“is sufficient to demonstrate meaningful access to participate in public worship.”

I have a copy of this notice board. It does not seem that different from—in fact, it seems to contain more details than—the average Church of England notice board. Pardon me for referring to those; I am simply picking that example because we see them so often. The notice board states:

“Brethren’s meeting room”

and

“place of public religious worship”.

There is a reference to registration and the words,

“For details of gospel preachings and meetings for Bible teaching please phone”

two phone numbers

“or write”

to an address. It also states:

“A Gospel Preaching will be held on Sundays at 5 p.m. and all well-disposed persons are welcome to attend”,

and so forth.

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Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Is not my hon. Friend’s key point that the Plymouth Brethren are not a closed sect, but an organisation that welcomes the public to participate in its activities and an important part of a vibrant community, such as the one in Swindon that I represent?

Fiona Bruce: Absolutely. There is a complete distinction—I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify it—between the Brethren and closed orders of nuns, for example, which understandably do not have charitable status. The Brethren are different, living and working within local communities.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is generous in giving way.

There are gospel halls in my constituency. I have found the Brethren to be a welcoming group with a strong sense of community who do good work across their community, as other churches and faith groups do. It would be wrong if Brethren trusts lost their charitable status. Does my hon. Friend agree that that could set a worrying precedent that would be applicable to other churches or faith groups, which could lose their charitable status?

Fiona Bruce: I agree.

With reference to openness, the Plymouth Brethren are sometimes subject to caricature, partly because often we do not know them personally, but they are far more open than people might realise. For example, they have a modern website—Plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org —which has a “Contact us” page, enabling any member of the public to find their nearest local Plymouth Brethren church and service times. Hon. Members may be interested to know that I recently attended one of their services in Liverpool and I found nothing out of the ordinary in their Christian teaching at that service.

Some of the Brethren’s practices and the way in which they seek to live out their Christian lives are not necessarily what we would want to adhere to—I would not—but all denominations have their differences. The Brethren’s women wear headscarves in services, but so do women in other Christian denominations, such as the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and men in other religions, such as Sikhism. They do not vote. I do not agree with them on that and we have discussed it. I can certainly say that not one hon. Member here has a vested interest in standing up for them today. They say that scripture says that God sets up and deposes authorities, and that is their principle for not voting. At least they do not vote on principle, rather than because of laziness, but they do engage with and respect the democratic process in many other ways.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am glad that there are no no-go areas in Congleton for my hon. Friend when canvassing. I congratulate her on her lucid, diligent contribution to this debate. There is asymmetry in the apparatus of the state being used against the Plymouth Brethren. Does she agree that, given that there have been 20 public benefit assessments between 2009 and 2011, until the law is properly clarified to the satisfaction of legislators there should be a moratorium on any further assessments?

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Fiona Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. It seems that the chief offence of the Brethren in today’s liberal secular society is their genuine, sincere desire to live by the Bible in a more literal sense than many of us seek to do. Is that so bad, particularly when looking at the good that results? I will come on to that in a moment.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Not for the first time, the hon. Lady is doing great service to this House by raising an important issue. She is touching on a point that she made before, which is that this issue has forced the Brethren to mention things that they would not previously have shouted about. Quiet, unobtrusive service is at the heart of religion and that should be respected. The notion of limited interaction with the wider community has now forced the Brethren, including the Brethren in my constituency, to whom I pay tribute, particularly in Sale and Northenden, who have had to produce a catalogue of the service that they provide to their community. Will the hon. Lady join me in praising their efforts?

Fiona Bruce: I will, indeed. The catalogue that the right hon. Gentleman mentions is a booklet entitled “Public Benefit: the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church”, which contains so much that the Plymouth Brethren demonstrate by way of public benefit that I cannot possibly do it justice in a speech. I shall place a copy in the Library for the record.

The Charity Commission expressed

“concerns about the lack of public access to participation in…Holy Communion.”

Many Christian denominations limit participation in Holy Communion in some way, most notably, I understand, the Roman Catholic church. Other hon. Members may be able to testify to that. Restricting access to Holy Communion should not be a reason for refusing charitable status.

The Charity Commission also commented on the beneficial impact of the Preston Down Trust, saying that it is

“perhaps more limited than other Christian organisations as their adherence limits their engagement with the wider public”.

The point has been well made: that is simply because people do not know about what they have done, because they have not broadcast it, but have modestly gone about their work.

The Charity Commission says that

“the evidence in relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit of the community.”

I hope that, as a result of the production of the booklet, it reconsiders that view.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I commend the hon. Lady on bringing this issue to the attention of the House. Does she agree that the presence of so many hon. and right hon. Members from across the United Kingdom, and the contributions that have been made—all singing from the same hymn sheet—is an important, powerful signal to the Government and the public that something has to be done, if not by the Charity Commission, then by Government in this House.

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Fiona Bruce: Absolutely. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for saying that so plainly.

“Public Benefit” by the Plymouth Brethren church—I will touch on some points for the record, to get them in Hansard—includes support for families, care for young people, disaster relief, visits to prisons, hospitals, donations of substantial funds to many charities, including the British Heart Foundation, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Macmillan nurses, and dozens of others.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Would not my hon. Friend say that that exemplifies the fact that not only are they there for the promotion of religion, but for the promotion of education and the relief of poverty? The work that they do in my constituency and elsewhere, particularly in providing work and jobs for people who might not otherwise have them, should be commended, not opposed or obstructed.

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend makes a characteristically astute point and I thank him for it.

I specifically want to mention the Preston Down Trust, because it is the subject of the appeal. I have additional information about its social action in the past two to three months, including the provision of free meals to members of the public, assisting at accidents, collecting for charity and street preaching and the distribution of tracts. It has that in common with all Plymouth Brethren churches. Surely no one can argue that they do not provide public benefit.

On the website, the Brethren say that

“we hold the same faith as every true Christian, we publicly preach the gospel and engage with the broader community through fund-raising and volunteer work. We work and live alongside people from many walks of life and many Brethren own businesses that collectively employ thousands of non-Brethren. Brethren characteristically are caring, active and contributing members of their local community.”

Someone might say, “Well, they would say that, because they are saying it about themselves”, but I assure people that I have spoken with a constituent of mine who describes himself as a lapsed atheist. He is certainly not a Christian, by his own admission, and he works for one of the several Plymouth Brethren businesses in my constituency. His name is Glyn Rushton, he is happy to go on the record and he works with Delta Balustrades, where he is a production manager. He got his job through the jobcentre in 2005 and he has the utmost respect for the Brethren, describing them as model employers:

“I would always view Brethren as a force for good in any area. They are industrious, independent minded people who care about those around them. They set out to solve more problems than they create and rarely feature in crime statistics”.

His point about the positive aspects of the Brethren way of life should not go unnoticed, and I draw attention to page 17 of the booklet to which I referred earlier.

It is important to raise the issue of information circulating on some internet sites that gives a negative portrayal of experiences to do with the Plymouth Brethren. I understand that such matters have not been a cause of the Charity Commission deciding to refuse charitable status. In a letter of 7 June, the commission states:

“We do not have any evidence before us at this time to demonstrate disadvantage which may serve to negate public benefit.”

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No one would claim that any organisation is perfect, but if the Charity Commission has any such concerns the proper thing to do is to investigate thoroughly and to substantiate or discount them. At present, however, having checked with the Plymouth Brethren as late as this morning, I understand that that is not an issue in the appeal case of the Preston Down Trust.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I commend the hon. Lady, as others have done, for initiating the debate. She and I served on the Bill Committee that considered the Small Charitable Donations Bill and, in that context, it is clear that the Government have gone to some lengths to make quite elaborate and convoluted provision to take care of the differing set-ups and networks of the Catholic Church and the Church of England, though not much by way of smaller Churches. Does she accept that we Members of Parliament might have an opportunity, when that Bill returns to the Chamber in a couple of weeks, to support an amendment that would clarify that local churches as well as community amateur sports clubs should be included in the working definition of charities and at least come under the definition of community benefit?

Fiona Bruce: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I remember that aspect of the debate, and certainly that is something that could be considered.

Members have spoken about how many other faith groups are concerned about the legislation. It is interesting, therefore, to look back at the debate in 2006, when the Charities Act was passed in the House. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), now the Leader of the Opposition, said that

“it is right that public benefit must be shown, but…at least for religion, the obligation will not be onerous. We have accepted, and I think others have, too, that making provision for people to attend acts of worship is clearly a public benefit. It is clear in case law, and it will remain part of the charity law of this country. Religions have nothing to fear.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 96.]

It would appear that religious charities now very much have something to fear.

Several commentators have remarked on the issue, and I want to draw attention to some of them, because it is important to demonstrate that concern exists about it among not only a huge swathe of parliamentarians but people in authority outside the House. Last week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said he was “very concerned” and was quoted as saying:

“I do believe we need to hold the Charity Commission to account as much as they hold any religion and social service to account. I believe that Christianity has a huge and great record in terms of serving the community, in terms of education and all kinds of ways.”

Other people have expressed concern. Lord Boateng wrote to me:

“I believe the Charity Commission has exceeded its mandate and needs to be reined in. I believe people of faith have much to fear from this decision and will support all measures brought to Parliament to reverse it.”

A highly respected charity law practitioner, Robert Meakin, has written a book, which I have with me, called, “The Law of Charitable Status: Maintenance and Removal”—quite a triumph to read over the weekend, although I

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say so myself. His words date back to 2008, although I notice that the copy in the Library was in pristine condition:

“The law of public benefit is confusing and as a result the Commission cannot be confident of its powers to remove charities from the Register… there is a need for greater clarity about the Commission’s powers.”

Interestingly, he also refers to a 1948 House of Lords decision in a famous case, the National Anti-Vivisection Society v. the Inland Revenue Commissioners, in which Lord Simonds stated that

“only a radical change in circumstances, established by sufficient evidence”

should justify holding an object not to be charitable which in earlier ages has been held to possess that virtue. As mentioned, the Plymouth Brethren have been registered as a charity for some 50 years.

Mr Meakin also says that it should be rare for charities to be removed from the register. He says that there is no power in the Charities Act authorising the commission to decide questions of charitable status judicially:

“Its role is to register charities and in doing so it must follow general law but there are so few decisions of the Court and legislation that the Commission is forced into becoming a de facto law-maker”,

rightly pointing out the importance therefore of clarifying the issue. He also mentions the importance of public confidence, in the commission and in the status of charitable registration.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): It is interesting that the Charity Commission has not justified the action that it took. More importantly, is it not important for us to pursue the matter now, because who will it be next?

Fiona Bruce: The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point.

Mr Meakin wrote about the importance of securing public confidence, and so many questions are now being asked that we must raise the issues broadly, to ensure that we maintain public confidence in charitable status. Many people rely on it when giving to and involving themselves in support for charities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“I understand that removing charitable status for religious bodies because of supposed lack of public benefit is dangerous territory. Doing so would almost certainly open up a minefield of civil actions in the courts and could quite possibly breach the conditions of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to religious discrimination. In addition to the obvious loss of religious freedom, the cost to the taxpayer of lengthy legal actions is worth taking into consideration beforehand.”

A leading Queen’s counsel and specialist in the field, Hubert Picarda, has given his opinion that the Preston Down Trust

“is a charity and should be registered as such… Where under the old law it has already been determined that a purpose is beneficial there is no necessity to determine…any further point. The requirement is already satisfied.”

He also mentions that, over the years,

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“the conventional advancement of religion is intrinsically for the public benefit, has been accepted as such and there is no reason for creative bureaucratic intolerance to replace judicial and settled community tolerance.”

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con) rose—

Fiona Bruce: I am coming to the end of my speech, Members will be relieved to hear, but I shall give way.

Mr Wilson: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the outstanding case that she is making today. May I bring her back to the Charity Commission? I think that it states that nearly 20% of registered charities are there for the advancement of religion and all the good causes that go along with that. It registers hundreds of Christian charities each year. What does she believe is really motivating the Charity Commission in this case? Is it because the Plymouth Brethren are different, a minority group and much easier to suppress as a result?

Fiona Bruce: It would be wrong of me to try to divine what is in the minds of the charity commissioners in that way, but we are perhaps seeing a clash between what we might call a secular liberal society and the traditional society that we have seen in our country up until now, which has respected the role of religions, particularly the Christian Church, over many centuries.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I wish my hon. Friend the best with her speech this afternoon. Does she agree that the Charity Commission has not kept to the general assurances given by Ministers in the previous Government that charities such as the Plymouth Brethren would not be affected by the Charities Act? In effect, the commission is going against Parliament itself.

Fiona Bruce: That is a valid point; indeed, the Christian Institute, which is a non-denominational charity representing 3,800 churches from almost all Christian denominations, is concerned about the issue. It says:

“If the Charity Commission can now find against the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church in the case of Preston Down Trust, this would appear to have grave implications for other Christian churches and groups, the majority of which apply some restrictions on access to sacraments and benefits… We believe the time is ripe for an Attorney General’s reference to properly clarify the law on public benefit with regard to religious charities. Furthermore, we would like to see modifications made to the role and structure of the Charity Commission, to prevent it adjudicating on theological matters, a function which it is ill-suited to discharge.”

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Does my hon. Friend, who is a very good woman indeed, agree that the Charity Commission has behaved absolutely disgracefully in this regard? Does she further agree that, rather than waiting for some ministerial diktat, it should admit that it got its decision wrong and overturn it immediately?

Fiona Bruce: One way of resolving this immediate issue would be for the charity commissioners to look at all that is in the public benefit. That alone should be sufficient for them to review the case.

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Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Lady, whose speech I am enjoying immensely—it is extremely good and gets right to the heart of the issue. She has also been very generous in giving way to countless Members. My concern—she has rightly moved on to this issue—is whether every Christian charity up and down the country will have to start preparing books and websites to get information out, so diverting them from the important work that they do. Will they have to do that to protect themselves just in case there is a problem? That would be outrageous.

Fiona Bruce: I entirely agree. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

One option for trying to resolve this issue has not been mentioned: perhaps the case of the Preston Down Trust, which is, after all, a test case, could be referred to the upper tribunal, so that it was heard by a High Court judge of the chancery division and any decision would have appropriate status. That solution could be looked at. We certainly require a serious analysis by legal experts in this field, including an analysis of the case law on public benefit, what it means for religious organisations and how far organisations such as the Charity Commission should stand in judgment over religious groups. All those issues must be considered, and it is not merely an academic exercise, because the rubber has hit the road for the Plymouth Brethren. Who will be next?

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Fiona Bruce: I would be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend, who was, I believe, the shadow Minister when the Charities Bill was debated.

Mr Turner: I was, and in a way this is a reflection on me because I allowed the relevant parts of the Bill to go through. However, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) backed us up, saying that the provisions would not make any change. There is a grave danger in terms of not only religion, but education and poverty; the trouble is that we may bring charities to a situation where they are no longer charities, and they will lose everything. If it were the Church of England, we would lose our churches—it is as dire as that.

Fiona Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I have read the debate that he mentions, and I give credit to him, because he raised these concerns and he was given assurances, but those concerns are now coming to pass. The implications that he highlights go to the heart of religious freedom in this country—that is how far this issue goes.

The concerns highlighted today are shared by a great number of other Members, who were unable to attend, because they have other commitments, but they have asked me to put on record the fact that they support my concerns. They are my hon. Friends the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who is now here, for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), for Macclesfield (David Rutley), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), the hon. Member for

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Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mark Menzies), for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and for Lincoln (Karl McCartney), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson). If I have read out the name of anyone who is here, I apologise.

In closing, may I reiterate what I said at the outset: I am not an expert in this field, and I have had to research and come to understand it?

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Fiona Bruce: Why break the habit of a debate?

Stephen Metcalfe: I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that the Charity Commission should have spent a little less time going down the legal route and a little more time talking to people in the community? I have had the privilege of working with the Brethren for more than 20 years in a professional capacity—my family’s firm used to do a lot of their printing—and a lot of the things described as public benefit are real and genuine. If the Charity Commission had got out and talked to people who engage with the Brethren, but who are not part of the Brethren, it would have found that the public benefit spills well into the wider community, as I have seen. Surely, public benefit can be what is set by example, as well as what is practised in a religious sense.

Fiona Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for that. On that point, I shall rest our case.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Several hon. Members rose

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. I thought you were applauding me there—[Interruption.] You were. I have five applications to speak. I intend to call the shadow Minister at 3.40 pm, so that gives Members an idea of how long everyone can speak for.


3.17 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) again on making an absolutely brilliant case. We have already heard the detailed history of that case, and I have just two substantive points to make, because I am conscious of the fact that other Members want to speak.

First, from what I have seen of the Brethren in my constituency, they do work for the public benefit, and their meetings are open to non-Brethren. Secondly, what we need from the Charity Commission is consistency: we cannot have a situation in which some charities are seen as more equal than others.

As hon. Members know, I am not a Christian; I am of the Jewish faith. I do not even have a Brethren gospel hall in my constituency, but, my goodness, I have seen the work the Brethren do, and I wish I had one, I really do. The charitable work they do is quite remarkable, as are the food days, and I have seen that just over the

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border, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). We should pay tribute to that.

In their submission to the Public Administration Committee, of which I am a member, the Plymouth Brethren said:

“In accordance with our beliefs…we practise separation. This is based in a moral distinction between right and wrong…It means that Brethren will, as a matter of conscience, mix socially and by association with other Brethren. However, it would be wrong to assume that Brethren do not take their place in the local community…we live as normal members of the community and take an active part in community life.”

As I said, I have seen that. In the Committee, the Brethren made the important point that the High Court confirmed the charitable status of gospel halls in case law in 1981. Because of the problem that the 2006 Act created, as has been described, charities are now bearing the cost of deciding the same question. The reason, as my hon. Friend set out, is the words “public benefit”. On its website, the Charity Commission states that public benefit must be identifiable, balanced against any harm, appropriate to the charity’s aims, and not “unreasonably restricted” in a way that for example might prevent some people from benefiting from the charity’s work. To take the example that I just mentioned, surely giving out hot meals to the hungry passes all the Charity Commission’s public benefit tests. That is what the Brethren do on a regular basis.

As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, he and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton met William Shawcross last week and we have written to him with a list of all the works to which the Brethren are committed. To be fair, Mr Shawcross is a new appointment and I welcome the Minister’s efforts to appoint someone of high calibre and independence. I suspect that when he looks at the matter closely, he will be just as baffled as we are that a small Christian community, which is open to the public and distributes Bibles and hot food to people on the breadline, has had its charitable status revoked. As I mentioned, the Brethren have now had to spend several hundred thousand pounds fighting that discrimination. That is outrageous: it is why I am here today, and why I have worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and have tabled an early-day motion. What happened is completely unjust and cannot be right. Parliamentarians must do something about it.

Secondly, if Charity Commission officials are going to force more religious charities into the tribunal process, we need consistency. For example, there are recent cases of charities that have retained their status despite alleged links to terrorism. A few weeks ago, The Guardian reported that the Al-Muntada trust fund had been accused of passing money to a militant Islamist group in Nigeria. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a rainbow of niche charities, whose public benefit some will struggle to see. For example, as has been mentioned today, the Druid Network exists for “Informing, Inspiring and Facilitating Druidry as a Religion”. Members can make up their own mind about that. I have no problem with charitable status for Druids, but let us have some consistency. Why have the Brethren been singled out from all the religious organisations? What about the “Earth and Space Foundation”, which offers cash to scientists if they research “environmentalism in outer space”? I do not pass judgment on those organisations,

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but how can their activities be charitable if a community Brethren hall that hands out food to the homeless and does good work, serving the community, is not? The public benefit test must be consistent and the Minister should examine that. Either that, or Parliament should repeal the 2006 Act as has been suggested.

I am going to call a spade a spade. I believe that there is something rotten in the Charity Commission. I cannot understand why the Brethren, good people who do so much in their communities, have been singled out. I believe an inquiry is needed into the role of the Charity Commission to consider how it came to make the decision, and to publish all the e-mails and correspondence —everything that led to the decision, to enable us to understand why the Brethren were singled out. I, like other hon. Members, have received correspondence from Christian groups in my constituency; they express fear about what the Charity Commission is doing. They are worried about a ratcheting effect towards secularisation, and I wonder if a hidden agenda is at work in the Charity Commission.

The commission’s decision also puts the tax status of hundreds of charities in doubt. The Brethen are trying to deal with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the question of how each hall should communicate with its donors—thousands of people making donations with gift aid declarations, and making claims with their self-assessment returns. The charities do not know what to tell them. What has happened is unjust and inconsistent and is creating fear in many churches, not just in Harlow but across the country.

Finally—and I say this as a Jewish person—the Brethren were tragically persecuted by Hitler in the second world war and suffered terribly in Nazi Germany. That is all the more reason, given what they have gone through, why we, as an open, tolerant and decent society, in a country that I am proud to live in, should ensure that the Brethren are treated properly and get the charitable status they deserve.

Several hon. Members rose

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. I remind everyone that we will have to limit speeches to about four minutes, to get everyone in.

3.24 pm

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who made a typically robust and passionate defence, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

As has been said, the debate is about more than just an arcane analysis of section 17 of the Charities Act 2006. This is about a battle, about the secularisation of society and about calling a spade a shovel, which is quango activism. The Charity Commission has previous on this, in its class-based and politicised campaign to attack independent schools. The crucial question that we must ask is whether the present situation is what Parliament intended in 2006. Did it intend to undermine, attack and traduce the very salt of the earth, who reach out inclusively to help some of the most marginalised groups

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in society and get them to change their lives? I would never have voted for a Bill that I thought would do that. At the least, we are right to draw attention to the significant concerns expressed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, that what is happening is the beginning of a process of pushing Christians out of the public square and delegitimising Christian religion in the name of bureaucracy and process. I cannot be part of that.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the danger of part of that process might be the calling into question of denominational education—Catholic education and Church of England education—if the Charity Commission is going to stick by the point about the purpose not being simply for the benefit of the followers of the religion or teaching? The large Christian Churches will end up having to explain themselves to those faceless people.

Mr Jackson: My hon. Friend makes an intelligent point, as did the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who is not in his place. Are we really going to inflict a massive audit process on people who have better things to do: helping the most vulnerable people, in a practical, pragmatic way? There is an issue of fairness as well. Are we to sit by and let an unfashionable minority—a minority that in general people do not understand—be picked off by the apparatus of the state, with such asymmetry? If we are talking about public benefit, is it really a public benefit that my constituents’ taxes are effectively being used to hound people who do good in society? That is not a good use of those taxpayers’ money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow made it clear that the Charity Commission has some serious questions to answer. As I said earlier, it undertook 20 public benefit assessments between 2009 and 2011, and we need at the very least to re-examine what those achieved and what the ultimate agenda is. It is wrong and inappropriate for the state apparatus to be used against the people whose great work in our communities we have all seen.

I will say just two more things, because others want to speak: we must have a moratorium on any more assessments, until we have properly clarified the law with Ministers, if necessary by way of primary legislation, so that we do not have a grey area between Parliament and the pernicious actions of the super-quango that decides it will cast people out and cause them not to be viable in their communities. That is imperative for the House. Also, it is time that the Attorney-General was invited to invoke his powers to sort out the situation in the interim. The issue is not just defending Christianity: it is defending all faith communities, and it is about fairness and equity. If parliamentarians are here for nothing else, we must defend those things.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): I must reduce the speaking time to three minutes now.

3.29 pm

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Ind): I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for an excellent deconstruction of the problem, and other hon. Members for taking so many interventions—which makes it rather more difficult to make an original point at this stage.

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I just want to say one thing, which I think that there is time for. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members focused on the public benefit test itself and on how perhaps the Plymouth Brethren, who have a school in my constituency and who, I find, are a first-class bunch, could pass it. It seems to me that, in the kindest way, we might be missing the point. We seem to have conferred on a committee of the great and the good the ability to arbitrate on the intrinsic value of any religion and to allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to reward one religion over another and make it easier for it to flourish. That is fundamentally unhealthy in our democracy. As the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Congleton said, that was not the intention in the legislation. I have a sense of what it was intended to do, and there have been one or two allusions to that. This is an unforeseen consequence.

It is a pity the Charity Commission has chosen to take the line that it has, and I agree with some of the more pejorative comments about the commissioners’ direction of travel. It is not for this Chamber in general to propose legislation, but it is fair to say—perhaps the Minister will take this on board—that it looks as though the 2006 legislation, as encapsulated in the Charities Act 2011, was miscast and misdrafted, and that the House should revisit it.

3.30 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I add my congratulations to those already given to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I intend to speak briefly to highlight the issues and concerns that have been raised with me by members of the local Plymouth Brethren community in my constituency.

There is no school for Plymouth Brethren children in my constituency, and they attend local schools. There is no gospel hall, and I will return to that. The Plymouth Brethren own a significant number of local businesses. They employ 110 people, far from all of whom are members of the Plymouth Brethren. They are open to employing other people, who work for them with enthusiasm and willingly because they are known to be excellent employers.

For several years, I was a resident of King’s Somborne—a village in my constituency with a big community of Plymouth Brethren. They were regularly seen between the two mainstays of village life—the post office and the pub—preaching and sharing the gospel with people passing by. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they were open and willing to engage with passers-by and wanted to talk to us about their faith. It was always an enlightening experience.

There is no gospel hall in Romsey, and the ruling on the Preston Down Trust suggests that if the Plymouth Brethren achieve the aim of establishing one, which they are actively seeking, they will fall into the same trap and difficulties that the trust experienced. I freely admit that I am not an expert on charity law. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her enormous work on the issue. She has certainly taught herself to be an expert. I recognise a group who seem to have been unfairly treated, and I would argue that they have been treated with suspicion and mistrust by the Charity Commission. That was not the aim in the legislation and in the 21st century is entirely unacceptable.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to debate the matter today, and I hope that we will see some sense. A moratorium has been called for, and I look to the Minister to return some common sense to the argument.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate. We do not have a gospel hall in Macclesfield, but we have members of the Plymouth Brethren, who are obviously passionate about their beliefs and concerned about the precedent that they believe is being set, not just for their faith group, but for others throughout the country. I agree wholeheartedly with the views set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on that precedent. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) share my concern about where to stop? We might start by targeting the Plymouth Brethren, but end up with the Church of England. What does my hon. Friend think of that?

Caroline Nokes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where will it stop? I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question.

3.34 pm

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her speech. I want to speak briefly as the Member of Parliament for the Preston Down Trust. It is not in Lancashire, but in Paignton in Devon.

It is right that organisations must demonstrate public benefit, but the key is the clarity with which the Charity Commission interprets public benefit. There are three organisations near Preston Down road, which is where the name of the Preston Down Trust probably came from. One is an evangelical Christian charity, Anode, which gives furniture to people who require it. Another is Preston Baptist church, which offers a place for services and has a cafeteria where people are charged for cakes and tea. In the middle is the Brethren’s gospel hall, where they were giving away food and Bibles a couple of weeks ago. They seemed to be doing exactly the same as the other two organisations, which have charitable status.

Three things are wrong. First, a long-standing religious organisation is being treated differently from similar religious organisations. Secondly, the Charity Commission lacks clarity in its advice. Thirdly, the length of time that the commissioners have taken to reach a conclusion must be considered. I want to ask the Minister two questions and hope to finish within three minutes. First, will he address the definition of public benefit, and do so soon? Secondly, will he ensure that the Charity Commission understands that definition and turns its attention elsewhere?

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): My hon. Friend is ably representing his constituents in this worthwhile debate, as other right hon. and hon. Members have done. Will he add to his questions to the Charity Commission the puzzlement that I am sure we all have? In the legal curiosity with which it embraced clarification

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of the law, was it arbitrary or discriminatory to choose to do so in this case and to place the burden of making that case on the Brethren?

Mr Sanders: I am not a lawyer, but if I were, I am sure that I would say it was arbitrary.

Jim Dobbin(in the Chair): If the two remaining speakers will keep their contributions to two minutes, they can both speak.

3.37 pm

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Five hundred years ago, a certain monk nailed a certain thesis about his faith to the doors of a cathedral. Today, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), with Lutheresque zeal, has nailed her colours to the mast of this place and made an important statement about how the House is standing up for the little fellow as he looks down the barrel of the gun of the big fellow who is nothing more than a bureaucratic bully with his views on religious faith. I congratulate her on that stance.

The Brethren are the thin end of the wedge. Many hon. Members today have indicated what may be the end—who next? Far be it from me, the Member for North Antrim, a reformed and tight little Prod, to stand up for the needs of the Roman Catholic Church, but I will do so without fear or favour, because if the Brethren Church is first, who is next? The hon. Lady referred to people being unable to take communion in the Roman Catholic Church. It would be hypocrisy for me to attend mass and wrong of me to assume that I could take communion. I would not be allowed to. Will the Roman Catholic Church face being bullied and browbeaten by the Charity Commission? I hope not. I also hope that the Minister is listening, because this is the thin end of the wedge. He must take a stand, and do so now. He must do as the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have done and nail his colours to the mast.

3.38 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I will not say ditto completely to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), but I join other hon. Members in commending the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on raising this important issue. It is clear from the indications that the Charity Commission has given that this will be an escalating premise if the precedent is allowed to stand, which is why everyone should be worried.

In an intervention, I referred to the Small Charitable Donations Bill, which provides the opportunity to say who should qualify for gift aid on additional schemes. In the Bill Committee, I asked the Economic Secretary whether HMRC, in its conduct of gift aid and the associated scheme under the Bill, would be bound by the Charity Commission’s decisions, or whether it would make its own judgment. He said that HMRC would apply its own understanding of the Charities Act, but I now understand that HMRC is withholding some gift aid payments from Brethren trusts pending the outcome of the tribunal. It seems to me that Members who are rightly putting questions to the Minister today and thundering at the Charity Commission for the adverse

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implications of what it is doing will have our chance, as parliamentarians, in a couple of weeks’ time. I hope that some of us gathered here can put our heads together and propose an amendment to the Bill that will ensure the concept of community buildings, as provided for in the Bill, is not confined, elaborately and convolutedly, to the Catholic Church or the Church of England, but applies to all Churches.

Like other hon. Members, I think it is terrible that the Brethren have to try and advertise the benefit that they provide to the public. They help the public in my constituency and they are passionately and socially engaged. The emphasis in their living guidance on separation should not be misinterpreted and misrepresented, as the Charity Commission has done. They have never wanted to advertise it—no Pharisees they—and they should not have been driven into this position. As parliamentarians, we have the opportunity to draw a line under this in a couple of weeks.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is it not the case that we also had chance, as I did, when I was a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, to question the Charity Commission and others about the implications of the changes in legislation? Assurances were given then that there was no intention of this kind of thing happening. When we scrutinised the matter on the Floor of the House, it was said that there was no intention of such a thing happening. To use another analogy, the Charity Commission is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It has overreached itself, and it needs to get back into line with what Parliament intended and with Select Committee scrutiny. If it cannot do so, we must ensure that we get it back into line.

Mark Durkan: I fully endorse the point made by the hon. Gentleman. We should remember that the legislative buck stops with us, and we will have the opportunity to draw a parliamentary line under this in a couple of weeks’ time.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): I thank Members for their discipline in what has been an amazingly busy debate. I now call the shadow Minister.

3.42 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) not only on the way in which she presented the debate, but on the way in which she included so many people, giving a lot of hon. Members an opportunity to air their views through speeches and interventions. It has been a good example of how this part of the parliamentary process can work and enable people to express their views.

The 2006 Act was not intended to prevent religious organisations from doing their vital work. That was said by Ministers at the time, as many Members have mentioned. I was not a Member of the House then, but I know that the intention was sincere. It was not simply an attempt to cover up the aim of narrowing down those organisations that could receive the benefits of charitable status. We have to hold to that as the stated intention; it still is the position of the Opposition. It is true that the Act stated that no particular type of

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charity—not only religious charities, but others too—should have an automatic presumption of public benefit. Until that is changed, that is the view that has been taken.

Eric Joyce: With respect to my hon. Friend, that is the point: there is a fundamental problem with the legislation. What many people have argued is that there is a flaw with the 2006 Act, so it is not a case of saying, “If a problem arises”. There is a problem and we need to sort it out.

Sheila Gilmore: I am not clear whether my hon. Friend is suggesting that this is inherent in the law, that we should take away the provision stating that there should not be any automatic presumption and that people should have to demonstrate public benefit. Mission creep is possible in any charitable organisation. There could be a suggestion that by defining oneself as a religion or any other kind of group, one does not have to demonstrate public benefit. What I am struggling with—after listening to what Members have said today and after being lobbied on the issue—is precisely how the Charity Commission came to its decision. Having said that, it is not for us to second-guess the tribunal. I was taken with the proposal made by the hon. Member for Congleton that in order to get the matter dealt with, perhaps it should be taken to the upper-tier tribunal as swiftly as possible, rather than meandering much more slowly through the process. It was held up by the Charity Commission while waiting for decisions in other cases.

The commission says that it does not see this a test case for all religions, and that it has not embarked on a process of trying to use this as a step towards something else, as people fear. I hope that that is correct. The 2006 Act stated that there was provision for a review of the Act’s workings, and in relation to the question of public benefit. That review has taken place and Lord Hodgson’s report, which was delivered to the Government some five months ago, was inconclusive. It said that there was no need for the definition of public benefit to be reviewed. Perhaps there is now an opportunity for a full debate on that review, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister says on the matter. I do not think that Parliament has had chance to debate that yet, so perhaps we could reopen why the question of why the review decided that the matter did not have to be reconsidered.

It is important that we have good, strong charity law and that the system ensures, as I think Members would agree, that what constitutes public benefit is clear. There are a number of opportunities to consider that, including in response to Lord Hodgson’s review, which is an issue that I hope the Minister will address.

Mr Stewart Jackson: The key issue is that the Charity Commission does not appear to have an evidential basis for saying that the Plymouth Brethren is sui generis—in other words, that it is unique and different from every other organisation doing something similar. That is why there is significant concern in that organisation, as well as worry among other people that they will be next.

Sheila Gilmore: Perhaps it will come out more fully in the appeal and in further work that is being done. I have some sympathy with those who say that many other religious organisations, at certain points in their operations,

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do not allow others to take part. On the face of it, the decision does not seem to quite fit with what people have said the organisation is doing.

Stephen Pound: I want to avoid getting involved in theological minutiae, but may I tell the hon. Lady that the Roman Catholic Church denies communion to our fellow Catholics on many occasions? There are theological reasons for that. It is not about inclusivity; it is about the sacred nature of the host.

Sheila Gilmore: That is indeed clear in the nature of certain religious observances.

We have to move forward on this issue, and it is particularly significant that we have such a lot of interest here. I hope that the Government and the Charity Commission, which I am sure is watching the debate with great interest, will take on board what people have said and the strong feelings that have been expressed today. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, no one in this room could be accused of currying favour in return for votes, as we have been approached by an organisation whose members, for their own reasons, do not vote. However, we are concerned and many hon. Members have shown the depth of their concern for those of their constituents who may not vote for them but who are carrying out important work. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is very well regarded on both sides of the House and by me, and she deserves every one of the compliments that have been showered on her this afternoon. I congratulate her on securing a debate that has mobilised, at my last count, more than 40 Members of Parliament from both sides of the House. That is to be noted by the Government, but also by the Charity Commission.

It is important to unpack the debate, because there are three issues that are linked but need to be discussed separately. The first question is whether the Charity Commission has made a good or bad decision in relation to the Plymouth Brethren. The second is: what are the implications of that decision? That is the “Who’s next? What’s next?” question—the concern about a ripple effect across other religious groups. The third question is whether what we have set up to protect the integrity of the charity system in this country, to protect taxpayers and donors, is fit for purpose in terms of defining public benefit. It seems to me that those are the three issues, and I would like to try to deal with them in the time that I have left.

I have to say up front that I will be forced to pick up a slightly different hymn sheet from the one used by the rest of the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon. It is a little less rousing, but parts of this tune need to be heard. My first point is about the Charity Commission. “Rotten”, “discriminating”, “a bureaucratic bully crushing the little guy”, “a hidden agenda”, “unjust”, “inconsistent”, “arbitrary”, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—this has been quite a rough day for the members of the Charity Commission. It could be worse—they could be working

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in the BBC—but that is very tough language and it communicates the strength of feeling in the House on this issue.

However, I have to make an important point about the status of the Charity Commission. We have to remind ourselves that it is a non-ministerial Department. It is not subject to ministerial direction or control. It is an independent registrar and regulator. Its independence is set out in statute, and Ministers and the Government have no power to intervene in Charity Commission decisions.

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): The Charity Commission seems to be imposing a state dogma of uber-inclusivity on a religious group that has decided to be moderately exclusive. Does my hon. Friend the Minister think that that is very big society and, as the big society Minister, is he not prepared to do something about it? That is why we have elections, is it not?

Mr Hurd: That was a characteristically well made point, but actually the view that I have, as a Minister, on this individual decision is not relevant, for the reasons that I have just given. I am here to stand up for the commission’s freedom to take the decision, because that is the process that we have set up.

The second point is that, in exercising its functions, the Charity Commission is answerable to the courts. As many other hon. Members said, the Charity Commission’s decision not to register the Preston Down Trust has been appealed to the first-tier tribunal. As that decision is subject to an appeal, there is a limit to what the Charity Commission can say at the moment, and I hope that hon. Members will understand that there is a limit to what I can say in response to the debate, because I do not want, as a Minister, to be accused of trying to influence a tribunal.

Damian Hinds: If this had reached a point at which an attack was being made on the Church of England or the Catholic Church, would we still be saying that it is not right to question what the Charity Commission is doing and it is answerable only to the courts?

Mr Hurd: I am delighted to see my hon. Friend back on this side of the Chamber; I was worried for a moment when I saw where he was sitting earlier. I will deal with the specific point that he raises when I deal with the second part of the argument, which is: what are the wider implications of the decision?

I remind hon. Members that before the advent of the Charities Act 2006, it was generally considered that charities for the advancement of education, the advancement of religion and the relief of poverty benefited from a presumption of public benefit. The 2006 Act removed that presumption. The aim was to create a level playing field whereby all charities had to show their public benefit. As has been pointed out, the Act did not seek to define public benefit—we will return to that—but instead continued to rely on its common law meaning. It gave the Charity Commission the job—we should recognise that it is a difficult job—of producing guidance on public benefit, and promoting awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement.

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One of the Charity Commission’s functions is to determine whether organisations that apply for registration are charitable in law. It is for organisations applying to show that they are charities, not for the Charity Commission to show that they are not.

Before the advent of the 2006 Act, the Exclusive Brethren were “excepted” charities and were not required to be registered with the Charity Commission. The 2006 Act required certain excepted charities to register with the commission. It is that change that has led to the application to register by the Preston Down Trust. According to the Charity Commission, its decision not to register the trust was based on the content of the application as it was presented. The commission says that it was not able to conclude that the Preston Down Trust was a charity in law based on the material that was presented to it in the application. The commission’s decision was explained in a letter dated 7 June. I can certainly place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House for hon. Members who do not have one.

Fiona Bruce: Can my hon. Friend the Minister comment on whether he thinks that the decision reflected what was the will of the House when the Charities Act was passed in 2006? I would be interested in his view and I believe that he can give it. I checked very carefully with the House of Commons Library before the debate that this issue is not sub judice or subject to those rules and therefore comment can be made on it in this Chamber.

Mr Hurd: We can all express our opinions, but I genuinely think that in this matter the substantive point that I have to make is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission takes a different view on the evidence presented to it by the Brethren, it is for the tribunal to decide. I think quite genuinely and I say with real sincerity that it would be unhelpful for me to express a personal view as a Minister in that context.

I will move on to the second point. My answer to the first point—was this a good or bad decision?—is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission changes its mind, it is for the tribunal to decide. A serious concern was raised about a ripple effect from the decision. There were concerns that the Charity Commission is pursuing an anti-Christian agenda. I am satisfied that that is not the case. As a public body, the Charity Commission is bound by equalities duties and by law must not discriminate in its dealings with different religions or faiths. A fact that has not emerged from the debate is that the Charity Commission continues to register hundreds of Christian charities each year, including charities that were previously excepted. That fact has to be reconciled with various statements—some of them quite wild—about the commission discriminating.

Ian Paisley: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hurd: I have very little time and I would like to close on the third substantive point: is the process fit for purpose? The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) rightly said that this issue had been reviewed by the Government. We asked Lord Hodgson to review all the regulation and legislation affecting the sector. His preliminary conclusion was that the system that we have at the moment would be difficult to change, because there is a substantial challenge in trying to condense

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hundreds of years of case law into a rigid, fixed definition of public benefit in this place. His view was that it was better to stay with this flexible system, which can evolve over time and whereby things are determined by case law. We are reviewing that recommendation. This debate has certainly contributed to that. My position is that we will publish an interim report as a response to Hodgson, but we want to hear in particular the evidence from the Public Administration Committee, which has been looking into the issue. However, this debate has been extremely helpful.

I, like most other hon. Members in this Chamber, would like this issue to be resolved speedily. It has dragged on too long. I share hon. Members’ concerns about the cost that that imposes on the Brethren. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the decision, I urge all who are involved to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): May I ask those members of the public who are leaving to do so quietly so that we can move on to the next debate?

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Alcohol Advertising Regulations

4.1 pm

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Dobbin. I had several reasons for requesting the debate. The first relates to the need for appropriate rules to regulate the marketing and promotion of alcoholic products. It is also an opportunity to underline the important contribution that advertising makes to the UK economy and a chance to champion the creative industries. It is useful to have the debate to balance calls from those in some quarters who wish to see tighter regulations or even a complete ban on alcohol advertising.

My interest in the subject comes from a desire to support and champion the growth of the creative industries, and the importance of advertising as part of that. In difficult economic times, we need to recognise and support the value of the creative industries. They are one of our most important sectors and the UK is among the world leaders. Advertising alone contributes £7.8 billion to the UK economy and is the second biggest contributor to the UK’s creative industries, which accounts for 3% of gross domestic product. The UK advertising spend is forecast to grow by almost 4% this year. The value of advertising exports amounts to £1.5 billion-worth of services—nearly 2% of all exports. A large part of that value, over many years, relates to alcohol advertising.

The UK has shown the best innovation in the sector and our original thinking and advertising is admired throughout the world. I hope you will indulge me for a minute or two, Mr Dobbin, to remind you, the Minister and Members present of some of the iconic adverts that have been great successes in the UK, have been sold all over the world and have attracted international spend from product marketers. The Heineken adverts were extremely successful and innovative; a whole series was built around a humorous situation in which someone or something, after failing a task, would drink a glass of beer, which would improve their performance—be it shooting plastic ducks in a fairground or speaking English with a cut-glass accent. It all ended with the slogan that the beer

“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I cannot do anything but intervene. When I was in my early teens, I found that Heineken reached parts that nothing else could reach. The only issue is whether that was exclusive to Heineken.

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps he thought,

“I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”

could have been the slogan we use.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is taking us on a merry dance down memory lane, and I am sure that he could keep our attention all afternoon. Some of us all too well remember precisely the same quality in adverts for cigarettes. I remember Terry Thomas and Eric Sykes advertising cigarettes—marvellous. I remember the John Player league and playing cricket sponsored by John Player. Surely, the

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hon. Gentleman is not saying that the advertising justifies the product regardless of what that product is. Would he honestly make a case today for cigarette advertising with the same passion, fury and determination he brings to alcohol?

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that valid point. No, I am absolutely not proposing a repeal of the legislation and regulations, but there has been a reduction in the consumption of alcohol in recent years and advertising needs to reflect that. I shall come on to that point a little later.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): What is my hon. Friend’s view of Top Totty, the beer that was banned in the House of Commons earlier this year?

Alun Cairns: As someone who consumed Top Totty that evening, I remember the beverage and the fuss made about its title. I understand that the attention drove the sales of Top Totty much higher than was ever predicted, which only demonstrates that such controversial decisions work against the objectives of those who wish to tighten the restrictions.

You may remember, Mr Dobbin, that before those helpful interventions I was trying to take you and hon. Members through some of the great adverts we remember from yesteryear. The Hofmeister bear is another example. Everyone was encouraged to “follow the bear”. Who could forget the Guinness toucan or the Carling Black Label series? “The Dam Busters” goalkeeper was one of my favourites.

Stephen Pound: One of Ireland’s finest poets, Brendan Behan, was employed by Guinness to write a slogan. He took the money, but could not come up with one until about a day before they were due to go to press. He finally came up with the ultimate slogan: “Guinness, it gets you drunk.” Does that not at least have the benefit of honesty and is that not what this is all about?

Alun Cairns: All advertising should of course be honest, but we need to accept the irony intended in some advertisements. If I am allowed to go on a little further, Mr Dobbin, I hope to cover some of those points.

All the adverts I mentioned and hon. Members referred to, and many others, were exported all over the world, creating income and wealth for the UK economy. Unfortunately, they could not be shown on television these days, even after the watershed when children would not be expected to be watching. The reason is that the industry responded to demands, not necessarily from the public, but from some lobby groups and politicians over the past decade or more. Those demands formed part of what was labelled the “nanny state”. I want to use today’s debate to celebrate the success of the adverts, and urge the industry and regulators to respond to the widest audience, rather than to those who seek to create a debate and overregulate.

We should not ignore the part that such adverts play in developing skills and supporting the creative industries. Hugh Hudson, director of the Courage Best adverts

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and the Cinzano series with the Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase, went on to direct the multi-Oscar winning “Chariots of Fire”.

Alcohol advertising is well regulated and robust. The Advertising Standards Authority enforces advertising codes, written by the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice. The first considers print, outdoor, online and cinema, among other areas, whereas BCAP is responsible for television and radio. The industry has also set up its own marketing watchdog, the Portman Group, which upholds standards to an arguably higher level than the ASA. Ofcom also has a part to play and has recognised the benefits of the self-regulatory approach.

Broadcasting adverts are my main focus in the debate. The core principles behind the adverts are that they should not be targeted at under-18s or imply, condone or encourage immoderate, irresponsible or antisocial drinking. Specifically, there are restrictions on the types of programmes that can show adverts. They should not appeal to children or suggest that consumption would make the drinker a better person. Although I support such views, it is, as ever, the interpretation of the rules that creates the difficulties. The areas that I have just outlined are where the iconic adverts fall today.

When it is said that Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach, it could be suggesting that it makes someone a better person or that the ducks that shot back in the fairground could make alcohol appealing to children. Similarly, the Hofmeister bear, could, it is argued, encourage children to consume alcohol, as could the famous Guinness toucan. The Carling Black Label advert suggested that individual performance was enhanced through drinking the beer.

The interpretation of the rules is rather harsh. Surely, people recognise a slogan as part of a humorous advert and do not take it literally. Do they really think that the beer made the difference, or that the Hofmeister bear or the Guinness toucan would drive young children to drink?

Research from MacKintosh and Moodie in 2010 found that exposure to alcohol marketing has not been proven to cause children to drink. It did not find an association between 13-year-olds’ awareness of alcohol marketing and the onset of drinking or the volume of alcohol they consumed two years later. Even if a link is proven, it is likely to be small and outweighed by other factors, such as family environment, peer behaviour, socio-economic status and personal issues.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation research concludes that parents are the most important influencers when it comes to the potential consumption of alcohol among children. Furthermore, the interpretations of the rules apply also to the promotion of weaker lager and prevent it from being marketed as a better alternative.

In credit to the industry, it self-regulates effectively. The Portman Group seeks to drive standards higher, and I hope that this debate will show that the commentary is not only one way and that a common sense approach is needed. Further evidence of a responsible approach is shown in the drive over recent years to reduce the alcoholic strength of drinks. One of the newer Heineken adverts is one such example. It depicts a young man drinking one bottle at the start of the evening and then

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water for the rest of the night. Unlike his heavy drinking friends, he goes on to gain a partner. That results in the slogan:

“Sunrise belongs to moderate drinkers.”

Although that seems a reasonable line, the advert was banned on UK television because it was judged that it was wrong to link even moderate drinking with social success or sexual attraction. Surely, that is an example of a positive step by the industry. Although it is showing that is ready to respond to demands, it is not succeeding with its responsible promotion. It is also ironic that that advert was the original background to the Heineken campaign that I mentioned earlier. The brewer’s objective was to market a weaker beer, over its premium lager. As a result, it sought to present its product as a lighter, refreshing drink that was also weaker. That is what the slogan was trying to depict.

Over-regulation and over-interpretation are evident. Some lobby groups have called for the French “Loi Evin” model, which is a complete ban on alcohol advertising on television and a significant restriction on radio and printed media. The policy was introduced in January 1991. Even the French anti-alcohol groups now accept that the effect of the law was weak at best. The French Parliament has concluded that it was ineffective in reducing high-risk drink patterns.

The consumption of alcohol per unit has reduced by 20% since 2005, with all age groups falling. The lowest decrease is among the over-65 age group. Consumption is at its lowest since 1999.

Breweries are reducing the strength of their alcohol, too. Stella Artois, Budweiser and Becks have reduced their alcohol content from 5% to 4.8% ABV. Although that may be due to tax reasons, there has, none the less, been a fall. Surely, if society wants to encourage drinkers to lower their consumption of alcohol, the industry must be allowed to promote lower strength drinks effectively and creatively to consumers. That demonstrates that the management and control of alcohol consumption is much broader. It is important to balance calls for greater restriction with evidence that is available elsewhere. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Treasury and the Department of Health have equally important parts to play in that regard. It is important to recognise, too, the pragmatic role that has been played by the Minister. He recognises the need for controls, yet understands the positive opportunity that appropriate advertising can play in a broader sense.

No one would deny the success of the Olympics in promoting fitness and health among the population, yet Heineken was a lead sponsor. Appropriate advertising was used to promote wider well-being. Alcohol sponsorship accounts for 12% of sports sponsorship—£300 million in total, of which £50 million goes to grass-roots sports.

Beer generates £8 billion in UK tax revenue each year, and the beer and pub sector supports almost 1 million jobs. The issues involved are far broader than just health. Health is exceptionally important and central, but the requirements of DCMS, the Treasury and the wider community must be paramount in deciding on the regulations.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dobbin,

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as the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Stephen Pound: And Olympics.

Mr Vaizey: Formerly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this important debate, on all the work that he does in this House on many issues, especially Welsh issues, and on the work that he does on behalf of his constituents. I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).

It is pertinent to say here that the hon. Member for Ealing North takes health issues incredibly seriously. Last night, I got on the tube at about 11 pm, after the votes, and I saw the hon. Gentleman clutching a bottle as he made his way home. I looked carefully and saw that it was a bottle of innocent’s freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Stephen Pound: Oh, the shame.

Mr Vaizey: It was a shaming moment indeed. As the hon. Gentleman was discovered, I decided that I should tell the Chamber the story.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan for giving us a tour of some of the great television adverts. When he mentioned Carling Black Label, I was reminded of another story. It might be apocryphal—perhaps the hon. Member for Ealing North will tell me whether or not it is true. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is famous for making remarks during the State Opening of Parliament. On one such occasion, when Black Rod had knocked on the door and marched towards the Speaker to summon the Commons to the Lords, there was a dignified pause as he drew himself up to his full height. The hon. Gentleman was heard to say, “I’ll bet he drinks Carling Black Label.” It just goes to show how some alcohol adverts have pervaded our culture.

None the less, this is a serious subject. First, it gives us an opportunity to discuss the British advertising industry. I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan when he raised the matter in oral questions that I would not lose an opportunity to praise the strength and diversity of our advertising industry. Advertising has contributed £6 billion to the UK and roughly £1.5 billion of exports. It employs some of our finest artists, designers and writers. It also plays a crucial role in supporting our creative industries. Without advertising, we would not have the vibrant newspaper, radio, film or television sectors that we have in the UK today. We might not have “Downton Abbey”, “Father Ted” or even “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.” Without doubt, advertising makes a contribution to our culture.

However, with the great power that the advertising sector holds and the large audiences that newspapers, radio and TV programmes can reach, there comes responsibility. The advertising industry is very good at regulating itself. The Committee of Advertising Practice draws up codes that are fair and strong for both broadcast and non-broadcast advertising, and the Advertising

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Standards Agency, which I should mention is 50 years old this year and thus only a few years older than the hon. Member for Ealing North, does an excellent job of administering those codes. Both the CAP and the ASA help to ensure that advertising in the UK is legal, decent, honest and truthful. We work closely with the ASA as well as with Ofcom to make sure that rules on advertising continue to provide the appropriate levels of consumer protection, especially for children and young people.

It is important that we take the power of alcohol advertising seriously. The majority of our fellow citizens enjoy their drink in a mature and responsible manner, but we know that alcohol harm amounts to something like £21 billion a year and that something like half of all violent crime can be attributed to alcohol. It is therefore important that alcohol advertising is properly regulated.

My colleagues in the Home Office recently launched an alcohol strategy to counter irresponsible drinking behaviour and the Department of Health launched its responsibility deal to drive greater industry responsibility and action to reduce alcohol misuse. The CAP broadcasting code simply means that alcohol adverts should not condone such misuse. Among other things, alcohol adverts must not imply, condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking; they must not imply that alcohol can contribute to someone’s popularity or confidence; they must not link alcohol with sexual activity or sexual success; and they must not portray alcohol as indispensable or taking priority in life. Scheduling and placement restrictions mean that adverts cannot be placed adjacent to programmes likely to appeal to audiences under 18 or, for non-broadcast adverts, in a medium where more than 25% of the audience are under 18.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan that, as a general rule, too much red tape can stifle creativity, but I have to say that these regulations on alcohol advertising do not seem to be onerous or excessive. They simply seem to be the kind of rules that any responsible alcohol manufacturers, or indeed advertisers, would enforce on their own promotional material. In fact, it is probably worth noting that a number of the rules on both the targeting of alcohol adverts and the behaviour demonstrated within them are covered by the EU’s directive on audiovisual media services, so these are Europe-wide regulations and it is obviously important that we comply with them.

Stephen Pound: There is something about the mention of the EU’s directive on audiovisual media services that makes me leap to my feet immediately. The Minister is making an extremely interesting point when he talks about the stimulus to creativity and in some ways he is almost making the case for regulation being a stimulus to creativity. Hugh Hudson was mentioned earlier, and he went from a low point of making commercials to the high point of making the Labour party election broadcast that is known as “Kinnock—The Movie”; it was not massively successful, but it is remembered with great affection by those of us who were around at the time.

The point that I wish to make to the Minister is this. Are we not at a stage where the word “irony”, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) earlier, is the predominant factor within

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the industry? I am thinking of the John Smith’s beer adverts, such as the “top bombing” one and the one where Peter Kay kicks the ball out of the ground. Are we now in a situation where we perhaps need to stand back a bit from regulation, because the industry’s own self-regulation—particularly in the area of irony—appears to be moving very much in one direction? As someone who, despite appearances to the contrary, is not actually a drinker, that seems rather a healthy way to proceed, with self-regulation, and alcohol being advertised in an ironic sense but also in a way that recognises that it is a pretty central part of our lives.

Mr Vaizey: Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that irony is important, and irony is something that we in Britain do very well. If it was something that we could charge for, it would probably be a very important export industry for us, and irony is also a key element in a lot of alcohol advertising.

I will not endorse any particular product. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a particular brand of drink, but I was struck by the irony of watching what I thought was a rather creative advert for an alcohol product that I happened to catch on TV the other day. It involved a man with a body shape not dissimilar to my own wearing a small pair of swimming trunks and marching down the beach as if he owned the place. That to me screamed “irony”, but it also screamed “creativity”.

Alun Cairns: The Minister mentioned the EU’s directive on audiovisual media services, which has a Europe-wide application. He will remember that I referred to the “Sunrise” ad, which has been banned in the UK but has not been banned across Europe. If the directive is the reason for that ad being banned, does that not lead us to the obvious conclusion that the directive is being interpreted more harshly in the UK than elsewhere in Europe?

Mr Vaizey: I will have to look carefully at the particular advert that my hon. Friend mentions. Without wishing to get too partisan, as it were, I must say that the ASA is one of the finest regulators in the world of advertising. It looks at issues very carefully and publishes detailed judgments. Although it is normally the case that European regulations complied with in one jurisdiction are complied with in others, it may be different for advertising and I will check how that directive applies. In fact, I am sure that it is different for advertising, because some countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, have much tougher rules on advertising products that are deemed to be harmful than other countries.

My hon. Friend has made his case that we should try not to stifle creativity in the advertising of alcohol. He has even said that doing so could lead to an increase in investment in the UK advertising sector. However, that argument has to be balanced against the fact that a relaxation in existing restrictions could result in an increase in irresponsible or under-age drinking, which is something that the Government are very keen to prevent.

Stephen Pound: We are at an extraordinary confluence in history where we have the opportunity, just across the channel, to see for the first time ever the consequences of a 160% increase in alcohol duty and a 20% increase in the average cost of a glass of French beer. We have an

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opportunity to study our Gallic cousins to see what the effect of those changes is. Will the Minister’s Department be looking in any way at the French experience in the light of the “Hollande impôts”, to see whether there are lessons to be learned or taxes to be avoided?

Mr Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about what is happening in France. As far as I am aware, a number of different Departments are looking at that example: the Treasury, to see what it does to revenue; the Department of Health, to see what it does to levels of drinking; and no doubt the Home Office will also be looking, to see whether it has any effect on crime levels. However, we in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport only focus on it in relation to advertising and the advertising industry.

I am wary of the time, Mr Dobbin, so I will conclude. First, may I say that the ASA and the advertising sector as a whole have always been open to dialogue and quick to respond to issues? If they have been presented with clear evidence that advertising is socially indecent or dishonest, they have been quick to react. Secondly, self-regulatory bodies such as the ASA can react much more speedily to changes in public opinion, changes in technology or changes in technique than other bodies. It is much easier to update the CAP code than it is to change UK law. Thirdly, what must not be overlooked in the current economic climate is the fact that self-regulation of the industry comes at no cost to the taxpayer.

I support the current regime on alcohol advertising, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan is concerned that there may be one or two examples of the regulation being interpreted in a heavy-handed fashion. I sympathise with his opinion that rules and regulations can stymie creativity, but with regard to alcohol advertising the rules that are in place strike me as being responsible and not something that this Government would seek to water down. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for giving the House a chance to remind all hon. Members of the success of the UK advertising industry, its enormous contribution to the UK economy and its support for our creative industries.

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Personal Independence Payments

4.30 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I welcome the new Minister to her post and wish her well.

I have brought the matter of preparing for personal independence payments—PIPs—to the House as a representative of a good number of people in my constituency who have come to me to ask for advice and to express their concerns about the replacement for the disability living allowance. I feel that the issue is so crucial and of such great concern to disabled people, in my constituency and the rest of the country, that we should keep it on the agenda. It is vital that we discuss the plans for personal independence payments now, so that we can be proactive in solving any issues, rather than waiting for them to become problems and reacting to them too late.

Let me start by saying that disability living allowance needed to be reformed. Crucial problems had to be addressed, about which people across the board were in agreement, but the reforms that have come through have raised a great number of concerns. I do not, however, want to talk about any of the flaws in the policy as a whole. It is far too late for that. We need to move past them now and look to the future, to ensure that the philosophy behind the policy—the slashing of the welfare budget—does not undermine its implementation and that the final regulations and guidance are designed around the needs of disabled people.

In its research, the Department for Work and Pensions has calculated that half a million people who would have been eligible for DLA, had it continued, will not be eligible for personal independence payments. That tells only half the story. Many other people will be significantly affected by changes to the system: 280,000 claimants will lose their entitlement to the enhanced or higher rate mobility allowance and some 370,000 fewer claimants will be entitled to standard or lower rate mobility allowance. Those people will also lose many of the benefits and necessities associated with DLA.

Scotland’s disabled people will be severely affected, with an estimated 74,000 people losing some or all of their mobility allowance. I can see why so many people in my constituency have come to me with their concerns. Library figures show that 1,260 people are likely not to be transferred on to personal independence payments. That is a huge number of people, and let us remember that many more will lose their entitlement to higher levels of benefit.

With so many people losing so much, we need to discuss what will happen to them. People who do not qualify for PIPs will need to look elsewhere to cover the loss in their income; people not entitled to PIPs may appeal such a decision and be left in limbo; and people will lose some of their passported benefits, because of the difference in the number of levels in the daily living category. There will be carers who lose their benefits, which will impact on both themselves and the people they care for.

We must discuss what happens in those situations and where people are to go for help. Why? Because so many of the constituents who are coming to us about

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the issue want to know exactly that. They are scared, and as their representatives, we need to ensure that we have done everything that we can to protect their rights. Their concern, which is mine, is about the process itself and how it will be conducted.

The PIPs system is intended to provide more face-to-face assessments than the DLA one. That raises several issues, the most important of which is that assessors should be given adequate training to enable them to identify disabled people’s issues and how they face such issues. That is an extremely difficult challenge, and I want guarantees that that has been thought through.

The number of disabilities is vast, and they vary from extremely physical ones to those that are less obvious to someone who has not been trained adequately. The system involves a very medical model, looking at what people can do, rather than what they cannot do. That might be appropriate for some types of disability. However, someone with a learning disability, for example, might be asked by an assessor, “How are you?” and they might reply, “I’m good.” Of course, they may be good physically, but such a conversation would not necessarily pick up the many problems that the person with a learning disability does not realise they have but needs support for.

Face-to-face interviews will be very stressful for those with mental health problems, who find it difficult to communicate with strangers. People with a different category of disability, such as those with acquired brain injury, need more time to consider and understand issues and find it difficult to grasp the scope and complexity of interviews. Will we have trained assessors for people with all those and other examples of disability? Will assessors have access to medical records with written consent? They need to be able to identify all issues correctly and must have the expertise to conduct interviews effectively. For example, I do not want what happened to one deaf-blind person during the trial period to happen to others. She was unable to be assessed as the assessors could not find, and had not asked for, a deaf-blind manual interpreter.

Will we have trained assessors for disabilities the symptoms of which cannot be seen, such as those caused by a stroke? I asked that very question about whether additional training would be provided to assessors, and I was told that clear guidance has already been received and that there are

“no plans to provide additional training.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2012; Vol. 552, c. 64W.]

I have heard many horror stories that suggest that that might not be the case. We need to learn from the problems caused by the lack of training and awareness in employment and support allowance and work capability assessments and incorporate the lessons learned into a better system for PIPs.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share this concern? I welcome the fact that there will be some piloting with a small number of applicants, but that pilot is scheduled to last for only two months before the start of the wider roll-out to new applicants. That will not give sufficient time to ascertain what the problems might be and certainly not to evaluate them and make changes.

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John Robertson: My hon. Friend is quite right. Even if the Government learn lessons from the pilot, will they be ready to go back to the drawing board to look at the role of assessors? Somehow, I doubt that they will be.

We need excellent assessors, who can see the nuances of difference between disabilities and are fully trained to identify and advise those they assess. That is the first issue that I hope will be addressed by April 2013. The guidance provided to assessors is another source of concern for disabled people and charities. I am interested to know whether the Government have changed their mind on whether they will consult on the guidance once it has been drawn up. Assessors would be helped greatly if they had clear and effective guidance in front of them.

An aspect of the issue that is close to my heart, as hon. Members may be aware, concerns the identification of mobility issues for blind and partially sighted people. I campaigned for an automatic entitlement to the higher rate of mobility allowance for cane and dog users. That is being lost in the PIPs system, along with many other automatic entitlements. Many people are concerned that that will create an unnecessary burden for disabled people, whether or not they eventually receive the higher rate. Will the Minister restate her reasons for creating that additional burden?

There is also concern that, under the new guidance for PIPs, guide dogs will be seen as the only evidence of mobility issues for blind and partially sighted people. I have heard rumours that the final guidance will include canes as well as guide dogs, but I would like reassurance from the Minister that that will be the case. We cannot go backwards when dealing with such people.

The guidance must be all-encompassing and provide for all types of disability. It must also recognise that being disabled can be a lifelong condition and a lifelong drain on income. The Department for Work and Pensions has published various case studies that show how PIPs would work. For example, referring again to blind and partially sighted people, one of the studies shows someone who has been living with sight loss for some time receiving a lower award than someone with the same impairment but recently diagnosed. Costs do not diminish over time, and as people learn to live more independently, they might need more help and money to deal with what they can then do. The Government want to put those people back rather than help them to go forward. People should not be penalised for having learnt to live with their condition, and the Government must consider that.

Regarding the guidance that assessors receive, I have raised a number of points that concern many of my constituents. Again, I would be interested to hear some assurances from the Minister that the guidance will be designed to reflect the multitude of disabilities. I have spoken about how we can ensure that the 1,260 people in my constituency who will lose out on PIPs, along with the hundreds of others who will not qualify for higher rates, do not lost out because of untrained assessors or inadequate guidance. We must now address what happens to the people who do not qualify for PIPs.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, and I look forward to the Minister’s replies. Does the hon. Gentleman accept

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that it is unacceptable that 48% of disabled people should not have employment, along with the well-being and stronger financial position that comes from that, and that PIPs, with the regular reviews, are a step in the right direction for many disabled people who want to work and are able to do so?

John Robertson: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we see Remploy factories being closed down and other areas where there is no work for disabled people, yet we try to tell them they have to find employment. If there was employment, believe me, most people who are disabled would want to take it up, and right away. Unfortunately, the realism of the work market at the moment is that there are not the jobs for every person who would like one, never mind every person who is disabled.

I asked a question about the notice given to someone who is not eligible for PIPs and was told:

“Where entitlement to personal independence payment has not been established the DLA will stop shortly after the decision notice has been sent.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 837W.]

The vague “shortly” shows an absolute lack of evaluation of what it will mean in practice. I have subsequently received another letter in which the same word is used as a time frame. That is not good enough. Far more thought and consideration needs to be put into what that will mean for people who lose their benefit. How long will they have to find another source of income? Will there be enough time for them to find other sources of benefit from the Government?

In oral evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, Professor Roy Sainsbury said that based on the 1990s take-up rates of between 50% and 70%—we can probably assume that the rate has increased a little—perhaps as many as 25% of disabled people still do not claim DLA. We can therefore only assume that the people currently claiming DLA are those who need it most, and we can therefore also assume that they will be the people most affected by its loss. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society will now have the complicated responsibility of navigating the PIPs system, and those who have already been identified as vulnerable should be given specific attention during the handover. We need clearer answers on how long DLA claimants will have before the benefit is stopped and on what kind of help they will receive to get them over the initial period.

We can also assume that a number of appeals regarding PIPs are likely. In most places, the assessments are to be administered by Atos—a company that is notoriously bad at making accurate assessments. We already know that it got one in five ESA assessments wrong between October 2008 and November 2011, so I am certain that many people who are not eligible for PIPs will want to appeal the decision. In Scotland, the system will now be run by Salus, but I am sure that many people there will still look to appeal. We must ensure that the lessons learnt from the ESA and work capability assessments are not lost. I would like to ask that the process for people who are appealing their decision is properly conducted. Will their DLA be cut, and will they be expected to find another source of income?

I would also like to ask about how the loss of DLA and the higher or enhanced rate of mobility for PIPs will impact upon carers. I have more than my fair share

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of carers in my constituency, and if money is lost to them what do they do about caring, and how will carers be looked after? I am sure that they will continue to care, but they will struggle to pay their bills at the same time. We must give carers the respect that they deserve. They save this country billions of pounds every year. I am interested to hear how the Minister will deal with that.

My final point is on passported benefits—a key concern for my constituents that alerted me to the practical problems with PIPs. The Motability scheme, for example, is paid for through the higher rate of benefits. As I explained earlier, 280,000 people will lose their entitlement to higher or enhanced rate mobility, and a large proportion of them are likely to have their Motability vehicle seized. They will be unable to make the payments for the vehicle, and if they have already been relying on it—I am certain that some people will still need such a vehicle despite not being eligible for the higher rate—what will they do to get around? Will they be left in a state of isolation? At what point will their vehicle be seized? Will they be given time to get another mode of transport?

I hope that the impact of losing the higher rate of mobility has been carefully considered, because it will make a massive difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. There will also be an impact on blue badge holders and concessionary travel benefits, and holding separate assessments for passported benefits will not only cause stress for people who have lost their DLA, but incur extra costs for the taxpayer. As I have said before, the aim of the policy is to save money, so this all seems pointless and unnecessary.

4.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing the debate. I recognise the contribution that he has made in campaigning for rights for disabled people down the years, including his significant involvement in recent changes to disability living allowance. I also welcome his acknowledgement that DLA is a benefit in need of reform; we need to ensure that we get it right.

The starting point, therefore, must be that the Government remain committed to supporting those in greatest need, so that they can live independently. However, we also must ensure that the right financial support gets to the right people for the right reason. After all, the Government spend £50 billion a year on benefits and services for disabled people. It is worth remembering that DLA has not been fundamentally reformed since 1992 and that the expenditure increased by a third between 1998 and 2010. More than two thirds of the current case load has an indefinite award, and because people’s claims simply are not systematically checked or updated, there are significant overpayments and underpayments. Twenty years later, we are left with a system that is a lifeline for many people, but it is widely acknowledged that we need to reform it.

The reforms are about targeting support more effectively and keeping the best elements of DLA—the ones that disabled people value—but also about bringing the benefit up to date and fit for the 21st century. I assure

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Members that we are fully committed to the implementation of the personal independence payment from April 2013 and that we are on track for delivery. We will start with small volumes of new claims in the north-west before the national roll-out begins in June 2013. I will not go into the details of that, however, because the hon. Gentleman has raised some specific points.

It is important to get the assessment and assessor training right, with an emphasis on the importance of assessors being able to identify the wide range of barriers that people with disabilities and impairments may face. The Department for Work and Pensions has set clear standards for providers on the skills, training and competence expected of those assessors. We will work closely with the providers to ensure that training is of that required standard, and we will approve the training plans only when we are fully satisfied that they meet the necessary quality. All assessors will be health professionals with broad training in disability analysis, as well as training on specific impairments. Although we expect assessors to have good general knowledge of health conditions and impairments, they do not need specialist knowledge of particular conditions.

John Robertson: I totally disagree with the Minister’s last statement. There are certain times when specialists are required. Putting the onus on the assessor to make a decision on something that they know very little about suggests that the process is more about ticking boxes than an actual assessment.

Esther McVey: If I had reached the end of my paragraph, I might have answered those questions.

Assessors will have broad knowledge and specialist knowledge, but the assessment will not be medical; the assessment focuses on outcomes and how the health condition affects the individual. We recognise, however, that assessors might need support on mental, intellectual and cognitive impairments when assessing individuals with, for example, mental health conditions, learning disabilities or autism. As such, we require providers to have mental and cognitive champions, as recommended by Professor Harrington.

Sheila Gilmore: There are more people to be assessed and reassessed for this new benefit than there were for the employment and support allowance, which I accept is very different. One problem that we have encountered is that there are only two mental health champions for the whole of Scotland. Can the Minister reassure us that that number will be increased, because we are dealing with larger numbers?

Esther McVey: Absolutely. The hon. Lady is right that the assessment is very different, but we have to take forward the knowledge that we have learned. I have had many meetings on the need for more champions to provide the knowledge, so that people can have confidence when they are being assessed.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the continuing good influence of Professor Harrington is worth noting when considering such issues?

Esther McVey: Absolutely. That evidence will be taken on board and used.

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Jonathan Lord: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: I am running short of time, and I have a lot of answers to give to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West.

Jonathan Lord: I am very grateful, and I will be brief. A lady came to see me the other day with a friend. She was absolutely delightful, and people who talk to her would not know that she has long-standing mental health issues. I was assured by her and her friend that the following day she would be capable of virtually nothing. How is that going to be judged in the assessment? Can her medical records and letters from doctors and experts support such an application and be taken fully into account?

Esther McVey: My hon. Friend raises a fair point. He is correct that we will not take a snapshot in time; a view will be taken over a year and, equally, it will be based on whether the claimant needs support during a part of the day, not for the majority of the day. All those factors are being taken into consideration.

Assessment providers are being given clear guidance on how to carry out the personal independence payment assessment. That will include aspects such as when to gather further evidence and when to conduct a paper-based review of evidence, rather than a face-to-face consultation.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West asked whether the guidance will address the use of long canes by blind and partially sighted people. The Department’s guidance for providers will be relatively high-level. The guidance will not list specific conditions, nor will it tell assessors how to advise in certain cases. To do so would go against the fundamental principles of the personal independence payment assessment, which is that it will be an individual assessment that considers each claimant’s personal circumstances.

Although we do not intend to run a formal public consultation on the guidance, we will keep it under review and will consider any comments received from stakeholders. We also expect assessment providers to work with stakeholders, as they develop their own, more detailed guidance and training products.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the number of people who will lose their benefit as a result of the changes. I would like to make it clear that it is very difficult to generalise about who will leave the benefit. Entitlement to PIP will be based on individual circumstances and the impact of disabilities, not on what conditions people have.

Some people will receive more support; some will receive broadly the same; others will receive less; and some will leave the benefit altogether. I fully acknowledge that, but equally, given the 3.3 million people who are on DLA, we understand that it is not a static benefit but a dynamic benefit: some people’s conditions will stay the same; some people’s conditions will worsen; and some people’s conditions will get better and, with the right support, they will no longer need the benefit.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have legislated to carry out two biennial independent reviews of the PIP assessment, its criteria and operation within the first four years of the introduction of PIP, so that we can learn and adapt from our experiences.

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The hon. Gentleman asked for specific clarification on the arrangements for blind and partially sighted people. He also asked whether we will be making changes to the mobility activities to take into account those individuals who use a long cane, rather than a support dog. Although it was never our intention to limit support to blind and visually impaired people who have a support dog, I am aware that issue has caused a lot of concern.

Although I cannot confirm now the changes that we intend to make in the final draft of the assessment criteria, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to ensure that assessments fairly reflect the needs of blind and partially sighted people. I am aware of the strength of feeling on that issue. The final assessment criteria will be published soon—I will be able to say more then—and I hope that that is reassuring. I fully acknowledge all his work in that area.

I am checking the clock, and I want to get through as many questions as I can, so I will move on to appeals.

A decision being overturned on appeal does not always mean that the original decision was wrong. Often an overturn is due to the claimant providing new information to the tribunal that is material to the original decision. That is why PIP will be one of the first benefits to follow new rules from 2013 that allow us to identify and address incorrect decisions fairly and robustly without the need for full appeals in all cases. That is more proportionate, fairer for the claimant and better value for the taxpayer. Once a claimant has been informed

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that they are not entitled to PIP, their benefit will cease and they will not receive it during the course of their appeal.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about how the changes will affect those in receipt of carer’s allowance. We expect that the introduction of PIP will not affect the overall size of the carer’s allowance case load or the expenditure on that benefit. We recognise the important role that carers play, which is why both rates of the daily living component will form part of the gateway to carer’s allowance.

Officials from the Department are working closely with Motability to assess the impact of the introduction of PIP on its users. Only 33% of the 1 million disabled recipients of the higher rate mobility component of DLA are Motability customers. That makes it difficult to predict the precise impact of caseload changes or the number of Motability users. We are continuing to work closely with Motability to ensure it is ready for the introduction of PIP in April 2013.

I hope that my comments have reassured hon. Members that the introduction of PIP is on track for delivery in 2013. Our proposals have been developed following extensive collaborative consultation with disabled people, and we continue to work with disabled representative organisations and disabled people.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).