Security and Investment Act 2021 also strengthens our powers to act should we need to.

I take the point about the National Security and Investment Act. The Minister will know that that was given Royal Assent only in 2021. The strategic investment agreement that applies to Sizewell C was signed off—agreed—in October 2016. I think that I am right in saying that the National Security and Investment Act does not apply retrospectively, so how does it cover the specific arrangements in place as a result of that deal? Can he expand on what regulation is in force to give us assurance about safeguards in relation to foreign states and investment in civil nuclear?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, the final investment decision has not yet been taken on Sizewell C. All the relevant parts of the NSI Act will be in place—he is right to say that it got Royal Assent this year—but that final decision has yet to be taken.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Chinese involvement at Hinkley. May I be absolutely clear? The Bill is not reopening that decision. Hinkley Point C is vital to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and exposure to volatile global gas prices. CGN is a partner in financing and building that important project. There is no involvement by any Chinese company in any major contract at Hinkley, including the instrument and control system.

As for Sizewell, to be clear, this Bill does not determine the ownership structure of Sizewell C or any other future nuclear project. That is another really important point to understand about the Bill. The Bill increases our options for financing nuclear projects, ending our reliance on overseas developers for finance—we are not excluding overseas developers—which has led to the cancellation of other nuclear projects in the UK. It will ensure that our own new nuclear power plants can be financed by, for example, British pension funds and institutional investors—often from our closest partners. That is the purpose of it.

I would like to pick up and press the Minister on the thrust of amendments 2 and 1, which is a consequential amendment. I take what he is saying about the purpose of the Bill being to attract, potentially, more UK investment—we do not know how much, but potentially—and about not wishing to exclude foreign investment. I take the point that he made earlier about the language used in our amendments and how he sees it as meaning a blanket ban. I would argue that it does not have that intent. There are complexities here, but does he not differentiate in his own mind between state-sponsored companies and state-controlled companies—controlled by foreign powers—that his own Government say pose a systemic challenge, and if he does, why does he not think that it is worth putting this in the Bill? Surely there is a need to differentiate and ensure that those types of companies—the latter—are not able to access RAB funding.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Looking at the amendments, amendment 2 states that

“the nuclear company is not wholly or in part owned by a foreign power”

and amendment 1 states that owned by a foreign power means

“owned by a company controlled by a foreign state and operating for investment purposes.”

To be frank, I have a different interpretation, or at least I am not fully seeing his interpretation as being what he has in the amendment. The amendment strikes me as being worded in such a way that it could, for example, include nuclear operators from some of our closest partners. I look at what I see in front of me, rather than necessarily what Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition say that something might mean.

If the Minister is unhappy with our language, will he undertake to introduce Government language on Report that satisfies that differentiation?

As I have made clear, we think that the Bill adequately addresses these issues, particularly in combination with the National Security and Investment Act, so I do not see it as necessary for us to make any further clarification. Ultimately, the Bill is about bringing in more financial options for future nuclear power, not cutting them.

The hon. Member asked about Bradwell. To reiterate, that is not a decision for now. CGN does not have regulatory approval for its reactor, nor has it submitted any applications to build a nuclear plant in Essex. We are in negotiations for Sizewell C, as the most advanced nuclear project in the UK.

I am afraid the Minister cannot have it both ways. Either the Bill is about financing Sizewell C or it is about financing nuclear power more generally, in which case Bradwell surely has to come into the equation. We could be committing today to a RAB model that could, in principle, help to fund Bradwell, if it goes ahead. It is part of the linked sequence that has already been agreed in heads of terms by the UK Government and the Chinese Government, effectively. He says that it is not a discussion for today, but that is true only if the Bill is just about Sizewell C, in which case his statement that the Bill is potentially about other things is not correct. Which is it?

Although the Bill is effectively about financing Sizewell C, it has implications elsewhere. The Minister says that it is not relevant because the Hualong reactor does not yet have generic approval. That is not a question of making a decision about the involvement of foreign powers or anything like that; whether the reactor gets generic approval for use in UK nuclear markets is just a technical issue. I presume that he would want the nuclear authority to take that line and to give approval, or not, on the technical merits of the Hualong reactor, not on who is running it. That is the issue, however, concerning Bradwell. It has nothing to do with generic commissioning or otherwise; it is a much bigger issue, and he needs to recognise that.

The hon. Member is correct that this is about future nuclear projects, but I stress two things. The original question from the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich was about the future of Bradwell. I am reflecting on the specifics in relation to Bradwell. Of course, nuclear projects going forward are what the Bill is all about, but I will not comment on specific projects potentially going into a RAB process, because that, as we will discover later, is a properly defined process, set out with approvals from the Secretary of State after consultations. The Secretary of State will make essentially two determinations: will the project provide value for money, and is it sufficiently advanced? It would not be proper to comment on whether a specific project that we discuss today will have the ability in future to meet the two most important criteria laid out in the Bill.

Let me say a few extra things about amendment 2. The legislation gives the Secretary of State the power to designate a nuclear company and to modify the company’s licence subsequently to include RAB conditions. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to consider the two criteria that I just mentioned when deciding whether to designate a nuclear project. The two criteria are that the development of a project is sufficiently advanced to justify the designation and that the project is likely to result in value for money.

The amendments seek to include additional criteria for the Secretary of State to consider before designating a project. As I said, amendment 2 requires that a nuclear company may not be owned by a foreign power. I have already raised concerns about the unintended consequences of that for our ability to pursue new nuclear projects in this country.

The Minister is being incredibly generous in giving way, which I appreciate. On the basis of what he just said, could CGN continue to be involved in a future project as long as those two criteria were met for that project, whatever it might be?

The National Security and Investment Act is also involved, so I do not think it would be appropriate for me to prejudge that process. I would ask whether the project is at a sufficiently advanced stage, whether it is likely to result in value for money and also whether it fulfils the other criteria set out in the Government’s current legislative approach.

I will not go over the consequences again. It is enough to say that I think the amendments could threaten our ability to bring forward new nuclear projects, even with our closest international partners. I nevertheless appreciate the attention paid by Opposition Members to the protection of the UK’s core infrastructure; we are wholly aligned on its importance and centrality. Although we welcome inward investment to the UK civil nuclear sector, we recognise the need to ensure that that investment is subject to appropriate scrutiny and is in the interests of our national security.

To reassure Members, I will focus on the robust protections that we have in place to control who invests in our critical infrastructure, which gets to the heart of many of the interventions by Opposition Members. Under the National Security and Investment Act, the Government will have significant oversight of acquisitions of control in a nuclear project.

Significantly, the Government will be able to intervene in any qualifying transaction, including an acquisition that would take the holdings to 25% or more of the shares or votes in an entity, or an acquisition of material influence over an entity. Such qualifying transactions would be subject to a national security assessment and would require the approval of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to proceed. That is a very tough condition on the sort of involvement that is at the heart of the interventions made by Opposition Members.

The Act also provides the Government with the ability to call in any acquisitions for assessment if there are national security concerns. From that assessment, the Secretary of State can order the prevention or alteration of the acquisition. The final funding model of any nuclear project would also be subject to full scrutiny from the UK Government prior to a final investment decision.

As currently drafted, both amendments would appear to violate the commitments we made in article 129 of the trade and co-operation agreement with the European Union, in which we agreed that we would treat investors from the EU no less favourably than UK investors. There may be multiple views within the Committee about that agreement with the European Union—the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun voted against it in the hope of no deal—but those of us who support it believe that that article is important. The discrimination that the amendment appears to propose towards some of our closest partners and operatives in the nuclear sector would therefore be undesirable policy-wise and could put us in a difficult position.

I hope that I have convinced Members that the Government take seriously the need to ensure the security of our nuclear energy assets, including who can invest in them, and that the amendments as currently drafted are not workable. I ask the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to withdraw the amendment.

I thank the Minister for his response. I also very much welcome his opining on the sanctity of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement—a refreshing change.

I agree with the Minister entirely that we are aligned on the importance of national security in our critical national infrastructure, but I am afraid he has not done enough to reassure me. From the argument he made, as long as the two criteria that he spoke to are met, it seems that we could still end up, having passed the Bill, with financing from companies such as China General Nuclear in future UK nuclear projects. Also—this is critical—because of the sequencing agreement that has been spoken about at length and has been agreed already, that would allow China in theory to own, plan, finance and operate a site at Bradwell. We might have not only CGN financing involved, but CGN operation.

I remain unconvinced by what the Minister said about the national security regulation that is in place. In essence, he said, “Trust the Secretary of State when the point of decision comes”, but we do not think that that is enough. We think this should be in the Bill. If he is unhappy with the wording of the amendment, I invite him to propose wording more appropriate to his mind, but that does the job. We will therefore press amendment 2 to a Division—not amendment 1, which is definitional in nature and consequential. I beg to ask leave to withdraw that amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I think we have already had the debate, but I will say briefly that the clause defines the key terms referred to in part 1 of the Bill. Subsection (2) defines a “nuclear company” as one that holds an electricity generation licence granted by the authority for a nuclear energy generation project. The authority is the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, the governing body of Ofgem.

The clause goes on to make a distinction between an ordinary licensed company and one that has been designated by the Secretary of State to benefit from a RAB through having its licence modified by the Secretary of State. Subsection (4) defines a “relevant licensee nuclear company”. To become one such, it is necessary for the company to have had its licence modified by the Secretary of State to insert RAB special conditions and to amend the licence terms. It is also necessary for the company to have entered into a revenue collection contract with a revenue collection counterparty, so that RAB funding may flow to the company’s project.

I appreciate that the Minister has been generous with his time. Will he clarify whether Sizewell C has an electricity generation licence? I could not find that on Ofgem’s website.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that specific issue, perhaps this afternoon. I need to check whether Sizewell C has such a licence. I will get back to him.

Those steps in the clause are necessary to make clear the different stages that a company goes through under the RAB model.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Designation of nuclear company

Amendment proposed: 2, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the nuclear company is not wholly or in part owned by a foreign power.”—(Matthew Pennycook.)

This amendment prevents the Secretary of State designating a nuclear company owned or part-owned by the agents of a foreign power.

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the Secretary of State is of the opinion that the nuclear company is able to complete the nuclear project.”

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to give a view that a designated nuclear company is able to complete the project for which it is designated.

I am grateful to you, Ms Fovargue, for grouping amendment 3 on its own so that we can talk about it in its own right. Like the previous amendment, it seeks to add into the clause the designation of a nuclear company. We have not talked about the designation process, although I am sure we will.

The designation process is where a nuclear company that appears to have an interest in a plant, and has at least taken some steps to develop it beyond the conceptual state, is then given a preferential initial contract and a window—again, we will discuss the timescale of the window later—where it goes through the various processes of modifications of its licence to set itself up to take part in a RAB. It agrees to various things relating to the counterparty in the RAB process and agrees the initial ceiling for allowable costs for the project, which it has at the time of designation brought to a position where work can start to proceed. It is therefore on a track, but not in the RAB process at that point.

We attempted to put a third designation criterion in the clause a moment ago, which states that the designation criteria are that

“the development of the nuclear project is sufficiently advanced to justify the designation of the nuclear company”.

In other words, the project is more than just a drawing board idea. As I am sure the Minister will be painfully aware, we have had a plethora of nuclear projects in this country at various stages of advancement that have fallen by the wayside for various reasons. Some of them were relatively advanced and some were just concepts, but they were all reflected in the original planning documentation in, I think, 2011 in terms of consortia and sites and various other things that were given an overall green light in the planning process. The sites were not designated in the sense we are considering here, for nuclear development, but it is certainly true that a number of the projects suggested for those sites would not have passed the designation test before us today on the work having been done to advance the project.

I take that designation criteria—in subsection (3)(a)—as requiring evidence that the company is serious about its intentions and has started to invest money in some of the preparatory works, that a lot of the paperwork on how the company stands on the project has been completed, and that there is, most importantly, a significant grip on all the elements of the project, such that conclusions could start to be drawn, for example about the general area of allowable costs, in advance of the RAB process itself. That is criterion (a) of the designation criteria.

Criterion (b) is that

“the Secretary of State is of the opinion that designating the nuclear company in relation to the project is likely to result in value for money.”

That is much more challenging. I assume it means that the Secretary of State would want to be satisfied that the resulting power from the plant would be at a reasonable cost, that the company would be able to get its construction done in such a way that value for money would result in the production phase, and that the costs and arrangements for the plant were reasonably curtailed and in good order.

What is missing from the criteria is the big question of whether the company would, in the Secretary of State’s opinion at the time of designation—I appreciate that circumstances can change and so on—be in a good position to be able to complete and deliver the project.

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is going, but where is the fall-back?. The Secretary of State is desperate to get a nuclear deal signed off, so he just signs it off: “Yes, I am of the opinion that this project will be completed.” Ten years down the line, it all falls apart and the project cannot be completed, a bit like the Californian example. What protection would the amendment introduce? It seems that the Secretary of State can just sign this off based on his opinion. If there are repercussions down the line, they do not come back on that Secretary of State.

The hon. Member makes an important point, at least part of which we will discuss when we come to the procedures under which a potentially failed project might be rescued or transferred to other undertakings so that it can be delivered and completed, or if already operating, can continue to operate.

In what circumstances is it conceivable that a nuclear project would be deemed not to have a realistic prospect of completion but at the same time to be value for money?

It is quite possible that the Secretary of State could deem the first two criteria on the basis of work that the company had done to approach designation. However, unless the Secretary of State has in mind the whole picture at the point of designation—in the previous group of amendments, we touched on some of the things concerning the whole picture—it would be possible for him to conclude that, yes, on the basis of the work done so far, the particular mechanisms looked like they might produce, say, value-for-money electricity at a rate per kilowatt-hour that was compatible with market levels of electricity at that point or in the future or with value for money as far as other electricity production is concerned, but he might still not have a handle on whether the undertaking that the nuclear company was about to engage in was sound in the overall, as far as completion was concerned.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun touched on an important lesson in that respect, which ought to be put before the Committee. He mentioned a case in California—it was not quite in California; it was a little way a way, although it began with the same letter. I am talking about the experience of a nuclear power plant in South Carolina in the United States. When I say the experience of a nuclear power plant in South Carolina, I do not mean that—because there is no nuclear plant in South Carolina; there are a bunch of a concrete foundings, walls and various other things that look like a nuclear power station, but it does not operate, it has never produced a single kilowatt of electricity and it remains abandoned.

More significantly, that project not only was abandoned but was commissioned precisely on the sort of criteria that are contained in the Bill. All those things were gone through by the South Carolina legislature, which put in place something remarkably similar to a RAB. Indeed, the bill payers of South Carolina were required to stump up money for the project as it progressed, and I am sure hon. Members will be interested to know just how much money went from the bill payers of South Carolina to that project and how much they got out of it as a result of introducing a RAB model in South Carolina. The answer is nothing. Some £9 billion of customers’ money went into the project, and they will continue to pay for that lump of concrete for the next 20 years in their bills because of the way in which the thing was constructed, all on the basis of agreements that looked pretty similar to what is in the Bill.

What South Carolina did not do was ask serious questions about the resilience of the various partners and companies involved in the project in the light of changing circumstances in terms of the construction of the project and the health of the companies involved. Among other things, costs went through the roof, the timescale increased substantially and one of the companies that was in charge of the project effectively went bust—it called for chapter 11 protection and was therefore unable to continue with the project. All those things could have been foreseen by the South Carolina legislature, but were not. The project went ahead, with the customers footing the bill, as various reviews subsequent to the collapse of the nuclear programme said, on the basis of something that was extremely unlikely to ever come to fruition as a nuclear power plant, not only because of the dodgy nature of the financing of the project but because it had completely unrealistic timescales—those involved expected to produce electricity within six years from the start of production and so on, none of which was properly overseen.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way once more; I am starting to feel like I am on a mission to annoy each contributor—apologies. He makes valid points, and I understand his concerns and what he is trying to do, but I still do not understand how the amendment would preclude such a scenario. Surely, as well as the amendment, the Secretary of State would need to look at a list of criteria, with their sign-off verifying what factors have been considered to reach the opinion that the project is viable. Otherwise, the Secretary of State could just say, “I think this project will be completed—let’s move on.”

Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman is right, to the extent that the amendment does not actually guarantee the success of a project as a result of its placement in the designation clauses. Of course, it is not possible to do that, because changing circumstances can mean that projects cannot come to fruition. The difference the amendment would make is that the Secretary of State would be required to look at all those sorts of things in the overall scheme of things as far as the company and the prospects for success of a particular project are concerned, in such a way that he could form an opinion, which he would undoubtedly have to publish, that he was as satisfied as he could be, having done all that work, that the project had a very high prospect of being completed, and he would have to underwrite that.

One thing I did not say about the South Carolina project is that a lot of it is now the subject of legal action, and various state officials are being hauled up before the courts for their lack of diligence in actually looking at the overall circumstances of the project when they gave the go-ahead on a similar basis to that which we are discussing. If the Secretary of State had to sign off, on the basis of the amendment being in the Bill, that it was all okay and could go ahead, and it turned out that it was not okay and could not go ahead, under circumstances that could have been foreseen, he would then be liable. That is potentially quite an important concentration of the mind, ensuring that the work had been done, as much as it could be done—I accept that it would not be a perfect operation—to ensure that there was a reasonable or good prospect that the company involved could complete the project. That is all the amendment says. It would be an important addition to the designation process.

We need to be clear that, as much as we can do the work, we have done the work in getting the designation clearly marked on the basis that the company really can deliver a nuclear plant and produce electricity for customers. As I have said, we are engaged in a RAB process, which ultimately lands on the customers. We absolutely do not want to ever land the customers of the United Kingdom in the same position that the customers of South Carolina are in today, so far as a nuclear power plant is concerned.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Mark Fletcher.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Judicial Review and Courts Bill (Ninth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Sir Mark Hendrick, Andrew Rosindell

† Barker, Paula (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)

† Cartlidge, James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)

Crawley, Angela (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)

† Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab)

† Daby, Janet (Lewisham East) (Lab)

Fletcher, Nick (Don Valley) (Con)

Hayes, Sir John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)

† Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)

† Johnson, Dr Caroline (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Longhi, Marco (Dudley North) (Con)

McLaughlin, Anne (Glasgow North East) (SNP)

† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Marson, Julie (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)

† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)

† Slaughter, Andy (Hammersmith) (Lab)

† Twist, Liz (Blaydon) (Lab)

Huw Yardley, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 18 November 2021

(Morning)

[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

Judicial Review and Courts Bill

Before we begin, I have a few reminders for the Committee. Please switch any electronic devices to silent. No food or drinks are permitted during sittings of the Committee, except the water provided. Members are expected to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have covid lateral flow tests twice a week before coming to the parliamentary estate. That can be done at home, or if you want to come into the House, you can have it done here. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

Clause 32

Employment Tribunal Procedure Rules

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

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.

The employment dispute resolution system has responded impressively to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Despite the enormous challenges they faced, employment tribunals have now succeeded in returning to pre-covid levels of hearings. I should stress, because we have had a wide-ranging debate about technology and the role of digitisation in the courts, that a key reason for that is that employment tribunals have been among the greatest users of technology in enabling hearings to go forward. However, they still face significant challenges from a growing backlog. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a speedy and efficient process for making and amending rules for the employment tribunals.

Since the establishment of employment tribunals in 1996 under the remit of the now Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, responsibility for the rules and governance of employment tribunals has rested with Ministers in BEIS, as the Department responsible for employment law. This is the only area of the tribunal system where responsibility rests with a Minister in another Department; all other matters heard in the justice system have procedural rules that are the responsibility of independent judicial-led committees or of the Lord Chief Justice.

Clause 32 transfers the powers to make rules for the employment tribunals from the Secretary of State for BEIS to the tribunal procedure committee. It also makes the same committee responsible for rules in the employment appeal tribunal. Being judiciary-led, the TPC is better placed to make these rules. The transfer will allow for the development of a more closely aligned tribunal system. It means that we can respond more quickly when we need to amend procedure rules, for example to help to address the backlog in claims or in circumstances such as the pandemic. Schedule 5, introduced by clause 32, gives the TPC the same powers to make rules for the employment tribunals and the employment appeal tribunal as for the first-tier and upper-tier tribunals, and aligns the rule-making process.

It is important that the TPC has the right knowledge and experience when considering making or amending rules. Schedule 5 provides for two additional members to sit on the TPC. One will be appointed by the Lord Chancellor and will have experience of practice or advising in the employment tribunals and the employment appeal tribunal. The second will be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice and will have experience of sitting in employment tribunals. This will ensure that the TPC can call on the right level of expertise when making decisions.

It is a pleasure to be here again under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. Let me say first that we are not opposed to what the Government are proposing in this clause and, indeed, this part of the Bill, which is largely administrative. There are a few issues that we wish to raise. I think that I can do that logically under this clause and then be very brief—or even silent—on some of the other clauses.

The Minister is right that employment tribunals—industrial tribunals, as they were—go back some years and have a distinct history. In some ways, they were the forerunners of the tribunal system, which has effectively overtaken them in terms of procedure and organisation. Employment tribunals have a broad jurisdiction for employment matters, save in important respects such as their very limited role in breach of contract cases and no role in relation to personal injury. They are administered by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, but are outside the tribunal structure.

As the Minister said, employment tribunals are under either the joint supervision of the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, or the Secretary of State for BEIS. That is anomalous. There have been many attempts over the years to correct and address the issue. Such proposals were made back in the 2001 Leggatt review, so we are catching up after 20 years. There have been various other measures in the interim. The 2004 White Paper proposed a tribunal process that should be separate from both the civil courts and the rest of the tribunal structure. The 2015 Briggs review preferred to put employment tribunals in with the civil courts. A case can be made for either of those options, although the drawback of placing tribunals in the civil court ambit is the lack of provision for lay members. Lay members are an important part of how employment tribunals work, and we would be loth to lose them.

There can also be conflicts of interest. BEIS is quite a substantial employer, and there could be something of a conflict by placing this part of the tribunal system within a non-judicial Department. For all those reasons, and the fact that we have a working TPC, what the Government have proposed seems to have a certain logic. The “but” is—and this is a feature of the Bill generally—that opportunities are being missed.

The Law Commission recommended last year that the Government look at time limits for bringing claims, look again at the issue of breach of contract, which I have already mentioned, and look at the key element of enforcement. Many employees—despite the difficulty of bringing claims, particularly if they have been dismissed or the claims deal with complex issues of law—win their cases and then cannot enforce against the employer. There is nothing to deal with those points. The Minister began by saying he thought the tribunal law system is doing a good job, and the people who work within the employment tribunal system do a very good job. However, they work under a great deal of pressure, and the Government have contributed to that pressure.

We have the debacle over charging for bringing claims, which the Government introduced in 2012-13. Unsurprisingly, to anyone except perhaps the Government, the number of claims fell by two thirds after that. Consequently, they felt able to shut down large parts of the network. The Supreme Court ruled that unlawful and claims began to climb again, although a lot of the damage that was done has not been unpicked. The latest figures I have show that, of the £32 million that was supposed to be repaid to claimants, only £18.5 million has been repaid. That is shocking. It shows that people have been unlawfully deprived of what should rightfully be theirs and that they paid fees that were deemed to be unlawful.

The point here is that, the Government having depressed the level of claims in a dramatic and significant way, and then seeing them rise again, there has been no sufficient response to that. The backlog was down at 22,698 in March 2018, but according to figures from March this year—the Minister may have more recent ones—it is now at 50,287. That has more than doubled in two years. Part of the reason is that there has been no strategic effort to restore the employment tribunal system to what it was before earlier cuts were made. We are not short of suggestions. Last summer, the Employment Lawyers Association produced a long list of what the Government could do: through ACAS; reviewing of the administrative capacity of each tribunal; using standard case management procedures; dealing with case management applications on the papers; using hybrid hearings where accommodation is a problem; improving the provision of legal advice; and allowing multiple claims to be put on one claim form.

I would like to see a number of things in the Bill, and the Minister may be able to address some of these points when he responds. The Minister says the measures will make the process more streamlined, which they may do, but only up to a point. The proposals will address the real, chronic and ongoing problems in the employment tribunal system only to a limited extent. We have the debacle over the fees, where many are deprived of their rights and are unable to bring claims or, after bringing claims, are not refunded the money they are owed. There is a long wait to get to a tribunal—I think the average resolution time is 45 weeks, which is appalling—and we also have those problems with enforcement, even if employees win their case. The system really is in a parlous state. I wish there were measures in the Bill, or elsewhere, to address those issues.

I will respond briefly, because I really would emphasise that the clauses are limited in their impact on employment tribunals. I certainly hope that no one is under the impression that I am pretending they are a wholesale, comprehensive reform of the employment tribunal system. I have in no way implied that.

I welcome the recognition by the hon. Member for Hammersmith that it is, in his words, anomalous that the rule-making powers are held by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. To that extent, I therefore assume he welcomes the transfer. As he said, it certainly makes sense, and there are many positive aspects in its favour. Having more flexibility in the way the rules are made for employment tribunals will enable them to better respond to the backlog and related issues. Of course, that is not in itself enough to drive down the backlog or improve the overall user experience.

The hon. Gentleman asks what other steps the Government are taking. We are recruiting more employment tribunal judges. We also have a very positive initiative called the virtual region, which we estimate will save about 500 sitting days in employment tribunals. It is a virtual region of judges who, because cases are heard online, can sit pretty much anywhere in the country and hear an employment tribunal case anywhere else in the country, underlining how important technology has been.

It is a bit strange that, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings—who is not here this morning—spoke about his desire to revert to in-person hearings and roll back the digital progress we are making, he seemed to get a lot of sympathy from the hon. Member for Hammersmith. If we were to do that in the employment tribunal sphere, we would have a massive backlog, and we would have far more limited means of dealing with it. I am bound to say that we would be reducing access to justice, both for those seeking to bring claims and in terms of the judicial ability to respond with things like the virtual region.

I will not go any further. One should recognise when clauses have a very specific purpose, which these do. The measure is positive and will help us to improve matters and, alongside some of the other things we are doing, it shows we are driving forward a positive agenda for employment tribunals.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 32 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clause 33

Composition of tribunals

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

The clause will make the Lord Chancellor responsible for determining the composition of employment tribunals and employment appeal tribunals through secondary legislation. That duty can be delegated to the Senior President of Tribunals, the President of Employment Tribunals, or the President of Employment Appeal Tribunals. It also sets out a framework within which the Lord Chancellor or the presidents must exercise the power. That is the same approach as in the wider unified tribunal system. The clause will align the approach taken in employment tribunals to those tribunals, and will ensure that panel composition is a judicial function.

That does not mean that we will lose the unique characteristics of employment tribunals, or that we intend to move away from the current structure. Rather, the clause will provide the necessary flexibility to ensure that the composition of an employment tribunal or employment appeal tribunal can be tailored to the needs of users and the complexities of cases. It will mean that the handling of cases can be streamlined while ensuring that tribunals have the right composition to make fair and informed decisions.

Again, we do no oppose the change. I make only one point, which I think the Minister alluded to, but that it may be useful to have on the record. It clearly makes sense to give discretion to the Lord Chancellor in terms of the composition of tribunals, but the distinctive lay element of them has been successful over the years. We would not want the change to alter that. The presumption should be in favour of it, save in circumstances where there are good reasons to derogate from it.

An individual with experience of appearing before employment tribunals and an employment tribunal judge or lay member will be appointed to sit on the committee so that the needs of the wider employment sector continue to be represented in the rule-making process. The tribunal procedure committee is also able to request external expertise to support the development of rules, including a representative to reflect the needs of business.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 33 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Saving for existing procedural provisions

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

The clause ensures that existing procedure regulations and rules, including for tribunal composition, are not automatically revoked by these measures. That means that cases will continue to be dealt with under existing procedure rules until the TPC makes new procedure rules. Cases will continue to be heard by panels made up of the existing composition until the Lord Chancellor makes new regulations. That will allow the transition between the existing provisions and new employment tribunal procedure rules to be managed appropriately.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 35

Exercise of tribunal functions by authorised persons

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

The introduction of legal case officers has played a valuable role in helping employment tribunals to tackle the demands of the pandemic. They free up judicial time by allowing straightforward non-contentious administrative decisions to be made by legal case officers under the supervision of an employment judge. The clause will align an employment tribunal’s power of delegation to legal case officers with the wider tribunal system. It will also allow the TPC to make rules for legal case officers. The decisions of legal case officers are always reviewable by the judiciary, and that will remain the case.

We do not oppose the clause. There is always a hesitancy in transferring powers from a judiciary to a lay or administrative officer. As the Minister says, it is done in other parts of the tribunal system. We just wish for reassurance that it will be kept under review, and that where changes are made—I am talking about the system, rather than individual cases—we will look at it again, and ensure that it is working properly and that applicants are not disadvantaged in any way by the changes.

Yes, that is a fair point. Judicial functions can be delegated to HMCTS staff across tribunals and the wider civil justice system, including in employment tribunals, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged. The Bill gives the tribunal procedure committee the same powers to make employment tribunal rules on judicial delegation as it has for the unified tribunals, so that it is consistent. This will allow for the creation of harmonised tribunal rules and greater alignment across the tribunal system. We always keep all matters under review. This positive change is in keeping with the way the wider unified tribunal system works.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 35 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36

Responsibility for remunerating tribunal members

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

This is the final clause related to employment tribunals. As a consequence of the history of the establishment of employment tribunals, authority for the remuneration of pay and expenses for employment tribunal judges currently rests with BEIS, in contrast to the remainder of the tribunal system, where responsibility for the remuneration of panel members sits with the Lord Chancellor. The clause will transfer responsibility for that remuneration from BEIS to the Lord Chancellor, bringing employment tribunals in line with the wider tribunal system.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 36 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Discontinuance of investigation where cause of death becomes clear

I beg to move amendment 69, in clause 37, page 49, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) After subsection (2), insert—

(2A) The coroner is not to decide that the investigation should be discontinued unless—

(a) the coroner is satisfied that no outstanding evidence that is relevant to the death is available,

(b) the coroner has considered whether Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is engaged and is satisfied that it is not,

(c) there are no ongoing investigations by public bodies into the death,

(d) the coroner has invited and considered representations from any interested person known to the coroner named at section 47 (2)(a) or (b) of this Act, and

(e) all interested persons known to the coroner named at section 47 (2)(a) or (b) of this Act consent to discontinuation of the investigation.”.

This amendment would ensure that certain safeguards are met before a coroner can discontinue an investigation into a death.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 70, in clause 37, page 49, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) After subsection (2), insert—

(2B) If a coroner is satisfied that subsection (1) applies and has complied with the provisions at subsection (2A)(a) to (d), prior to discontinuing the investigation, the coroner must—

(a) inform each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act of the coroner’s intended decision and provide a written explanation as to the reasons for this intended decision,

(b) explain to each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act that the investigation may only be discontinued if all such interested persons consent, and

(c) invite each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act to consent to the discontinuation of the investigation.”.

This amendment would ensure that family members and personal representatives of the deceased are provided with the coroner’s provisional reasons for why the coroner considers that the investigation should be discontinued, to ensure that family members can make an informed decision as to whether to consent to the discontinuation.

Amendment 71, in clause 37, page 49, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) Omit subsection (4) and insert—

(4) A senior coroner who discontinues an investigation into a death under this section must—

(a) as soon as practicable, notify each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act of the discontinuation of the investigation and provide a written explanation as to why the investigation was discontinued, and

(b) if requested to do so in writing by an interested person, give to that person as soon as practicable a written explanation as to why the investigation was discontinued.”.

This amendment would ensure that family members are informed in writing for the reasons for a discontinuation of an investigation, without being required to request this information.

Amendment 72, in clause 37, page 49, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) Section 43 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (Coroners regulations) is amended as follows.

(5) In subsection (3) after paragraph (a) insert—

“(aa) provision for the establishment of an appeals process for interested persons who disagree with the decision to discontinue an investigation under the provision in section 4 of this Act.”.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure the Lord Chancellor establishes an appeal process for families who disagree with the decision to discontinue an investigation.

We now come to the part of the Bill that deals with coroners, to which we have tabled a number of amendments and new clauses. We appreciate that the clauses in the part of the Bill we have just discussed, and indeed in other parts of the Bill, are very much a template for the Government to take forward procedural changes to parts of the courts and tribunal systems. We essentially have two things to say about that.

First, we are not against any of that per se, particularly where the aim is to make what is proposed more streamlined, efficient and economical. However, we must look at safeguards, because often in the process, as we have seen in earlier parts of the Bill on criminal procedure and online procedure, there can be dangers to current users of the system that need to be addressed. Secondly, as addressed in our new clauses, the Government are not short of advice on improvements to the coronial system, including most recently through the report of the Justice Committee, which we debated in Westminster Hall, but many opportunities for improvement simply have not been taken. We highlight some of those around representation, and vulnerable representation, which we will come on to. That is disappointing, given that that report is only the latest in a whole series, going back to Tom Luce’s report in 2003—although there are many more recent than that—that have drawn attention to the limitations and the need for improvements in the coroners system. We just wish that there was more to address that, either in the Government’s response to the Justice Committee report or in the Bill.

I thank some of the organisations that provided briefings to us, including Justice, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and, principally, Inquest, which I will say a bit more about when we debate the new clauses. It has been an outstanding organisation in representing, and fighting the cases of, bereaved families for many years.

I have concerns about clauses 37 to 39. Clause 37 will broaden the circumstances in which coroners can discontinue investigations, Clause 38 gives coroners powers to hold inquests in writing, and clause 39 enables the wider use of remote hearings, including the power to hold remote hearings with juries. I will argue that the increase in discretion to discontinue investigations in clause 37 risks important evidence not being tested and complex cases not being publicly scrutinised. I will describe the lack of evidence to support the introduction of clauses 37 to 39 and how evidence instead suggests the need for careful safeguards to ensure that proper investigation and scrutiny is permitted where necessary, with due weight given to the wishes of the family. I will also argue that the Bill should be amended to include provision on public funding for bereaved families at inquests where state bodies are involved.

Chapter 4 deals with coroners and suggests that it will improve the efficiency of the service in the light of the backlogs in coroners’ courts due to the pandemic. The measures in clauses 37 and 38 were recently recommended by the Chief Coroner in his 2020 annual report. I am not aware of some other cause or evidence— the Minister may want to point me to some—for these measures to be introduced. It is notable that none of the conclusions or recommendations in the Justice Committee’s May 2021 report on the coroner service provides any justification for these measures, despite the Committee’s detailed analysis of the current state of the coronial system. It is extremely concerning that the argument that these measures are needed to address the covid-19 backlog of cases in the coroners’ courts is unevidenced, especially given the strong argument that the measures will lead to corners being cut and crucial opportunities for hearing and scrutinising evidence missed.

In its report, the Justice Committee found there to be

“unacceptable variation in the standard of service between Coroner areas.”

In the absence of a national coroner service, which the Committee recommended but the Government have refused, a central concern is the widespread inconsistency in approach by individual coroners in relation to all aspects of the inquest process—a postcode lottery, in other words.

The hon. Gentleman has twice referred to the backlog in coroners’ courts caused by the pandemic. Can I be absolutely clear? Does he accept that the pandemic has had a very significant impact on the backlog in the coroners’ courts?

The pandemic has had a substantial effect on almost every aspect of our waking lives and on backlogs throughout the court system. That does not abrogate the Government from responsibility for dealing with the backlog so called, or indeed for other reasons why backlogs have been building up in the system over that time.

I mentioned Tom Luce’s fundamental review, in which he wrote:

“The phrase we have heard more than any other during the Review is ‘the coroner is a law unto himself’. Virtually every interest has complained of inconsistency and unpredictability between coroners in the handling of inquests”.

Clauses 37 and 38 will further entrench levels of coronial discretion and inconsistency, adding yet more challenges for bereaved families forced to navigate the inquest system. The Government have not evidenced how these measures will address the stated problem of reducing the backlog of cases in coroners’ courts. The latest statistics on the coroner service indicate an 18% rise in deaths in state detention. Many of those cases are complex, meaning that these provisions are unlikely to apply.

Let me deal specifically with amendment 69 and amendments 70 to 72, with which it has been grouped. Clause 37 broadens the circumstances in which a coroner might discontinue an investigation into a death. The current law, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, holds that where a coroner has commenced an investigation, they must proceed to an inquest unless the cause of death becomes clear in a post-mortem examination. The Government claim that is a costly and unnecessary step where the cause of death may become clear through other means, such as medical records. As such, clause 37 will amend section 4 of the 2009 Act to allow for an investigation to be discontinued if the coroner is satisfied that the cause of death is clear, thus removing reference to a post-mortem as a necessary requirement for discontinuing an investigation. If the investigation is discontinued, the coroner cannot then hold an inquest into the death unless fresh evidence later comes to light or a successful challenge is brought to the decision.

There are a number of concerns about that, and about the implications of the Bill for inquests and bereaved families. Amendment 69 seeks to address three main issues: the need to test evidence; what happens in article 2 cases; and the need to safeguard the wishes of families.

On the need to test evidence, I am concerned that clause 37 would allow a coroner to discontinue an inquest based on evidence that could change if tested. The current wording states that a coroner must discontinue an investigation into an individual’s death if they are

“satisfied that the cause of death has become clear in the course of the investigation”.

While the Chief Coroner states in his 2020 annual report that such a provision could include evidence such as medical records, the Bill itself does not clarify the types of evidence that could be used, and effectively allows any evidence obtained during the investigation to be used to justify discontinuance, without the opportunity for it to be challenged at a later stage.

Clause 37 therefore requires amendment to set out a series of safeguards to be met before an investigation into a death is discontinued. Such an amendment should ensure that investigations are not terminated prematurely where there may be evidence that could change once tested.

My second point, regarding article 2 cases, can be illustrated well by the case of Laura Booth. Laura sadly died on 19 October 2016 at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield. Laura went into hospital for a routine eye procedure, but in hospital she became unwell and developed malnutrition due to inadequate management of her nutritional needs. The coroner overseeing the investigation into Laura’s death was initially not planning to hold an inquest because the death was seen to be from natural causes. However, Laura’s family and BBC journalists fought for the coroner to hold an inquest.

The inquest reached the hard-hitting conclusion that Laura’s death was contributed to by neglect. A prevention of future deaths report issued by the coroner to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital noted serious concerns about the staff’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and recommended that families should be better consulted in best-interests meetings.

If clause 37 had been applied to that case before evidence brought by Laura’s family and journalists was properly scrutinised, there may never have been an inquest hearing. The serious failings in Laura’s case would never have been brought to light and a prevention of future deaths report, which serves a significant public interest in attempting to stop similar deaths occurring in the future, would not have been published.

We ought also to consider the case of A, who died in hospital. A, who was admitted to hospital as a voluntary patient, had learning difficulties and a history of mental ill health. A’s family waited several years for the inquest into A’s death to begin. Prior to that, A’s death was believed to be from natural causes, meaning that it would not have been subject to an inquest. However, A’s family worked with lawyers who successfully argued that the case engaged article 2 and that an inquest should be held. Consequently, the coroner found that A’s death was not in fact natural but that there were major failures in treatment and a missed opportunity to provide proper care. Had the coroner been able to discontinue the inquest prior to considering whether article 2 was engaged, we believe it unlikely that the case would have proceeded to a full inquest hearing.

The consequences of clause 37 that I have outlined could have a significant impact in cases involving the death of an individual in the community who was receiving state support, or a so-called natural causes death of a detained person. While such cases are often viewed as non-contentious and believed not to require an inquest, it is common for evidence to emerge during the process to suggest that further scrutiny is required. These cases are often borderline article 2 cases, meaning there has been some argument over whether the case breaches the operational or systemic duty to safeguard the right to life under the Human Rights Act.

Where article 2 is found to be engaged, the scope of an inquest is widened to include an investigation of the wider circumstances of the death. If clause 37 were used in such cases and an inquest hearing discontinued, there would be no hope of renewing submissions on article 2 if evidence were to emerge, as it often does, that engaged it. Clause 37 therefore must be amended to ensure that the coroner has considered whether article 2 is engaged and is satisfied that it is not.

The last point that I want to raise about clause 37 is the importance of the consent of bereaved families. The clause includes no safeguards that would ensure that the coroner has invited and considered submissions from bereaved families and asked for their consent to discontinue the investigation. Some of those considerations are included in clause 38, which we will come to in a moment, so it is not clear why they are not set out in clause 37. We believe that this inconsistency must be addressed, and clause 37 amended, to ensure that the wishes of bereaved families are taken into account in the decision by the coroner and that the family have an ultimate veto on the decision to discontinue an inquest.

Amendment 69 would act as a safeguard to ensure that investigations are not terminated prematurely where there may be evidence that could change once tested. The amendment aims to ensure that an investigation into a death is not discontinued before all available evidence, including that which might be disclosed as a result of investigations by public bodies, has been explored. It would also ensure that the possibility of article 2 being engaged is fully considered, that the wishes of the family are taken into account in the decision by the coroner, and that the family have an ultimate veto on the decision to discontinue.

Inquests have a vital role for bereaved family members in understanding the circumstances of their loved one’s death. Clause 37 risks undermining that role. Bereaved families should have an ultimate veto on a decision to discontinue an investigation, and amendment 69 provides a mechanism for ensuring that the wishes of the bereaved family and personal representatives of the deceased are properly considered and respected, which would help to ensure that a family member’s concerns about the death are made available to the coroner.

In addition, it is key that bereaved families can make informed decisions about whether to consent to an investigation being discontinued. Bereaved families should be fully informed of the reasons a coroner considers that the cause of death has become clear. Amendment 70 would build on amendment 69 in introducing new subsection (2B) to section 4 of the Coroners and Justice Act. That would ensure that family members and personal representatives of the deceased are provided with a coroner’s provisional reasons for considering that the investigation should be discontinued, thus helping family members to make an informed decision on whether to consent to the discontinuation.

If the amendments are not accepted, the Coroners and Justice Act should be amended to ensure that family members and personal representatives of the deceased are always informed of the reason for a coroner’s decision to discontinue an investigation. The Justice working party’s report into inquests and inquiries found that often bereaved families are not uniformly given reasons for the decision to discontinue an investigation. That can leave families confused and unsure whether to challenge the decision.

Section 4(4) of the Coroners and Justice Act requires senior coroners to provide an interested person reasons in writing for the discontinuation of an investigation only if requested to do so. Given that clause 37 introduces a theoretically unlimited number of situations where an investigation could be discontinued, and the difficulties that many bereaved families have in engaging with the inquest process, amendment 71 seeks to ensure that family members are informed in writing of the reasons for the discontinuation of an investigation without being required to request that information.

I turn to amendment 72. A family may have a legitimate reason not to agree with a decision to discontinue an investigation. Currently, a coroner’s decision can be challenged only at the High Court. That can be expensive and time consuming for bereaved families. Instead, there should be an easily accessible appeal process for families who want an investigation to continue. I imagine that the Government will have little objection to that, given their efforts in recent weeks to set up an appeal process for MPs—unless the Government think that they should have more bites of the cherry than families at inquests, who do not even have one right of appeal. That is an anomaly in the system, which was addressed in the Justice Committee’s report. The Government show no inclination at the moment to agree to it, but the Minister may have news for us.

The experience of the family of Noreen Clements shows why an appeal process could be so important for bereaved families. Mrs Clements suffered a fractured pelvis after falling in hospital, and died two weeks later. Despite the family’s belief that the fall contributed to her death, it was not recorded by the doctors who completed the medical cause of death. Mrs Clements’ family were fortunate that the coroner listened to their concerns and instructed an independent expert, who eventually agreed with the family. That resulted in changes being made to the hospital’s procedures. Under the Government’s proposals, another coroner may have been satisfied with the medical cause of death. The investigation may have been discontinued before an inquest could be held, leaving the family without the answers that they needed and missing a learning opportunity for the hospital. An appeal process could help to ensure that that does not happen.

In the Bill, the Government are repeatedly tightening and closing, and pushing to reduce, the service that is currently available and move a large section of it online. There has to be a level of compensation that comes with that change. I argue that the Government should consider it coming in the form of a proper appeal process for families. Amendment 72 would ensure that the Lord Chancellor establishes an appeal process for families who disagree with a decision to discontinue an investigation.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a number of interesting points. Some of them go quite a bit wider than the clause before us, although he did enter the caveat that, given the importance of this clause, he was making some broader points, and I think that is fair. Taken together, these provisions are very important in terms of the coronial court. They do address matters relating to streamlining and ultimately, therefore, the backlog; and before I go into the specific points that he raised, some of which were very sensitive and very important, I want to talk about the backlog.

What the hon. Gentleman said was incredibly important. He specifically acknowledged that covid is responsible in large part—or however he wants to couch it—for the backlog in the coroners’ courts, and he is absolutely right. Let us be absolutely clear about this: social distancing has had a dramatic impact in the courts, particularly where juries are concerned. That is true in the Crown court. It is true in the coronial court. It is simple maths. The coroners’ buildings were not designed suddenly to have a rule about 2 metres, which was there, after all, for everyone’s public health benefit. The coroner’s house in Sunderland, for example, has capacity for, I believe, 54 persons in the courtroom. With social distancing, it had 11, so it does not take a great leap of imagination to work out how much harder it would have been to dispose of cases with a jury.

In support of the Minister’s point, I can say that during my visit to a Crown court last week, there were five defendants who would normally be sat in the same dock in the courtroom, but because of social distancing, a separate courtroom and separate dock are having to be used just to hold the extra defendants, which means, of course, that that courtroom cannot be used for anything else.

Ah! I asked because my hon. Friend is obviously a Lincolnshire MP. She is absolutely right. Since I got this job—I have been in post only a matter of weeks—I have visited Crown courts and magistrates courts around the country, and to someone who has not been to one recently, it is very striking to go to a Crown court and see the limitations caused by social distancing. We are trying to deal with those, but it has been a job of work to deal with them.

I just wonder whether my hon. Friend could update me on what work he is doing with the Department of Health and Social Care to alleviate some of these restrictions. Now that we sit next to one another in, for example, the House of Commons Chamber, is the social distancing measure still required?

There are some very good examples. There are one or two that we are working on at the moment, which I will go into more detail about at the appropriate moment. But the most important thing by far is that many existing courtrooms in the Crown court have come back into use as social distancing has reduced. For example, I was visiting Highbury magistrates, where the maximum number of people in the building had been lifted, because, for example, when people arrive to be allocated to cases—there are all kinds of reasons why we have lots of people in a court building—the capacity in itself becomes a significant constraint.

I appreciate that this provision is about coroners, but what I am describing is fundamental to the current debate. I could not care less, frankly, what people say on Twitter. They are all predetermined—there is not a single swing voter out there. But the Labour party has now strongly put forward a message, effectively, that the backlog in the Crown court is not because of covid but because of this Government. I find that wholly disingenuous. It is not only inaccurate—the hon. Member for Stockton North is shaking his head. It is not only inaccurate; it therefore conveys a false sense of the reality on the ground.

Let me give a statistical example. On 31 December 2009, the outstanding case load—what we have generally come to call the backlog, although there is always an outstanding case load—was 47,713. In December 2019, it was 38,291. Surprise, surprise: when courts were closed because of social distancing and jury trials suspended—although we restored them as quickly as possible—that figure shot up. It created a huge bottleneck. And we still have those problems. It really matters what we say on this, because people must understand the extent to which the pandemic has hit our ability to dispose of cases, because obviously it therefore dictates the solutions. On this side, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, that has meant, for example, trying to lift restrictions where we can, which I think is very important. Therefore I am grateful that, in the matter of coronial courts, the hon. Member for Hammersmith has put on the record his recognition of the impact of covid on the backlog.

The sensitivity of this is pretty clear. We have suddenly veered off to talk about backlogs in the Crown court. There will be ample opportunity to debate those matters in future. The relationship between backlogs and covid is a complicated one. No one is saying, clearly, that covid has not put pressure on the courts system—that would be bizarre—but the Minister is misinterpreting what I said. The Government have two responsibilities here. First, they must look at their responsibility for the extraordinary cuts in justice budgets that occurred post 2010, long before covid was ever thought of. For a whole raft of reasons to do with lack of legal aid, court availability because of court closures and so on—the Minister knows all the arguments—we have put ourselves in that vulnerable position, as we did in other areas, such as the NHS. The fact that the court service, including the coronial service, is in a parlous state is at the door of the Government—the Minister was not there, but his colleagues were in government during that time. So, first, they must take responsibility for that. Secondly, they must now take responsibility for reducing backlogs, whether they were caused by covid or were pre-existing before covid. Trying to exculpate himself from that, he does himself no service.

I look forward to debating that further. Labour have pulled their Opposition day debate on the backlog twice, one of which was for good reason, given the business that the House was debating. I will be delighted if they have an Opposition day debate on the backlog at their next opportunity, because it is important to stress the very positive things that the Government are doing.

The reason I made that point is that the whole purpose of the provisions is to streamline the courts in the coronial system, so of course it matters if the hon. Member for Hammersmith accepts covid causation in the coronial courts backlog and yet, for political reasons, the Opposition’s central message on backlog in the Crown courts magically does not relate to social distancing measures that have been so profoundly challenging to holding jury trials in particular and for cases with multiple defendants. But there we are. All I would add is that if he wants to go back to 2010, bring it on in that debate, because we know what their plans would have been had they got into government. He should always remember that.

On the specific points, I have great sympathy for those families who have had stressful cases in the coronial court or had cases in which they were disappointed with what happened. Obviously, as a Minister, I cannot comment on the specific cases raised by the hon. Gentleman. Those are determined by our independent judiciary, which is an important part of our constitution, but I sympathise with the families. Bereavement is an inherently distressing experience, we can all agree, and in part that is why we are trying where possible to address and reduce that anxiety with the measures in the Bill. For example, in this clause we are trying to reduce some of the bureaucracy that can come with bereavement.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith made a couple of other specific points about coroners’ courts and the Justice Committee report. He was recently a member of that Select Committee, and I pay tribute to his work on it, and to the Committee more broadly under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). Recently, I spoke about such matters at length in a Westminster Hall debate on coroners, but to be absolutely clear, we have accepted six of the recommendations made by the Justice Committee in its report on coroners published in May. To enact some in the Bill is incredible timing—to have Committee recommendations in a Bill within six months. The obvious example is clause 41, dealing with the merger of coroner areas, which we shall come on to.

The other important specific point that I wish to make is on safeguards. Again, the hon. Member for Hammersmith is absolutely right. As I have said throughout the Committee’s proceedings, streamlining measures—generally technological, but not always, as some might be in procedure or when a hearing is held and so on— are there to improve efficiency, and in itself that can actually help families. For example, if we reduce the need to hold an inquest, particularly because it has proven to be unnecessary because the cause of death was natural causes, that can remove some of the bureaucracy that can be faced by a bereaved family.

If those safeguards exist, as the Minister says, why are they not on the face of the Bill? They are, at least in part, in clause 38, which we are going on to discuss, so why would the Minister not accept some or all of the safeguards that we propose?

I will be addressing all the points, but the hon. Gentleman is right: clause 38 contains very significant safeguards.

The intention behind clause 37 is to provide coroners with the flexibility to discontinue an investigation into a death where a death from natural causes has become clear through means other than a post-mortem examination. It is intended that the clause will negate the need for unnecessary procedures and processes, freeing up capacity and resources for the coroner to concentrate on more complex cases. The clause should be read along with section 4 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which it amends.

Amendment 69 proposes to introduce additional safeguards into clause 37, as discussed, by requiring additional conditions when a coroner seeks to discontinue an investigation into a death where the cause of death becomes clear in the course of investigation, which typically will be where medical evidence shows that the death was from natural causes. The safeguards include a requirement that the coroner seek consent from interested persons before discontinuing such an investigation. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, I would like to assure him that the amendment is not necessary. The 2009 Act already provides the safeguards that the amendment seeks to include in the Bill. Section 4 of the Act sets out instances where the coroner may not discontinue an investigation, which include violent or unnatural deaths, or deaths in custody or other state detention.

I also remind the hon. Gentleman that coroners are independent judicial office holders, and the way that they carry out investigations and inquests is a matter for them. Introducing a requirement for the coroner to seek consent from interested persons before making judicial decisions would be not only fettering their discretion but would, in effect, remove the decision from the coroner—that is, the judge, which is what they ultimately are—into the hands of an interested person or a number of interested persons. That is at odds with the most fundamental principle of judicial proceedings, which is that only the judge or the jury makes the decisions, having listened to all the arguments without fear or favour. We must be mindful that while interested persons have certain rights at the inquest, they do not control the inquest process or its investigations. That is for the coroner alone to determine, as a judicial office holder.

I would like to assure the Committee that in his capacity as judicial head of the coroner service, the Chief Coroner will provide guidance to coroners accompanying all changes, which we expect coroners will follow.

Amendment 70 proposes that the coroner gives interested persons an explanation as to why they are considering discontinuing an investigation, to enable them to make an informed decision about whether to consent to the discontinuance of the investigation. Section 4 of the 2009 Act, which clause 37 amends, already provides that a senior coroner must, on request, provide a rationale for the discontinuance of an investigation. We expect the coroner to work sensitively with bereaved families to address any concerns that they may have regarding the investigation into their loved one’s death. However, as I have said, the decision on the direction of the investigation, including consideration of any discontinuance, must be for the coroner alone. In any event, section 4 has a narrow remit. It is to permit the discontinuance of an investigation where natural causes are found to be the reason for the death, and not in any other instances. Every day, coroners make the decision not to investigate deaths reported to them that they determine are of natural causes. Section 4 expressly prohibits the coroner from discontinuing an investigation where the coroner has reason to suspect that the deceased died a violent or unnatural death, or died while in custody or otherwise in state detention. That position remains unchanged.

Amendment 71 goes slightly further and proposes to set out in primary legislation a requirement for the coroner to provide to the bereaved family a written explanation of why they have decided to discontinue an investigation, regardless of whether a request has been received from the bereaved family. As I have said, section 4 of the 2009 Act already provides that the coroner must provide a written explanation for discontinuing an investigation on request. We consider that that ensures that only family members who actually require the information will receive it, and that additional work is not required of the coroner when it is not needed. After all, these are streamlining measures. The Government’s intention behind the measures on coroners in the Bill is to reduce unnecessary procedures in coroners’ courts and unnecessary distress to bereaved families. The amendment runs counter to the Government’s intentions and would add additional administrative process to the system. Providing such information unsolicited could also unintentionally distress bereaved families, although I am not suggesting that that is the hon. Gentleman’s intention.

Finally, amendment 72 would require a separate appeals process to be established for bereaved families who would like to challenge a coroner’s decision to discontinue an investigation into the death of their loved one. Although I understand that the hon. Gentleman wishes to ensure that bereaved families have recourse to appeal if they are not happy with the coroner’s decision, I must remind him that there is already a route for bereaved families to challenge a coroner’s decision by seeking judicial review of the decision. In 2020, there were just 20 judicial reviews against coroners’ decisions, of which five got permission and two were successful at hearing.

Additionally, an individual may apply to the High Court, with the permission of the Attorney General, for an investigation to be carried out if the coroner has not held one, or for a fresh investigation to be held, for example if new evidence comes to light. The High Court will allow a fresh investigation only if it would be in the interests of justice, but importantly, there is no time limit for making such an application, which of course is not the case with judicial review. We therefore do not think it appropriate to set up a seemingly freestanding, separate appeals process to deal with this single element of coroners’ judicial decision making.

I hope that I have adequately addressed the hon. Gentleman’s concern and assured him that appropriate safeguards are in place. On that basis, I urge him to withdraw the amendments.

That was a disappointing response from the Minister. I was looking for any or all of the following: an explanation of why there are not safeguards in the clause that go beyond what is in the 2009 Act; perhaps acceptance of some, if not all, of the suggestions that we have made; and at least reassurances that the Government will look at mitigation. It is undeniable that the effect of the processes set out in this part of the Bill is to make it more difficult for bereaved families to be active participants in the process when all the evidence is that we should be taking steps to facilitate that.

The Minister mentioned the recommendations of the Justice Committee. I can tell him that the Justice Committee was extremely disappointed with the Government’s response. I will not go into that in detail now—it is outside the scope of these amendments—but I will quote from the debate that we had recently in Westminster Hall:

“I counted at least seven major omissions from the Government’s response, and many of them have been mentioned already…One is the provision of non-means tested legal aid,”

which we are coming on to.

“One is appeals on coroners’ decisions. One is the issue of pathologists’ fees. One is the national coroner service, which the report recommends. One is the inspectorate, which the report recommends. One is a complaints procedure. The last is the independent office.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 216WH.]

The significance of that is that, individually and collectively, those recommendations of the Justice Committee were trying to give some consistency and rigour to the way that coroners’ decisions are made. The reason I quoted Tom Luce was to point out that inconsistency has been the constant complaint over the years. Coroners, in a way that is not typical of the courts and tribunal system, can produce very anomalous responses to families in that situation.

The Government have chosen not to bring forward responses on the issues that I have mentioned that were raised in the Justice Committee report, and they have been generally quite negative about them, while not ruling all of them out. However, at the very least, we need the very specific safeguards that I have mentioned. Having heard everything that the Minister has said, we will press amendments 69 and 72 to a vote. I will not oppose the clause outright, but those amendments are, frankly, the least that is necessary to offer the safeguards that we have indicated.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 72, in clause 37, page 49, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) Section 43 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (Coroners regulations) is amended as follows.

(5) In subsection (3) after paragraph (a) insert—

‘(aa) provision for the establishment of an appeals process for interested persons who disagree with the decision to discontinue an investigation under the provision in section 4 of this Act.’”—(Andy Slaughter.)

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure the Lord Chancellor establishes an appeal process for families who disagree with the decision to discontinue an investigation.

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

Over the past year, the coronial system has shown great resilience in how it has coped with the impacts of the pandemic in ensuring that death investigations have continued as far as possible. I pay tribute to our coroners and all of those who work in the coronial system. We are, however, aware that a considerable number of inquests have been delayed due to the pandemic restrictions, and coroners, along with the Chief Coroner, are looking at post-pandemic plans to ensure that the system recovers.

We expect that the coronial measures introduced in the Bill will play a major role in the coronial system’s post-pandemic recovery, as they will reduce unnecessary procedures in coroner’s courts. This will provide capacity to coroners as they address inquest backlogs in their courts. The Government’s priority remains to ensure that bereaved families are at the heart of the coronial process. The measures in the Bill support this priority. Reducing unnecessary procedures in coroner’s courts will reduce the distress of bereaved families. Clause 37 gives the coroner the flexibility to discontinue an investigation where the cause of death becomes clear and it has been revealed through means other than a post-mortem examination.

Where the cause of death has become clear otherwise than through a post-mortem examination, clause 37 will negate the need for the investigation to proceed to an inquest, reducing the distress for bereaved families. The clause does not remove the statutory requirement for a coroner's investigation into deaths in custody or other state detention to proceed to an inquest. Inquests into such deaths will still be required to take place as usual. We expect that the Chief Coroner will issue further guidance on this and the other coronial measures to ensure consistency of approach across the coroner areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 37 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 38

Power to conduct non-contentious inquests in writing

I beg to move amendment 73, in clause 38, page 50, line 18, after “hearing” insert—

“(e) the coroner has considered the views of any of the interested persons named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act who are known to the coroner,

“(f) all of the interested persons named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act who are known to the coroner consent to a hearing in writing.”

This amendment will ensure that inquests are not held without a hearing if that is against the wishes of the deceased’s family.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 10—Publicly funded legal representation for bereaved people at inquests

‘(1) Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (1), after “(4)” insert “or (7).”

(3) After subsection (6), insert—

“(7) This subsection is satisfied where—

(a) The services consist of advocacy at an inquest where the individual is an Interested Person pursuant to section 47(2)(a), (b), or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 because of their relationship to the deceased; and

(b) One or more public authorities are Interested Persons in relation to the inquest pursuant to section 47(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 or are likely to be designated as such.

(8) For the purposes of this section “public authority” has the meaning given by section 6(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998.””

This new clause would ensure that bereaved people (such as family members) are entitled to publicly funded legal representation in inquests where public bodies (such as the police or a hospital trust) are legally represented.

New clause 11—Removal of the means test for legal help prior to inquest hearing

‘(1) Schedule 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.

(2) In paragraph 41, after sub-paragraph (3), insert—

“(4) For the purposes of this paragraph, the “Financial resources” provisions at section 21 (and in The Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013 do not apply.””

This new clause would remove the means test for legal aid applications for legal help for bereaved people at inquests.

New clause 12—Eligibility for bereaved people to access legal aid under existing provisions

‘(1) Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (4)(a), after “family”, insert—

“or where the individual is an Interested Person pursuant to section 47(2)(m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 because of their relationship with the deceased.”

(3) In subsection (6), after paragraph (c), insert—

“(d) or they fall within any of the groups named at section 47 (2)(a), (b) or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.”

(4) Schedule 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.

(5) In paragraph 41, after sub-paragraph (3)(c), insert—

“(d) or they fall within any of the groups named at section 47 (2)(a), (b) or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.””

This new clause would bring the Legal, Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 into line with the definition of family used in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

As we move on to clause 38, I will speak to amendment 73 and the three new clauses about legal aid for representation and other matters.

Clause 38 gives coroners the power to hold inquests in writing where they decide that a hearing is unnecessary. Currently, rule 23 of the coroners’ rules allows for documentary inquests to take place, where no witnesses are required to give evidence but a hearing must still take place. Clause 38 would change that by creating a new section 9C to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, allowing a coroner to hold an inquest entirely in writing. New section 9C does include a list of considerations that the coroner must make before deciding to hold an inquest in writing. They include ensuring that all interested persons have been invited to make submissions; considering whether an interested person has put forward “reasonable grounds” for a hearing to take place; and determining that there is no public interest in holding a hearing.

The key concern with clause 38 is that there may be circumstances in which the bereaved family wants an inquest with a hearing but a coroner deems one unnecessary. Other interested persons invited to make representations may argue against a hearing. Holding an inquest in writing in this context could deprive the family of the opportunity to explore all available evidence and limit their ability to scrutinise the account provided by relevant authorities, including by hearing oral evidence and questioning key witnesses.

It is acknowledged that clause 38 provides some safeguards in this regard. However, we believe that those safeguards are insufficient. For instance, clause 38 does not mention the need to consider the bereaved family’s wishes in terms and there is no guarantee that they will be given any weight in the coroner’s ultimate decision. Therefore, it is not clear that a family’s wishes would constitute the reasonable grounds needed to decide against conducting an inquest in writing. The current drafting of the Bill leaves a wide discretion to individual coroners to determine whether reasonable grounds for a hearing have been made out by a family.

Further, at the point where a family would be invited to make representations to the coroner on whether an inquest should or should not be held in writing, many families would not necessarily have legal representation to support them in making their views heard. That would put families at a disadvantage in comparison with other interested persons with the benefit of legal teams who were also invited to make representations and argue against a hearing.

I will refer to a particular case; my purpose is to illustrate the argument rather than deal with the specifics of the individuals concerned. Jessica died on 16 October 2020 at a women’s crisis centre called Link House. Jessica had mental ill health and had suffered from an eating disorder and depression for most of her adult life. The inquest into Jessica’s death was originally listed as a rule 23 documentary inquest. However, given emerging evidence that there were serious problems in Jessica’s care, representations were made to the coroner that the inquest should be adjourned. That request was granted, and a pre-inquest review is scheduled for later in the year, when lawyers will be able to argue that article 2 is engaged.

If clause 38 had applied in this case, Jessica’s family might have struggled to make clear their arguments that the coroner should proceed to an inquest hearing; an inquest in writing might have proceeded at the coroner’s discretion and against the family’s wishes. My amendment to clause 38 would ensure that the wishes of families are respected in decisions on whether to hold a paper-only inquest instead of having a hearing, as ordinarily happens. Some families may wish to have a hearing so that evidence can be fully aired and they have the opportunity to raise any concerns with the coroner directly. The amendment would ensure that inquests are not held without a hearing if that is against the wishes of the family of the deceased.

I move on to new clauses 10, 11 and 12. I start with a quote from Deborah Coles, the executive director of Inquest. She sums up the position we are in and why I am asking the Government to support the three new clauses on legal aid at inquests. Ms Coles says:

“It is now for the Government to put the experiences of bereaved people at the front and centre and ensure equality of arms, accountability, oversight and candour. There can be no more false starts, broken commitments or shelved recommendations.”

Ms Coles knows well what she is talking about. Inquest has worked on more than 2,000 cases and investigation processes, with 483 families currently needing their support after a bereavement. This work is done to secure more effective scrutiny of the state when people die. These are people who die in police custody, in prison cells, in health or social care settings, but also in major disasters such as Hillsborough and, more recently, Grenfell.

When these deaths occur, there is a fundamental inequality of arms when it comes to what follows. Inquests following state-related deaths are intended to seek the truth and to expose unsafe practices and abuses of state power. However, the preventative potential of inquests is undermined by the pitting of unrepresented families against multiple expert legal teams defending the interests and reputations of state and corporate bodies. What is more, bereaved families often struggle for legal representation, while public authorities have unlimited access to lawyers at the taxpayer’s expense.

I want to mention the intervention from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in the Westminster Hall debate on 28 October. The Minister was there replying for the Government. The hon. Gentleman himself, with the assistance of many, had to work to get to a situation where there was representation for the families in the Shoreham air show case. There were 18 different public bodies, all of which had legal representation. That is at the far end of what can happen, but it is not untypical for there to be not just one, two or three, but four, five or six different public bodies represented.

I did not accept the evidence of Mr Rebello. He made some very cogent points, which we will come on to in clause 39. Lawyers are employed to represent the interests of state parties. Yes, they will have a general duty, as all lawyers do, to assist the court, and, yes, they may, albeit asked by the court, assist unrepresented parties—or they will volunteer to—but that is not the norm. They are there to—and are paid to—represent their clients. They will, on the whole, make points that seek to exculpate their client from responsibility. To see that happening day-to-day, year-to-year, in the coroner’s courts, where families are pitted in that way, is deeply disturbing, frankly.

Families will face hospitals, police and local authorities and other public bodies that have legal representation, often funded by the public bodies. Where these bodies do not have representation, they will still likely have formal assistance through in-house legal professionals or specialist inquest officers—none of which is available to most families. At the very least, public bodies will have witnesses who are experienced professionals, such as doctors, who will still have been provided with advice from a legal team prior to the inquest. All this, and yet a family suffering a bereavement and dealing with the trauma surrounding the circumstances of the death and the inquest process are likely to be refused the same publicly funded legal assistance.

Legal aid will be granted only under the Government’s exceptional funding scheme if it is considered that there is a wider public interest in the inquest or if it is an article 2 inquest. As many of the Committee will know, an article 2 inquest is held when there is a death in state custody, or if it can be argued that the state failed to protect someone’s right to life. Furthermore, to be granted legal aid under this scheme, families must currently also meet a financial means test.

In the absence of legal aid, some lawyers help bereaved families by funding representation through a conditional fee agreement—or CFA—otherwise known as no win, no fee. This funding arrangement has to be linked with a separate civil claim for compensation. If a CFA is not possible, either legal representation is provided free of charge by a lawyer, which can be unsustainable for law firms, or a family has to fund its own representation. This is simply unaffordable for many families—for most, I would argue. Legal aid provides families with the certainty that there will be equality of arms at the inquest and that they will not be alone during what is likely to be one of the most difficult periods of their lives.

In September, the Government responded to the Justice Committee report on this point. The Committee said that the Ministry of Justice should,

“for all inquests where public authorities are legally represented, make sure that non-means tested legal aid or other public funding for legal representation is also available for the people that have been bereaved.”

In their response to that report, the Government announced a plan to remove the means test for exceptional case funding and the means test for legal help in cases where exceptional case funding is granted. I acknowledge that that is a considerable step to ensure that bereaved families involved in inquests where article 2 is engaged are funded without having to go through a complex and intrusive application process.

However, while plans to remove the means test for exceptional case funding through secondary legislation appear well advanced—I think the Minister has said that he expects to bring forward secondary legislation on that in the new year; if he is able to give us any more details, that would be helpful—work on the legal help process is a long way from fruition. Legal advice is needed not only during the inquest hearing but from the point of death. There is a clear link between meaningful access to justice and the outcome of the legal process, as early legal advice has a significant impact on the scope and quality of inquests.

I do not know whether the Minister can say any more about that today; it will be helpful if he can. Again, I welcome the commitment that there will be legal aid for early help too. Will it be dealt with at the same time and in the same manner as exceptional case funding, or do the Government have other plans?

This policy reform, while welcome, does not go nearly far enough. Even before the financial situation of families is considered, it is rare for an application for exceptional case funding to be successful, especially in healthcare-related inquiries. The removal of the financial means test alone is unlikely to benefit many families, nor does it satisfy the requirements set out in recommendations made by countless reviews.

The evidence for the need for change is overwhelming. It has support from all quarters, including every independent review and public inquiry that has considered these issues in the last 20 years. The Justice Committee originally set a 1 October deadline, which has now passed, but the Bill presents an opportunity to address these issues. I therefore wish to set out the case for the three new clauses in turn, in an effort to address the current inequality of arms.

I turn first to new clause 10. It seems that in most cases where there has been a state-related death, the state is represented by publicly funded expert legal teams and routinely supported by relevant experienced professionals and senior personnel during the inquest. In cases where Inquest has been involved in supporting families, the state has always, without exception, had that level of support. All that is automatically in place for state bodies, largely at the taxpayer’s expense. There is no test of merit, nor any means testing in place, for accessing that support.

I will read some quotes from families that Inquest has been supporting that were submitted as evidence to the Justice Committee. One family said:

“We haven’t had the inquest yet, but I don’t have much faith that we will get the answers or outcome we would like because we don’t have representation and everything is stacked against us. All the services involved have representation – how can that be fair?”

Another said:

“It is horrendous and unfair that the process cost us over £30,000. The Trust had a very expensive barrister paid for by our taxes. The thought that justice is not available to families is terrible.”

Dawn Boyle said:

“Without legal aid, people like us would just bury our sons with no questions asked. Legal aid makes a massive difference. Legal aid gives us that voice. Without legal aid, we have to sit back and accept it. We would be even more devastated if we couldn’t find any answers.”

Liz de Oliveira said that after the death of her daughter,

“the lack of funding meant I had to cross examine the pathologist myself on my dead daughter’s body – something no parent should ever have to do.”

Deborah Lockett said:

“I will say it again, and again, and again, until it is well known: the purpose of Legal Aid funding for inquests is to give the coroner the best possible opportunity to prevent future deaths, by hearing submissions from the family’s barrister. There is no way that a family member can fill the professional role of a barrister. The family’s barrister is there in court solely to assist the coroner to identify the legal issues in play in the inquest, all for the ultimate purpose of preventing future deaths. This simply cannot be achieved without Legal Aid. Does anyone now think Legal Aid for inquests is unimportant? Who is going to assist the coroner in his/her work if the family don’t have a barrister?”

These experiences highlight the fundamental inequality of arms at the heart of the inquest process. State bodies and representatives have unlimited access to public funding and the best legal teams and experts; families have to fall within a strict, draconian framework to be granted legal aid, and face complex and demanding funding application processes. Many are forced to pay large sums towards legal costs or to represent themselves. Others have had to resort to crowdfunding. The existing funding scheme is having a damaging and distressing effect on families, further frustrating the inquest process by adding an additional layer of complexity and delay, and thwarting the process of scrutiny and the potential for learning.

I am concerned by the Ministry of Justice’s suggestion that inquests are inquisitorial, informal processes in which families can either represent themselves and ask questions about the death of their relative, or ask others to answer their questions. That is simply a myth. The reality is that an unrepresented family is confronted by a bank of lawyers who represent other interested persons at the inquest, with a heavy focus on damage limitation for the organisation at hand. The process is much more adversarial than inquisitorial, and as such the inquest process requires specialist knowledge of organisational policies, procedures and the law.

Countless authoritative reviews and inquiries have all reached the same conclusion: the current funding arrangements for inquest representation needs fundamental reform. As recently as May this year, the Justice Committee said that

“it is unfair that public funding is available for bereaved people to be legally represented at inquests only in exceptional cases and subject to a means test. This is the case even at inquests that involve many public bodies each of which are legally represented”.

The past few years have seen an unprecedented focus on how agencies investigate and scrutinise contentious state-related deaths. The momentum for change is now overwhelming and the call for funding that we make today is echoed from every possible quarter—from Dame Elish Angiolini, Bishop James Jones, Lord Bach, two Chief Coroners, Baroness Corston, Lord Harris, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the independent review of the Mental Health Act, the Westminster commission on legal aid, and agencies including the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Back in 2017, Dame Elish Angiolini stated:

“For the state to fulfil its legal obligations of allowing effective participation of families in the process that is meaningful and not ‘empty and rhetorical’ there should be access for the immediate family to free, non-means tested legal advice, assistance and representation immediately following the death and throughout the Inquest hearing.”

Bishop James stated that

“publicly funded legal representation should be made available to bereaved families at inquests at which a public authority is to be legally represented.”

Members of this Committee were sent a letter just a few days ago, on 16 November—I am sure we have all seen it—in support of the intention of the new clause. That letter was signed by Action against Medical Accidents, Appeal, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the British Institute of Human Rights, Clinks, Cruse Bereavement Support, the Equality Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform, Justice, the Law Centres Network, the Law Society, the Legal Action Group, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Liberty, Paul Farmer, Mind, Medical Justice, the Prisoners’ Advice Service, the Prison Reform Trust, the Public Law Project, Release, User Voice, Women in Prison, and the Zahid Mubarek Trust. We seldom see such universality and agreement on a single point.

Without funded representation, families are denied their voice and meaningful participation in the processes of investigation, learning and accountability. That undermines the preventive potential of inquests to interrogate the facts and ensure that harmful practices are brought to light. Many families enter into the long, complex and incredibly daunting inquest process in the hope that by their doing so future deaths will be prevented. As has been often said by families who have been through this, the objective in pursuing what is a traumatic and difficult process is often not only truly to understand what may have happened to a loved one, but to try to ensure that no one else will suffer in the same way.

Many key findings on the conduct of state bodies arise from cases that fall within article 2 and are therefore eligible for exceptional case funding. However, such findings also crucially arise from many cases in which article 2 may not be arguable. Those include healthcare-related deaths in custody, in which currently the prison service, the police, or the mental health trust would be legally represented at an inquest but the family would not be eligible, or self-inflicted deaths in mental health settings of voluntary patients or those detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, in which, if the coroner rules that article 2 on the Rabone test is not engaged, the family do not get funding. There is considerable inconsistency in coroners’ decisions on article 2 in that context, and currently a large number of cases that might actually qualify for article 2 are not being funded, with families being left unrepresented.

Other instances include self-inflicted deaths where the person is under the direct care of a mental health trust but is living in the community, deaths in supported accommodation where the person has been placed there by a public body, self-inflicted deaths of people who have presented in mental health crisis at a hospital but the hospital is not willing to admit them, deaths in care settings where placements are funded by a local authority, which would include the deaths of people with learning disabilities, and cases involving complex or systemic medical concerns. In all those instances, there would be no benefit from the changes currently proposed by the Ministry of Justice. Such cases must be included in the criteria for non-means-tested funding for bereaved families’ legal costs during the entire inquest process.

Funding should also be granted in cases involving wider state and corporate accountability and multiple deaths, such as Hillsborough, Grenfell and terrorist attacks. The little-used public interest category of funding needs to be expanded and clarified to broaden the scope to cover important cases that raise issues of wider public concern and benefit. The extremely limited number of grants on public interest grounds demonstrates that the current test, and the way in which it is applied by the Legal Aid Agency, is not fit for purpose.

I would like to give a few examples of why the case for change is so important. The first is the case of Connor Sparrowhawk, who died after he drowned in a bath as a result of an epileptic seizure on 4 July 2013. He was admitted to a now closed down short-term assessment and treatment unit run by Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. Connor’s death was originally viewed as being from natural causes, meaning it would have been extremely difficult for it to be assessed as eligible for legal aid under ECF. The coroner eventually determined that article 2 had in fact been engaged and, at the inquest into his death in 2015, the jury found that Connor’s death was contributed to by neglect.

Connor’s family were not able to pay for legal representation out of pocket and relied on pro bono advice and representation. As Connor’s family told the Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2018, lawyers for the multiple state agencies involved in their son’s death adopted an adversarial and obstructive approach preceding and during Connor’s inquest. Therefore, without legal representation, it is likely the significant findings made about neglect in Connor’s care would never have come to light.

Inquest informed me of the case of D, involving a death in private supported accommodation. The individual had recently been released from prison and was placed in accommodation that the local council noted was unsanitary. The inquest was originally listed as a rule 23 inquest, which meant a documentary inquest without hearing from key witnesses. Lawyers working on this case were thankfully able to argue that article 2 was in fact engaged and funding was eventually granted. Without legal representation, it is likely this case would never have proceeded to a full inquest hearing.

In the case of Matthew, who died on 8 January 2019, the inquest concluded that his death was sudden, unexpected and linked to alcohol dependency. Matthew’s family were keen for his inquest to be as broad as possible in scope, to understand the circumstances around his death. They paid privately for legal representation to make the case for the inquest to be article 2 during the pre-inquest review, given systemic issues around detoxification pathways from A&E.

Ultimately, the coroner decided that article 2 was not in breach in this case, and therefore Matthew’s family were not eligible for legal aid under exceptional case funding. Crucial failings were identified in the care Matthew received, including the fact that Matthew should have been admitted for inpatient detoxification four days prior to his death and that there was poor communication between staff on his case.

Although it was ultimately decided that Matthew’s case did not engage article 2, with help from lawyers the inquest into his death revealed critical findings about his care at the hands of the state. Given the state’s involvement, Matthew’s family should not have been forced to pay out of their pocket for legal representation, especially when the five other interested legal parties all had legal representation, mainly paid for by the state.

I also want to highlight the case of Harry Richford, who died seven days after birth at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital in Margate, Kent. Harry’s family were not able to pay for specialist legal help and needed to navigate the complex inquest process, in which NHS trust lawyers dropped 1,400 pages of new evidence on the morning of the second day of the inquest. The family worked with their local MP and the organisation Advocate to secure pro bono legal representation.

Following the inquest into Harry’s death, the Care Quality Commission confirmed that it would be criminally prosecuting the trust for unsafe care and treatment for both Harry and Sarah, his mother. Without legal representation, Harry’s family may never have found out what went wrong in their son’s care, and there would have been no accountability for his death. It is unfair that state agencies were able to be represented at the taxpayer’s expense while Harry’s family had to struggle to find pro bono representation.

Properly conducted inquests in which families are legally represented can help to ensure scrutiny and examine and address the systems and practices that are meant to ensure safety and prevent deaths. While the individual rights and interests of the families in each case are vital, the benefit of ensuring proper legal representation for those families does not end there. Inquests can help to save lives by exposing unsafe systems of care and holding public and private services to account. Funding for families therefore has a wider public benefit, far beyond individual rights and interests. New clause 10 would ensure that the bereaved are entitled to publicly funded legal representation in inquests where public bodies are legally represented, giving effect to the recommendation in the Justice Committee’s report on the coroner service.

I will now deal with new clauses 11 and 12, unless the Government Whip wishes to interrupt me.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Scott Mann.)

Adjourned till this day at Two oclock.

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill (Fifth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Geraint Davies, Esther McVey

† Begum, Apsana (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)

† Blake, Olivia (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)

† Daly, James (Bury North) (Con)

Doogan, Dave (Angus) (SNP)

† Evans, Dr Luke (Bosworth) (Con)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Grundy, James (Leigh) (Con)

† Hudson, Dr Neil (Penrith and The Border) (Con)

† Johnson, Kim (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

† Lake, Ben (Ceredigion) (PC)

† Mackrory, Cherilyn (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

† Prentis, Victoria (Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

† Saxby, Selaine (North Devon) (Con)

† Wheeler, Mrs Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)

† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)

Sarah Thatcher, Abi Samuels, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 18 November 2021

(Morning)

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

We have had an emergency membership substitution this morning, allowable in narrow circumstances in accordance with the resolution of the Committee at selection, with Jane Stevenson being discharged and Lia Nici being appointed to the Committee.

I remind Members that they are expected to wear masks when they are not speaking. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commissions. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if Members would email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

Clause 47

Zoos

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 84, in schedule 5, page 44, line 12, leave out from “to” to “education” and insert

“a broad range of conservation activities (including species recovery work both in situ and ex situ,”.

This amendment aims to ensure that any conservation measures laid out in the new standards will include the conservation work, such as species recovery work, undertaken within zoos, as well as externally.

Amendment 119, in schedule 5, page 44, line 14, leave out lines 15 and 16.

This amendment would remove a provision that would allow different standards to be applied to different descriptions of zoos.

Amendment 122, in schedule 5, page 44, line 15, at beginning insert—

“(1A) Standards relating to conservation may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.”

This amendment would require standards relating to conservation to be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.

Amendment 83, in schedule 5, page 44, line 16, at end insert—

“(3) In drawing up standards of modern zoo practice, the Secretary of State must—

(a) consult the Zoos Expert Committee (ZEC), and

(b) issue a public consultation seeking the views of zoos, aquariums, and other interested parties,

and the Secretary of State must publish the responses to these consultations.

(4) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the standards of modern zoo practice before Parliament.”

This amendment seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State’s standards for modern zoo practise are subject to full consultation and scrutiny, both when published and if any further changes are made, by Parliament, zoos and aquariums, other interested parties, and the Zoos Expert Committee.

Amendment 121, in schedule 5, page 44, line 16, at end insert—

“(3) The standards of modern zoo practice must define “conservation” for the purposes of the standards and, in drawing up that definition, the Secretary of State must consult the Zoos Expert Committee and publish its advice.”

Amendment 120, in schedule 5, page 45, line 15, leave out “a specialist” and insert “an expert”.

That schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.

It is a pleasure to be here again, Mr Davies. I am going to speak once on zoos, unless I need to answer anything specific: there is a lot to get through, and it is quite technical.

There are over 300 licensed zoos in England. A zoo is not just the classic setting that we might think of: it is an establishment where wild animals are kept for exhibition to the public for more than seven days a year. This can be a range of different settings, such as a traditional zoo, a park, a farm park, an aquarium, or a bird of prey centre. All zoos are subject to the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Most of the licensing requirements are set out in the standards of modern zoo practice. As part of their licensing conditions, all zoos are required to carry out conservation, education and research. Some of our zoos do incredibly valuable work in those areas, but others, frankly, should do more. The changes set out in this Bill should help to deliver that.

The current conservation requirements in the Zoo Licensing Act were introduced in 2002, and have not been updated since. They have been criticised as being on the weak side. All other standards for the management of zoos and the animals within them are set via the standards created by section 9 of that Act. This Bill makes changes to move the conservation requirements out of the Act and into the zoo standards.

Turning now to the Zoos Expert Committee and amendments 83 and 121, I reassure the Committee that ZEC already plays a significant part in the drafting of the new zoo standards, and has been involved very much in the production of that new document. ZEC is an expert committee of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh Governments. DEFRA and ZEC are currently in the process of updating the full package of zoo standards, which will be put out to consultation by the end of this year. That process has involved the full spectrum of zoo industry specialists. We therefore do not feel that amendments 83 and 121 take us any further.

When it comes to defining conservation, as is done in amendments 84 and 121, we feel that conservation should take its normal meaning, which of course will include both in situ and ex situ breeding programmes involving endangered species. One of the reasons why we have not defined conservation is that its meaning has changed over time, and we want any new zoo standards drafted by the ZECs of the future, with input from the zoo sector, to continue to reflect the latest best practice on consultation, so we are trying to future-proof this legislation.

We do not feel that the amendments dealing with ZEC transparency need to be in legislation. However, we have acknowledged the purpose behind some of these amendments, which is that the work of ZEC should be more transparent. In order to deal with that issue, we have recently provided ZEC with its own online presence on gov.uk, and that website is where we will put reports from ZEC and, where appropriate, responses from the Secretary of State. We believe that the process we have put in place—standards are drafted by the expert advisory committee, then put online to be transparent—means that the parliamentary scrutiny suggested would not add much in this area. We therefore do not believe that it is necessary.

The zoo standards are detailed technical standards that set out what is required of zoos. They are drafted by ZEC, which is made up of vets, inspectors, animal welfare experts and zoo operators, who all have detailed knowledge of the zoo sector. The same welfare standards will apply equally to all specimens of a species, regardless of the size of the zoo in which they are kept, so the provision for different standards for different types of zoos is aimed only at the new standards relating to conservation, education and research.

I understand the concerns—I will pre-empt them—about how the term “specialist” may have a separate meaning in the veterinary profession. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border was going to mention that, but we have heard him mention it before. However, we are satisfied that the term “specialist” will be commonly understood to mean a person trained in a particular branch of a subject.

I am eternally grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way, and I welcome her comments. We could add to the Bill the term “competence” or “experience” in the relevant species, in accordance with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ guidance. For any vet who deals with animals, there are separate guidelines within the Royal College guidance that talk about what they should be dealing with as a veterinarian. If we added Royal College guidance, that would help.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know that he feels very strongly about this issue, but I reassure him that we have tried to use the normally understood meaning of the word “specialist”.

Schedule 5 makes various amendments to the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Some of the amendments are technical in nature—for example, including the Council of the Isles of Scilly, which for some reason was not included before. I really have no idea why that was the case. Schedule 5 also removes circuses, because that reference is now obsolete following the passing of other legislation, and increases the available penalties. Importantly, schedule 5 amends the 1981 Act to ensure that each zoo will have a condition on its licence that it must meet the standards specified under section 9 of the Act. Currently, local authorities must only “have regard to” the standards produced under section 9. We think this change will make the standards easier to follow and enforce. On that basis, I hope the hon. Member for Cambridge will not press his amendments to a Division.

This is a short clause, but it is complicated, as the Minister said. I am grateful to her for her introduction, and she has clarified one or two points that I still want to pursue. I will start with amendments 121 and 122, which have been tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friends, but I also want to speak to amendments 83 and 84 and new clause 4, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), both of whom spoke on these issues on Second Reading. I am sure the Minister was listening closely, as she always does, to the Second Reading debate, in which considerable concern and interest, and some unease, was expressed by Members of different parties about some of the proposals.

Despite the Minister’s reassurances, our amendments seek to ensure that there is greater oversight of the Government’s zoo advisory body, the Zoo Expert Committee, and the process for setting future conservation standards. Amendment 83 would make a full consultation with appropriate stakeholders on any future standards changes not just a matter of best practice, but a requirement. We will probably labour this point a bit: it is not that we do not trust the Government, but who knows what future Governments will do? We think that is an important point, as others have expressed, and it should not be left to discretion; it should absolutely be a requirement.

As the Minister has set out, the Government are making promises, and although we have no reason to disbelieve them, we want the legislation strengthened. There is no statutory requirement on future Ministers to consult on further updates. The role of the Zoos Expert Committee is a dilemma, frankly, because we have had cause for concern in other areas when reports from expert committees have not necessarily always been published. That is why people are pressing for a stronger system. We think it important not only that there is a consultation, but that everything is done transparently. The Bill does not currently provide for a statutory requirement on future Ministers to involve the Zoos Expert Committee as part of any review of the conservation standards, or to formally respond to that committee’s guidance.

Amendment 83 would ensure that any advice provided by the Zoos Expert Committee, and the response by Ministers, is transparent and open to the public. I have heard what has been said about a website, but I am afraid we have seen examples of that not working—they are almost always controversial cases, quite frankly, and those are the ones that people are interested in. If that transparency is good enough for the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which is coming our way soon, it is good enough for this Bill, so we think that the amendment makes a reasonable demand. Amendment 121 puts it slightly differently but also requires the Secretary of State to consult the Zoos Expert Committee and to publish its advice.

Amendment 84 deals with the vexed issue of conservation. The Minister is right that the understanding of the term “conservation” has changed. I am grateful to both Chester Zoo and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums for their advice. Both have expressed concern about the need for the Bill to provide a clear definition of “conservation”, because they fear that future definitions may not fully capture the breadth of the work done by zoos. I am told that zoos globally contribute more than $350 million annually to species conservation programmes in the wild, making them the world’s third-largest funder of species conservation after the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Nature Conservancy.

I am also told that UK zoos contribute 10% of that global zoo total, so we are making a big contribution. Most of that funding comes from the large charitable zoos, which I am told receive no direct public subsidy, and generate the surpluses for conservation through visitor revenue. They support more than 800 projects in 105 countries, providing direct conservation action for 488 species of animals and plants. They believe it important that the Government’s definition of zoo conservation accurately reflects the wide range of work.

Amendment 84 would ensure that the Bill recognises

“a broad range of conservation activities”

and that, alongside education and research, it explicitly includes “species recovery work”, both in situ and ex situ. Although in situ species reintroduction and overseas field projects, for example, are vital to zoo conservation efforts, they alone do not fully capture the extent of the work that takes place or the impact that zoos have. To put it simply, that excellent work cannot be achieved without a lot of back-up within the zoos themselves., including the world-class care by keepers, the feed, the bedding, the veterinary attention, the facilities, the scientific development and the carefully planned and co-ordinated breeding plans. I perhaps got slightly confused by “ex situ” and “in situ”, but basically, the ex situ work is an essential component of a holistic planned approach to species recovery.

Amendment 84 would ensure a broad understanding of zoo conservation, and that the standards accurately reflect the different ways in which zoos achieve conservation impacts, helping to ensure the continuation of the vital work that zoos undertake in support of international conservation efforts. Put together, the amendments would ensure parliamentary scrutiny of future changes to conservation standards. We think that is important because, despite the Government’s decision to take the standards out of primary legislation, those standards are to become a core part of the zoo licensing and conservation requirements, so we believe that there should be democratic oversight of them.

I listened closely to what the Minister said about amendment 119 and I was reassured by what she said. It is a technical point and it depends how the draft Bill is read. We are concerned that different standards of animal welfare might be applied to “different descriptions of zoo.” The Minister made it clear that is not what is meant.

However, on page 44, paragraph 9 of schedule 5 of the Bill—I am glad to see Members are following carefully—it is not entirely clear to me to what draft subclause 2 in paragraph 9(4), which is about different standards, is intended to apply. It could be read as applying only to the standards set out in paragraph 9(3)(b), but I think the Minister confirmed that it applied to both paragraphs 9(3)(a) and 9(3)(b). In that case we are satisfied, which I will take as a victory.

No, please don’t, because obviously that would upset the Whip and then it would have to be changed.

Finally, we come to amendment 120, which I really hoped was going to be a final victory and was written with guidance from the British Veterinary Association. We have discussed the amendment and the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border put things very well, although I wait to see whether his helpful suggestion about amending it further will be well received or not. The issue is around “specialist” and “expert”. We cannot see why the Government cannot just change that word, so, Mr Davies, we will press this amendment to a vote.

Again, we are coming back to this issue of specialist competency and expertise. As a new Member of Parliament, I am new to the system but I wish to put on record the frustrations with how we are drafting law. Obviously, we cannot change hundreds of years of history relating to how we do it, but it is very frustrating to have amendments from both sides of the House—from Government and Opposition—when if there were consultation with members of the Bill Committee, in a similar way that Select Committee members agree the final wording of a report, I am sure we could nail all the different issues and agree a sensible form of wording. When amendments are tabled and there has not been any discussion about them, then those amendments may pass or fail depending on the wording. If an amendment is incorrectly worded, then we cannot support it. If we could get together, consult and agree on wording, then we would pass better law.

That is a very sensible suggestion. I fear we are not quite in that world yet, although it is miraculous how things, as they go through, can sometimes change. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the message has been heard on this side, but we will still press the amendment to a vote. One never knows—we might even win. On that basis, I do not wish to pursue any of the other amendments.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I declare an interest as I am a member of the zoos and aquariums all-party parliamentary group and I have Twycross zoo in my patch, in regard to which I have spent a lot of time and effort.

I was intrigued to hear my hon. Friend the Minister’s comments at the start. Would she be kind enough to expand a little further? As put across by the Opposition, there is some concern about the definition of conservation. I was pleased to hear that it will be kept broad, fluid and future proof, because I think that is important. I am also pleased to hear that there is more transparency with regards to ZEC and that opening up. That will go a long way to alleviate concerns that may be there.

It is fair to say there is a rift within the zoo community and the wider conservation community about where things should and should not be kept, and how they should be looked after, so there is wide agreement that the welfare aspect of the Bill is important. The reason there is an interest in the definition of conservation is around the question of what is deemed to be conservation. Are zoos arks? Are they exhibits? Should they have no place at all? That is one of the threats that the zoo community may be feeling.

I have no truck with zoos with low standards. They should not exist and the Bill provides legislation to drive up those standards, which is well founded. However, if the definition of conservation is too narrow and not all encompassing, there is concern for purely monetary reasons because of positions with turnover and with money being given out just to specific areas. As Twycross zoo has recently got £19.9 million in the levelling-up fund for an education, science and conservation centre, the hope is that we will have a regional and national centre of excellence training the top-level conservationists of the future. That is obviously something very good for us locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, and it needs to be recognised for the work it will contribute to saving species in the future.

I was pleased to hear that the Minister can confirm that species recovery, both in situ and ex situ, can be included—I think it was hinted at. I was also pleased that the Minister will take away the fact that such consideration must be out there; getting that information out to the broader zoo and conservation community may help relieve a lot of the angst that is felt.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth—and for Twycross zoo, if I may put it that way—for his intervention. I am thrilled about the recent grant from the levelling-up fund. I know that Twycross is going to do important work to study the four great apes and over a hundred endangered species in this new, purpose-built unit. As I said earlier, it is important that both in situ and ex situ are covered by the new standards, and I reassure the Committee that we will work with zoos to ensure that the new conservation standards are appropriate and achievable. All zoos will be consulted on the new standards, including the new conservation standards, and we will assess their likely impact before deciding how long zoos will have to bring in those standards. The new standards will also seek to reflect the size of the zoo, because larger zoos are likely to be expected to do more in the conservation space. As my hon. Friend said, there will be no difference in welfare.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 47 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Amendment proposed: 120, in schedule 5, page 45, line 15, leave out “a specialist” and insert “an expert”.—(Daniel Zeichner.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clause 48

Meaning of “appropriate national authority” and “enactment”

I beg to move amendment 54, in clause 48, page 31, line 6, leave out from “authority”” to end of line 15 and insert

“, in relation to a power to make provision, means—

(a) the Secretary of State;

(b) the Scottish Ministers, so far as the provision would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament if contained in an Act of that Parliament;

(c) the Welsh Ministers, so far as the provision would be within the legislative competence of Senedd Cymru if contained in an Act of the Senedd.

(2A) But the Secretary of State may make regulations under section 43 or 46 only with—

(a) the consent of the Scottish Ministers, if the regulations contain provision that could be made under that section by the Scottish Ministers;

(b) the consent of the Welsh Ministers, if the regulations contain provision that could be made under that section by the Welsh Ministers.”

This amendment amends the definition of “appropriate national authority” to provide that the devolved authorities’ powers are limited by reference to devolved legislative competence.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 57, 61, 63, 64, 69 and 70.

Government new clause 2—Concurrent functions in Wales.

The amendments in this group are technical and concerned with the way in which Scottish and Welsh Ministers may make regulations under the Bill. Amendment 54 amends clause 48 to ensure that the powers to make regulations under part 4 are consistent with devolution arrangements. Amendment 57 amends clause 50 and provides Scottish and Welsh Ministers with powers to amend other legislation where there are consequential changes.

Amendment 61 amends clause 51 and removes a reference to clause 49. Amendments 63 and 64 also amend clause 51 to provide for the commencement of new clause 2, which will come into force two months following Royal Assent. Amendments 69 and 70 amend clause 52 to confirm that the territorial extent on the amendments to the Government of Wales Act 2006 is the same as for that Act.

Amendment 54 agreed to.

Clause 48, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 49

Regulations under Part 3

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

This clause is no longer necessary as it has been replaced by new clause 3, which brings all the regulation-making powers in the Bill into a single new clause. I ask the Committee to agree that clause 49 does not stand part of the Bill.

Clause 49 disagreed to.

Clause 50

Power to make consequential provision

Amendments made: 56, in clause 50, page 32, line 8, leave out “made by statutory instrument”.

This amendment (together with Amendment 58) removes provision about regulations under this clause with a view to provision about regulations being made by a new clause.

Amendment 57, in clause 50, page 32, line 9, at end insert—

“(1A) The Scottish Ministers may by regulations make provision that is consequential on any provision of Part 3 as it extends to Scotland.

(1B) The Welsh Ministers may by regulations make provision that is consequential on any provision of Part 1 or 3 as it applies in relation to Wales.

(1C) But—

(a) provision may be made under subsection (1A) only if it would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament if contained in an Act of that Parliament;

(b) provision may be made under subsection (1B) only if it would be within the legislative competence of Senedd Cymru if contained in an Act of the Senedd.”

This amendment confers powers to make consequential provision on the Scottish Ministers and the Welsh Ministers.

Amendment 58, in clause 50, page 32, leave out lines 14 to 24.—(Victoria Prentis.)

This amendment removes provision about regulations under this clause with a view to provision about regulations being made by a new clause.

Clause 50 provides a general power for the Secretary of State to make any necessary changes to legislation that are consequential on any provisions included in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 50, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 51

Commencement

Amendments made: 59, in clause 51, page 32, line 29, at end insert—

“(A1) Part 1 comes into force—

(a) in relation to England, on such day as the Secretary of State may by regulations appoint;

(b) in relation to Wales, on such day as the Welsh Ministers may by regulations appoint.”

This amendment, which is consequential on the amendments of Part 1 that result in that Part applying to Wales, confers on the Welsh Ministers the power to commence Part 1 in relation to Wales.

Amendment 60, in clause 51, page 32, line 30, leave out “Parts 1 and 2 come” and insert “Part 2 comes”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 59.

Amendment 61, in clause 51, page 32, line 35, leave out “, 48 and 49” and insert “and 48”.—(Victoria Prentis.)

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 55.

I beg to move amendment 62, in clause 51, page 32, line 36, at end insert—

“() section (Animal Welfare Act 2006: minor amendments) comes into force on such day as the appropriate national authority may by regulations appoint;”

This amendment provides for the new clause containing minor amendments of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to be commenced by regulations.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 68.

Government new clause 1—Animal Welfare Act 2006: minor amendments.

The amendments and the new clause ensure that the time limits for prosecuting offences set out in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 also apply to regulations that are made under the Act. Doubt was thrown on this position by a recent administrative court decision. It is important that we make the changes proposed, to enable prosecutors long enough to gather detailed evidence in animal welfare cases.

Amendment 62 agreed to.

I beg to move amendment 85, in clause 51, page 32, line 36, at end insert—

“() sections (Taking of dog without lawful authority etc) and (Power to extend section (Taking of dog without lawful authority etc)) come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by regulations appoint;”

This amendment provides for NC5 and NC6 to be commenced by regulations.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 86.

Government new clause 5—Taking of dog without lawful authority etc.

Government new clause 6—Power to extend section (Taking of dog without lawful authority etc).

The theft of a pet is devastating. We all know that pet sales increased during the pandemic, as we were all at home and felt that we would like to share our homes with various furry friends. As a consequence, the price of puppies and kittens rose, which is thought to have triggered a rise in the abhorrent crime of pet theft. In May this year, the Government launched the pet theft taskforce. It was asked to gather evidence and make representations, and I thank its members for their speedy work—they produced a report in September. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland) for chairing the taskforce and for his continued interest in this area.

In brief, the taskforce found that there is a growing feeling among the public that the current laws do not sufficiently recognise the difference between pets and inanimate objects. The taskforce therefore recommended the creation of a new offence of pet abduction, which acknowledges that pets form bonds with their owners and that their welfare can be adversely affected when they are removed from their primary carer. To start with, the new offence will apply to dogs—that is a recommendation from the taskforce. The reason is that seven of 10 animal thefts are thefts of dogs, and most of the evidence on the effect on animals is concentrated on dogs at the moment. However—you have heard me talk about cattism before, Mr Davies—we need to continue to gather evidence on other species, so we are taking a power to extend the offence to other common pet species in the future. The new offence has penalties that mirror those in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Well, here is a surprise: pet theft through the back door. We have been calling for it for ages, and we are absolutely supportive of it, but what a way to do it on such a significant issue. The amendment was tabled on Friday, after the evidence session, and there is no Library briefing. Of course, the amendment, as drafted, is not actually about pet theft; it is about dog theft. It may reasonably be asked why it does not apply to cats. I understand the additional power. The Minister denied cattism the other day, but I feel that the charge will continue to be levelled.

This is such last-minute stuff. I notice the Department managed to get its press briefing out, although it muddled pet theft and dog theft throughout. That is my gripe with the amendment: this is a really important issue that has been added to the Bill very late in the day, which means that we do not have the opportunity to scrutinise it in the way that we would have liked. We had relevant witnesses at the evidence session last week, and we did not ask them about it. I could not help noticing that, unusually, the Minister’s speech was handwritten. Goodness me! This is so typical of the Government at the moment. What a mess.

There is a problem with this. If we do it in a rush, we will get it wrong. We have seen it before with dogs, so can we repeat the same mistake again? There are a number of unanswered questions, particularly on the concept of lawful control and complicated questions of ownership. One can immediately see that the connected person test could easily be problematic. There are many multi-person households in this country, and there are millions of people living together who are not in civil partnerships. Many are reconstituted or blended families. Perhaps Government Members have not noticed what the modern world is like—or perhaps they have. In a domestic row, for example, one person goes off with the dog or cat—they consider it theirs—and the other gets the police involved for a claim of pet theft, which carries a five-year prison sentence. The connected person test really needs to be looked at properly, not just brought to a Bill Committee late in the day. I am sure that it will be subject to further scrutiny elsewhere, but this is no way to do it.

New clause 6 states that the Secretary of State may exercise the power under subsection (1) if there is evidence that

“removing an animal of that species from a person with whom it has formed a bond may adversely affect its wellbeing.”

How is that test to be assessed? Who is the judge? Does a snake get sad when it is parted from its keeper? I do not know, but we ought to find a way of finding out before we pass this legislation. Maybe this should have been done in the right sequence, starting with the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. But, as ever with this Government, it is all about a rush to get a headline—it could have been drafted by the Prime Minister.

To be helpful, I direct the Minister’s attention to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, to which Labour tabled amendments last November to deal with pet theft. Again, amendments were tabled on Report, in July this year, and not just by the Labour Front Bench but by a cross-party group of esteemed parliamentarians, including many senior Government Members. The Government opposed all those amendments.

I find myself in some difficulty this morning, because although we absolutely want the legislation on the statute book, we do not want rushed legislation that leads to unintended consequences. I have some sympathy with the Minister, as I suspect that she is embarrassed about it, but that is the problem we have. We will not oppose the new clause, but we think that the provisions need to be looked at much more carefully. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the same kind of situation as with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

Thank you, Mr Davies. I rise to welcome Government action on pet theft. In response to the hon. Member for Cambridge, I noted those amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill a few months ago, and the reason why many of us on the Government side voted against them was not because we were against pet theft law being strengthened, but because we were given assurances by the then Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), who has been mentioned, that pet theft would be addressed in law. I am so pleased, as a veterinary surgeon and a parliamentarian, that we are now at the stage of recognising and passing pet theft into law.

I welcome that the Opposition will not oppose the new clause. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that the new clause has been tabled at very short notice, and I feel that the Government can work with the Opposition, with Committee members, and with Members on both sides of the House, to ensure that we get the legislation right. We have to get the wording right so that we can stamp out the abhorrent crime of pet theft.

I have called for some time for the legislation, once introduced, to be expanded to include other species. I welcome the Government’s acknowledgment of those calls and their attempts to address them with new clause 6, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. As it is worded, the new clause is incredibly complicated, incredibly confusing and subject to much misinterpretation. I urge the Government to look closely at the definitions in the new clause, which are not suitable.

The Government are moving forward on animal welfare. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill has been introduced, and will recognise that animals are fully sentient beings—the theft of animals is distressing for both the animals and their owners. Cats are being stolen as we speak, and should be included. I am keen, though, for the provisions to be expanded beyond pets.

I welcome the fact that we are expanding the measures to other species, but they should not apply only to pets. Should we be talking about “companion animals”, rather than pets? What about farm animals? When a farmer in Cumbria has 20 sheep stolen—a not uncommon occurrence—it is incredibly distressing for that farmer. I urge the Government to look closely at expanding the measures to include all animals: farm animals, horses, ponies. What about the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig that someone keeps in the back of their garden? What about someone who keeps a sheep to help them keep the lawn down—is that a pet or a farm animal? This is where we will end up going due to the complexities of the Bill.

I fear that if the Government do not change new clause 6, we will have some form of George Orwellian “Animal Farm” interpretation of how important some animals are compared to others. I urge the Government to not let us go into that. These animals are being stolen now—farm animals, horses, cats, dogs—so we need to act now. I welcome what the Minister is doing, and what DEFRA is doing, and I encourage them to listen to voices on both sides of the House. I ask with good grace whether the Minister will meet me and Lord Goldsmith. Can we get round the table and see if we can improve these clauses, so that all animals are covered, and so that we can stamp out not just pet theft, but animal theft?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I was a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years. The one thing that we will never get in legislation that will potentially go before the criminal court is 100% exact language. We are talking about legal interpretation. These are matters that will be decided on by those giving expert evidence and through the interpretation of the courts. That is how the system works—the separation of powers. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border about looking at the wider definition of theft, but all the matters that he mentioned are covered; they are acts of theft, which is on the statute book already.

I welcome new clause 6; I think it is a good clause. Criminal lawyers, together with those giving expert evidence and others involved in the court system, will be able to understand it clearly. Even if we were to have a lengthy discussion, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said, regarding what “forming bonds” means—we could discuss that forever—it will be expert evidence in a court that will decide matters, not what parliamentarians debate. I welcome the clause and congratulate the Minister on it.

I welcome Members making contributions, but could you use your leg muscles to indicate that you want to contribute—perhaps near the start of the debate, but you are free to stand whenever you like—so that I do not miss you out? I almost missed that last request to contribute.

Well, we cannot seem to get it right, can we? We are either going to quickly or too slowly. [Interruption.] I am teasing. This is being done quickly; I am not apologising for that because I think the situation is one that we need to resolve quickly. The taskforce was a serious body that did important work, and it worked quickly—I refer Members to its work and recommendations. The Government then had to find the first appropriate piece of legislation for these recommendations to go in; the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I have listened to and accept the comments about “connected persons”, “animals capable of forming bonds” and extending provisions beyond pets. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border mentioned livestock; sheep rustling is already covered under the Theft Act 1968. I will take these points away and continue to do work to make sure that the drafting of this clause is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North suggests, entirely suitable for the criminal courts.

I would be delighted to meet, as I am sure Lord Goldsmith would be, any Member of this House, or of the other place, to discuss the drafting of this clause. It is always important that we get the law right. It is important that we make sure the clause is as good as it can be; it is difficult when clauses are brought forward at a late stage of a Bill’s proceedings. However, I am not apologising for that; it is right that we should do this. We should make a new offence of pet abduction and this is an appropriate place to do that.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. On the concept of forming a bond with an animal, I note the comments made about livestock rustling. The Bill covers livestock worrying, too. It can be incredibly distressing for a farmer when farm livestock are attacked by dogs. A person can have a bond with an individual animal or be devastated when 20 sheep are attacked by a dog. I take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, who is from the legal profession, said about the legal definition of the word “bond”, but I think these debates in the courts of law will be incredibly fraught, so I urge the Government to move on that.

May I politely say that that was more of a mini-speech than an intervention?

I reassure Members that we will look carefully at the drafting of this clause, following the remarks we have heard today. I am confident that this is an appropriate place to bring forward the offence of pet abduction, and I am pleased that we have been able to do so.

Amendment 85 agreed to.

Amendments made: 63, in clause 51, page 33, line 13, after “Part” insert

“(except section (Concurrent functions in Wales))”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 64.

Amendment 64, in clause 51, page 33, line 13, at end insert

“; section (Concurrent functions in Wales)) comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with that day.”

This amendment provides for the commencement of new clause (Concurrent functions in Wales).

Amendment 65, in clause 51, page 33, line 16, leave out from first “Ministers” to “may” in line 17.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 67.

Amendment 66, in clause 51, page 33, line 18, at end insert “in Scotland”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 67.

Amendment 67, in clause 51, page 33, line 18, at end insert—

‘(6A) The Welsh Ministers may by regulations make transitional or saving provision in connection with the coming into force of any provision of Part 1 or 3 in relation to Wales.’—(Victoria Prentis.)

This amendment confers powers to make transitional or saving provision on the Welsh Ministers, in consequence of Part 1 applying to Wales (as well as Part 3).

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

The clause sets out when provisions in the Bill will commence, following Royal Assent.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 51, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 52

Extent

Amendments made: 68, in clause 52, page 33, line 32, at end insert—

“() section (Animal Welfare Act 2006: minor amendments) extends to England and Wales only;”.

This amendment provides for the new clause containing minor amendments of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to extend to (ie form part of the law of) England and Wales only.

Amendment 69, in clause 52, page 33, line 35, at beginning insert “Subject to subsection (5),”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 70.

Amendment 70, in clause 52, page 33, line 35, at end insert—

“(5) The amendments and repeals made by section (Concurrent functions in Wales) have the same extent as the enactments to which they relate.”—(Victoria Prentis.)

This amendment provides for the amendments and repeals of Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006, made by a new clause, to have the same extent as that Schedule.

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

This clause sets out the territorial extent of provisions in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 52, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 53

Short title

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

This clause is a standard provision that simply provides for the short title of the Bill once it becomes an Act at Royal Assent. The short title of this Bill will be the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Act 2021.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Animal Welfare Act 2006: minor amendments

‘(1) The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 31(1) (time limits for prosecutions) after “under” insert “or by virtue of”.

(3) In section 51 (inspectors)—

(a) in subsection (5) after “under” insert “or by virtue of”;

(b) after subsection (6) insert—

“(7) In this section, a reference to the purposes of this Act includes the purposes of provision made under the Act.”’—(Victoria Prentis.)

This new clause amends the Animal Welfare Act 2006 so that section 31 (time limits for prosecutions) applies to offences under regulations under that Act (as well as to offences under that Act) and section 51 (inspectors) applies in relation to provisions of regulations under that Act (as well as in relation to provisions of that Act).

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Concurrent functions in Wales

‘(1) Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006 (general restrictions on legislative competence of Senedd Cymru) is amended as follows.

(2) In paragraph 9(8)(b) (exceptions to restrictions relating to reserved authorities)—

(a) omit the “or” at the end of paragraph (vi);

(b) at the end of paragraph (vii) insert “; or the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Act 2021.”

(i) the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Act 2021.”

(3) In paragraph 11(6)(b) (exceptions to restrictions relating to Ministers of the Crown)—

(a) omit the “or” at the end of paragraph (vi);

(b) at the end of paragraph (vii) insert “; or the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Act 2021.””

(i) the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Act 2021.”’—(Victoria Prentis.)

This new clause amends Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006 so as to disapply certain restrictions in that Schedule in relation to functions conferred by or under the Bill.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3

Regulations

“(1) This section applies to regulations under any provision of this Act except section 51.

(2) A power to make regulations includes power to make—

(a) different provision for different purposes;

(b) different provision for different areas;

(c) consequential, incidental, supplementary, transitional, transitory or saving provision.

(3) Regulations made by the Secretary of State or the Welsh Ministers are to be made by statutory instrument.

(4) For regulations made by the Scottish Ministers, see section 27 of the Interpretation and Legislative Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 (asp 10) (Scottish statutory instruments).

(5) The Secretary of State may not make a statutory instrument containing (whether alone or with other provision)—

(a) regulations under section 3(1) or (3)(b),

(b) regulations under section 22,

(c) regulations under Part 2,

(d) regulations under Part 3 other than regulations made by virtue of section 46(2A)(c) (power to prescribe fee for making application), or

(e) regulations under section 50 that amend, repeal or revoke provision made by primary legislation or retained direct principal EU legislation,

unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(6) Any other statutory instrument made by the Secretary of State containing regulations is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

(7) The following regulations made by the Scottish Ministers are subject to the affirmative procedure (see section 29 of the Interpretation and Legislative Reform (Scotland) Act 2010)—

(a) regulations under Part 3 other than regulations made by virtue of section 46(2A)(c);

(b) regulations under section 50 that amend, repeal or revoke provision made by primary legislation or retained direct principal EU legislation.

(8) Any other regulations made by the Scottish Ministers are subject to the negative procedure (see section 28 of that Act).

(9) The Welsh Ministers may not make a statutory instrument containing (whether alone or with other provision)—

(a) regulations under section 3(1) or (3)(b),

(b) regulations under section 22,

(c) regulations under Part 3 other than regulations made by virtue of section 46(2A)(c), or

(d) regulations under section 50 that amend, repeal or revoke provision made by primary legislation or retained direct principal EU legislation,

unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, Senedd Cymru.

(10) Any other statutory instrument made by the Welsh Ministers containing regulations is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of Senedd Cymru.

(11) In this section “primary legislation” has the meaning given by section 50.’—(Victoria Prentis.)

This new clause makes provision about regulations under the Bill (except regulations under clause 51).

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 5

Taking of dog without lawful authority etc

“(1) A person commits an offence if, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the person takes or detains a dog in England—

(a) so as to remove it from the lawful control of any person, or

(b) so as to keep it from the lawful control of a person who is entitled to have lawful control of it.

(2) No offence is committed if the person taking or detaining the dog is connected with any of the following—

(a) any person entitled to have lawful control of it;

(b) where it is removed from the lawful control of a person, that person.

(3) A person who commits an offence under this section is liable—

(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding the maximum summary term for either-way offences or a fine (or both);

(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or a fine (or both).

(4) In this section—

“connected person”: a person is connected with another person if—

(a) they are married to each other,

(b) they are civil partners of each other,

(c) one is the parent of the other, or

(d) they are siblings (whether of the full blood or the half blood);

“detaining”: references to a person detaining a dog include the person—

(a) inducing it to remain with the person or anyone else, or

(b) causing it to be detained;

“maximum summary term for either-way offences”, with reference to imprisonment for an offence, means—

(a) if the offence is committed before the time when paragraph 24(2) of Schedule 22 to the Sentencing Act 2020 comes into force, 6 months;

(b) if the offence is committed after that time, 12 months;

“taking”: references to a person taking a dog include the person—

(a) causing or inducing it to accompany the person or anyone else, or

(b) causing it to be taken.” —(Victoria Prentis.)

This new clause, which will be added to Part 3, creates an offence, committed by taking or detaining a dog in certain circumstances. The offence applies in England.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 6

Power to extend section (Taking of dog without lawful authority etc)

“(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations amend section (Taking of dog without lawful authority etc) so that it applies not only to dogs but also to one or more other species of animal.

(2) The power under subsection (1) may be exercised in respect of a species only if the Secretary of State considers—

(a) that animals of that species are commonly kept as pets, and

(b) that there is evidence that—

(i) animals of that species are capable of forming bonds with people who keep them, and

(ii) removing an animal of that species from a person with whom it has formed a bond may adversely affect its wellbeing.

(3) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.” —(Victoria Prentis.)

This new clause, which will be added to Part 3, confers a power to extend the new offence relating to the taking or detaining of a dog so as to apply in relation to other species.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 7

Prohibition of Sow farrowing stalls

“In Schedule 8 of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 omit sub-paragraph 6(2).”—(Daniel Zeichner.)

This new clause would the end the use of sow farrowing crates.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

We move on to what could be called the second half of the Committee—Labour’s animal welfare Bill. I suspect that there will be a division on new clause 7, which is about pigs. Schedule 8 of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 allows female pigs to be kept in small metal crates for the period beginning seven days before the predicted day of their farrowing and ending when the weaning of the pigs is complete—a process that lasts around four weeks. This clause would put an end to the use of those sow farrowing crates.

Compassion in World Farming tells us that every year, over 200,000 sows are subjected to this procedure, the purpose of which is to try to reduce the risk of the sow lying on and crushing her new-born piglets. We acknowledge that that is clearly a problem for farmers. However, as a result of their seeking to achieve that aim, sows are forced to spend weeks in stalls, unable to turn around. Alongside the crate in the pen is a creep area for the sow’s piglets. The piglets are able to reach the sow to suckle, but she is unable to clean and interact with them.

Farrowing crates are also a major concern because they prevent sows from building their nests. Even if nest-building material is provided—sadly, that does not always happen—sows do not have room to build them. Not allowing sows to behave naturally can make them frustrated and stressed, and the sow is more likely to savage the piglets in farrowing crate systems. I do not think there is much dispute anywhere about the desire to find a way forward on this issue.

Alternatives to farrowing crates, many of them designed by British farmers and engineers, are already commercially available in the UK. We should support British ingenuity and pig welfare by requiring the use of these higher-welfare systems. Labour has long been committed to ending the cage age and banning sow farrowing crates, and many others from across the political spectrum are committed to the cause—including, it would seem, the Prime Minister, who claimed in the Chamber that as a result of Brexit, we would be now able to introduce such a ban. The issue was very close to the heart of Sir David Amess, who earlier this year brought forward a private Member’s Bill, the Pig Husbandry (Farrowing) Bill, that sought to ban the use of farrowing crates.

However, I am also mindful of the challenges facing pig producers, particularly at the moment. I have spoken about this frequently in recent months, and have urged the Government to give swifter assistance. As we speak, the culling of healthy pigs continues on farms, because despite the welcome announcements a few weeks ago, neither the temporary visa scheme nor the private storage scheme has yet come into effect. Sadly, it may be mid-December before the 800 skilled pork butchers arrive, and in reality, help may not come before the new year, so the situation remains very serious.

We will press the new clause to a vote, and are signalling our intention to bring in a ban when in government, but I reassure the industry that we will work closely with it to make sure that a ban is introduced in a way that does not damage the industry. We all want higher standards. This goes to the heart of the trade debate. There is no point imposing higher animal welfare standards here if the suffering, and the industry, is merely exported elsewhere. The Government have repeatedly told us that we should trust them on not allowing lower-standard food products to be imported. Frankly, we do not, but if we take them at their word, the amendment should not create a problem. I suspect many Government Back Benchers are not entirely persuaded either.

I note that the Government’s action plan for animal welfare says they

“are currently considering the case for introducing further reforms, on areas such as the use of farrowing crates for pigs”.

Here is their opportunity. It is time to move on and end the suffering caused by farrowing crates.

The hon. Gentleman, with whom I remember discussing this issue at some length during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, will know that we are very much of one mind on this issue. My difficulty is that the new clause would cause an immediate ban.

The Government’s action plan on animal welfare said that we are considering the case for further reforms in this area. Our stated aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary. We want any new system to protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets, but an immediate ban on the use of farrowing crates for sows without full consideration of the implications for animal welfare and the pig sector would have a significant impact on the industry. We spoke to Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, earlier this week. She said:

“To suggest an immediate ban”,

as the hon. Gentleman suggests,

“on the use of farrowing crates would be the final straw for the majority of indoor producers and would trigger a mass exodus from the pig sector, thus exporting production to countries with lower welfare standards. Far better to work with the sector on a longer term transition, which we have already begun.”

Some 60% of UK sows are kept indoors and use farrowing crates, so moving overnight entirely to free-farrowing systems would require a fundamental change for pig producers, and significant investment. I am keen to ensure we have a realistic phasing-out period that is sustainable for the industry, so that we can achieve the welfare goals shared by Members from across the House. I do not consider this Bill to be the appropriate delivery mechanism, so I cannot support the new clause, and I ask that it be withdrawn.

The Minister is absolutely right: we sat here two years ago and had exactly the same conversation. The question is: when? That is the problem. I do not disagree with Zoe. I will speak to her about this in a few days’ time. I have made it absolutely clear that we would not make this change without working with the industry to ensure that the dangers the Minister mentioned, of which we are all aware, do not come to pass. This animal welfare Bill is an opportunity to take a stand. That is why we will put the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a second time

New Clause 8

Review of compensation for livestock owners in cases of livestock worrying

“(1) The Secretary of State must carry out a review of the appropriate measures to compensate livestock owners for cases of livestock worrying.

(2) In conducting the review the Secretary of State must—

(a) consider the appropriate measures for compensating livestock owners who have been the victims of livestock worrying;

(b) consult the public and such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate on livestock worrying;

(c) bring forward legislation based on the findings of the review within 12 months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act.”—(Daniel Zeichner.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review of appropriate measures to compensate livestock owners who have been victims of livestock worrying.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

This new clause returns us to part 2 of the Bill, on dogs attacking and worrying livestock. As I said on Tuesday, we want to address the issue of compensation for farmers who are victims of livestock worrying. As we noted then, livestock worrying has a significant financial impact: in 2020, the total costs were around £1.3 million, while data from NFU Mutual indicates that in the first quarter of this year, the cost of dog attacks on livestock rose by more than 50%. That insurer said that its total claims for January to March of this year were estimated at £686,000—up from £453,000 for the same period last year.

As we discussed on Tuesday, contributing factors may well be increased dog ownership and, since the first coronavirus lockdown, more people accessing the countryside with a lack of understanding of how to behave there. That is why organisations including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance supported the requirement for dogs to be on leads when around livestock. We have had that debate, and the Committee chose not to go down that route, but that does not mean that we cannot use our deliberations as an opportunity to look at whether there are ways to offer support to livestock owners. I listened closely to the moving words from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review of the appropriate measures to compensate livestock owners for cases of livestock worrying. It would also require the Secretary of State to bring forward legislation based on the findings of the review within 12 months of the date of the Bill receiving Royal Assent.

This is not a simple issue, but given that there are rights of way, and that we all want more people to enjoy access to the countryside, it is reasonable, when those various rights collide, to at least consider the consequences for those who live in the countryside and whose living is made by raising livestock. Is there a public responsibility to help in those situations? The need to find the right balance calls for a proper review.

We absolutely understand how distressing and financially damaging livestock worrying can be for farmers. The legislation makes reforms to provide police with more powers to tackle dog attacks on livestock, so that we can identify and, we hope, prevent repeat offences. That should, in turn, lead to fewer instances of livestock worrying, but we will monitor that closely.

However, we appreciate the importance of not leaving farmers out of pocket when they fall victim to livestock worrying attacks. We agree that suitable and effective compensation mechanisms are key. There are various ways that farmers can recoup their losses, including through out-of-court settlements, civil compensation claims and insurance claims. Insurance is often claimed via the NFU, which is, as we know, the UK’s leading rural insurer. The NFU estimates that the cost of dog attacks on farm animals was around £1.3 million in 2020, and the average value of an NFU claim in this area was £1,329. Most livestock worrying incidents are resolved in out-of-court settlements through the community resolution process. That is the police’s preferred route; it allows the victim to be compensated swiftly without escalation, and relies on an agreement between the victim and the suspect.

We are happy to consider how well existing mechanisms—other than insurance via the NFU and other providers—work. We will work closely with the industry and the police to ensure that that happens. By modernising the legislation and improving the enforcement mechanisms, we aim to reduce livestock attacks in the future. We hope that, through improved awareness, with dogs being kept away from livestock and on leads where appropriate, there will be less need for compensation. I therefore ask that the new clause be withdrawn.

In the light of the Minister’s response, for which I am grateful, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 10

Regulation of the keeping of hunting dogs

“(1) The Secretary of State must, within 12 months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act, make regulations providing for licensing of the keeping of one or more dogs used for the purposes of hunting.

(2) It shall be an offence to keep a dog which is used for hunting without a licence.

(3) For the purposes of this section, “hunting” includes, but is not limited to—

(a) hunting any animal; and

(b) trail hunting or other hunt simulation.”.—(Daniel Zeichner.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations for licensing of the keeping of one or more dogs used for the purposes of hunting.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 11—Hunting dog welfare: review and consultation

“(1) The Secretary of State must carry out a review of the welfare conditions of dogs used for hunting.

(2) In conducting the review the Secretary of State must—

(a) consider the welfare conditions of dogs used for hunting;

(b) consult the public and such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate on the welfare of dogs used for hunting.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report on the findings of the review, which must set out recommendations for action.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to conduct a review into the welfare conditions of dogs used for hunting.

New clause 12—Ban on the use of a dog below ground in the course of stalking or flushing out

“The use of a dog below ground in the course of stalking or flushing out is prohibited.”.

New clause 13—Removal of exemption of hounds under the Road Traffic Act

“(1) The Road Traffic Act 1988 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 27 (Control of dogs on roads), in subsection (4) omit paragraph (b).”.

You might not like this one so much, Mr Davies—or some might not. New clauses 10, 11 and 12 are about the welfare of hunting dogs. I am grateful to the League Against Cruel Sports for its advice on the new clauses.

New clause 10 would require the Secretary of State to make regulations within 12 months of the passing of the Bill that would require individuals who keep one or more hunting dogs to obtain a licence, and it would make it an offence to be in possession of hunting dogs without a licence. New clause 11 would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review of the welfare of dogs used for hunting. At the core of these issues is a concern about the welfare of hunting dogs and that the absence of a robust licencing system has resulted in some hounds experiencing poor welfare conditions.

Unlike dog boarding kennels, which are commercial and therefore licensed, hunt kennels are not licensed and are regulated by the code of practice for the welfare of hounds in hunt kennels. The code sets out that euthanasia is not an offence so long as it is done in an “appropriate and humane manner”. It says that, for adult hounds over the age of 10 weeks, a humane killer should be used, and that hounds of all ages may be put down by a veterinary surgeon with an overdose of Euthatal. The issue is that hunt kennels are not independently inspected, and so there is no independent monitoring of hound welfare and the euthanasia of hounds. As a result, hound welfare concerns are unlikely to come to light, and when they do, reports of how the dogs are treated sometimes fall well below expected standards.

Last month, ITV published an exposé of the killing of hounds by the Beaufort hunt, which included videos of hounds being dragged outside and shot, including one hound that was shot twice, minutes apart, before it died. It is believed that the shooter was not a trained veterinary professional. This clearly does not constitute appropriate and humane euthanasia. I watched the footage, and I suggest others do so, although it is upsetting. A number of those commenting in the ITV piece, including a Conservative MP, urged regulation. That is what we propose.

In 2015, the Daily Mirror published a report on the treatment of hunting dogs, including the testimony of a former hunter who said that the whipping of dogs was commonplace and that hounds are disposed of when they are perceived to have failed in any way. In the past, when the debate over the future of hunting was raging, I visited the West Norfolk Foxhounds to speak to people directly. My strongest memory of that visit was of the hounds themselves—big, strong dogs, totally unsuitable for rehoming. When I asked what became of them, the answer was honest and clear: “We shoot them.” Some will say that that is just the way of it; that is a reality of rural life. I do not think that is good enough in 2021, and my sense is that most people living in rural areas do not think so either.

It is our view that such weak regulations and the lack of monitoring of hunting kennels leave hounds open to poor welfare conditions. Given that we license dog boarding kennels, I do not see why the same approach is not taken to hunt kennels. Are we saying that somehow the welfare of hunting dogs is not important?

I would like to make it clear that I am not saying that all hunts necessarily treat hounds in that way, but the lack of monitoring makes it difficult to know how they are treated. Given that the Bill is an animal welfare measure, I believe that we should be seriously concerned about the limited understanding of how hounds are treated and the lack of a licensing system to protect their welfare. New clauses 10 and 11 would rectify that.

New clause 12 would ban what is known in the hunting world as terrier work. That terminology describes a hunting activity whereby terriers are introduced into a hole in the ground to flush out or force a wild mammal to escape. If the wild mammal does not escape from the hole immediately, those in charge of the dog will dig down to access it—a process that can take hours, I am told. If the wild mammal—usually a fox, but sometimes a badger—does not subsequently bolt from the hole, there can be an underground battle. That is not only cruel to the wild animal being flushed out, but to the dogs, who risk being forced into a dangerous confrontation, which can result in severe injuries or death.

I am afraid that there is also, in our view, the real risk that the practice is used as a cover for illegal hunting with dogs. Although hunting with dogs is illegal, we are told that those who work with terriers still sometimes accompany hunts under the guise of trail hunting. There is of course little reason for that since no live wild mammals should be being hunted and there should be no need for support to flush out a wild mammal. Recently, in a notorious, high-profile case, Mark Hankinson of the Masters of Foxhounds Association was found guilty of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on foxhunting. The prosecution was the result of leaked footage of webinars hosted by the Hunting Office in August 2020, during which, among other incriminating comments, Mr Hankinson said that terrier work is “our soft underbelly”.

The League Against Cruel Sports reports that, in addition to its role in foxhunting, terrier work continues to occur as a stand-alone recreational pastime for individuals and gangs of people across the country who enjoy using their terriers to attack foxes and badgers. It stated that evidence it has gathered suggests that putting dogs underground to chase and fight foxes can lead to some of the worst cruelty cases associated with hunting. Given the harm that terrier work can cause to dogs, the new clause banning the practice is long overdue.

New clause 13 would remove the exemption for hunting dogs from section 27 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, under which local authorities may specify “designated” roads where dogs must be kept on leads. Sadly, every season there are incidents of hounds causing chaos by running across roads when trail hunting. During the March 2019-20 hunting seasons, the League Against Cruel Sports received 128 reports of hunts causing havoc on roads. Eight involved foxes being chased across roads by hounds that were supposedly trail hunting. The league also received reports of 10 hounds involved in road traffic collisions. Five of them were killed.

Removing the exemption would mean that a hunt had to abide by the same rules as any other dog owners on designated roads. Again, that should not pose a challenge to legal hunts. If trail hunts are operated properly, they can be organised in a manner whereby there is no possibility of hounds ending up on the road. The route of any trails laid should be properly planned, well away from such hazards. In cases of exempt hunting, hunts should have sufficient control over hounds to prevent them from unexpectedly marauding across and along roads. It should be added that not all roads are designated, so hunts will still be allowed to cross certain roads if the council allows it.

The Government are committed to improving the welfare of all dogs. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 puts obligations on all animal keepers to meet the full range of welfare needs. It is backed up by the statutory code of practice, to which we referred extensively on Tuesday, for the welfare of dogs.

The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 raised the maximum penalty for cruelty to five years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Local authorities have powers under the 2006 Act to act where a dog is suspected to be suffering. The local authority can enter the land and take control of the animals. As we know, local authorities often work very closely with the RSPCA.

The Committee will remember that dog licensing was abolished in 1988. I remember buying a licence for our springer spaniel at the post office as a child—it cost 37p —but apparently only half of all owners bought one. We did not find that dog licensing ensured the welfare of dogs or restricted who was able to keep them. We would need sufficient evidence of welfare concerns to treat one type of dog differently from another.

Ministers and officials regularly meet local authorities and key animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust, the Canine and Feline Sector Group, and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. They have not suggested to us that this type of dog is a priority area for review—I must confess that most of our recent conversations have been about puppy smuggling—nor have we received evidence of welfare concerns applying to dogs who go below ground, although the RSPCA did tell us that terrier-type dogs do have inherited behaviours to instinctively go below ground. I am always happy to receive evidence, however.

Finally, the proposed exemption to the Road Traffic Act 1988 requirement for dogs to be on a lead when on a designated road is available where it can be proved that a dog was, at the material time, under proper control —we are back to that debate. We have not received evidence of animal welfare concerns—although I did hear what the hon. Member for Cambridge said earlier—relating to this particular exemption or to the mirroring exemption for sheepdogs working on a designated road. For those reasons, I ask that the new clauses be withdrawn.

I thank the Minister for her response. I suspect that we will not find agreement on this. I do not think that there is any need to rehearse the arguments at length, but the Minister’s licensing argument is weak, frankly. On that basis, we will not pursue all the new clauses, but I will press new clause 10, on the basic welfare of hunting dogs, to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

New Clause 14

Commercial movement of pregnant cats and dogs

“The importation of pregnant cats and dogs for commercial purposes is prohibited.”—(Olivia Blake.)

This new clause would prohibit the commercial importation of pregnant cats and dogs.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

New Clause 15

Sale of dogs with cropped ears

“(1) Dogs with cropped ears may not be sold in England.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to the rehoming of rescue dogs by official rehoming organisations.”—(Olivia Blake.)

This new clause would prohibit the sale of dogs with cropped ears in the England.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

The new clause would ban the sale of dogs with cropped ears, although obviously not if they have been rehomed by official rescue organisations. We have been over the issue during our debates, but this new clause is about the sale of such dogs, rather than their transportation into the country. Let us see what the Minister has to say.

The mutilation of dogs’ ears has been banned in the UK for some time, but there is currently no ban on imports, so as we heard in evidence, sadly the numbers continue to rise. The Bill includes an enabling power that will allow us to restrict such imports on welfare grounds via secondary legislation. We recently consulted widely on the issue and received 14,000 responses, of which we will publish a summary early next year. We are also working closely with the devolved Administrations on the matter.

In summary, we already have the powers to take action, and we are working through the process of doing so. I therefore ask for the new clause to be withdrawn.

As I said earlier, this practice has increased by 621%, which is obviously concerning. I hear what the Ministers says, and although a ban on sales would be welcome, we will not push the new clause to a vote.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 16

Snare traps

“Snare traps may not be used in England in areas where there is a possibility that kept animals may become intentionally or unintentionally ensnared.”—(Olivia Blake.)

This new clause would prohibit the use of snare traps in the England where there is a possibility that they might ensnare kept animals. Snare traps are thin wire nooses that are used to catch foxes, rabbits and stoats but can also catch other animals such as cats.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

Under new clause 16, we propose a ban on the use of snare traps in England in areas where there is a possibility that kept animals might be ensnared, whether intentionally or not. Snares are imperfect, indiscriminate traps that regularly cause unnecessary suffering and harm to kept animals as a result of incorrect usage and inadequate legislation. Although snares can legally be used only to trap certain species, in reality it is impossible to limit the species or type of animal that gets trapped in a snare. As a result, non-target species are often caught and suffer through exposure and injury.

The current legislation, which was introduced in 2005, is failing to protect animals from harm. It proposed a code of practice on snares, setting out best practice on their use and guidance on where and how to set them. Unfortunately, compliance with the code is voluntary, which severely negates its effectiveness. A 2012 report by DEFRA found that although awareness of the code was high, levels of compliance with best practice were, sadly, exceedingly low.

The same report found that 1.7 million animals were caught in snares each year. Of those, 33% were hares, 26% were badgers, 25% were foxes and 14% were other animals. In 2015 alone, the RSPCA reported 717 calls from members of the public about animals caught in snares, including 157 cats, 58 dogs, 10 equines and 307 wild mammals. The reality is that without more controls over the placement of snares, there is no way to prevent more kept animals from being snared and injured, whether intentionally or not.

I absolutely recognise that snares can be used improperly, and that non-target species, such as livestock, and particularly cats, can get trapped in them, sometimes fatally. The code of practice to which the hon. Lady referred was set out in 2016, and tries to ensure that snares are not set near domestic dwellings, where pets may be trapped.

We continue to work on the issue. In our action plan for animal welfare, we have committed to opening a call for evidence on the use of snares, which we hope to publish shortly. We encourage Members across the House, and indeed members of the public, to make their views known when we open the consultation. In those circumstances, I ask that the motion be withdrawn.

I understand what the Minister says about more consultation, but the Opposition feel that the matter is clearcut and we wish to press new clause 16 to a vote. A lot of time has passed since the code of practice came in; as I say, it is sad to hear that it has been ineffective in resolving some of the issues.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

New Clause 17

Regulation of online animal sales

‘Operators of websites facilitating the sale of kept animals must—

(a) verify the identity of all sellers advertising on their website;

(b) where a cat or dog for sale is under 1 year of age, require the seller to publish on the website at least one photograph of the animal for sale with one of its parents; and

(c) remove listings by commercial sellers which do not include that seller’s licence number.’—(Olivia Blake.)

This new clause would regulate the online sale of animals by requiring websites where animals are sold to verify the identity of all the sellers on their website. It would also require the website to make sellers who wish to sell a cat or dog aged one year or less publish a photograph of the animal with one of its parents.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Order. I do apologise; the Whip had meant to adjourn the Committee, but she did not do it in time, so please carry on.

Thank you, Mr Davies—I will be quick. I am sure that everyone knows about the “justice for Reggie” campaign, which has been working tirelessly better to regulate online sales of animals following a tragic experience. Reggie was a 12-week-old Labrador who was sold online through a reputable website that advertises thousands of puppies for sale, but he was sold without proper care from a breeder and with insufficient checks to safeguard his welfare and wellbeing. Within 12 hours of Reggie arriving home with his new owners, he fell gravely ill. He spent the next three days receiving care at a vets before dying of parvovirus. His death was painful and horrific, and his owners were understandably still traumatised because of their ordeal. Following Reggie’s death, it was discovered that false documentation had been provided, and in fact Reggie was unwell at the time of the sale.

The new clause proposes further regulation of online animal sales to prevent situations such as Reggie’s happening again. It would require all websites that sell animals to verify the identity of all sellers. It further proposes that all prospective sellers who wish to sell a cat or dog aged one year or less must post a photograph of the animal with one of its parents. Putting such checks on a legal footing would help strengthen the use of online sales—unfortunately, I do not think we can end them—and is essential to prevent animals being sold with falsified or no documentation. We could therefore ensure that all animals sold come from reputable, trustworthy breeders.

The Government take this issue seriously and have recently taken several steps to strengthen pet breeding and selling regulations, including banning the third-party sale of kittens and puppies. We are also encouraging the responsible sourcing of pets via the national “petfished” campaign.

The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 introduced a wide range of real welfare improvements for pet breeding and pet sales. The object of the regulations was to update and improve the existing welfare standards. They also provided a template for adding further activities in future, when necessary. The regulations make numerous requirements of pet sellers and dog breeders who are licensed relating to the keeping of records and advertising. Any licensed pet seller or dog breeder advertising animals for sale will need to include their licence number in the advert and specify the local authority that issued the licence. Additional requirements relating to adverts include a requirement for the age of the animal to be displayed alongside a recognisable photo. That said, we are always looking to make improvements where possible. We will review the regulations before October 2023.

Our regulations aim to ensure that sellers and breeders become responsible, but I understand that the hon. Member’s concerns are about online platforms used by sellers; that is what the new clause covers. It may be helpful to outline the work that the Government are doing. We support the work of the pet advertising advisory group—PAAG—created in 2001, which aims to combat concerns regarding the irresponsible advertising of pets for sale, rehoming and exchange. It comprises various animal welfare organisations, trade associations and vet bodies. It has been engaging with online marketplaces in the UK to help them to distinguish appropriate adverts and take down those that are not.

DEFRA has backed a set of minimum standards developed by PAAG. Encouragingly, several of the UK’s largest classified websites have now agreed to meet those standards. I look forward to working closely with PAAG. I therefore ask the hon. Member not to move the new clause.

I thank the Minister for the response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mrs Wheeler.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill (Fourth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Yvonne Fovargue, James Gray

† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)

† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

† Brown, Alan (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)

Browne, Anthony (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)

† Cairns, Alun (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)

† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)

† Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con)

Duffield, Rosie (Canterbury) (Lab)

† Fletcher, Mark (Bolsover) (Con)

† Hands, Greg (Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

† Owen, Sarah (Luton North) (Lab)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Wallis, Dr Jamie (Bridgend) (Con)

† Whitehead, Dr Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)

Whittaker, Craig (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Sarah Ioannou, Rob Page, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 18 November 2021

(Afternoon)

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill

Clause 2

Designation of nuclear company

Amendment proposed (this day): 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the Secretary of State is of the opinion that the nuclear company is able to complete the nuclear project.”—(Dr Whitehead.)

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to give a view that a designated nuclear company is able to complete the project for which it is designated.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Welcome back to the Chair, Ms Fovargue.

I believe that the intent of the amendment is already captured in the approvals framework for the regulated asset base. That includes the process for designating a project and then modifying its licence, and wider due diligence on the project. The Government simply would not allow a company to enter into a RAB revenue collection contract if there were cause to doubt the ability of the company to complete construction, a point made slightly more pithily by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend in his intervention on the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. We expect to say more about how the Secretary of State will make this judgment in our statement on the designation criteria, which we will publish in advance of any consultation on designation.

Before considering the matter of licences, let me return to the question asked earlier by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Sizewell C does have a licence, as within the terms of clause 1(2). He said that he could not find the link to the licence on the Ofgem website, so I will commit to write to him, copied to the Committee, with that link.

Designation is very much the first step in the process of amending a developer’s licence to include the RAB conditions. At the point of designation, no commitments have been made; a project will be under development, and further negotiation is required between the developer and the Government. The process is open and transparent and includes consultation at several stages, meaning that a project will be designated only at an appropriate point.

Let me deal with the points raised about various RAB projects in the United States. It is not unreasonable to look at foreign experiences, but it is important to separate the experience of another country in developing and delivering a nuclear power plant from what part of that experience was due to a RAB model. There were several unique circumstances linked to the failure of the South Carolina Virgil C. Summer project, which was referred to, and the parent company, including—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon?

Sorry. I was just wondering to myself whether the Minister had looked all this up during lunchtime. If so, I congratulate him on doing so.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention—I think it was an intervention—from a sedentary position. As the Energy Minister, I have to be aware of what is going on in the world of nuclear globally, so no, I did not look it up during lunchtime, actually; I have looked into this and other US plants. The failure of the Virgil C. Summer project—I think that is the one he was referring to—and the parent company included arrests and a conviction for fraud. There were also issues linked to design and supply chain immaturity, as well as a lack of experience with the construction of new nuclear projects. Those issues are pretty far removed from its status as a RAB project. I do not think those risks in South Carolina are applicable to the UK.

I fully accept that the Minister did not look that up at lunchtime and that he is fully apprised of the circumstances surrounding the South Carolina project. However, does he not accept that the issues that he has mentioned as relevant to the failure of that project—it was entered into without proper consideration of a lot of things that, as he said, were at least in part responsible for its failure—are precisely the sorts of issues that we would expect him to take into account and sort out before deciding on the designation of a project in this country?

Broadly speaking, the answer is yes. I think that all of those factors, if known at the time, would be considered when the Secretary of State makes the designation. That is the point. Of course they would be factors, were they to be known. I cannot put myself in the shoes of the governor of South Carolina—if indeed it was the governor of South Carolina who made the decision—but if he were or had been of the opinion that the project could not have been completed, he would surely not have made the designation at that time. I am slightly hesitant to stray into the politics of South Carolina, but doubtless the governor was of the opinion at that time that the project would have been completed. The hon. Gentleman uses South Carolina as an example, but I do not think that his amendment would have helped the governor make that decision.

This is not just a question of the factors, which are already covered in the Secretary of State’s determination of a RAB designation. The timing is also important. A project has to go through many stages and approvals post designation of a RAB. To include the hon. Gentleman’s additional definition at this stage might be premature, though I doubt it is needed at all, for the reasons pithily put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend about the chances of the person making the decision being of the view that the project might not be completed. If that were the case, I think it would be a highly material fact in determining whether to designate a RAB. I do not believe that this amendment is necessary in order to meet the laudable objectives that Opposition Members seek to achieve. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

I hear what the Minister says about the amendment, but I am not entirely convinced that he has made the case that he thinks he has made as to why this addition is not necessary for the designation process. After all, we are not talking here about a particularly adept and alert Minister in a particular Administration taking a decision on Sizewell C. As the Minister has said, this Bill is supposed to deal with decisions that might be taken under other circumstances, for other projects, at other times, with other Ministers, and possibly other Administrations. It is important that we put in legislation everything that we think could go wrong with a project and its designation process, so that the legislation is robust for the future.

On South Carolina, the Minister is right. The project failed as a result of a series of interlocking issues. Those issues were not necessarily associated with the RAB process, which is what we are considering in this Bill, but there were wider concerns that should have been apparent to legislators in South Carolina when the project was commissioned and went ahead. Many of the things that the Minister alluded to that occurred in South Carolina were not unforeseeable events. They were events that could have been analysed out at the time of the designation of the plant. Essentially the amendment seeks to address that issue.

We will not press this amendment to a vote—indeed, we will withdraw it—but we have put on the record our belief that the Secretary of State should have a very substantial hand in ensuring, as far as possible, that the project really can come to completion. I am sure that the Minister is with me on that and agrees that that should be the process by which we conduct designation.

Even if it is not explicitly in the Bill, the fact that the Minister has indicated that he thinks that a number of these issues can be covered within the designation elements is perhaps a step along the path to ensuring that these processes can be carried out properly. I do not wish to proceed with the amendment on that basis, but we need to do a proper job at the point of designation, for the protection of investors, for the project and for the customers who pay for it.

Just to probe the hon. Gentleman on this, if I may, one of the criteria is whether the project is sufficiently developed to warrant a RAB. At what point does he think that the fact that the person making the decision might not necessarily think it would be completed would mean that they do not think it is sufficiently developed to start the process? Surely, if they did not think it was going to finish, they would not think it was ready to start either?

The Minister puts that as a binary choice, but it is not because there are circumstances. That is essentially what happened in South Carolina. A number of people thought that it was a fine project that would go ahead; they put forward impossible timelines for the project to work on, there were very difficult financing arrangements and the RAB was placed on top of that. Yes, they may have thought that the project could come to completion, but it was not a very well-founded thought, and nor was it arrived at on the basis of the sort of diligence we should expect from the approach to a project the size of, say, Sizewell C.

The amendment’s intention is not to make the Secretary of State make a choice based on a potential view, when designating a project, that it might not be completed. He should do all that work, and indeed be publicly accountable for it, when ensuring that his view is as well founded as possible and that it will stand the test of time as the project progresses. There are points of landing between knowing whether a project is not going to be completed, and being sure that it is going to be completed. When making a designation, the Secretary of State should be held accountable for arriving at an informed position, which can be scrutinised in future, on whether it is reasonable and realistic to say that a project is likely to be completed. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

This clause, through subsection (1), gives power to the Secretary of State to designate by notice a nuclear company to benefit from a RAB. The later provisions of this part mean that the designation power can only be exercised with appropriate protections and transparency of decision making. Subsection (3) sets out the criteria a company must meet to be eligible for designation: that the Secretary of State must be of the opinion that, as previously debated, the nuclear project is sufficiently advanced to justify the designation, and that designating the company in relation to the project is likely to result in value for money. In considering value for money, it is expected that the Secretary of State will take into account considerations such as the cost to consumers and the impact on our net zero obligations. As set out in clause 3, the Secretary of State will be obliged to publish details on the process that he will follow when assessing whether the criteria are met.

The eligibility criteria offer important protections for consumers and taxpayers. A company can have access to a RAB only when the Secretary of State is convinced that it is a good project and sufficiently advanced, and where the likelihood of cost overruns is remote. The Secretary of State will also need to consider whether using the RAB to fund the project is likely to represent value for money.

I will come to this in my own comments, but is it not the case that the Secretary of State gets to sign off whether he thinks a project is value for money and sufficiently advanced, and then a statement is published giving the reasons for that? However, the Secretary of State gets to write the rules for the sign-off. Is it not the case that no clear structure or checklist will be gone through so that the Secretary of State can sign off such projects?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that the process and the checklist is set out pretty well. If he would like, I can run through how the process works when we get to the later clauses and look at the specifics of the process. It might appropriate to take him through that.

When considering value for money, the Secretary of State is expected to have regard to the cost to consumers, future security of supply and our decarbonisation targets. The Secretary of State can designate multiple nuclear companies at any given time, so more than one project can be designated for a RAB at the same time, but the designation criteria, project status and likely value for money will be applied individually to each project.

Following on from my intervention, I have real concerns about the clause—we will come later to clause 3—and the lack of transparency in what constitutes value for money. In signing off projects, the Secretary of State has to give an opinion on whether they are suitably advanced to justify a designation, but what constitutes “suitably advanced”? What considerations must the Secretary of State be compelled to make to ensure that a project is suitably advanced to give the correct level of detail and analysis for cost definition in sign-off? We should bear in mind that sign-off for a 60-year contract ties up consumers.

I do not see those considerations in the Bill. The Minister said that he would take the Committee through them, but how does the Secretary of State consider how suitably advanced a project is? Does there have to be a working prototype? There is no working prototype of the evolutionary power reactor model generating electricity to the grid. The projects in France and Finland are years late, over cost and still not connected to the grid—and, as I said earlier, the Taishan 1 EPR is now offline due to safety concerns. How can the Secretary of State have any confidence that a project such as Sizewell C is suitably advanced when there is no working prototype?

What other permissions need to be taken into account to determine whether a project is suitably advanced? Does it need to have planning permission? Does it need to have gone through all its environmental appraisals and have all its environmental approvals in place? Are there other things to consider? How far is outline design to be developed? Is there a level of detail to consider to determine whether a project is suitably advanced? How much site investigation work needs to be undertaken before a Secretary of State can have confidence that a project is suitable advanced, bearing in mind the cost of a 60-year contract? Should consideration be given to a company’s track record on deliverability? That takes us full circle to how there is not an EPR up and running. In a way, that touches on what the shadow Minister said about having confidence that a project can be delivered when not one project has yet been delivered successfully.

The Government are in advanced negotiations on Sizewell C, which is the most well developed nuclear project at the moment. Does it come close to the definition of “sufficiently advanced” or does a lot more work need to be done? That takes us full circle back to the discussions earlier about the £1.7 billion allocated in the Red Book. The Minister has still not given us any clarity on what the £1.7 billion is for. Is it to allow the Sizewell C company to develop the project further to get it to a position that the Secretary of State thinks is sufficiently advanced? That would mean that, by default, the Secretary of State knows what “sufficiently advanced” means, so we should be able to understand what the £1.7 billion is going to pay for. Hopefully, all that can be explained.

EDF has claimed it is using Hinkley as a prototype that it will replicate at Sizewell C. It will accrue savings and just move the design almost lock, stock and barrel from Hinkley into the footprint at Sizewell C. I would have thought that, by default, that means the project is sufficiently advanced such that we do not need the £1.7 billion to advance it any further. A bit of clarity on that would be useful.

We need a lot mor