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9.28 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): This has been a thorough debate on not just infrastructure, but the state of the economy in general. I am afraid to say that little light has been shed on the Bill’s details, although we have yet to hear from the Economic Secretary, whom I heartily welcome to his new post as a Treasury Minister. Perhaps he will illuminate matters for us. As things stands, it looks to be a curious little piece of legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) said that the Government’s policies on infrastructure were embarrassingly thin. As most hon. Members have noted, there seems to be more spin than substance in this Bill. Perhaps that is why the Government ran out of people to speak in favour of it almost an hour ago.

It occurred to me that this legislation is perhaps a classic example from the book by the new Conservative party chairman, “How To Bounce Back From Recession”, which was written under the pseudonym Michael Green or Sebastian Fox—I cannot remember which. It is all about a presentational drive to be seen to be doing something. The Government cannot specify precisely what it is that they want to be seen to be doing, but it is definitely Shapptastic.

It is the lack of detail in the Bill that worries many people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) questioned who will be given financial assistance and what will be defined as nationally significant infrastructure. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) questioned the time scale of the £50 billion for underwriting and guarantees. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) noted that the Government are coming late to the benefits of infrastructure, and have reannounced over and again the concept of UK guarantees. They were mentioned first by the Prime Minister in May and were reannounced in June by other Ministers. Only now are we getting the Bill that is supposedly necessary to underpin them.

There are dangers of making policy on the hoof in this way. However, for the time being, we will give the Government the benefit of the doubt that they will specify in Committee which projects they envisage need this level of support. We will seek safeguards for taxpayers’ money against losses that are not spelled out in the Bill, supported, I hope, by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who mentioned this issue. We need to ensure, for example, that there is reasonable consideration of clawback provisions, which are normal contractual arrangements that might be needed to safeguard best value for the taxpayer.

It is unclear whether the Bill will aid social housing, particularly in parts of the country where the council housing stock has not been transferred to housing associations—those arm’s length management organisations —such as Leeds and Nottingham. I disagree with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) and think that housing should be considered to be part of our nation’s infrastructure. Opposition Members feel strongly about that.

There are other issues that the Minister needs to address. Will the Government run into state aid clearance issues if they are simply providing financial assistance to the private sector? Such contractual questions may come up. How will the Government overcome them?

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) pointed out that the Bill lacks any mention of social value. We need to leverage jobs and benefits for communities out of infrastructure schemes. The real and tangible economic consequences that should flow from infrastructure ought to be at the heart of this Bill.

One cannot look at this small set of clauses without wondering whether the Bill is sufficient for the task at hand. Guaranteeing private loans will not come close to addressing the scale of the infrastructure problems that we face because of this Government’s inactivity. It is not certain whether this technique will be successful. There are no details of which projects will be guaranteed or when they will be guaranteed. My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), among others, rightly emphasised that the country is crying out for infrastructure investment, especially to create confidence and to strengthen productivity and competitiveness in our economy.

The Government have a pretty woeful record on the delivery of infrastructure, but there has been a great deal of hot air. The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) spoke about the industries that he wanted to be supported in his constituency. Who can forget the Chancellor’s much-vaunted “The Plan for Growth”, which he said was

“an urgent call for action”?

He stated:

“If we do not act now, jobs will be lost, our country will become poorer and we will find it difficult to afford the public services we all want.”

Eighteen months later, that plan for growth is looking a little forlorn.

The Prime Minister himself said,

“this autumn the government is on an all-out mission to unblock the system and get projects under way”—

except, of course, he was talking about autumn 2011. My favourite was the rhetorical flourish from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, in his Budget speech 18 months ago, promised

“a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]

Since then, the economy has, of course, shrunk into a double-dip recession.

The Government’s policies have not been helping; in fact, they have been harming. They have been causing more delay to projects that ought to be under way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) talked about the risks that can arise from sort of the public policy vacillations that we have seen from the Government. He mentioned, for example, the uncertainties in planning policy, where a national planning policy framework was announced a few months ago, only for the Government to change their minds. They say they are going to suspend section 106 agreements, but they have not yet done so. A number of developers are saying, “We’ll hang back for the time being. We’ll wait rather than get on with applying for planning permissions right now.” We want the Government to make their minds up about how to move forward, but we have our concerns about their strategy.

In transport, we are still awaiting the long-promised national policy statements on transport networks and aviation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington

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(Grahame M. Morris) mentioned. In waste management, the national waste management plan was supposed to be announced this spring, but it will now not be finalised until the end of 2013. In low-carbon investment, the CBI has warned that policy changes such as the cuts to feed-in tariffs have been

“damaging to business confidence, with implications not just for immediate investment decisions but for longer-term trust in government policy.”

The Government have undermined or pulled the rug from under many infrastructure schemes. The same can be said of their approach to the green investment bank and broadband targets, which they have deferred, notwithstanding the strong campaign by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles for superfast broadband at MediaCity in her constituency, which she mentioned in her speech.

We need a renewed focus on the plans that the Government themselves put forward in their national infrastructure plan in 2011. None of the road-building programmes in that plan has started construction. Only one in 10 of the projects mentioned in it have moved forward, while one in 10 has moved backwards. House building starts are down 24% from the same period last year, and, on Friday, infrastructure data from the Office for National Statistics showed that the volume of new work was also down 24% on the same period last year. The statistics get worse and worse, not to mention the woefully inadequate approach to the regional growth funds, which many of my hon. Friends mentioned.

Indeed, the pace of capital investment under this Administration has slowed, contrary to the claims of the Government. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts show that under Labour’s public service net investment plans, investment would have been £2.7 billion higher than under the Government’s plans in the key year of 2010-11, £2.6 billion higher in 2011-12 and £1.3 billion higher in 2012-12. That is a difference of £6.6 billion over that three-year period between Labour’s trajectory on capital investment and the cuts implemented by this Government. That is something that even the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) mentioned in his contribution. Reductions in capital expenditure have been relatively extreme, and I agree with him that the Government should certainly be doing better.

There are ways in which underwriting and guarantee schemes should be investigated. We do not oppose the Bill before us today, but we are a little cynical and sceptical, given the number of schemes that the Government have promoted with great flourish but then failed to deliver. My hon. Friends will remember the claim that they were going to reach into the pension funds of large fund managers across the country and take £20 billion of investment to help to support public infrastructure schemes. However, a year later we have seen only £2 billion secured, and again, it will not be forthcoming until 2013-14. Indeed, the Government’s chief construction adviser, Paul Morrell, said,

“there won’t be a barrel-load of funding coming in from pension funds for greenfield infrastructure. It’s not their business and I don’t know anyone who thinks it is.”

The Government promised a whole set of new revenue sources for new investors in the national infrastructure plan, but they have not been forthcoming. The Government have also been indecisive over the use of tax increment financing.

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The Government also promised a new Cabinet committee, chaired by none other than the Chief Secretary to the Treasury himself, which was set up last year to “show decisive leadership”. A year on, we are still waiting for the Chief Secretary’s decisive leadership. I am sure that the Cabinet Committee meetings are extremely interesting, and it would be helpful if he could share with us some of the decisions that have been taken.

Businesses and those in the wider country are increasingly frustrated by the progress that this Administration are making. We have already heard quotes from key business figures. John Longworth, the head of the British Chambers of Commerce, has described the national infrastructure plan as “hot air” and a “complete fiction”. John Cridland, the director general of the CBI, has warned that

“firms fear initiative overload and are becoming impatient with delivery”.

Richard Threlfall of KPMG has said:

“Business confidence in our infrastructure is ebbing away”.

And we have only to look at the opinions of businesses across the country, as expressed to The Financial Times, to get a flavour of what is happening. It states:

“British business is fast losing any remnant of confidence in the government’s infrastructure strategy even though investment in transport, telecoms and energy has been at the heart of its growth plans since it came to power two years ago. Two thirds of British companies fear UK infrastructure will deteriorate over the next five years, according to a survey by the CBI…and KPMG”.

The Bill lacks not only substance but evidence that the Government understand what is happening in the economy and more broadly. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) and for Walthamstow made that point in their speeches. It contains nothing to address the lack of demand in the economy, and it proposes no change of direction to prevent the Chancellor’s tax rises and precipitous cuts from exacerbating the contraction in the economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) rightly pointed out the economic strangulation that the Government’s policies were exerting on the confidence and demand that ought to exist in the economy and more broadly. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central highlighted the five quarters of negative growth that have occurred on this Chancellor’s watch.

There is no recognition from this Administration that the lack of growth is resulting in a rise in welfare spending; it is up by 7% in the financial year so far compared with the previous financial year. We have also seen borrowing rise in the first quarter of this year, compared with the previous financial year. These proposals lack substance. We need immediate action rather than warm words. We will table amendments to the Bill, to test the Government’s commitment to their infrastructure plans. Either this Administration are ignorant of the causes of recession or they are wilfully ignoring our decline, for politically obstinate reasons. They are flailing around for initiatives, and they are racked by dithering, hesitancy and coalition divisions. We need action now; we cannot wait until the Chancellor’s Christmas statement on 5 December. The Bill is a fig leaf for their indecision. It is not an adequate substitute for action. Notwithstanding my welcoming the Minister to his new post, I would like to see whether the Prime Minister’s reshuffle and his appointment of this particular Minister have changed a single thing.

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9.43 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): I thank the shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), for his warm words of welcome. This has been an excellent debate. It has highlighted the areas on which we agree—the importance of safeguarding the flow of investment into this country’s critical infrastructure, for example—as well as those on which we differ. I would like to thank those on the Labour Front Bench for backing the Bill so that we can get on with the important investment that this country needs. There have been some excellent contributions to the debate—I have counted 22 of them—and I will comment on them shortly.

First, I want to make one critical point. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, the action that we are taking, which this legislation makes possible, is possible only as a result of the decisive action taken by this Government to deal with the economic mess that we inherited. In the decade before we came to power, Government debt had risen from £346 billion to over £900 billion; that represents almost a tripling of the national debt. That created the conditions for the severe economic crisis that we are all now suffering from, and mortgaged the future for our children and grandchildren.

Because of the lack of a credible plan from the Labour party, on general election day in 2010, 10-year gilts were 3.8%—the same as those of Italy and Spain. Because of the tough decisions we have taken, however, and the responsibility and credibility of our long-term fiscal plans, the UK is now a safe haven from the global debt storm. The 10-year gilt interest rates are now 1.9%—less than half what they were when we came to power. We are now in a position to unlock private sector infrastructure investment only because of the immense strength of the UK Government’s balance sheet.

Opposition Members seem to be under the illusion that this credibility has come at the expense of infrastructure investment, so let me clear up that misconception. We are spending more on transport and communications infrastructure than the previous Government decided to spend at the height of the boom. That is despite the fact that they ran deficits every year for eight years, including when times were good. Now that Britain is restrained and is responsible in the face of a global debt storm, we are nevertheless delivering the public investment that Opposition Members say they want to see, while we are making tough decisions and taking control of spending, such as welfare, where we can.

We announced £18 billion in retail investment in the spending review and a further £9.4 billion of infrastructure enhancements in the summer. In the Budget, we announced that there will be 10 super-connected cities across the UK that will enjoy ultra-fast broadband and high-speed wireless connectivity. On top of that immense investment, we now propose to unlock potentially billions of pounds of further investment from the private sector.

Let me deal with Back Benchers’ contributions to the debate. I start with one of the most thoughtful speeches, from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt). This was the first time that I, as a new Member of Parliament, have heard him speak from the Back Benches. He made an extremely thoughtful speech, which was a great contribution to the debate. He suggested using the

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facility put in place by this Bill to invest in prisons, and I hope that that will take place. He also drew attention to the economic credibility that the Government have won, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans).

A number of hon. Members referred to particular projects in their constituencies. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale mentioned the Mersey Gateway project, while my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) mentioned the Birmingham international airport, and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) raised the issue of MediaCityUK and superfast broadband. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned roads in Essex as another example. Strong cases were made, and they were all duly noted. If the promoters of these projects have not already done so, they should start the discussion immediately with the UK infrastructure team in the Treasury.

There were a number of other good contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) raised an important point about how Labour’s investment in infrastructure paid very poor attention to value for money.

Some Labour Members made some interesting contributions. The first, from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), was thoughtful, and I welcome his support for the Bill. His experience as a former Minister shows. I believe that he was once a Housing Minister—he raised the issue of housing—and also a Minister in the Treasury. Indeed, I think he once held my job. The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who is not in his place, also raised the issue of housing. It was strange that he raised that subject—I think he was talking about whether the Bill should back investment in housing, but financing housing is something he has great experience in.

The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles raised a number of important issues; I am pleased that she welcomed the Bill. The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who I do not see in his place, made a speech that would have fitted well with a Labour conference in the 1970s. For a moment I thought that I was listening to Derek Hatton. The speech made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) towards the end of the debate was in a similar vein.

The hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) asked a number of good questions. He asked, for instance, whether flood defences would be included. I am advised that there is no reason for them to be excluded, and we envisage their being part of the infrastructure that is being considered. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made some excellent points about Portsmouth’s infrastructure needs, which were duly noted. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) did a very good job of following his Whip’s brief, but he asked one interesting question: where were the members of the Scottish National party? I was asking myself that as well, especially given that the Bill is UK-wide and is intended to support infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom, including all the devolved regions. It was surprising that we did not hear much from SNP members. I had thought that they would be here today, fighting for the interests of their constituents.

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John Healey: Given the absence of Scottish and Welsh nationalists, may I ask the Minister whether decisions on projects in Scotland and Wales will be made in Scotland and Wales?

Sajid Javid: All decisions covered by the Bill will be made by the United Kingdom Government: by the UK Treasury, or by relevant Secretaries of State. However, when projects clearly relate to devolved regions, the Government will work very closely with the relevant Departments in those regions.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) made a thoughtful speech containing some very good points, but I must take issue with one of her closing comments. I believe she said that one of the problems with the Bill was that it placed restrictions on spending. It does place restrictions on spending, because this Government are very keen on restrictions on spending. The previous Government lost sight of that, which is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Stephen Pound: Let me add my voice to those of Members who have already congratulated the Minister.

The Minister has rightly called the House’s attention to the absence of members of certain political parties. May I remind him that the Democratic Unionist party, one of the parties representing Northern Ireland, has a strong interest in the Bill, although much of the material that we are discussing today is devolved? The issue of infrastructure development in Northern Ireland is essential. Will he assure me, and silent members of the Northern Ireland parties—unusually silent—that he will continue that dialogue?

Sajid Javid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman: they are unusually silent, although they are welcome to intervene on my speech. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that people in Northern Ireland should be assured that the Bill is intended to help infrastructure investment throughout the United Kingdom. I agree with him that there are often some special cases in Northern Ireland, which suffers from a relatively higher level of unemployment than other parts of the UK. I look forward to receiving applications from the Province.

Two issues—two myths, I should say—arose again and again in the speeches of Labour Members. The first—

Geraint Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Sajid Javid: Yes, for the last time.

Geraint Davies: Are the Government going to become involved in the brokering of deals and the forming of partnerships with the private sector? I am thinking specifically of easyJet’s move to Cardiff airport and its discussions with First Great Western about the provision of more passenger links to ensure that when the two come together it makes sense for everyone. Are the Government willing to become involved in that?

Sajid Javid: The purpose of the Bill is to establish a structure to provide guarantees for credit-worthy projects in the private sector. Of course the Government will work very closely, step by step, with the private-sector promoters of each of the projects, and if one of the

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companies feels that it has a viable project that the Government should consider, it will be encouraged to discuss it with the Treasury. A specific Treasury team called Infrastructure UK, which was set up a couple of years ago, is full of specialists who understand infrastructure and have a great deal of experience. It will be keen to look at every single project, and if the hon. Gentleman has one in mind he should please present it as soon as possible.

The two myths that I heard from the Opposition—

John Healey: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is answering the questions that come up. Will Infrastructure UK look at every project and proposal for these borrowing guarantees?

Sajid Javid: It will consider every project that comes its way, but that does not mean it will agree to support every one. However, it is willing to look at every project and to come back with an answer on each.

Priti Patel: Can my hon. Friend confirm for the Opposition that the Infrastructure UK team has contributed a great deal more than the euro preparation team that Labour created?

Sajid Javid: As always, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. [Interruption.] I must plough on.

On a number of occasions the Opposition suggested that this Government were spending less on infrastructure than they would have if, by some miracle, they had won the last election. Let us look at the facts. After the last election, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) said in his leadership hustings bid that they were going to halve the share of national income going into capital spending. Plans presented by Labour to this House at their last Budget, in March 2010, showed net investment falling from £50 billion in 2009 to a projected £23 billion by 2014-15, a figure lower than the one this Government have planned.

We heard from the Opposition about Britain’s growing debt. However, they forget, conveniently, that when this Government came to power, our budget deficit was 11% of GDP, higher than any other nation in the G7. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, if the plans of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) had been implemented, this country’s debt would be £200 billion higher than under the plans of this Government. They just do not get it—more spending, more borrowing, more debt.

Members on both sides of the House have recognised the scale of capital required to realise some major infrastructure investments.

Mr Binley: My hon. Friend will, I hope, remember that I posed a number of questions to him. Does he intend to write to me, or to forget those questions?

Sajid Javid: I will absolutely be writing to my hon. Friend. The questions he raised were characteristic of him, showing the experience he has brought to this House from the business sector. They were just the right type of thoughtful questions.

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Hugh Bayley rose

Sajid Javid: Please sit down; sorry.

The Bill contains measures that will support growth, jobs and families. It will support the UK’s infrastructure sector by providing access to finance for financially credible, high value for money projects. It will unlock the investment that the UK needs to make it one of the best places in the world to do business. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Infrastructure (Financial assistance) Bill (programme)

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

That the following provisions shall apply to the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill:


1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Proceedings in Committee, on consideration and Third Reading

2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken in one day in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.

3. Proceedings in Committee and any proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

Programming committee

5. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on consideration or proceedings on Third Reading.

Other proceedings

6. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Mr Evennett.)

Question agreed to.

Infrastructure (financial assistance) bill (money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of expenditure incurred by the Treasury, or by the Secretary of State, in giving, or in connection with giving, financial assistance to any person in respect of the provision of infrastructure; and

(2) the payment out of the Consolidated Fund, in certain cases, of expenditure which would otherwise be paid under the Act out of money provided by Parliament.—(Mr Evennett.)

Question agreed to.

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Business without debate


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


That the draft Electricity and Gas (Smart Meters Licensable Activity) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 5 July, be approved.—(Mr Evennett.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Local Government

That the draft Assets of Community Value (England) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 4 July, be approved.— (Mr Evennett.)

Question agreed to.

Draft Local Audit Bill


That a Select Committee of 9 Members be appointed to consider the draft Local Audit Bill (Cm 8393).

That the Committee should report on the draft Bill by 20 December 2012.

That the Committee shall have power—

(i) to send for persons, papers and records;

(ii) to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;

(iii) to report from time to time;

(iv) to appoint specialist advisers; and

(v) to adjourn from place to place.

That Mr Richard Bacon, Mr Clive Betts, Meg Hillier, Margaret Hodge, Mark Pawsey, Mark Reckless, Ian Swales, Valerie Vaz and Heather Wheeler be members of the Committee.

That Margaret Hodge be the Chair of the Committee.— (Mr Evennett.)

Culture, Media and Sport


That Mr Tom Watson be discharged from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and Mr Ben Bradshaw be added.—(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

Regulatory Reform

Motion made,

That Mr Robert Syms be discharged from the Regulatory Reform Committee and James Duddridge be added.—(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

Hon. Members: Object.


10 pm

Educational Provision

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I am still in shock after being accused of being silent.

I wish to present a petition in the names of my constituents from Ballymena primary school, where my father was educated more than 80 years ago; from Moorfields primary school, where I received the highest

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vote in my constituency; and from St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s primary school in North Antrim. Some 572 children have signed the petition.

The petition states:

The Petition of teachers and pupils of St. Patrick’s and St. Brigid’s Primary School, Ballymena Primary School and Moorfields Primary School in the constituency of North Antrim,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the promise made in 2000 to get every child into school by 2015 should be fulfilled; notes that with just three years left before the deadline, a surge of new energy is needed to give 67 million children the chance of an education; further notes that at the start of the race over 110 million children were missing out on school and although by 2008 this had dropped to 75 million, in 2012 the race has stalled; further notes that the number of children out of school has stayed at 67 million for two years; and that this number has fallen by 50 million over the last 10 years, but if we continue at the current rate of progress 48 million children will still be out of school by 2015; and notes that from those currently missing out on an education, one third of the children have a disability, 60% are girls and half of the world’s ‘out of school children’ live in communities where the language used in schools is different from that used at home.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Prime Minister and the UK Government to raise educational provision with other world leaders at forthcoming international meetings and to make suggestions for further action before time runs out on the promise made in 2000 to get every child into school by 2015.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


Changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme

10.2 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

The petition relates to changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme and I am presenting it on behalf of more than 700 USDAW members who believe that innocent victims of violent crime should continue to be compensated through the criminal injuries compensation scheme for all level of injuries. Many USDAW members—shop workers—have direct experience of being assaulted in the course of their employment.

The petition states:

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to ensure that proposed changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme are not proceeded with.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Petition of members of Usdaw,

Declares that innocent victims of violent crime should continue to be compensated through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme for all level of injuries and in accordance with the scheme currently in operation; further that the Petitioners believe proposed changes to the scheme will result in taking 30,000 innocent victims of criminal assault out of the scheme altogether, or significantly reduce their right to compensation; and that many Usdaw members have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a victim of violence and compensation which was awarded through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme which was a lifeline to them and their families after going through a very difficult period financially and emotionally.

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The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to ensure that proposed changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme are not proceeded with.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


Sedgefield Library Hours

10.4 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): The petition is signed by more than 1,250 residents of Sedgefield who are concerned about the reduction in the number of hours that their library will be open. They want an increase in the number.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Sedgefield,

Declares that the Petitioners are opposed to proposals to reduce the opening hours of Sedgefield Library from 39 hours a week to 20: further declares that while the Petitioners recognise the need to make cuts, the Petitioners believe that such a drastic cut will undermine community services and leave a huge gap in the welfare of both adults and children, as Sedgefield Library is at the heart of the community; and declares that the Petitioners believe that 30 hours of opening each week would be more appropriate for what is one of the most used libraries in the county.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to review the level of cuts in funding to Durham County Council so that the Council can look again at the proposed reduction in the opening hours of Sedgefield library and to look at what else can be done to maintain library opening hours at a suitable level.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Internet Trolling

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

10.5 pm

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I am delighted to have the chance to initiate an Adjournment debate to highlight an issue that is becoming commonplace on social media sites.

Trolling is wide-ranging and stirs up strong feelings, among people who want it criminalised and want those who indulge in it to be jailed, and among those who believe it is their inherent right to indulge in—as they see it—a bit of banter, and who claim that freedom of speech is one of their human rights, whether or not it causes offence. It should be noted that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country, and that right is commonly subject to limitations.

The topic transcends the usual petty party politics. It is not about attributing blame, or even urging a particular Department to take ownership of the issue. Indeed, I am aware that Members on both sides of the House have been victims of trolling, as have I—although of course we all know that parliamentarians are pachyderms, with little or no feeling, so it should not bother us. But it does bother the public. My hope is that all parties will work together to reach a solution and take trolling seriously, specifically RIP trolling.

As I shall set out at the end of my speech, the solution may or may not take the form of legislation, but if a change in the law is required, so be it. In that spirit, I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for meeting me at the end of last year. Since then, I have met, among others, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), and representatives from Merseyside police, Facebook and the Crown Prosecution Service. Although some of those meetings were less productive than others, there was universal recognition that trolling exists, and that it is grossly offensive and it is escalating. With such a rise in prominence has come greater scrutiny of the laws that govern its practice and punishment. The starting point must be to see how we can improve the way trolling is prevented, policed and punished. That would be preferable to trying to get Parliament to act, as the wheels of justice turn slowly.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing an Adjournment debate on such an important issue. He mentioned that he had met the CPS and Merseyside police. From those conversations, I am sure he would agree that one of the problems for the police is that it is difficult to know which legislation to invoke when trying to prosecute offences, and that there are no definite frameworks or boundaries for them to work in. Furthermore, the CPS will consider only what happened over the previous six months, and will not go further back to look at abuse caused by trolling.

Steve Rotheram: The hon. Lady is right. I hope to tease out some of the complexities of the legislation during my contribution, but it is not as easy as us just saying that trolls should be brought to book—I shall try to outline why.

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Trolling has become a sick hobby for some and an increasing problem for dedicated police trying to monitor and respond to reported cases. Trolls are individuals intent on upsetting and offending people, often in their hour of grief and mourning, for a kind of pleasure that I must admit is totally alien to me and, I would think, to every person in this Chamber.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the House’s attention. Every Member will have examples of constituents who have been subjected to trolling, whether in the workplace, in schools or on the internet. Young people who write about the good things that have happened to them can find that they are attacked on the websites. The example of Tom Daley comes to mind, because of what happened to him at the Olympics, when a cheerful thing turned into nastiness. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there must be some system in place, whether banning trolls from using the websites, legislation or whatever, to protect young people and those using the internet in an innocent fashion?

Steve Rotheram: I agree that the first thing to do is to try to identify those people causing the offence, which is very difficult because they hide behind the anonymity of a computer. The second part, of course, is to try to get the issue out among the general public, so that we can secure a culture change in society. One of the starting points is to highlight some of the celebrity trolling and the great offence it has caused, although it happens to ordinary people too.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): It seems that local newspapers now cannot have an online discussion or commentary following an article on their websites because trolls will totally dominate and post page after page of abuse, which means other people just switch off. I do not know whether that is my hon. Friend’s experience, but it is certainly mine.

Steve Rotheram: I have experienced and identified that when reading the comments beneath an article. It is not about people having extreme views; it is about the posting of really offensive, disgusting and vile comments that shock people. That sort of thing is prevalent in online discussions.

I want to bring to the House’s attention the case of Georgia Varley, who was just 16 years old when she slipped from a platform under the carriage of a departing train at James Street station in Liverpool. Her devastated family and friends set up a dedicated memorial page on Facebook to inform others of Georgia’s death and as a means of demonstrating their outpouring of love and affection for this popular schoolgirl. But in the days and weeks that followed, sick, vile and truly grotesque individuals whose identity was hidden through an online alias abused Georgia’s site. Most had never even visited Liverpool and certainly had no knowledge of Georgia, but they thought it would be fun to exploit her death.

I would never dream of repeating the vicious insults directed at Georgia and her family, because it would be wrong for them to appear in Hansard. Indeed, I believe that it would probably give the trolls a kick if they thought that outcome was the product of their vindictiveness. However, I have directed my staff to keep

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records of certain trolls, and I would be happy to place copies in the House of Commons Library if requested so that Members can ascertain for themselves the truly depraved nature of the content.

Nadine Dorries: I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I think that he has recounted that story before in this place, and it is truly awful, but the situation is even worse. There are cases of people actually being driven to their deaths by trolls. Two cases come to mind, those of Natasha MacBryde and Olivia Penpraze, who both wrote on the internet and thought that social media was something they could engage with. They thought that the people they were engaging with were just reasonable human beings, but the fact is that there are some pretty horrific people out there. Those two girls were driven to their deaths by trolls telling them to kill themselves. That is the severity of the situation. It is not just people who have died whose sites are abused; people can be driven to their deaths.

Steve Rotheram: Those are two of the most depressing and disgusting instances of trolling. It is not just about having a bit of fun; it can lead to serious consequences. I will return to the case of at least one of those people who, unfortunately, took their own life.

Part of the problem is that a degree of professionalism is associated with some trolls that might be too sophisticated for our laws to combat in their current guise. The relevant legislation on this matter predates the birth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which were not launched until 2004 and 2006 respectively. In fact, since becoming actively involved in this issue, I have increasingly come to understand that the law surrounding trolling is a minefield. If only Thomas Jefferson had been right when he said:

“Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure.”

A whole plethora of associated legislation could potentially be used against trolls, but there is nothing specific to outlaw the practice itself. The Suicide Act 1961 can still be used against those who encourage others to take their own lives, and it was specifically amended, with websites in mind and to simplify the law, by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. We also have the Telecommunications Act 1984; section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986; the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which created precedent by extending the time limit to investigate cases for summary offence; and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, under section 3(2) of which claimants may pursue a civil case for damages. Those are all relevant pieces of legislation, but none specifically identifies trolling as an offence, and every single one was passed before Facebook or Twitter existed. Even section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 predates social media, but it suggests that someone can be found to have broken the law if a message is sent that is

“grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

It goes on to say that the section

“targets false messages and persistent misuse intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”.

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The Crown Prosecution Service clarified this on its website by stating:

“If a message sent is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or false, it is irrelevant whether it was received. The offence is one of sending, so it is committed when the sending takes place.”

The CPS also confirms:

“A person guilty of an offence under the same section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine or to both.”

The crime is dealt with under the fixed penalty scheme. However, there is a degree of subjectivity when we talk about causing offence. Trolls often write that they do not know what might cause offence to a particular individual and so cannot be accused of so doing.

We can already see the pitfalls. There is ambiguity over whether a six-month sentence is long enough in order to send a message to trolls that such behaviour is not to be tolerated and, by extension, to seek fundamentally to change behaviour. There are also questions about whether, given the complexities surrounding false identities, there is enough time for the police fully to investigate complaints and for the CPS to deem whether a successful prosecution is likely. The Guardian recently reported that nearly 8% of Facebook profiles were fake, which equates to approximately 83 million accounts worldwide. This has become not just a national but an international problem.

The other relevant piece of legislation is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, section 1 of which deals with the sending to another of

“any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient”.

The offence covers letters, writing of all descriptions, electronic communications, photographs and other images in material form, tape recordings, films and video recordings.

I believe that the greatest strength of both that Act and the Communications Act 2003 is that for an offence to be deemed to have been committed, the intended recipient of the message never has to receive it. That is pivotal in prosecuting RIP trolls, because more often than not the intended recipient of their bile is deceased. It is therefore right and proper that it is the sending that is an offence, and that proof is not needed that a person has received the communication in question. There still has to be intent to cause offence or distress.

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore feel that there is a greater role for the police to play? If the legislation is in place and there is an opportunity to prosecute, should the police do more?

Steve Rotheram: It is always difficult to say whether the police should do more, and part of the problem is the complexities of the gaps in legislation which I have just identified. That has to be the starting place for the House to consider seriously whether a Bill should be introduced to close the loopholes that people have been able to wriggle out of.

There have recently been two prosecutions for racially motivated tweets. One was sent to the former footballer Stan Collymore and the other was sent in the wake of

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the collapse on the pitch of Fabrice Muamba. Both were vile comments, but the sanctions imposed by judges were met with condemnation from certain sections of the public and disdain from others for being too lenient.

We must work harder to raise the issue of trolling so that people know unequivocally that they should not say something online that they would not say face to face. The case of Natasha MacBryde, which was mentioned earlier, is perhaps the most high-profile case of trolling, because an 18-week prison sentence was handed out to Sean Duffy, who admitted that he was hooked on the sick craze. That is far and away the severest sentence that a court has handed out to date.

Many months before the release of the Hillsborough independent panel report, I spoke to Facebook about a page that had been set up on its site called “96 Wasn’t Enough”. It informed me that the content of the page and/or postings on the site did not constitute a breach of its community standards, and that there was no need to remove the page because there was not an implied or explicit threat. I add that I do not condone trolling by anyone. Alan Davies received some horrendous abuse over his ill-judged comments about Hillsborough, and I was quick to condemn hate messages aimed towards him and his family. I think it is better to educate than to abuse.

Trolling is not about normal social discourse, or even about disagreeing vehemently with someone who has a contrary opinion. The test should be quite simple: would someone be happy to put their name to what they have said under a false identity? We are not talking about cases of whistleblowing, in which it would be understandable to anonymise a person’s details. If the answer to that question is that someone would not be happy to be identified, we have to ask why. Why would somebody need to hide their identity under such circumstances?

Having listened carefully to what Facebook had to say when I met it, I have developed a better understanding of what it determines to be acceptable. Although I may disagree with the grey areas within the boundaries that social media sites impose, I understand that they are as much about the sharing of information as they are about people getting a better understanding of local, national, regional and international cultures, events in history and universally famous tragedies. However, I have severe reservations about the ability of social media sites to understand fully the gross offence caused by certain types of message, especially to families and friends of deceased victims. Surely common sense must prevail. All too often, the benefit of the doubt falls in favour of the rights of the troll over those of their innocent target.

Trolling is not about disagreeing with another person’s perspective. It is not about telling somebody straight what they think about them, or that they think that the other person is wrong. Trolling is not even about arguing with somebody online about sensitive issues. It is about setting out, intentionally and deliberately, to cause gross offence to another, or to say something menacing.

I reiterate that I hope that tonight’s debate is just the beginning. I am keen to hear others’ views and to learn new things about trolling. Will the Minister therefore answer the following questions? Do the Government fully appreciate the escalating problem of trolling? What monitoring of activity are they undertaking? Are the

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Government satisfied with the prosecution rate of trolls, or does the Minister believe, like me, that the number of trolling cases far outweighs that of convictions? Has the Minister met the police and/or the CPS recently to discuss the obstacles to prosecuting trolls? What time frame have the Government scheduled to look at ways in which to address the problem? Could an amendment to legislation be made in this Parliament, if the Minister believes that to be appropriate? What discussions has he had with social media sites about the need to strengthen the community standards that govern best practice on them? Does he agree that they could and should do far more to aid the police with prosecuting trolls?

I believe that the law of the land needs to be constantly updated to reflect social and technological advancements. However, I also appreciate that, in the case of trolling, concerted effort by Parliament to change online culture may well prove to be just as important as an amendment to existing legislation.

10.26 pm

The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr Jeremy Browne): I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) not only on giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject—and he made his speech with great force and evident sincerity—but on his ongoing campaigning on the subject. I am happy, as a Home Office Minister, to indicate a willingness to engage with him on how we can try to address many of the serious concerns that he raised.

We all benefit from the internet, and the Government are keen to promote the positives of that technology for both economic growth and social value. At the same time, we all have a responsibility to help prevent crime, and to take appropriate action to protect ourselves and others in cyberspace.

So-called trolling is an example of where the opportunities presented by the internet, particularly social media networks, can be abused in the ways that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. It has the potential to be far more serious than simple banter—I agree with him about that, and disagree with commentators who have described it merely in those terms. It can include highly offensive, obscene and menacing behaviour, solely intended to cause pain and distress—activity that we would all agree is deplorable and disgraceful. The hon. Gentleman raised a powerful example from his constituency: grossly offensive messages on memorial pages to a young constituent who died in a tragic accident last year. I am sure that we all join him in expressing how terrible it must have been for that young constituent’s family and friends to have their grief compounded by those abusive and appalling messages.

More recently, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there has been a series of incidents involving high-profile public figures, which brought the activity—which impacts on people across the country going about their everyday lives—to wider public attention. If those examples serve any purpose, it is that they contribute to a wider public discourse about acceptable social norms and behaviour, particularly in the context of the appropriateness of behaviour online as well as offline.

Let me be clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that the Government are not seeking to criminalise bad manners, unkind comments, or idiotic views. Social media sites

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are not, and cannot, be an opportunity for entirely anonymous and consequence-free posting of comments that would be unacceptable in any other context. It is, therefore, important to emphasise the oft-repeated and clear principle that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. An individual should be charged and prosecuted for the offence they commit, irrespective of whether it happens in the street or in cyberspace.

Trolling can manifest itself in a number of ways, and hon. Members may find it helpful if I quickly rehearse the legislation that can be—and has been—used to prosecute such activity. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 covers the

“sending of an indecent, offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person.”

As has been mentioned, Sean Duffy was prosecuted last September under section 1 of that Act after posting offensive messages and videos on the tribute pages of young people who had died. He was jailed for 18 weeks.

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 created an offence of sending, or causing to be sent,

“by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

In 2010, Colm Coss was charged under section 127 of that Act for posting obscene messages on social network tribute sites. He, too, was successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for 18 weeks.

When trolling involves conduct that amounts to the harassment of another, offenders can be charged under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Conduct amounting to child abuse can be, and has been, prosecuted under the Protection of Children Act 1978. The Government are currently clarifying the law in the Defamation Bill to ensure that where trolling is defamatory, website operators are clear about their responsibilities to victims.

The Government are reforming measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, regardless of whether it occurs offline or online. To continue to support professionals to help and protect victims, we are introducing simpler and more effective powers that, where appropriate, agencies can use flexibly to deal with antisocial individuals who cause misery and distress to others. Robust legislation already exists, and the Crown Prosecution Service will determine what legislation to use in a prosecution, depending on the circumstances of each case.

The Government recognise that laws to deal with internet trolling are not sufficient on their own. Police and prosecutors need the capacity and knowledge to work within a complex legal framework, to meet the jurisdictional challenges of the online world, and to understand and balance legitimate concerns about civil liberties.

The Government take the threat to the UK from cyberspace extremely seriously, and are spending considerable amounts of money on cyber-security and cybercrime in its more narrow form. We have taken a number of significant actions to increase the capacity and capability of the UK law enforcement response to cybercrime. In particular, we are developing training on cybercrime for all police officers, which will help them to investigate crimes committed online, and we will create a national cybercrime unit within the National Crime Agency by 2013.

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However, we should not see this problem entirely in legal terms; it is also about ensuring that cultural norms on appropriate and acceptable behaviour evolve at the same pace as technology. That goes wider than the role of the Home Office or the Government, to all of society. We recognise that prevention is a key part of tackling trolling as well as other forms of abuse and misuse of social networking sites. We are accordingly pressing the internet industry in the UK and Europe to implement clear and simple processes for dealing with abuse online. In our experience, for the most part, social network site operators adopt sensible and responsible positions on any abuse or misuse of their services in the terms and conditions they require for their use, but I take the point

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made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton that that may require further work.

I pay tribute again to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter and to others who contributed to the debate. I believe that we have sufficient laws in place to deal with the problem, but we need to be vigilant about it and aware of the huge offence it can cause. When the line between merely unpleasant behaviour and illegal behaviour is crossed, the Government are happy to work with Members of all parties to ensure that the appropriate action is taken.

Question put and agreed to.

10.34 pm

House adjourned.