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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Fifth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Julie Elliott, Stewart Hosie, † Sir Edward Leigh, Mrs Sheryll Murray

† Antoniazzi, Tonia (Gower) (Lab)

† Argar, Edward (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)

† Baillie, Siobhan (Stroud) (Con)

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

† Butler, Rob (Aylesbury) (Con)

† Champion, Sarah (Rotherham) (Lab)

† Colburn, Elliot (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)

† Daby, Janet (Lewisham East) (Lab)

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

† Heald, Sir Oliver (North East Hertfordshire) (Con)

† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)

Logan, Mark (Bolton North East) (Con)

† McMorrin, Anna (Cardiff North) (Lab)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

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

† Reeves, Ellie (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)

† Throup, Maggie (Erewash) (Con)

Anne-Marie Griffiths, Bethan Harding, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 27 June 2023


[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Victims and Prisoners Bill

We will now start line-by-line consideration of the Bill. Hansard would be grateful if you could email any speaking notes to, or pass them to the Hansard colleague present. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room. It shows how the selected amendments have been grouped together for debate. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same, or a similar, issue.

Please note that decisions on amendments take place not in the order they are debated but in the order they appear on the amendment paper. The selection list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment will be taken when we come to the clause to which it relates. Decisions on new clauses will be taken once we have completed consideration of the Bill’s existing clauses. Members wishing to press a grouped amendment or new clause to a Division should indicate when speaking to it that they wish to do so.

Clause 1

Meaning of “victim”

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced, or made allegations that they have experienced—

(i) sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or

(ii) bullying or harassment not falling within paragraph (i).”

This amendment would extend the definition of “victim” to include someone who has experienced, or made allegations that they have experienced, sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or other bullying or harassment.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 25, at end insert—

“(3A) The victims’ code must make provision in relation to people who have experienced, or made allegations that they have experienced—

(a) sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or

(b) bullying or harassment not falling within paragraph (a).

(3B) Provision under subsection (3A) must include—

(a) provision relating to the enforcement of non-disclosure agreements signed by such victims, and

(b) provision about legal advice and other support for such victims in cases where they are asked to sign, or have signed, a non-disclosure agreement.

(3C) In this section—

‘non-disclosure agreement’ means an agreement which purports to any extent to preclude a victim from—

(a) publishing information about a relevant complaint, or

(b) disclosing information about the relevant complaint to any one or more other persons;

‘misconduct’ means—

(a) sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, and

(b) bullying or harassment not falling within paragraph (a); and

‘relevant complaint’ means a complaint relating to misconduct or alleged misconduct by any person.”

This amendment would require the victims’ code to include specific provision for people who have experienced, or made allegations that they have experienced, sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or other bullying or harassment.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve under your guidance once again, Sir Edward. I rise to speak in support of amendments 2 and 3, tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). It is important that the Bill aims to improve end-to-end support for victims of crime and to amplify victims’ voices in the criminal justice system. The amendments focus on a widespread practice that disempowers victims and silences their voices: non-disclosure agreements. NDAs are contracts that were created to protect trade secrets, but when used incorrectly they become secret settlement contracts used to buy the silence of a victim or whistleblower. They have become the default solution for organisations, corporations and public bodies to settle cases of sexual misconduct, racism, pregnancy discrimination and other human rights violations.

In some cases, those in charge do not even realise that an NDA was used. NDAs have become boilerplate contractual language for so many organisations, and they are extremely harmful. They most often protect an employer’s reputation and the career of the perpetrator, not the victim, who could be protected by a simple one-sided confidentiality clause. They prevent a victim from speaking out and accessing the support they need by preventing them from reporting, speaking to family and friends about their experiences, or warning others. In one case of a university student who signed a gagging clause after she had been sexually assaulted, the agreement was so poorly explained that she took it to mean that she could not even speak to her own GP.

We have had this discussion many times before, specifically in relation to a different piece of legislation: the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, an amendment to which, tabled by Lord Collins of Highbury, sought to restrict universities from using NDAs in cases of harassment and bullying. The Government accepted that amendment. I and many others who have campaigned on this issue were delighted that students gained that protection in the 2023 Act. If students should be protected from NDAs and gagging clauses, why would the same not apply to other victims? Amendments 2 and 3, tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, are intended to do ensure that it will.

Amendment 2 would expand the definition of a victim to expressly include victims of harassment, including sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or other forms of bullying. Amendment 3 would then make provision in the victims code for those victims relating to non-disclosure agreements. The language of the amendments was drawn from the 2023 Act—language that the Government have already agreed to. As I said, the protection should not be limited to students; every victim deserves the right to speak out.

We have a golden opportunity with the Bill to enshrine in law the principle that no victim should be silenced, prevented from speaking out about their experiences and scared away from vital support services. There is support across the House for these changes—I refer to amendment 1, tabled by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller)—and I hope that the Minister will accept the amendments, seize the moment, take firm action and stamp out this practice once and for all.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Edward. I hope the Minister will consider accepting these amendments. I can well see that he might have some concerns about what he may see as an open-ended extension of the definition of victims. I can see that, in the position he is in—deciding on policy—he may come to the view that a line has to be drawn somewhere when we define victims.

The Bill’s current definition does extend to a wide range of people, and there are other amendments and concerns that may extend that definition to an even wider range. As somebody who has been in the Minister’s position, making policy decisions about where a line ought to be drawn in the middle of a grey area, I understand that there is a natural tendency to resist. I hope he will resist that natural tendency in this particular instance, because my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has made a compelling case and the amendments are important.

One of the worst aspects of being subjected to this kind of behaviour is not being able to talk about it afterwards. One understands why an employer would like to obtain a non-disclosure agreement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, it has become a standard clause that anybody negotiating such a settlement on behalf of the employer would stick into every agreement in any instance; I imagine they are all drafted on computer systems ready to be simply splurged out at the drop of a hat. But the consequence for the individual who is signing up to the agreement—not always, as my hon. Friend has made clear, with the full information about what the legal implications are, and what they do and do not cover—can be extremely damaging, not only in the immediate aftermath of such an agreement, but possibly for years into the future.

Surely the Minister will accept, as I am sure you would, Sir Edward—although not in this Committee, of course—that the whole point of the victims code is to try to minimise the impact on victims by giving rights and access to provisions that enable them to recover swiftly from whatever it is that they have undergone that ends up causing them an issue. That is surely the very definition of what the victims code is meant to be doing. It would therefore be an omission if the amendments were not accepted.

Although I fully understand the concerns the Minister might have about extending the pool of people who may fall into the definition in the legislation, it would be remiss of the Government to exclude this particular group, who really do need such assistance. I hope that he will have something positive to say to us about these amendments when he gets to his feet.

I want to speak to these important amendments, which have been brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham. Amendment 1 gets to the heart of what the Bill is all about. It would ensure that there is no impediment to providing evidence of behaviour that may be criminal misconduct after signing a non-disclosure agreement.

We have all seen examples of these agreements. Some simply attempt to buy off the victim and halt any prospect of them using knowledge of a person or an organisation which may have been the perpetrator of any kind of criminal misconduct, ranging from financial impropriety to sexual assault. The agreements work by effectively threatening people that if they decide to share their experience or knowledge, they will be subject to costly sanctions.

I hope the Committee will agree that individuals or organisations trying to hide their criminality using non-disclosure agreements is not only wrong, but that it is also a licence to get away with all manner of activity that could lead to large fines and even imprisonment. Why should someone responsible for sexual assault be able to hide away? They should not be. Amendment 3, importantly, would ensure that that protection is enshrined in the victims code, which we will get to later. We want to ensure that there is no wriggle room to allow potential criminals to escape the law because of, in effect, an agreement that is designed to do just that.

Amendment 2 could also be said to sit at the heart of the Bill; we absolutely support the essence of the amendments. Amendment 2 would add to the clause the specific definition of a person who

“has experienced, or made allegations that they have experienced…sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or…bullying or harassment”.

We want to work constructively with the Government, and I hope that we can start now, with the Minister addressing the serious concerns that Committee members have raised, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham who moved the amendment. We need amendments to significantly strengthen the Bill—which we finally have, eight years after it was first proposed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for raising this important topic and enabling the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran)—and, by extension, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller)—to be debated in Committee.

The amendments recognise that non-disclosure agreements are misused if they prevent someone from speaking about an experience of crime, for example, to relevant professionals. Amendment 1, though not selected for debate, is intended to include those who have signed NDAs that prevent them from speaking about criminal conduct in the definition of a victim. Amendment 2 and 3, which I will turn to shortly, are intended to go a little further—potentially beyond criminal conduct. I will address that point in a second.

Although confidentiality clauses can serve valid purposes—for example, to protect commercially sensitive information—the Government have been clear, as I think is the Opposition’s position, that they should not be used to prevent disclosures to the police, regulated health and care professionals, legal professionals and others. It is illegal for an NDA to be used to conceal a criminal offence, pervert the course of justice or stop someone co-operating with the police. As the hon. Member for Rotherham alluded to, we have already made reforms around the use of NDAs in higher education.

I know that the hon. Members who tabled, signed and spoke to the amendments are particularly interested in ensuring that individuals are aware of their ability to access support, regardless of having signed an NDA. Anybody who has suffered harm as a direct result of criminal conduct, regardless of whether that crime has been reported or is covered by an NDA, is already covered as a victim under part 1 of the Bill and the victims code. That means that they are entitled to access relevant support services, and, as the Law Society guidance on the matter makes clear, it would not normally be appropriate for non-disclosure agreements to prohibit disclosure to professionals for legal, medical or therapeutic reasons. In most circumstances, those qualified professionals would be bound by a duty of confidentiality to their client.

The Minister makes an excellent point, but how does he get across to those who have signed non-disclosure agreements that they are not restricted in the way in which the law requires that they be unrestricted if nobody has told them that? Could he do something to ensure that those who sign such agreements get proper information about what they really mean?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I do not want to test the Committee’s patience too much with the amount of notes that I have, but I will come to her point. I hope that I can give her a little succour in terms of her asks of me in her speech.

I reassure Members that if anybody suffers harm as a result of sexual abuse, bullying or harassment, where that behaviour amounts to criminal conduct it is already covered by the definition of a victim in part 1 of the Bill. Therefore amendment 1, which would include those individuals explicitly in the definition, could be deemed unnecessary, as they are already covered. However, I will turn to amendment 1 in my final remarks.

Amendments 2 and 3 seek to go further to include those who have experienced behaviour that may be covered by a non-disclosure agreement but which is not criminal. As the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood alluded to, that would expand the definition. We are clear that we have to strike the appropriate balance in drawing the definition in a way that is practical and functional but that does not exclude those who we feel should be included. Part 1 of the Bill seeks to restrict the definition to victims of crime, and we believe that that is the right approach. However, I suspect we will debate on the coming amendments and over the course of today whether that balance has been struck and whether that line has been drawn in the right place. We may disagree on some elements; I expect we will explore that further today.

The relevant definition of a victim is focused on improving support services for victims of crime and increasing oversight to drive up standards of criminal justice agencies working with victims of crime. That does not mean that individuals who have suffered as a result of behaviour that is not criminal, albeit harmful, are prevented from seeking support. Outside the provisions in the Bill, they can still access support services where those are available to them.

Amendment 3 would require the victims code to include provisions for those who have experienced or made allegations that they have experienced sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or other bullying or harassment. It would also require the code to include provisions for those who have signed NDAs for those incidents.

It is vital that the victims code works for different types of victims. The code covers a wide range of entitlements for victims of different crimes and with different needs. To give us the broadest flexibility to serve the changing needs of victims without having to amend primary legislation, we have not explicitly listed entitlements or specific provisions for particular types of victims in the Bill, as the amendment would do. Instead, we have placed the overarching principles of the victims code in primary legislation and specified that the code can provide different entitlements for different types of victims.

We believe that is the right approach to allow the flexibility to amend the code and to reduce the risk of inadvertently excluding some groups of victims or the relevant provision that the code should make for them. The Bill as presently drafted means that the code could include provision about the matters referenced in the amendment, where they relate to victims of behaviour that amounts to criminal conduct. We have committed to consult on an updated victims code after the passage of the Bill. As mentioned on Second Reading, I am open to working with Members on whether we can go further in that respect.

I appreciate the points made by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, by the shadow Minister the hon. Member for Cardiff North, and by the hon. Member for Rotherham and the sponsors of the amendments. Therefore, although I encourage the hon. Member for Rotherham not to press the amendments to a Division at the moment, I am happy to work with her and other hon. and right hon. Members, including those who support the amendments, to explore further before we reach Report stage whether there might be something we can do to help address their concerns.

As I say, I do not believe that amendments 2 and 3 as drafted are the right approach. I am looking carefully at the issues addressed by amendment 1. I am not in a position to make any firm commitments at this point, other than to work with the hon. Member for Rotherham and others to further explore this important issue. With that, I hope that she will consider not pressing this amendment to a Division.

I thank the Minister very much for his welcome words. I echo the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood about the chilling effect of NDAs, and the lack of awareness of victims. That is at the nub of what we are trying to address.

I know there is a lot of interest in this issue across the House, so I will withdraw the amendment so that we can debate it on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 10, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced anti-social behaviour, as defined by section 2 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2014, and the conditions necessary for an ASB case review under section 104 of that Act have been met.”.

This amendment would include victims of anti-social behaviour in the definition of a victim.

As the Committee may be aware, our sessions in Committee will run over ASB Awareness Week, which is poignant. It is quite disappointing to be here today, fighting once again to have antisocial behaviour victims protected in the Bill.

Does my hon. Friend agree that victims of antisocial behaviour are indeed victims of crime and should be included in the victims code?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Government have repeatedly ignored advice on this, so I am here again to be a voice for the voiceless, who will remain voiceless if the Bill passes unamended.

Rachel Almeida, assistant director for knowledge and insight at Victim Support, told us last week that a huge number of victims are impacted by persistent antisocial behaviour. She said:

“We agree that there needs to be a threshold for it to be persistent ASB, but we believe that their not having any rights means they are unable to access the support that they really need.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 71, Q148.]

As constituency MPs, we all receive reports of antisocial behaviour. A constituent came to me because her neighbour regularly throws human waste out of the window. Can it really be right that she would not be considered a victim under the Bill?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not think there is a Member here who does not have discussions with constituents, has not received casework about it, and has not seen antisocial behaviour when they are and about. This is a major issue that needs to be addressed, and the amendment would address it.

Antisocial behaviour can make victims’ lives a living nightmare, causing stress, misery and despair. It can often be the precursor to very serious crimes, including knife crime and gang activity, so it is important that it is taken seriously by the agencies that respond to it.

For example, if I had ordered a new outfit online and it was delivered to my house and left in the doorway, and someone pinched it, that would be a crime. It would be an unfortunate or upsetting incident, but it would have minimal impact on my wellbeing, because I could request a new outfit or get a refund. As a victim of that crime, I would be eligible for support services to help me cope and recover, regardless of whether I thought that was necessary. I would be eligible for all the rights under the victims code, including having my complaint recorded.

If I were a victim of antisocial behaviour, the situation would be entirely different. I might have people parked outside my home drinking, being disruptive, throwing cans into my garden, kicking a ball against my wall, and coming back night after night, swearing, spitting and being aggressive. I would feel persecuted in my own home and so targeted that I might become afraid of leaving the house. The longer it persisted, the more traumatised I would become. But as a victim of antisocial behaviour, I would have no access to victims’ rights and no guarantee of support. That disparity must end.

Dame Vera Baird KC, the former Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, told us last week that a key problem with the Bill is that it does not deal with people who suffer from serious antisocial behaviour.

Was not the point that Dame Vera was making that there are cases of antisocial behaviour that are criminal behaviour, but for some reason the police and others do not treat them as criminal matters? They say, “Well, that’s antisocial behaviour—a matter for the council.” Is this a question of amending the Bill, or is it about changing the attitudes of those who investigate these matters?

I am just talking to the point that Dame Vera Baird made. We absolutely need that change, but we also need this amendment to ensure that things change for the victim and they can access those services.

The clause refers to a person

“being subjected to criminal conduct”.

A lot of the things that the hon. Lady has mentioned—harassment, threatening behaviour and all those sorts of things—are criminal offences, it is just that they are not treated in the way they should be.

They are not treated in the way they should be, but there is no system or support available for antisocial behaviour, yet if the amendment were agreed, there would be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge just mentioned, the two things are not mutually exclusive.

Despite the fact that the behaviour is criminal—which is what Dame Vera Baird was referring to—it is not dealt with as criminal by the police. Instead, it is called antisocial behaviour. She said:

“I am particularly worried about people who are persecuted at home”,

as I have illustrated. She continued:

“It is not about every bit of antisocial behaviour—if someone chucks a can into my garden, I do not expect to have victims code rights—but this Government legislated well to introduce…the community trigger about seven years ago. It says that when it escalates to a particular level, you have a series of remedies to get all the agencies together to put it right. If it gets to that level, then it is seriously persecuting, and there are people who are suffering that.”

Dame Vera illustrated her evidence with the example of a woman sitting in her garden, minding her own business, when some lads who are sitting outside drinking beer throw a can into her garden. It is a relatively small incident—it is not particularly pleasant, but it is antisocial behaviour—but if she complains,

“they chuck something at her window. They stamp on her plants. They kick the ball against the gable end all the time. They shout abuse.”

They keep going and going, making the woman’s life a misery.

As Dame Vera said, often the person impacted is already vulnerable, and this intensifies that vulnerability and creates trauma. She continued:

“That is very worrying, but it is not treated as criminality; it is treated as antisocial behaviour. But if we look at it, stamping on the plants in her garden is criminal damage; chucking something at her, if it might hurt her, is an assault; much of this behaviour is likely to cause a breach of the peace, but it is never dealt with like that. Since the key to the Bill appears to be that you are a victim of criminal behaviour, the question is: who makes that decision?”

I hope the Minister addresses that in his response to the amendment.

Dame Vera continued:

“If I go to Victim Support and say, ‘Please help me. This is happening at home,’ does the fact that it is obvious that part of it is an assault make me a victim or not? I think that is a key question to answer in the Bill…If someone pinches a spade from my garden, I am entitled to my victims code rights, but if someone behaves like that to an older person, they have nothing.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 27-28, Q62.]

My constituent Sarah suffered a miscarriage due to the stress of being the victim of repeated antisocial behaviour on the part of her neighbour. Sarah should have been entitled to specialist support for what she went through, but she was not. She was not entitled to anything. Victims of antisocial behaviour are not second-class victims, second-class citizens or second-class anything, and they do not deserve to be treated as such.

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 established a trigger of three reported incidents of antisocial behaviour over a six-month period, at which point the victim can seek a community resolution meeting of the responsible agencies to resolve what is by then persistent ASB. The Home Office’s guidance in support of the Act acknowledges

“the debilitating impact that persistent or repeated anti-social behaviour can have on its victims, and the cumulative impact if that behaviour persists over…time.”

It also explains that the community trigger is an important statutory safety net for victims of antisocial behaviour and that it helps to ensure that “victims’ voices are heard.”

The community trigger can be activated through notice to a local authority, a police and crime commissioner or the police when a victim or victims have reported antisocial behaviour incidents three or more times within a six-month period and no effective action has been taken. A councillor or Member of Parliament may also activate the trigger for a constituent, and I am sure that some hon. Members are supporting constituents in that way. The trigger is intended to be an opportunity for citizen empowerment—an important part of our democracy.

When the victims or victims have activated the trigger, all the agencies, such as the police, local authorities and housing associations, must come together to address the situation and fix the problem. However, despite the intention that the trigger should be a solution to a complex problem, it has not delivered the intended results. A report by the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales found that awareness of the trigger remains low among the public and that even some of the relevant agencies are not using it. Including the community trigger threshold in the definition of a victim, as amendment 10 intends, would help to rectify that problem, as well as providing much-needed support to these usually very vulnerable victims.

Some police and crime commissioners offer support to antisocial behaviour victims through discretionary funds, because they cannot do so from Ministry of Justice victim funds, but that is pot luck: some police and crime commissioners do not. That means that whether support services are provided for victims of ASB depends on where they live, which creates a concern that some victims who are suffering significant stress from persistent ASB do not get the emotional and practical support that they need to cope and recover. Victims of persistent ASB whose suffering has entitled them to activate the community trigger must be recognised as victims of crime in their own right, with all that that entails.

What is even more bewildering about the Government’s stance is that the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said on 4 December 2021, as reported exclusively in The Times, that the Bill would give antisocial behaviour victims new rights and protections. He committed to putting victims of antisocial behaviour “on a par” with victims of crime. The article quoted a Ministry of Justice source, who said:

“It’s about recognising there is never a ‘victimless’ crime.

It’s about making sure people who aren’t directly part of the criminal justice process, where crime has wider implications, that there is an opportunity for that wider impact to be articulated in the process.”

Is this a U-turn, or will the Government support the amendment and bring forward the support that victims of ASB so desperately need? Why are those victims suddenly deemed unworthy of protection? For so many people across the country, the toll of being made to feel unsafe in their own home is unbearable. My constituent John came to me in despair after being passed from pillar to post by different authorities. John’s wife is disabled, and their home had been targeted repeatedly by a group that congregated outside on most nights. John and his wife were bereft, overwhelmed by anxiety and stress, and felt unsafe in their own home.

Antisocial behaviour is a national issue. It should not be a party political issue. We see it across constituencies and in all neighbourhoods. The amendment would simply include the Government’s own guidance on such incidents in the Bill, so that people like Sarah, and John and his wife, are not treated as second-class victims. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and support the amendment.

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North in pressing the case for amendment 10, or at least seeking an explanation about why antisocial behaviour is not included in the clause, given the undertakings made by the Minister’s predecessors. I admit that there have been a few of them, and catching up can sometimes be a little difficult—institutional memory dissipates swiftly these days on the Government Benches.

I urge the Minister to take another look at this issue, because the essential point that has been made by Opposition Members is reflected in my constituency experience. Believe it or not, Sir Edward, it is 26 years since I was first elected, although it does not seem that long. Some of the most distressing constituency cases that I have ever had to deal with relate to antisocial behaviour, as it is somewhat underwhelmingly called.

When the former Victims’ Commissioner gave evidence to the Committee, she was correct in noting that some of the individual bits of behaviour that make up what we call antisocial behaviour are indeed crimes. She made reference to criminal damage, assault and battery, which are very familiar. Perhaps an individual incident would not be enough to meet the threshold that most of our police forces use these days for deciding whether to proceed against individual perpetrators, but as a course of behaviour over time, such incidents certainly add up to very serious crime. Over the years, I have had many instances in my constituency where that has undoubtedly been the case.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North set out using examples from her constituency, the impact on victims is very serious indeed. It is certainly more serious than what some victims, who would fall within the definition in other instances, have experienced. Many of the people who perpetrate antisocial behaviour against their neighbours are lawless in other ways, and they are often on the radar of the police for other reasons. If they are not, they are frequently on the radar of other agencies, and the only way to deal with some of these people is to get everybody together to problem solve.

My concern is twofold. First, leaving those who are subject to antisocial behaviour out of the definition of “victim” suggests a hierarchy. Victims are often told by police and other agencies, “Oh, it’s below the threshold”; “We can’t do anything about it”; “It’s a civil matter”; or, “It’s just a neighbour dispute.” They are frequently told that, when it is nothing of the sort. If we leave victims of antisocial behaviour out of the definition of “victim” when so many others are included, it reinforces the idea that legislators are not taking seriously the consequences for victims of antisocial behaviour, as opposed to the consequences of other types of crime for which we are legislating to improve victims’ rights.

My right hon. Friend is making a great speech. If somebody is afraid, fearful or worried, or does not want to return home because of that, surely they are a victim and should be part of the victims code.

I very much agree. I have had constituents come to me who are in the most dreadful state as a consequence of repeated instances of antisocial behaviour, sometimes over many years. Sometimes it can take years until they come and see me, and I then have to say to them, “These are difficult issues to resolve. I’m going to try this, and I’m going to try that,” but I cannot say to them, “I’m going to get all the agencies together and force them to do something.” I have to expectation manage myself when they come to see me, because one knows from experience that it is just not possible to promise to solve these issues.

Perpetrators are canny, and one of the things they do is complain to the police first. For the citizen who has never broken the law and would never dream of inflicting this kind of behaviour on their neighbours, going to the police is a last resort, but for some perpetrators, going to the police is a first resort so they can induce the impression among the police that it is a dispute between neighbours.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about the victim and the perpetrator’s actions. We see at first hand that there is no thought about the effect of the antisocial behaviour on the victim, who may be a veteran and may have post-traumatic stress disorder, so working across agencies is vital in supporting our constituents.

Indeed, and that is what usually happens. One of the cases that springs to my mind involves a veteran—I will not use the gentleman’s name—who for years has carried around a little rucksack with all the things he values in his life, including his service medals, so he can get away from the flat he lives in because he is worried about what the perpetrators might do. Although the issue has been going on for many years, I have not been able to deal with it to his or my satisfaction, even though some of the instances he has told me about have been quite awful. If he were to see that antisocial behaviour is not included in the Bill, and that it is seen as a lower level of crime—not even as crime—he would not be very impressed, quite frankly.

The right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire made the important point that the agencies are not doing their job, and I agree. It is like a hot potato: they say, “Oh, it is not for us,” and they send it to the police, who send it to the council, and nobody problem-solves. Obviously, the job of MPs is to try to knock a few heads together and get some problem solving going on to resolve an individual matter. We all do that, and in some instances we are successful, but with antisocial behaviour it is very difficult. The signal we are sending by leaving antisocial behaviour out of the definition of “victim” is that it is somehow below a threshold. The Bill will not encourage the agencies to up their game if they do not see that kind of behaviour in the definition of “victim”.

That is why I hope the Minister will have a think about the amendment. I know he will stand up and say, “Well, if it reaches the threshold of crime, it is included,” because he said that in respect of the previous two amendments. Of course, that is technically correct, but in the real world, where agencies are starved of resource and always have to ask, “Which issue should we deal with as a priority?” because they cannot deal with all of them, sending the signal that antisocial behaviour is not as important as something that comes above a different threshold and counts as crime means that it will be left out and these problems will not be solved. Our many constituents who suffer from serious antisocial behaviour—which does amount to crime, but try getting the police to handle it in that way—will be left feeling that they are second-class victims yet again. I do not think that is the intention behind the Bill and of legislating to put the overarching principles of the victims code into law. If the Minister cannot do something, that would be a regrettable omission. I hope he will give us some good news and say that he will implement the commitments made by his predecessors.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am interested to hear what the Minister says in response, and I hope he will take on board what hon. Members said about the changes since the previous Lord Chancellor, who was quite outspoken about these issues, was in post. It is important to investigate whether the real issue is the implementation of the existing legislation and guidance, or whether it a lack of legislation, which we can fix here.

I have been sat here thinking about how slow and clunky this place is; it has taken so long to get to this Bill. I have had two children quicker than some Government projects have been completed. It takes forever. I have also been thinking about how creative antisocial behaviour has been getting recently, and about the TikTok videos showing youngsters storming into people’s houses, often with gangs of people. That would be a one-off incident, so presumably it would not reach the threshold of the community trigger, but it leaves a victim in its wake. I also understand—please correct me if I am wrong, Minister—that trespass is not criminal if someone storms into a house but it is pre-arranged. That it is very scary, but we possibly would not reach the threshold for the victims code.

I want to know that the Department is thinking through the rise of social media, the way that TikTok is being used and how gangs of people try to harass and attack people. If this legislation is a way to address this social media stuff, which the public are pretty outraged by, we need to think that through. I want to hear that the Department has gone through case studies and interrogated to see whether a change of legislation is appropriate, or whether the Department is still satisfied that what is available would deal with this latest nonsense, because this will not stop. There will be new ways of getting at people. People called Wizzy or Mizzy or something like that will try to get their ridiculous little videos, but there are victims in the wake of those videos, so I am interested to hear the Minister’s views.

I want to build on the points that have been made. I will start with those made by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Herefordshire—

We are off to a bad start now, aren’t we?

Some levels of antisocial behaviour are a crime, so they would immediately fall within the proposals, but many victims of antisocial behaviour are not covered by the victims code, which means that they do not have access to the support and information found in it. In particular, that means that they do not have the right to be referred to support services and that PCCs face spending restrictions on victims funding for antisocial behaviour support services as a consequence. The cumulative nature of what would be seen as low-level annoyances literally drive people insane, get them to move house and have them in a constant state of anxiety. In amendment 10, it is clear where that threshold is. On the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood made, that needs to be recognised in black and white so that the services, particularly the police, recognise the significance to people’s lives of antisocial behaviour and view it as something that ought to be covered under the victims code.

I also say to the Minister that this issue was raised a lot on Second Reading and was highlighted by witnesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North said, the former Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, called for this specific thing in an evidence session. To be specific, she emphasised the fact that

“this Government legislated well to introduce something called the community trigger”,

so that

“when it escalates to a particular level, you have a series of remedies to get all the agencies together to put it right.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 27, Q62.]

If the antisocial behaviour gets to that level—amendment 10 seeks to address this—those affected must be classed as victims under the legislation. I really think that the amendment would ensure that victims of persistent antisocial behaviour would be entitled to the rights as they are set out in the victims code and, hopefully, the victims Act, so I support the amendment.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff North for her amendment and for providing us with the opportunity to debate this issue. I suspect that we will return to it again, but this is a useful opportunity that allows us to get into more detail than is perhaps possible on Second Reading.

The amendment would include victims of antisocial behaviour in the definition of “victim” if they have suffered harm as a direct result of the conduct. As the hon. Lady sets out in the amendment, it would use the definitions in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and would therefore cover

“conduct that has caused, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to any person…conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to a person in relation to that person’s occupation of residential premises, or… conduct capable of causing housing-related nuisance or annoyance to any person.”

Therefore, that would also include non-criminal antisocial behaviour.

The Government agree with the hon. Lady that antisocial behaviour is a blight on our communities, and the impact on individuals cannot be overestimated. It is a national issue and it has a huge impact. Every Member of the House and of the Committee has probably dealt with casework on behalf of constituents relating to antisocial behaviour. As Dame Vera kindly acknowledged, that is why the Government took action on the community trigger, which helped to address the line between what is criminal conduct and what falls short of it.

Right hon. and hon. Members have made a number of points. On the issue that the hon. Member for Lewisham East raised about victims of crime, when a criminal offence has been committed—whether or not it is charged and whether the police recognise it as such—that person is a victim of crime; it is a criminal offence. So the vast majority of things, as Dame Vera acknowledged, are covered as criminal offences in this space. As she said:

“Despite the fact that the behaviour is often criminal, it is not dealt with as criminal by the police, but is instead called antisocial behaviour.”

The fact that it is criminal behaviour means that those who are victims of it would be encompassed by the legislation as currently drafted. She continued—this was her key point—by asking:

“Who decides what is criminal behaviour?”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 27-28, Q62.]

I might have cut the Minister off too soon—he might be about to answer my question—but this is about the persistent level of low-grade behaviour, which would not reach the criminal threshold. It is like a dripping tap or a mosquito buzzing in the room; that is what really drives people into frustration.

I was about to come to that point, so the hon. Lady’s intervention is prescient.

All of the speeches that we have heard have acknowledged that the behaviour that is being referred to is often criminal, even the low-level behaviour. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North said that if something is thrown in the direction of an individual or if plants are trampled, that would be criminal behaviour. It may not be charged as such, but it would still entitle people to those rights under the code.

Dame Vera’s key point was about who decides what criminal behaviour is, how we ensure that people know that those rights are available to them and that the service providers acknowledge that those individuals are entitled to those rights. The behaviour we have heard about is included, but we do not believe that including it in the Bill in this way is the right approach to address the issue, to raise that awareness and to ensure that people can access the rights that are already there. However, I will turn to that in just a second. The right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood again managed to pre-empt an element of what she thought I would say in my speech, and she is not inaccurate in her presumption.

A point was raised about the previous Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. My only reflection on that is that, first of all, in my recollection—the right hon. Lady is right that this is going back a while—the articles cited an unnamed source and Government sources. We on both sides of the House have experience of how that can work. That is not official policy, but I will mention, on official policy, that that Lord Chancellor confirmed the content of the draft Bill and the full Bill, so it is not accurate to suggest a U-turn. It was the same Lord Chancellor who confirmed what we are debating today as what he wished to see in legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised a number of points. We do not believe that a lack of legislation is the challenge here. We believe that there are key aspects, which the hon. Member for Cardiff North rightly highlighted, about raising awareness and the different public authorities and bodies engaging in a concerted manner to tackle the problem—treating it seriously and suchlike—but we do not believe that putting something in the Bill is the right way to raise awareness and to change those behaviours.

My hon. Friend raised some particularly distressing cases that have recently been on social media. I tread warily because I am not a lawyer—I am looking at one or two of the lawyers across the room—but she is right to say that trespass is a civil offence. I want to be careful, because I do not know the details of each of those incidents, but it is quite possible that a number of those incidents reported on social media may well have encompassed elements that were criminal in what was done. However, as a non-lawyer, I am cautious about saying that with any certainty, without knowing the details of the cases. Again, in those cases where there was an element of criminality, those individuals would be encompassed under the provisions for support under the victims code and in the legislation.

As Dame Vera alluded to, a significant number of individuals who have been harmed by antisocial behaviour are already defined as victims under the Bill. The definition as drafted covers a huge range of antisocial behaviour: where the behaviour itself is a criminal offence, such as criminal damage; where the behaviours, when taken together, constitute a criminal offence, such as harassment; or where a civil order has been breached, thereby incurring criminal penalties. In essence, where the antisocial behaviour amounts to criminal conduct, victims harmed by that behaviour can already benefit from measures in the Bill.

I was going to intervene on the Minister earlier, when he kept saying that we should not put this in the Bill, to ask, “Why?” If it is already included, why not write the words down?

First, we do not need to do this in the Bill—the points that the hon. Lady makes are essentially two sides of the same coin. I will turn to this in more detail, but we are seeking to be permissive in the breadth of the definition, rather than prescriptive by naming individual groups. Again, that risks causing the effect that she does not want: if we name A, B and C, does that create a hierarchy, and if we miss out D—as this place occasionally does—are we suddenly excluding something unintentionally? We have sought, by criminal conduct and victims of crime, to include as broad a definition as possible. A vast majority of individuals who are sadly victims of antisocial behaviour will be effectively victims of a crime.

The challenge, which I am happy to work with Members on both sides of the House on, is how we can ensure that we address Dame Vera’s key point—in my view, we would not do this on the face of the Bill—which is who decides and how we empower individuals to say, “Police may not have proceeded with it, but I know this is a criminal offence, so I wish to access these services and have a right to do so.” We need to address that key point. I am not sure if that is best done through legislation, but I am happy to work across the House to address that issue.

The amendment seeks to include a clear community trigger that will set off victim support. That is very clear in the amendment, and it will allow those agencies, organisations and authorities to work together in support of people who are victims of repeated, consistent and persistent antisocial behaviour.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I will address that point in my remaining remarks—I will give way again if she feels that I have not done so. In terms of those who suffer from persistent antisocial behaviour that does not amount to criminal conduct, we disagree that putting this in the Bill, rather than seeking other means to achieve an outcome for them, is the best approach. As I set out in my remarks on the previous group of amendments, we have deliberately defined victims in part 1 of the Bill to cover victims of crime. The measures have been designed to ensure that all the criminal justice agencies work together to engage and support those who are victims of crime. We also seek to strengthen the victims code.

A whole range of behaviours are included, and every speech has mentioned behaviours that contained elements of a crime that would therefore enable those individuals to get support. There are different agencies and procedures, as the hon. Member for Cardiff North said, for cases of antisocial behaviour that do not meet the criminal threshold or where there is no specific criminal offence involved. That means, for example, that victims of persistent antisocial behaviour can make a request for an antisocial behaviour review to any of the main agencies responsible, such as the council, police and housing providers.

That does not mean that individuals who have suffered as a result of harmful but not criminal antisocial behaviour are prevented from seeking support. Outside the Bill and the victims code, they can still access support services in their local area. Police and crime commissioners, as well as local authorities, can and do commission support for victims of all types of antisocial behaviour, and can help victims of all kinds of ASB, both criminal and non-criminal, to resolve their issues. Some of the funding they receive is rightly ringfenced for particular criteria and causes, but they do have a degree of overall discretion in their budget as to whether they wish to fund such services.

As I set out in my speech, the police and crime commissioners decide in each area. If someone is a victim of antisocial behaviour, they are not guaranteed any support. Victims of persistent antisocial behaviour have no idea where to turn to access support because the authorities pass them from pillar to post. What the Minister is setting out does not happen; the amendment would ensure that it did.

I am afraid I disagree with the shadow Minister’s last point. I do not think the amendment would address the operational or on-the-ground implementation issues that she highlights.

On the initial point the shadow Minister made, we have often debated in the House how to strike an appropriate balance in support services for victims of all crimes and of particular types of crime—how to ensure a tailored local support service that reflects the local community, while also ensuring a baseline of services, and a national response when a local community may not commission a particular service because the police and crime commissioner may have to make prioritisation decisions and the number of people likely to use that service in their locality may not be sufficient that they can afford to fund it. We always have this debate about the appropriate line between a national, consistent service, and local tailoring and local empowerment to police and crime commissioners, who are of course directly elected and accountable to their communities for the services they provide—notwithstanding turnout, as I think the shadow Minister indicated.

Dame Vera was making the point that these matters are not being taken seriously enough, but there is an offence of harassment. That is repeated behaviour, and it can be antisocial behaviour or bullying. That was treated as a serious matter by Parliament—it is a summary offence—and there is also the more serious offence if fear of violence is involved, which has a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. Is it perhaps time for the Minister to discuss with the Attorney General and the Home Office whether there is a need for more impetus to be put behind that provision, whether through guidelines or the prosecution college hub?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. We are discussing these issues more broadly not only with the Attorney General but with the Home Secretary, given the cut-across and the importance that is rightly attached to these issues by those who send us to this place and by Members on both sides of the House. I reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that we are looking cross-Government at how we can make such responses more effective.

More broadly, the Government are taking clear action to crack down on antisocial behaviour and to build confidence that it will be taken seriously and, where appropriate, punished. Backed by £160 million of funding, our antisocial behaviour action plan, published in March this year, will give police and crime commissioners, local authorities and other agencies more tools to tackle the blight of antisocial behaviour across communities in England and Wales. That includes increasing policing in hotspot areas and a new immediate justice programme to make sure that offenders are made to undertake practical, reparative activity to make good the loss or damage sustained by victims, or to visibly support the local community in other ways, such as by litter picking. If things go wrong, the antisocial behaviour case review is there to ensure that those affected can seek a solution from the appropriate agency.

The Government will continue to take action for those who suffer as a result of persistent antisocial behaviour. The vast majority of examples given in evidence sessions and in today’s debates have, however, contained elements that would constitute criminal behaviour, which would therefore mean that the individuals were included in the rights under the victims code and the details that we are discussing in the context of the Bill.

We have sought to be less prescriptive and more permissive to make sure that we do not inadvertently tighten the definition too much. We do not share the view of the shadow Minister that adopting the amendment is the right way to address the point, but we do accept the points that Dame Vera and others made. There are two questions or challenges, which are not, in my view, best dealt with by legislation, but which do need to be addressed. First, who decides what is criminal? Secondly, how do we raise the awareness of authorities and individuals, so that people know their rights and that what has happened constitutes criminal behaviour, even if it is not prosecuted and even if there is no conviction? Therefore, those entitlements and rights are there.

That is one of the most important points. The victims are told that the police cannot do anything about it because it does not reach certain thresholds. When people understand that they may have rights that relate to being victims of crime, first, they will not have thought that they do—unless someone tells them—and secondly, they will ask the question, “If that is the case, how come the police aren’t doing something about the crime?” That is the conundrum. The Minister’s solution to the issue—not accepting the amendment—does not deal with it.

The right hon. Lady makes two points. I suspect that in a number of cases the police will look at an offence and say, “We don’t think it meets the threshold for prosecution,” but that dextrous lawyers—we have some in Committee—could probably find a way to have it constitute a criminal offence and be prosecuted. Decisions on prosecutions, however, are made by the independent Crown Prosecution Service, based on the evidential threshold, the public interest and whether there is likely to be a conviction. I will not intervene or interfere in the CPS’s prosecution decisions.

Nevertheless, I am happy to work across the House to find a way to increase awareness. I do not believe that legislation and the amendment are the right approach, but there must be ways to increase awareness among victims that they are victims and among criminal justice agencies and others, so that they understand that, where a criminal offence has taken place, even if it is not prosecuted, individuals should be entitled to support.

I thank the Minister for his response and everyone who has contributed to this important debate. I know that the number of people across the country who suffer from persistent antisocial behaviour—whether that is extreme or slight but persistent incidents which, as I illustrated in my speech, cause people to be locked in their homes and afraid to venture out to the shops, scared even to walk outside their front door—is hugely underestimated. This is a serious issue that must be addressed in the Bill. The amendment would do just that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood made excellent points about how the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour jump the gun. Many of them know the system and will make a report to the police in extreme circumstances and where the incidents are criminal, so the police are left not knowing whose side to be on, thinking it is a neighbourhood dispute or something that can be resolved. I, too, have tried to support such victims of antisocial behaviour in my constituency, and it is very difficult to get the agencies and authorities to understand that those people are victims. Including the amendment in the Bill will ensure that they are seen as victims and will have access to services that support them.

The hon. Member for Stroud made an important point about trespassing and storming into houses, which has seen a worrying rise among young people on social media such as TikTok. I know the Minister responded to that in his speech, but it would be good if he could look at the issue again. He said he was not able to address it here and now, but perhaps he could look into it and come back to the Committee—or write to us—on what the Department, the Government and he will be doing to address it.

All that goes back to the main point, the community trigger. With it, we need to ensure that services, the authorities and the criminal justice agencies work together to support the victim. That is what the amendment is intended to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham made the good point that the authorities need to know where they can step in, which they do not currently know. It should not be in every case for the victim to have to go to their MP, and for the MP to step in to bring the authorities together, as my hon. Friend stated. That is an impossibility for everybody out there. The Minister made the point that people can access lawyers; who in our communities has that knowledge and awareness, especially when they face that trauma? They may be vulnerable and may not have access to the finances to get legal advice.

I fear the shadow Minister misunderstood what I was saying; I was referring to police and CPS lawyers, who will be able to find ways to prosecute some of these cases, I would hope—not to individuals.

I thank the Minister, but the police and the criminal justice agencies just do not do that. They are stripped of resources. They do not have the ability to look into each case. If the community trigger is reached, support can kick in. Then at least those victims of antisocial behaviour know that they have something to lean on and some way of accessing support. That is why the amendment has been tabled, why I moved it today and why I spoke to it on Second Reading. It is particularly poignant that it will be Anti-Social Behaviour Awareness Week in just a couple of weeks. This is a really good opportunity for the Government to support the amendment, which is why I will press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced child criminal exploitation;”.

This amendment would include victims of child criminal exploitation in the definition of a victim.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 51, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced adult sexual exploitation.”

Amendment 18, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(c) ‘child criminal exploitation’ means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls a person under 18 to undertake activity which constitutes a criminal offence;”.

This amendment provides a definition for the term “child criminal exploitation”.

Amendment 52, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(c) ‘adult sexual exploitation’ means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls another person to undertake sexual activity.”

This amendment would provide for a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.

The Minister should not be surprised that we are debating child criminal exploitation once more; my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham tabled a similar amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 just two years ago. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the Government voted against that amendment, so two years on we still do not have a definition of child criminal exploitation in statute. Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society define child criminal exploitation as when

“another person or persons manipulate, deceive, coerce or control the person to undertake activity which constitutes a criminal offence where the person is under the age of 18.”

That is the definition that we would like to see on statute.

Child criminal exploitation takes a variety of forms, but ultimately it is the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity. The current reality is that, across each form that child criminal exploitation takes, children who are coerced into criminal activity are often treated as perpetrators by statutory agencies, rather than as victims of exploitation. That is partly because safeguarding partners work to different understandings of what constitutes criminal exploitation.

Recently, child criminal exploitation has become strongly associated with one specific model—county lines—but it can also include children being forced to work in cannabis factories, being coerced into moving drugs and money across the country, or being forced to commit financial fraud, to shoplift or to pickpocket. The lack of shared understanding of what child criminal exploitation is and the guises it can take means that the questions are not consistently asked when children are identified as being associated with criminal activity, either at the time of arrest or during court cases in which the possible coercion of a child has taken place.

Throughout the country, children are being used by criminal gangs to do their bidding, and they are often subjected to the most sophisticated coercion, intimidation, duress, abuse and, sometimes, sexual abuse, so does my hon. Friend agree that it is indefensible not to have them listed as victims in the Bill?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is completely indefensible not to have the definition of child criminal exploitation in the Bill to make sure that, as she says, such children are seen as victims, not perpetrators.

The lack of shared understanding that I mentioned also means that children are often arrested for crimes that they are forced to commit, whereas the adults who exploit them are often not investigated or brought to justice, leaving them free to exploit other children, which happens. All this is because of the absence of a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation, the true scale of which is completely unknown. We know that it is happening all over the place—it is off the scale, essentially—but many children who are exploited or groomed fall through the cracks of statutory support so are not identified in official statistics.

In England in 2021-22, there were more than 16,000 instances of local authorities identifying child sexual exploitation as a factor at the end of an assessment by social workers; 11,600 instances of gangs being a factor; and 10,140 instances of child criminal exploitation being a factor. It has been estimated that in England alone there could be as many as 200,000 children aged 11 to 17 who are vulnerable to serious violence because of the levels of crime or income deprivation in their community.

Research carried out by Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, found that 27,000 children who were at high risk of gang exploitation had not been identified by services and as a result were missing out on vital support to keep them safe. The research also found an even higher number of children who were experiencing broader risk factors linked to exploitation, with one in 15 teenagers—or 120,00 young people—falling through the gaps in education and social care. These are children who are being excluded from school, who are persistently absent or who go missing from care, and many face a combination of factors that leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

In the evidence sessions last week, Dame Rachel de Souza spoke about the importance of including a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation in the Bill. When asked whether it should be in the Bill, she said “absolutely”, and that she had wanted to bring it up herself. She said:

“When I go around the country and talk to children, wherever they are—whether that is being held in police cells or children who are involved in drugs or whatever—I realise just how complex the situations are. You realise that these children are as much victim as perpetrator. Children tell me all the time that their experiences with the police make them feel like they are not victims but criminals. That is what we need to sort out.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 24, Q50.]

Organisations such as the NSPCC, the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s have done a brilliant job in campaigning for statutory services to recognise that those children have not made a choice to get involved in criminal activity, as perpetrators of exploitation want them to believe. They have been groomed and coerced in the same way as children groomed for sexual exploitation, and they should be treated as victims.

Practitioners at the Children’s Society found that the typical age of children being criminally exploited is 14 to 17, although there are victims as young as seven. That form of exploitation occurs most frequently among boys, but there is increasing evidence that girls are also being groomed to commit criminal offences. That is also being unreported by statutory agencies and services. One practitioner disturbingly reported that some of the girls they work with see criminal exploitation as their only way out of being sexually exploited. Is this really the country we want to live in? Do we not want to deal with that in this Bill? It is hard to imagine what those young girls face in their day-to-day lives.

I visited the St Giles Trust—I saw its centre in Cardiff, but it does a fantastic job across the country. It does great work in supporting vulnerable children who have been exploited and abused and are caught up in crime. For many of those children, not being exploited is not an option. Perpetrators exploiting children criminally—for example, through the county lines model of criminal exploitation—can be prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for slavery, servitude, and forced and compulsory labour offences and trafficking for the purposes of exploitation.

Although many perpetrators exploiting children for criminal purposes will be arrested and charged for stand-alone offences, such as supplying a class A substance, they are not held accountable for the harm and damage they have caused those children’s lives. It is abundantly clear that there is a disparity between the number of children being criminally exploited and the number of perpetrators of criminal exploitation being charged under the Modern Slavery Act.

I think that, last year, four people were charged with child trafficking, and one person was convicted. I believe that last year also saw the highest rate of young boys being trafficked into the system and being recorded in the national referral mechanism. Although the number of victims has gone up over the past 10 years, the number of trafficking convictions has gone down.

I thank my hon. Friend for absolutely illustrating the point.

I want to raise a real case of child exploitation. A 15-year-old boy, whom I will call Robbie—not his real name—was picked up with class A drugs in a trap house raid by the police. He was driven back home by police officers, who questioned him alone in the car and used that information to submit an entry to the national referral mechanism, which did not highlight his vulnerability but instead read like a crime report. Robbie subsequently went to court. His national referral mechanism failed, and his barrister, who did not understand the NRM process, advised him to plead guilty, which he did.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and speaking up for the rights of children. I am sure we all have cases where we know a child has been exploited and is vulnerable—by definition, a child is a vulnerable person. If a child is criminally exploited, it means that their vulnerability is increased. Does my hon. Friend agree that it makes no sense for them not to be included in the victims code?

That is an excellent point. My hon. Friend has absolutely reinforced the point that such children must be included in the Bill as victims.

I move on to talk about Robbie’s experience—as I said, that is not his real name. In June 2019, he was referred to the Children’s Society’s disrupting exploitation programme. The programme helped Robbie challenge the national referral mechanism decision, and those supporting him attended court sessions with him to ensure that his vulnerability was outlined and that he was recognised as a victim, instead of an offender. That enabled him to retract his guilty plea and access vital support. However, that was just one case. He was lucky: he had the Children’s Society programme there to support him. We know that does not happen for the majority of child victims.

Is my hon. Friend aware that had Robbie arrived on a small boat and been trafficked out of a hotel and into a cannabis factory at the age of 10—Channel 4 has found such a case—he would not be entitled to any support from the NRM under the proposals of the Illegal Migration Bill, even though he would be a 10-year-old child who had been groomed into drug dealing?

Absolutely. That illustrates yet more child criminal exploitation. The whole thing is just horrific and absurd, which is why this issue needs to be addressed.

Back to Robbie. As the drugs that he had been selling were confiscated by the police when he was picked up in the raid, there was debt bondage in Robbie’s case, as he now owed the groomer money for the drugs that had been lost. In turn, that resulted in threats to him and his family. The programme then worked with the police to complete intelligence forms and make sure that Robbie’s safety was paramount. It put markers on the home and made sure that the police were aware of the situation, so that they could respond quickly if anything happened. The programme supported Robbie to continue his education.

Amendments 17 and 18 are absolutely vital to make sure that we take the necessary steps to protect vulnerable children and to focus agencies’ attention on the adults who exploit them and are linked to the much, much more serious crimes that are taking place. Protecting children and bringing true criminals to justice—I do not see how anyone, least of all the Government, can object to such a notion. I will push the amendments to a vote later, but I hope the Minister will seek to include them in the Bill.

I start by apologising to the Committee. For each month that the Bill was delayed, I tabled another amendment, so I have quite a few today.

I will speak to amendments 51 and 52, which stand in my name, and then to those tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North. My amendments seek to provide a definition of adult sexual exploitation and are informed by my experiences of child sexual exploitation. I hope to make the argument that one very often blurs into the other, and the same arguments stand for both.

In 2009, the Department for Children, Schools and Families introduced a statutory definition of child sexual exploitation for the first time. I can honestly say that it has been transformational in ensuring that child abuse and exploitation are understood and that children receive the necessary support. We now need to accept in this Committee that adults can also be sexually exploited.

The STAGE group is supported by the National Lottery community fund and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley. It is a fantastic group that highlights the nature and extent of the sexual exploitation of adult women across our communities and seeks to change legislation to give them better support. STAGE brings together a number of charities to provide trauma-informed support for women who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the north-east and Yorkshire—including, in my constituency, the amazing organisation GROW, which I say to the Minister is severely underfunded at the moment.

Adult sexual exploitation is a specific form of sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a person aged 18 or over into sexual activity, usually in exchange for something that the victim needs or wants—often drugs, alcohol or indeed love. It is also usually for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears to be consensual. It can happen online as well, of course. The victims cannot give informed consent if they see no reasonable alternative to engaging in the activity, or if they have a reasonable belief that non-engagement would result in negative consequences for themselves or others.

Adult sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology. My amendment 52 reflects the wording used in the statutory definition of child sexual exploitation, which the Government already use. The Government need to accept that not just children are exploited: many women—it is usually women—are exploited as adults, too. They are victims and deserve support, and that begins with ensuring that their abuse is recognised through a statutory definition of this form of sexual abuse.

One case study from the STAGE group is N, whom I will keep anonymous. N is a 22-year-old first-generation British Pakistani woman, who grew up in Leeds in a devout Muslim household. From a young age, N began experiencing sexual abuse from a male in her extended family. N began to spend more and more time outside of the family home; she could not talk to her family about the abuse because she did not want to be seen to bring shame into the household. During her time spent out of the house, N was introduced to a “friend”, whom I will call H.

H began to groom N, supplying her with drugs and alcohol to the point where she developed a dependency. He used her fear about shame as a form of control—to ensure that she did not speak out about the abuse he would subject her to. N was 15 at the time. Between the ages of 15 and 18, N was seen as a victim of child sexual exploitation. She was trafficked around Yorkshire by H, being picked up in taxis and taken to properties to be raped repeatedly. Professionals did all they could to safeguard N, but the abuse continued. N experienced a breakdown in her mental health due to the repeated trauma that she was experiencing, and she began drinking heavily on a daily basis.

When she was 18, the exploitation continued on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. However, since she moved into adult services, the police and adult social care brought into question whether N was making “unwise choices” in respect of whether she was getting something out of these exchanges. So N was seen as a victim of child exploitation while she was 17—364 days—but the following day, when she turned 18, this victim of adult sexual exploitation was making “unwise choices”.

A lot of work from STAGE partner Basis Yorkshire was put in place, including advocating for N—although she was not a child any more, by law she was experiencing sexual exploitation. Over the past few years STAGE has lobbied health, police and social care services to ensure that N is recognised as a victim of grooming and exploitation. Although she might seem to “choose” to get into a taxi or to meet H or one of his associates, that is in fact a result of the coercion and control that takes place in grooming and exploitation. In legislation we recognise coercive control.

In March this year, N had an episode in which she went missing. When she was located following a sexual assault, the responding police officer informed STAGE that it could not be sexual exploitation because N was over 18. The lack of a legal definition of adult sexual exploitation has allowed N’s abuse to continue and has led to a lack of professional curiosity among key safeguarding services. I say to the Minister—I know he is aware of this—that N’s case is replicated across the country. Many women in other situations do not themselves recognise that they have experienced sexual exploitation, in part due to the fact that there is no statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.

I should declare that I am chair of the STAGE group. Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, at the disparity when it comes to women who are British citizens? When sexual exploitation is considered as part of human trafficking, a foreign national is far, far more likely to be considered a victim than a British person. In many regards, British victims of sexual exploitation—adults and children—get lesser services.

Sadly, I am concerned and I absolutely agree. That is partly why we need a definition. The national referral mechanism was mentioned. By moving a person from one side of the street to the other they are trafficked, so they could fall under the national referral mechanism for modern slavery or just be prosecuted. But without a definition, services are not taking a joined-up approach and using the resources already in place.

The same arguments about choice and risky lifestyles in relation to adult victims of sexual exploitation were used in Rotherham. Having a definition would mean police forces being trained in what the definition means. Legal arguments would be put forward, and judges would receive training so that when they saw a young person in front of them they would understand that their behaviour was a symptom of being sexually exploited. There is a domino effect once a legal definition is in place. That is what happened with child sexual exploitation, so I hope that that will happen with adult sexual exploitation. I will come on to child criminal exploitation, but I have said to the Minister what needs to happen with adult sexual exploitation.

Manipulation by perpetrators, cultural expectations and family and community dynamics make it difficult for women to identify that they have experienced abuse. But sadly, sexual exploitation, as I have said, is not widely understood by professionals. It is vital that the Ministry of Justice use the Bill as an ideal opportunity to create a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation to ensure a consistent understanding and recognition of the ways that sexual exploitation continues and presents itself in adulthood.

Amendments 51 and 52 would be a huge step in the right direction by recognising people who have experienced adult sexual exploitation as victims and entitling them to the crucial support available under the Bill. That must also come, of course, with support and funding for training to be given to police and justice staff to identify the signs of sexual exploitation.

I will now speak in support of amendments 17 and 18, which are about the definition of child criminal exploitation. The amendments would place a statutory definition of criminal child exploitation in law for the first time by ensuring that children who are being exploited are classed as victims under the Bill. Child criminal exploitation is the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity. There is a strong association with county lines, but it can also involve moving drugs, financial fraud and shoplifting on demand. That our laws catch up with our reality and realise the harm and damage that those criminals are causing children is long overdue. The true scale remains unknown, as many children fall through the cracks, but we have some evidence that indicates the scale of the abuse.

The former Children’s Commissioner estimated that 27,000 children are at high risk of gang exploitation. During 2020, 2,544 children were referred to the national referral mechanism due to concerns about child criminal exploitation, and 205 of those cases involved concerns about both criminal and sexual exploitation. The pandemic has only made the situation worse. Children in Need reported that during the pandemic children faced an increased risk of online grooming or exploitation due to time online, not being at school or college, and increased exposure to harmful online content such as inappropriately sexualised or hyper-violent content.

In the evidence sessions last week, the current Children’s Commissioner fully supported introducing a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. She explained that the situations facing the children affected are very complex and that police make many feel like criminals rather than victims, as my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North, highlighted.

It is clear that thousands of children are being criminally exploited every day and the response for those children must be immediate and properly resourced. Experts believe that a lack of understanding of child criminal exploitation prohibits an effective and joined-up response. The lack of a single definition means that local agencies respond differently to this form of exploitation across the country. The Children’s Society data shows that a third of local authorities had a policy in place to respond. That means that two thirds do not. Given the nature of this exploitation, a national shared understanding is imperative. That is what a definition would provide.

Let me for one moment contrast the situation with that of the response to child sexual exploitation, which I spoke to on a previous group of amendments. Police officers across the country say to me that, because the police and politicians understand CSE, the police get resources specifically to address CSE. That is great and I support that provision, but it takes away from the resources we need for CCE. They are treated as two separate issues, even though the same gangs often promote both forms of exploitation. They are using these children for criminal exploitation, whether that be sexual, drug running or shoplifting. Accepting the definition would mean that we see criminal exploitation of children and sexual exploitation of children just as “exploitation of children” and we can pool the resources and expertise to try to prevent this crime.

Many children who are criminally exploited receive punitive criminal justice responses, rather than being seen as victims. Again, I take colleagues back; that is what happened 25 or 15 years ago with child sexual exploitation victims.

The hon. Lady is making some incredibly powerful points and I have sympathy with a lot of them, but on several occasions, she has mentioned circumstances that would constitute criminal conduct. For example, she talked about victim N, who was raped. Rape is clearly criminal conduct. Does she accept that children in that situation would be covered by the provisions in the Bill?

Secondly, she is making a point about how young offenders are dealt with. I am a former youth magistrate and member of the Youth Justice Board. Does she accept that the judiciary dealing with young people are now trained and encouraged to find out whether the defendants in front of them have been subject to this kind of exploitation, and that that is therefore considered in the way that they are dealt with?

I will deal with those points in reverse order. My first reaction is to question why they were in front of a magistrate in the first place. How have those children gone all the way through the system to be in front of a magistrate, rather than it having been recognised at a very early point that there is something going on with the child? Why is a 15-year-old repeatedly running drugs across county lines? What is happening? What is behind that? The professional curiosity is not there.

That leads me to the hon. Gentleman’s opening point. Of course, raping a child or raping an adult is a crime. We all recognise that. First, there are very low levels of reporting, and—as I hope I made clear with the adult sexual exploitation argument—a lot of people do not recognise it. They just think, “I’m a drug addict. He’s my dealer. I have to do this in order to get my drugs.”

First there is the reporting situation, and secondly there is recognition. In the case of N, she was seen as putting herself in a risky situation, so she would not be seen as a credible witness. We are not seeing the overall picture and the patterns of behaviour—the fact that the same children might be in the same location day after day—and then going back upstream to see what the motivator is and who is controlling the situation. I hope that having the definition of both terms will enable the police forces, the judicial services and the support services to see the broader picture and place the victim in that broader context. That is where I am coming from with both amendments.

The hon. Lady posed a direct question to me. In terms of those young people coming before the youth courts, will she acknowledge that there is now a far greater use of diversion at the very early stage by the police and youth offending services, which means in fact that far fewer young people are coming to court? I was directly addressing the situation she raised about what happens when they are in front of that judicial process. In fact, there has been a huge amount of progress in trying not to bring children in front of magistrates or judges if it can possibly be avoided. Does the hon. Lady accept that there will be occasions when the level of offending is so great that society rightly demands that those people must face justice, at which point judges and magistrates can consider all the factors in determining what action to take?

I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s points. There was no criticism implied, but I will give one example. In 2013 I worked with Barnardo’s, and we did an inquiry to see whether the justice system was fit for purpose for child sexual exploitation cases. Something that we found, which I alluded to, was that when a victim was in front of a judge as a witness, they were often seen as chaotic, aggressive and unreliable. We identified that if the judges had training on what a victim of child sexual exploitation presented like or as, it would make a difference. Indeed, it has made a dramatic difference now that that training has been rolled out.

If we got the definition of child criminal exploitation, a judge would automatically get training on the identifiers, so one would hope that the outcome would be more informed on the basis of having understanding of the young person in front of them, rather than just looking at the crimes. That is not to say that there will not be young people who are bad ’uns, who will use this and exploit what they see as a “get out of jail free” pass—I fully accept that could happen—but if the judge has a proper understanding of criminal exploitation, one would hope that they would then be able to challenge that a little more from an informed position and make the right decision for the young individual in front of them.

I have now covered quite a lot of my points—happy days! Another thing that really frustrates me is that many children who experience child criminal exploitation come to the attention of services once they are arrested for crimes. Again, if we had the definition in place and the awareness in the services, one would hope that the child presenting would be seen as a warning sign, rather than as a criminal. Individuals who exploit children for criminal activity are not being held to account. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North said, only 30 charges under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 were flagged as child abuse in 2019-2020, against the 22,000—I think that was the figure—recognised by the Children’s Society in the same period.

Organised crime groups are aware of this situation and they are deliberately targeting children, because they know that by putting them on the frontline, it is much less likely that they themselves will be in the dock. The Government rightly adopted the statutory definitions of domestic abuse, coercive control and child sexual abuse, so I urge the Minister to do the same for vulnerable children experiencing criminal exploitation; they are victims, just as children of CSE are victims.

I will end with an example. I imagine that two thirds of Members, if not more, get here each week by train. I set those Members a challenge: speak to a train conductor, and I guarantee that they will be able to give daily examples of child criminal exploitation. They see the children going backwards and forwards, often without tickets but often with tickets paid for by the gang leaders. On my train, staff say that now they do not even bother looking for the children, because the common denominator is the bag that they carry either the drugs or the money in. It is different children going up and down, up and down, up and down—so conductors look for the bag and then report it to British Transport police.

British Transport police is funded by the railways. The service has a small budget and there are very few officers, so the likelihood of one being there when that train arrives is slender. Organisations like Railway Children try to support those children, but I guarantee that if Members speak to the conductor on their train, they will say, “Yes, that is happening on my train.”

We are all very concerned about the example given by the hon. Lady. Why are the conductors and British Transport police not reporting those children to the police? That does not seem to be to do with the Bill; it seems to have something to do with what is happening in our criminal reporting processes.

Sadly, they are reporting it to the police, but the scale of the issue is so enormous and the resources are so intensive that nothing happens. I suggest the hon. Lady speak to her conductor. Normally what happens is that the child will be offered some support, but will then be very up front with the conductor, saying, “No, no—it’s my bag!” and so on. The child then gets off and there are not the resources to have a member of the British Transport police there, and that genuinely is not a criticism of them; I think there are only 4,000 officers for the whole country.

British Transport police are the specific police for incidents that happen on the railways and transport networks. Even if we were looking at the Metropolitan police—I am going back and forth to London—the scale of the issue is so enormous that there is not the capacity to deal with it.

As somebody who has called the police in those circumstances, we are talking about a nine-day wait for anyone to come out. That is a problem.

Minister, it seems a ridiculously simple act to accept these two definitions, but the cascading of support and recognition within the victims code and our justice system would be enormous as a consequence. I have seen that at first hand with child sexual exploitation. I urge the Minister to look seriously into the two definitions.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.(Fay Jones.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Energy Bill [ Lords ] (Sixteenth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Dr Rupa Huq, James Gray, Mr Virendra Sharma, † Caroline Nokes

† Afolami, Bim (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

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

† Bowie, Andrew (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero)

† Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)

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

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

† Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)

† Gideon, Jo (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

† Levy, Ian (Blyth Valley) (Con)

† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)

† Morrissey, Joy (Beaconsfield) (Con)

† Nichols, Charlotte (Warrington North) (Lab)

† Owatemi, Taiwo (Coventry North West) (Lab)

Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

† Western, Andrew (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

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

Sarah Thatcher, Chris Watson, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 27 June 2023

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Energy Bill [Lords]

Before we begin, I remind Members that Hansard colleagues would be grateful if any speaking notes could be emailed to Please put electronic devices on silent, and tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. The only refreshment permitted is water, which is available in the room. I might review my view on whether gentlemen can remove their jackets if it warms up later in the day.

New Clause 1

Smart meter roll-out for prepayment customers

“(1) The Secretary of State must ensure that all legacy prepayment meters are replaced with smart meters, unless the customer objects in writing, before the end of 2025.

(2) The Secretary of State must by regulations provide for an end to the practice of self-disconnections, such regulations to come into force within six months of the date on which this Act is passed.

(3) Regulations under subsection (2) may provide for, but are not limited to—

(a) the introduction of a social tariff for prepayment customers,

(b) the introduction of mechanisms to apply credit automatically if a prepayment customer runs out of credit, and

(c) the introduction of a mechanism to transfer a prepayment customer to credit mode automatically if they run out of credit.” —(Alan Brown.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.

We are now in the final week of this Bill Committee, and Members will have spotted that a lot of Government new clauses and amendments have been tabled and accepted. In the spirt of fairness, the Government should also accept some of our new clauses and amendments; hopefully that is what is going to happen. Rather than getting into a debate, if the Minister wants to intervene and tell me which new clauses the Government will accept in the spirit of fairness, I would be happy to give way.

Okay, so we go back to my monologue justifying why the Government should accept some of our new clauses, including new clauses 1 and 2.

Clearly, we should be grateful that energy prices are starting to fall, but the reality is that the cap on energy bills for an average household was set at £1,138 in April 2021. This month, Ofgem has set the cap at more than £2,000, so energy bills are still nearly double what they were two years ago. The reality is that many people are struggling badly with their energy bills, even though prices are falling, and those struggling the most are those with prepayment meters. People with prepayment meters can access credit of only £5 or £10. If they reach that credit limit, the lights go out—it is as simple as that. They cannot turn on the gas or electricity, and it is a real difficulty for people. It also means that if people cannot get out of the house for whatever reason—if they are ill or have just had a newborn kid—and have reached the threshold, they lose access to their energy by virtue of not being able to top up their meters.

It is unfair that people with prepayment meters pay higher standing charges. Frankly, it is an outrage that people who pay in advance for their energy are paying a premium to access it, whereas people like us in this room, who pay by direct debit, have access to credit and cheaper tariffs. As I say, the reality is that if someone is on a prepayment meter, they are going to struggle to pay their bills, they will pay more and they will face the difficulties associated with a lack of credit.

As End Fuel Poverty states:

“Imposition of a pre-payment meter is disconnection by the back door. When you can’t top up the meter everything clicks off”.

Forcing people to have prepayment meters means that those who are already struggling are put on to a system whereby they will be forced to ration, automatically disconnected when the credit limit is reached and more likely—this is the rub—to have a cold, damp home, with the long-term health implications that that brings, as well as the short-term heating and eating dilemmas.

It is estimated that 19% of housing stock across the UK is damp. The proportion rises to nearly a third, or 31%, for those on prepayment meters. In other words, if someone is on a prepayment meter, they are 65% more likely than the average person to live in a damp house. Some 51% of prepayment customers have health conditions or disabilities, so in many ways the existing system is punishing those who are more likely to require more energy in the first place. That, in a nutshell, is why a social tariff is needed for those with prepayment meters.

Research by Utilita indicated previously that as many as 14% of the 4.5 million households with prepayment meters did not choose to be on such tariffs, and what has been happening during the cost of living crisis is outrageous. For example, an investigation for the i paper revealed that since the end of lockdown energy firms have secured almost 500,000 court warrants to forcibly install meters in the homes of customers who are in debt. Freedom of information requests showed that in the first six months of last year there were 180,000 applications for such warrants.

We then had the bombshell coverage of an undercover reporter working for bailiffs, which exposed the cruelty of some bailiffs for what it was: revelling in the forced installation of prepayment meters, no matter the vulnerabilities of the customers. The officers of that debt company were working on behalf of British Gas, which of course said that it was shocked and that it did not advocate such a policy.

The rub is that some utility companies are using debt collection agencies routinely as part of their process to collect money that they believe they are owed. That set-up relieves utility companies of the burden of debt collection. More importantly, it stops them providing debt advocacy and interacting with customers, which is what is required. Meanwhile, the debt collection companies add their own fees just for reissuing bills to customers.

All that is why we tabled new clauses 1 and 2. Voluntary codes for prepayment meters will never be enough. It is quite clear that we will never know how many people were forced on to prepayment meters against their will, especially when smart meters can be switched remotely to prepayment mode without people even realising initially.

New clause 1 sets out the need for legacy prepayment meters to be switched to smart meters as long as consent is given. This is an enabling aspect, as smart meters will make it easier to implement the provisions of new clause 1(3), which will end the practice of so-called self-disconnection. The provisions include the consideration of a social tariff, and, most importantly, mechanisms to allow customers to access credit and not be cut off immediately as they would be with a £5 or £10 credit limit.

New clause 2 restricts the forcible use of prepayment meters. It does not prevent informed consent and agreement for people to move to prepayment mode, because some customers like it as a way of managing their debt, but what is important is consent and an understanding of what prepayment means. The provisions also give access to impartial debt counselling services before the switch to prepayment mode is needed. Subsection (2)(c) places a duty on the Secretary of State to assess and define customer vulnerabilities, because the current definition is too narrow and does not cover some people who should be classed as vulnerable. Lastly, subsection (3) confirms that switching smart meters to prepayment mode is considered the same as a legacy prepayment meter.

Too many people have been forced on to prepayment meters. We cannot allow that to continue and we cannot allow the door to reopen for energy companies. No matter what they say here and now when there is an immediate storm and a backlash, we need to protect people for good going forward, which is what new clauses 1 and 2 will do.

According to recent Government figures, £120 million-worth of the vouchers issued for customers in prepayment mode were still unclaimed at the start of June. There are only four days left until the deadline on 30 June, so I hope the Minister will update us on the outstanding balance of unclaimed prepayment meter credit vouchers. Having nearly 20% of vouchers unclaimed at the start of the month is indicative of a failed policy that does not support the most vulnerable in our society. Again, that is why we need new clauses 1 and 2 to protect those who sometimes cannot protect themselves.

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes.

I rise primarily to speak in support of new clause 38, but it has quite a lot of overlap with new clause 2. Our new clause 38, on the restriction of the use of prepayment meters, says:

“The Secretary of State may by regulations restrict the installation of new prepayment meters for domestic energy use.”

It makes provision to ensure that consumers have full and informed consent on the installation of a prepayment meter, and that vulnerable customers are not put on to prepayment meters. We heard from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun some of the reasons why we have shared concerns about that. Some of my points will be very familiar to the Minister if he followed the debate earlier this year, when it reached crisis point.

Citizens Advice estimates that the number of people moved on to prepayment meters reached 600,000 in 2022, up from 380,000 in 2021. We know that that comes at a cost to them. There is a poverty premium on some of the most vulnerable, and on people on the lowest incomes, because of the shift to prepayment meters, and their use should be restricted as a result. Those with prepayment meters are more likely to be in fuel poverty and facing significant debts already. We find ourselves in a situation in which those requiring the most support are being forced to pay the most and are given the least help.

Citizens Advice revealed at the start of the year, at the height of the energy crisis, that someone was being cut off from their energy supply every 10 seconds, with millions unable to afford to top up their prepayment meters. We also know that so-called voluntary self-disconnection was a thing. People simply could not afford it, so they would not necessarily feature in the numbers. Labour’s call for a moratorium on the forced installation of prepayment meters was dismissed until the March Budget. The Secretary of State told the House on a number of occasions that he was talking to Ofgem and that plans were in motion, but during that period we were still hearing horrific stories about forced entry to people’s houses, warrants being issued and energy companies continuing to go down that path.

Our view was very much that it was the Government and the energy regulator’s responsibility to ensure that people were not left at home in the cold and the dark, yet we had to press incredibly hard before anything was achieved. Over the winter, more than 130,000 households that included a disabled person or someone with a long-term health condition were being disconnected from their energy supply at least once a week because they could not afford to top up. The same report also said that

“63% of PPM users who had disconnected in the last year said it had a negative impact on their mental health. This rises to 79% of disabled and people with long-term health conditions.”

Really good work was done by organisations such as Citizens Advice, but it also took tireless investigations from UK newspapers to expose the scale of the crisis. An investigation by the i in December showed that magistrates were batch processing hundreds of warrants in the space of a few minutes to allow the forced installation of prepayment meters, with one court in the north of England approving 496 warrants in just three minutes. At some point, we were given reassurances that people’s circumstances and vulnerabilities were being taken into account before the warrants were issued, but if nearly 500 are issued in three minutes, clearly they are not taking any information into account; it is very much a rubber-stamping exercise.

An undercover report by The Times in February highlighted how British Gas was employing debt collectors to break into people’s homes. Among them were customers described in the staff notes as a woman in her 50s with “severe mental health bipolar”, a woman who

“suffers with mobility problems and is partially sighted”,

and a mother whose

“daughter is disabled and has a hoist and electric wheelchair”.

We heard in debates at the time that many MPs had their own stories of constituents who were affected by the forced installation of prepayment meters; hopefully we will hear from some today to back up what we are calling for.

It was therefore a relief when action was taken in April, and a code of practice was introduced by Ofgem, but we have to wonder why the scheme is voluntary rather than compulsory. Just yesterday, the Committee on Fuel Poverty, in its annual report, expressed disappointment with Ofgem’s code of practice, stating that it is

“disappointingly limited in ambition”.

We have to wonder what the Government’s role is in that. I argue that Ofgem has proven incapable of dealing with the situation and it is up to the Government to step up and take control. That is what we seek to achieve with the new clauses.

The code’s voluntary nature still leaves too much power and judgment in the hands of energy suppliers, and the vulnerable and the voiceless should not be exposed to the dangers that prepayment meters pose, so I call on the Minister to give us some assurance that he accepts that it is the Government’s responsibility to act in this case—we cannot continue to leave it to voluntary codes of practice—and to support new clause 38.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Noakes, for sitting 16 in the final week before we conclude our proceedings in Committee. I thank Members for tabling their new clauses.

New clause 1 places a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that all legacy prepayment meters are replaced with smart meters before the end of 2025. The Government have been clear that our aim is for as many households as possible to benefit from smart metering, including those that prepay for energy, which is why we have set minimum installation targets for suppliers until the end of 2025. To ensure effective scrutiny and transparency, large suppliers are also required to publish their performance against their targets, broken down by credit and prepayment mode. That ensures that they have strong incentives to deliver.

Although we agree with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that smart prepayment is highly superior to legacy prepayment meters, it is also true that those customers who would benefit the most from prepayment meters can be among the hardest audiences to reach and the most vulnerable in our society. It is therefore critical that we tread carefully and do not place unrealistic targets in statute that may cause unintended consequences.

As drafted, the new clause could result in the prioritisation of the replacement of traditional prepayment meters. That may inadvertently deprioritise smart meter installation for credit consumers, many of whom are in vulnerable circumstances. Data from Ofgem indicates that around 70% of those with disabilities pay by direct debit and may therefore benefit from the automated readings that smart meters deliver.

Let me turn to the requirement to end self-disconnections within six months of the Bill becoming law. It is critical that the market delivers a fair deal for consumers, with an energy market that is resilient and investable over the long term. Ofgem’s recently published code of practice on prepayment is clear that when self-disconnection occurs, suppliers must make multiple attempts to contact the customer to understand the reasons for self-disconnection and offer appropriate support, including additional support credit. If frequent or prolonged periods of self-disconnection are identified, energy suppliers should assess whether a prepayment meter remains a safe and practicable option for that consumer.

As announced in the 2022 autumn statement, His Majesty’s Government have committed to work with consumer groups and industry to consider the best approach to consumer protection from April 2024, as part of a wider retail market reform. In addition, as announced at the spring Budget, we are keeping the energy price guarantee at £2,500 for an additional three months from April to June. That means we have covered nearly half a typical household’s energy bill through the energy price guarantee and energy bill support schemes since October, with a typical family saving £1,500. That is in addition to the expanded warm home discount scheme, which has been extended until 2026 and provides £475 million in support per year in 2020 prices.

New clauses 2 and 38 would allow the Secretary of State to restrict the use of prepayment meters, especially in relation to vulnerable consumers or where consumers are not aware that they are being moved to a prepayment mode. It is of course critical that our most vulnerable energy users are protected. The findings in The Times regarding British Gas customers were shocking and completely unacceptable. The Government acted quickly to tackle that issue of inappropriate prepayment meter use, and the Secretary of State wrote to energy suppliers insisting that they revise their practices and improve their action to support vulnerable households.

Following that intervention, all domestic energy suppliers agreed to pause the forced installation of prepayment meters and the remote switching of smart meters to prepayment mode. Ofgem rules are clear that suppliers can install a prepayment meter to recover a debt only as a last resort. They also require energy suppliers to offer a prepayment service only when it is safe to do so, with clear obligations on energy suppliers regarding support for customers in payment difficulty. The Secretary of State has called for more robust Ofgem enforcement on those issues, and Ofgem has responded by announcing a further review of supplier practices relating to prepayment meter customers.

The Minister may be about to come to this point, but I am wondering how it is going—does he know how many warrants are now being issued by the courts? Is he aware of statistics on how many prepayment meters are now being installed or on the type of customers who are being put on them?

I do not have the exact numbers at my fingertips, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with that information. I can tell her that the senior presiding judge has ordered magistrates courts to immediately stop authorising warrants for energy firms to forcibly install prepayment meters while the process by which suppliers bring forward such applications is being reviewed.

In his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, will the Minister expand briefly on his understanding of the meaning of the word “pause” in relation to the forcible installation of prepayment meters by energy companies? As far as I am aware, there is no time set for that, nor is it subject to any other actions that the Government may take. Is it the Minister’s understanding that the pause is strictly time-limited and that practices may start again at the end of it?

The pause will be until Ofgem has finalised the review of supplier practice in relation to prepayment meter customers. That is what we expect, anyway, because in addition to what I have said this morning, the Secretary of State has told Ofgem to toughen up on energy suppliers and to investigate customers’ experiences of how their supplier is performing. Following that, Ofgem established a new customer reporting system for households to pass on their experiences of how they are being treated. We are approaching this across the board. We believe, however, that any ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters would risk a build-up of customer debt. Unpaid debts increase costs for all energy consumers and could pose a risk to supplier stability.

To address issues around the forced installation of prepayment meters, Ofgem has recently published a new code of practice, as I mentioned. The code has been agreed with energy suppliers to improve protections for customers being moved involuntarily to a prepayment meter. It ensures better protections for vulnerable households, increased scrutiny of supplier practices, and redress measures where prepayment meters were wrongly installed. It includes provisions to prevent involuntary installations for all high-risk customers, including those dependent on powered medical equipment, people over 85, and households with residents with severe health issues. It also includes a requirement for suppliers to reassess whether prepayment remains the most suitable and preferred payment method for a customer once they have repaid debts. Suppliers must agree to any request from a prepayment customer who is clear of debt to move off a prepayment meter.

The rules to which suppliers must adhere regarding the installation of prepayment meters are set out in the licence conditions set by Ofgem as the independent regulator. Ofgem will undertake a formal statutory consultation process to modify suppliers’ licence conditions in line with the code ahead of this winter. This will allow Ofgem to use its full enforcement powers to enforce compliance with the code, ensuring that consumers are protected and that the poor practices that we have seen will not happen again.

It is vital that, as the independent regulator, Ofgem continues to set the rules to which energy suppliers must adhere in licence conditions. New clauses 2 and 38 would risk taking that power away from Ofgem. Allowing the Government to set rules outside the licence conditions would threaten Ofgem’s independence and its ability to regulate suppliers effectively.

The Government have always been clear that action is needed to crack down on the practice of forcing people, especially the most vulnerable, on to prepayment meters. We will continue to work closely with Ofgem and industry to see that the code leads to positive changes for vulnerable consumers. I hope that hon. Members are reassured by my explanation and that they might feel able to withdraw their new clauses.

Despite what the Minister says, I am not fully convinced by those arguments. With the leave of the Committee, I will not press new clause 1 to a vote, but it is important to understand that new clause 2 would not even mean an outright ban on the installation of prepayment meters; it would just put protections in place so that people are not forced on to prepayment meters. It would also address debt build-up by ensuring that people are given access to debt counselling, for example. New clause 2 is about working with customers and providing additional protections, so I would certainly like to press it to a vote.

On new clause 1, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2

Restriction of the use of prepayment meters

“(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations restrict the installation of new prepayment meters for domestic energy use.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may set conditions for energy suppliers in relation to the installation of new prepayment meters, including—

(a) ensuring consumers have given full and informed consent to the installation of a prepayment meter after having been offered access to a recognised debt counselling agency;

(b) ensuring vulnerable consumers are not required to use prepayment meters;

(c) publishing a non-exhaustive list of circumstances in which a consumer is considered vulnerable, including financially vulnerable; and

(d) ensuring consumers have a clear, timetabled route back to standard meters once specified conditions are met.

(3) In this section ‘installation of new prepayment meters’ includes switching existing energy meters to a prepayment mode.”—(Alan Brown.)

This new clause would allow the Secretary of State to restrict the use of prepayment meters, especially in relation to vulnerable consumers or where consumers are not aware they are being moved over to a prepayment mode.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New Clause 5

Net Zero compatibility test

“The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision, with effect from the date on which this Act is passed, for all future legislative Impact Assessments to include a ‘Net Zero compatibility test’.”—(Alan Brown.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

This fairly simple clause seeks for the Government to include in all future legislative impact assessments a net zero compatibility test. Achieving net zero is vital to save to planet. The Government have legally binding targets to hit net zero by 2050, and this Committee has agreed to Government amendments that give Ofgem a statutory duty to consider net zero. If the regulator is obliged to consider net zero, and if the Government have legal targets to achieve net zero, surely it makes sense to legislate for the Government to undertake a net zero compatibility assessment, so as to ensure that policies will not have an adverse impact on the legally binding target to achieve net zero. That would result in transparency on whether policies are adversely or positively impacting on the route to net zero. Such transparency would also be of assistance with costs, especially given the net zero cynics among Government Members. Importantly, Energy UK, the trade body that represents energy companies, also says that it supports a net zero compatibility test.

Given what I have outlined, I do not see why the Government would not accept the new clause. If the Government can carry out impact assessments of the effect of legislation on small businesses, why not carry one out on the wider, legally binding target to hit net zero? I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause.

I thank the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for tabling their new clause. The Government agree with the intention behind it, but we believe that it is unnecessary. We are already taking a cross-Government and systematic approach to embedding net zero and climate into Government policies and decision-making processes.

The creation by the Prime Minister of the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which I am proud to serve, means that there is an entire Department dedicated to delivering on our climate ambitions. The Department’s focus, alongside energy security, is driving overall delivery of net zero and maximising the economic opportunity that the transition presents. The new Department’s officials work with counterparts across Government to co-ordinate action, working particularly closely with the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to ensure that net zero is prioritised in Government policy and decision making, and that it aligns with our wider priorities.

We are also working with industry and stakeholders, which has led to the creation of the net zero council, the green jobs delivery group, the jet zero council and the local net zero forum. We also work closely with our devolved Administration colleagues. We have also gone further by creating the Domestic and Economic Affairs (Energy, Climate and Net Zero) Committee, which brings together senior Ministers from across Government to ensure a co-ordinated approach to delivering net zero across government. Additionally, we have provided Green Book supplementary guidance on the valuation of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for appraisal. That guidance helps officials when undertaking options appraisal for policies, programmes and projects; building business cases; and when conducting impact assessments. I hope that provides the hon. Member with the reassurance that he needs to withdraw his new clause.

The Minister smiled when he said he hoped that that would satisfy me. There is no surprise that it does not. He outlined the creation of the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and the important thing is that the net zero compatibility test would apply to all legislation that the Government introduce from every Department, so it would make every Department start to consider the net zero implications of its policies. That is what is critical about this new clause. I do not wish to withdraw the motion.

Question put and negatived.

New Clause 6

Just Transition Commission

“(1) Within six months of the date on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must by regulations establish a body to be known as the ‘Just Transition Commission’.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) must provide for the purposes of the Just Transition Commission to include—

(a) the provision of scrutiny and advice on the ongoing development of just transition plans;

(b) the provision of advice on appropriate approaches to monitoring and evaluation; and

(c) consultation with such persons as the Secretary of State shall consider appropriate in relation to the delivery and likely impact of just transition planning.

(3) The Just Transition Commission must produce and lay before Parliament an annual report of its work.”—(Alan Brown.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I shall potentially continue my losing streak here. This new clause is about setting up a just transition commission. The Committee may be aware that the Scottish Government set up a just transition commission a couple of years ago, which is effectively world leading. It brings together independent academics, and representatives from trade unions and right across industry. It advises the Scottish Government on policy implications and what is needed as we move forward to a just transition to ensure that workers are not left behind and do not lose their jobs, to be effectively left on the scrapheap.

This important body came together and has brought transparency to the Scottish Government, and I want to see that replicated at Westminster. It would be good for the Government as a way to work across the sector and the industry, with trade unions and academics to provide expertise. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on that, explaining why they are probably not going to do this in the short term. I will be happy to be proved wrong on that.

We certainly need more focus, and to hear more from the Government about ensuring that this is a just transition. We know that we cannot reach net zero without the skilled workforce to deliver it, and without decisive action to ensure that no community is left behind. It is illustrative to look at what Joe Biden is doing with the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, where a lot of focus is on energy-intensive states such as Texas to ensure that, as they move away from fossil fuel exploration, the jobs are still there. We all know what happened, as we debated earlier in this Committee, when the coalmines were closed with the lack of a strategy to ensure good, decent jobs for people left behind. We saw whole communities abandoned and, in some parts of the country, turned into basic commuter villages, rather than having a home-grown industry.

It has rightly been said that net zero is the economic opportunity of the century, but it represents a potential threat to those who, at the moment, rely on traditional industries. That is not because oil and gas extraction will immediately cease, or because coal-fired blast furnaces will suddenly be switched off. It is because our reliance on the old way of doing things will gradually decline and, as a result, the skills required will evolve.

Workers in those industries need to know that there is a plan. As I said, we cannot allow the mistakes of the 1980s to be repeated. We need a forward-looking industrial strategy, to make it clear that the transition to net zero is an opportunity to reinvigorate our industrial heartlands and coastal communities and to make it clear that that means a higher quality of work, better regulation of employment practices and greater diversity in the sector. This is quite a complex task. Some of it will be industry-led, but we know, particularly when we get further down the supply chain to those clusters of jobs that will be based around the traditional industries, that those smaller companies will need support to diversify as well.

At the moment, decarbonisation is heavily dependent on overseas skills and imported products. We have not seen a response from this Government to the Inflation Reduction Act. We are told that it might come in the autumn, but we also get mixed messages from Ministers—from the Secretary of State, for example, and from the Minister of State in the Department—saying that it is simply a case of the US racing to catch up with us and we are far ahead of the curve, as though we do not need to respond to what is happening in other countries.

We know, because of labour shortages, that in some areas money is simply not being spent. An example is the green homes grant. The local authority delivery scheme had a 35% underspend. I will be in Westminster Hall this afternoon to talk about retrofitting of homes. Some 19 million homes need retrofitting to bring them up to decent energy efficiency standards. There does not seem to be a strategy for that workforce to be there, and that will in part mean people transitioning from more traditional jobs—such as installing gas boilers—to installing heat pumps, for example. There is no clear road map; we do not have an industrial strategy.

The TUC was calling for a just transition commission years ago. My concern about the SNP new clause is that setting up a just transition commission at some point in the future could lead to further delay. We had the Green Jobs Taskforce, and following that, the Green Jobs Delivery Group. Next year, we are due to get the net zero and nature workforce action plan. I commend Scotland for setting up its Just Transition Commission, but the Prospect union has warned that Scotland still

“lacks a clear strategy for job creation”

and it “falls disappointingly short” in this “vital area” at the moment. Scotland was promised a jobs revolution, but not even a quarter of the green jobs promised by the SNP in 2010 have materialised.

The hon. Lady will be aware that procurement rules and contracts for difference auctions, for example, are reserved to Westminster, so the Scottish Government do not have control of that. There is a whole supply chain aspect that is not developed, and that is partly because of these procurement rules—the fact that the cheapest price takes all. We want that amended at some time.

I was about to move on to that, because it is important. On the Government’s lack of action on developing a strategy, I have been trying to ask questions about the Green Jobs Delivery Group, such as when we will actually see some delivery and outcomes and how that will feed through into a skills strategy and an industrial strategy, but I have been getting very little by way of response.

Friends of the Earth Scotland has called on both the UK Government and the Scottish Government to ensure greater worker representation in their transition planning through existing bodies such as the UK’s Green Jobs Delivery Group and the Just Transition Commission in Scotland. It says that at the moment there is little support provided for high-carbon workers to find alternative jobs, to facilitate retraining where necessary, or to lighten the financial burden of training currently borne by the workers.

Last month, the Climate Change Committee briefed that the

“Government has policy levers at its disposal to support workers during the transition”

but warned that

“clearer plans are needed to harness the potential of the transition and to manage its risks.”

Work has been done. As I said, my concern is about focusing on setting up a commission rather than just calling on the Government to actually come forward with a clear strategy, a clear road map, particularly on the skills front, and to link that up. I do not know whether the Minister will accept my analysis of the situation, but it seems very fragmented. It is left, in large part, to big companies in the supply chain to try to ensure that the workers of the future are there as they transition. There is not a strategy for the smaller companies in the supply chain unless the big companies are leading that.

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying about wanting the Government to get on with it sooner, but does she not agree that commissioning a body of experts will provide better advice, enabling the Government to develop their strategy better?

As I said, the Government have had their green jobs taskforce, and now they have the delivery group. They are also doing things on the nature side. I would argue that they should have had all the information and expert advice; it is all available out there.

What we need are more incremental steps. Rather than setting up a body, we need something concrete from the Minister on what the Government are doing, for example, to ensure that further education colleges are tying up with the potential needs of businesses in their areas. Some incredibly good further education colleges are working on that—going into schools, working with businesses and encouraging young people to look at those careers—but as I said it is piecemeal and depends on the quality of the college, and the relationship with other agencies in the local area. I sympathise with focusing on a just transition, but I have concerns about whether setting up another body is the way to do it.

I thank the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Bristol East for their contributions. The Government agree with the intention behind the new clause; however, we already view transition as a consideration embedded across all Government policy actions. We are committed to managing the transition to net zero in such a manner that the positive opportunities are maximised for the economy and the population, while protecting individuals, communities and the economy.

Given that the majority of the low carbon economy lies outside London and the south-east of England, Government action to deliver our net zero commitment and build a low carbon economy will help to level up the UK and spur on the transition. That is demonstrated through the North sea transition deal agreement in March 2021, through which the UK became the first G7 country to agree a landmark deal to support the oil and gas industry’s transition to clean, green energy, while supporting 40,000 jobs in industrial heartlands across the UK.

Since delivering a net zero workforce transition needs joint action by Government, industry, and the education sector, the Government have established the green jobs delivery group. The group is headed up by Ministers and business leaders to act as the central forum for driving forward action on green jobs and skills, and has committed to publishing a net zero and nature workforce action plan in 2024, which will consider the workforce transition. We will continue to join up across the devolved Governments, who have already made excellent progress, with the Welsh Government having launched their net zero skills plan in March 2023, and the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland having launched their climate emergency skills action plan 2020-2025 in 2020.

On working with the devolved Governments, does the Minister recognise that it is time for the UK Government to match fund the £500 million just transition fund that the Scottish Government have put in place?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and point him to the remarks that I just made regarding the huge investment that we are already making in the transition, the fact that we were the first G7 nation to sign a transition deal, and the £100 billion of private sector investment by 2030 that we hope to see, and that we are driving into British industries, supporting 480,000 green jobs by the end of the decade. We are looking to meet that target, unlike the Scottish Government’s green jobs target, which of course they have not met—alongside failing in four years out of five to meet their climate change targets, as was announced just last week. Since delivering a net zero workforce transition needs joint action by Government and industry, as I have said, we are continuing in that regard.

With respect to the scrutiny advised in the new clause, the Government already report progress on delivering our net zero ambitions through multiple channels—through parliamentary Select Committees, the Public Accounts Committee, independent bodies such as the National Audit Office, and—under the Climate Change Act 2008—the Climate Change Committee. I should point out that the hon. Member’s colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), has recently taken up the chairmanship of the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee, and will, I am sure, ably hold my Department to account. I hope that that provides the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun with the reassurances that he needs to withdraw the motion.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I have asked a few written questions in this space and I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East that the just transition should have already started for many workers. A survey two years ago found that workers were looking to move from the fossil fuel industry to renewables but that they were being put off by training fees. I have asked repeatedly about that.

I asked the Department whether it knew what the average cost of retraining would be for oil and gas workers but was told that it does not know or does not hold that data. However, I have heard at first hand from oil and gas workers who want to move into renewables that they face training costs of many thousands of pounds and that the quality of such training is questionable in some places. Government inaction risks leaving those workers behind when they want to be part of the transition and already have transferrable skills in those industries. I also recently asked a question about the Department’s discussions with the offshore wind industry on recognising an energy skills passport to help oil and gas workers, but was told in response that no such discussions have taken place.

I thank the Minister for his kind words about a transition. However, when will we see action for oil and gas workers? When will the inaction turn into action and delivery so we can get on with developing the green skills we need in this country to deliver net zero and compete in a global market?

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for the tone of her words. The Government believe that the best way to secure jobs for oil and gas workers is to continue to give them support and, indeed, to support investment into the North sea, which not only provides secure employment for them now and into the future but provides for our energy security needs, which is something the Labour party might take note of moving forward.

As a representative of a constituency in the north-east of Scotland, I am fully aware of the pressures that workers in the North sea oil and gas industry face and the desires of many of them to transition to new green jobs. We see that in the city of Aberdeen, which is transitioning from being the oil and gas capital of Europe to the energy capital of Europe. That is why we have set up our green jobs delivery group and why we are identifying recommendations and actions for central and local government, industry and business, and the devolved Administrations.

We are also exploring how we can support local areas to deliver a successful transition, and the Department for Work and Pensions is expanding sector-based work academy programmes to help those who are out of work develop the skills they need to re-enter the job market. The programme runs in England and Scotland and is developed by jobcentres in partnership with employers and training providers. The Government take that incredibly seriously and I have a particular interest in the matter.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but we are clear that it is very important to support people who are reskilling and upskilling from traditional oil and gas jobs into new green jobs, while also investing in our oil and gas industry to ensure that investment continues to support the traditional jobs that will be needed for some time yet.

The Minister puts forward arguments that suggest the Government are doing a lot in terms of green jobs. The Government are doing some things, but not enough. That is the reality.

To go back to my intervention on the hon. Member for Bristol East, the CfD rules should have been changed years ago to incentivise supply chain development and create those homegrown jobs. Perhaps a just transition commission would have provided advice on how that procurement could have been taken forward. I want to revisit that. The Government should think and should speak to people engaged in the just transition commission. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 33


“(1) The principal purpose of this Act is to increase the resilience and reliability of energy systems across the UK, support the delivery of the UK’s climate change commitments and reform the UK’s energy system while minimising costs to consumers and protecting them from unfair pricing.

(2) In performing functions under this Act, the relevant persons and bodies shall have regard to—

(a) the principal purpose set out in subsection (1);

(b) the Secretary of State’s duties under sections 1 and 4(1)(b) of the Climate Change Act 2008 (carbon targets and budgets) and international obligations contained within Article 2 of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change;

(c) the desirability of reducing costs to consumers and alleviating fuel poverty; and

(d) the desirability of securing a diverse and viable long- term energy supply.

(3) In this section ‘the relevant persons and bodies’ means—

(a) the Secretary of State;

(b) any public authority.”—(Dr Whitehead.)

This new clause and NC34, NC35 and NC36 are intended as a suite of purpose and strategy clauses for this Bill.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New Clause 38

Restriction of the use of prepayment meters

“(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations restrict the installation of new prepayment meters for domestic energy use.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may set conditions for energy suppliers in relation to the installation of new prepayment meters, including—

(a) ensuring consumers have given full and informed consent to the installation of a prepayment meter;

(b) making provision to ensure vulnerable consumers are not put onto prepayment meters.

(3) In this section ‘installation of new prepayment meters’ includes switching existing energy meters to a prepayment mode.”—(Kerry McCarthy.)

This new clause would allow the Secretary of State to restrict the use of prepayment meters, especially in relation to vulnerable consumers or where consumers are not aware they are being moved over to a prepayment mode.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New Clause 39

Guarantee for consumer protection

“(1) Within three months of the day on which this Act is passed, Ofgem must set out a new licence to operate for heat networks that guarantees equivalent protections for heat network customers compared when compared with electricity and gas customers.

(2) Protections under subsection (1) must include but are not limited to—

(a) a price cap for heat network customers;

(b) a licence condition to ‘treat customers fairly’, analogous to Licence Condition 0 of the electricity and gas supplier licences; and

(c) a licence condition addressing ‘ability to pay’, analogous to Licence Condition 27A of the electricity and gas supplier licences.”—(Dr Whitehead.)

This new clause would guarantee that heat network customers receive equal treatment to electricity and gas customers.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New Clause 41

Energy performance regulations relating to existing premises

“(1) Within six months of the date on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must make regulations—

(a) amending the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015 (S.I. 2015/962) to require that, subject to subsection (2), all tenancies have an energy performance certificate (EPC) of at least Band C by 31 December 2028; and

(b) amending the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 (S.I. 2019/595) to raise “the cost cap” to £10,000.

(2) Exemptions to subsection (1) apply where—

(a) the occupier of any premises whose permission is needed to carry out works refuses to give such permission;

(b) it is not technically feasible to improve the energy performance of the premises to the level of EPC Band C; and

(c) another exemption specified in the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015 has been registered in the PRS Exemptions Register.

(3) Within six months of the date on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must make regulations—

(a) amending the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015 (S.I. 2015/962) to enable Local Authorities to give notice to landlords that they wish to inspect a property, requesting permissions from landlords and any tenants in situ at the time to carry out an inspection at an agreed time;

(b) to expand the scope of the current PRS Exemptions Register and redesign it as a property compliance and exemptions database;

(c) to require a post-improvement EPC to be undertaken to demonstrate compliance;

(d) to require a valid EPC be in place at all times while a property is let; and

(e) to raise the maximum total of financial penalties to be imposed by a Local Authority on a landlord of a domestic PRS property in relation to the same breach and for the same property to £30,000 per property and per breach of the PRS Regulations.

(4) The Secretary of State may make regulations to—

(a) enable tenants in the private rented sector to request that energy performance improvements are carried out where a property is in breach of the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015; and

(b) make provision for a compensation mechanism where a tenant is paying higher energy bills as a result of a property not meeting the required standard.”— (Dr Whitehead.)

This new clause requires the Secretary of State to strengthen minimum energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector, expands the compliance regime available to local authorities, and gives the Secretary of State the power to create a compensation mechanism for tenants adversely affected by non-compliance. These measures are derived from the government’s preferred policy option in the 2020 “Improving the energy performance of privately rented homes” consultation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New Clause 43

North Sea Transition Authority

“(1) Part 1 of the Energy Act 2016 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1(1) for ‘is renamed as the Oil and Gas Authority’ substitute ‘is renamed as the North Sea Transition authority’.

(3) In Part 1 for all references to ‘the OGA’ substitute ‘the North Sea Transition authority’.

(4) In section 8(1) after ‘so far as is relevant’ insert—

Ensuring the Transition to Net zero

The need to ensure an effective transition from high carbon exploration production and exploitation of the North Sea basin to a low carbon exploitation of all North Sea basin resources compatible with the United Kingdom’s net zero commitments.’”— (Dr Whitehead.)

This new clause seeks to place on the face of the Bill the de facto change in name of the Oil and Gas Authority to the North Sea Transition Authority and provides an additional matter for which the authority must have regard in line with its change of name.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

We come now to something that has run as a bit of a leitmotif through our discussions in Committee, which is the position of the North Sea Transition Authority—I was going to say the “so-called” North Sea Transition Authority, but I accept that it is the North Sea Transition Authority. However, as we have pointed out in previous debates, the name came about by means I am not entirely clear about, as opposed to being set in legislation.

In a previous debate, we discussed the circumstances under which somebody might go about their daily business calling themselves a particular appellation but find out that there were legal consequences to using a name that was not actually theirs, even though for daily purposes that name was reasonably accepted. That is the key point as far as the North Sea Transition Authority is concerned, because legally the North Sea Transition Authority is actually the Oil and Gas Authority. It is not just legally the Oil and Gas Authority; it is an authority that was effectively set up by the Energy Act 2016.

If we turn to the pages of the 2016 Act, we see a number of functions that the OGA must undertake. It is not the case that the OGA did not exist at all in any form prior to the 2016 Act’s passing into law; it was originally incorporated under the Companies Act 2006 as the Oil and Gas Authority Limited. The 2016 Act made a particular point of taking that limited company and transforming it by legislation. It states:

“The company originally incorporated under the Companies Act 2006 as the Oil and Gas Authority Limited is renamed as the Oil and Gas Authority.”

There it is in the legislation. The 2016 Act then made a number of transfers of functions from the OGA: the transfer of property rights, staff and so on. It is fairly clear from that that the Government at the time of the passage of the 2016 Act had a very real intention as to the function, activity and so on of the Oil and Gas Authority: they set it all out in the legislation. They were clear and specific on that. They were also clear and specific on what the OGA should be doing.

It was not just guidance on what the OGA should be doing; it was set out in the legislation under section 8, “Matters to which the OGA must have regard”. It needed to

“minimise public expenditure relating to, or arising from, relevant activities.”

It was concerned with the

“need for the United Kingdom to have a secure supply of energy.”

It had a function entitled “Storage of carbon dioxide”, and the OGA needed to

“work collaboratively with the government”.

By the way, regarding a debate we will come to later, the OGA also had at least an implied function with respect to the maximum economic extraction of oil and gas from the North sea. It was clear that the OGA had a number of things it should do, and that it was able to collect samples and regulate the oil and gas industry in the North sea, all within the overall umbrella of maximising economic recovery of that oil and gas in the North sea and elsewhere.

The OGA had a clear set of legal requirements and a clear set of duties and responsibilities, but the Government’s decision—I do not know whose decision it was, and it would be helpful if the Minister clarified that for me—that, henceforth, the OGA should be called the North Sea Transition Authority was, as far as I can see, conceived and carried out on no legal basis whatever. It was simply a device, which I guess aligned with the North sea transition deal, which was originally entitled the North sea oil and gas deal, whose title was, during discussions on the deal, so I understand, changed. That was when the Government had an industrial strategy, and this was put forward as a strategy for oil and gas in the North sea, although it also included elements of what we might say was a transition.

The North sea oil and gas companies undertook to change their position on flaring, for example, and undertook to do various things about the electrification of the North sea oil rigs and various other things. However, notably in the North sea transition document, there was no mention of, nor any agreement on, the management of production in the North sea, or indeed management of exploration or any other activities that were going on. This was a limited document that might be described as a North sea transition document, and an even more limited change to the name of the North sea OGA, which was renamed the North Sea Transition Authority. I presume that the name change arose from the basement of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as a nod in the direction of that particular document, but that is all.

The North Sea Transition Authority has done some mighty work in respect of its new function. It has changed its notepaper, I think—it has got that bit sorted out—but nothing else has happened as far as the authority is concerned. As the Minister saw just recently, and as I have periodically pointed out as the Committee has progressed, when the guidance notes and the notes published by the Department on various aspects of the Bill appear, we see that the North Sea Transition Authority is doing various things related to various aspects of the Bill. However, when we go into the clauses in the Bill, we see that it is not the North Sea Transition Authority that is doing those things, but the Oil and Gas Authority, because that remains the legal arrangement.

What is to be done about that? Is it satisfactory for the medium and long-term future that we should look to an authority to take positive action on the transition and on some of the things we have talked about in Committee this morning, even though it has functions that require it to do something else and a name that suggests it should do something else entirely? In the great British tradition of muddling and fudging, we may say that as long as everybody understands what is being done, it is okay that we have a body doing one thing while it is legally required to do something else entirely. I do not think that is good enough if we are to be serious about North sea transition.

We have designed the new clause to attempt to give effect to something that has some sort of legal basis, and the Energy Act 2016 needs to be amended so that it is clear that what we are talking about in the legislation, as well as on a daily basis, is the North Sea Transition Authority. Undoubtedly, the Minister will say that that requires rather more than putting the North Sea Transition Authority in section 1 of the 2016 Act, and that we have to do all sorts of other things. I appreciate that that is the case, and the new clause seeks to substitute “North Sea Transition Authority” for all references to “the OGA”. I am not sure that that quite stands up, but the intention is to change the wording to the “North Sea Transition Authority” throughout the Energy Act.

As I have pointed out, what is really important in all this is that section 8 of the 2016 Act concerns matters to which the OGA must have regard. If the OGA is to become the North Sea Transition Authority properly, what will be the sorts of matter to which the NSTA ought to have regard? I do not object to a number of things that are already included in the 2016 Act, but I would have thought that it was absolutely essential to put in those matters to which the North Sea Transition Authority should have regard. It should have regard to the transition, as that is included in its name and in its functions for the future.

The new clause would insert a new paragraph to section 8(1) of the 2016 Act, on things to which the newly named authority should have regard, which is:

“The need to ensure an effective transition from high carbon exploration production and exploitation of the North Sea basin to a low carbon exploitation of all North Sea basin resources compatible with the United Kingdom’s net zero commitments.”

That would effectively give the North Sea Transition Authority a job for the whole of the North sea’s transition, not just the continued safety, security and production of high-carbon elements that can be extracted from the North sea. It would also have oversight of and regard to the low-carbon exploitation of the North sea basin’s resources, including carbon capture and storage, which the 2016 legislation nods in the direction of, as well as offshore wind, including interconnectors and various elements that develop the capacity of the North sea to provide wind resources to shore. Essentially, it would become a North sea authority covering all the features that mean the North sea will be an absolutely crucial basin for our future energy wellbeing, as well as its current functions.

That is potentially very important in the medium and long-term, because, as we know, the North sea basin is very mature in terms of exploitation. Regardless of whether we exploit the small pools alongside existing fields, future production is unlikely to increase and, indeed, will probably decline quite substantially. The Government regularly publish figures on the likely reserves in the North sea, what has already been exploited and what might be exploited for future production. Those figures all trend downwards very substantially.

We want to make sure that the North Sea Transition Authority is managing not just the decline of a resource, but the decline of a resource in one area and its expansion in another, making sure that those two—as the word transition suggests—are compatible in terms of the overall contribution that the North sea can make to the UK’s future energy and economic wellbeing.

The Minister may say that is all very well, but there are other parts of the UK involved in the extraction of resources. It is certainly not the intention of the new clause to limit the North Sea Transition Authority to those particular areas; there is no reason to suggest it would be limited. As the name implies, its concentration would be on the largest resource we have—the North sea—and the Celtic sea and so on would come under the general heading. The transition authority would be for all the UK’s exploitation of energy resources, regardless of where they were around the UK coast.

The new clause is very helpful indeed, and will, among other things, prevent the Minister from having to explain in the future why one thing means another thing and why something that does not mean something does mean something after all. The Minister will be able to stand up as an entirely reformed man and tell us all what the North Sea Transition Authority is really going to do, backed up by a firm body of legislation that will support his words.

I am making light of that, but as the Minister is aware, one always needs to look at out of the corner of one’s eye at who is going to say what about things that the Government are trying to do in the energy sphere. On a couple of occasions, companies and individuals have occasionally sought judicial review of an activity of Ofgem in this sphere.

One notable change that has taken place in the Bill, of which the Minister can be proud, is the amendment to the function and responsibilities of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority and Ofgem on the net zero mandate. Bringing the North Sea Transition Authority into line with that provision would not be such a bad thing. It would allow us to be sure that the future actions of the North Sea Transition Authority were legally sound. That is a win-win all round. The Minister may suggest otherwise, but I hope that he does so in technical terms, and not in terms of the principle of the idea.

The Minister may formulate his response in words such as, “We will go away and have a good look at this and see if there are things we ought to do to cause this change to take place.” If the Minister said that, I would be happy not to press the new clause to a Division, providing he acknowledges in clear view of the Committee that it is a good thing that what the North Sea Transition Authority says and does are both firmly rooted in proper legal provision.

I thank the hon. Member for tabling his new clause and for his attempts at my reformation. To be clear, the new clause would change the name of the Oil and Gas Authority and introduce an express obligation for it to ensure the transition to net zero in carrying out its functions.

In March 2022, the Oil and Gas Authority changed its trading name to the North Sea Transition Authority, or NSTA. The change, supported by the Government and the Opposition, reflects the expanded role the NSTA plays in our transition to a net zero economy.

Under the new clause, the name change would occur only in the Energy Act 2016. However, as the hon. Gentleman admitted, the Oil and Gas Authority is mentioned in a large amount of primary and secondary legislation, which would also require amendment. Any partial change of name could undermine or change the NSTA’s statutory functions, powers and objectives. However, the Government recognise the importance of the change and, as we speak, we are considering legislative options to amend the authority’s statutory name to the NSTA in all places where it occurs.

The new clause would also create an express obligation for the NSTA to ensure the transition to net zero in carrying out its functions. In December 2020, in accordance with section 9A of the Petroleum Act 1998, the NSTA produced a revised strategy, titled “The OGA Strategy”. Under the strategy’s central obligation, the NSTA must

“secure that the maximum value of economically recoverable petroleum is recovered from the strata beneath relevant UK waters; and, in doing so, take appropriate steps to assist the Secretary of State in meeting the UK’s Net Zero target.”

The strategy therefore already provides a basis for the NSTA’s ongoing work to help drive the energy transition.

The NSTA will continue to work with the Government, industry and other regulators to help accelerate the move to net zero while meeting the UK’s energy demand and security. Under the revised strategy, the NSTA has also introduced new expectations for the management of North sea oil and gas assets in the least polluting way, and for consideration of the full societal carbon cost when taking decisions.

The energy transition will be further supported by the Government’s landmark North sea transition deal. The deal, agreed in 2021, could support up to 40,000 high-quality direct and indirect supply chain jobs, including in Scotland and our industrial heartlands in the north-east and east of England; generate up to £14 billion to £16 billion of investment by 2030; and deliver new business and trade opportunities to support our transition to a low-carbon future. Through the deal, the NSTA continues to hold industry to account on emissions reduction targets by tracking and monitoring performance.

Following those explanations, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that he can withdraw his new clause.

Indeed there is a feeling welling up in me that we are not able to proceed with the new clause, given that the Minister said—and I agree—that such a change cannot be made easily with a quick stroke of a pen, and that a number of other things need to be considered alongside that. I am pleased that he indicated that, as we speak, there are serious people with towels round their heads working through the implications and looking at how we can best do it. That was the intention of the new clause, but perhaps I was rather optimistic in thinking that the name change could be written in easily. I appreciate that it cannot.

I also appreciate that the transition authority has the green light from Government to start undertaking things relating to transition. It is beginning to pursue that, and that is all good, but I say gently to the Minister that at some stage we will need to push this together. If the gentlemen with wet towels round their heads—

And ladies, indeed. If they can undertake their work in a reasonable fashion, I hope we will have a solution that is good for all of us, as far as the transition is concerned. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 44

Maximum economic recovery in the North Sea

“(1) The Petroleum Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(2) Omit sections 9A to 9I.”—(Dr Whitehead.)

This new clause removes reference to Maximum Economic Recovery in the North Sea as placed into the Petroleum Act 1998 by section 41 of the Infrastructure Act 2015.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New clause 44 concerns a similar legislative requirement—this time, not in the Energy Act 2016, but in the Infrastructure Act 2015. The 2015 Act—I know that hon. Members will have it at their bedsides at all times—contains what can only be described as a performative piece of legislation. Section 41 makes an extensive amendment to the Petroleum Act 1998, which worked perfectly well in supporting the development and activity of the North sea basin, to introduce a principal objective of

“maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”—

interestingly, that is not defined in the legislation—through

“development, construction, deployment and use of equipment,”

collaboration among various persons, and so on.

Section 41 also states that the Secretary of State

“must produce one or more strategies for enabling the principal objective to be met.”

There is a requirement on the Secretary of State,

“As soon as practicable after the end of each reporting period,”


“consider the extent to which, during that period, these persons have followed section 9C by acting in accordance with the current strategy or strategies,”

and to

“produce a report on the results of the consideration of that question.”

The section goes on to state what the report must contain, and to provide that the Secretary of State

“must publish, and lay before each House of Parliament, a copy of each report produced under this section.”

I have one initial question for the Minister: where are the reports? I have looked quite hard in the Library and various other places to find copies of the reports that the Secretary of State was supposed to produce in each reporting period, and to identify what considerations he or she made in terms of licence holders and operators under petroleum licences and so on. It is probably a case of me being a little remiss, but I cannot find those reports on the maximisation of the economic recovery of UK petroleum, several of which should have been produced by now, since they are supposed to be produced at the end of each two-year reporting period.

Far be it from me to suggest that the Secretary of State is in breach of his requirements under the 2015 Act. I am sure the Minister can put me right about whether the Secretary of State is in breach and either point me to the reports or, perhaps, suggest that they might be forthcoming. I hope the Minister has received inspiration that may enable him to address that point.

Even at the time, section 41 of the 2015 Act appeared to be rather strange in definitional terms. What would lead the Secretary of State to consider that the economic recovery of UK petroleum has been maximised? Is it the extraction of every last drop of petroleum and gas from the North sea—and, if so, over what timescale? It is unclear. Presumably, if economic circumstances change and make further North sea extraction economical, the Secretary of State and industry should start busily extracting everything that is economically extractable, even though in the future it may not be regarded as such.

Section 41 is a bit of a nonsense, and of course it is a much bigger nonsense now than it was, because the Government have solemnly agreed to our net zero targets and amended the Climate Change Act 2008. Indeed, the amendment of those targets was agreed after the 2015 Act was passed. We now have targets for our country’s future emissions, as well as legislation that essentially says that we are required to do the opposite of those targets through oil and gas extraction in the North sea.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, one important calculation in reaching net zero—indeed, the Government have introduced a net zero calculator—is whether at least some extraction of oil and gas from the North sea contradicts the net zero target. We have had a number of assessments, including from the Climate Change Committee and various other bodies, that maximising the economic extraction of oil and gas from the North sea would undoubtably bust our targets, and that we must be clear that at least some of it probably needs to be left there. If we sucked the North sea and other places dry of their oil and gas resources, depending on how we accounted for it, that would pretty much inevitably bust our ability to reach our targets. The objective to maximise economic recovery sits in stark contradiction to our overall emissions targets.

The new clause would amend the Petroleum Act by simply removing sections 9A to 9I, which relate to the maximum economic recovery of UK petroleum. Before hon. Members leap to their feet and say, “Well, that means that you’ve disabled the ability to proceed with production and various other things in the North sea,” let me say that that is absolutely not the case. The Petroleum Act facilitated production by laying down arrangements for it to be undertaken, introducing safety arrangements and so on. The removal of sections 9A to 9I would have no effect at all on the continuation of production, the management of that, and all the things that we have been talking about in terms of North sea activities. It would only take away what I have always thought to be a pretty performative piece of legislative change and restore the 1998 Act so that it does what it was originally intended to do.

I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate whether he thinks that is a good idea or a bad idea. Is he wedded to the continuation of the maximum economic recovery objective, despite our commitments under climate change legislation? If he is, is he happy to produce regular reports on why it is a good idea and what is happening in terms of trying to pump every last drop of oil and gas out of the North sea? It is important that he puts on the record whether he supports that or whether he considers that there are ways in which—as I said with respect to the restoration of the 1998 Act—we can create a clear distinction between the continuation of a healthy industry in the North sea based on the development of its remaining resources, and seeking to bleed that resource dry.

It is important as we move towards 2050 that the North sea has longevity and can continue to produce over a considerable period, albeit at a reduced level, to support the use of oil and gas in our economy, albeit at a much lower—but nevertheless appreciable—level. The idea is that the North sea, if it produces over a much longer period, can reach a point where it can satisfy most of that lower level of requirement in the UK. That can only happen if the North sea is still in production. If it has been bled dry by a doctrine of maximum economic recovery, it will not be there to underpin the UK economy in 2040 or 2050, when we will need an indigenous supply of oil and gas for those residual activities.

I am interested to hear from the Minister. I understand, of course, that our attempt just to excise sections 9A to 9I from the 1998 Act may cause similar issues as arose with new clause 43. If that is the case, I would be interested to hear what he has to say about it. However, this looks to be a rather simpler procedure than the one concerning the North Sea Transition Authority; we just excise what went into the Petroleum Act in 2015, and allow that Act to do its work of ensuring that we have a viable, profitable and economically useful North sea oil and gas sector in the very long term.

It has been an interesting discussion. “Maximum economic recovery” might sound like three benign words, but they could be a toxic combination. If we are not careful, they could be rephrased as “maximum economic crisis”. The climate catastrophe that will unfold if we do not cap global warming at 1.5°, and maintain that on average over 20 years, will be incredibly tough for any Government and for everyone internationally. Some reports suggest that if we wait 10 years, it will not take 1% of GDP to tackle the climate emergency; that will jump staggeringly. About 8% of GDP expenditure will have to go on resilience alone, and dealing with the consequences of the climate catastrophe. The cost of changing to a green energy system in that same decade would double as well. It is really important that we understand what that means.

I say “toxic combination”, but there is also the very real and significant risk of stranded assets. The financial sector, the insurance industry and pension funds are all very aware of the issue, and we see that in how they are changing the way that they invest in projects, and the divestment policies of many of the institutions in this space. Nature published an article in 2022 stating that 60% of oil and gas and 90% of known coal should remain in the ground if we are to get to 1.5°C, but the issue of stranded assets is a reality. We cannot have our cake and eat it; we cannot inhale our cake quicker and hope for the best. Every drop of oil and gas and every lump of coal that we burn contributes to the Anthropocene we are seeing. We have decisions that we can take, and we know that those decisions have an impact.

Stranded assets are really important in this debate. A report in 2022 suggested that the oil, gas and fossil fuel industry had £1.4 trillion of stranded assets. That means that there will be a cliff edge for jobs. There will be assets that people can no longer use or get value from. It will mean that we have barrels of oil, gas and coal that we cannot use, because—a very senior scientist makes this argument in the report—the world will have moved on. We hope that the world will move on as a result of the Bill; if we do not scale up net zero measures, UK households could be spending £500 a year on foreign gas, rather than saving £1,500-odd through a move to renewables and energy efficiency policies, and retrofitting.

This is an incredibly important point. We cannot just hope that things will get better, and squeezing every last drop out of the North sea is not compatible with our aim of 1.5°. We cannot set a date for getting to net zero, but then produce as much carbon and other greenhouse emissions as we like and hope for the best. There must be carbon budgeting, as we all know. We have had all this conversation about a just transition, yet we are giving massive tax breaks. For example, if Rosebank goes ahead, it will receive a tax break of £3.75 billion for something that may soon become a stranded asset.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I will be brief. Will she share the definition of a stranded asset? Some oil and gas extraction areas have enormous potential for carbon capture and storage; it will be a matter of pushing stuff down a pipe, rather than pulling stuff out of it. Has any of that been taken into account in her slightly apocalyptic analysis of what we can do in the North sea and other areas?

I absolutely agree that it needs to be a transition; that is exactly my point. In the scenario we are discussing,

“Fossil fuel resources that cannot be burned and fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g. pipelines, power plants) that is no longer used may end up as a liability before the end of its anticipated economic lifetime.”

The assets are not being valued at their value over their lifetime; it is that simple. Say we give a value to an asset for its lifetime—25, 50, 100 years or whatever. Its lifetime will fall short of that period, and there will be catastrophic consequences for the financial and economic world; things will go into freefall. This is about economic risk, not just what we have, where. It is that fundamental. That understanding is missing from a lot of this debate, but financial services, pension funds and the insurance industry are all saying that they are very aware of the issue.

The hon. Lady has just read quite a detailed definition of a stranded asset, which included fossil fuel reserves remaining under the ocean, if I heard her correctly.

We would have to leave them there, but figures for them would be baked into the economic analysis and the business planning for those sites. That is why there is a financial risk; financial plans will come into play that will be unrealistic and unmeetable. That is why the assets will become stranded assets; it had been planned that they would produce a profit over a period, but we will not get to that time because of the situation.

If I understand the hon. Lady correctly, she is worrying about a figure of £1.5 billion in stranded assets, which includes fossil fuels that are left under the ground. That does not take into account the fact that the assets could be repurchased for an energy transition. Would she agree that there is perhaps more analysis to do?

To be clear, it is not £1.3 billion; it is £1.4 trillion, and that is why this is significant. I am not the only one worried about this—so are financial institutions around the globe. This massive financial risk could spin us into financial crisis if we are not careful. This is not just a climate catastrophe; it is an economic situation that we need to monitor, and we need to ensure that we do not have a cliff edge that lands us in a spiral that we cannot get out of. That is why a transition is so important, and why we need development of industry in the North sea, but cannot rely on our valuations of assets at the moment.

We need to take into consideration changes in the use of oil and gas, so that we can reach 1.5°C. We cannot deal with those two issues in isolation. As much as that would please everyone at the moment and allow them to make a quick buck, it is economically illiterate to think that we can continue as we are. That is a big problem. There are huge opportunities for Government, and I welcome a lot of the things in the Bill that will help to unlock them.

At household level, the move to renewables would significantly benefit people. Renewables are three times cheaper than oil and gas-related heating and electricity. A record number of households are suffering from energy insecurity. It is important that we look at the issue in the round. We cannot just say, “We need this” or “We need that,” and expect it to add up. If the financial sector gets scared, and much suggests that it is, it will look to invest in other places. If insurance companies say, “We are not going to insure these facilities because there is such an economic risk to us,” we are in trouble. If pension funds flee from the sector, we are in trouble. Our financial sector is incredibly important in this area, and those in it are saying loud and clear, “Governments are behind us, and we need them to catch up.” This tiny phrase, “Maximum economic recovery”, and what it asks for, could lead to the cliff edge that we have all been saying that we do not want. That is why this is so important.

The decisions we take now will shape the world. That is categorically true. A combined, whole view of this is so important. Not only will there be a cost to the public purse, but we will need to spend massive amount of GDP to deal with the crisis as it unfolds. People can say that this is catastrophising, but these are very real concerns. We already have over 20-odd million people displaced by significant environmental and climate events, and it could go up to hundreds of millions if we do not get to 1.5°C. That would mean hundreds of thousands of people displaced in the UK.

Water levels are rising, and will continue to rise beyond 2100, meaning that significant parts of the UK will be under water and people will be displaced. We are seeing real, measurable effects, and things are quickly getting worse. Just look at the oceans and the temperatures at the moment. There is an unprecedented rise in the temperature of UK waters, and it will have a devastating effect if it continues. It is so important that we see things in the round and do not just say, “This is how much we need. If we continue to burn as much as we can today, we will be all right as long as we stop by 2050.” That is not the outcome we want. We want a just transition that slowly helps us get to that point and stops us turning off the gas tap at the point of no return. We need a planned way forward that helps us not face economic ruin.

I thank the hon. Members for Southampton, Test, and for Sheffield, Hallam, for their impassioned contributions to the debate. There has been talk of apocalypse and catastrophe, and there has been some idea that the country is not taking the issue seriously. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam suggested that we were just setting a date and hoping for the best. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have decarbonised faster than any other G7 nation. Off the coast of this country are the first, second, third and fourth-largest offshore wind farms in the world. We created an entire Department to focus on the challenges of net zero, and we are passing this Bill, which will enable us to unlock so much of what we need to do to move this country forward even more quickly.

There was talk of economic illiteracy, but it is economic illiteracy not to support our outstanding British offshore oil and gas industry as it continues to produce the oil and gas that is required to keep the lights on in this country as we transition to a net zero future. It is the safest, most responsible offshore oil and gas sector in the world. Indeed, by 2035 we will have the first net zero offshore oil and gas sector, and the North sea will be the first basin in the world to be a net zero basin. I urge colleagues to stop talking down this Great British success story and start talking it up, as it contributes so much to our energy security and net zero ambitions.

I think the Minister completely missed the point of what I was saying. I am in no way doing down the industry. I am saying that there are financial risks linked to our climate risks, and they must be brought into this debate. That is fundamental, and future Governments will not thank us if we do not discuss and address that now.

I could not agree more that there are financial risks. That is probably why, just this morning, so many businesses expressed their worry at Labour’s Just Stop Oil plans, which were outlined a couple of weeks ago and which the former Labour leader of Aberdeen City Council described as even worse for an industry than the actions of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. That is from a member of the Labour party who resigned due to Labour’s policies on oil and gas.

I would be grateful if the Minister withdrew that comment about Labour’s “Just Stop Oil plans”. There are no Labour Just Stop Oil plans. Indeed, Labour has condemned the activities of Just Stop Oil protesters, because Labour does not wish just to stop oil. We specifically said this morning that we do not wish to do that, and that we see a substantial role for the North sea oil and gas industry out to 2050. We would support that future, so I hope the Minister will not resort to these easy gibes and will address the issue rather more seriously today. That would be helpful.

I should probably turn to the new clause, but I welcome the welcome and support that the hon. Gentleman—and now, it seems, the Labour party—will give to our offshore oil and gas industry. He should probably inform the members and founders of Just Stop Oil who have donated so much money to his party.

The objective of maximising economic recovery in the North sea forms the basis of the North Sea Transition Authority’s regulatory functions, and removing them could significantly undermine its ability to operate as intended. It would also lead to a significant lack of clarity about the authority’s regulatory role. Maximising the economic recovery of oil and gas need not be in conflict with the transition to net zero, and the North Sea Transition Authority is already doing a great deal of work to support an orderly transition that delivers on our climate commitments and supports workers.

In December 2020, in accordance with section 9A of the Petroleum Act 1998, the North Sea Transition Authority published a revised strategy, titled “The OGA Strategy”.

It is rather ironic, given what we have just been discussing. Through the revised strategy’s central obligation, the North Sea Transition Authority must

“secure that the maximum value of economically recoverable petroleum is recovered from the strata beneath relevant UK waters; and, in doing so, take appropriate steps to assist the Secretary of State in meeting the net zero target”.

The strategy therefore already provides a basis for the North Sea Transition Authority’s ongoing work to help drive the energy transition.

Under the revised strategy, the North Sea Transition Authority has also introduced new expectations for how North sea oil and gas assets will be managed in the least polluting way, and it will consider the full societal carbon cost when taking decisions. The North Sea Transition Authority will continue to work with Government, industry and other regulators to help accelerate the move to net zero while meeting the UK’s energy demands and need for energy security.

Section 9D of the Petroleum Act 1998, on reports by the Secretary of State, was repealed by paragraph 10 of schedule 1 to the Energy Act 2016, which means the repeal happened before any reports needed to be produced.

I pay tribute to our offshore oil and gas industry, particularly Offshore Energies UK and its “Vision 2035” plan, which means the North sea will become the world’s first net-zero basin. With these explanations, I hope the hon. Gentleman feels able to withdraw his new clause.

I thank the Minister for clarifying the position on reports, because I must admit that I had not read that paragraph of the 2016 Act. It rather underscores my point that this is a performative piece of legislation. There were requirements to report, but the Government presumably realised that they were even sillier than the original imposition on the 1998 Act and decided, one year later, that reports would not be necessary. It could have been a bit embarrassing if the reports came out, so they decided that the reports were not necessary. I thank him for that clarification, but he is rather speaking to my point instead of his.

I am very disappointed that the Minister has sought to characterise our debate as one side of the Committee being against oil and gas and the other side being in favour; he thereby swerves the important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. On the overall position that maximum economic extraction could lead us—

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Sixth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Julie Elliott, Stewart Hosie, † Sir Edward Leigh, Mrs Sheryll Murray

† Antoniazzi, Tonia (Gower) (Lab)

† Argar, Edward (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)

† Baillie, Siobhan (Stroud) (Con)

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

† Butler, Rob (Aylesbury) (Con)

† Champion, Sarah (Rotherham) (Lab)

† Colburn, Elliot (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)

† Daby, Janet (Lewisham East) (Lab)

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

† Heald, Sir Oliver (North East Hertfordshire) (Con)

† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)

† Logan, Mark (Bolton North East) (Con)

† McMorrin, Anna (Cardiff North) (Lab)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

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

† Reeves, Ellie (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)

† Throup, Maggie (Erewash) (Con)

Anne-Marie Griffiths, Bethan Harding, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 27 June 2023


[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Clause 1

Meaning of “victim”

Amendment proposed (this day): 17, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced child criminal exploitation;”—(Anna McMorrin.)

This amendment would include victims of child criminal exploitation in the definition of a victim.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 51, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced adult sexual exploitation.”

Amendment 18, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(c) ‘child criminal exploitation’ means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls a person under 18 to undertake activity which constitutes a criminal offence;”

This amendment provides a definition for the term “child criminal exploitation”.

Amendment 52, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(c) ‘adult sexual exploitation’ means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls another person to undertake sexual activity.”

This amendment would provide for a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.

Amendment 17 seeks to include in the definition of a victim those who have experienced child criminal exploitation and have suffered harm as a direct result. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for raising this issue, which the Government agree has a devastating impact. This morning, right hon. and hon. Members did what this House does well: they gave a voice to the voiceless.

I want to reassure hon. Members that large elements of the amendment are encapsulated in the Bill, and I hope I am able to offer something that goes at least some way to satisfy the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Cardiff North. The Government are committed to tackling county lines and associated child criminal exploitation, and outside the Bill we have invested up to £145 million over three years to crack down on criminal gangs exploiting children and young people.

In addition, as part of the county lines programme, the Government continue to support victims of child criminal exploitation. We have, for example, invested up to £5 million over three financial years—2022 to 2025—to provide support to victims of county lines exploitation and their families. That includes a specialist support and rescue service provided by Catch22 for under-25s in priority areas who are criminally exploited through county lines to help them to safely reduce and exit their involvement. It also includes a confidential national helpline and support delivered by Missing People’s SafeCall service for young people and their families.

As the shadow Minister said, it is important to remember that although county lines is often the first issue to catch the attention of the media or this House, child exploitation goes way beyond that crime. We are therefore also targeting exploitation through the Home Office-funded prevention programme, delivered by the Children’s Society. That programme works with a range of partners to tackle and prevent child exploitation regionally and nationally.

I assure hon. Members that children who have been exploited for criminal purposes are indeed victims in the context of the Bill if the conduct they have been subjected to meets the criminal standard. Regardless of whether the crime has been reported, charged or prosecuted, those victims are already covered under part 1 of the Bill and the victims code.

Child criminal exploitation is already captured by a number of criminal offences under the Serious Crime Act 2007, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. However, as the hon. Member for Rotherham highlighted, in some cases the exploitative conduct may not itself be criminal. The measures in part 1 of the Bill have specifically and fundamentally been designed for victims of crime and seek to improve their treatment, experiences of and engagement with the criminal justice system. Therefore, where the criminal exploitation is exactly that—criminal—the victims are already covered by the Bill’s definition of a victim of crime.

The definition of a victim, as I said previously, is deliberately broad. Within reason, we are seeking to be permissive, rather than prescriptive, to avoid the risk that specifying particular subgroups could inadvertently exclude those who do not fall into specific descriptions and definitions.

Amendment 18 seeks to provide a definition for child criminal exploitation. The Government recognise that the targeting, grooming and exploitation of children for criminal purposes is deplorable, and we share the hon. Member for Rotherham’s determination to tackle it. The Government have already gone some way to defining child criminal exploitation in statutory guidance for frontline practitioners working with children, including in the “Keeping children safe in education” and “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance. We have also defined child criminal exploitation in other documents, such as the serious violence strategy, the Home Office child exploitation disruption toolkit for frontline practitioners, which was updated in July last year, and the county lines guidance for prosecutors and youth offending teams.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 states that when children who are under 18 commit certain offences, they are not guilty if they were committed as a direct result of exploitation. Prosecutors must consider the best interests and welfare of the child or young person, among other public interest factors, starting with a presumption of diverting them away from the courts where possible.

The Minister highlights the problem: there are lots of different documents with lots of different Departments and support teams where the Government have felt comfortable defining child criminal exploitation, and there is fragmentation across Government. The Bill offers the opportunity to define child criminal exploitation so that it is seen clearly that such children are victims of that exploitation. I will be frank with the Minister: the victims ought to be recognised in the Bill, but they are not. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North and I are trying to use this as an opportunity to force the Government’s hand to make that definition, so that any person in the public or private sector who sees those children can understand that they are victims.

When I conclude in a moment, I hope that I might have given the hon. Lady a little more reassurance. In respect of her specific point, the Government have previously explored the introduction of a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation with a range of operational and system partners. They and the Government concluded that the existing arrangements allow sufficient flexibility to respond to a range of circumstances while still ensuring actions when that consideration was undertaken.

I reassure the hon. Members for Rotherham and for Cardiff North that we continue to keep under review the issue and the legislation. The previous consultation with partners suggested that the right tools, powers and offences were already in place to tackle the issue.

I wonder who the Minister is talking to, because this amendment is supported by the children’s sector, including the Children’s Society, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s. The children’s sector wants this, so I do not understand who he is talking to who does not.

I mentioned operational partners, and in this context, that refers to partners in the criminal justice system, such as the prosecution authorities, the police and others. I take the hon. Lady’s point about the wider stakeholder and sector support. If she allows me to make a little progress, we will see if it reassures her sufficiently.

Turning to amendments 51 and 52, amendment 51 seeks to ensure that persons who have experienced adult sexual exploitation are explicitly referenced in the definition of a victim. Adult sexual exploitation could be considered to consist of numerous criminal acts, some of which include human trafficking, controlling and coercive behaviour, causing or inciting prostitution for gain, controlling prostitution for gain, and rape and other serious sexual offences. I reassure hon. Members that adults who have been subjected to such criminal conduct are victims under part 1 of the legislation and under the victims code. My concern is therefore that the amendments would duplicate the existing coverage of the definition of a victim of crime. Again, the definition is deliberately broad to avoid inadvertently excluding a particular group or victim through being overly prescriptive.

Amendment 52 is intended to create a definition of adult sexual exploitation. Acts that can constitute adult sexual exploitation are, again, already covered by a number of existing offences.

While they are covered by a number of different offences, much like domestic abuse, there is no charge or crime of domestic abuse, yet the Government felt it important to define domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 for all the same reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham tried to point out: it is currently written nowhere in any Government guidance, or any strategy to tackle adult sexual exploitation. That is what the amendment is intended to address.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She may well push me in a slightly different direction, but I am always a little cautious of seeking to read across a precedent in one piece of legislation to a range of other areas. There may be occasions when it is universally applicable, but in other cases I would urge a degree of caution.

We have yet to see unequivocal evidence that a single definition or approach would better achieve delivery of our commitment than the current approach. However, I am happy to discuss it further and work with the hon. Member for Rotherham, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North, and others between Committee stage and Report. As is the nature of the Committee stage, the amendments were tabled a few days ago—last week—and inevitably, when something significant is suggested, it is important to reflect on that carefully. I intend to reflect carefully on the points that have been made. I will not pre-empt the conclusions of my reflections, but I will engage with the hon. Member for Rotherham, and the shadow Minister if she so wishes, to see what may be possible between Committee stage and Report. On the basis of that commitment to engage, I hope that the hon. Member for Rotherham and the shadow Minister might, at this point, consider not pressing the amendments to a Division.

I thank the Minister for his response and the Committee for this debate on child criminal exploitation. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham for tabling the two critical amendments that look at adult exploitation as well as child criminal exploitation. She made excellent, and really quite emotive, points about a victim of child sexual exploitation, of course due to coercion and control, reaching the age of 18, when it is suddenly questioned as “unwise choices”. I appreciate the points that the Minister made. He appreciates that there is a real issue. As I set out earlier, there is widespread concern among all the agencies and charities working on this that child criminal exploitation takes a variety of forms. Ultimately, the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity needs to be addressed.

To take up the Minister’s point about using one statutory definition, at the moment safeguarding partners are working to so many different understandings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, of what constitutes criminal exploitation that there is no meaningful or consistent response across criminal justice agencies and safeguarding partners, which is critical when dealing with such matters.

I appreciate that the Minister is prepared to work together, and I hope that he has listened to our arguments. It sounds as though he is coming to the agreement that we will work together to address this matter in the Bill. Therefore, on reflection and having heard those points today, I will seek to bring this proposal back at a later stage of the Bill but will not press it today.

I thank the Minister. We have worked together for a long time, and he knows that I can be like a dog with a bone when it comes to things like this. I will take what he has said absolutely at face value. I am really grateful for the opportunity to explore the matter with him further, and because of that, I will not press my two amendments at this point.

I beg to move amendment 46, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person is the child of a person posing sexual risk to children.”

This amendment would include children of a person posing a sexual risk to children (that is, paedophiles (including perpetrators of offences online), suspects or offenders) as victims.

I don’t get out much, Sir Edward—and neither do you, because of that! I ask the Committee to listen to my speech on this issue with an open mind, because when I first came across it, it took me a little time to get my head round it, but to me now, it seems the most obvious thing. I am talking about recognising the children of paedophiles as victims. That is what my amendment seeks to make happen. Just as we have now—I thank the Minister and the Ministry of Justice—made a huge step forward in defining children born of rape as victims in this legislation, so we need to ensure that other secondary victims will also be entitled to rights under the victims code. The children of any paedophile are disproportionately impacted when their parent is investigated, charged and jailed, and I make a plea for them to be considered within the definition of victims.

Just like domestic abuse, the illegal activity is committed, most often, within the family home—the child’s “safe space”. Social services view the parent as potentially posing a sexual risk to any child from day one of an investigation, not from a guilty verdict. I will give the Committee an example from my constituency. About five years ago, a lot of single mothers were coming to me with real concerns about the heavy-handedness of social services around child protection—their child’s protection. They were really confused as to why social services were doing this. When I intervened on their behalf, I realised that it was because the other parent of the child was being investigated for—in this case—organised child sexual exploitation. Social services could not tell the mother what was going on, for fear of tipping off the other parent, but they had serious safeguarding concerns in respect of that parent in that house because of the father’s activities. This is a very real thing that happens; it has a very real basis.

Amendment 46 is crucial, because it specifically identifies children of a person posing sexual risk to children. These people are known as PPRC—persons posing a risk to children—by the police when they are under investigation and not just once they have been charged. The family unit structure, including the household economics, is generally impacted in a dramatic way—irrespective of the outcome of the investigation—because of the immediate protective measures put in place by agencies. For the family’s safety, the nature of the investigation is almost always kept confidential, thus increasing the vulnerability of these children within the whole secrecy around CSA. Investigations and convictions shape the child’s childhood, as interactions with the parent are controlled by restrictions imposed by the judicial system. The child loses all autonomy within the relationship with the suspect or offending parent, for safeguarding purposes—which we can completely understand—until they are over the age of 18.

Negative community judgment for close associates of CSA suspects is highly prevalent and can be magnified by media coverage at the court. If we think about our local papers, once someone is charged with such crimes, their name, address and photos all get into the public domain, whether by media, once the conviction has happened, or most likely by Facebook and well-meaning neighbours trying to protect their own children. The stigma that causes for the child is untold.

I have worked with the survivor Chris Tuck for many years. She is an active campaigner on child protection. She has asked me to read her case study about what happened to her:

“I grew up in 3 domestic violence households where witnessing and experiencing abuse every day was the norm.

My dad and step mum were not good for each other or to us children. The abuse intensified via domestic violence and child abuse.

This chaotic dysfunctional abusive home life led to us being vulnerable to abuse outside the family home. I was sexually abused by a school bus driver in 1979…In 1980/81 my dad George Frances Oliver was convicted of child sexual abuse against some of the children in the household (not me).

I remember very clearly when my dad was arrested for his crimes.

It was an odd day; 3 of us children came home from school and dad was lying on the sofa reading. It was eerily quiet, my step mum, my sister and stepsisters were not there.

We were just speaking to dad about this fact when there was a loud crashing noise and lots of shouts of ‘Police! Police!’.

The police stormed into the room and arrested my dad, it was very frightening to witness and caused us a lot of distress. We did not know what was happening.

I remember the police taking us 3 children to our eldest stepsisters’ house where my step mum, other stepsisters and sisters were waiting.

That is where I was told what my dad had done. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it.

In my head I was trying to reconcile what the school bus man had done to me and now my dad had done those things and worse to other children in the house.

I felt sick, I felt dirty, I felt shame. I felt betrayed and let down by my dad. The man I loved at the time.

Dad was put on remand and eventually convicted of his crimes. I find out about this at school, in the playground. One day a boy shouted out ‘your dad is a paedo....dirty paedo’.

I didn’t know what that word meant. But I knew it was bad by the way it was said and I knew what my dad had done. I had experienced a little of what my dad had done via my own experience of sexual abuse and the internal examination I had at the Police station.

Dad’s sentencing had been written up in the local paper. Again, it felt like everyone knew. Everyone was judging me, us, for the crimes committed by my dad.

Again, I felt sick, I felt dirty, I felt shame. I felt bad to the very core of my being. This I carried with me well into my adulthood.

Again, no support was given to any of us as children and young people.

The legacy of my dad being a convicted paedophile lived with me into my mid 40s when I paid for specialist professional help and support to deal with the trauma from deep unexpressed feelings and emotions.

When I left home at nearly 16, I wrote my childhood off, I never told anyone about anything. I put on a mask for over a decade and I tried to build a new life for myself. I battled with bulimia and anger management throughout my teens and twenties.

If I had been classed as a victim, as a child and young person and given the help and specialist support at the time of each incident throughout my life I would not have had the hardship of dealing with the trauma and ill-health (mentally and physically) I have experienced as a result during my adulthood.

Recognising children and young people as victims of crime perpetrated through association needs to be recognised because there is a trauma impact as I have described.

Just knowing what is happening when it comes to the perpetrator and their movements—where they are imprisoned, when they are going to be released and where—is a must for the peace of mind of all involved.”

That experience has become even more common with online child sexual offences, which have increased dramatically. The trauma for the child usually begins once police execute a search warrant of the family home, often referred to as “the knock”, after the police have received the information regarding the online suspect. That, I would say to the Minister, would be the ideal point to intervene to prevent further trauma, but currently that is not happening. Records for 2021 show that there were 850 knocks a month. Children were present for 35% of those knocks. That compares with 417 knocks per year in 2009-10, and I fully expect those numbers to keep on going up, with all the police are telling us about the exponential rise of online child abuse.

Children are unseen victims of this crime, but are not recognised as such or given the support they need. Often, families do not receive information about the offence, court proceedings or sentencing until they are told by the offender, if they are told by the offender. If the children were defined as victims, they and their parents would be entitled to receive such information. Having the victims code apply here would address some of the key issues for children and for non-offending parents, including information from police and access to support services.

Let us be honest: the knock disproportionately affects women, who are often forced to give up their job as a consequence, take time off sick, move home, supervise access, manage childcare, manage supervision and take on the burden of minimising the suspect’s risk of suicide or reoffending. Women are effectively treated as a protective factor, but they have no protection themselves.

I have worked on the amendment with Talking Forward, a charity that funds peer support for anyone whose adult family member has been investigated for online sexual offences. It is much more common than Members realise. Currently, three police forces refer families automatically to Talking Forward, but that could be broadened out nationally, if the amendment is accepted. Lincolnshire police now have a dedicated independent domestic violence adviser-type role for such families. Again, if the amendment is accepted, that could be rolled out more broadly to provide specialist support.

The first step must be to recognise children of child sexual abusers, whether physical or online, as victims. That will reduce costs in the long term, whether that is by ensuring children have immediate support or reducing costs to the family courts. I ask the Minister to accept this amendment.

As the hon. Lady set out, amendment 46 would include persons who have suffered harm as a direct result of being a child of a person who poses a sexual risk to children, for example a paedophile, in the definition of a victim. I am grateful to her for raising this important issue and I reassure her that the Government absolutely sympathise with the challenges faced by the unsuspecting families of sex offenders and those who pose a sexual risk to children.

If family members in these circumstances have witnessed criminal conduct, they are of course already covered by the Bill’s definition of a victim—that is, if they have been harmed by seeing, hearing or otherwise directly experiencing the effect of the crime at the time the crime happened. I think the hon. Lady would like to go somewhat more broadly, to those who may not have been there at the time or have directly witnessed the crime, but who may still suffer the impacts of that criminal behaviour. I know that she is interested in support more broadly for the families of offenders and those impacted.

As the hon. Lady rightly said, that cohort would not come within our definition of a victim, which is deliberately crafted in both the Bill and the victims code to be designed for those who have been harmed directly by the crime in question and therefore need the broader entitlements in the code to navigate the criminal justice system, as well as to receive support. On this occasion, therefore, I must resist the broadening of the scope of clause 1 that the amendment would bring.

The Justice Committee, in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the clause, did ask the Government to extend the coverage of these provisions to include children born of rape as secondary victims, and they responded positively. Is there a difference between the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham made for the children of paedophiles and the concession—that is the wrong word for it; it is technically correct, but I am not trying to suggest that the Government have given in—made in accepting the Justice Committee’s suggestion that children born of rape should be included? Is there a technical difference, because I am failing to see it at the moment?

The technical difference, or the difference as we see it, is that in the case of the Justice Committee’s PLS recommendation the individual was born as a direct consequence of a criminal act. In the case to which the hon. Member for Rotherham referred, the individual is not experiencing something as a direct consequence of a criminal act, but there are of course impacts on them. That is the difference that we draw, but it does not mean that this cohort is not deserving of support on their own terms, and I will touch briefly on what is available.

His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service funds the national prisoners’ families helpline, which provides free and confidential support for those with a family member at any stage of their contact with the criminal justice system. There are also several charities—I suspect that the hon. Lady works with them on these issues—that provide specific support for families affected by the actions of a family member, including support for prisoners, people with convictions, and crucially their children and families, and support for families that have been affected by sexual abuse.

We will continue to consider how best to support and protect those impacted by crime as well as victims of crime, who are directly covered by the Bill. I therefore gently encourage the hon. Lady not to press her amendment to a vote at this stage. She may wish to return to it, but I will continue to reflect carefully on what she has said. We sit and listen, but we may miss some nuances, so I will read the report of what has been said carefully.

I am grateful to the Minister for keeping an open mind. What is needed most is information on the criminal justice process for those family members, which would automatically be afforded under the victims code. I am grateful for his offer to read the report and see whether there is something that we can do. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 54, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the death by suicide of a close family member of the person was the result of domestic abuse which constitutes criminal conduct.”

We have all had a long time while the Bill has been going through to campaign, successfully, on various things through various means, including, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood mentioned, around the pre-legislative scrutiny. Those of us who have been fighting for child victims born of rape were pleased to see that concession. Another area that many of us have campaigned on is recognition of people who are victims of homicide but not direct victims. If someone’s daughter is murdered, they are a victim of that crime. Both those concessions have come about, and not dissimilarly to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham I wish to push the envelope a little further, and talk about those who die by suicide as a direct result of being a victim of domestic abuse.

I met a mother at a memorial service for violence against women and girls. Just yesterday, she emailed me. Her daughter died in 2018. She wrote:

“If my daughter hadn’t met him, she would still be alive, her children still have a mother, me my precious only daughter…Why is the associated link between ‘domestic abuse’ and ‘suicide’ ignored? Overlooked are the ‘compensating’ mechanisms—substance abuse, alcohol, ‘mental health issues’ then used by so called ‘professionals’ as the reason ‘why’ they have taken their lives...the link is the perpetrator and the victim, NOT the substances. They are often used by the victim to ‘escape’ from the relentless mental, physical abuse and torture. They don’t want to die, merely ‘escape’ from the traumatic situations. They are in Hell.”

Families who have lost loved ones to suicide following domestic abuse should be recognised as victims, in the same way as those who lose family members to murder are supported.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I want to mention the family of Gemma Robinson. Gemma was the victim of a horrific assault by a former boyfriend. She took her own life in 2020 due to the fear of facing her attacker in court. Gemma’s sister, Kirsty, has spoken about the devastating impact of Gemma’s death on the whole family. The family were then left to face the sentencing of the perpetrator, Gemma’s inquest and the domestic homicide review all on their own, without support. Does my hon. Friend agree that Gemma’s case highlights why it is so important that relatives in these types of cases are recognised as victims?

I thank my hon. Friend. Our hearts go out to Gemma’s family. That is exactly the reason why I tabled the amendment and why the Labour party seeks to have these people recognised. That recognition would allow such relatives to access the support and care they need, and begin to shine a light on a shamefully under-scrutinised and ignored sphere of criminality and wrongdoing.

We do not need to look much further than the facts of the cases and the experiences of the families to realise that those relatives should be recognised and have the support and guidance that that would, or should, bring. The criminality and wrongdoing in those cases, the interaction with court processes and the justice system, and the trauma experienced, make the argument for inclusion clear. Although in many cases, they may not ever get a criminal sanction against the perpetrator, there are inquests and domestic homicide reviews, as my hon. Friend said. Honestly, to be a victim in this country, whether that is one recognised by this Bill or not, is hard work. Imagine doing that work when your daughter or your sister has died.

There are other concerns about why this recognition is important, which are to do with unchecked criminality and wrongdoing. In these heartbreaking cases, where the deceased took her own life—I use the pronoun “she” due to the gendered nature of domestic abuse—there is clear evidence that she was driven to suicide by the abuse she suffered at the hands of a domestic abuse perpetrator.

The feelings of injustice for bereaved families when the abuser escapes all responsibility for the death must be unbearable. Families find themselves in an agonising position of having watched their loved one experience horrendous criminality—violence, abuse, coercive control—and the unrelenting horror day after day, hour after hour, until their loved one was driven by desperation to take their life. Currently, in those cases, criminality is going completely unchecked, un-investigated and unchallenged. Perpetrators remain free to harm again and again. Bereaved families are left feeling failed by the justice system, and the opportunities to address issues and learn lessons are being missed.

There has been one successful prosecution of that type of case. In 2017 R v. Allen, the perpetrator pleaded guilty to manslaughter—if we are relying on cases where men plead guilty, we are on a hiding to nothing—in respect of the death of his former partner, Justene Reece, who had taken her own life after experiencing years of coercive control, stalking and harassment. Justene had left a suicide note explaining that she could not endure her stalker’s behaviour any longer. That case is a clear precedent.

Only last week, we heard from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who said that the broader the definition is, the better it will be for victims.

Absolutely. I have worked with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner. There is a huge area of hidden homicide that we are concerned about, and suicide is one of the areas where we are just not getting the data about how many women are dying because of domestic abuse, unless they are directly killed.

The case that I described provides a clear precedent, and there is hope that more cases will follow, but currently families find very limited access to such justice and answers. It is clear that for such prosecutions to happen, police officers must proactively undertake evidence gathering for domestic abuse offences post death, for example by listening to the concerns of family members, taking witness accounts, reviewing records held by medical, statutory and third sector agencies, and looking through financial records and electronic communications. This is not commonplace in cases of domestic abuse where the victim is alive. It is certainly not commonplace in cases where the victim has died.

The police seem to have a distinct lack of professional curiosity in such cases. In research by Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse and the University of Warwick, titled “An Analysis of Domestic Homicide Reviews in Cases of Domestic Abuse Suicide”, families reported police failing to investigate adequately, police not acting on the information given by families and friends about perpetration of domestic abuse, evidence not being captured, evidence and personal effects of the deceased being returned to the surviving partner or ex-partner, police not considering domestic abuse when attending suicide cases, and a lack of senior police oversight in investigations of suicides.

One family member included in the research submitted 74 exhibits of screenshots and photographs in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, but felt dismissed out of hand by the officer in charge when she presented them. She said:

“I said to him, I’ve brought this because I think it’s important information. Every time he took a piece of paper off me…[he] slammed it on the desk. I said to him, are you not going to look at them? He said, there’s no point…it’s irrelevant…your daughter took her own life…It was like she wasn’t important when she was alive and…she’s not important now she’s dead.”

Other institutions also deny these families any form of justice or an understanding of what happened to their loved one. Take domestic homicide reviews. In many cases, even though the statutory criteria are met, families have to fight tooth and nail to ensure that a domestic homicide review is commissioned, normally only with the help of an advocacy organisation such as AAFDA. Inquests and coroners courts often demonstrate a lack of understanding of domestic abuse. In the research I mentioned, one DHR chair reflected that, in their experience,

“Coroners often see...women as kind of weak, they’re so misguided and they take their own lives, and they should have stood up for themselves and left…So you get that kind of reference to, you know, extreme attention-seeking. And it’s not that. It’s that you’re utterly worn down by someone who often is so cleverly manipulative…I don’t think Coroners understand that at all and the barriers to leaving and all those sorts of things…I don’t think they have an understanding of how all these little things are really damaging.”

Those examples of interactions with criminal justice systems or inquest procedures clearly highlight the crucial need for advocacy and support for families who lose a loved one to suicide following domestic abuse. One family member explained that

“you’re thrust, in a nanosecond your life flips on its axis, and not only are you dealing with the impact of losing someone so precious, especially in circumstances like this…you have to learn a whole new language…and then there’s timeframes, you’ve got to have this done by that…you’ve got this agency asking you for that, you’ve got someone questioning you, the police are calling you up”.

Research has found that having access to support and advocacy is overwhelmingly positive for families, helping them to feel empowered, but for most that support comes about only by luck or lengthy effort on their part. The mental health impact must not be underestimated. The trauma experienced by families is unimaginable. As one professional who works with such bereaved relatives put it, losing a loved one to suicide is

“one of life’s most painful experiences. The feelings of loss, sadness, and loneliness experienced after any death of a loved one are often magnified in suicide survivors by feelings of guilt, confusion, rejection, shame, anger, and the effects of stigma and trauma. Furthermore, survivors of suicide loss are at higher risk of developing major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behaviors, as well as a prolonged form of grief called complicated grief. Added to the burden is the substantial stigma, which can keep survivors away from much needed support and healing resources. Thus, survivors may require unique supportive measures and targeted treatment to cope with their loss.”

It is clear that families who find themselves in that devastating situation desperately need more support to navigate the complex legal processes and get access to the support they need.

Before I close, I want to argue that recognising relatives as victims in this way is also symbolic of the need for much greater scrutiny and reform in this area of policy. We do not even know the true scale of the issue, because of the lack of data. The Centre for Women’s Justice states:

“As far as we are aware, the only research that addresses the national level prevalence of domestic abuse-related suicide in England and Wales is research by Sylvia Walby, published as far back as 2004. She extrapolated from research conducted elsewhere to suggest that more than one-third of female suicides in England and Wales are partly caused by women having been subjected to domestic abuse. Despite this alarming finding, there has not been further research to gather national data on this issue directly.”

That is unacceptable. This area of policy urgently needs addressing to support and protect the families, but also to stop abusers being allowed to escape any form of justice.

I cannot complete this speech without drawing the Committee’s attention to another cohort of cases: “suicides” that are potentially suspicious deaths following domestic abuse. These are cases where domestic abusers could be literally getting away with murder by killing their partner and staging it as a suicide. We know that such cases happen. For example, the death of Lesley Potter was presented to the police by her husband Derek Potter as a suicide. He later admitted that he had strangled her to death. Katie Wilding and her partner Mitchell Richardson were found dead from drug overdoses. Richardson had been convicted of assaults against her, and she was deemed at high risk. A month before, he had told Katie’s mother that he would kill her daughter with drugs before killing himself.

Families of those whose deaths are immediately treated by police as suicides, including by hanging and overdose, report that crucial evidence is lost right from the moment that the police arrive. The area is not treated as a crime scene, the scene is not secured, and the golden hour when evidence should be preserved is lost. Despite families reporting a history of domestic abuse and violence to police in these situations, and reporting that the perpetrator of that abuse might be involved in their loved one’s death, they are not questioned, forensics are not taken, witnesses are not spoken to and phone records are not preserved. The coroner is notified of the death, but no forensic post mortem will be requested.

Families in the midst of extreme grief have no idea at that moment of the importance of that golden period. Cases are not continued through the criminal court, and when it comes to the inquest families have limited or no evidence with which to explore their concerns and the circumstances that led to the death of their loved one. Murderers are literally getting away with murder because of the lack of competent investigation by police.

We must start seeing these “suicides” as what they are: horrific criminal actions that have led to a death, commonly of a woman. We must demand professional curiosity in these cases so that they are investigated competently. We must have court processes that reveal the truth and deliver justice. We must support the families going through hell, who just want answers. Recognising these families as victims is a step in the right direction, but we must go much further.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for raising this important issue and for referring, as the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood did, to pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope to have given Committee members some encouragement that on occasion I agree to changes, and perhaps to a different approach from that in the original draft of the Bill.

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley set out, her amendment 54 would extend the definition of a victim in the Bill explicitly to include families impacted by the death by suicide of a loved one as a result of domestic abuse. In her remarks, the hon. Lady quite rightly went wider than that, highlighting investigatory issues and broader prosecutorial issues. I have—as, I suspect, does every member of the Committee—huge sympathy for the families in the position that she set out. Before I turn specifically to the impact of her amendment, and I wish to touch on some of the support available for them,.

The Ministry of Justice provides police and crime commissioners with grant funding to commission local, practical, emotional and therapeutic support services for victims of all crime types, based on their assessment of needs. The Department for Health and Social Care has committed to publishing a new national suicide prevention strategy later this year and is engaging widely across the sector to understand what further action can be taken to reduce cases of suicide. The strategy will reflect new evidence and national priorities for suicide prevention across England, including actions to tackle known risk factors and targeted actions for groups at particular risk or groups of concern. An additional £57 million is being invested in suicide prevention by March 2024, through the NHS long-term plan.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the issue. With regard to her amendment, we are not convinced that explicitly extending the definition of a victim of crime in the Bill and the code is the right approach to appropriately support the families. Part 1 of the Bill specifically sets out how victims who have suffered harm as a direct result of criminal conduct are treated by and supported to engage with the criminal justice system. Our view is that that group is largely covered by the Bill’s definition of the bereaved family of a person who has died, including by suicide as a direct result of domestic abuse, which is captured by clause 1(2)(c):

“where the death of a close family member of the person was the direct result of criminal conduct”.

In the context, domestic violence is criminal conduct. I appreciate—this is potentially where the nuance lies, and why the hon. Lady might be pushing for greater clarity—that that will be fact-specific for each case in the circumstances. It is a complicated area and each case will be complicated but, as I say, we believe that clause 1(2)(c) captures this.

I know that we have discussed the need for clarity and awareness about entitlements among victims and agencies. As I am sure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is aware from her shadow ministerial role, the Government are consulting on and clarifying the position in the domestic homicide review to formally recognise this cohort of victims. With her permission, I will gently encourage her not to press her amendment at this point, but in the context of the broader work being done I hope she will allow me, in the short term, to write to her with greater clarity on our interpretation of clause 1(2)(c)—she may wish to challenge that in the future, of course; she is entitled to—and to see if we are able to factor in the broader work being done before we reach Report.

I thank the Minister. I would absolutely welcome it if he wrote to me and the Committee about exactly how clause 1(2)(c) encompasses what I seek, so that those families have an opportunity. It is good when Ministers say things in Committee that we can use to ensure that families get support. I will withdraw the amendment at this stage. I am not always especially keen on the Government, but the level of progress in the area of hidden homicides, certainly under the previous Home Secretary, is to be admired. I do not think that the Government are without concern on the issue of suicide in cases of domestic abuse. Thanks to what the Minister says, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 63, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person is a child under the age of 18 who has suffered harm and is a victim of, or a witness to, criminal conduct.”

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 42, in clause 2, page 2, line 25, at end insert—

“(3A) The victims’ code must make provision for services for victims who are children under the age of 18 who have suffered harm and are victims of, or witnesses to, criminal conduct.

(3B) In determining what services are appropriate under subsection (3A), the Secretary of State must have regard to the provisions of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 in respect of children under the age of 18.”

This amendment would require the victims’ code to contain specific provision for children who are victims or witnesses, in line with the provisions of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.

Amendments 63 and 42 are supported by the NSPCC; I am grateful for its help, which has enabled me to table them. They are designed to ensure that all children under the age of 18 who have experienced harm as a victim of or witness to a crime are within the scope of the Bill and have access to special measures in line with the existing provisions on vulnerable witnesses in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.

The inclusion of children as victims of domestic abuse within clause 1, in accordance with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, is welcome. However, children experience many different forms of abuse, exploitation and serious violence, as shown by the remit of the Bill. In many cases, children can experience more than one form of abuse at the hands of one or multiple perpetrators.

The scale of child abuse in this country, as we know, is devastating. The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse estimates that, based on the available evidence, one in 10 children in England and Wales are sexually abused before the age of 16. At a conservative estimate, the number of children sexually abused in a single year is around half a million. In 2021-22, there were more than 16,000 instances in which local authorities identified a child sexual exploitation case as a factor at the end of an assessment by social workers. There were 11,600 instances in which gangs were a factor, and 10,140 in which child criminal exploitation was a factor. Research by the Children’s Commissioner found that 27,000 children were at high risk of gang exploitation but had not been identified by services, and were therefore missing out on vital support to keep them safe.

For the Bill to truly support all young victims and witnesses, clause 1 must refer to the eligibility criteria in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which provides for enhanced rights and special measures for those under the age of 18 at the time of the offence. The victims code of practice also recognises the issue, under its definition of “vulnerable or intimidated” victims, by affording eligibility to under-18s to have access to enhanced rights and special measures. Special measures include, but are not limited to, screening witnesses from the accused, providing evidence by live link, the removal of wigs and gowns, and video-recorded cross-examination.

However, despite the Crown Prosecution Service stating that special measures are available for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to give their best evidence in court—and to help to relieve some of the stress associated with giving evidence—the Victims’ Commissioner has found that young victims were neither informed about nor in receipt of all their rights under the victims code, including access to special measures. For many children, the current justice system is simply not supporting their needs. That often compounds the abuse that they have suffered.

In oral evidence last week, this Committee heard the Children’s Commissioner explain that children and young people do not necessarily understand or report their experiences in the same way as adults. NSPCC research has previously found that special measures were seldom used. Being accompanied by a neutral supporter of the young witness’s choice, closing the public gallery in sexual offence cases, combined special measures—such as preventing the defendant’s view of the child on the live link—and giving evidence over a live link, away from the trial, were sadly rarely used. Some areas had no non-court remote sites at all.

Our courts desperately need the funding and resources to ensure that there are suitable facilities accessible for all victims’ needs and preferences. I welcome the roll-out of section 28 pre-recorded evidence in all courts, but it is key that the victim or witness can provide their evidence how they choose. For children, we must ensure that that is an informed choice.

NSPCC research also found that 150 witnesses waited an average of 3.5 hours at magistrates courts or youth courts and 5.8 hours at a Crown court, despite the victims code committing to ensure that victims giving evidence

“do not have to wait more than two hours”.

It is imperative that all victims under the age of 18 be recognised as eligible for special measures under section 16 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, so that they are recognised by all relevant agencies as vulnerable and therefore receive their enhanced rights. We need to actively include children within the definition of a victim so that they can be afforded the appropriate support to which they are entitled, in a way that they can understand and access. Will the Minister explain whether he will take any additional steps, either in the guidance or separately from the proceedings of the Bill, to ensure that all child victims and witnesses can access their rights, particularly special measures?

Amendment 63 seeks to add wording to the definition of a victim to explicitly state that it includes children. I reassure the hon. Lady that children who are

“a victim of, or a witness to, criminal conduct”

are already covered by the definition of a victim under part 1 of the Bill, and included in the current victims code. The relevant provision of the Bill—clause 1(2)(a)—says

“where the person has seen, heard, or otherwise directly experienced the effects of, criminal conduct at the time the conduct occurred”,

and that is not an age-specific or age-exclusive point; it is universally applicable.

The definition of a victim covers individuals, including children, who have suffered harm as a direct result of being subjected to a crime. It also covers persons, including children, who have suffered harm as a direct result of certain circumstances, including the death of a close family member as a direct result of criminal conduct, and being born from rape. The hon. Lady quite understandably made a number of broader points about the operation of the criminal justice system and the courts. I will confine my remarks to the amendments, but I note those points.

The Bill’s definition of a victim has been amended, as the hon. Lady touched on, to align with the full definition of domestic abuse in part 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which will also be set out under the new victims code. The purpose is to have clarity and proper read-across between different pieces of legislation. The Bill therefore defines child victims who witness or experience the effects of domestic abuse as victims in their own right.

Individuals—again, including children—who witness a crime are covered by the Bill. We have described that as seeing, hearing or otherwise directly experiencing the effect of a crime at the “time the conduct occurred”, which ensures that we do not exclude individuals who have been harmed by witnessing a crime even if they were not physically present when it occurred. For example, they may have seen it occur online as it was happening if it was being streamed or similar.

We recognise that individuals will be affected differently after witnessing a crime. That is why we have specified that an individual will be defined as a victim only if they have suffered harm as a direct result of witnessing criminal conduct. In that context, amendment 63 is unnecessary as children are already covered by the definition in the Bill, which, as I said, also aligns with the DA Act 2021.

Amendment 42 would require the victims code to contain specific provision for children who are victims or witnesses. Again, I reassure the hon. Lady that the definitions in both the Bill and the victims code include adults and children alike. Children are also explicitly recognised in the current victims code as vulnerable victims. Some of her points—for example, on how a court case is run and the length of time given for evidence—will, to a degree, be down to the way a judge runs that particular case with judicial independence and discretion. However, that explicit recognition in the victims code means that children have entitlements and “enhanced rights”, such as getting information about key decisions more quickly.

That recognition is set out in the enhanced rights section of the code, which specifies that victims are “eligible for enhanced rights” if they are

“under 18 years of age at the time of the offence”.

Young people are automatically eligible for the special measures included in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which the hon. Lady mentioned, when they are giving evidence. Such measures can include communication assistance through a registered intermediary, giving evidence by live link or having their evidence pre-recorded, subject to the agreement of the court or the judge.

I fully support the aim of making the victims code as clear as possible about the different and distinct needs of children. The hon. Lady is aware that we will be consulting on a new victims code after this Bill gains Royal Assent, and we have published a draft to inform the debate prior to that formal consultation. This is one of the areas that we will be focusing on in reviewing and updating that code.

The Minister is right to say that the special measures are subject to a judge’s discretion. I wonder whether, when he is looking at updating the guidance and the code, he could look quite closely into that, because of the example in Rotherham, where we have the ongoing past cases of grooming gangs. We are finding that the National Crime Agency tries to go for one judge, who is very aware of the need for special measures and very supportive of that. The concern is that, across the country, other judges are more subjective with regard to whether they think special measures are an automatic right and what the threshold is. Therefore, when the Minister is doing his review, will he look specifically at the guidance to judges about whether to allow special measures?

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I resist the temptation to stray into areas that are properly judicial—related to judicial independence and, indeed, training and the Judicial College. I am very cautious about trespassing on judicial independence. She has made her point on the record, but as a Minister I have to be a little cautious in that respect.

The Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, when she gave evidence to the Committee last week, welcomed the fact that work with her office had already begun. We are looking forward to working with her and others—including, indeed, in this House—as we prepare a further draft code for consultation. Given that the current code already includes provision for child victims and witnesses and that we have made a commitment to make that clearer in the new code, and given the definition in clause 1(2)(a), I hope that I will persuade the hon. Lady not to press her amendment to a Division at this point.

I thank the Minister for everything that he has said. I have comfort at this point, so I will not press the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 1, page 2, line 5, after “that” insert

“no report of the conduct has been made to a criminal justice body and that”.

This amendment aims to ensure that a person could meet the definition of a victim without needing to make a report to a criminal justice body.

I am nearly done with my amendments—on this clause. [Laughter.] Sorry; but I will say up front that this is a straightforward probing amendment, which aims to ensure, in relation to determining whether a person is a victim for the purposes of this legislation, that the scope is expanded to include those who do not choose to report an offence to the criminal justice system. Clause 1 of the Bill has been substantially improved since the drafting. I am relieved that it states that

“in determining whether a person is a victim by virtue of any conduct, it is immaterial that no person has been charged with or convicted of an offence in respect of the conduct”.

However, I am keen for the Minister to clarify that this also does not require the victim to report the crime to a criminal justice body.

I want to refer again to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who said in her evidence to us:

“You are absolutely right: most victims do not report to the police. The reality is that it is probably one in six.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 7, Q4.]

I just want to emphasise that point: many victims do not report to the police. Of course, there is a question following that, as to whether a prosecution takes place.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as is the Domestic Abuse Commissioner. That is why it is imperative that all victims and witnesses, particularly children, can access support through this legislation without needing to engage with the criminal justice process.

I have worked with the NSPCC on this amendment, as it raised concerns due to the fact that the majority of crimes against children and young people are not reported to the police. It can be extremely difficult for victims and survivors to speak about their experiences of child sexual abuse, as revisiting traumatic childhood experiences often causes significant distress. Prior experiences of being silenced, blamed or not taken seriously by the justice system can discourage victims and survivors from disclosing child sexual abuse again.

The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse found that child sexual abuse is dramatically under-reported. The 2018-19 crime survey for England and Wales estimated that 76% of adults who had experienced rape or assault by penetration did not tell anyone about their experience at the time. A large number of the inquiry’s investigation reports noted that the true scale of offending was likely to be far higher than the available data appears to suggest. The Government’s own “Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy 2021” noted that:

“People were even less likely to tell the police—only an estimated 7% of victims and survivors informed the police at the time of the offence and only 18% told the police at any point.”

Can the Minister guarantee, on the record, that the definition of victim includes those who choose not to report to the criminal justice system? The majority of victims, who choose not to report an offence, must still be able to access support under the Bill.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the amendment, which she has clarified is a probing amendment; she is seeking clarity from the Box, as it were, that someone can come within the definition of a victim in the Bill without needing to report the relevant crime. Let me reassure her at the outset that that is already the case in the Bill’s existing definition.

Victims of crime are considered victims under part 1 of the Bill, whether or not the offence has been reported to the police or any other criminal justice body. This is a fundamental part of the Bill, because we want to make it clear that victims of crime are able to access support services, regardless of whether they have reported a crime.

The point is covered by clause 1(4)(b), which sets out that,

“criminal conduct” means conduct which constitutes an offence (but in determining whether a person is a victim by virtue of any conduct, it is immaterial that no person has been charged with or convicted of an offence in respect of the conduct).”

I am happy to clarify and build on that for the hon. Lady: reporting or conviction is not required to meet the threshold. That echoes the current victims code and approach, which is clear that relevant entitlements are available,

“regardless of whether anyone has been charged, convicted of a criminal offence and regardless of whether you decide to report the crime to the police or you do not wish to cooperate with the investigation.”

In the new draft code that we have published, that point is further highlighted in the opening section on who is a victim under the code, which explicitly sets out:

“The term ‘criminal conduct’ reflects the fact that you do not need to have reported the crime to the police to be considered a victim of crime. Some of the Rights under this Code apply to you regardless of your engagement with the criminal justice system.”

The reason it is worded that way is because some of the rights are clearly worded as only to be directly relevant if someone is in the criminal justice process. It is explicit there that the code would apply to the individuals that the hon. Lady seeks to ensure are encompassed in this context.

I appreciate that the amendment seeks to make the fact that reporting is not required as clear as possible. Our view is that the amendment is not necessary because of the current drafting of the Bill and the wording of the revised victims code.

Noting the hon. Lady’s words that this is a probing amendment, I hope she will not feel the need to press it further.

I thank the Minister for that clarity. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I want to put on the record my thanks to the Clerks here, but also to Claire Waxman and Dame Vera Baird, who have steadfastly demonstrated their commitment to championing victims’ rights.

Dame Vera’s commitment has not wavered, even though she left her role as Victims’ Commissioner last September. Victims and advocates have continued to step up and make their voices heard, even when the Government have delayed the promised Bill time and again—we have been waiting eight years for it. Many victims, advocates and groups have continued to campaign and champion the issues. I particularly commend Claire Waxman, who has been pushing for this Bill for 10 years. Without those people, we would not be where we are today—at long last sitting here and scrutinising the Bill, line by line.

I also wanted to put on the record my disappointment that the Victims’ Commissioner role is not yet filled; victims have now not had a commissioner for nine months. It is particularly important as we begin debating the Bill line by line that that is put on the record. I hope that the Minister will update the Committee on the Department’s efforts to fill the role, because the delay has led to a lack of scrutiny of the Government, particularly in this area and in the months leading up to the Bill.

We know that the Bill is absolutely necessary. Victims have been let down and excluded—lost in the justice process—for far too long. When victims have responded to Victims’ Commissioners surveys, on the whole they have said that they have been left behind. That experience was documented by the last Victims’ Commissioner, but it is also what victims constantly tell me as the shadow Minister with responsibility for victims.

Yes, that is what I am looking at right now. I wanted to make a couple of general points, because we are beginning the line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill, if you will just allow me to do so, Sir Edward; you are being very generous—thank you.

We can only do this by working together. I turn to the amendments that we have discussed today—the critical ones tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham, who is a steadfast champion for the rights of those who have been abused and for the rights of children. I commend her for that work. The amendments we have discussed seek to strengthen clause 1 on the definition of a victim, and they particularly consider antisocial behaviour and child criminal exploitation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, when speaking to her amendment 54, made some emotive points on death by suicide and the impact on family members.

I hope that we can work together as we move forward in our consideration of the Bill, so that amendments, including those to clause 1, are discussed and debated, and so that we can amend the Bill later down the line, and so that victims’ rights, particularly the rights of child victims, are clearly defined in the Bill and that we strengthen the Bill as a result.