Skip to main content

Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 12 July 2022

National Security Bill (Third sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Rushanara Ali, † James Gray

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

† Eagle, Maria (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)

† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)

† Everitt, Ben (Milton Keynes North) (Con)

† Hart, Sally-Ann (Hastings and Rye) (Con)

† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)

Hosie, Stewart (Dundee East) (SNP)

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

† Jupp, Simon (East Devon) (Con)

† Lynch, Holly (Halifax) (Lab)

† McPartland, Stephen (Minister for Security)

† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)

† Mann, Scott (North Cornwall) (Con)

† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)

† Mumby-Croft, Holly (Scunthorpe) (Con)

† Phillips, Jess (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)

Sambrook, Gary (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)

Huw Yardley, Bradley Albrow, Simon Armitage, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 12 July 2022

(Morning)

[James Gray in the Chair]

National Security Bill

I welcome the Committee to the line-by-line consideration of the Bill. Let us first have a few moments of parish notices. Many people here are old hands at this business, but some are not. Members will therefore forgive me if I talk them through the way in which the Committee ought to consider the Bill, from the beginning—forgive me if I am telling you things that you already know.

The Bill before you is the Bill as agreed, without Division, on Second Reading. The purpose of the Committee is to consider the Bill in detail and seek to improve it. That is done by any member of the Committee tabling amendments. Most often, amendments are tabled by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, although anybody can do so. On this occasion, there is also a large number—perhaps larger than usual—of Government amendments. We talk through the amendments.

Amendments are grouped on the selection list before you and are linked together by subject. If there are amendments across the field on a similar subject, they are debated together in one group. Amendments are then voted on not at that time, but when we get to the relevant part of the Bill; amendments are debated together, but often we will vote on them two or three days later, as we come to them. That removes the confusion on that part. The Member who tabled the lead amendment in a group starts the debate. Others may then catch my eye. Members may speak as often as they like on each amendment, although we might seek to avoid overdoing it.

Behaviour, as it were, is identical here as to that in the main Chamber. Things such as eating and drinking are not allowed, and—to begin with, at least—gentlemen are wearing their coats. I am a very old-fashioned traditionalist and tend to start that way. However, if somebody at some stage wanted to make a point of order, I might be persuaded to change that particular rule—for the first time in my 25 years as a Chairman, mark you, but these are extreme conditions. I am sure that the Doorkeeper will kindly ensure that everyone has plenty of water, as we need to be aware of the heat today.

Clause 1

Obtaining or disclosing protected information

I beg to move amendment 46, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, leave out “prejudicial” and insert “damaging”.

This amendment seeks to clarify the tests to be met before the offence of obtaining or disclosing protected information is committed.

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Amendment 47, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, after “safety or” insert “critical”.

This amendment seeks to clarify the tests to be met before the offence of obtaining or disclosing protected information is committed.

Amendment 48, in clause 27, page 21, line 4, at end insert

““critical interests” includes security and intelligence, defence, international relations and law and order”.

This amendment seeks to clarify the tests to be met before the offence of obtaining or disclosing protected information is committed.

Clause stand part.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I welcome the new Minister to his place and wish him all the best in his new role. I certainly foresee this experience as being thrown in at the deep end, but it is a Bill on which there is broad consensus, so I hope that it is not too much of a baptism of fire and that he enjoys it.

It is nice to be able to join colleagues. I was sorry to miss the evidence session last Thursday, as I was indisposed, but I have read the transcript, and the session seemed to prove incredibly useful. I therefore did not miss the usual experience I have at around this time of a Bill Committee, when I think, “If only I had been able to hear or read that evidence before drafting my amendments, they might have been slightly different.”

Let me reiterate our position: the vast majority of provisions in the Bill are welcome and probably long overdue. Clause 1, like clause 4, implements part of the Law Commission’s review recommendations. The clauses are broadly welcome and should stand part of the Bill. Our amendments to clause 1, like most of the handful of other amendments we have tabled, are simply designed to probe whether the offences are drawn tightly enough. The crimes that we are talking about are serious—the offence in clause 1 can lead to life imprisonment. I do not think that anybody on the Committee would say that that is not appropriate when a person steals or hacks protected security information at the behest of a foreign Government and puts the lives of UK citizens at risk.

The amendments are simply designed to ask whether the offence might catch conduct that it was not intended to catch, particularly behaviour that might embarrass the Government but is not in any genuine sense prejudicial to our safety. The shadow Minister put that question to the Law Commission witnesses last Thursday. Professor Lewis responded that such questions are probably legitimate in relation to the Official Secrets Act 1989 and leaks, but the offence is different in this case because of the requirement to be acting for a foreign power. She said succinctly:

I think we are in a slightly different realm here: the realm of espionage and not the realm of leaks.[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 52, Q98.]

On the whole, I absolutely accept that point, and I fleetingly considered withdrawing some of the amendments, but there are questions about whether that distinction is 100% correct. There are legitimate concerns—they were raised on Second Reading and in the written briefings provided to MPs in advance of it—that the clause also catches behaviour that is more akin to a disclosure under the 1989 Act.

Article 19 and the Campaign For Freedom of Information argue that some of the broad concepts used in clause 1 combine in a way that puts civil society organisations and journalists at risk. I am grateful to those groups for their Second Reading briefings, which have largely prompted my remarks this morning. They point to several features of the clause that cause difficulty. First, it covers material that does not bear a security classification, and information is in scope even if it is not restricted but the person receiving it reasonably believes that it should have been.

Secondly, the concept of “safety or interests of the United Kingdom” is essentially determined by the Government of the day, so it is a policy of the state and, potentially, a broad concept. Thirdly, as well as not being confined to hostile states, the foreign power condition appears to be met simply by obtaining funding from a friendly Government who are pursuing perfectly reasonable aims.

That combination of factors gives rise to concerns for NGOs and journalists. I will give some hypothetical examples of each, which I have borrowed from Article 19. Let us say that an NGO in the UK has some general overseas funding from a friendly Government to campaign on climate change. The Government of the day decide that fracking or new coal are essential for UK interests—who knows where we might be in a few months’ time? The NGO is provided with leaked information undermining that policy—perhaps about the safety record of the company being lined up to operate the plan—and publishes it. Has the NGO involved committed a criminal offence? The way the clause is worded suggest that it might have.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made the point that lots of excellent organisations receive funding from overseas foreign powers, as they are currently defined. In fact, a list would include ActionAid, Anti-Slavery International, Article 19, Client Earth, Global Witness, Index on Censorship, Media Defence, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Privacy International, Reprieve—from which we heard evidence last week—and Transparency International. The funders of those NGOs include organisations such as the Danish International Development Agency, IrishAid, New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, and the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons—there are many more in that vein. That is why we have concerns about the effect of clause 1 on NGOs.

In contrast, if a different NGO—one just across the road—had published that document online, it would not be committing an offence, not just because it does not receive any such foreign funding, but because the 1989 Act is more specifically about the subject matter or material that leads to an offence of disclosure—namely, it would have to relate to security and intelligence, defence, international relations and law enforcement. Environment or energy policy—or fracking, in my example—would not be covered. The punishment under the 1989 Act would be two years’ imprisonment, not life, so there is real inconsistency between the disclosures caught by the Bill and those caught by that Act.

My second example relates to journalism. What happens if, rather than directly publishing the leak, the NGO passes it to a journalist who reports the leaked information as part of their story? If that journalist is employed by a UK news organisation, all is well, because the foreign power conditions are not met. However, if the journalist works for another Government state broadcaster—even a friendly one—the foreign power condition is adequately met. One reporter commits no offence at all; another reporter—who perhaps works for Danmarks Radio or any other state broadcaster—commits an offence that could mean life imprisonment.

Our amendments offer different ways of addressing that. Amendment 46 would reintroduce the test of damage. Interestingly, the Law Commission’s proposals for reform of the 1989 Act recognise that damage can sometimes act as a public interest test, and that it is a concept worth keeping in relation to offences that could be committed by journalists or citizens generally, even if the Law Commission was arguing for removing it in relation to other disclosure offences.

Our amendments would also clarify what interests are protected by that serious offence, and would match the clause up with what is protected by the 1989 Act. Amendment 48 mentions simply “critical” interests—meaning security, intelligence, defence, international relations and law and order.

There is another alternative that I will come to later, which relates to fixing the foreign power clause so that NGOs are not caught if they get funding from benign foreign powers for perfectly reasonable purposes. Those are different alternatives, and I would be interested to know whether the Government accept that those two scenarios are caught by the clause. If so, what is their response?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to be here in Committee. I will start with the clause and then deal with the amendments tabled by—let me see if I can get this right—the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East.

Thank you.

I will quickly respond to some of the hon. Gentleman’s points. There are a variety of protections throughout the Bill. One is that someone has to be doing activity designed to benefit or help a foreign power in order to commit an offence. Secondly, most of the offences in part 1 of the Bill need sign-off from the Attorney General. Thirdly, the Crown Prosecution Service has to be satisfied that prosecuting is in the public interest. Those are three very large protections that exist throughout the Bill. As we go through the Bill clause by clause, we must always remember those three big principles.

I will start by referring to the recent case of the individual working in the British embassy in Berlin who was extradited and charged, and to the conviction of a Ministry of Defence contractor in 2020 under the existing espionage legislation, which indicate the threat that is posed by those looking to harm the United Kingdom by committing espionage. Clauses 1 to 3 create four separate but overlapping offences to ensure that the Bill proportionately covers the wide range of threats and harms that constitute espionage, without capturing legitimate activity. The clauses are supported by other provisions in the Bill, including the “prohibited places” provisions, by building on and modernising our existing tools in the Official Secrets Acts 1911, 1920 and 1939. The new provisions continue to criminalise harmful activity while reducing the risk of loopholes that can be exploited by sophisticated state actors. I will speak later to clauses 2 and 3, and to the “prohibited places” regime.

Before I get into the detail of the offence set out in clause 1, it is important to flag that, along with other offences in the Bill, it will apply only in circumstances where there is a clear link between the activity and a foreign power. This is provided for by the foreign power condition, which we will discuss in more detail later. In essence, a person’s conduct must be carried out for, on behalf of, or with the intention to benefit a foreign power. This responds to the recommendation, made by the Law Commission in its 2020 “Protection of Official Data” report, to move away from outdated concepts.

The foreign power condition includes activities carried out with the financial or other assistance of a foreign power. The concern is that if an NGO gets regular funding for environmental or human rights work, it would be accidently caught by the foreign power condition. A journalist who works for a friendly state broadcaster would also be caught by the foreign power condition. We still think that such scenarios are a concern.

As I said earlier, we have three huge protections. One is that activity must be for, or on behalf of, a foreign power. I understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making, but there are another two layers on top of that protection. The first is that the Attorney General’s consent must be obtained. Secondly, the Crown Prosecution Service must be satisfied that prosecution would be in the public interest. Those are three very strong layers of protection that would help protect an NGO if it were to do something inadvertently.

I welcome the Minister to his place. Having such protections in place is all very well, but the real issue is the chilling effect this could have in the kinds of circumstances that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has set out. It is not right, is it, for us to criminalise activity that we do not really want to criminalise, but then say, “Well, the Attorney General will sort it out later in each individual case.”? That is not really a very good way of legislating.

We are not talking about legislating in that way. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, we are saying that there are three layers of protection. The first layer is that people would be deemed to be obtaining or disclosing protected information for, or on behalf of, a foreign power. The next layers would involve the Attorney General and the Crown Prosecution Service. The hon. Lady, as a lawyer, will be very well aware that the CPS always determines whether it feels it is in the public interest to prosecute. People will not be caught up by accident, and I think we are getting into theoretics by going further and further down that line.

Okay, we will just go with Cumbernauld. The hypothetical example referred to a Government of the day diversifying their energy sources so that, potentially, they were less reliant on fuel and power from a possibly hostile foreign state. The Minister has detailed the extra layers of defence that will act in the public interest. Does he agree that in the hypothetical example cited we would want some protection from foreign interference in Government policy—a democratically elected Government of the UK?

My hon. Friend is correct. Three tests must be met for someone to be prosecuted: conducting harmful activity with regard to information that is protected effectively, knowingly prejudicing the safety or interests of the United Kingdom, and acting in a way that benefits a foreign power. Forgive me, but I do not believe that an NGO will accidentally fail all three of those tests.

But it may, because subsection (1)(b) states that a person commits an offence if

“the person’s conduct is for a purpose that they know, or ought reasonably to know, is prejudicial”.

An NGO might think that putting something into the public domain is in the public interest. They may not even take into account that that disclosure may damage UK security. For example, in this morning’s newspapers—

The story of alleged shootings by the SAS has clearly been put into the public domain. I would argue that disclosure is not in the public interest of the UK, but people are arguing that it should be in the public domain.

That example demonstrates how important the Bill is, because it sets out that activities that are illegal will still be illegal if actors are acting in a particular manner. The Bill is trying to bring current provisions up to date to provide our intelligence services with the toolkits they need to keep our nation safe and secure. I believe that the three tests are strong enough to help provide those protections.

I accept that, but just take this morning’s example cited on the BBC of the alleged illegal acts by the SAS. Someone has got the information, put it in the public domain and may feel that it is in the public interest for it to be scrutinised. Will that damage our interests? Yes, it will. The Government might think that that disclosure will help a foreign power or damage our interests—and I would argue that possibly it will—but that is not to question the judgment of the individuals who have decided that the allegation should be in the public domain.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I believe that we have three very strong tests that must be applied: the information must benefit a foreign power, the Attorney General must consider the case, and the CPS must decide that it is in the public interest to prosecute. Those three tests and protections run throughout the Bill.

I recognise that the Minister is trying to make progress and I apologise for intervening, but does he have any concerns about the Attorney General test? Does he think that the Attorney General does not protect the Government from embarrassment? Does he think that the law always comes above with the Attorney General?

Current events demonstrate that we never protect the Government from embarrassment!

Before I get into the detail of the offence itself, it is important to flag that, along with other offences in the Bill, it will apply only in circumstances where there is a clear link between the activity and a foreign power. That is provided for by the foreign power condition, which we will discuss in more detail later. It responds to recommendations in the Law Commission’s 2020 “Protection of Official Data” report about moving from outdated concepts such as “enemy”.

Clause 1 enhances our ability to tackle the threat of espionage by introducing a modern offence to capture those unlawfully obtaining, copying, recording, retaining, disclosing or providing access to protected information. Protected information is any information, document or other article that is or could reasonably be expected to be subject to a form of restriction of access in order to protect the safety or interests of the United Kingdom—for example, if the information is stored within a secure Government building or has a form of restricted classification. Protected information can cover a wide range of Government material, including information such as raw data, documents such as committee reports and other articles such as memory sticks.

Protected information includes, but is not limited to, classified material. That is important, given that serious harm can be caused by obtaining or disclosing seemingly non-sensitive information that, if used in a certain way by sophisticated state actors, could be capable of damaging the United Kingdom’s national security. However, I want to be clear that the definition will not cover truly benign items such as the lunch menu of the Home Office canteen.

Like the existing espionage provisions, and as recommended by the Law Commission, clause 1 will require that a

“person’s conduct is for a purpose…prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom”.

The term

“safety or interests of the United Kingdom”

has been interpreted in case law as meaning the objects of state policy determined by the Crown on the advice of Ministers, which includes national security. That enables the United Kingdom to respond to threats targeted against its wide range of interests.

Amendment 46 would require that a person’s conduct be instead for a purpose that they know, or ought reasonably to know, is damaging to the safety or critical interests of the UK. That would create a higher evidential threshold to secure prosecution in an area that is often difficult to evidence due to the sensitive nature of the information that may have been obtained or disclosed. Put simply, we would have to explain why it caused damage, which may require evidence that compounds the damage. That would provide challenges to our law enforcement agencies and courts, and is likely to result in fewer prosecutions being pursued, offering further opportunities to those looking to harm our country through acts of espionage. The use of “prejudicial” mitigates some of that risk.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the difference between those two words, but can he give us an example? The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East gave a theoretical example to illustrate why he tabled the amendments. Can the Minister give us an example of something that is prejudicial and not damaging?

You are very welcome. I would not want to get it wrong.

Amendments 47 and 48 would introduce and define the term “critical interests”. In the amendments, “critical interests” is defined to include security, intelligence, defence, international relations and law and order. Although I recognise that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East tabled the amendments to attempt to specify exactly what should fall under UK interests in order to add clarity, I must stress that it limits the scope and utility of the clause 1 offence and risks creating loopholes that could be exploited by those looking to harm the UK. There is also the risk that the offence would become quickly outdated as the UK’s interests naturally and properly evolve. Notably, the list does not include economic interests or interests relating to public health, to name just two areas that would be overlooked by such a definition. Those are areas that are targeted by hostile actors and should rightly be protected.

The safety or interests of the UK test is used not only in clause 1, but in several other offences throughout part 1 of the Bill, such as sabotage or entering a prohibited place with a purpose prejudicial to the UK. There is a risk that creating a notably different test under the clause 1 offence would confuse the legal interpretation of the tests under those other offences and may have a significant impact on their operational utility.

Finally, I reiterate that the test of a person conducting activity

“prejudicial to the safety or interests”

of the UK already exists and is understood in the courts. Just last week at an oral evidence session, the law commissioner invested considerable time and effort in reviewing this area of law, outlining their support of the Government’s decision to retain that term. They commented that the

“safety or interest of the state is consistent with a lot of the wording that already exists within the Official Secrets Act…and it avoids what might risk being an unduly narrow focus on national security.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 52, Q97.]

Moving away from the amendments, it should be noted that instead of using “enemy”, as in the espionage provisions, the offence in clause 1 includes a foreign power condition. That moves the offence away from labelling countries as enemies, which is less relevant in the 21st century.

The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood asked about the difference between prejudicial and damaging. The damage requirement would require the court to demonstrate harm and explain why it is damaging, whereas prejudice is broader and could include reducing future opportunities. That will also mitigate some of the risks associated, as I have said. It provides a wider test so that we can intervene at an earlier stage of a plot or something else that would affect our national security.

I turn to the extent of the provisions under the 1911 Act. An activity that takes place wholly outside the UK would be an offence only if it is committed overseas by a UK national or officer, such as a Crown servant. Technological developments in a more global world mean that it is now more likely that information that warrants protection to safeguard the safety or interests of the UK may be vulnerable to activity that takes place outside the UK by a wider range of actors—for example, a locally engaged security guard working in a UK embassy stealing papers, or the theft of information held there digitally via cyber means.

To keep pace with the modern threat, the extraterritorial jurisdiction for the offence has been expanded so that the offence can be committed anywhere in the world and by anyone, regardless of their nationality. The extraterritorial jurisdiction is a critical reform within the offence as a better defence for the United Kingdom against a modern espionage threat, whose global nature is not reflected in the current provisions in the espionage offence of the Official Secrets Act 1911.

Another key difference from the existing offence is the increase in the maximum penalty available to life imprisonment. The emergence of modern vectors such as cyber means that espionage has the potential to cause a greater level of harm than was possible in 1911 when the United Kingdom’s espionage offences and penalties were first drafted. In the most serious cases, an act of obtaining or disclosing protected information can result in the loss of life or can gravely undermine the United Kingdom’s ability to defend itself from a range of threats. This demonstrates the United Kingdom’s resolve to make it more difficult and detrimental for hostile actors to undermine our country’s interests and safety by committing acts of espionage.

Although we will come to this in more detail later in Committee, I want to flag a key safeguard that applies to prosecutions to this and other serious offences in part 1. Given that state threat activity and the United Kingdom’s response can have a significant impact on the safety and interests of our country and wider international relations, the Attorney General’s consent, as I said earlier, must be obtained in the case of England and Wales before a prosecution is taken forward. In Northern Ireland, the consent of the Advocate General must be sought.

I stress the importance and need for reform of the espionage laws in the Official Secrets Acts 1911, 1920 and 1939. Recent and ongoing events make it clear that the threat from state threat activity, particularly acts of espionage, is of continuing concern and we must have robust protections in place. The introduction of the offence of obtaining or disclosing protected information as a core part of the Bill provides measures to tackle the harmful espionage activity that the United Kingdom faces. That is why clause 1 is so vital. I encourage my fellow Committee members to support it and I ask that the hon. Member withdraw his amendment to it.

Before I call the shadow Minister, it might be helpful if I clarify the order of debate that I normally expect to see. The person who has proposed an amendment moves it. By and large, anybody else then takes part in the debate, including the shadow Minister. The Minister replies to the debate and then the proposer gets a short whack at the end. On this occasion, I will call the shadow Minister, and then the Minister will have an opportunity to reply before the proposer rounds up.

I am eternally grateful, Mr Gray. It is great to see you joining as Chair of this Committee on this particularly important piece of legislation. Thank you for the refresher on the order in which the Front-Bench spokespersons take part in proceedings.

We have had a highly unconventional start to this Bill Committee. I do not think anybody is more relieved to see the Minister in his place—perhaps the Government Whip. I really do welcome the Minister to his place and wish him all the very best. I know he has made every effort to get across the detail of the Bill in the incredibly short time he has had to prepare. I echo the sentiment we expressed on Second Reading and offer him the assurance that the Bill has our support. It is right, and increasingly urgent, that our laws are updated. We intend to be nothing but constructive in our scrutiny, deliberations and suggested additions, as we work together to ensure that the legislation is as effective as we all need it to be.

The Home Office’s impact assessment is clear that:

“The threat from hostile activity by states is a growing, diversifying and evolving one, manifesting itself in several different forms including espionage, foreign interference in our political system, sabotage, disinformation, cyber operations, and even attempted assassinations.”

I was struck by the testimony of Sir Alex Younger, the former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, in last week’s evidence session. In response to a question about how threats to the UK have changed, he said:

“What I would call grey threats…often presented us with real challenges, particularly when actors or states felt themselves at war with us and we did not feel ourselves at war with them, for good reason.

My career saw less emphasis on conventional threats and more on grey space. Most of my career was devoted to counter-terrorism, which was the dominant example, but subsequently we saw state actors working in subthreshold space—operations short of conventional war—to harm us.[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 11-12, Q21.]

Following detailed pieces of work such as the Intelligence and Security Committee’s “Russia” report and the Law Commission’s “Protection of Official Data” report, we have been calling for progress in this legislative area for many months, so we welcome the opportunity to work with the Government to get it right.

As the Minister has outlined, clauses 1 to 3 will introduce three new espionage offences: obtaining or disclosing protected information, obtaining or disclosing trade secrets, and assisting a foreign intelligence service. As was highlighted by the Government’s integrated review in 2021, state threats to Departments, national infrastructure, British businesses and private individuals are growing and becoming ever more complex. The situation in Ukraine and the ongoing Russian aggression have brought about an urgency to introduce new offences in this area, but make no mistake: this has been an emerging trend in contemporary national security threats for years.

The director general of MI5, Ken McCallum, in his joint address to UK businesses, journalists and academics with the director of the FBI last week, said that alongside the situation in Ukraine, the

“most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party. It’s covertly applying pressure across the globe… We need to talk about it. We need to act.”

I thank the director general and all those who are working so hard in our UK intelligence community for the work that they undertake around the clock to keep us safe. They have to respond to threats that most of us cannot begin to comprehend. We are grateful for their service, and it is at the forefront of our minds as we consider what they need from us in order to do their job. Therefore, these new offences, which reflect the changing dynamics of the challenges to our national security, very much have our support.

Clause 1 criminalises obtaining or disclosing protected information. Further to the Minister’s introduction to the clause, we heard from the witnesses last week about the need for the clause. It is a particular focus of the Law Commission’s “Protection of Official Data” report, and the commission confirmed that it was satisfied that the offences

“reflect well the recommendations that we made.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 50, Q94.]

In explaining why the offences are required, the “Microsoft Digital Defence Report”, which was published in October last year, identified that Chinese actors engaged in this type of activity mostly targeted data and intellectual property exfiltration. A broad range of sectors has been targeted, including comms infrastructure, the defence industrial base, IT, education, law firms and medical research. Interestingly, the report said:

“In the last year, espionage, and more specifically, intelligence collection, has been a far more common goal than destructive attacks.”

However, rather than commercial or industry targets, Microsoft’s data shows that

“nearly 80% of those targeted were either in government, NGOs, or think tanks.”

Its analysis suggested that,

“Think tanks often serve as policy incubators and implementers, with strong ties to current and former government officials and programs. Threat actors can and do exploit the connections between the more traditional NGO community and government organizations to position themselves to gain insights into national policy plans and intentions.”

The theft of research, policy development and datasets has been the focus of hostile state actors in recent months, so we are satisfied that there is a need for the new offence created by clause 1.

On Scottish National party amendments 46, 47 and 48, tabled by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East—this is the third Committee I have served on with him, and it has taken three Committees for me to be able to reference his constituency with any degree of certainty—we will also seek to probe some of the questions that he highlighted.

There are some recurring principles throughout the Bill, which manifest themselves in clause 1, and it would be useful to work through them in these early stages. The condition that

“the person’s conduct is for a purpose that they know, or ought reasonably to know, is prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom”

must be satisfied in order for the offence to have occurred. The principle of “ought reasonably to know” recurs in the offences created by clauses 1, 2 and 3, and later in the Bill, so I am keen to work through the notion, further to the conversation I have had with the intelligence community directly. In some of my discussions, there has been a sense that a clear and robust representation may be made in order to communicate to a person that their conduct, if it persists, will bring them within the scope of the offence.

One example is the security services interference alert, issued in January to Members of this House. One would expect that that would put it beyond any doubt that the conduct of someone continuing to engage or supply information to an individual named in that way is prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom, removing any ability to plead ignorance. Is that type of formal intervention required for someone to commit an offence under the “ought reasonably to know” stipulation? If not, will the Minister provide further clarity about the other ways in which he envisages that condition being met?

Former members of the UK’s intelligence community have put it to me that the combination of a relatively broad definition of “protected information” in clause 1, combined with a maximum sentence for these offences being imprisonment for life, a fine or both makes the clause quite a beast, in terms of what it does. I recognise the need for seriousness for all the reasons I have outlined, but I am mindful that “protected information” has a much broader definition than “classified information”. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that a naive young person visiting the House of Commons comes across a misplaced hard copy of what should be a password-protected document, takes a photo and puts it on their Facebook page—if that is indeed what young people use for social media nowadays. For other potential scenarios, hon. Members are limited only by their imagination. I have no doubt that they will be relieved that I will leave it to just that one. As stupid and unhelpful as that is, has that person opened themselves up to life imprisonment?

The Minister said that the Home Office menu will not be captured by these offences, but there is a plethora of examples between the Home Office menu and very serious information, and that requires some working through. I am sure the Minister will assure me that there will be sliding scale of offences up to and including life imprisonment at the disposal of the judiciary, which will presumably be dealt with in the sentencing guidelines. Will he confirm that that will be the case? Can he remind Members of the process of the development of the sentencing guidelines, and the timeframe in which we might expect to see them alongside the Bill? An indication of the value of the fines available to the judiciary would also be incredibly helpful.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady and I thank her for her kind words. She asked a number of questions, which I will do my utmost to answer.

Protected information is information, documents or other articles to which, for the purpose of protecting UK safety or interests, access is restricted, or it is reasonable to expect that access would be restricted. The hon. Lady’s example of taking a photograph inside the House of Commons would not be considered that. Throughout the Bill there are three tests. First, would the activity assist a foreign power? Secondly, would the Attorney General give consent? Thirdly, would the Crown Prosecution Service consider it to be in the public interest to prosecute? Taking a photograph inside the House of Commons or of something a bit more restricted than the Home Office lunch menu would not come under the provision.

The hon. Lady referred to the director general of MI5; this is about giving the Home Office, the intelligence services and the intelligence community the tools they need to tackle the wider threat. The British public trust the UK intelligence community to do the job and to have the powers. People often worry when other agencies get wider powers, but that is not what is happening in the Bill.

On being able to intervene at an earlier stage, the provisions in the Bill provide a toolkit to allow the intelligence community to intervene earlier in some matters in order to work with people to stop them progressing into specific acts that would break the law. It will help people who may be going down the wrong path, as well as helping the intelligence community to act at a much earlier stage.

I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in the debate and to the Minister for his response. As I say, I absolutely accept the case for a clause such as this one. However, the Minister’s explanation of the protections in place in respect of the two scenarios that I outlined falls a long way short of what I would regard as satisfactory.

I outlined three solutions or protections. One was the foreign power condition; I have explained already why both the NGO and the journalist in those scenarios would meet the foreign power condition, so that does not work. Thereafter, we are left with the Attorney General and the Crown Prosecution Service. That offers no protection at all. From the point of view of the rule of law, people need to know whether they have broken the law or are committing an offence that is punishable by life imprisonment. We cannot leave that journalist or NGO in that position by saying it all depends on what the Attorney General or the Crown Prosecution Service thinks.

I have no idea whether the Attorney General or the Crown Prosecution Service would regard that NGO and journalist as having committed an offence that they would want to prosecute. As Members have said, that leaves a big chilling effect on that NGO and journalist. They have no certainty that they will not be prosecuted for the activities they undertake. They open themselves up to the possibility of life imprisonment for what, on the face of it, has all the characteristics of a disclosure of information, which should be dealt with, if at all, under the Official Secrets Act 1989 rather than in this Bill.

I have been told that this may be outside the scope of the Bill, but it seems to me that what is missing from it is a public interest defence for those individuals. That protection not being in the Bill opens people up to what the hon. Gentleman describes.

That is a fair point. In the light of the lack of satisfactory safeguards we have heard this morning, we may have to revisit that question. There is an issue of scope in relation to sticking that into the 1989 Act, but I do not see any reason why we could not include it in some of the offences in this Bill. Unless the Government can come up with better safeguards than have been offered this morning, we are going to have to revisit that.

I urge the Minister to go away and think about this issue. I am actually more worried about those two scenarios now than I was at the start of the day. I am not absolutely sure that the amendments that I tabled are the right ones, so we will revisit the issue on Report. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Obtaining or disclosing trade secrets

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

Clause 2 provides for an offence of obtaining or disclosing trade secrets. It will be an important tool for law enforcement and the intelligence agencies to detect, deter and protect modern espionage activity. It will introduce an offence to criminalise the illicit acquisition, retention or disclosure of sensitive information with a commercial, industrial or economic value linked to its secrecy for, on behalf of or to benefit foreign states.

There is an inherent link between economic prosperity and our national security; we cannot ignore one and expect the other not to suffer as a result. We must respond to the fact that our adversaries and competitors are already acting in a more consolidated way, taking a whole-state approach to state threat activity. It is crucial that we ensure our legislation covers the wide range of threats and harms that constitute modern espionage.

For the purposes of this legislation, a person commits an offence if they obtain, copy, record, retain, disclose or provide access to a trade secret; additionally, the person’s conduct must be unauthorised and they must know or ought reasonably to know that their conduct is unauthorised. As with clause 1 and a number of other provisions in the Bill, there must also be a link to a foreign power, such as an intention to benefit that power or to direct tasking by that power.

The clause provides for a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. That reflects the severity of the conduct and the potential damage to the UK, its businesses and our economy, as well as being comparable to existing similar legislation.

The Minister said that there must be a direct link to a foreign power. May I give an example? Suppose that somebody obtains information and gives or sells it not to a foreign power but to a competitor business. Is that covered under the legislation?

The legislation takes civil offences and makes some of them criminal. That case would remain a civil offence. What we are doing is providing the intelligence services with the tools they need to prosecute people who hand over trade secrets in the criminal system. For example, MBDA in my constituency builds Brimstone missiles, which are currently being used in action. If some of those secrets were to be removed and handed over, that would be difficult for the people using those missiles and for the country. There are clear examples of how the loss of trade secrets threatens the country and our allies’ lives.

I agree, but is it the case that to prosecute under the Bill there will need to be a causal link from the individual to a foreign power and not necessarily to a competitor in the UK?

My understanding is that the action would have to be done on behalf of or for the purposes of a foreign power. If it was done unknowingly, it would be for the lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service to decide how to proceed.

In the example that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham gave of a person obtaining information and trade secrets and selling them to a competitor business, if that business had a complex ownership structure that led back to, say, China, would that be enough for the person to fall foul of the legislation?

I appreciate the question and understand the spirit in which it was asked. However, one thing that we must be careful of is laying out exactly what someone must do to fall foul of the legislation. If we did, in that example, the Chinese would create that structure and be in a position to use it ensure that anybody acting on their behalf would not fall under that power. We must provide the intelligence agencies with the tools that they need to interdict and decide whether such people can be pursued and taken to court. As we have seen, it is difficult to get anybody on espionage. However, as we have said throughout proceedings, we do need the foreign power condition, or to reasonably know, and reasonableness is a huge test within English law, so a person would have to reasonably know that what they are doing would benefit a foreign power.

The offence under the clause is first and foremost a national security offence. We have created a definition of “trade secret”, found in subsection (2), which is intended for use in the state threats context. The introduction of the definition in the offence will help to address the increasingly diverse set of tactics employed by state actors to undermine the UK’s national and economic security and target a wide range of information.

There is no specific criminal offence in UK law that directly criminalises the threat to trade secrets by or for the benefit of foreign states. We have trade secrets regulations that transpose European law, but they serve a different purpose. We have therefore modified the definition of “trade secret” to ensure that it is suitable for our specific purposes. For example, as well as requiring that protections are in place that would limit the utility and potentially impose obligations on businesses, the definition in the Trade Secrets (Enforcement, etc.) Regulations 2018 does not account for information with a potential value. We are seeking to capture early-stage ideas such as research as well as established ideas that are more likely to be subject to protective measures.

Subsections (1)(b) and (3) set out in the instances in which a person’s conduct is unauthorised and what that means. The clause uses the term “unauthorised” because it focuses on the consent of the person with the power to give that consent. We want to make it absolutely clear that legitimate conduct is not captured by this offence. For the purposes of this offence, a person’s conduct is unauthorised if they are not entitled to determine whether they are able to carry out the conduct in question—for example, if they disclose a trade secret to a foreign power and they do not have the permission of the person who does have the power to make that decision. An example of where someone is not captured by the offence could be a team of researchers who are working with a foreign power, but although the information they control amounts to a trade secret, their research partnership authorises them to share that information with the foreign power.

Technological developments have enabled espionage and information acquisition to be conducted from a foreign state with greater ease. United Kingdom business interests are often targeted. Implementing an offence with extraterritorial jurisdictions is necessary to defend the United Kingdom against threats posed by foreign powers. The clause applies overseas where the conduct takes place wholly outside the UK, but only where the trade secret is in the possession or control of a UK person.

That is one of a couple of issues that I have. I would like the full information on why the offence can take place only outside the United Kingdom if it is in respect of possession by a United Kingdom national, as opposed to a UK resident or any other description of persons. I do not know whether the Minister can answer that now, but it would be useful to understand it.

I will come back to the hon. Member on that point.

The clause applies overseas where the conduct takes place outside the UK. That includes both a UK national overseas and a UK company based overseas, provided that it is incorporated or was formed, if unincorporated, under domestic law. The clause brings forward an important offence that will form part of a modernised toolkit for our world-class intelligence agencies and law enforcement. It is proportionate to the threat posed by this activity, and imposes no restrictions or obligations on UK businesses, but offers further protections for them, and the UK as a whole, against modern espionage activity. We cannot promote economic prosperity without enhancing our national security and responding to the modern threat posed by espionage.

As the Minister just outlined, the clause creates an offence in relation to obtaining or disclosing trade secrets. The former deputy National Security Adviser, Paddy McGuinness, set the scene for this new offence when he gave evidence last week. On the trade secrets element, he said that it does “a very significant thing”, and continued:

“This kind of legislation and the type of work that Sir Alex and his successors in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are doing has Darwinian effect, so I have no doubt that as companies have got better at certain kinds of protection advised by the interaction with the CPNI and the National Cyber Security Centre, so the opponents have got better at it. And we will have to go on doing it.”

He said:

“It does not feel as though we have quite the same volume of opencast mining of our intellectual property and economic value that we had, as was described previously by General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency in the US. He described the enormous volume—trillions of value—taken out of our economies. There still is a very high level, though, so there is more work to do on this, and it is a significant challenge to the corporate sector to do the right thing in this space, because of the difficulty that it represents.”

He also said:

“The Bill provides a really solid basis for that discussion, because of the criminalisation of the trades secrets aspect.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 25, Q50.]

All that provides an incredibly sobering outlook on the scale of the challenge that we face as a country.

Let me work through some of the detail further. We have some queries about this clause, as we did for clause 1. The seriousness of the clause is underlined by the fact that it creates an offence for which, if someone was found guilty of committing it, they would find themselves with a jail term not exceeding 14 years imprisonment, or a fine, or both. The Minister did not give us that extra bit of detail about the sentencing guidelines in the discussion about clause 1. I wonder if he might be able to return to that point in the discussion on clause 2.

Further to that, I confess that on my first reading and several subsequent readings of the clause, and having listened carefully to the Minister explain the detail of who can be prosecuted and where, it seems to suggest that this offence could be committed only by a UK national. I asked a former member of the intelligence community to have a look at it, and they felt that subsections (4) to (7) on who can commit the offence only seem to refer to a UK person, a United Kingdom national or a British citizen. Only on seeking a legal opinion was it judged that it could be interpreted to apply to non-UK nationals, but only if their criminal activity takes place in the UK. It does not apply where this activity is wholly outside the UK. That same legal opinion queried what it means to be “wholly” outside the UK, as that is unclear in this online age. It is also unclear why obtaining UK-related trade secrets unlawfully is not criminalised for non-UK nationals operating entirely from abroad, as is the nature of a lot of this type of activity.

We are not naive to the additional barriers to bringing someone to justice in these circumstances, yet such activity is no less wrongful because of nationality or where the criminal act takes place. With that in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm, first, for absolute clarity, that this crime can be committed by non-UK nationals when acting in the UK and we could prosecute them using this clause on that basis. Secondly, why does the clause not extend to criminalising non-UK nationals when they commit this offence in the theft of UK intellectual property and trade secrets outside the UK? Will the Minister clarify those points?

Again, we have the principle of “ought reasonably to know”, which warrants further consideration and clarity. On the “ought reasonably to know” threshold, I have it on good authority from former members of the intelligence community that the duping of individuals by nation states into doing the bidding of that nation state is not uncommon tradecraft. Are we satisfied that we have the right balance in that regard? Any clarity that the Minister can provide on the sentencing guidelines would be enormously welcome.

I will not be taking my jacket off, but hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies may take their jackets off if they wish, as it is very hot.

I have three short points building on what Members have already raised in relation to this clause.

First, as raised by esteemed colleagues from the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is a question mark over what happens if somebody recklessly starts dishing out trade secrets, not directly to somebody in way that meets the foreign power condition but in a way that makes that inevitable or very likely. That does not seem to be caught by the clause at the moment, so that is something for the Minister to think about.

Secondly, as I have already asked, I want to understand why the offence is only committed “wholly” abroad if the trade secret is in the possession of a UK national, not, for example, a UK resident who is not a national. The Government have made a conscious choice about that drafting and I am interested to know why.

Finally, the clause states that the offence is committed if

“the person’s conduct is unauthorised”.

Do we need to be a little more explicit about what we mean by authorisation and authorised by whom? I can imagine situations where, for example, the person who we want to prosecute might say, “Actually, my conduct is authorised. It is authorised by the laws of my country,” which may be considerably different from the laws of this country. Does that need to be clarified? That might be implied in the phrase

“the person’s conduct is unauthorised”

but it may be something the Government want to look at.

Earlier, we talked about sentencing guidelines. My understanding is that we are not in a position to give more detail on that yet. That is something I have discussed with the Ministry of Justice, as we will come to later.

With regard to the offence, one issue we have is the offence is designed to catch overseas activity with a strong link to the UK. It has been set at the threshold of a UK offence, so if we extend who it will to apply to, that will end up extending the scope of the offence. It is almost as if we have tried to put a safeguard in place to protect and control it, and the more we extend it, the more it will extend the scope of the offence and bring more and more within its scope, so that is the position we are in.

As a point of clarification, how will it apply to somebody who has indefinite leave to remain, who is not a lawful British citizen in the United Kingdom but very much operating here?

It applies in the sense that if that person were to commit murder, they would be prosecuted in this country under the laws applying to murder.

Effectively, it would apply in the same way. As I have said, with all these offences the Advocate General has to sign them off, and the Crown Prosecution Service as well.

In actual fact, on a number of occasions I have handled cases where someone with ILR in the UK has committed murder abroad and there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it.

I have nothing further to add.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Assisting a foreign intelligence service

I beg to move, amendment 49, in clause 3, page 3, line 30, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert

“activities which are prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.”

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Government amendments 1 to 4.

Clause stand part.

On the face of it, the offence of assisting a foreign intelligence service in the UK or, in the case of UK persons, anywhere else is long overdue. Under the Bill, the offence is rightly a serious one and is capable of seeing a person in prison for 14 years.

We have tabled the amendment to push the Government on whether they have got the scope of the offence right, to ensure that we do not catch people who were not intended to be caught. In particular, is there not a danger that, as drafted, the offence punishes behaviour that might actually be consistent with, or even positively beneficial to, UK interests? That may come about because, as the Minister explained, we no longer have the concept of enemy services and also because of the very limited scope of the prejudice test.

What does “assisting” mean? It means assisting a foreign intelligence service in carrying out “UK-related activities”. Where those activities are outside the UK, it is only an offence to assist that service as a UK person if those activities are

“prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom”.

However, where those activities are in the UK, there is no need for those activities to be prejudicial at all—any conduct which assists those activities is very likely criminal. I can well understand that a clear ban on assisting any conduct that supports Foreign Intelligence Service activities is attractive, but I will give another hypothetical example, which is much more dangerous than my earlier one, because it does not come from any briefing—I have had to make it up myself, so let us see how it goes.

What if the Estonian intelligence services, for example, believe that a member of their embassy staff in London is providing information to the Russians? They ask an Estonian student who lives in the same apartment block as that staff member to allow access to her apartment to undertake eavesdropping, or they ask her to undertake some monitoring, such as noting times of arrival or departure. That activity by the Estonian intelligence services, or by that student on their behalf, seems positively consistent with UK interests, but as drafted, it would amount to a serious criminal offence under clause 3.

The clause is so widely drafted that I worry that lots of people involved in setting up and facilitating a future meeting between the head of MI6 and the CIA might be in danger of committing an offence, whether they pick him up at the airport, provide him with a hotel room or serve him breakfast. I very much look forward to being reassured that that is not the case.

The amendment would ensure that, as with activities outside the UK, conduct here would have to be intended to support activities adverse to UK interests, or to be such that a person ought reasonably to know that it would possibly assist activities adverse to UK interests. There might be different ways of fixing this potential problem—perhaps a different hurdle can be used to assess “in the UK” activities, such as “inconsistent with UK interests.”

On the Government’s amendments, why do the Government intend to turn the relevant provision into a defence, which then puts the burden on the person accused? The explanatory notes talk of clarifying that it is a defence, but that seems a very deliberate change of mind by the Government, especially if one reads the explanatory notes, which say that clause 3(7)

“sets out exceptions to the offence to ensure that legitimate conduct that is within the UK’s interests is not caught withing the offence.”

That is what the explanatory notes say about the original drafting of the Bill, so it is not clear why the Government have had a change of heart, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation.

I understand the thrust of the clause, but I would like some clarification on the definition of assisting a foreign power. I have one historical example, although I think it might not work. Eddie Chapman— Agent Zigzag from the second world war—was working for both sides. He was a UK agent and a Nazi agent. He got an Iron Cross for his misinformation work. In that case, he was not assisting a foreign power, because he was given dud information, but what about the case of a UK-based foreign diplomat who is working against us and supporting his or her nation, but is also then feeding information to us? It could be argued that that individual is working against our interests, because they are working on behalf of that other nation, but separately they might be the source of information. What would happen to that individual?

Gordievsky is a good example; he was in the Russian embassy in London for many years, feeding a lot of vital information to the UK, but his daily activities would have been prejudicial to the UK’s interests. How would the clause apply to individuals like that? Would they be separated out because of their benefit to us, although certain activities they are conducting would not be of benefit? I give just two historical examples, but there might be others in the future. Where would those individuals fall under the provisions in the clause?

As we have heard, the clause introduces a new espionage offence of assisting a foreign intelligence service. A person commits an offence if that person

“engages in conduct of any kind, and…intends that conduct to materially assist a foreign intelligence service in carrying out UK-related activities.”

Once again, we are broadly supportive of the clause. As highlighted by the Government’s own integrated review in 2021, threats to Government Departments, national infrastructure, British business and private individuals are growing and becoming ever more complex as states become more assertive in advancing their aims. The clause goes a long way towards updating the threat posed by modern-day espionage and the changes are long overdue. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2020 Russia report stated:

“The current legislation enabling action against foreign spies is acknowledged to be weak. In particular, the Official Secrets Acts are out of date—crucially, it is not illegal to be a foreign agent in this country.”

Nevertheless, it is important that the Government clarify a number of different aspects of the clause. I highlight two recommendations from the Law Commission’s 2020 review of the Official Secrets Act. Recommendation 12.5 stated:

“In any new statute to replace the Official Secrets Act 1911, the requirement that the defendant’s conduct was capable of benefitting a foreign power should continue to be objectively determined. There should be no requirement to prove that the defendant personally knew or believed that his or her conduct had such capability.”

Will the Minister confirm that that requirement is compatible with the new offence established in clause 3?

The Law Commission also highlighted the danger of an individual unknowingly assisting a foreign intelligence service and then still being charged and convicted with the same offence as an individual who actively sought to assist a foreign intelligence service. This defence is currently accounted for in the Official Secrets Act 1989, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham discussed. I appreciate that that Act is not being updated by this legislation, but the principle still stands. The Law Commission’s recommendation 12.24 stated:

“The ‘defence’, currently contained in section 1(5) of the Official Secrets Act 1989, of not knowing and having no reasonable grounds to believe that the material disclosed related to security or intelligence, should continue to apply.”

It is naive to think that foreign intelligence services advertise who they are and what they are planning to do with any information they are given by someone or in any engagement they may have. The duping of individuals is a somewhat common tool in espionage tradecraft. Let us say that an overseas business research company commissions a UK national to explain how the UK’s parliamentary processes work, but it transpires that the business research company was working for a foreign intelligence service. Under clause 3, could the UK national still be tried for assisting a foreign intelligence service?

We welcome the exemptions in subsection (7) that create an appropriate space for democratic obligations and diplomacy to take place, especially as the Bill makes no distinction between countries that are our allies and those that are hostile and seek to undermine the UK’s interests. However, I also note that the offence is explicit about the definition of a foreign intelligence service. On first reading, I had concerns that where someone is sharing information with a former member of intelligence services, the definition might not extend to criminalising that conduct. As the old saying goes, once a KGB officer, always a KGB officer.

However, given that the definition included in subsection (9) outlines that “foreign intelligence service” means

“any person whose functions include carrying out intelligence activities for or on behalf of a foreign power”,

I understand that anyone sharing information with former KGB officers, for example, would be committing an offence. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is the case.

That was a range of great examples, and I will do my best to address them. The whole purpose of the clause is to provide our world-class intelligence agencies and law enforcement with the tools to respond appropriately to activity conducted in and against the UK by foreign intelligence services that wish to cause us harm. Although the Government understand and appreciate the intention behind the amendment, we propose to reject it.

The distinction between activities taking place inside the UK and those taking place overseas was deliberate. For activity taking place overseas, clause 3(4) requires the conduct to be

“prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.”

That is to ensure that we target the most harmful activity overseas that has an appropriate link to the UK. For activity taking place inside the UK, there is currently no requirement for the activity to be prejudicial to the safety or interests of the UK. However, taking into account the defence in clause 3(7), foreign intelligence service activity carried out in the UK without even informal agreement or assent is inherently prejudicial to the UK’s safety or interests. Having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt why that activity is prejudicial risks creating a high evidential threshold that could, as we try to meet it, potentially compound the damage caused.

Clause 3(4)(a) has been drafted to ensure that the offence can prevent a wide range of activities from occurring and prevent threats from developing. Any legitimate activity would be covered by the three elements of the defence in clause 3(7), so there are appropriate safeguards in place. If a foreign intelligence service carried out activity in the UK and its conduct did not fall under clause 3(7), we must be able to call it out for what it is and prevent further harm from being caused. The current construction of clause 3(4) allow us to do exactly that, and the amendment risks reducing the operational utility of the clause as a whole.

We cannot allow the UK to become a hotbed for foreign intelligence services running covert and deceptive operations. I understand the examples that have been given, and I am looking into some of them, but the reality is that we need to be in a position to protect the intelligence services and give them an opportunity to go out there and deal with these people and the threats we face. As I have said, we have three protections throughout the whole Bill. We are coming up with lots of examples, but by answering each of them specifically, we will just provide our enemies and state threats with ways to work around the offence.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but it is important to work through hypothetical examples so that we can understand the scope of the Bill. I absolutely get his explanation as to why there is a distinction between activity inside and outside the UK, and he briefly mentioned the idea of a friendly foreign intelligence service—in my example, the Estonian intelligence service—having permission to engage in the activities that I described. That may well be the solution. I will take away what the Minister has said. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move Government amendment 1, in clause 3, page 4, leave out line 1 and insert—

“In proceedings for an offence under this section it is a defence to show that the person engaged”.

The amendment clarifies that clause 3(7) contains a defence, rather than an exception, because it may be unclear which of the two it is as currently drafted. In doing so, two changes must be made to the clause. One will insert new wording to show that clause 3(7) is a defence, and the other will insert subsection (7A), which states that the defendant must adduce some evidence to establish that a matter in clause 3(7) is satisfied. The prosecution will then be required to prove that it is not met beyond a reasonable doubt.

We tabled the amendments to provide clarity to the operational community and to make absolutely clear the intention behind the offence. Clarifying that clause 3(7) is a defence places an evidential burden on the defendant to adduce evidence that one of the three conditions in subsection (7) applies to them. If someone raises a defence under subsection (7), the prosecution will need to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the defence does not apply.

There are three separate elements to subsection (7). If it is an exception, the prosecution would be required to prove in all cases beyond reasonable doubt that none of the three elements applies. That would potentially be challenging to evidence, given the wide range of circumstances under which the matters in the clause may arise. In effect, the prosecution would have to prove a negative. Where an offence is believed to have been committed and a prosecution is pursued, subsection (7) being an exception would mean that all three conditions would need to be shown not to apply in each case that is brought forward for prosecution. That is not our intention, and the amendment will mean that defendants must raise a defence under subsection (7), and the prosecution must then prove beyond all reasonable doubt that it does not apply.

We have worked closely with our operational partners, law enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service on this amendment to provide greater clarity about the scope of clause 3. By tabling this amendment to subsection (7), we can more clearly represent the policy intention behind clause 3 as a whole.

I have the Minister’s explanation. We considered the implications of Government amendments 1 to 4 earlier, and on that basis we are satisfied.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendments made: 2, in clause 3, page 4, line 8, leave out “is” and insert “was”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Amendment 3, in clause 3, page 4, line 10, leave out “is” and insert “was”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Amendment 4, in clause 3, page 4, line 10, at end insert—

“(7A) A person is taken to have shown a matter mentioned in subsection (7) if—

(a) sufficient evidence of the matter is adduced to raise an issue with respect to it, and

(b) the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.” —(Stephen McPartland.)

This amendment provides that a defendant bears an evidential burden in relation to the defence in clause 3(7).

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Entering etc a prohibited place for a purpose prejudicial to the UK

I beg to move amendment 50, in clause 4, page 5, line 9, at end insert—

“(7) No offence is committed under subsection (1) if the conduct is for the purposes of protest unless the conduct is prejudicial to the safety of the United Kingdom.”

This amendment would restrict the circumstances in which access to a prohibited place for the purposes of protest would amount to an offence under this section.

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Clause stand part.

Clause 5 stand part.

It is obvious what the amendment is getting at: it is about protest rights, which were raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East, who unfortunately cannot be with us today.

We all broadly see what the Government are trying to achieve. Clause 4 builds on the Law Commission recommendations. It protects prohibited places against entry etc. for purposes prejudicial to the UK. Clause 5 criminalises entry etc. where there is no purpose prejudicial but where there is actual unauthorised entry. I will come back to why that is necessary.

However, as before, given that a person can receive a hefty 14-year penalty if they are found guilty of an offence under clause 4, we want to be clear about whether it has been drafted tightly enough. As with clause 1, issues are created by the breadth of some of the concepts, such as the safety or interests of the UK. Crucially, if a person even approaches or is in the vicinity of a prohibited place, they are at risk of committing this very grave offence if they have a purpose that they ought to know is prejudicial to the safety or interests of the UK. We must bear in mind that clause 8 allows for additional sites to become prohibited, not necessarily for the safety of the UK but to protect its nebulous interests. Again, there is that very broad concept.

In Chandler v. Director of Public Prosecutions, the plan of the folk being prosecuted was to enter a prohibited RAF station and prevent access to others, thus preventing aircraft from taking off. Unsurprisingly, it was held that, objectively, it was access for purposes prejudicial, even if the protesters themselves believed it to be in the interests of the state to get rid of nuclear weapons. It was decided that the interests of the state are not for the jury to decide on, but for the Government of the day.

Of course, many more protesters will approach or be in the vicinity of a prohibited place for peaceful protest with no intention of inhibiting its operations. Others want to cause a degree of nuisance—for example, in minor blockades, chaining themselves to plant pots— with no real risk to safety. The amendment simply asks what the new provisions mean for them. What is the Government’s intention? Is a protest against nuclear weapons in the vicinity of Faslane, which the state currently believes to be in its interest, prejudicial to the interests of the United Kingdom? Would a minor blockade causing temporary inconvenience be in contravention of the clause? Surely these people are not to be convicted of such a serious offence, which carries up to 14 years in prison.

Our amendment would therefore exclude protesters from the scope of the provision unless they put safety at risk. If they do not, why not simply leave the issue to the policing and protest Bills that already exist? I have some problems with how the Government go about dealing with protests and policing, but that is for another day.

Finally, it is not clear to me what clause 5 adds to the current trespass offences, including under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and in particular the section 128 offence of trespassing on a designated site. Why do we need another trespass law? Why a longer punishment? What is the justification for that, and why are we seeking to punish people who simply did not know, but made a mistake?

I sympathise with the amendment. In terms of legitimate protest, I may disagree with, for example, the peace camp at Faslane, but does it fall within the remit of the clause? Is that proportionate in an open and free society? I may disagree with what the protesters call for, but I would defend their right to make their opinions known.

We need clarity and to get the balance right between legitimate protest in the public interest and protecting security. The clause is detailed on access to prohibited areas. The clause states that a person commits an offence if they cause

“an unmanned vehicle or device to access”

an area. That is very clear. A drone, for example, would be prohibited. But what happens in the case of a trained eagle wearing a camera? I think that is covered by “device to access” an area. Will the Minister confirm that if someone strapped a camera to an eagle and sent it over a prohibited site, that would be covered by the Bill?

The clause is clear about inspecting

“photographs, videos or other recordings”,

but how wide is the area? It would cover someone standing with equipment that had access from 20 miles away, but what about somebody just observing through binoculars? Would that be covered? How big is the prohibited area? If we are not careful, the points that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has raised could fall within the scope of the Bill, or be used by the Government to stop legitimate protest or people who have an interest in opposing activities taking place at a certain site.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham have outlined their thoughts on amendment 50. I will speak to clauses 4 and 5 more broadly.

Clause 4 establishes a new offence of entering a prohibited place for a purpose prejudicial to the UK. We welcome the measure, and the protection it will offer to sites and places that are vital to our national security. It has been a long time coming, and we have been falling back on somewhat antiquated legislation in the absence of such provisions. Giving evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee in January 2019, the director general of MI5 said,

“The purpose of [a potential new Espionage Act] is to be able to tighten up on the powers that have become, you know, dusty and largely ineffective since the days of the Official Secrets Act, half of which was drafted for First World War days and was about sketches of naval dockyards, etc.”

In his evidence on behalf of the Law Commission last week, Dr Nicholas Hoggard said

“One of our concerns about the existing offences in the 1911 Act was that the existing prohibited places—though extensive; it is an extensive and complicated piece of drafting—have a strong military focus, and they do not necessarily reflect the way that critical national infrastructure, for example, or sensitive information is held by the Government.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 51, Q96.]

Clause 4(2) sets out that,

“a reference to inspecting a prohibited place includes—

(a) taking, or procuring the taking of, photographs, videos or other recordings of the prohibited place;

(b) inspecting photographs, videos or other recordings of the prohibited place.”

We heard some more innovative examples, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham likes to think outside the box, and as those acting on behalf of hostile states will continue to evolve and adapt to the legislation that we progress through this place.

Clause 4(3) explicitly states that the offence applies if the person inspects a prohibited place

“by electronic or remote means”,

and clause 4(4) states that the offence applies

“whether the person’s conduct takes place in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.”

The use of drones has been an asset in many ways, but inevitably a headache in others. I have raised concerns previously on behalf of constituents that it is at the extremes of distaste and disrespect for drone footage of serious or even fatal accidents to be taken by members of the public and shared on social media, or published by news outlets. It is with urgency that we need to update the laws that ensure national security is not compromised in the absence of up-to-date legislation, but for the reasons I have highlighted I hope this might also be the start of a conversation about drones, beyond their national security implications.

Clause 5 establishes that

“A person commits an offence if—

(a) the person—

(i) accesses, enters, inspects or passes over or under a prohibited place, or

(ii) causes an unmanned vehicle or device to access, enter, inspect 15 or pass over or under a prohibited place,

(b) that conduct is unauthorised, and

(c) the person knows, or ought reasonably to know, that their conduct is unauthorised.”

The Opposition welcome this provision, and see it as a necessary step to protect sites that are vital to our national security. I would like to probe the Minister on the stipulation that a person who commits an offence “ought reasonably to know” that their conduct is unauthorised. There is a concern that an individual may unknowingly stumble on a prohibited place, and then be prosecuted in the same way as someone actively seeking to undermine UK national security. Further detail on the sentencing guidelines might allow us to work through that uncertainty, but we have to work with what we have in primary legislation. The chances of that occurring are made more likely by the fact that this stand-alone offence does not need the foreign power condition to be met.

Let me provide some rare light relief in today’s proceedings. In 2016, civilians began to wander on to the grounds of several restricted air force and military bases in Canada while playing Pokémon GO, which is an augmented reality game where characters spawn randomly in the proximity of a user’s location—it was all the rage at the time. Documents released on request to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed the military’s confusion about what was happening at the time. One email from a major read,

“Please advise the Commissionaires, that apparently Fort Frontenac is both a PokéGym and a PokéStop”.

He went on to say,

“I will be completely honest in that I have no idea what that is.”

Just three days after the app’s release, two men drove a van on to an air force base near Toronto just before midnight. A corporal confronted the occupants and found them playing with their smartphones. In another incident, one woman was found at the Borden base playing the game, while her three children climbed over tanks. In their attempts to get on top of what was going on, the documents revealed that one colonel wrote,

“There’s a game out there taking off like gangbusters, and it requires people to move to digitally cached locations to get points”.

I do not know what “gangbusters” means. Another security expert recommended they hire a 12-year-old to help them out with the problem.

As part of the military response, at least three officers at different bases were assigned the task of playing Pokémon GO on site, and logging the appearance of every gym, PokéStop, and wild monster. In what I thought was a particularly enterprising spirit, in my constituency of Halifax’s namesake, they instead recommended that the PokéStop be relocated nearer to the museum, in the hope that it would increase footfall in a helpful rather than unhelpful way. I intended to share those examples by way of demonstrating that innocent players of Pokémon GO should be protected from the harshest of sentences, but on reflection, having read out the details, I am not so sure.

Back to the serious—I could not find specific examples here in the UK, but I can only imagine that there were some. We cannot afford to create carve-outs for Pokémon GO players that could be exploited by those acting on behalf of hostile states. The example outlines the need for appropriate consideration of such mitigations in the sentencing guidelines for such offences.

I note that the Law Commission proposed that in any reform of the Official Secrets Acts, a safeguard similar to that contained in section 131 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 should be introduced, requiring the Secretary of State to take such steps as he or she considers appropriate to inform the public of the effect of any designation order, including, in particular, by displaying notices on or near the site to which the order relates. That would ensure that an individual is given fair warning that he or she is approaching a location that is given enhanced protection by the criminal law. If I am not mistaken, that point was made by the right hon. Member for Dundee East on Second Reading. I hope that the Government will recognise the merit of doing so.

I have a short point of clarification for the Minister, if he would be so kind. It is about what is covered by the offence.

I am looking at clause 5(1)(a)(i), which states:

“A person commits an offence if…the person…accesses, enters, inspects or passes over or under a prohibited place”.

Clause 5(3) clarifies further:

“In subsection (1)(a) a reference to inspecting a prohibited place includes taking, or procuring the taking of, photographs, videos or other recordings of the prohibited place.”

Does that include someone who is off the premises with binoculars or some device to enable them to look closely at the prohibited place, without being under or over it? Does that include the old-fashioned spy looking through binoculars and taking notes, rather than taking photographs, or is that not covered by the clause? It does not seem that it is, but I might have missed something. I will be grateful for clarification.

I may dwell on this clause slightly longer than others, because it is the first of a number of clauses regarding a regime to protect sensitive sites in the UK. There has been a range of examples and questions. To the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, the simple answer is yes.

With regards to the Pokémon examples of the hon. Member for Halifax, the answers again are about—this very much determines the whole scope of the clause—prejudicial interest and people doing something accidentally. To fall foul of the clause, someone needs to have prejudicial interest against the UK. In the examples, people have wandered in and done something accidentally; they would not be prosecuted under the clause.

The right hon. Member for North Durham gave the example of strapping a camera to an eagle; if that is something that someone can do, fair play to them. However, if that camera strapped to the eagle were then to record activity in the place, and that was prejudicial to the UK, the person would be prosecuted. If they just wanted to strap a camera to an eagle to see what happened, the intelligence services have the opportunity not to prosecute someone, because, given the protections throughout the Bill, the Attorney General would have to sign off on whether to prosecute, and the Crown Prosecution Service on whether that was in the public interest.

I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East on ability to have lawful protest, and for lawful protest not to be restricted. It has been reflected by other Members and I raised it with the Department last week.

It is absolutely right that people have the right to protest, but the attention of the Minister and that of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to the recent cases in which, for example, Extinction Rebellion protestors were found not guilty of criminal damage, despite the judge directing jurors that there was no defence in law. Likewise, the protestors who toppled the Colston statue were found not guilty. We have to be careful: jurors might find people not guilty, but we have to protect the ambitions of the Bill.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which is that we have to be careful to provide the intelligence services with the tools they need to protect our protected sites. I may not agree with the purpose of protest, but I agree with the ability of everybody to protest lawfully. People will start to fall foul of this clause when they try to scale the walls of a restricted site and to impede lawful activity going on at the restricted site—when they start to move from protest towards criminal activity. That will be captured.

I am not sure it will. Let us take the Faslane peace camp as an example. I totally disagree with what those people are arguing for, but if somebody there took a photograph and put it out on social media to make a political point, would they be caught under the Bill? Is not that prohibited under the Bill?

That is useful and it might answer my question. The offence is committed if somebody approaches or is

“in the vicinity of a prohibited place”.

That obviously covers the peace camp. Is the Minister saying that at that stage there is nothing prejudicial to the UK’s safety and interests, and that such action only becomes prejudicial to UK safety and interests when people take further action, along the lines that he suggested?

Yes. The intention is that people have to do something prejudicial to the UK’s interests to fall foul of the clause.

Prohibited places are inherently sensitive sites that are likely to be the target of state threat activity. Unauthorised access to such sites could be a precursor to harmful acts such as espionage or sabotage, and it is important that we have the tools and powers we need to adequately protect those sites.

I think the Minister just said yes to my question and the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood about a person with binoculars. Does that fall under clause 5(1)(a)(i), which refers to an offence being committed if a person

“accesses, enters, inspects or passes over or under a prohibited place”?

Would somebody on a hill several miles away with a pair of binoculars be classed as inspecting an area? Is that why the Minister says that is covered in the Bill?

Yes, that is the intention. Remember that the Official Secrets Act 1911 refers to sketches. We are trying to reform that Act and the others to get to a point at which we help our intelligence services to come up with ways of dealing with some stuff that could technically be considered out of scope. The idea behind the clause is that we will be able to give the intelligence community the tools they need to deal with somebody inspecting a site or doing something prejudicial to the UK’s interests.

I come back to the fact that if we looked at the Official Secrets Act 1989 and had one big Bill, it would have been far better than this one. Will the Minister clarify that somebody with binoculars would be classified as “inspection”? My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood asked whether a person looking at a site through binoculars would be captured by this offence, or whether they would have to be writing something down. What is the situation with the old-fashioned sketches mentioned in the 1911 Act? Would they be covered?

The purpose is to cover activity that is prejudicial to the United Kingdom’s interests. For example, if someone were bird watching and they looked at the site through their binoculars, they would not be captured by the offence because they would not be doing anything prejudicial to the United Kingdom’s interests. However, if they were sketching a site to identify how they could break into it or to record activity going on there, that would be prejudicial to the United Kingdom’s interests, so the clause covers that. It is a case-by-case situation.

The current prohibited places provisions fall under the espionage offence within section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911.

The Bill is specific about procuring “photographs, videos or other”. I understand why they are included: they are modern. If we pass the Bill, will sketches still be covered? Would it not be better to repeat that bit of the 1911 Act?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and am happy to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye.

Sketches are included, because a sketch would have to be inspected. The question was: are sketches included? The answer is yes.

Order. This really must not become a conversation. Minister, you might perhaps wish to conclude your remarks. We cannot have a conversation backwards and forwards across the Chamber.

I regret having to ask more than once, but I am just not quite clear from the Minister’s answers. Perhaps he could write to the Committee if it is not totally clear; that would not be a problem. In subsection (1)(a)(i), does inspecting include looking from a distance—not over or under—say through binoculars that magnify, if someone is doing that with a malign intent, so they are caught by subsection (1)(b), which are the other requirements of the offence?

Would just looking through binoculars from a distance—not taking videos or photographs—and just doing notes or a sketch still be covered, or are we creating a lacuna? That is the only question I seek an answer to. I am afraid the Minister has not been totally clear on how looking through binoculars is covered. We are not inspecting the sketch—we are inspecting the site through the binoculars. Is that not right? In which case, is it still okay for this person to do a sketch? It is not clear.

I am grateful for the intervention and shall try to clarify. It is clear that the provision is not exhaustive, but the reality is someone has to inspect the site, whether that is through binoculars or making a sketch, and the purpose of that activity—that inspection—is to be prejudicial to the interests of the United Kingdom.

I will move on to amendment 50. The condition inserted through amendment 50 removes the term “safety or interests of the United Kingdom” in the context of protests. It is the Government’s view that this is detrimental to the offence under clause 4 as it limits the range of conduct that would be considered prejudicial to the UK and risks creating loopholes that hostile actors could use to exploit using protest as a tool to disrupt sensitive sites in the UK. It is also likely to mean that sites that are not directly involved in the safety of the UK would not be afforded any protection where protests are being inappropriately used to disrupt the lawful functioning of the site. It is crucial that we retain the existing term if we are able to effectively protect the UK’s most sensitive areas from harmful activity.

In addition, the effect of amendment 50 would be that no offence would be committed by protesters if their conduct were not, as a matter of fact, prejudicial. In practice, this would not have any further effect on safeguarding protest activity because if the activity were not in fact prejudicial, a person cannot know, or be in a position where they ought reasonably to know, that that is the case. The amendment may be designed to ensure that no offence is committed unless actual damage results from the conduct, but it would not have that effect and the Government would not support a narrowing of the offence along those lines. While I understand the intention of the amendment, I do not see any requirement for it, given the fact that sufficient safeguards for legitimate protesting activity are already in place.

It is important to say that we will work with the police and the College of Policing ahead of commencement of the provisions to ensure that those implementing these clauses have the appropriate training and guidance to use these powers proportionately. I do not support the amendment and ask that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East withdraws it.

Finally, clause 5 provides a second offence to capture harmful activity within the reformed prohibited places regime. A person commits this offence if, without authorisation, they engage in conduct at a prohibited place and they know, or reasonably ought to know, that their conduct is unauthorised. A person’s conduct is unauthorised if the person is not entitled to determine whether they may engage in the conduct, or if they do not have consent to engage in the conduct from a person entitled to give it—for example, if they walk past signage stating that access to the site is prohibited without authorisation, or if they take pictures from outside the site in spite of clear signage that that is not permitted.

This is a question I asked members of the UK intelligence community because I could not answer it: does a list of prohibited places exist in the public domain? Such a list might equip someone with the information prior to arriving at a site and enable them to determine whether a place is prohibited. It is not clear to me whether a list exists. Can the Minister clarify?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I will certainly look at that. A number of sites will be prohibited in law, and some sites will not want people to know exactly where they are and what they are doing because they will become targets. Once again, there is a balance to be struck in relation to provision for the intelligence community.

I completely accept the sensitive nature of the subject and why we might not want to put such information in the public domain, but with respect to the “ought reasonably to have known” defence, I wonder whether we should ensure that people are equipped with the information that a site is indeed prohibited before they find themselves, perhaps accidentally, in a compromising position. How can we ensure that all that is communicated appropriately and sensitively so as to protect people from accidentally falling foul of these stipulations?

It goes back to the reasonableness test: is the person conducting a reasonable activity, or is the activity prejudicial to the United Kingdom’s national security interests?

For a person to be guilty of the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person knew, or reasonably ought to have known, that their conduct—for example, in entering the prohibited place—was unauthorised, which provides protections. Unlike the clause 4 offence, there is no requirement that the person have a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom to commit this offence. That ensures that action can be taken in cases when a person has knowingly carried out unauthorised conduct at a prohibited place, such as trespassing, without having to consider whether that person has a purpose prejudicial to the United Kingdom’s safety or interests, which requires a higher threshold of potential harm to be demonstrated.

To take account of the fact that a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom does not need to be proven, there are differences between the conduct caught under the offence under this clause and the offence under clause 4. For example, this offence does not criminalise the inspection of photographs of prohibited places, and it is not capable of capturing conduct in the vicinity of a prohibited place.

The Government do not consider it proportionate or necessary to capture the inspection of photographs under this offence, given that inspecting a photograph that has already been taken of a prohibited place cannot be classed as inherently unauthorised activity. Given the wide range of legitimate activities that could be undertaken in the vicinity of a prohibited place, and given that there is no inherent need for walking past a prohibited place to be authorised, the offence under clause 5 does not capture activity in the vicinity of a prohibited place.

The second prohibited places offence under clause 5 is a crucial addition to the tools our law enforcement agencies and courts can use to capture the full range of harmful activity that can take place at prohibited places. Even though this offence is not aimed at capturing the most damaging activity around those places, as clause 4 does, and attracts lower penalties, it is equally important that we introduce an offence that can capture activity that may seem less severe, but is still capable of interfering with and damaging the operations and security of the United Kingdom’s most sensitive sites.

This offence should be seen as part of a tiered approach alongside the new police powers to protect those sites, which I will come to, and it will ensure that law enforcement has a range of tools and powers at its disposal to protect those sites.

The debate has been useful, particularly in relation to protestors, and it is useful to know that, apparently, the Minister’s view is that protestors approaching or being in the vicinity of a prohibited place will not necessarily engage the clause because, at that stage, the activity is not prejudicial to the interests of the United Kingdom. Something more is required before that part of the test is engaged. We might need to explore that further on Report, but for now it is important that we say protestors are not so interested in the Pokémon players. We can revisit that on Report. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Powers of police officers in relation to a prohibited place

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

The powers set out in clause 6 allow for a police officer to exercise specific powers in order to protect prohibited places. A person commits an offence if they fail to comply with an order imposed under the police powers in relation to a prohibited place. Those powers include the ability to order a person who has accessed or entered a prohibited place or is in the vicinity of one to leave it immediately. Under these powers, a police officer may also arrange for the removal or movement of a vehicle or device from a prohibited place or an area adjacent to a prohibited place.

Alongside the police powers, the clause provides that is an offence to fail to comply with an order given by a constable under those provisions. As an example, if a person is circling the perimeter of a prohibited place and taking detailed photographs of the infrastructure and activities within, the police may order this person to cease to engage in that activity and leave the area immediately, given that they are carrying out an inspection of the site and their activity is in an area adjacent to the prohibited place.

In order to exercise any of those powers, a constable must reasonably believe that doing so is necessary to protect the safety or interests of the United Kingdom. For example, exercise of the powers may be necessary for the prevention of activity that could harm or disrupt the operations or functioning of a prohibited place. In most instances, we consider that the use of these powers will be intelligence-led and that the police will be called to prohibited places where there is a concern identified from the site itself.

The aim of the police powers in relation to prohibited places is not to impede legitimate activity, such as lawful protest, but rather to catch and deter activity around prohibited places that is prejudicial to the safety or interests of the UK. That includes activity that is harmful to and disrupts or impedes the functioning or operations of a prohibited place, such as scaling fences, blocking access points or wider disruption to the critical and sensitive work being conducted at these sites. Ahead of implementation, my officials will work with the police and the College of Policing to ensure that clear guidance and training are in place to ensure that the powers are used reasonably and proportionately to protect these sites.

The additional powers are a critical part of the reformed prohibited places regime and provide significant operational utility, given that they enable law enforcement to prevent harmful activity from taking place at these sensitive sites—activity that could be a precursor to state-threat offences such as espionage or sabotage. Without their inclusion, the UK will be less equipped to counter hostile activity as it happens, which will leave these sites more vulnerable to state-threat activity or wider threats that do not have a state link.

Subsections (1) and (2) set out the powers that police constables can exercise to protect a prohibited place, which include ordering a person to cease their activity or move away from the site. Subsection (3) provides that a constable must reasonably believe the use of those powers to be

“necessary to protect the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.”

This includes prevention of activity that could harm or disrupt the operations or functioning of a prohibited place in a way that could jeopardise the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.

The clause gives the police powers to direct people to stop using devices and leave the area, but when I discussed its detail with a recently retired senior police officer he observed that the clause seemingly does not confer on the constable the power to seize the device or any video or images or, indeed, sketches or footage off the back of an eagle taken by the device. Can the Minister explain whether that is the case? If so, would the clause not benefit from an addition to prevent any such sensitive material from leaving the scene with a person instructed to take it with them?

I find it curious that all police officers tend to be referred to as “constable” in legislation, despite the fact that constable is just one of several possible ranks. Indeed, there is some variety in the responsibilities for keeping sites defined as prohibited places safe. The Civil Nuclear Constabulary, overseen by the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, is the armed police force in charge of protecting civil nuclear sites and nuclear materials in England and Scotland. The Ministry of Defence police is responsible for law enforcement and security of military bases in the UK; as it says on the tin, it reports into the Ministry of Defence.

Will the Minister confirm that the powers conferred in clause 6 extend beyond those officers serving in regular police forces that report to the Home Office? It is the specialist forces sitting outside of those structures that tend to pick up the lion’s share of the responsibility for protecting prohibited places. Could he confirm that the powers apply to all officers, regardless of rank, and where the military also provide defences at their own sites, or are at least partnering in that work? Could the Minister explain whether the powers extend to the military, or are exclusively for police officers?

Finally, the powers conferred will also allow a constable to arrange for the removal of a vehicle from a prohibited place “or an area adjacent” to it. Does the Minister envisage any further guidance on what constitutes “adjacent to a prohibited place” to assist a constable in determining distance, proximity, and so on, in making those judgments and communicating those clearly in a reasonable way to members of the public?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the very good points she has raised. My understanding is that the powers currently apply only to police officers, not to members of the military. It is very clear throughout the clause that it refers to “a constable”, and it is referenced as “Powers of police officers”.

Is that not a hole in the legislation? We are coming on to Cyprus next, where it is not civilian police that do security there, and I can think of a few others around the world where it is done by the military. Therefore, should those powers not also be given to the military?

Yes, but a number of sites are not guarded by MOD police—although there are some—but are the responsibility of the UK armed forces, which are not police.

Both the right hon. Member for North Durham and the hon. Member for Halifax made a very good point. We will take that away and look at it. If they want to strengthen the Bill, we are happy to work with them to do that.

Would my hon. Friend agree that there is a difference between providing force protection for a site and providing constabulary and law enforcement duties?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We must also bear in mind that it is not our intention to introduce search-and-seize powers under these police powers. This is part of the tiered approach we referred to earlier, with the police being able to warn people to go away before they fall foul of the law. There is the opportunity to give them that warning before any arrest.

I agree with the hon. Member for Burnley, but there are also sites that are benign, so it is not a force protection point but a constabulary duty that is carried out by members of the armed forces. Therefore, I think they need these powers if this is a comprehensive suite of powers.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. As I said, that is certainly something that we will look at and come back to.

The Minister has concluded his remarks, unless I am much mistaken.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.(Scott Mann.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Twelfth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir Mark Hendrick, † Mr Philip Hollobone, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Ian Paisley

Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Benton, Scott (Blackpool South) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

† Jones, Mr Marcus (Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

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

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 12 July 2022

(Morning)

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Before we begin, I have some preliminary announcements. Please keep electronic devices on silent mode. No food or drink, except for the water provided, is permitted during Committee sittings. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if hon. Members emailed their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

Clause 72

Long-term empty dwellings: England

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I would like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and our predecessors on the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), all of whom did a huge job to bring the Bill to where it is today. Through their diligent work, we are debating a Bill which will help to level up across the country.

Committee Members will be familiar with the challenge in many areas, whereby homes are left empty while local families are struggling to find a home close to their jobs or families, due to the pressures on local housing supply. It cannot be right that there are families left without an affordable home when there are owners not doing their best to bring their properties back into productive use for the benefit of the community. The Government are taking action to encourage those empty properties back into use. The longer a property is empty, the more likely it is to deteriorate and attract antisocial behaviour such as vandalism or squatting, which can reduce the value of properties and drive away the local communities. That is why we have introduced powers for councils to charge extra council tax on homes left empty for more than two years.

In 2018, we introduced a stepped approach so that councils can increase the premium depending on the length of time the property has been empty. Councils now have the power to charge up to four times the amount of the standard council tax bill when a home has been empty for more than 10 years. Nearly every council already makes use of the empty homes premium. I welcome the creative ways in which some councils use these powers to stimulate better use of the housing stock in their areas—for example, by providing refurbishment grants to bring empty homes to the standard for renting out, or conversion grants to help pay for converting a large empty home into smaller units. Why should councils wait two years before they have the power to take action to bring empty homes back into use? Through the Bill, we will give councils the power to apply the 100% premium on properties left empty after one year, rather than the current two years.

Clause 72 makes a simple change to section 11B of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. It will change the definition of “long-term empty dwelling” from meaning a dwelling that has been unoccupied, and substantially unfurnished, for more than two years, to one that has been unoccupied, and substantially unfurnished, for at least 12 months. To ensure that the change is implemented rapidly, but also provides sufficient opportunity for homeowners who may be affected to take steps to avoid the charge, subsection (2) provides that the amended definition has effect for financial years beginning on or after 1 April 2024. The clause will strengthen the powers for local councils to take action to incentivise owners to bring empty properties back into use, address the impacts of empty homes and help to increase the supply of affordable housing where it is needed. I commend the clause to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and to serve with new members of the Committee. Perhaps it should be of concern that your predecessor, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), sat in the Chair for a number of our sessions, but the idea of just one more seemed less preferable than entering Government. That may be a sign of what is to come between now and the end of September. In all seriousness, we welcome the Ministers to their place and we look forward to working with them.

I thank the hon. Member for Harborough and the right hon. Member for Pudsey for their efforts and communications with the shadow ministerial team inside and outside Committee. They worked very collegiately, which we appreciated, and I think that has been reflected in the quality of the debate so far, and the good spirits. We are here to disagree on points of substance, but are able to do so in good humour, and I know that that will continue with the new Ministers. I also thank the Whip, the hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), for enabling us to work together. I am sad that the new Ministers have missed out on those weeks of debate, which were largely composed of speeches from me. I am happy to start again if they wish—or perhaps not; those who have heard them seem to be moving further and further away, so perhaps I should take that as my cue to move on.

I am glad that the Minister is choosing to address the clause stand part debate, because it is an important part of the legislative process. When law is put on to the statute book, Ministers ought to make a case for it, so we appreciate his contribution. Given today’s development, I hope that the Minister may be able to offer one more. The continued absence of an impact assessment needs to be addressed. According to the Minister’s own words, the Bill is an important piece of legislation that will help to level up the country. At the moment, we do not have much of a base to build that case on, so we would be keen to see the impact assessment. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

Clause 72 is important because we are currently in a severe housing crisis, with a lack of supply of affordable homes for young people and no opportunities for families to get on the property ladder. Coupled with that, long-term empty dwellings are sat idly by, serving no purpose. It is right that the Government want to act, and we support the clause. However, we feel that it is a missed opportunity and that even the Bill will not give local authorities sufficient tools to get a grip of the situation and protect their local communities. We should have gone further with a power to levy a greater empty homes premium and to close the loophole through which properties are pushed into the business rates category—or slid into it—to avoid council tax. The Government should revisit that issue. I know that the Minister will have a full inbox, so he does not need to look far for inspiration. The Welsh Government seem streets ahead of the UK Government with their current policies. It is not a matter on which to divide the Committee, but I hope that the Minister will revisit the issue at a later stage, because we certainly will.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your oversight and chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I offer a huge welcome to the new Ministers. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Pudsey and the hon. Member for Harborough. The debate in Committee has indeed been consensual, collegiate and courteous, and I am sure that is how it will continue. It is a privilege to be on the Opposition side of the room and to join in the important endeavour of scrutinising this important Bill.

When it comes to communities like mine, it is worth bearing in mind that long-term empty dwellings—properties that are not used at all—are a challenge. In my district of South Lakeland, we have something in the region of 900 to 1,000 of such properties at any given time. It is likely that there are between seven and 10 times as many properties not lived in, but classified as second homes. If the Government are committed to retrieving properties that are out of permanent usage, and which are effectively displacing local people and the local workforce, empty homes are important, but not nearly as important as tackling the excessive second home ownership problem in communities such as the lakes and the dales. We look forward to discussing those issues when we consider later amendments today.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North for his very kind welcome. I look forward to working with him and his fellow shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, in a good spirit. I suspect that we may not agree on everything as the Bill goes through the House, but I am confident that we will work together with a good spirit, both in Committee and outside.

In response to a couple of the points that have been made, I know that the impact assessment has been a concern. It will be provided shortly, and I would certainly expect that to be the case before the conclusion of the Committee’s proceedings. I hope that we will provide it as soon as we can.

On Wales, we have already given councils the power to apply a 300% premium to properties that have been empty for more than 10 years. That is part of our stepped approach to increasing the level of premium the longer the property remains empty. What we propose strikes the right balance between providing an incentive to bring empty properties back into use while recognising more challenging cases in which owners are taking action to have property suitable for accommodation within that time frame.

I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for his kind welcome. I do not disagree with his point about the challenges in many areas, especially those that have a strong tourist economy. I am sure that we will debate those challenges when we come to the next set of amendments. It is good to hear his comments, and that the ministerial team are thinking about that issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 72 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 73

Dwellings occupied periodically: England

I beg to move amendment 79, in clause 73, page 81, line 30, after “dwelling” insert

“for six months or longer per year”.

This amendment seeks to further define how long a property must be empty for to be described as occupied periodically.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 80, in clause 73, page 81, line 31, at end insert—

“(c) the occupier declares the dwelling is not their principal residence and there is no tenant in the property for 6 months or longer per year.”

This amendment seeks to provide further definition around the conditions around occupancy.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Ministers to their places and wish them well during the consideration of the Bill. We have had a cordial debate so far, but they will hear much about York’s housing crisis, which is a prism through which to look at the Bill as well as an important case study to help the Government understand the real challenges we face.

The amendments highlight that some properties are occupied on a part-time basis only. They are let as short-term holiday lets from time to time, perhaps not consistently, or may be empty for periods and utilised some of the time. We all recognise from our constituencies that some properties have different patterns of occupation, so that they are not always empty, but are not fully occupied either. The challenge is that that can remove opportunities for people who desperately need a home.

The amendments seek to define a period of vacancy and reduce it from a year to six months. It is reasonable to expect a property owner to visit the property every six months. A longer period would raise questions of whether they in fact reside there. I am aware of circumstances in which people have families overseas, for instance, and may make extended visits to see them. I would not want to penalise people because their life journey and responsibilities differ from mine, but if they do not visit a property for six months we can conclude, under the definitions in the clause, that it is an empty dwelling.

This is an important issue, because empty homes, especially during a period of inclement weather, can impact on neighbouring properties. Gardens can become unwieldy and overgrown in less than six months, which can impact on the morale of the neighbourhood and on house prices. I can point to many such examples in my constituency. In fact, a resident called me into her garden in Tang Hall on Sunday and showed me the consequences of a home being neglected for a period of around six months. The brambles were about 6 feet high and encroaching on her garden space. These things really matter to neighbourhoods. Neglected properties can also spread damp to each other, which is another concern for neighbours.

Neglected properties should attract an uplift in council tax. Having clearer and shorter parameters by which councils have permission to operate an increase in council tax enables councils to make better decisions, as well as generating revenue for the council. I would therefore like to focus on my amendments in order to achieve that. I have further amendments that I will dwell on shortly, but the reason that this amendment is so important for communities such as mine is that we are increasingly seeing properties being developed not for occupation, but for asset. We will return to that theme on numerous occasions throughout the debate.

We can see around us the new developments in London. We are also increasingly seeing that situation in York, where there may be one or two occupancies in luxury apartment buildings, but nobody has ever moved into many of the units. They are literally just investments for people in the UK or overseas. Residents in my city who are desperate to get on the property ladder and have a home know that there are dormant units within their community, and they are significantly concerned about the implications.

I will talk further about this issue, but I am putting the Minister on alert about the York Central site, which he will certainly get to know over the coming days. We have a 45-hectare brownfield site—the biggest brownfield site in Europe—yet our council sees the development of luxury apartments that no one will live in as its priority, as opposed to the site being used for homes for local people, and for economic space, which would be the best use for it. Indeed, Homes England has identified that the whole area could well turn into Airbnbs. We know that York already has around 2,000, so this is a serious encroachment on future housing use. Therefore, we do not want to see lip service paid to these measures; we want to ensure that we have the right measures in statute to protect our community and give them the opportunity to have a home.

Clause 73 has much in common with clause 72 and, again, we are minded to support it when we get to the stand part debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central on her efforts to improve the clause, which amendments 79 and 80 certainly would do.

Clause 73 deals with the second home premium. In the light of the housing crisis, as discussed in the previous stand part debate, it is right that we seek to deal with this issue. It is a serious gap in the legislation that billing authorities can currently levy the empty homes premium only on homes that are unoccupied and substantially unfurnished, which could leave out a significant number of dwellings as well as leaving the edge cases to be defined via case law, rather than in statute. It obviously leaves a big gap where there is no permanent occupant but the property is furnished and habitable, allowing the skirting of the empty homes premium in its entirety.

It is right that we seek a second homes premium—as I say, we will support the Government in that venture—but it is also right to try to tighten up the measure on the face of the Bill, as my hon. Friend has sought to do, by drawing a line in the sand at six months’ occupation of the property. This is about seeking a balance between the individual and the broader society, which is always—certainly at its edges—a hard thing to do and to define, because it is right that people are allowed the peaceful enjoyment of their property in the way they see fit. As my hon. Friend said, it is right that we understand that people have different lives, and we in this room know that as well as anybody else. We genuinely spend our week split between two different places, and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

As my hon. Friend said, we also have to understand the impact that properties that are long-term vacant and only notionally lived in can have on a community, including the detrimental effect of overgrown places on amenity, problems caused by burst pipes, and antisocial behaviour targeting empty houses. Those effects are frustrating for communities. When we set that problem against the fact that people are crying out for properties, it is clear that a balance must be struck. We are glad that the Government have started to address the problem, but my hon. Friend’s amendments would improve the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will accept them.

I also agree that the amendments are helpful, and I urge the Government to seriously consider them. There is no doubt in my mind that although the housing crisis is one of supply, the supply that we have is distorted. We live in a strange world in which property is seen more as an investment than places for people to live and have homes. That is the way the market is, but if the market is broken, surely we have to intervene.

Levelling up is an interesting phrase and concept—one that I personally believe in—but we have to understand carefully what drives the absence of opportunity that we are trying to tackle. Housing, more than any other issue that the Government will consider through the Bill, is the cornerstone. There are challenges in every part of our country, so there will need to be an acknowledgment that the market is distorted and broken, and that it will therefore need radical intervention if we are to make best use of the properties we have and maximise opportunities for everybody, in every part of this country.

Empty dwellings—as distinct from second homes and holiday lets—are a challenge. I mentioned that they are a big problem in my community, although not as big a problem as second homes and holiday lets. Properties are empty for a range of reasons, some of which are perfectly understandable, others less so. Having time limits is wise, as is ensuring that homes are effectively monitored. Using fiscal measures—fines, taxation and so on—to encourage people and focus their minds to make the best use of the property they own is also wise.

I encourage Ministers to make the available tools easier to use. They include empty dwelling management orders, which basically allow local authorities to requisition an empty home and turn it into a social rented property. I have seen that work in my own community, but it is hard to do. Such orders are valuable, because a property can be brought back into usage—it effectively becomes a social rented property under the control of the local authority for seven years—but they are most useful because they act as a warning shot to other landlords and show what might happen to them if they do not make good use of their properties. The problem is that the process is lengthy, laborious, expensive and difficult. I encourage Ministers to look carefully at beefing up that existing provision by ensuring that councils can use it more readily.

We want to build more genuinely affordable homes for people, but it is just as important that we made good use of properties that already exist by turning them into formal homes. That is a no-brainer, really. As far as I am aware, empty dwelling management orders are not addressed in the Bill, but I would love it if the Government considered beefing them up and making them more easily accessible, which would draw more homes back into use for local communities.

I thank the hon. Member for York Central for her kind welcome to the Committee. It sounds as though I am likely to hear a great deal about York Central—somewhere I am not a stranger to, having been there to present a high streets award to Bishy Road some years ago, in the dim and distant past when I was last a Minister in this Department.

The Government’s proposal for a second homes premium makes clear the situations in which a council may quite properly apply a premium. Those situations are, first, that a property is substantially furnished—distinguishing it from empty property dwellings that may more properly be subject to the empty homes premium—and secondly, that there must be no resident of the property. For the purposes of council tax, a resident is someone who has their sole or main residence in the dwelling. In that case, the resident would pay the council tax normally due on that dwelling as essentially it would be their main home. They would not be subject to a premium as it is their sole or main residence.

Owners of second homes may well occupy those properties during the course of the year, and how much use they make of them will vary depending on circumstances. It may be that the hon. Member’s amendment is to enable the premium to be applied only when the homeowner does not use the property for more than six months a year. If that is the case, it might be helpful to set out how councils already determine what is and is not a second home.

Councils already make judgments as to whether an individual’s property is their sole or main residence and, by default, what might be a second home. That is because they want to be satisfied that any discounts or exemptions are applied correctly and to the right property. In making a judgment on whether a property is a sole or main residence, councils will reflect on legislation and case law and take into account a range of factors including where the person is registered with a doctor, where they are registered to vote and the occupancy of the property.

Given those established processes for assessing what is a second home, I do not believe that a further restriction on the definition of properties that may be subject to a premium is needed. In addition, the assessment of whether a property is a second home will take into account a number of factors and not just the period of occupation. A reference to the number of days may well preclude treatment of the property as a second home when other factors suggest that, in effect, it is being used as a second home. The amendment could result in a reduction in the number of second homes liable for the premium.

Amendment 80 would mean that, where the property has a tenant for more than six months, the premium would not apply. Council tax is usually paid by the occupants of the property and, in cases where a tenant is occupying the property as their sole or main residence, the tenant would be liable for that council tax, not the property owner. Therefore, no premium would be due.

The premium is not aimed at properties that are let out to a tenant as they will be somebody’s sole or main residence. It is right that a second homes premium should not apply to such properties. With those clarifications, I hope the hon. Member will agree to withdraw her amendment.

I appreciate the considerations given in this debate, and I am sure that the Minister, knowing Bishy Road, will look forward to getting to know other parts of York. He made an interesting point about the definition of a second home. Later we will look at some of those issues, which our constituents are rightly asking about, because when people do not have homes, they ask a lot of questions about housing. Questions are being asked in particular about unoccupied dwellings, which we are considering here.

The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, was right to highlight the fact that many empty dwellings can be targets for antisocial behaviour. In drawing out that important point, he also set out the reason to focus on that and disincentivise it. Empty dwelling management orders can be used effectively. Newham Council is probably the local authority that has used them to best effect, by taking properties and turning them into social housing. However, the legislation is clunky and the processes are slow. I would welcome it if we looked at how to use that legislation. In the light of this debate and those to come, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. I am sure that we will return to this issue.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 82, in clause 73, page 82, line 14, at end insert—

“(10) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision for and about offences punishable by a fine for people who submit misleading, inaccurate or incomplete information to a billing authority in relation to the occupancy of their dwelling.”

This amendment would provide for fines to be issued to those who fail to provide correct and accurate information regarding the occupancy of their dwellings as an anti-fraud measure.

I will be brief in my comments about this amendment because I think it speaks for itself. My amendment is not particularly about local authorities being vexatious in proposing to use levers to ensure that properties are properly recorded—I am sure that many owners will find it hard to distinguish whether properties are second homes, an empty dwelling and so on. Clarity is needed, and registering properties for the purposes of paying the right level of council tax will benefit the whole community, because the more revenue councils have, the more they can do.

This simple amendment would provide local authorities with an additional lever to incentivise people to declare their property in the right category, to ensure that they are not misleading the authority, and that the information is accurate and complete. It would make the billing authority’s life easier and enable it to recover not only the expected costs, but the additional costs if the information had previously been wrong. The amendment is about local authorities recovering additional revenue, rather than making additional expenditure, as well as acting as a lever for people to correctly register their property.

As we can tell from the discussions so far about clauses 72 and 73, legislating in this space gets fiddly. Previously, it has been easy to skirt the empty homes premium by having a “substantially furnished” residence, and what constituted “substantially” was left to the courts. It is good that we are seeking to tighten things in this space.

In making the case for proposed new section 11C(2)(b) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, the Minister gave a helpful explanation of how it will address that challenge, which is a really good thing. I am more worried about proposed new subsection (2)(a) and the concept of “no resident”. Again, the Minister entered into this space with some of the tools that local authorities will be able to use. I am not sure about data registration; if people were minded to try to skirt these regulations, that test would likely be easy to pass without breaking any laws. He mentioned access to healthcare, which would be a better tool. Will he expand on some of the other ways in which local authorities would be expected to establish when a home is genuinely a second home? My fear is that by closing one loophole we may create another one, particularly one that is undefined in statute, as the Minister did not accept the opportunity provided by amendments 79 and 80 to give a clearer definition.

Legal action is unlikely to be a good risk-reward proposition for local authorities. In general, the clause as constituted offers them a chance to basically double council tax on those properties, which would be in the order of £1,000 to £2,000 a year on a normal property. That is not a great incentive for local authorities to chase.

As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, the amendment’s importance is not about vexatious regimes or councils being overbearing and entering this space too much. Similarly, the amendment would not require individuals or families to take expensive advice in order to comply with the regulations and know whether they ought to be paying a long-term or second home premium, or neither. The arrangements should be fair and candid, and should be sufficient to guide them to pay—or not pay—in the way that they ought to.

The amendment would provide a second disbenefit to those who might seek to work around the legislation. At the moment, if it is a risk-reward proposition for an individual, then perhaps that amount of money is worth a bit more to them, set against the fact that local authorities might not be minded to pursue them. There must be clarity on the face of the Bill, and in the follow-up regulations, that this is a serious matter, as the amendment specifies, and that the Government look dimly on those who seek to circumvent and evade the regulations by not making a fair and candid assessment. It must be made clear that that is a bad thing, that it is looked upon dimly, and that there is a proper punishment regime that lies alongside that, to provide an extra disincentive to those who seek to work around the rules.

This, too, is a welcome amendment. It is also a reminder to us all that if we are to take the radical action needed to make the best use of the properties we have in this country, so that we can underpin communities, particularly those such as mine in the Lakes and the Dales in Cumbria, we will have to be wise in ensuring that the radical measures in the Bill are actually enforced. For example, I can think of countless properties in Cumbria with a local occupancy clause on them that are currently being advertised as Airbnbs. I see that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority recently made great strides forward, making it clear that new properties to be built within the national park must all be for 100% permanent occupancy. I do not think the authority has the power to enforce that, but the fact that it is showing that leadership is something we should massively welcome.

There will be a whole industry built around trying to create loopholes and get around any mechanisms—those either already in the Bill or that might come into it—to control excessive second home ownership, numbers of holiday lets and the presence of unused, empty properties, so we must be savvy and wise, and prevent that. Not all of that will be about the right legislation; it will also be about the right commitment to funding.

The Government talk about funding levelling up and putting money into projects that may involve construction, and so on. That is absolutely right. It is a great use of money—and will probably cost less money—to invest better in planning departments and to make sure we have the quality and the numbers of people to get out there and police the regulations that already exist and those we hope will come in through the Bill.

There is no point having the power in theory to maintain a permanent population in our towns and villages if we cannot enforce that. At the moment, the evidence before our eyes, certainly in Cumbria, is that we are unable to ensure adequate enforcement. The Government must invest, and it would be a wise investment, as it would rescue many homes for local communities to underpin the local workforce.

I thank the hon. Member for York Central for the thought that has gone in to her amendment. I am sure we all agree about the importance of ensuring that people play by the rules and provide accurate information to allow councils to issue the correct council tax bills, and also that when people do not do the right thing, councils can take the appropriate steps.

The proposed amendments would require the Secretary of State to make regulations to create new offences, punishable by a fine, in relation to the submission of occupancy information. I completely understand the objectives of such a measure. However, I assure the hon. Member that existing powers already enable councils to take appropriate action where there is evidence that the individual has taken steps to avoid payment of the premium. The Local Government Finance Act 1992 already provides powers for councils to issue penalties to a person who fails to provide information requested to identify who is liable for council tax on a dwelling, or knowingly supplies information that is inaccurate. In addition, where false representation is made dishonestly for gain, the Fraud Act 2006 may well apply.

I share the hon. Member’s concerns about ensuring that evidence of wrongdoing is tackled and that councils have appropriate powers, and I have described those that already exist. However, if we do become aware of evidence of an underlying problem that cannot be covered by the powers that I have set out, the Secretary of State does have powers to make regulations to create powers for councils to require information and to create offences for a failure to provide information or for providing false information. We have already used those powers in connection with information for local council tax support schemes. We would be able to use them again if evidence were provided that the application of the premium was being frustrated by misinformation that could not be tackled by the existing powers. I trust that, with the assurances that I have described, the hon. Member for York Central will withdraw her amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the measures that are already available to local authorities, in particular under the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and the Fraud Act 2006, and the opportunity to exercise those powers in relation to this set of circumstances. The advice to all people seeking to register their property is to ask for advice from the local authority to ensure that their property is within the right council tax band, and there would then be no need for such measures.

However, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is absolutely right when he talks about loopholes: I have no doubt that individuals will be examining the Bill for such loopholes to exploit. Our responsibility is to close loopholes as we debate the legislation, because we do not want to be back discussing the same measures, when we had the opportunity to bring about change. However, I am satisfied with what the Minister has set out today, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 83, in clause 73, page 82, line 28, at end insert—

“(3A) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision to ensure that that, where a dwelling is occupied periodically as the result of a bereavement, higher council tax is not charged for at least two years.”

This amendment would extend the period of time people would have to make arrangements for their property following a bereavement.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 84, in clause 73, page 82, line 28, at end insert—

“(3A) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision—

(a) to ensure that that, where a dwelling is occupied periodically as the result of dilapidation, the higher rate of council tax is not charged for at least one year from the change in ownership of the property, and

(b) about appeals against determinations under this section.”

This amendment would give owners of dilapidated properties up to a year after acquiring the property to refurbish before additional council tax rates are incurred.

These would be important amendments to the legislation. We have talked about the categorisation of dwellings and whether they are occupied, but we are all aware of circumstances in our constituencies where people are not occupying a dwelling. Amendment 83 in particular is one of compassion, to recognise that if individuals have had a bereavement—typically, that would be of parents, but it might be a child or another relative—part of their grieving process is clearing the house and seeking how best to honour the deceased in the disposal of goods and in ensuring that the disposal of the property itself is in good order and respectful. It can take time for people to go through the memories and the grieving process, especially if they live some distance away or have a job. It can be challenging.

I am sure that we can relate to such circumstances. Therefore, allowing time for that to be gone through—I suggest a period of two years—enables the process to be done with dignity, as opposed to what we often see with people who have to clear out social housing. Literally, I have had cases of notices dropping through the door before the deceased has even been buried. I have had that fight locally about ensuring that we respect the dignity of the family and their needs.

The amendment would build compassion into the clause, being generous in the time that it gives people before recognising that a house is no longer occupied. In particular during covid, it has been challenging for people to empty properties so that they can put them on the market and sell them. There can be extenuating circumstances in which the measure may apply.

Moving on to amendment 84, I recognise that bringing old, dilapidated buildings back into use can benefit the whole community and individuals. Taking time to do that is important, to get it right. I grew up on a building site, with a DIY father. I think the whole of my upbringing was on a building site—it takes time to do up an old property or extend it. I lived on a building site, though many people move out. I am talking about people moving in order to focus on getting a roof on a house, putting in walls or doing essential renovation to bring the property into good use. Therefore, the amendment recognises that there are circumstances when dwellings will be unoccupied and unfurnished for work to be done. It encourages people to bring properties back into use, without having to pay higher rates of council tax.

I trust the Minister will understand the sentiment behind both amendments, and will recognise that they are sensible ways of dealing with some practical and sensitive issues that, if they are not dealt with in Committee or later in the passage of the Bill, will be raised by residents with their local authorities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on these amendments. There is a certain amount of prescience to them, given when they were tabled. When we debated clause 72, the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Harborough, raised a concern that some of my amendments would inadvertently sweep up families that were suffering bereavement, and these amendments are a prescient way of avoiding that.

For all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for York Central set out, we recognise that sorting estates, untangling and consolidating finances, applying for probate, and even selling a property, can be a long and arduous process that is set against and alongside the grief that families feel when they lose someone. That makes it really hard, and then, as my hon. Friend said, we have to factor in distance and work responsibilities, and I would add caring responsibilities, so it is right that we build as much compassion and understanding into the system as possible. It feels like the two years is a good way of doing that. I note that it is an “at least” period, so there could be plenty of room for understanding from the local authority if, say, at the end of two years, the property had not been sold yet, or was sold subject to contract—certainly if there is a chain, it can take a long time. There is plenty of room in the amendment to ensure that families that have suffered are not caught up in ways that are unfair, unkind and not how the Bill is designed.

On amendment 84, last Tuesday the then Minister raised a similar concern about dilapidated properties that are being done up. Again, this amendment, which was tabled before that debate, is prescient in that regard. It is again an “at least” provision, which means that local authorities could be thoughtful about delays to work because of all sorts of things, including planning concerns and the weather—significant events that can set development back—and the long process of sale. These amendments would put on the face of the Bill some understanding, humanity and common sense, and would ensure that the balance is struck and that the Bill does what it is seeking to do.

These are important amendments for my communities. In dozens of villages in Cumbria, more than half the properties are not lived in, and the damage to the local community and the local economy is immense. We have already talked about that, and we will continue to do so as we go through the Bill.

A proportion of the empty homes—a minority—are not holiday lets or second homes, but are empty and simply not used, and a proportion of those are empty for entirely understandable reasons. It is important for us to state that, because I would not like anybody to get from the things I say—I am sure this is the case for other members of the Committee—that we are not seeking anything other than opportunities for our communities to ensure there is a full-time, vibrant population. It is not about going after people, being envious of them or seeking to be beastly about them. It is important that we get the tone right.

The hon. Member for York Central gave two examples of why there might be an empty property, and why it is important to be generous, understanding and compassionate. People do find themselves in such circumstances, so it is right to be compassionate. It is also right to recognise, when it comes to people seeking to renovate a property that has been used in the past or acquired by them, that the evaporation of the long-term rented sector in Cumbria in the last two years has devasted our community even more. It has also devasted the workforce. I could cite one dales town in my constituency that had 104 unfilled job vacancies a couple of months ago—that is typical. If that is the case, it is a reminder that it will impact on a landlord’s ability to get the work done. Where is the workforce? They have all been evicted—they are all in a big town 50 miles away. The workforce does not live locally anymore because of the housing crisis.

The problem is circular. If we are not compassionate, patient and reasonable, then we will do things that are not right. It is right to include the amendments so, as we take the radical action that we must to ensure that homes that are not currently full-time permanent homes for our community become so—although I am not convinced the Government are ready to do that—we do so wisely and with compassion.

I will deal with the two amendments in turn. With amendment 83, the hon. Member for York Central’s desire is to ensure that those people who inherit property are not unduly penalised by the rapid imposition of a second homes premium. I will set out what happens with council tax liability when the owner of a property passes away and leaves it empty. Such a property is exempt from council tax as long as it remains unoccupied and until probate is granted. Following a grant of probate, a further six-month exemption can be provided, so long as the property remains unoccupied and the ownership has not been transferred. There are already strong protections in place.

Amendment 83 proposes that in addition to those protections, the property should be exempt from any potential second homes premium for a period of at least two years. A premium would only apply if the property was not someone’s sole or main residence, and if it was furnished. I understand the hon. Member for York Central’s concern. I hope that she will be reassured that the Bill includes powers for the Secretary of State to make regulations that exempt certain classes of property from application of the premium. We will reflect on the points that she made and consider whether to consult on potential exemptions to the premium.

Amendment 84 appears to suggest that someone purchasing a second home that requires some improvement should be able to benefit from an exemption for at least one year. While I fully support homeowners investing in their main or second homes by renovating and improving them, I am unclear as to why such work on second homes should benefit from an exemption to the premium. The premium would only apply if a property was furnished. If it required substantial rebuilding work, it seems unlikely that the property would be furnished. In that case, a second homes premium would not be due in any case since the property would not meet the definition in the Bill.

I am grateful to the Minister for the points he is making. It is possible to be in a situation where part of the property was furnished because that is not the area where dilapidation has occurred, but part of it is unfurnished because it needs, for example, a new roof or an extension. There is a situation where there is furnishing, but the property is still unoccupied due to renovation work.

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. It seems clear to me that that property would be partly furnished, but not be occupied by the owner. It would therefore still constitute a second home—that is the argument I am making.

On amendment 84, the hon. Lady gave the example of the roof not being on a property. If a property were not in a fit state for habitation and required substantial work to bring it into a reasonable state, it is quite possible that the Valuation Office Agency would consider a request to remove the property from the council tax list, thereby removing its liability for council tax.

I hope I have been able to clarify my understanding of amendment 84, and I hope that with my reassurances the hon. Lady will withdraw both her amendments.

I welcome the debate we have just had. For the record, I think it is important that we take forward discussions around these issues and understand the challenges our constituents in sensitive circumstances are facing. The Minister’s response on the powers that local authorities already have until probate is granted was helpful and gives us the opportunity to reflect on that issue. It would be my sincere hope that local authorities will be able to work with families who are bereaved to give them the support they need to dispose of a property in a timely way.

On the dilapidation of properties, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was absolutely right to highlight some of the workforce challenges currently facing the construction industry. We know the Government are making many demands on that depleted workforce, which is taking time to recover and has many challenges pressing down on it. We simply do not have the labour supply to address the multiple demands being placed on construction and maintenance. Even the timescales I suggested in the amendment could be challenged due to that demand on the industry.

The Minister’s comments on the role the Valuation Office Agency can play in removing a property from the council tax list during a period of renovation were quite helpful. I am sure they will be well heard by people in those circumstances, but I think I am perhaps just scarred from growing up in a property where we had a tarpaulin roof for many a winter, and living under it posed real challenges. The suggestions the Minister has made and the direction he has shown through his comments to the Committee have been helpful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Clause 73 contains a power for councils to introduce a council tax premium on second homes. We recognise that second homes can benefit local economies and the tourism sector. Second homes can also provide flexibility to enable people to work in and contribute to the local community, while being able to return to a family home in another part of the country on a regular basis. However, the Government understand the concerns that large numbers of second homes, particularly where they are concentrated in a small area, can have a negative effect on the vitality and viability of local communities.

A large number of second homes impacts on the size of the permanent population who help to generate the demand needed for their local services the year round. It creates a hollowing-out effect. The local schools have insufficient pupils to remain open. The local buses do not have enough passengers to maintain the service. The village pubs and post offices do not have the customers to sustain them through the year. These are all arguments that many Members are familiar with and have made to the Government.

The risk is clear that, without action, some communities will become increasingly unviable as local services close due to a lack of a permanent year-round population. The Government are not prepared to stand by and watch that happen. We are investing £11.5 billion in the affordable homes programme, which will deliver up to 180,000 affordable homes.

We have introduced a higher level of stamp duty on the purchase of second homes. The clause supports that by providing new powers for councils to apply a premium of up to 100% extra council tax on second homes. The use of that premium will be discretionary, and it will be for councils to exercise their own judgment as to whether to apply a premium and at what level—up to a maximum of 100%. The premium will provide councils with the flexibility to access additional revenue. It will be for councils to decide how best to use this funding. For example, councils may choose to support the local shop or village pub, or they may invest it in new affordable housing for local families, so they can help maintain the lifeblood of their community.

We are clear that second home owners should be given sufficient notice of the introduction of a premium. The clause will require each council introducing a premium to have a minimum period of 12 months between making its first determination and the financial year in which it takes effect. That will give second home owners plenty of time to make plans for how to respond to the forthcoming premium. Of course, there may be circumstances where it is not appropriate to apply a premium. Proposed new section 11D(1) provides a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing categories of dwelling in relation to which the council tax premium on second homes cannot be charged. We will consult on such categories.

Proposed new section 11D(3) includes a power for the Secretary of State to vary the maximum council tax premium that can be charged on second homes. It is clearly sensible to maintain a degree of flexibility for the future. If circumstances suggest that consideration should be given to adjusting the level, any consequent regulations will be made through the affirmative resolution procedure and will require approval of this House. The power contained in the clause will enable every council to decide whether to apply a premium at a level that is suitable for their own circumstances. It will enable them to generate additional revenue, and they will be able to use it to mitigate the impact of high levels of second homes in their areas. I commend the clause to the Committee.

We have covered much of the debate through the very good amendments, so I do not intend to detain the Committee for long, but I want to clarify one point with the Minister. As he has said, the clause inserts proposed new sections 11C and 11D in the Local Government Finance Act 1992. Proposed new section 11D(1) states:

“The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe one or more classes of dwelling in relation to which a billing authority may not make a determination under section 11C.”

It basically says that the powers we have debated and all the very good reasons for them actually do not apply if the Secretary of State decides they do not want them to. That is a concern we have had in previous debates: this is localism, but only where local communities get the answer right.

It is welcome that the Minister has said the measures will be consulted on before being used, but the Government must have a sense of what properties they have in mind, otherwise there would not be much of a case to reserve the power. I am keen to know how that power will be used or certainly what the Minister had in mind when asking for it. I do not think it is enough for us to detain the Committee because we think the clause is important in general, but that specific point needs to be addressed. There is not much of a case for the provision if it is a power that can only be filled out by consultation. I wonder then: why ask for it at all?

I thought the Minister outlined very well the impact of excessive second home ownership on communities such as mine. There is no doubt whatsoever about the consequences of excessive second home ownership in the Lake district, the Yorkshire dales and other parts of the country, where, as he says, the reduction in the permanent population means a smaller school roll, with schools potentially at risk. These places lose their bus services, pubs and corner shops, and all the services are frittered away because of the lack of a permanent population. I am afraid that the radical situation, which he rightly outlined, is not being radically addressed.

The Minister outlined the positives of the council tax premium. If we analyse it, however, it gets to probably a very small minority of those people we call second homeowners—people who, basically, very rarely make use of those properties. People need to be quite rich to have a second home from which they do not benefit financially through renting it out, or that they do not bother using very often. This might catch 5% of second homeowners, but they are the ones who can afford it, so it will not have much impact on them. I do not think it will do what the Minister says it will do. It does not provide the opportunity to do what we will seek to do in other parts of the Bill, which is to enforce—by using the law, and planning law in particular—a move away from excessive second homeownership. But more on that later.

In many ways, what the Minister has just said has been the best articulation I have heard from a Government Front Bencher of the impact of excessive second home ownership on communities such as mine. I thank him for that, but the action proposed does not address the findings of the analysis, and that is what we will push the Government to do.

I nearly thought that that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was going to cross the Floor, given his glowing praise of my analysis. I understand his concerns. That is why we have, over time, put in place a number of policies, including increased stamp duty for purchases of second dwellings, and why the Bill introduces a council tax premium. Clearly, there is a wider picture, and we understand that picture. It is a complex issue and we constantly look at it.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North is concerned about the Secretary of State’s involvement. I do not want to pre-empt the result of the consultation, but it might include the points that he has made about probate. I expect the consultation to take place this autumn, and I hope he will look carefully at it and respond to it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 73 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 74

Alteration of street names: England

I beg to move amendment 85, in clause 74, page 83, line 23, at end insert—

“and it has considered the historical, cultural or archaeological significance of a name change”.

This amendment requires cultural, historical and archaeological factors to be considered before making a name change.

We are considering many things in the Bill, and we come now to a clause that deals with street names. Needless to say, the issue of street names is one of much interest not only to the population of York at large but to archaeologists and historians, whom I meet regularly in our city. It is probably obvious why that is the case: we are clearly a proud city and there is much history to be debated.

A lot of streets in York have changed their name over time. A case could be made to change some of them back to their original names. In York, the streets are named gates, the gates are called bars, and the bars are called pubs. Our language is slightly different from that used in other places. Many of the names have been changed for good, sensitive reasons. What was Beggargate, for instance, is now called Nunnery Lane, and some names were far worse. Our approach to the naming of streets evolves. We have many layers of history, and there are areas of Roman, Viking and medieval significance in places such as York.

Names could be changed at the stroke of a vote, but it is important to put in place checks and balances, including a consultation process and engagement with the wider community stakeholders and residents, to ensure that streets have appropriate names.

There are examples of those who were once heroes but are now fallen individuals. We may have seen a darker side of them or of our colonial past. The street name can tell a different story and therefore the changing of a name is not only a process but can be a historical or political act in itself. It may be desirable, but to understand the past is important. Therefore, to explain the name rather than change it may be the action to take to reflect that on a newer estate. Perhaps we will look at the industrial past of an area or some event or place of significance, or perhaps point to a new age and opportunity.

There are countless reasons why a street name vote may be sought. However, recognising the significance of a name or a former name could help define a street or an area, as well as the historical, cultural or archaeological significance of a place. My amendment will simply ensure that the history and archaeological understanding of a place is not lost. I am seeking assurances from the Minister that that understanding will form part of a consultation around the name change and the process set out in clause 74.

This is the third time in part 2 that we have addressed names. We addressed alternative names for Mayors and alternative names for combined county authorities. My view on street names is the same as in those cases. My experience in Nottingham is that if we seek to do anything daft with names, the public pretty soon sniff it out and have a good way of correcting it, whether at the ballot box or through more informal means. I have a lot of confidence in our communities to make the right and sensible decisions given the right framework in law.

We are interested in the clause. I may make some more arguments in the next amendments. It is important that the important historical and archaeological factors are not lost. This is probably a de minimis provision and only asks for consideration. It is no greater fetter than that. I hope the Minister is minded to that.

The amendment would add additional criteria for local authorities when considering the renaming of a street. I understand the importance of history, archaeology and culture in this process. However, the Government strongly believe that local people should have the final say on changes affecting street names. We would expect those local views to reflect the historical or cultural associations of the names concerned, and the importance that communities place on them. It is not clear that a freestanding additional requirement to consider heritage is necessary, or how it would work. It could, for example, make it harder to secure name changes that have local support but where new considerations, such as the need to honour a local person or event, take precedence over an archaeological interest. For instance, some Olympians had streets named after them following the 2012 Olympics.

We recently consulted on the prospective secondary legislation and guidance to deliver those changes. Respondents were overwhelmingly positive about our proposals, with 91% agreeing that the regulations and statutory guidance should set out how local authorities should seek consent when changing a street name. In view of that support, and the fact that heritage and cultural significance are matters that communities will weigh up, I hope the hon. Member will withdraw her amendment.

I thank the Minister for his comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North is right to highlight how our residents will do the right thing and we can depend on people to make the right choices, as I am sure they will in York. It is important to hear the Minister’s comment on the record that he will expect residents to reflect on the historical and cultural aspects of their streets and communities. People wanting to honour people or events of note in their communities will have the opportunity.

It is also important to recognise the place-making ability of a vicinity—for example, if there are quarters in a place, certainly in places as historical as York—to ensure that there is an ambience, an identity, given to a place. That could impact on the tourist aspect and the economic opportunity of a place, as well as the name in itself. I am sure there will always be streets in which to honour local individuals and at the same time balance the cultural sensitivities of an area. I found the Minister’s remarks helpful; I put that on the record. I think it will help with the next discussion, so I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 70, in clause 74, page 83, line 37, at end insert—

“(za) the local authority has carried out the necessary consultation, the necessary publicity, and the necessary notification, before making an order to alter the name of a street, or any part of a street, in its area,

(zb) the local authority has given due ‘regard to the outcomes of that consultation,.”

This amendment, together with Amendments 71 and 72, replaces a power to make regulations about referendums on street names with requirements for local authorities to consult residents and the wider community.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 71, in clause 74, page 83, line 40, at end insert—

“(6A) In subsection (6)—

(a) ‘the necessary consultation’ means consulting with—

(i) whatever community representatives the local authority thinks it appropriate to consult,

(ii) owners and occupiers of residential premises in the street subject to the order, and

(iii) any businesses with premises in the affected street;

(b) ‘the necessary publicity’ means—

(i) publishing the proposed change, including but not limited to publishing the proposal on its website, and

(ii) publicising the proposal, including but not limited to erecting in the street to which the proposal relates such notice (or notices) as it considers sufficient to draw the attention of any member of the public using that place to it.

(6B) In subsection (6A), ‘community representatives’ means any individual or body appearing to the authority to represent the views of people who live in, work in or visit the restricted area.”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 70.

Amendment 72, in clause 74, page 84, line 1, leave out subsections (7) and (8).

See explanatory statement for Amendment 70.

The Opposition believe it is important for members of the community to have the chance to change their street name and to be consulted on any changes. Whether that is to remove the name of a slaver, to better reflect changed geography, or just because they want to, the power ought to exist. My concern is not about the broad substance, but the method and the way that it is drafted—not just that there be consultation, but that the measure is prescribed in the form of a referendum with a turnout threshold. We are fine up to subsection (8). We are comfortable with the first seven subsections, but then we start to get into trouble, and that is what I am seeking to try and moderate with amendments 70, 71 and 72.

As drafted, the proposal is for regulations to be introduced to require local authorities to run a local referendum before a name can be changed. The Bill sets out that under the regulations,

“a specified percentage or number of those entitled to vote in the referendum exercise that right”—

that is the floor provision—and that

“a specified majority of those who vote indicate their support”

for the change. The wording in the Bill would also introduce a time-consuming and expensive solution to a problem that research by the Local Government Association suggests does not exist and that undermines the fundamental principles of local democracy and will not be workable in practice.

We have seen changes—the measure exists in a context of name changes that are already happening—where councils have previously considered making changes and have involved their communities in the process through their democratically elected representatives and through formal consultations. The LGA research suggests there are no examples of a council changing the name of a street without giving the residents on that street an opportunity to have their say. This is where we get to the problem with the absence of the impact assessment.

The evidence says there is not a problem. Clearly, we are trying to solve a profound problem, but we have yet to see any evidence for that. It opens us up, I fear, to some confusion in local communities because we are saying that to change a street name, not only must there be a referendum, which is quite a significant action, but it will also have turnout thresholds and what not around it, which is pretty much out of context with any other decision being made in this country on this day or any other day.

Lots of us, including you, Mr Hollobone, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and many others in the room have been local authority councillors. Some of the hardest things you do in that role include making changes to residents’ parking schemes, building humps on roads, general road layout, never mind pedestrianisation of streets—or perhaps that relates to inner cities or towns. A decision to change a street name can be significant, totemic and a real cause of fallouts and online arguments.

I would argue, however, that that is of less daily importance in a person’s life than whether their child can park their car in front of their parents’ house. However, it would be very hard to explain to residents why such a decision on parking is not subject to significant controls whereas a street name change is subject to them. The point of having a local democracy and local representatives is to resolve such issues, never mind the consideration of bigger issues such as the closure of a library or a youth centre.

We will table new clauses to add community power to the levelling-up agenda, because the Bill is bald of that right now. I have spoken about the importance of co-design of public services, particularly those that affect local communities, estates and streets. Clause 74 is not offering that, and it is not clear what problems Ministers are seeking to solve with its implementation. They would certainly not accept such fetters of control when making difficult decisions. The current clause will cause a great deal of confusion, and the referendum requirement will impose significant costs and increased demand on electoral registering authorities, returning officers and electoral staff. It would create a whole industry in pursuit of a problem that we are yet to see exists.

Amendments 70 to 72, which have been tabled after we talked to local government representatives, are designed to offer something that is perhaps more practical and which would deliver what the Government are seeking to do, without imposing lots of burdens. The amendments would allow local authorities to gather feedback from residents, address concerns and perhaps move away from making things false binaries that are subsequently subject to referendums. They would extend the family of people who may have a view—for example, pupils, staff and alumni of a school whose name derives from a road may have views about a possible name change. Likewise, members and supporters of a sports club or social club may feel that they have a stake in a road name. The amendments would improve the scope of those who get a say.

The amendments would retain a statutory requirement on local authorities to consult residents, businesses and others and to have regard to the outcome of that consultation. We could therefore be confident that local voices would be heard. Crucially, the amendments would offer local areas, local councils and local leaders the flexibility to determine the necessary nature and scope of the consultation, and to make it fit the place rather than trying to make place fit the global scheme offered by the Bill.

I do not think that we are at cross-purposes with what the Minister is seeking to achieve, but in this instance the Government are too rigid. I hope that we will hear that common sense will be applied to make the provision a little more user-friendly.

I support the amendments, particularly in the light of my withdrawing amendment 85. I believe that what sits at the heart of the clause is proper consultation with community stakeholders, whether they are residents, businesses or wider stakeholders, for instance Historic England, or the city archaeologist in the example I cited. The process of consultation is of key significance, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for Nottingham North for setting out in such detail the type of proper consultation that should be embarked on.

I think we can all recall the naming process of the research boat Boaty McBoatface, and there has certainly been learning from that experience about what could happen with a renaming process. I speak as someone who has a street in my constituency called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, which means neither one thing nor the other—in itself curious. Names can be curious, but a rigorous consultation that can flush out the issues could avoid those significant pieces of amusement, ensure that the proper voices are heard and confirm a sensible place name. A name is not just a name; it is an identity. We all think about the addresses we have lived at, and the identity they have given us, so it is important that people have ownership. A thorough consultation by a good local authority is what my hon. Friend seeks through his amendment.

On the consultation exercise, although the digitalisation of processes is welcome, I emphasise how important it is that signs are still placed on street corners, as proposed in amendment 71. People in the community need to know what is happening. It is not an either/or; it is a both. People should be able to engage with a physical notice. We all see signs up across our constituencies and stop to read them, because they are an important indicator of how people can get involved. I urge the Government to consider the breadth of that opportunity.

Finally, I highlight my hon. Friend’s points about referendums. We know that they have costs attached, and a referendum on a street name would place an additional cost on a local authority at a time when resources are thin. Given the time and complexity involved, is that really the right focus for the Government, when a consultation could do the job by utilising the existing democratic process through elected councillors? I trust that the Minister will reflect on the realities of the clause when alternative routes, as my hon. Friend set out, could strengthen the process and enable the right outcome.

The Government are strongly of the belief that people should have the final say on the character of the area in which they live. That must include protecting their local heritage. In this context, I agree with the underlying intent behind the amendments. There should be clear processes for making sure that local views on proposed street name changes are taken into account. It is, however, important that we do this in the right way, so that the processes are robust, but can be adjusted if required.

The Government recently consulted on the prospective secondary legislation and guidance to deliver the reform to street naming set out in the Bill. Respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals set out in the consultation, with 91% agreeing that regulations or statutory guidance should set out how local authorities should seek consent when changing a street name.

The amendments would remove the Government’s ability to do that and replace it with less specific requirements than we intend. I reassure the hon. Member for Nottingham North that we will be setting out clear, transparent and robust arrangements in secondary legislation. As I said, a significant number of respondents to the consultation want a proper say, and we can understand why. If the name of a residential street was changed, for example, individuals in any particular property would face significant costs from amending the title of their property or the addresses on their car logbook, bank accounts, utility bills, driving licence, and a number of other things that we could all reel off. Such things are important considerations, and that is why we are setting out down our chosen path.

By setting out the detail for how consultation on street naming will work in regulations and guidance, we will maintain flexibility to update processes in line with changes in circumstances, such as new technology. With that explanation, and those assurances, I hope the hon. Member will be willing to withdraw the amendment.

I am grateful for colleagues’ contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central brought up the good example of Boaty McBoatface. That shows, as always, the brilliant sense of humour of the British people—I have an awful lot of confidence in that—but also how in such cases it is rarely the answer that is daft; perhaps the question was less wise. The key thing, which goes to the point of the clause, is that people with a stake ought to have a say. When people have a stake in things, they take them seriously. I am certain that there will be no Boaty McBoatface Avenues. People would much more likely take a slightly different and perhaps more moderated view for their own street. That is why it is important that, as the Minister said, local questions about the character of a community are addressed.

I agree with the Minister that local residents should have the final say on the character of an area, but that can work in a number of different ways. We have a representative democracy, and change in the character of an area could be about a decision to cut back a tree, or to put bins in collective storage, leave them in the back ginnel or put them outside the house. Every day, there is a combination of hundreds of small actions that are seemingly unimportant until someone gets excited about them, but in aggregate they are substantial to people’s lives. We do not put them to daily referendums with turnout thresholds—we could not operate like that—so we have representatives who are accountable to their communities, and if they do not seem to be doing their job, they are changed for others.

I am not sure that the Minister’s stated aim is measured by what is in the Bill. He said that amendments 70 to 72 would weaken the Government’s ability to meet what was wanted in the consultation. I am afraid that I do not accept that, because 91% of people wanted to have a proper say and to have that set out. I completely agree with them—I am surprised that 9% did not agree—that the worst situation would be one where a local authority could make merely the narrowest compliance effort and not really listen. There is not much evidence of risk there. Again, the Minister could not make the case as to why, in general, there is a problem to be solved—and, absent the impact assessment, there is no case for that. The experts in the field say that there is no problem to be solved. I hope that he will reflect on that. My amendments would in no way restrict the ability to ensure that those 91% of people got what they wanted: a proper say. However, the Minister has gone a step further in prescribing how that looks, which is a disproportionate approach that will not serve.

The Minister has committed to further consultation and engagement. I hope that he will engage with colleagues in the Local Government Association and listen to them about the practical realities. If he has not already had a chance to do so, he should engage with their research about what is really going on and how we might achieve the aims without putting something onerous in the Bill. They will be willing to have those conversations.

I hope that this might be an ongoing part of the conversation as we move through the Bill’s stages, and that the Minister will at least carry this issue away and find a bit more detail. We will not detain the Committee by dividing it, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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

The Government are committed to giving a voice to residents over the naming of their street, and we are strongly of the belief that people should have the final say on the character of the area in which they live, which must include protecting their local heritage. Although street names play a fundamental part in representing the rich history of a neighbourhood, the relevant legislation has not been fundamentally reviewed since the early part of the 20th century. The matter is spread over three Acts, rendering the process of changing street names not only opaque but obsolete. I believe it should be uncontentious, if nothing else, to say that a lot has changed since 1907, and therefore a modern framework will be of benefit to local authorities.

The current legislation means that there are three systems, with different rights, that may apply depending on where people live. In London, authorities can change the name of a street at their discretion. The right of appeal in the current legislation is so vague that, in practice, it is difficult for anyone to appeal the wide discretion that has been given to local authorities.

We have discussed the importance of names in our consideration of the Bill previously, as I have heard from my predecessors, particularly in relation to the title for combined county authorities and Mayors. Street names can form a central part of an area’s character and identity, which is why explicit local support should be obtained before local authorities can change the name of a street. That is what this clause requires, supported by the technical changes in schedule 5.

Preserving cultural heritage across the UK is a Government priority and we support all efforts to inspire pride in the places in which we live. The clause makes it clear that a local authority may only change the name of a street if it has sufficient local support. We will set out in regulations the detailed operations of this framework and how sufficient local support can be obtained by local authorities.

We have consulted on the principles underpinning the clause. Our response to the consultation was published earlier this week. Respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of the propositions set out, with 75% agreeing that those on the electoral roll for a street should have a decisive say on whether a proposed name change can occur. Giving communities and those most directly affected the final say on preserving, enhancing or creating their area’s identity is vital, and I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

I will not repeat any of the arguments I have made. We agree on the substance of allowing people to decide their street name, but we are troubled by the process and its rigidity. I hope the Minister will keep reflecting on that in the following stages.

I am labouring a point I made the last time I rose, but this is the last time I will make it today—I promise, Mr Hollobone. This is the end of part 2 of the Bill. The Minister made a welcome commitment that we will see the impact assessment before the end of Bill Committee, but I gently say that it will not be much use for parts 1 and 2. Frankly, there be no impact on part 1, because that was a plan to make a plan, but part 2 will make combined county authorities, which presumably are supposed to be quite impactful. It is a problem that we have not been able to argue those in the round.

The next part of the Bill, which is on planning, includes really significant decisions that will shape communities. I am not sure that colleagues on the Government Benches, never mind the Opposition Benches, should be comfortable making those decisions without an impact assessment. I hope to prevail on the Minister that if the impact assessment is not going to appear before part 3 of the Bill today, we may at least have it before the summer recess so that we can have it for our discussion about the remaining clauses.

I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North for his comments, which I will look at carefully and consider, and see what more can be done to expedite the impact assessment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 74 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Gareth Johnson.)

Adjourned till this day at Two oclock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Thirteenth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Sir Mark Hendrick, Mr Philip Hollobone, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Ian Paisley

Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Benton, Scott (Blackpool South) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

† Jones, Mr Marcus (Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

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

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 12 July 2022

(Afternoon)

[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

The usual rules and conventions on food and drink apply. Water is obviously acceptable. You have already been given permission to remove your jackets.

Clause 75

Power in relation to the processing of planning data

I beg to move amendment 118, in clause 75, page 85, line 9, at end insert—

“(1A) Regulations under this Chapter may require relevant planning authorities to process data in accordance with approved data standards relating to the number and nature of—

(a) second homes, and

(b) holiday let properties

in the planning authority area.”.

This amendment would enable planning data regulations to provide for the collection of data to national standards about second homes and holiday lets.

The amendment seeks to aid transparency and therefore accountability on some of the issues that the Committee has already discussed regarding the number of homes that are not used for permanent dwelling.

I could give the Committee various statistics on excessive second home ownership and holiday lets. For example, estate agents in Cumbria tell me that up to 80% of all house sales since the pandemic began, two and a bit years ago, have been in the second homes market. In one year, from June 2020 to June 2021, there was a 32% rise in the number of holiday lets in the district of South Lakeland. Hon. Members can imagine the number of holiday lets that existed to start with in a district that includes the biggest chunk of the Lake district and a large chunk of the Yorkshire dales; 32% is a huge number. Across England, there has been a 50% reduction in the number of long-term rental properties available. Outside London, there has been an 11% rise in rents; in London, the increase is nearly double that.

All those figures come from local councils, housing charities and research I have carried out myself; none of it comes from central Government sources. The amendment would ensure that there is a real sense of the scale of the problem. I feel it and I know it, from talking to people in my constituency. From Grasmere to Garsdale, from Coniston to Arnside, every community is suffering a haemorrhaging of its working-age population. They have experienced that for years, but in the last two years the situation has been especially awful.

What do we need to know? What are we looking for? Someone who owns a second property that they rent out for 70 days a year counts as a small business, which means they do not pay council tax and they do not pay business rates either. I can think of thousands of homes in my constituency where someone who is, by definition, comfortable—to say the very least—is being subsidised by people working every hour God sends, with two, three or four different jobs, often on minimum wage. Those hard-working people are subsidising second home owners, who do not have to pay any kind of tax whatsoever, either to the Government or to the local authority, on their dwelling, and that is not on. It is not right and we must do everything we can to prevent it.

We can dig down, via various routes, to get the number of holiday lets, give or take, but we do not know anything about second homes—for a slightly good reason. After a Liberal Democrat by-election win in Ribble Valley in 1992, Mr Major abolished the poll tax and introduced the council tax, and gave 50% relief—a subsidy—to anyone with a second home. The Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 reduced that to just a 10% subsidy, so people had to pay 90%. The coalition got rid of the subsidy altogether, so now, in most authorities, second home owners pay full council tax. As a result, there is no incentive to register a home as a second home, so we just do not know; broadly speaking, the information we have is anecdotal.

The purpose of the amendment is to make sure that we know formally the scale of the problem, so that the Government can be held to account and we can take action to alleviate the problem, in order to ensure that there are homes for the permanent populations of our communities.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Mark. I take the opportunity to echo the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North in warmly welcoming the new Ministers to their places and in thanking their predecessors—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien)—for the constructive way in which they engaged with us and the thoughtful manner in which they approached the consideration of the Bill. On the basis of this morning’s proceedings, I am confident that we will continue in that vein.

Turning to amendment 118, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is a doughty champion for his constituents on this issue. He will know from previous debates in the House on this subject that we are in complete agreement that the Government need urgently to commit to far bolder action. It is not in dispute that a balance needs to be struck when it comes to second homes and short-term holiday lets; no one is arguing that they are of no benefit to local economies, but the potential benefits associated with them must continually be weighed against their impacts on local people.

At present, the experience of a great many rural, coastal and, indeed, urban communities makes it clear that the Government have not got the balance right. The problem is not second homes and short-term holiday lets per se; as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, it is excessive numbers of them in a given locality. While individual hon. Members will have a clear sense of the communities in their constituencies that are affected by this problem, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight with the amendment the fact that we do not know the precise number of second homes and holiday lets across the country, or their distribution.

Members have heard me say this before, but council tax records are likely to significantly undercount second homes, both because there is no financial incentive to register a property in areas where a council tax discount is no longer offered, and because second home owners can still avoid council tax altogether by claiming that their properties have moved from domestic to non-domestic use.

The estimates of second home ownership produced by the English housing survey are more reliable, but even they are based on a relatively small sample and rely on respondents understanding precisely what is meant by a second home and accurately reporting their situation. Similar limitations apply to short-term lettings. There is no single definitive source of data on rates for what is, after all, an incredibly diverse sector, with providers offering accommodation across multiple platforms.

It therefore strikes us as entirely logical that as well as considering what more might be done to mitigate the negative impact of excessive rates of second home ownership and short-term and holiday lets, the Government should consider whether digitisation of the planning system could allow us to better capture data on overall rates and provide a better sense of which parts of the country face the most acute challenges. We therefore very much support amendment 118, and we hope the Minister will give it serious consideration.

I, too, support the amendment. Data is key to everything: we cannot make good, informed, evidence-based decisions unless we have data before us. In my community, I have seen my boundaries change because of the number of empty properties and people not registering. I have seen a real change street by street as well as community by community. Second homes, commuter homes and holiday homes are taking over residential properties, which my local residents cannot afford to live in any more due to the lack of supply. As a result, they are having to move out of my city. We have to look at this extraction economy through the eyes of the people it impacts the most, and collecting data is absolutely key to that.

There is another reason I think data is really important. The Government are driving their whole housing policy through numbers. They are saying, “We are going to build x units in each of these locations across the country.” We have heard hon. Members in various debates discuss whether those levels are right, but if those housing units simply become empty units, second homes or holiday lets, that will not resolve the housing crisis we are dealing with. It will not add to our communities or make a difference to them. It will not have an impact on Government targets for addressing the housing crisis. It is essential that we can identify the issue in the detail it deserves, not just in whole areas but drilling down to understand what is happening in different parts of the community.

In York, we have around 2,000 Airbnbs—last time I checked, the number was 1,999. The vast majority are concentrated in my constituency of York Central. I can name the streets where those properties are. The number of homes is increasing in those areas. We will go on to talk about measures that the Government can introduce—measures that I very much hope they will introduce—to address this serious problem, which is sucking the life out of our community. If we have up to 350,000 Airbnbs nationally, what does that mean for Government targets for house building? How are they going to say they are building additional homes when we are seeing that sharp increase in Airbnbs, second homes and so on?

The Government need the data to drive their own housing policy and to ensure that they are delivering on their targets for improving the housing situation, rather than just watching it get worse while they busily tick boxes and say, “We are delivering, delivering, delivering,” when it is not making a scrap of difference on the ground. That is the feeling in my community. I welcome the amendment. It is a helpful start and a helpful guide to the Government about some of the considerations they should be taking into account in the planning system.

I thank the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for his kind welcome and good wishes. I look forward to working with him across the Dispatch Box, in a reasonable and constructive way.

We spoke at length earlier about second homes, which I suspect will be a running theme for the Committee. We talked about the importance of addressing the issues that can be caused by second homes and holiday lets in an area. I want to focus on why the amendment is not needed.

We acknowledge the importance of data on holiday lets for supporting tourism and manging the impacts on local communities. However, I believe that there may have been some misrepresentation of the intent of clause 75. The clause aims to require planning authorities to process their planning data in accordance with approved data standards, whereas the amendment seeks to regulate for the collection of data by planning authorities. Nothing in the clause can require the collection of data by planning authorities.

Having said that, let me add a point of reassurance: where planning authorities have holiday let data, subsection (2)(b) provides the ability for data standards to be set for it. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is not necessary to achieve his intention. Regulations will specify which planning data can be made subject to data standards and require planning authorities to comply with those standards once created.

We will turn to the substance of second homes and short-term let policy in due course. We take the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale seriously. I hope that I have provided sufficient reassurance at this point to allow him to withdraw his amendment.

I will not press the amendment to a vote at this point, but I may bring the measure back later in another guise. I am very grateful that the Minister has accepted the need for this data, so that decisions can be made and otherwise.

As I and other hon. Members said earlier, the existence of second homes and holiday lets is not, by any means, an unalloyed bad. The holiday let market, in particular, is crucial to the economy and the hospitality and tourism industry in Cumbria, which is worth £3.5 billion a year and employs 60,000 people, but we have to get the balance right. There is not a lot of point in having holiday cottages where people go on holiday but find they cannot get a bite to eat, because it turns out that their holiday cottage was the chef’s house last year, and they have been evicted and the balance is all wrong.

One assumes that, if the Government were to accept further amendments that might be proposed later, there would be powers available to local authorities to restrict the number of second homes or holiday lets in a community. We would not want to do that carte blanche; it would have to be done on the basis of information. We might decide that up to 20% of a community could be second homes. How would we know whether that was the case and be able to make a judgment, unless the data were available?

I will not press the amendment to a vote now, and I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks. It is important that we make decisions to save our communities based on the reality of the situation out there. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 65, in clause 75, page 85, line 14, leave out paragraph (b).

This amendment would prevent the Government from using the powers in this Chapter for information other than that provided or processed by a planning authority under a relevant planning enactment.

Having had just over four productive and, I am sure the Committee will agree, stimulating days of line-by-line consideration of parts 1 and 2 of the Bill relating to levelling up, local democracy and devolution, we now turn to the first of the Bill’s parts on planning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North remarked during, I think, our second session, in practice this is not wholly, or even largely, a levelling-up Bill. Indeed, I would even go so far as to describe the legislation before us as essentially a planning Bill in all but name, albeit in a shiny but ultimately flimsy levelling-up wrapper.

To the extent that this is essentially a planning Bill, it is, as hon. Members are aware, a far different beast from the legislation the Government had in mind when they published the “Planning for the future” White Paper in August 2020. The remnants of that White Paper that have found their way into this Bill, augmented with several new initiatives of varying quality, amount collectively to a rather modest set of proposals that we fear fall far short of the kind of reform that is required to meet the multiple challenges we face as a country.

Some of the planning provisions in the Bill are extremely controversial, and we will consider several of those in the hours and days that remain before the summer recess. Others are less so, and chapter 1 of part 3, which we are now considering, falls squarely in the latter category.

The clauses in chapter 1 seek to digitise the planning system, with the objectives of raising standards across planning authorities, facilitating cross-boundary engagement—particularly around infrastructure by better enabling the comparison of planning information—and, perhaps most importantly, making it easier for members of the public to access and easily comprehend information about specific local planning matters. This represents a real step forward, and I want to make it clear at the outset of the Committee’s consideration of clauses 75 to 81 that we strongly support in principle the digitisation of the planning system.

As Dr Hugh Ellis rightly put it to the Committee in our final oral evidence session:

“There are some very archaic practices in the planning process”.––[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 23 June 2022; c. 125, Q157.]

As things stand, the planning system is overwhelmingly reliant on outdated software that places a considerable burden on the sector. Often, progress on local planning matters is almost entirely reliant on individual council planning officers and their familiarity with a particular scheme, rather than transparent and accessible information that can be drawn upon by all. Given that the systems in planning authorities more often than not sit on separate platforms, they frequently prevent cross-referencing of data by other council staff and local councillors. More generally, the planning process is too heavily reliant on documents rather than data, and this has a direct impact on the speed and quality of decisions.

Provision for public interaction with the planning system can, in many cases, appear to have been designed to actively discourage engagement, as anyone who has tried to analyse a local plan map will know. Even in cases where online access to information is possible through local authority portals, the data available is often inconsistent, confusing, and a barrier to community participation.

If any hon. Member has had to trawl their local council’s website to find information on a given planning application—I have, many times—they will know that documents often come in the form of hundreds if not thousands of pages of material spread across multiple PDFs, putting off anyone other than committed souls determined for one reason or another to trawl through reams of uploaded documentation to try to understand precisely what changes are being proposed in their local area. In short, there is an unarguable case to upgrade the technology that underpins the planning system in England. Doing so would have myriad benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, digitisation could go a long way to boosting engagement in local planning matters, particularly at the local plan phase, incentivising residents who, as things stand, would not dream of involving themselves in a planning matter. As Tony Burton from Neighbourhood Planners London put it to the Committee in oral evidence relating to local and neighbourhood plans,

“we would point to the opportunities it presents around new, complementary forms of community engagement…and more effective ways of pooling and analysing the evidence that is required”.––[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 23 June 2022; c. 80, Q107.]

A digitised and integrated system would make it easier to find and search through the detail of a given application, and to see associated data and drawings, and it could well facilitate opportunities to directly interact or submit feedback. New interactive digital services and tools could even allow members of the public to submit their own ideas or take part in discussions and design workshops at an early stage of a proposal, and to explore different site distributions, massing and densities themselves.

Digitisation could also deliver huge benefits for the development and distribution of local plans. If done well, the roll-out of, for example, 3D model platforms could support the creation of local plans by changing the way councils visualise and make assessments of their localities, as well as aiding the monitoring of their delivery. Similarly, making local plans digitally available and interactive across England could help standardise processes and offer greater accessibility, collaboration and community engagement.

I add a small caveat at this point, in that the clauses in chapter 1 really cover only how data will processed and standardised. The Bill contains no indication of how the Government see consultation and decision-making processes being opened up to a more diverse audience as a result of digital technologies. I hope the Minister will give us a sense of the Department’s thinking in that respect, on issues such as digital mapping, when he responds.

However, that the clauses in this chapter present such opportunities is undeniable. That said, we are firmly of the view that a series of safeguards are necessary to ensure that the digitisation of the planning system does not have adverse consequences, intended or otherwise, and amendment 65, along with amendments 66, 67 and 68, seeks to provide some of those safeguards.

The particular concern that amendment 65 is intended to address is the potential for the broad powers provided by clause 75—to regulate the processing of planning data—to be used as a surreptitious way of prescribing the length, layout and content of local and neighbourhood plans. That concern arises in part from the ways in which the Bill, in other places, centralises the planning system by effectively downgrading the status and the scope of local planning—a theme will we return to many times over the course of this Committee’s life.

Given our concern that the powers in clause 75 give scope for excessive central control of local development plan formulation, we believe it is essential that the Bill clarifies that the powers are to be utilised only for the purposes of technical data handling and processing—hence the suggested removal of the broad language in subsection (2)(b) specifying that planning data can mean any information provided to, or processed by, the authority

“for any other purpose relating to planning or development in England”.

The key point here is the need for the Bill to better define what functions can be regulated by the powers set out in this clause.

Binding “approved data standards” applied to a limited range of technical functions, such as standardising contributions to the preparation of a local plan or how local plans are made accessible, is all to the good and will aid access, engagement and cross-boundary comparison. However, if not more tightly circumscribed on the face of the Bill than at present, our concern is that the proposed regulation of the processing and provision of planning data may, inadvertently or otherwise, enable the central imposition of what can and cannot be in a local or neighbourhood plan.

I appreciate the distinction is a subtle one, but I hope the Minister understands the concern we are trying to highlight. I also hope he will accept the amendment or, if not, at least provide the Committee with robust assurances that the powers in this clause will only ever be used for the narrow purpose of regulating the handling of technical data, rather than in any way dictating the form of local plans.

I understand and share the desire to ensure that the information in scope of these new powers is proportionate and focuses on digitising the planning system.

Amendment 65 gets to the heart of our digital reforms—how we define planning data—and would narrow that definition. I fear, however, that the amendment underestimates the breadth of information upon which planning authorities rely. It is important to remember that these powers are designed to underpin the entirety of the planning system. We need to encompass information that will support plan making with interactive map-based plans; the flow of information, such as from the heritage sector, to planning authorities; and accessible environmental outcomes monitoring and reports.

As such, information relevant to planning may not in fact arise from a planning enactment. For example, it may come from activities of local authorities under their general power of competence or from information provided or used by that authority for the purposes of other legislation, such as the Local Government Finance Act 1992. Equally it may come voluntarily from other public sector organisations or from private companies and individuals for purposes that are not clearly related to a statutory planning function. We want to ensure that we do not accidentally exclude any of that valuable information from being made even more valuable to planning authorities and others as a result of our reforms.

As we will cover in subsequent clauses, there are underlying safeguards to protect all the information from inappropriate use. That includes protecting against inconsistency with data protection legislation. Equally, as I am sure we will discuss, our continuing pilot work with planning authorities will ensure that data standardisation can be implemented by them.

We will consult to ensure that we hear a diverse range of voices on how this part of the Bill is put into guidance. We will produce new guidance on community engagement in planning, which will describe different ways in which communities can get involved and highlight best practice.

The hon. Gentleman had some concerns about what is covered in a local or neighbourhood plan. The intent of creating the data standards is to ensure that local and neighbourhood plans can contain more information in a standardised format for the benefit of their communities. Data standards will be introduced gradually, and local authorities will not be prevented from using planning data where standards are yet to be introduced.

I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that amendment 65 is not required, and I would be grateful if he withdrew it.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I think the best way to put it would be that I am slightly reassured, but not wholly reassured. I welcome what he said about the recognition that the powers need to be used proportionately. I welcome the clarity on the intent. What I did not hear was a cast-iron guarantee that the powers will not, inadvertently or advertently, in any way end up constraining the length, layout and content of local development plans. Therefore, we still think and are concerned that they could be used to do such. While I will not be pressing the amendment to a vote, this is an issue that relates to our wider concerns about the status and scope of local planning, which we will come back to. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

The planning system currently relies on information presented in various formats and contained in lengthy PDF documents from which it is hard to extract. Local plans alone can be hundreds of pages long. As the hon. Gentleman said, they can contain dozens and dozens of PDF files, which are difficult for experts to navigate, let alone members of the public.

This clause is the foundation for changing the way planning authorities hold and present their planning information, moving the planning system from being document based to being data driven. The clause does this in a manner that allows the planning system to keep pace with the innovation we hope to promote. The clause grants the Secretary of State the power to specify in regulations which planning information must meet set data standards.

I know that some are concerned that the data standards will outstrip the ability of planning authorities to meet them. I therefore want to reassure the Committee that the very reason for the approach I have just set out is to allow us to bring information into scope as it is ready. We will proceed incrementally and take into account planning authorities’ capabilities and innovation in property technology. I hope that reassures the Committee on that point.

In order to reduce the burden on planning authorities, clause 76 gives them the power to require those submitting planning data to do so in accordance with new planning data standards. In addition to enabling information in the planning system to flow freely, following that approach will help authorities perform their crucial role more effectively, with more ability to compare and co-ordinate with other authorities; will empower more local people to engage with planning, with better tools to support them in meaningfully shaping their areas; and will drive private sector innovation, improving the efficiency of the housing market as well as the planning system.

In summary, the clause begins the modernisation of the planning system, creating accessible, reusable data to the benefit of planning authorities, communities, central Government, developers and the wider private sector. I commend it to the Committee.

I will be brief, but I have some questions for the Minister. Clause 76(1) allows planning authorities, by published notice, to require a person to provide them with planning data that complies with an approved standard that is applicable to the data. Subsection (4) allows planning authorities to reject all or any parts of planning data from a person if they fail to comply with the requirements under subsection (1). Subsection (5) requires that planning authorities must serve the person with a notice by writing to inform them of any such decision, specifying which aspects of planning data have been rejected.

The two examples in the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill relate, respectively, to local plan creation and the identification of conservation areas nationally, rather than to individual planning applications. Given that the aim of this chapter is the creation of a data-led planning system, as the Minister said, and that the White Paper specifically referenced the intention to create a

“national data standard for smaller applications”,

it strikes me that there is a need for clarity over what “data not documents” means for individual households in the context of clause 76.

As such, I would simply like to get a sense from the Minister of what impact he believes these provisions will have on households seeking planning permission for projects such as extensions and conservatories, or garage and loft conversions. Specifically—this relates to a point that I will return to when speaking to amendment 66 to clause 77—what does the Department have planned, if anything, to ensure that residents making such applications who may lack the requisite digital skills or access to the internet are provided with appropriate support? Is any element of discretion provided, or other means of assisting such people?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. With regard to that last one, we will probably discuss that as we go through the next few clauses. However, there is no intent to exclude those who do not have the ability to use digital equipment—those we consider to be digitally excluded. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that as we deal with further clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 75 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 76

Power in relation to the provision of planning data

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

Too often planning information is hard to use for all the purposes it should serve. The clause helps to address that problem.

The large amount of information received by planning authorities often comes to them requiring manual intervention to make it usable. Re-entry is then required to use that information later in the system. That is bureaucracy at its worst, actively detracting from the ability of planning authorities to perform their core role, taking time and resources away from the decisions that matter to communities.

The clause works to achieve three effects. First, it works with clause 75 to ensure that complying with data standards does not create a new bureaucratic burden for planning authorities receiving information and then having to render it compliant. Secondly, it gives planning authorities the power to require information in a manner that best suits their systems and the data standards to which they are subject. Thirdly, it protects against the risk that some may attempt to use the requirements under clause 75 to inconvenience authorities’ decision making by deliberately submitting information in a problematic format that is difficult to extract.

The clause also sets out the process that planning authorities must follow to exercise their powers. Planning authorities will be required to publish a notice on their website or through specific communications to inform participants about what planning data will be subject to data standards when it is submitted to a planning authority. If the data fails to comply, a notice must be served specifying the reasons for rejection.

I will touch briefly on the power of planning authorities to refuse information as non-compliant. Planning authorities are not obliged to refuse non-compliant information, although for the reasons that I have outlined we expect them to accept such information only exceptionally. The Committee will see that information cannot be refused where the provider has a reasonable excuse. That is to protect those who, for whatever reason, cannot use the means of submission stipulated by a planning authority or cannot comply with the data standards in the submission. In that way, planning authorities will be under a duty to accept and fully consider such information. Those with a reasonable excuse will not therefore be disadvantaged.

Where authorities refuse information, the clause provides them with discretion to accept a complaint resubmission, although again there is no general expectation that they should do so. The result of the clause will therefore be that, by default, the information received will be usable for all purposes to which planning authorities need it to be put. That will make their work faster and easier and will allow them to focus on planning rather than data entry.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 76 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 77

Power to require certain planning data to be made publicly available