16 Oct 2012 : Column 265

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned the potential risk to the A-rated status of the EHRC as a human rights body. We are in discussions with the international co-ordinating committee on this, and we want to address any concerns that it might have. We are determined to ensure that we have an A-rated and highly respected human rights body. The hon. Lady also asked about the framework document and suggested that it could undermine the independence of the institution. In fact, it has been agreed on between the commission and the Government, and it sets out specifically that the commission must be

“free to exercise its statutory functions free from ministerial interference or undue influence.”

Kate Green: I am grateful to the Minister, and I note that assurance, but does not the framework document imply that the function of the EHRC is to deliver the Government’s equality strategy? That does not exactly speak to its independence.

Jo Swinson: As I have said, the framework document is absolutely independent. The commission should be

“under as few constraints as reasonably possible in determining its activities, timetables and priorities”,

and it should not be regarded as the servant or agent of the Crown, or enjoy any status, immunity and privilege of the Crown. Those words are very clear.

I agree with the hon. Lady that there is much more to do on equality. This is in no way “job done”. She outlined the scandal of the remaining pay gap, which we are committed to addressing. I would point out, however, that we were left with a 20% pay gap in 2010 after 13 years of a Labour Government. So before the Opposition get too holier than thou, they should show a little humility. It was not “job done” after they had been in government. We need to work together to ensure that equalities are driven forward, and that these situations are improved. In addition, on the issues the hon. Lady raised around racial inequality, social mobility and the sort of action we are taking through the pupil premium will certainly help. I welcome her support for equal marriage, and I would note again that the previous Labour Government did not do anything about it for 13 years.

We are deliberately making sure that the EHRC is improved in respect of its management. We have made significant progress at the EHRC: we have a permanent chief executive appointed, and as I said, the pre-appointment scrutiny hearing took place this morning for the preferred candidate for its chair. Ministers will, of course, properly consider the report before formally deciding whether to appoint Baroness O’Neill. We have had two clean sets of accounts laid before Parliament—

6 pm

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr Speaker: I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.

16 Oct 2012 : Column 266

The House having divided:

Ayes 314, Noes 239.

Division No. 73]

[6 pm

AYES

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Alexander, rh Danny

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Beresford, Sir Paul

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clegg, rh Mr Nick

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.

(Monmouth)

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Farron, Tim

Field, Mark

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Huhne, rh Chris

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lamb, Norman

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Maude, rh Mr Francis

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Mills, Nigel

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stunell, rh Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Syms, Mr Robert

Teather, Sarah

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mark Lancaster and

Anne Milton

NOES

Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Chapman, Jenny

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Curran, Margaret

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hood, Mr Jim

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lloyd, Tony

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McCrea, Dr William

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh David

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morrice, Graeme

(Livingston)

Morris, Grahame M.

(Easington)

Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Phillipson, Bridget

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Noes:

Nic Dakin and

Yvonne Fovargue

Question accordingly agreed to.

16 Oct 2012 : Column 267

16 Oct 2012 : Column 268

16 Oct 2012 : Column 269

16 Oct 2012 : Column 270

New clause 12 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

New Clause 13

Equality Act 2010: obtaining information for proceedings

‘(1) In the Equality Act 2010, omit section 138 (obtaining information, etc).

(2) That does not affect section 138 for the purposes of proceedings that relate to a contravention occurring before this section comes into force.’.—(Jo Swinson.)

Brought up, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 17

Power to provide for equal pay audits

‘(1) The Equality Act 2010 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 139 insert—

“139A Equal pay audits

(1) Regulations may make provision requiring an employment tribunal to order the respondent to carry out an equal pay audit in any case where the tribunal finds that there has been an equal pay breach.

(2) An equal pay breach is—

(a) a breach of an equality clause, or

(b) a contravention in relation to pay of section 39(2), 49(6) or 50(6), so far as relating to sex discrimination.

(3) An equal pay audit is an audit designed to identify action to be taken to avoid equal pay breaches occurring or continuing.

(4) The regulations may make further provision about equal pay audits, including provision about—

(a) the content of an audit;

(b) the powers and duties of a tribunal for deciding whether its order has been complied with;

(c) any circumstances in which an audit may be required to be published or may be disclosed to any person.

(5) The regulations must provide for an equal pay audit not to be ordered where the tribunal considers that—

(a) an audit completed by the respondent in the previous 3 years meets requirements prescribed for this purpose,

(b) it is clear without an audit whether any action is required to avoid equal pay breaches occurring or continuing,

(c) the breach the tribunal has found gives no reason to think that there may be other breaches, or

(d) the disadvantages of an equal pay audit would outweigh its benefits.

(6) The regulations may make provision for a failure to comply with an order to be enforced, otherwise than as an offence, by such means as are prescribed.

(7) The first regulations under this section must provide for the requirement to impose an order for an equal pay audit not to apply in relation to a respondent whose business is defined in the regulations as a start-up or micro-business unless further provision is made under this section.”

16 Oct 2012 : Column 271

(3) In section 207(6) (exercise of power to make subordinate legislation: power to amend enactments) after “37,” and after “in the case of section” insert “139A,”.

(4) In section 208(5) (subordinate legislation by Ministers of the Crown etc: affirmative procedure) after paragraph (e) insert—

“(ea) regulations under section 139A (equal pay audits);”.’.—(Jo Swinson.)

Brought up, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 15

Estate agency work

‘In section 1 of the Estate Agents Act 1979 (estate agency work), for subsection (4) substitute—

“(4) This Act does not apply to the following things when done by a person who does no other things which fall within subsection (1) above—

(a) publishing advertisements or disseminating information;

(b) providing a means by which—

(i) a person who wishes to acquire or dispose of an interest in land can, in response to such an advertisement or dissemination of information, make direct contact with a person who wishes to dispose of or, as the case may be, acquire an interest in land;

(ii) the persons mentioned in sub-paragraph (i) can continue to communicate directly with each other.”’.—(Jo Swinson.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 33.

Jo Swinson: New clause 15 amends the definition of “estate agency work”, which determines the application of the Estate Agents Act 1979. This fulfils our commitment to introduce a measure on this issue following our recent targeted consultation, which was developed as part of the disruptive business models/challenger businesses theme of the red tape challenge.

New clause 15 extends a current exemption to that definition of estate agency work. Intermediaries, such as internet portals for private sales, will be out of the scope of the Estate Agents Act if they merely enable private sellers to advertise their properties and provide a means for sellers and buyers to contact and communicate with one another. Such intermediary businesses will therefore not be obliged to comply with requirements that are relevant to full service estate agency businesses, such as the disclosure of any self-interest in a property transaction and membership of a redress scheme for residential estate agents. These private sales businesses are not actively involved in property transactions, but offer a lower-cost alternative of enabling individuals to market their own property and buy and sell privately.

Those intermediary businesses will be able to provide a means for the seller and prospective buyer to contact one another, for example online; to provide a branded for sale board to the seller to assist this process; and to pass on to a prospective buyer solely the information provided by the seller in their advertisement, by whatever channel of communication. If, however, the intermediary

16 Oct 2012 : Column 272

offers any personal advice to a seller or a buyer, or other ancillary services, such as preparing property particulars or photographs or an energy performance certificate, the intermediary will be in the scope of the Estate Agents Act and bound by its obligations. The Estate Agents Act will therefore continue to apply to businesses that are involved in or have scope to influence property transactions.

The Government have found uncertainty and a range of views among stakeholders as to the application of the Estate Agents Act to intermediary businesses, particularly online. This is unhelpful to consumers who might wish to use an intermediary, and unhelpful to businesses, whether intermediaries or more traditional estate agents, or those interested in entering the market. Stakeholders are also concerned that consumers should be protected where they rely on a service provider in relation to a transaction as valuable and important as a house sale or purchase. Clearly, for most people it is the highest value and most important purchase they will make. The Estate Agents Act will continue to apply to businesses providing personal advice about a potential sale or other ancillary services.

For those reasons, this is a limited deregulation. It addresses the perceived uncertainty as to the scope of the Estate Agents Act and it brings benefits to consumers and to the industry, but, crucially, it does not unduly reduce consumer protection in relation to services that involve the service provider in the property transaction.

Mr Iain Wright: I thank the Minister for her helpful comments and I have also read her written ministerial statement to the House on this matter from 13 September. As she rightly says, Government new clause 15 updates and extends an exemption to the definition of estate agency work, as set out in the Estate Agents Act 1979. The legislation pre-dated the rise of the internet, and as the Minister rightly said, the world of buying and selling a house has been revolutionised by the internet. Buyers and sellers are now more likely to looking at the likes of Rightmove, Zoopla or PrimeLocation online than to be using a traditional high street estate agent, at least in the early stages of the process.

From the Minister’s comments I understand that some private sales internet portals may be exempt from the Estate Agents Act while others may be within its scope, depending on whether they provide advertising space or allow prospective buyers and sellers to match up via an online messaging board.

The Minister mentioned the Government’s report “Removing Red Tape for Challenger Businesses”. I was struck by a particular comment that is relevant to this part of the Bill. It states:

“Stripped-down business models, offering competitive prices to home buyers and sellers in exchange for limited, online services are caught by current legislation which applies a broad definition to ‘estate agency work’. Once legally categorised in this way, these innovative businesses are tied to regulation which can be disproportionate to the range of services they offer, and which may be inhibiting the growth of this alternative method of house buying and selling.”

The Opposition do not necessarily disagree with the Government’s approach to this, and we would certainly welcome innovation and improved competition to support, first and foremost, the consumer in what is, as the Minister rightly said, probably the biggest and most

16 Oct 2012 : Column 273

significant purchase or sale in his or her life, but we do have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to address.

Discussions about amending the Estate Agents Act 1979 go as far back as February 2010, when the Office of Fair Trading reported on its study into home buying and selling. I fully appreciate that the study strongly stated that innovation could have an impact on the cost of buying and selling a home and that the current legislation might be hindering the emergence of new business models, but it also stated that overall satisfaction with estate agents had improved in recent years and that, where there were problems in the process, consumers on the whole did not tend to think that the estate agent was at fault. The OFT found the existing legislation to be both comprehensive and wide-ranging and that further regulation was unnecessary.

I appreciate—I say this before the Minister intervenes—that the amendment is deregulatory in nature, but the OFT report concluded that the focus should be on improving the enforcement of current rules to guard against serious breaches. That being the case, and notwithstanding my earlier, hopefully supportive, comments welcoming the introduction of a greater degree of innovation in the industry, will she go back to first principles and outline the specific benefits that the new clause will produce? What forecast has she made regarding how and in what numbers she anticipates new entrants will come into the market? What estimates has she made regarding cost savings to consumers? Has she been able to quantify the savings to business that such a deregulatory approach would produce?

For a Bill that purports to be all about enterprise, the theme of our deliberations during its passage through the House has been a spectacular lack of evidence to support its provisions, so it would be useful if she could provide some quantifiable and empirical evidence. What consideration has the Minister given to consumer protection in the light of the new clause? Is there a risk that people will not have access to the suitable, robust and—one would hope—impartial advice that could be provided by an estate agent? Has she thought about the potential risks to vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, some of whom might be susceptible to scare tactics and unscrupulous behaviour? What is in place to ensure that those people do not see a reduction in their consumer protection as a result of the new clause?

The Minister might also be aware of concerns raised by the National Association of Estate Agents about a potential breach of the UK’s anti-money laundering regulations as a result of the new clause. Estate agents are covered under the third money laundering directive, which I understand has been implemented in the UK through the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. The Minister referred to those regulations in her written ministerial statement last month, stating that the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 incorporate the definition from the Estate Agents Act 1979 in applying particular standards to regulated sectors, which include estate agents. Can she therefore confirm that the new clause will deal with the risk of money laundering? Can she—for my purposes, rather than anybody else’s—clarify that those estate agents who will be taken out of the scope of the 1979 Act because they provide a slimmed down business model will still be seen as a regulated sector for the purposes of money laundering

16 Oct 2012 : Column 274

regulations? I hope that she can answer these questions comprehensively, but the Opposition can certainly support one of the things she proposes with regard to injecting a greater degree of innovation into the market and embracing new business models. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

Jo Swinson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s general support for the new clause. He is right to point out that the world has changed since the current legislation on estate agents came into force and that the internet has been absolutely revolutionary in that regard. He mentioned a number of popular and well-known property websites. I just caution him not to conclude that those household names would necessarily be caught by this limited deregulation. That is not the intention of the new clause at all. To put it into perspective, there are currently about 14,000 traditional estate agent offices in the UK—virtually all of them also have an internet presence—but there are fewer than 30 private sales portals in the UK, all of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, so that is quite an undeveloped part of our market. As for how many property sales go through estate agents, in 2000 the figure was 87%, with only 11% sold privately. That compares with other markets where it is rather less than that; for example, in the United States about 20% of sales are undertaken privately.

6.30 pm

The hon. Gentleman raised important issues about vulnerable consumers. I assure him that we do not intend to water down protection. We do not expect that this limited deregulation will necessarily be earth-shattering. It will be helpful to a very small number of businesses and potential new entrants, but it is expected that the majority of property sales would still go through the traditional estate agency route for many of the reasons that he outlined to do with the type of service that people wish to have. Equally, where buyers and sellers want to communicate directly, that can be facilitated. Under the old technology, somebody might place an advert for a property in a section of a newspaper with a telephone number. Under the current regulations, that would not be caught as equivalent to being an estate agent, but doing the same thing online can be caught by the rather more cumbersome provisions of the Estate Agents Act. An online advert with a button that says “Contact seller” falls within the realms of the Act because the site is enabling that communication to take place.

The industry has been reassured that this is not about a wider watering down as regards internet sites that are providing an estate agent service online. The hon. Gentleman said that estate agents will be taken out of this protection, but that is not so. This is primarily about internet websites and companies that provide a service and methods of contact. If they go beyond that into other professional services by providing advice, managing the sale process, going out and taking their own photographs or helping with marketing, they will remain within the scope of the Act.

This strikes the right balance between making it easier for buyers and sellers to contact each other and making sure that there is protection for consumers. The hon. Gentleman said that the existing rules need to be enforced, and we wholeheartedly agree. In the context

16 Oct 2012 : Column 275

of the Government’s wider remit in making sure that consumers are helped to get a good deal and are empowered, we look forward to bringing in such proposals later in this Parliament.

While this is not necessarily an earth-shattering deregulation that will suddenly make huge changes, it will certainly be helpful for the companies involved and for consumers who would like to undertake the sale or purchase of a property through the private method using the internet.

Mr Iain Wright: The Minister will recall that I mentioned concerns about money laundering. Will she say a few words about that?

Jo Swinson: The companies covered by this deregulation would not be involved in the transaction of money, because if they were they would remain caught by the Estate Agents Act. We therefore do not need to worry about this in relation to making it easier to undertake money laundering. Of course the Government maintain their provisions to try to make sure that they enforce the existing rules against money laundering in an appropriate fashion.

I hope that in the absence of any other questions from Members we will be able to proceed with a fair degree of consensus on this useful, though limited, deregulatory measure.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 15 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 9

Listed buildings in England: agreements and orders granting listed building consent

‘(1) The Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 is amended as follows.

(2) In Chapter 2 of Part 1, after section 26 insert—

“Buildings in England: heritage partnership agreements

26A Heritage partnership agreements

‘(1) A relevant local planning authority may make an agreement under this section (a “heritage partnership agreement”) with any owner of a listed building, or a part of such a building, situated in England.

(2) Any of the following may also be a party to a heritage partnership agreement in addition to an owner and the relevant local planning authority—

(a) any other relevant local planning authority;

(b) the Secretary of State;

(c) the Commission;

(d) any person who has an interest in the listed building;

(e) any occupier of the listed building;

(f) any person involved in the management of the listed building;

(g) any other person who appears to the relevant local planning authority appropriate as having special knowledge of, or interest in, the listed building, or in buildings of architectural or historic interest more generally.

(3) A heritage partnership agreement may contain provision—

(a) granting listed building consent under section 8(1) in respect of specified works for the alteration or extension of the listed building to which the agreement relates, and

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(b) specifying any conditions to which the consent is subject.

(4) The conditions to which listed building consent may be subject under subsection (3)(b) in respect of specified works are those that could be attached to listed building consent in respect of the works if consent were to be granted under section 16.

(5) If a heritage partnership agreement contains provision under subsection (3), nothing in sections 10 to 26 and 28 applies in relation to listed building consent for the specified works, subject to any regulations under section 26B(2)(f).

(6) A heritage partnership agreement may also—

(a) specify or describe works that would or would not, in the view of the parties to the agreement, affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest;

(b) make provision about the maintenance and preservation of the listed building;

(c) make provision about the carrying out of specified work, or the doing of any specified thing, in relation to the listed building;

(d) provide for public access to the listed building and the provision to the public of associated facilities, information or services;

(e) restrict access to, or use of, the listed building;

(f) prohibit the doing of any specified thing in relation to the listed building;

(g) provide for a relevant public authority to make payments of specified amounts and on specified terms—

(i) for, or towards, the costs of any works provided for under the agreement; or

(ii) in consideration of any restriction, prohibition or obligation accepted by any other party to the agreement.

(7) For the purposes of subsection (6)(g), each of the following, if a party to the agreement, is a relevant public authority—

(a) the Secretary of State;

(b) the Commission;

(c) a relevant local planning authority.

(8) In this section “specified” means specified or described in the heritage partnership agreement.

(9) In this section and section 26B—

“owner”, in relation to a listed building or a part of such a building, means a person who is for the time being —

(a) the estate owner in respect of the fee simple in the building or part; or(b) entitled to a tenancy of the building or part granted or extended for a term of years certain of which not less than seven years remain unexpired;

“relevant local planning authority”, in relation to a listed building, means a local planning authority in whose area the building or any part of the building is situated.

26B Heritage partnership agreements: supplemental

‘(1) A heritage partnership agreement—

(a) must be in writing;

(b) must make provision for the parties to review its terms at intervals specified in the agreement;

(c) must make provision for its termination and variation;

(d) may relate to more than one listed building or part, provided that in each case a relevant local planning authority and an owner are parties to the agreement; and

(e) may contain incidental and consequential provisions.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision—

(a) about any consultation that must take place before heritage partnership agreements are made or varied;

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(b) about the publicity that must be given to heritage partnership agreements before or after they are made or varied;

(c) specifying terms that must be included in heritage partnership agreements;

(d) enabling the Secretary of State or any other person specified in the regulations to terminate by order a heritage partnership agreement or any provision of such an agreement;

(e) about the provision that may be included in an order made under regulations under paragraph (d), including provision enabling such orders to contain supplementary, incidental, transitory, transitional or saving provision;

(f) applying or reproducing, with or without modifications, any provision of sections 10 to 26 and 28 for the purposes of heritage partnership agreements;

(g) modifying any other provision of this Act as it applies in relation to heritage partnership agreements.

(3) Regulations made under subsection (2)(a) may, in particular, include provision as to—

(a) the circumstances in which consultation must take place;

(b) the types of listed building in respect of which consultation must take place;

(c) who must carry out the consultation;

(d) who must be consulted (including provision enabling the Commission to direct who is to be consulted in particular cases); and

(e) how the consultation must be carried out.

(4) Listed building consent granted by a heritage partnership agreement (except so far as the agreement or regulations under subsection (2) otherwise provide) enures for the benefit of the building and of all persons for the time being interested in it.

(5) Subject to subsection (4), a heritage partnership agreement cannot impose any obligation or liability, or confer any right, on a person who is not party to the agreement.

(6) Section 84 of the Law of Property Act 1925 (power to discharge or modify restrictive covenant) does not apply to a heritage partnership agreement.”

(3) After section 26B insert—

“Buildings in England: orders granting listed building consent

26C Listed building consent orders

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by order (a “listed building consent order”) grant listed building consent under section 8(1) in respect of works of any description for the alteration or extension of listed buildings of any description in England.

(2) The consent may be granted subject to conditions specified in the order.

(3) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (2), the conditions that may be specified include any conditions subject to which listed building consent may be granted under section 16.

(4) A listed building consent order may (without prejudice to section 17(2)) give the local planning authority power to require details of works to be approved by them, and may grant consent subject to conditions with respect to—

(a) the making of an application to the authority for a determination as to whether such approval is required, and

(b) the outcome of such an application or the way it is dealt with.

(5) A listed building consent order may enable the Secretary of State or the local planning authority to direct that consent granted by the order does not apply—

(a) to a listed building specified in the direction;

(b) to listed buildings of a description specified in the direction;

(c) to listed buildings in an area specified in the direction.

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(6) An order may in particular make provision about the making, coming into force, variation and revocation of such a direction, including provision conferring powers on the Secretary of State in relation to directions by a local planning authority.

(7) Nothing in sections 10 to 26 applies in relation to listed building consent granted by a listed building consent order; but that does not affect the application of sections 20, 21 and 22 in relation to an application for approval required by a condition to which consent is subject.

26D Local listed building consent orders

‘(1) A local planning authority for any area in England may by order (a “local listed building consent order”) grant listed building consent under section 8(1) in respect of works of any description for the alteration or extension of listed buildings.

(2) Regulations under this Act may provide that subsection (1) does not apply to listed buildings of any description or in any area.

(3) The consent granted by a local listed building consent order may relate—

(a) to all listed buildings in the area of the authority or any part of that area;

(b) to listed buildings of any description in that area or any part of that area.

(4) The consent may be granted subject to conditions specified in the order.

(5) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (4), the conditions that may be specified include any subject to which listed building consent may be granted under section 16.

(6) A local listed building consent order may enable the local planning authority to direct that the consent granted by the order in respect of works of any description does not apply—

(a) to a listed building specified in the direction;

(b) to listed buildings of a description specified in the direction;

(c) to listed buildings in an area specified in the direction.

(7) An order may in particular make provision about the making, coming into force, variation and revocation of such a direction, including provision conferring powers on the Secretary of State.

(8) Nothing in sections 10 to 26 applies in relation to listed building consent granted by a local listed building consent order; but that does not affect the application of sections 20, 21 and 22 in relation to an application for approval required by a condition to which consent is subject.

(9) Schedule 2A makes provision in connection with local listed building consent orders.

26E Powers of Secretary of State in relation to local orders

‘(1) At any time before a local listed building consent order is adopted by a local planning authority the Secretary of State may direct that the order (or any part of it) is not to be adopted without the Secretary of State’s approval.

(2) If the Secretary of State gives a direction under subsection (1)—

(a) the authority must not take any step in connection with the adoption of the order until they have submitted the order or the part to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State has decided whether to approve it;

(b) the order has no effect unless it (or the part) has been approved by the Secretary of State.

(3) In considering an order or part submitted under subsection (2)(a) the Secretary of State may take account of any matter the Secretary of State thinks relevant.

(4) It is immaterial whether any such matter was taken account of by the local planning authority.

(5) The Secretary of State—

(a) may approve or reject an order or part of an order submitted under subsection (2)(a);

(b) must give reasons for that decision.

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(6) The Secretary of State—

(a) may at any time before a local listed building consent order is adopted by the local planning authority, direct them to modify it in accordance with the direction;

(b) must give reasons for any such direction.

(7) The local planning authority—

(a) must comply with a direction under subsection (6);

(b) must not adopt the order unless the Secretary of State gives notice of being satisfied that they have complied with the direction.

(8) The Secretary of State—

(a) may at any time by order revoke a local listed building consent order if of the opinion that it is expedient to do so;

(b) must give reasons for doing so.

(9) The Secretary of State—

(a) must not make an order under subsection (8) without consulting the local planning authority;

(b) if proposing to make such an order, must serve notice on the local planning authority.

(10) A notice under subsection (9)(b) must specify the period (which must not be less than 28 days from the date of its service) within which the authority may require an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person appointed by the Secretary of State for the purpose.

(11) The Secretary of State must give the authority such an opportunity if they require it within the period specified in the notice.

26F Considerations in making orders

‘(1) In considering whether to make a listed building consent order or local listed building consent order the Secretary of State or local planning authority must have special regard to the desirability of preserving—

(a) listed buildings of a description to which the order applies,

(b) their setting, or

(c) any features of special architectural or historic interest which they possess.

(2) Before making a listed building consent order the Secretary of State must consult the Commission.

26G Effect of revision or revocation of order on incomplete works

‘(1) A listed building consent order or local listed building consent order may include provision permitting the completion of works if—

(a) listed building consent is granted by the order in respect of the works, and

(b) the listed building consent is withdrawn after the works are started but before they are completed.

(2) Listed building consent granted by an order is withdrawn—

(a) if the order is revoked;

(b) if the order is varied or (in the case of a local listed building consent order) revised so that it ceases to grant listed building consent in respect of the works or materially changes any condition or limitation to which the grant of listed building consent is subject;

(c) if a direction applying to the listed building is issued under powers conferred under section 26C(5) or 26D(6).”

(4) After section 28 insert—

“28A Compensation where consent formerly granted by order is granted conditionally or refused

(1) Section 28 also has effect (subject to subsections (2) and (3)) where—

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(a) listed building consent granted by a listed building consent order or a local listed building consent order is withdrawn (whether by the revocation or amendment of the order or by the issue of a direction), and

(b) on an application for listed building consent made within the prescribed period after the withdrawal, consent for works formerly authorised by the order is refused or is granted subject to conditions other than those imposed by the order.

(2) Section 28 does not have effect by virtue of subsection (1) if—

(a) the works authorised by the order were started before the withdrawal, and

(b) the order included provision in pursuance of section 26G permitting the works to be completed after the withdrawal.

(3) Section 28 does not have effect by virtue of subsection (1) if—

(a) notice of the withdrawal was published in the prescribed manner and within the prescribed period before the withdrawal, and

(b) the works authorised by the order were not started before the notice was published.

(4) Where section 28 has effect by virtue of subsection (1), references in section 28(2) and (3) to the revocation or modification of listed building consent are references to the withdrawal of the listed building consent by revocation or amendment of the order or by issue of the direction.”

(5) Schedule [Local listed building consent orders: procedure] (which inserts Schedule 2A to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990) has effect.’.—(Matthew Hancock.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government new clause 10—Listed buildings in England: certificates of lawfulness.

Government new schedule 1—‘Local listed Building consent orders: procedure.

Government amendments 38 to 40, 42, 43, and 48 to 50.

Matthew Hancock: I shall speak to new clause 9 and new schedule 1 in the first instance. Those provisions are intended to improve the effectiveness of the listed building consent regime and they follow the Penfold review of non-planning consents. They introduce a new system of national and local class consents, and received broad support during consultation. The new system is designed to reduce the number of listed building consent applications for works that have neither a harmful nor significant impact on a building’s special interest. It will be possible to grant consent automatically for certain categories of work or buildings—where the extent of the special interest is well understood—without the need to make an additional application. Thus, the new provisions will protect listed buildings. I, like many others in this House, have a special adoration for the heritage of our listed buildings in this country, not least the one in which we are standing. Our approach will also improve the operation of the regime. [Interruption.] I suppose that I should declare an interest, although it is not the one that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) thinks; I work in a wonderful listed building and I want to ensure that it is protected.

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The changes will also reduce burdens on applicants and free up local planning authority resources to focus on the listed building consent applications that really matter. The Secretary of State will be required to consult English Heritage before making a national order and will be able to apply conditions to consent granted by an order, as with listed building consent at the moment. Both the Secretary of State and any local planning authority will be able to direct that an order does not apply to a specified building, or to buildings of a specified type or in a specified area. The Secretary of State will have the power, at any time, to revoke a listed building consent order, having first served notice on the local planning authority and given it an opportunity to make representations.

The Secretary of State or the local planning authority must have special regard to the desirability of preserving the listed buildings to which the order applies, as well as their setting and any features of special architectural or historic merit that might be affected. We envisage that the processes leading to a class consent will involve the same level of public notice, engagement and consultation as applies to listed building consent currently. These provisions will reduce regulatory burdens without diminishing protection for important heritage sites and buildings. New clause 9 also restates, with minor technical changes in some of the consequential Government amendments, provisions on heritage partnership agreements which were already in the Bill.

New clause 10 introduces a new certificate of lawfulness of proposed works to listed buildings, which will provide certainty to owners and developers of listed buildings—this proposal also received support during consultation. Works to a listed building that do not affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest do not require listed building consent. However, interpretations of whether or not consent is needed can vary, and local planning authorities are often reluctant to give a view because it is ultimately a matter for the courts to determine. That means that those seeking to make changes to listed buildings are sometimes required to submit a formal application for listed building consent in order to gain certainty as to whether or not proposed works would affect the special interest. We hope that certificates of lawfulness of proposed works will provide a simple, straightforward mechanism for owners and developers of listed buildings to gain the certainty they require, while reducing the number of unnecessary consent applications. I therefore trust, not least given the widespread support we had in the consultation, that hon. Members will support these new provisions, and I commend them to the House.

Mr Iain Wright: As I mentioned during the Committee stage, we have no issue with some of the Government’s provisions for heritage planning. Indeed, when we were in government we prepared something similar, in the guise of the Heritage Protection Bill. I am on the record as saying that the merging of conservation area consent and planning permission is sensible and helps us to streamline the process so that it is efficient for the benefit of all concerned. I reiterate the point that I made in Committee that Opposition Members recognise the merits of heritage planning agreements. They have the potential to provide greater efficiency and time

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savings in the planning process while ensuring, as the Minister has rightly said, that our listed buildings are safeguarded for future generations.

The new clauses, however, raise a number of questions about the Government’s approach. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport document “Improving Listed Building Consent” had a consultation period of only four weeks—from 26 July to 23 August. The Heritage Alliance rightly raised significant concerns that that was insufficient and I agree with its written submission to the consultation:

“One month is an extremely short period of time in which to co-ordinate the responses of third sector and voluntary organisations, many of whom meet monthly or quarterly, and may not have an August meeting because of the holiday break. A consultation period over the summer break, which includes the Olympic Games, should be longer not shorter, because potential respondents are on holiday and/or their decision-making bodies do not meet in August.”

Will the Minister directly address that point? Why was the consultation period curtailed, especially when it involved a Department that had geared itself up for the Olympics, which were taking place at that time?

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Wright: I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is an eminent former DCMS Minister.

John Penrose: Perhaps I can provide some clarity, as I was the Minister involved at the time. The simple answer is that we were struggling as a team to get everything ready in time—it was a very compressed time scale—and, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, many of the issues had already been discussed extensively and consulted on throughout the heritage sector as a result of the previous Government’s Heritage Protection Bill. Many of the arguments had already been discussed extensively in public and informally, so we thought it was possible to do it in a short period, particularly because, if we did not do it that fast, we would not be here today getting this Bill on the statute book—subject, of course, to the will of the House.

Mr Wright: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s insider knowledge of the deliberations. There could have been further legislative opportunities. The essential point is that the consultation period was short and in August, at a time when the world was focused on the Olympic games, so not everyone’s views were reflected, as would normally happen. It was contrary to the Cabinet Office’s suggestion of a 12-week consultation period. Notwithstanding the fact that we agree with much of what has been said, we could have had a more considered approach so that people felt they had had their say.

John Penrose: I should also mention that we had extensive discussions with representatives from many interested groups, such as the Heritage Alliance, and were able to reassure them in face-to-face meetings that their concerns had been understood and that their substantive worries or issues were being incorporated. At that point, I think that the Heritage Alliance was reassured, compared with its starting position in the original submission, which the hon. Gentleman has read out.

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Mr Wright: Again, I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. [Interruption.] I apologise—the hon. Gentleman is a former Minister, but it can only be a matter of time before he is made a Minister again. I am grateful for his useful perspective.

In new clause 9, proposed new section 26C(4) to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 means that, when conditions are imposed, the listed building consent order may provide that the requirement to have prior approval for works ceases to apply if the local planning authority or the Secretary of State fails to notify the decision within a prescribed period. That seems to be a reasonable approach, with the onus on the relevant authority. However, such heritage provisions raise questions about resources and the capacity to deliver those objectives. Given the cuts and staff reductions in local authorities, the pressures on all services and the fact that local authorities are rightly having to prioritise differently, what work can the Minister do, perhaps with his counterparts at the DCMS and the DCLG to ensure that local planning authorities can prioritise this matter sufficiently?

6.45 pm

It is perfectly possible for a single point of contact within a local authority to be the sole person with responsibility for listed building consents, so how can the matter be addressed if that person is ill, on holiday or away from the office for some other reason? Will the approach that the Minister has outlined this afternoon not lead to a widening gap between local planning authorities that are confident in their expertise in this field and that have knowledgeable conservation officers, and local authorities that do not have such expertise? Is there a risk that less confident planning authorities will wait until the end of the statutory period is imminent and then default to the no decision, requiring full listed building consent, because they do not have the expertise to do anything else? In a similar vein, given the pressures on resources and the competing priorities, how does the Minister suggest that enforcement issues will be addressed?

I agree with much of proposed new section 26D to the 1990 Act, which will allow a local planning authority to make a local listed building consent order for alterations or extensions to, but not demolitions of, specific types of building or in specific areas within a local authority area. However, it is not clear what level of local consultation and engagement is necessary before such an order may be granted. The Minister addressed it to some extent in his opening remarks, but I would like him to expand on that.

Hartlepool civic society in my constituency contributed to the consultation. It expressed the following concern:

“Interested consultees would also be omitted from the process. This is totally converse to the government giving local communities greater control. The suggested deemed consent would not offer any warning to communities to whom the heritage asset would have the greatest value.”

As I said, the Minister hinted at that and provided minimal reassurance, but I would like him to expand on it. Will consultation be altered as a result of the changes? Will he outline how consultation with local residents will take place as a result of the provisions?

Proposed new section 26E to the 1990 Act will give the Secretary of State the power to direct that a local listed building consent order, or any part of it, be submitted

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to the Secretary of State for approval before it is adopted. That gives the Secretary of State large, centralised powers over local decisions. I understand from the explanatory notes that new section 26E will work along similar lines to the call-in process for local development orders. Will the Minister confirm that and tell the House what criteria would warrant a Secretary of State calling in a listed building consent order for approval?

Finally, new clause 10 relates to the certificate of lawfulness of proposed works. The Minister said that anyone who wishes to ascertain whether a proposed alteration or extension to a listed building would be lawful will be able to make a simple application to the local planning authority describing what is proposed and will receive a formal response. If the local planning authority is satisfied that the works will be lawful, it must issue a certificate to that effect.

I have a number of questions about that proposal. For something that is meant to be deregulatory, there is a risk that the process will be somewhat cumbersome and bureaucratic. Good planning authorities already encourage early informal dialogue with the developer or owner. The Minister will be aware from his constituency work load that people say to the planning authority, “I am thinking of doing this work on a listed building. Would you be happy with it?” Will new clause 10 not add more formality and bureaucracy to the process? A local planning authority will have to be absolutely convinced that the works will not require listed building consent. However, is it not the case that the level of work that would be necessary to be so convinced could not be provided by the limited information that will be required for the certificate of lawful works? Will certificates of lawful works be issued retrospectively? If so, how could the local planning authority prove a case in which a CLW was issued that did not require full listed building consent?

Finally, I understand that proposed new section 26H(5) provides that the lawfulness of any works for which a certificate is in force will be

“conclusively presumed unless there is any material change”.

What does “conclusively presumed” mean in terms of time scale? Is it in perpetuity? What constitutes a material change in those circumstances? Will the regulations that are proposed to shape the framework and process for this provision clarify that matter and my other points? I hope that, in the time remaining, the Minister will address some of my concerns, but as I have said, the Labour party supports the general direction of travel proposed by the Government.

John Penrose: I will rise briefly in the limited time available, and I welcome the fact that both Front-Bench speakers seem to be strongly in favour of this provision, albeit with a few questions to answer. I was the Minister at the time the measures were originally conceived and drafted—albeit taken from an earlier attempt by the previous Government—and I am delighted to see such wide cross-party support. I am sure all hon. Members will agree that, given the incredibly tight time scale that needed to be executed over the summer and the past few weeks in order to include these measures in the Bill, an enormous amount of incredibly hard work has been done by officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and those elsewhere on the Bill team, and we should mark that. In case there is a perceived

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conflict of interest, I should mention the fact that I live in a listed building. I do not think that makes a huge difference, but I will at least draw it to the attention of the House.

The proposed new clauses—together with their predecessors that were included in the Bill in Committee—form a rounded package. The overall picture now emerging is that the owner, or potential owner, of a listed building will have far greater certainty and clarity about what they can and cannot do with that building than they would otherwise have had. Uncertainty and fog are the enemies of speedy investment, and life will be far simpler and more straightforward for owners who wish to make changes in a way that is consonant and in sympathy with the heritage nature of their property. They will be able to get on and make those changes with far greater confidence that what they are doing is acceptable and allowable.

The Bill will also mean—this goes to the heart of one or two of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright)—that in many cases local authorities will save themselves a great deal of time and money. Members will know that heritage consent is not something for which local authorities can charge, and it therefore acts as a net cost on their operations. Anything that can reduce the amount of additional processing required—obviously without abandoning important heritage protection—must be helpful. Therefore, if in Somerset, Kent, Staffordshire, or wherever, local authorities are able to note a particular style of vernacular architecture that is locally listed, either at national level or with conservation areas, and list a series of changes that would be allowable, that must be to everybody’s advantage. It helps the owners and the local planning officials. I therefore welcome these measures and give them my strong support, and I am hopeful that all hon. Members will support them in due course.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I remind the House that there is no protected time for a ministerial response. I would like the Minister to be able to respond to a number of points raised by hon. Members, but we are working to the Government’s timetable, approved by the House. Therefore, if the Minister is to reply, a certain self-discipline will hereafter be required.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I am Mr Self-Discipline, but someone needs to break this ridiculous, cosy consensus over the tax grab that is being proposed, and I suggest that the House should get into the real world. I live in a listed building and deal with local authorities, and week by week, across the country, pre-planning advice from those local authorities is being charged for.

At the moment, if I want to splice one little piece of wood in one window in my house, I require planning permission costing £400. The Government’s new clause means that, if I want to splice one little bit of rotten wood, I will be charged £400 for pre-planning advice by my authority. That is happening with authorities all over the country. It is total nonsense.

Authorities are finding new ways of making money and new taxes. It might not be the Government’s intention, but that is what happening. Authorities are finding new ways that they never bothered about before to say,

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“You’d better seek some advice before doing things.” My neighbour has been told that a slight change in the colour of his paint requires planning consent. My house is 400 years old and I have a brick wall that is 30-years-old. I was told this week that if I want to add a brick to it, I will need planning consent. Where is the heritage in a 30-year-old 1970s brick wall in a 400-year-old house? There is none.

This is a tax grab by local authorities. Added to the affordable housing tax grab and the community infrastructure levy tax grab, it means that those who live in listed properties will not be able to afford to do anything with them. It is about time someone spoke up against the additional taxes that this evil coalition is bringing in.

Matthew Hancock rose—

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con) rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I fear I must now call the Minister—I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

Matthew Hancock: In the very short time available, I shall first deal with the previous two speeches. I agree with every word spoken by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and am grateful for his intervention, but I disagree with almost everything that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, not least because the Government’s measures will make his situation easier, and because changes other than where there is a special interest will no longer require consent in the same way. That will make his life easier.

Paul Maynard: The Twentieth Century Society has asked me to point out one of its concerns. There is no obligation to any planning authority to consult it, as an amenities society, rather than English Heritage. As the Minister may know, they have very different views on modern buildings. Will he reflect on that?

Matthew Hancock: I shall respond to that and to the questions from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) in the same way, if I may.

Enforcement, local consultation—this deals with my hon. Friend’s concern—and the system for calling in are unchanged by the new clauses. There will be no addition of formality. That is unlikely—[Interruption.] That is not the intention. The new system will be less cumbersome than the current one.

On the question of what “conclusively presumed” until there is a “material change” means, “material change” means exactly what it says.

I echo what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and add that there were 400 responses to the consultation, not least because of the amount of face-to-face discussions with Ministers at the time and the amount preparatory work.

On capacity, we will work with local planning authorities, but overall, the measures will reduce the burden on them. Currently, local planning authorities do not put a named individual in charge. In most cases, there is an IT system to ensure that proposals go through to somebody in good time.

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Let me give the House an example of how the measures will help. British Waterways carried out 353 works to designated heritage assets in 2010-11. Some 164 required full applications, and 189 were performed after clearance to proceed without consent through correspondence with the local planning authority. We certainly do not want to water down the communication with local planning authorities that makes things easier.

I shall give some examples of the sorts of things that the provision will help. Technically, grouting within a listed property requires consent. I am sure that we can all agree that grouting is good and is the sort of thing that could be covered by a national agreement. Lock replacements—

7 pm

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 9 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

New Clause 10

Listed buildings in England: certificates of lawfulness

‘(1) In the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 after section 26G insert—

“Buildings in England: certificates of lawfulness

26H Certificate of lawfulness of proposed works

‘(1) A person who wishes to ascertain whether proposed works for the alteration or extension of a listed building in England would be lawful may make an application to the local planning authority specifying the building and describing the works.

(2) For the purposes of this section works would be lawful if they would not affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest.

(3) If on an application under this section the local planning authority are provided with information satisfying them that the works described in the application would be lawful at the time of the application, they must issue a certificate to that effect; and in any other case they must refuse the application.

(4) A certificate under this section must—

(a) specify the building to which it relates;

(b) describe the works concerned;

(c) give the reasons for determining that the works would be lawful; and

(d) specify the date of the application for the certificate.

(5) The lawfulness of any works for which a certificate is in force under this section is to be conclusively presumed unless there is a material change, before the works are begun, in any of the matters relevant to determining their lawfulness.

26I Certificates under section 26H: supplementary

‘(1) An application for a certificate under section 26H must be made in such manner as may be prescribed by regulations under this Act.

(2) An application must include such particulars, and be verified by such evidence, as may be required—

(a) by the regulations,

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(b) by any directions given under the regulations, or

(c) by the local planning authority.

(3) Regulations under this Act may make provision about how applications for a certificate under section 26H are to be dealt with by local planning authorities.

(4) In particular, regulations may provide for requiring the authority—

(a) to give to any applicant within a prescribed period such notice as may be prescribed as to the manner in which the application has been dealt with; and

(b) to give to the Secretary of State, and to such other persons as may be prescribed, prescribed information with respect to such applications made to the authority, including information as to the manner in which any application has been dealt with.

(5) A certificate under section 26H may be issued--

(a) for the whole or part of the listed building specified in the application; and

(b) for all or part of the works described in the application;

and must be in such form as may be prescribed.

(6) A local planning authority may revoke a certificate under section 26H if, on the application for the certificate—

(a) a statement was made or document used which was false in a material particular; or

(b) any material information was withheld.

(7) Regulations under this section may make provision for regulating the manner in which certificates may be revoked and the notice to be given of such revocation.

26J Offences

‘(1) A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of procuring a particular decision on an application (whether or not by that person) for the issue of a certificate under section 26H, the person—

(a) knowingly or recklessly makes a statement which is false or misleading in a material particular;

(b) with intent to deceive, uses any document which is false or misleading in a material particular; or

(c) with intent to deceive, withholds any material information.

(2) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—

(a) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum; or

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

(3) Notwithstanding section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, a magistrates’ court may try an information in respect of an offence under subsection (1) whenever laid.

26K Appeals against refusal or failure to give decision on application

‘(1) Where an application is made to a local planning authority for a certificate under section 26H and—

(a) the application is refused or is refused in part, or

(b) the authority do not give notice to the applicant of their decision on the application within such period as may be prescribed by an order under section 26I or within such extended period as may at any time be agreed in writing between the applicant and the authority,

the applicant may by notice appeal to the Secretary of State.

(2) A notice of appeal under this section—

(a) must be served within such time and in such manner as may be prescribed by an order made by the Secretary of State;

(b) must be accompanied by such information as may be prescribed by such an order.

(3) The time prescribed for the service of a notice of appeal under this section must not be less than—

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(a) 28 days from the date of notification of the decision on the application; or

(b) in the case of an appeal under subsection (1)(b), 28 days from—

(i) the end of the period prescribed as mentioned in subsection (1)(b), or

(ii) as the case may be, the extended period mentioned in subsection (1)(b).

(4) On an appeal under this section, the Secretary of State must grant the appellant a certificate under section 26H or, in the case of a refusal in part, modify the certificate granted by the authority on the application, if and so far as the Secretary of State is satisfied—

(a) in the case of an appeal under subsection (1)(a), that the authority’s refusal is not well-founded, or

(b) in the case of an appeal under subsection (1)(b), that if the authority had refused the application their refusal would not have been well-founded.

(5) If and so far as the Secretary of State is satisfied that the authority’s refusal is or, as the case may be, would have been well-founded, the Secretary of State must dismiss the appeal.

(6) Where the Secretary of State grants a certificate under section 26H on an appeal under this section, the Secretary of State must give notice to the local planning authority of that fact.

(7) References in this section to a refusal of an application in part include a modification or substitution of the description in the application of the works concerned.

(8) Schedule 3 applies to an appeal under this section.”’.—(Matthew Hancock.)

Brought up, and added to the Bill.

New Schedule 1

‘Local listed Building consent orders: procedure

In the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, after Schedule 2 insert—

“Schedule 2A

Section 26D

Local listed building consent orders: procedure

Preparation

1 (1) A local listed building consent order must be prepared in accordance with such procedure as is prescribed by regulations under this Act.

(2) The regulations may include provision as to—

(a) the preparation, submission, approval, adoption, revision, revocation and withdrawal of a local listed building consent order;

(b) notice, publicity, and inspection by the public;

(c) consultation with and consideration of views of such persons and for such purposes as are prescribed;

(d) the making and consideration of representations.

Revision

2 (1) The local planning authority may at any time prepare a revision of a local listed building consent order.

(2) An authority must prepare a revision of a local listed building consent order—

(a) if the Secretary of State directs them to do so, and

(b) in accordance with such timetable as the Secretary of State directs.

(3) This Schedule applies to the revision of a local listed building consent order as it applies to the preparation of the order.

(4) A local listed building consent order may not be varied except by revision under this paragraph.

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Order to be adopted

3 A local listed building consent order is of no effect unless it is adopted by resolution of the local planning authority.

Annual report

4 (1) While a local listed building consent order is in force the local planning authority must prepare reports containing such information as is prescribed as to the extent to which the order is achieving its purposes.

(2) A report under this paragraph must—

(a) be in respect of a period—

(i) which the authority considers appropriate in the interests of transparency,

(ii) which begins with the end of the period covered by the authority’s most recent report under this paragraph (or, in the case of the first report, with the day the order comes into force), and

(iii) which is not longer than 12 months or such shorter period as is prescribed;

(b) be in such form as is prescribed;

(c) contain such other matter as is prescribed.

(3) The authority must make its reports under this section available to the public.”’.—(Matthew Hancock.)

Brought up, and added to the Bill.

Schedule 16

Heritage Planning Regulation

Amendments made: 48, page 224, line 29, leave out paragraph 9.

No. 49, page 227, line 16, at end insert—

9A In section 32(1)(a) (purchase notice on refusal or conditional grant of consent)—

(a) for “listed building consent in respect of a building” substitute “on an application for listed building consent in respect of a building, consent”;

(b) before “is revoked” insert “such consent granted on an application”.

9B In section 62(2) (validity of certain orders and decisions), after paragraph (a) insert—

“(aa) any decision to approve or reject a local listed building consent order or part of such an order;

(ab) any decision on an appeal under section 26K;”.’.

No.50, page 227, line 33, at end insert—

11A In section 82(3) (application of Act to land and works of local planning authorities) for “to 29” substitute “to 26, 28, 29”.

11B In section 82A(2) (application to the Crown), after paragraph (c) insert—

“(ca) section 26J;”.

11C In section 88(2)(c) (rights of entry) after “11” insert “, 26J”.

11D (1) Section 93 (regulations and orders) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (4) after “8(5),” insert “26C,”.

(3) In subsection (5) after “section” insert “26C,”.

11E (1) Schedule 3 (determination of certain appeals by person appointed by Secretary of State) is amended as follows.

(2) In paragraph 1(1), 2(8)(a) and 3(3) after “20” insert “, 26K”.

(3) In paragraph 2(1) after paragraph (a) (before “and” at the end) insert—

(aa) in relation to an appeal under section 26K, as the Secretary of State has under section 26K(4) to (6);”.’. —(Matthew Hancock.)

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New Clause 11

Osborne estate

‘(1) Section 1 of the Osborne Estate Act 1902 is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (3) (land to be managed in accordance with Crown Lands Act 1851) omit “as if it had been committed to their management under section twenty-two of the Crown Lands Act, 1851”.

(3) Omit subsection (4)(b) (part of house and grounds to be used for the benefit of officers and their families).

(4) Omit the following provisions (which relate to land no longer forming part of the Osborne estate)—

(a) in subsection (3) the words from “and the part” to “Barton House and grounds)”;

(b) in subsection (4) the words from “And the Commissioners” to the end.

(5) The Osborne Estate Act 1914 (which gives power to extend the classes of persons who may benefit under section 1(4)(b) of the Osborne Estate Act 1902) is repealed.’.—(Matthew Hancock.)

Brought up, and added to the Bill.

Bill, as amended, to be further considered tomorrow.

Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Renewable Energy

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 11052/12, and Addenda 1 to 3, a Commission Communication: Renewable Energy—a major player in the European energy market; notes that the Government’s position is one of cautious welcome for the broad proposals, which may help to improve the development of renewable energy across the EU; and agrees with the Government that the next step should be to consider the merits of forthcoming new renewable energy legislative proposals put forward by the Commission, and to support those proposals which add value and do not diminish the effectiveness of the UK’s current regime.—(Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Sulphur Contents for Marine Fuels

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 13016/11 and Addendum, relating to a Commission Communication on the review of the implementation of Directive 1999/32/EC related to the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels and on further pollutant emissions reduction from maritime transport, and No. 12806/11 and Addenda 1 and 2, relating to a draft Directive amending Directive 1999/32/EC as regards the sulphur content of marine fuels; and supports the Government’s view that the proposed compromise, which is closely aligned with the international standard in the MARPOL Convention, is a welcome outcome.—(Anne Milton.)

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The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 41A).

Delegated Legislation (Committees)

Ordered,

That the Motion in the name of Mr Andrew Lansley relating to the Electoral Commission shall be treated as if it related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice of a motion has been given that the instrument be approved.—(Anne Milton.)


Petition

Film ‘Innocence of Muslims’

7.3 pm

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I would like to present a petition organised by several of my local mosques and bearing the signatures of about 8,000 people residing in Pendle. I was presented with the petition at a public meeting on 3 October at Silverman hall in Nelson and promised to make the House aware of the petitioners’ feelings.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Nelson, Lancashire and elsewhere,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the showing in the UK of the film Innocence of Muslims, which the Petitioners believe has blasphemous contents, has deeply offended Muslims not only in the United Kingdom but also throughout the world; further that freedom of speech and the showing or publishing of material in certain instances has been restricted by the UK and that the Government in recent legislation e.g. The Anti-Terror laws, restricted such where it was thought best for the public interest and that this evidences that freedom of speech can be restricted in certain cases; further that the Petitioners believe that the effects of this film have caused racial and religious relations in an already troubled world to deteriorate and has caused people to suffer upset and injured feeling and is an infringement of their religious rights and beliefs; further that, the Petitioners believe films such as this one merely serve to damage efforts to rebuild community relations at time when all communities should be working hard to do so; further that the Petitioners believe such films are therefore not in the interests of public or society as a whole and that the Petitioners believe it is the social responsibility of any government in modern times to prevent such material from being shown or published as it goes against all efforts of promoting world peace.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to legislate to ban the showing of the film Innocence of Muslims in the UK and urges the Government to conduct a comprehensive enquiry to consider and re-introduce a new law against blasphemy, with a view to passing legislation aimed at protecting all religions and races from being subjected to mocking and ridicule.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.

[P001123]

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Armed Forces Pensions

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

7.5 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): The purpose of calling this evening’s debate is to bring to the Minister’s attention a group of former spouses who, due to miscalculations in their pension provision by the Ministry of Defence, now face very uncertain futures. It seems that there is a group of 126 women who have been affected by the mistake. I believe it right and proper for the MOD now to take the steps necessary to ensure that this does not happen again and to compensate the individuals affected, particularly where their financial situation and life circumstances have been substantively impaired.

Three constituents came to see me in March this year. In accordance with their wishes, I shall not be disclosing their names to the House. However, their experiences are fairly representative of the group of women affected. One individual, having made the difficult decision to divorce, asked for the details of her former husband’s pension pot from the SPVA—the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, which administers military pensions—in March 2010. Her husband’s pension was in fact already in payment. The SPVA gave details and confirmed, both on the telephone and in writing, that my constituent would be able to take her pension from the age of 55 with no actuarial reduction being applied. Therefore, in April 2010 the judge was able to finalise her divorce, relying on the information provided by the SPVA, which had been confirmed in writing.

The pension for my constituent came into payment and she undertook a number of financial obligations, feeling certain of a definite and defined monthly income payment for the rest of her life. She bought a property and undertook renovations on it, as she sought to start her new life. It has since been discovered that in November 2010 the MOD was contacted by the Department for Work and Pensions and made aware that an error had been made in the way it had interpreted DWP legislation. It meant that actuarial reductions should have been applied to those former spouses who took a pension at the age of 55. However, none of the affected spouses was informed of the error, and their pensions continued to be paid from November 2010, when the MOD was first notified that an error had occurred, to spring 2012, when the MOD communicated the error to those affected and my constituent first approached me.

On 1 March 2012, 16 months after the mistake first came to light, my constituent was notified by phone that she would receive a reduction in her pension of over 40%, which was to take effect in three months’ time. A letter confirming that arrived a few days later, on 5 March. The stress and worry must have been unimaginable. Illness followed and she lost half a stone very quickly. She sold her car, as she was so worried about the reduction in her income and felt that she had to downsize her lifestyle rapidly. Obviously she also felt under an enormous degree of strain.

Then, two months later, on 13 May 2012, my constituent received a further communication from the SPVA informing her of another mistake, which meant that she would receive more than the reduced amount but still a 16%

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reduction on the amount on which her divorce settlement had been based, from which she had been receiving payments for the previous 18 months.

I am sorry to say that that individual is not an isolated example. A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who is in his place this evening, had a similar experience. She took actuarial advice based on advice from the MOD before finalising the divorce, and acting on that advice, the judge awarded a clean break settlement comprising 40% of her former husband’s pension pot. On the basis of that guaranteed income, she secured a mortgage. She now finds herself with a 20% reduction in her income due to the miscalculation and is looking at losing her house. She has been in hospital for emergency operations and has been treated for stress, and she is now on sleeping tablets.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject and for mentioning my constituent. Does he agree that although one can understand that the principles of good administration require that public authorities such as the Ministry of Defence and the SPVA do not make irregular payments, they also require public authorities to be held to their promises, especially when they have created a legitimate expectation upon which people have acted, as in this case? Does he therefore agree that the right route in these circumstances is generous compensation?

John Glen: Absolutely. I fully endorse what my hon. Friend says, and I will come on to some specific points to which I hope the Minister will respond.

In what is an exceedingly traumatic time for anyone—going through a divorce and facing up to a new life—it is absolutely imperative that any agency of a Government Department gets the facts right first time, particularly when dealing with issues that have painful and far-reaching implications. My constituent has told me that since the mistakes have been known, the SPVA, to its credit, has done its best to provide as much information as it can, for which she is sincerely grateful. Information is one thing, but we now need action, leading to justice.

The bottom line is that former husbands and wives, the courts, actuaries and mortgage companies all relied on the information provided to them by the MOD. They had no reason to believe it to be in any way incorrect, particularly in my constituent’s case, in which the SPVA was asked directly whether there would be an actuarial reduction if she took her pension at 55. The SPVA wrote back in black and white on 6 April 2010 to say that that would not be the case.

The mistakes have had serious repercussions for a number of divorce settlements, which were decided on the basis of erroneous information. That means that the lifestyles that the judges thought it fair for both parties to have after the divorce are now not sustainable. In most cases of a so-called clean break divorce, the court will not hear the divorce case again, so the former wife—it usually is the wife—has no legal recourse. It may be possible to go back to court under ancillary relief proceedings to re-examine the finances, but the former husband may have to agree to that. Even if a

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court agreed to a rehearing, which is expensive in itself, many husbands would not, quite rationally and understandably on one level.

I have figures provided by an actuary from Actuaries for Lawyers, specialising in armed forces pensions, who has estimated what my constituent’s loss will be over her expected life span. I would be happy to let the Minister see those figures, and the actuary himself would be happy to meet him and representatives of the relevant agency in the Department to explain how he arrived at them.

This evening, I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. When exactly was the mistake made? Who notified the SPVA of the mistake? Who is accountable for it? I do not wish to have a witch hunt, but as yet I have not received a satisfactory account of why the mistake was made, and I am not yet confident that it will not happen again. I also want to know what actions the Minister and SPVA officials have taken, or will take, to ensure that there is no recurrence of the same mistake.

My most pressing question is why it took so long for the MOD to contact those affected by the error. There was a 16-month window from when the mistake was discovered to the point at which those affected were contacted. That wait was unacceptable. The strategic defence and security review has been completed and, from my recent Defence Committee experience, I know that many complex changes have taken place within the MOD, but the SPVA still had a duty of care to get things right. That is its job. The argument that it “had a lot on” cannot be used.

As I have tried to stress, this error has had a huge effect on the victims. Some have become ill, and chronic illness has ensued. Some have found it hard to cope with the paperwork involved as they try and get to the bottom of what has happened. Some are facing the risk of repossession. Many have committed themselves to expenses that they cannot now maintain, or would not have entered into had they known what was going to happen. Many face adjustments to their living arrangements that they would not have had to contemplate, had their settlements been agreed on the correct basis.

I cannot do justice tonight to the misery and upset of so many families, but I hope that the Minister will reflect fully on the circumstances of my constituent and others. I want him to give a categorical assurance that compensation will be awarded, not only to those who are able to challenge this decision, through me or other MPs, but to the whole group of women involved. My constituent was awarded the well-meant but token amount of £250 to cover the “inconvenience and uncertainty”, in a letter dated 13 September 2012. However, not everyone has been given that. Why not? Did she receive it just because she was able to pursue the MOD? Some others have not been strong enough to do so, perhaps because they have been ill or simply not as persistent. There is a principle at stake here. The MOD made a mistake and the miscalculations directly affected the choices made by this group of women and their former partners.

I am aware, from previous correspondence I have had with the MOD on this issue, that a hardship fund is available to those in need. That is welcome, but it does

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not address the real issue, which is one of justice. The MOD ought to honour the assumptions made by the court, which decided on what it thought to be a fair and just distribution of assets based on figures given to it by the SPVA. That decision has now been compromised through errors made not by the individuals concerned but by the MOD.

If we assume an average shortfall of £50,000 per person over their lifetime, we find that the MOD would need to find approximately £6 million in compensation. Given the lifetime of service that those spouses have given through supporting their husbands and, in some cases, forfeiting their own chances of a career through the frequent relocations necessary for many service households, I hope that the Minister will order full and complete compensation from the hardship funds. That should include all reasonable legal costs, and it would be helpful if the recoverable costs could be defined.

The Minister should also take whatever steps are necessary to establish where the error was made and to ensure those responsible are retrained to make certain that this does not happen again. This Government have taken great steps with the military covenant during their time in office, but this matter tests both the letter and the spirit of the covenant. I have the highest personal respect for the Minister. He has been in post for only just over 40 days, but he has already cultivated widespread respect among many veterans’ organisations. I now look forward to hearing his sympathetic and effective response.

7.19 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this important debate. I acknowledge his genuine concern for the individual cases he has mentioned—several members of his own constituency and one other represented by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon). I am aware of the particular circumstances of the individual case on which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has focused, and I would like to explain the error in pensions policy interpretation that has led to this situation and what has been done to support individuals who might have encountered financial and other difficulties as a result.

For the benefit of the House, I will set out a little of the background, but may I start by saying that when a service person divorces or dissolves a civil partnership, we acknowledge that it can be a difficult and stressful time for both parties? I fully recognise, especially in the current climate, that to have received the news that the amount of pension that was already in payment would reduce, or in the case of deferred pensions would be less than expected, would have been a great cause for concern. If any additional upset or distress has been caused as a result of errors made by the Department, I offer my own very sincere apology to those affected.

By way of introduction to this subject, pension credit members are former spouses or civil partners of members of our armed forces pension schemes who have been awarded a pension sharing order on divorce or on the dissolution of a civil partnership. They are a special category member of the pension scheme to which their

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former spouse or partner belongs. So while they are members in their own right, the terms of their membership do not directly mirror the pension entitlement of their former spouse or partner.

As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury well understands, the legislation in this area is complex. Occupational pensions would normally become payable from age 65. New legislation was introduced in 2009 that allowed pensions to be brought into payment from the age of 55. The Ministry of Defence’s pensions policy staff wrongly interpreted this legislation as allowing payment from the age of 55 without any reduction for early payment. However, my Department’s reading of the law was mistaken.

The legislation was intended to make early payment an option, but if the pension was to be paid early, a corresponding reduction was also required. The error was first identified in the latter part of 2010 during an exercise to review the regulations for the armed forces pension scheme. As soon as it was identified, work began to amend the regulations of all of the pension schemes affected. My Department’s pensions policy staff instructed the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to apply the correct policy to new cases from March 2011.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for bringing this matter to our attention. He said in his introduction that life circumstances have been substantially affected, so I ask the Minister whether, in the review, he would be prepared to look at those who have been awarded compensation, as it has affected their benefits? Will he consider them as well as the wives and family members as part of the review that the Minister hopes to undertake?

Mr Francois: I hope that, by the time I get to the end of my speech, the hon. Gentleman will agree that we are doing our best to look at this issue and try to put it right. He will be able to make that judgment afterwards, but I hope that what I say will address the spirit of what he has asked.

The effect of misinterpreting the legislation was that 127 pensions already in payment to pension credit members required an adjustment to be made—in the majority of cases, this would result in a reduction. In March 2012, the Department notified all those members affected and advised that the changes would come into effect from June this year. The average annual reduction to pensions in payment was approximately £783, although in some cases this will have been significantly higher.

During business questions in April 2012, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury asked the Leader of the House to seek an apology from the Ministry of Defence and to take corrective action that would, in effect, restore the pensions to the original amount. The Leader of the House asked for urgent inquiries to be made to establish whether any injustice had occurred. My predecessor, the Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) wrote to my hon. Friend on 10 May, confirming that while an error had occurred in allowing the pensions to be paid on the wrong basis, legally there was no provision to continue paying the pensions knowingly at the incorrect rate.

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My predecessor also confirmed that when the pensions were being adjusted to the correct rate, a calculation error was made by the Department. That further mistake was identified quickly, and revised calculations were issued to those affected as soon as was practicable. When the correct methodology was applied, the reductions in pension amounts in all those cases proved to be less than had previously been indicated. In a few cases pensions actually increased, as did the lump sums received by some pension credit members as part of divorce settlements.

As I am sure the House will agree, when there is no legal entitlement for a pension to continue to be paid at an incorrect rate, the payment must be put right without undue delay. Regrettably, in this instance the matter was not addressed as quickly as it ought to have been, and the payments were allowed to continue. Again, I apologise for that.

In the spring of 2012, when the extent of both errors had been recognised, the Ministry of Defence did its best to put things right. As a first step, approval having been sought from Her Majesty’s Treasury, overpayments to 127 pension credit members totalling more than £176,000 were waived, and no recovery action was pursued. In addition, in recognition of the need for those affected to adjust to a reduced income in future, a period of three months’ grace was given to those whose pensions were already being paid.

For the sake of completeness, the House should know that the same errors also affected 417 deferred pension credit members. Deferred members are those whose pensions have not yet been paid. Those members were also written to in March 2012, and were told that the amount of pension they were expecting to receive at the age of 55 was incorrect. They could still choose to take their pensions early at 55 or they could wait until they were 65, but the amount would need to be recalculated. Once deferred members' pensions had also been calculated on the correct basis, the vast majority of deferred members saw their annual pensions actually increase above the original estimated value.

All those affected were offered an opportunity to discuss their situation with the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency’s welfare service. In March 2012, when the original pension recalculations were completed and the reductions in pension were known, the agency identified those with the most significant reductions and those who might be particularly vulnerable, and arranged for a welfare manager to visit them personally. The visits were completed, whenever possible, throughout March, and ensured that that group of individuals could be in direct contact with a welfare manager should they require further or ongoing support. In each case involving welfare contact, a full case assessment was carried out. It examined individual circumstances, and included potential entitlement to other benefits. Further support and advice have been given to a number of pension credit members, and, when appropriate, they have been helped to apply for further DWP benefits such as disability living allowance and carer’s allowance.

The potential financial difficulties that the adjustment might have caused some individuals was also recognised. Claims for hardship that could be substantiated could be discussed in confidence with the welfare service and submitted for consideration. Five claims for financial hardship, six claims for a consolatory payment and two

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claims for other financial losses have been received and considered, and compensation has been paid when appropriate. That route remains open to pension credit members, including my hon. Friend’s constituents, who may be facing genuine financial hardship as a result of the changes in their annual pensions. I appreciate that making any such claim is a difficult step to take, but I assure my hon. Friend that it would be handled in a sensitive manner and in conjunction with members of our welfare service. They are there to offer support, and I urge all affected individuals to make contact to see what can be done.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend recognised the efforts that my Department has made in supplying information to his constituent. I assure the House that it has learnt some valuable lessons from its mistakes in this case. Improved processes have been introduced to enhance the training of, and more effective working between, pensions policy and operational delivery staffs. That has included a strong focus on ensuring that the potential implications of future legislative changes are correctly interpreted and fully understood.

I have listened to all that my hon. Friend has said today. While it is perfectly true that an error was made in the interpretation of legislation in this complex area, and that that was further exacerbated by errors in our calculations—for which I have already apologised—I urge the House to recognise that my Department has acted to minimise the effects that the error has caused. We have not sought to recover the overpayments, we

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have given three months’ grace enabling members to adjust to the reduced amount of pension, we have offered welfare support when it has been required or considered appropriate, and we have made arrangements for claims to be considered when financial hardship has been demonstrated. My hon. Friend has made considerable efforts to support this group of individuals through all possible parliamentary channels. That is evidence of his commitment to champion their cause to seek to ensure that no injustice has taken place.

My hon. Friend has suggested that some form of compensation is due to those affected by these errors. I agree. Although there is no statutory entitlement to maintain these pensions at the full amount, I can assure the House that the MOD has in place a comprehensive process to compensate these individuals where financial hardship has resulted because of the changes to their pension. The process will consider individual cases and assess the impact the errors have had. If individuals are not satisfied with the outcome, it is of course open to them to pursue the matter of any compensation through the legal system.

In conclusion, I urge those individuals who have been affected to engage or re-engage with our welfare system so that we can consider each individual case in the round and do our best to put things right. We must make amends and we will seek to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

7.30 pm

House adjourned.