Knife crime is a curse of the 21st century and a growing problem. We should have mandatory sentencing of those who carry knives, unless there are exceptional circumstances, as there sometimes can be. I was told of a horticultural student who had a pruning knife in his pocket. Of course, he should not have taken it out of college, but I mention that because there may be occasions when people innocently have a knife, although they are the exceptions. As a general rule, the courts must have more powers, but in finding a solution, we must be careful—I am repeating what the right hon. Gentleman said, because it is important—that it does not have an

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unintended consequence. Stop-and-search has been shown, particularly in inner cities, to have unintended consequences sometimes.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): While we are talking about the influences on young people who carry knives—sad to say, many lives have been lost as a result—we should remember that most of the killers have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs. What should society demand that the House of Commons do about that? Relaxing the hours in which people can consume alcohol surely has unintended consequences, because people fuelled by alcohol can take a knife and quickly turn themselves into a killer.

Sir Bob Russell: I do not think that I am competent to comment on the specific details. Our inquiry showed there was drug activity around some knife crimes. I endorse the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention about licensing hours being too long, but I do not think there is a proven link between alcohol and knife crime. I stand to be corrected, but my recollection is that there may be drug-related activity around knife crime, whereas I am not aware of its alcohol side. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.

All of us—politicians, the education system and communities, both individually and collectively—have a role in instilling the understanding in young people that if they carry a knife they could get a lengthy jail sentence or, worse, become a victim themselves. I conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Clacton again on focusing attention on this issue.

3.20 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for bringing the debate to Westminster Hall. He spoke with passion and concern and reflected heartfelt constituency pressure to raise the issue and consider solutions to the problem of knife crime. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). They have shown by their remarks that not only in Essex, where the tragic incident that we have heard about happened, but in inner London, Northern Ireland—which I know well from previous ministerial involvement—and throughout the United Kingdom, the concerns that the hon. Member for Clacton has raised need to be addressed by the Government. There is a need to look for possible solutions, to reduce knife crime and the resulting deaths.

I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Clacton about the death of Jay Whiston and by the fact that because of that tragedy, irrespective of any pending court case, Jay’s family and friends, and people in Clacton, have said that it is not just for the Government and the police to deal with the issue; it is for us to make a stand and make comments and contributions, and act to save lives in future. Families have responded in that way before. I hope that there will not be further families in that position; but Jay’s family are taking the issue seriously, and it is a tribute to them as much as to the hon. Gentleman that they have brought it to his attention and that he has responded.

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I cannot claim to be an expert in the subject, but I spent my last three years in government, before the 2010 general election, in the Home Office and, before that, the Ministry of Justice. Knife crime was on our agenda; it was something that we had to consider and deal with. I hope that we responded in a way that helps to militate against the likelihood of future deaths, despite Jay’s tragic death a few weeks ago. I say that because the solutions that we considered then are still worthy of consideration. I want to hear how the Government can develop those ideas, to help to put a stop to incidents and reduce the likelihood of injury and death.

One of the most tragic things that I had to face in government was the fact that with every knife death I received a report on my desk, containing the details and circumstances. Even when we had invested time and energy in taking steps to reduce, as I hoped, the number of further knife deaths, some of the most painful things that I, departmental officials and the police who were seconded to the Department had to do were meeting victims’ families, listening to their concerns and trying to set out some policy development to help them. I am not talking about what we did out of any sense of pride, but I hope that it will be understood that, as part of the development of a response to a growing trend, the previous Government considered several initiatives to bring the issue to the public’s attention and take effective action.

As a Minister, together with Jacqui Smith, I considered the supply of mobile search wands to police forces. In inner city areas, for example, or elsewhere on Saturday nights—in towns such as Clacton—police could bring forward mobile search arches, so that people who turned up for social events had to walk through an arch for the detection of knives or, indeed, guns. On average, I authorised 150,000 stop-and-searches in a year, which resulted in 3,500 knives being confiscated. That did not stop the problem, so I brought legislation through the House to double the maximum sentence for possession of a knife from two to four years. We increased the age at which knives may be purchased in shops for legitimate uses from 16 to 18 and ran a strong campaign with retailers, so that their staff knew that people who went into B and Q, Tesco, Sainsbury’s or other stores could not sell any knife over the counter to someone under the age of 18. Trading standards strongly enforced that as part of our work.

Among other solutions for the longer term, we considered how to give new powers of stop-and-search to head teachers in schools, because people often took knives into schools. That was a powerful deterrent. Equally important was helping to support and advise parents, so that they could understand what activities their young people were taking part in. That is why an important initiative for the future was the 5,300 safer school partnerships, with dedicated police officers allocated to schools to advise parents and carry out enforcements.

The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned advertising campaigns, and the previous Government allocated £3 million to an advertising campaign on television and in bus shelters and on boards, in areas with the highest rate of knife crime, to show people that knives are not about an individual carrying a sexy object around, but are about death, destruction and a potential 30-year prison sentence for someone who commits murder.

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We need to revisit those ideas. I hope that the Minister will consider what the previous Government did. The present Government have taken forward some relevant issues. Education, enforcement and changes to sentences are important. They can send deterrent messages and give people the power to tackle knife crime effectively. I give credit to the Government for recent moves to ensure that such activity continues. Their gun and knife crime initiative last year was extremely valid, and they have undertaken a range of activities, similar in some ways to what we did in the last years of the previous Government, which raised the issue effectively.

Despite my best efforts and those of the Government, the evaluation of our work on all the relevant issues, such as enforcement and sentencing, showed that knife crime had not really changed. That is why I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham. Not only are there things that we and the Government can do about enforcement, education, sentencing, catching and deterring people and providing wider understanding, but there is the issue that he mentioned of the underlying causes and culture. I think that there is a culture—partly to do with the modern technology of games and other activity—in which human life is cheap and can be thrown away, and we need to look at that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham makes good points about adult role models, employment and social conditions. He also makes a good point about technology moving on, so that the Xbox can be used to communicate in a way that police and others cannot track. That takes us to other debates that we will have elsewhere about the potential to monitor that type of social media, and the balance between a legitimate interest of the state and the rights and freedoms of individuals to live without state interference.

There is one area where I disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Clacton. He said that this is a localism issue. I think that it is—I would be interested to hear from the Minister how the new police and crime commissioners will deal with it locally and what the relationship between the Home Office and PCCs will be—but central Government can set down some key messages and policy directions, as has been done in the past, through the tackling knives action programme that the previous Government introduced and the current Government’s youth and gangs programme, which provide additional resources targeted at specific areas.

Mr Carswell: I am genuinely interested in the various initiatives that the right hon. Gentleman implemented as a Home Office Minister. I have learned something new. Is not the real significance, by his own admission—I do not wish to be confrontational or partisan—that, despite all that, the problem was not solved? Perhaps that centralist mentality and the idea that it can be solved centrally is the problem. Perhaps it is precisely because we are searching for public policy innovation in the Home Office that we are not getting anywhere. The place to find the innovation is out there locally.

Mr Hanson: There is a balance between the two. Some of the ideas introduced under my jurisdiction as a Minister and some of those that the current Government are taking forward were locally approved solutions. A money pot was available centrally for people to bid

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against under the auspices of our knife action programme. That is why we had imaginative solutions: in some areas the focus was on head teachers; in others, it was on knife wands; in others, on stop and search; and in others, education.

In a key area, the focus was on those people who had been sentenced for knife offences. One of the most innovative projects that I visited was at Liverpool prison and in Leeds, where people who had been involved in knife crime and been sentenced were going through an intensive programme of knife-related activities to show some of the consequences and how they could be deterred from committing such offences again. Most prisoners who have not committed murder will go out again in a relatively short time. I am interested in looking not just at prevention but, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, at the work with those who have been sentenced for offences that are knife-related but not murder.

Dr McCrea: In acknowledging some of the answers, we must not forget parental responsibility. Parents are responsible for their children in their homes. From speaking to the families of victims of knife crime, does the right hon. Gentleman know that there is a belief that quite often Parliament or Governments and their initiatives have been a reaction to events rather than being proactive? Is that a misconception, or do we need to change how we tackle the issue?

Mr Hanson: I think we do have to react to events. Governments often respond because things happen and that is perfectly legitimate. I want to press the Minister on one issue in particular. Given the evaluation of the work of the previous Government, taken with police and local authority advice and with budgets provided centrally, such as the TKAP activity, and given that it has been said that there was not necessarily a discernible change in behaviour, I would like the Minister to talk not just about the good initiatives that he is taking now to tackle knife, gun and gang crime, but about the equally important, longer-term behavioural issues and societal changes mentioned by hon. Members.

The Government are funding additional support to police forces in three areas—London, Manchester and the west midlands—where more than half the country’s knife crime occurs. There are prevention grants, further funds and a whole range of ongoing activities. That funding runs out in March 2013. Given the range of activities pursued by the previous Government and this Government’s initiative on guns, knife and gang crime, will there still be in 2013, as there will have been for nearly six years, a pot of money centrally allocated by the Home Office for distribution to local authorities and police forces such as in Essex or Clacton? Will that still be there post-2013? At the moment, the five years’ work that I have outlined and that the Minister will outline ends in March 2013. What is the post-2013 financial responsibility?

What relationship does the Minister see between PCCs and central Government? Where does the responsibility now lie? Will the solution be entirely local, or will guidance and suggestions still come from a central Government Minister? Will he particularly look at the worrying statistics that came out earlier this year? I took through the Commons legislation that increased from two years to four years the penalty for carrying a

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knife. This year, 51 of 1,100 juveniles caught with an offensive weapon were locked up in jail. We spent a lot of time taking that legislation through the Commons to increase the penalty. We spent a lot of time publicising it and enforcing it. Yet we have a situation where 51 out of 1,100 juveniles caught are given a custodial sentence. Is that where we should be? I am not saying that it is or it is not; I am simply asking the Minister to focus on those issues.

Although incidents that involve the possession of a bladed article or offensive weapon have dropped in this period, from 5,194 to 4,270, a smaller proportion of offenders is now going to jail. I simply ask whether or not we should take this route. I ask the Home Office what research is being done on the qualitative impact on prison population issues.

Will the Minister look again at the initiatives taken over the past five or so years to see which have worked in the longer term? The previous Government picked 16 or 17 geographical areas to look at serious knife crime. As I have mentioned, three areas—London, the west midlands and Greater Manchester—are where most knife crime occurs. If we want to reduce knife crime, we need to focus on areas such as Clacton where this terrible incident has occurred. However, to make a qualitative impact we need to look at the driving forces in Manchester, the west midlands and London that are leading to half the incidents of knife crime being in those three areas.

I suggest to the Minister that the Mayor of London; Bob Jones, the new police and crime commissioner for the west midlands; and Tony Lloyd, our former colleague, the new police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, are three people he should have in his office speedily to look at what can be done in those areas, over and above what has been done to date.

I throw those ideas in, not because I am an expert or have sage advice on such matters. However, experience has shown me that this is a difficult issue with many aspects that need to be addressed to resolve it. The hon. Member for Clacton has done a service to the House and his constituents by bringing this debate about those, such as Jay Whiston, who have lost their lives through knife crime. I hope that those who watch, listen and read about the debate recognise that there is a drive from all parties in the House to ensure that no other family and community need to face that ever again.

3.39 pm

The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr Jeremy Browne): I am grateful for the opportunity to make the final contribution to this extremely important debate, which will be of genuine interest to people around the country who have day-to-day experience of the terrible circumstances that we are discussing. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for bringing the issue before us, as well as to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and the Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who have all spoken. Because I have a little more time to respond than is sometimes the case in such debates, I want to engage more directly in some of the points that hon. Members have raised.

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It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton said that although the Government and the state—in the form of the police—have a role to play, this is not just about central Government finding solutions and telling local communities what those solutions are, but about local communities seeking their own solutions. Police and crime commissioners can play a leadership role on that. They are not the only people with responsibility, but they do have a responsibility in this area. The right hon. Member for Tottenham compellingly developed that theme when he talked about the cultural context. However many laws we pass in this House and however much advertising we use taxpayers’ money to fund, cultural issues are probably the biggest determining factor for success in this area.

Why do most people choose not to carry a knife? Some people might carry knives for a rational reason—because they may feel that it makes them more secure. They may, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester reminded us, be miscalculating, but they nevertheless made that miscalculation for rational reasons. Most people do not carry knives. Most people think that it is wrong to carry a knife, and that it is certainly wrong to brandish and use one. Why do they come to that conclusion and, interestingly, why does the opinion of the minority who do not come to that conclusion differ from the consensus? To a large degree, it is about factors beyond the direct control of central Government.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham talked about aspiration: what is smart and respected by peers, and what wins their admiration? Is the answer, in some communities—particularly, but not exclusively, among groups of young men—carrying a knife? Does that make someone seem smarter, tougher and more sophisticated than some of the boys and young men who do not carry a knife? Is that considered more worthy of admiration than being good at sport, for example? In a way, sport is a slightly lazy default object of admiration, so why is it not about being good at playing a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language, or helping disabled children’s groups in the community? Why are those characteristics, which are much harder to attain and require sustained application, not regarded as being as worthy of peer admiration as something as simple yet mindless as carrying a knife? That interesting fundamental question goes beyond what we can legislate on.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham also talked about parenting, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; we are in the same Government, but not the same party. Members might have different views about the ideas he puts forward on behalf of the Government, but he is grasping the nettle tightly and showing an obvious personal interest in trying to get to the root causes of social failure in our country, rather than paying people to be out of sight and out of mind. Intergenerational social failure can have the devastating consequences of not only violent crime, but the waste of time, effort, talent and ambition by those squandering their lives doing nothing much in particular.

What is the role for parents and role models? The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting observation about the shortage of male primary school teachers. Socially, my constituency is in many ways different from his, but it is striking that we can go to a small to

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medium-sized primary school there and see no male teachers at all. Boys with a lot of energy—good boys with nothing wrong with them, but with a lot of energy to work out of their system—are placed in settings that may sometimes be excessively feminine for their requirements. They cannot grow up in the way that they might have done if they had male role models to look up to. I am not talking about superstars on TV, although they can be role models, but about ordinary older boys and men in communities whose influence such boys could be exposed to in a positive way.

Having talked about things for which the Government are not directly responsible, it is important for me, as the Minister, also to discuss things for which the Government are directly responsible. It is important that we have this opportunity to discuss knife crime. It is worth saying that knife crime is wholly unacceptable and has devastating consequences for our communities, as we have heard this afternoon. Tackling it is a key priority for the Government, but we know that there are no quick fixes or magic bullets to tackle knife crime and violence. If we could pass a law to solve the problem, we would do so, but it is not as straightforward as that. We need long-term, evidence-based solutions to get a proper grip on the problems, and that needs concerted effort across a wide range of areas.

We believe that cautions are being used excessively for possession of a knife, which was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton. The Prime Minister announced a review of knife sentencing on 22 October. We want to ensure that such offences are dealt with appropriately, which is why we are working with colleagues from across the criminal justice system to review the punishments available for carrying a knife. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also revised its guidance on the investigation, cautioning and charging of knife crime offences. The guidance states clearly that there is an expectation to charge all those who illegally carry and use knives. The right hon. Member for Delyn touched on whether there is a gap between what the House expects to happen and what happens in practice. I acknowledge that there is a gap, and we are looking at ways in which it can be filled.

Knife crime, like any form of violence, cannot be tackled in isolation. We need every partnership agency to engage to solve the problem. It is about not only the police and the courts ensuring that they take knife crime seriously, but many other organisations, such as the health service and schools. The right hon. Member for Tottenham mentioned care homes and institutions, which look after children in the most severe disadvantage when the state has taken responsibility for their upbringing. There are also voluntary services, and I have already touched upon communities.

Tackling knife crime is also about parents taking responsibility. It is worth making the point that most parents do take responsibility, but if a parent has a teenage child—probably a son—out at night after dark, which may be a particular problem at this time of year, do they know where that child is? It is always difficult with teenagers, but there is a rightful expectation that parents treat 13, 14, 15 and 16-year-olds as 13, 14, 15 and 16-year-olds. They are not fully-fledged adults. They need guidance and supervision, and parents have a responsibility to help to provide that supervision.

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Of course, the overwhelming majority of citizens are law-abiding and live responsible lives. Although this may go against the overall tone of the debate, I want to say that there is some cause for encouragement. Individual victims and their families are of course devastated by such crimes, and serious problems exist, but there are also reasons to believe that the overall picture is not as overwhelmingly bleak as people listening to the debate might imagine.

According to official statistics, the number of offences involving knives and sharp instruments has fallen by 9% in the past year. In 2011-12, the police recorded 30,999 serious violent crimes involving a knife, which represented a reduction. Before hon. Members try to intervene, I acknowledge that that is 31,000 very serious incidents with potentially devastating consequences, but it is worth pointing out that that is slightly fewer such incidents than in the preceding year. I hope that groups—whether officials in the Home Office who are trying to devise more effective policy, or people working for youth or community organisations in hon. Members’ constituencies—feel that what they do makes a difference and that they do not have to bow to a counsel of despair.

Sir Bob Russell: I hope that the Minister is right that knife crime has reached a high water point and is in decline. I do not expect him to have this information with him, but it would be interesting to draw some comparisons with the figure from 10 years ago.

Mr Browne: My hon. Friend is right that, regrettably, I do not have the figure for 10 years ago. The inference behind his question is that if we have seen a substantial rise and perhaps some encouraging signs that this is beginning to subside, we must also recognise that, until it has subsided to its earlier level—and ideally lower still—there will be a lot more work to do. I would not for one moment wish to suggest otherwise.

Mr Carswell: I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are in favour not of cautioning, but of a default rule towards prosecution. What fiat does the Home Office have to change that approach, or is it for police and crime commissioners to decide?

Mr Browne: I will come on to that. As I have said, I have spoken about several areas that are not the direct responsibility of the Government, and I want to reach those that are more in my area of ministerial responsibility.

Mr Hanson: The figure that the Minister cites is welcome but, perhaps after the debate, I would welcome a breakdown of juvenile, domestic violence and adult crimes. The debate has focused on juvenile crime, but not on domestic violence and adult crime, which are equally important. Will the Minister reflect on that outside the Chamber?

Mr Browne: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the disaggregation of statistics. We are talking about a crime that causes people huge concern. Even those who have never been or known victims fear the seemingly random and devastating nature of the crime. I take that very seriously, and we will certainly look at the disaggregated statistics to see where we can make further improvements.

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In the time remaining, I want to talk about police and crime commissioners, legal changes and wider Government policy, but I will start by addressing gangs and youth violence, because much knife crime happens in that context. Young people who are involved in gangs are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour generally and to carry a weapon. We cannot look at knife crime, gangs and gun crime in isolation, which was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester.

As part of our programme on ending gang and youth violence, we have provided funding and support to the 29 areas that have been identified as having the most significant gang and youth violence problems. I acknowledge that other areas have problems, but we are targeting Government attention on those where the problem is greatest. The Home Office has reprioritised £10 million of funding for this financial year to support those areas.

The new programme builds on work that is already under way, including the communities against guns, gangs and knives programme. As the right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned, that programme has directed an additional £3.75 million over two years to three police forces—in London, Greater Manchester and the west midlands—in which there is disproportionately more gang crime and associated violent crime, including with knives.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to meeting the police and crime commissioners. I am pleased to inform him that all of them from England and Wales will meet throughout Monday at the Home Office with the Home Secretary and other Ministers, including me. We will certainly take the opportunity to talk to them about some of the good ideas and best practice that we have tried to develop as a Government or that has been developed in other parts of the country. That will equip them to implement good ideas from elsewhere, while also formulating their own.

As well as preventing young people from getting involved in violence and gang activity, action must be taken against those who break the law. As the law stands, carrying a knife in a public place is already an offence with a maximum penalty of four years. As the right hon. Gentleman said, that change was introduced a few years ago. As part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government have strengthened the law on the possession of knives by creating the new offence of carrying a knife or offensive weapon in a public place or school when the weapon is used to threaten or endanger others. There is clearly a distinction between someone carrying a weapon who claims that it is for legitimate purposes, and someone brandishing one in a way that is intended to threaten or intimidate.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Browne: I shall, once I have finished this short section of my speech.

That offence attracts a minimum mandatory sentence of six months for over-18s and a minimum four-month detention and training order for 16 and 17-year-olds.

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Those sentences are attracted not by stabbing someone with a knife, but by displaying one in a prominent way. By building on the existing tough knife crime laws in the United Kingdom, that provides a clear message to those who possess a knife to threaten and endanger others that they can expect to face imprisonment. The offences will come into force on 3 December—next week.

Sir Bob Russell: Are those tariffs the same as those for someone carrying a gun?

Mr Browne: I do not have that information available. I think that the policy has been developed to deal with the specific problem of knife crime.

Hon. Members talked about stop-and-search. There have been calls for the police to carry out more stop-and-search. The police do an important job—obviously, they are an important part of the equation—including by having a focus on preventing, deterring and combating violent crime or the use of knives. Stop-and-search is a vital part of a police officer’s role in deterring and combating crime, but the Government’s opinion is that it is important that stop-and-search is used in a targeted and intelligence-led way, with the support of communities, because that is how it is most likely to have the desired effect of protecting the public. The children of people from all backgrounds can be the victims of violent crime, and it is in the interests of people across society that we help the police to combat that.

I have talked about the importance of tackling gangs in relation to knife crime, and I now turn to the wider society. Police and crime commissioners have an important role to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton talked about not having a postcode lottery. I think that he mentioned a precise, postcode-targeted—

Mr Carswell: Postcode-specific.

Mr Browne: A postcode-specific approach. We do not want police and crime commissioners to be only civil servants who implement Government policy in their force area; we want them to think of themselves as leaders in their force area. I want police and crime commissioners to learn from others who seem to be doing well and are tackling crime effectively in their force areas. I want them to work with groups that might not be seen as particularly fashionable, including the Churches and youth organisations such as cadets and scouts.

Many young people feel as though they are big and tough when they are brandishing a knife, but only five years before, in some cases, they were little boys. For some of them, being given an opportunity to have a structure or support network in their early and more formative years can be very beneficial. I hope that, by giving children from different backgrounds the opportunity to come together and learn from one another, the Government’s national citizenship programme will also make a contribution.

In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton on securing the debate and express the sympathy of the whole Government for the terrible circumstances that have led to our having this discussion.

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Car Hire (Consumer Protection)

4 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I must admit that this issue was first brought to my attention not by a constituent or by a debate, but by my own experience while returning unexpectedly from holiday this year. The issues I encountered led me to do more research, and I found that consumer protection for my constituents and other customers of hire car companies is severely lacking.

My experience involved picking up a car from a well known company, having it for no more than three hours as I drove from one UK airport to another, and then returning it. There were no incidents and I caused no damage to the vehicle. A fortnight later, I was looking over my credit card bill and noticed a charge for £666.68 from the hire car company, levied the day after the hire. That was obviously charged without any warning or notice to me. To my surprise, when I looked at the small print on my hire contract, there was £800 insurance excess on hiring the car, which was never mentioned at the time. Such excesses should be made crystal clear at the time of hire, and an option should be given to reduce it through an extra premium. Some cursory research that I have conducted shows that some of the biggest car hire companies have excesses ranging from £600 to £1,000, often with reduction options that are offered only when specifically asked for.

Such excesses should be capped and the options openly advertised, which would make price comparison and consumer choice much easier. Surprise charges of hundreds of pounds are not welcome to anyone and could cause real financial problems for some. Will the Minister tell me what safeguards are currently in place to stop those excesses being charged without warning? What rules, if any, are there on how much excess a company can charge? What are the rules surrounding how much evidence the company needs to produce to prove that damage was caused and the related costs?

In my case, I found it particularly difficult to dispute the damage report as no photographic evidence was provided. Time-stamped digital photographs would be a real technical possibility nowadays. Lack of evidence combined with picking up and dropping off the car in the dark meant that I was entirely at the mercy of the company; it was its word against mine.

I requested a copy of the invoice for repairs but did not receive one. Surely, total transparency should be required when charging people for damage. Even if I had damaged the car, and accepted that there would be repair costs, I would still have liked to see an invoice; otherwise, as a consumer, I would be at the mercy of the hire car company which could charge whatever it wanted.

There is also the question of best price in these cases. It seems reasonable for car hire companies to have agreements and relationships with garages and mechanics they trust, but what checks and safeguards are in place to ensure that they are getting a competitive price for repairs? Do they receive commission from garages when they allocate repairs? There is currently no onus on them to shop around for the best deal for minor repairs, as all costs get passed on to the customer.

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In my case, I objected to the charges. My first objection brought a reduction of £291.68, accompanied by some amazing gobbledygook:

“At the location the estimated cost of repair was £658.34 including the damage administration fee of £41.67. As per our pricing schedule the cost of the repair is £366.67 therefore I have now amended your damage charge to reflect the actual cost of repair and the damage administration fee. Our pricing schedule is based on previous damage repair costs to ensure that the locally made estimate reflects the actual cost of repair irrespective of whether the damage is immediately repaired or not.”

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Did the company outline what damage was done to the car? The hon. Gentleman did not see an invoice, but did the company tell him what damage he had actually done?

Ian Swales: When I first complained, I was told over the phone that there was a dent and some scratches to the front of the car. There was no other evidence of what happened.

The starting figure in the explanation was different from what the company actually charged me. Even the refund did not quite balance with the explanation. Although I was refunded an exact amount, it left a suspiciously round figure of exactly £375 as my remaining charge. Again, that process could be a lot more transparent.

I am sure that colleagues will be pleased to hear that when I objected further I received a full refund. In a letter, a senior manager said:

“Having reviewed the vehicle condition report and the damage documents I am unable to uphold the charge.”

That obviously prompts the question: why did the company immediately charge more than £600 for damage in the first place if records were so poor? What is to stop companies charging consumers in the hope that it will not be noticed, not followed up, or that an initial refund of some of the money will suffice? Does that not imply that there may be a widespread scam going on whereby some hire car companies are simply seeing what they can get away with?

I have used my particular example to highlight the broader issues, but I know that my experiences will not be dissimilar to those of many other people. The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association saw a 54% increase in complaints against rental companies between 2010 and 2011. In looking at lessons learned, it says:

“Rental companies should take steps to help customers better understand their obligations under the rental agreement.”

It continues:

“Rental companies must ensure their staff follow the correct procedures and maintain accurate records so they can contest any disputes that may arise.”

In February 2010, the Office of Fair Trading published the results of an investigation into consumer contracts. It included research into five areas, one of which was car rentals. It highlighted various issues, including whether customers had adequate opportunity to read contracts and understand the implications of the contract; the visibility of additional charges; and whether customers understood the implications of waivers in the contract and pre-authorisations on their credit cards.

One key point was that people were put off by small font sizes and poor quality paper. People also had an understandable belief—a touching faith, in fact—that staff would highlight important points. No one could

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recall the detail of any extra charges for which they might be liable, and the OFT was critical of the way in which information was made available to help customers with their buying decision.

When Which?Money examined car rental terms and prices for a week’s hire, it found that costs for operational extras, high excesses and hidden shortfalls in cover were “commonplace”. It also said:

“While most car rental firms offer excess waiver policies, to reduce or eliminate the cost if you have an accident in your hire car, we found numerous underlying restrictions in the small print that could make you assume you’re insured when you’re not.”

That really compounds the felony. If I had been unhappy about my high excess and paid a premium to lower or take away the excess, Which?found that even that premium may not have actually bought me the cover that I expected. It also found that third-party excess reimbursement insurance policies suffered from the same shortcomings—that is, buying policies not from the hire car company.

There are many consumer protection issues here that the Minister should address. Key features of a rental agreement should be clearly summarised and not left buried in the small print. Car hire companies should clearly display the insurance excess included in their contracts in their advertising and at the point of hire. Customers should be given options to bring the excess down to levels they can afford, with policies that actually work. These extra premium options should also be clearly advertised in advance. Car hire companies should not be allowed to make charges for damages without notifying the hirer.

With digital photography and video now being ubiquitous, consideration should be given to having time-stamped photographic evidence to support damage claims. The hirer who is expected to pay for damage should receive a copy of the repair invoice, and consideration should be given to how hirers can benefit from the most competitive repair costs.

I thank the Minister for listening to my speech today, and I look forward to hearing her feedback and information about what plans the Department may have in place to ensure that there is more protection for consumers in the future.

4.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): It is, as ever, a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing this debate. He perhaps did himself a disservice when he said that this issue was not brought to his attention by a constituent, because I am sure that he is able to be an excellent representative for himself. We are all constituents even if we are our own MPs.

My hon. Friend explains, through the account of his experience, problems that are perhaps widespread within the car hire industry. Of course, not everybody who faces the problems that he has experienced would necessarily be able to get redress in the same way that he has. First, his ability to get redress relied on his noticing the extra charge on his credit card bill. Although most people

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would notice an extra £600 on their bill when they were already expecting a charge to come through from a car hire company, they might not always check the exact amount. Indeed, if the charge for any damage was lower than that and perhaps not so different from the overall hire amount that is the kind of charge that could be missed, which obviously opens up the potential for abuse by unscrupulous companies.

My hon. Friend detailed in his speech how he got the charge waived, by various efforts and by going back to the company on more than one occasion. Of course, we know that not every constituent will necessarily have the ability or the time to make that kind of challenge. So, although options for redress are available, and I will certainly outline the provisions that are in place, it is worth bearing it in mind that I am quite sure there are some people out there who have been the victim of this kind of practice by car hire companies who perhaps have not had the redress to which they are entitled. Consequently, I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has brought this issue to the attention of the House and indeed that he has given it wider publicity. I hope that car hire companies will be following this debate closely, and that they see that the Government are aware of this issue and determined to ensure that consumer detriment in this area is not allowed to happen unchecked.

There are ways in which this issue can be addressed. My hon. Friend might be aware that Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme took up this issue a little while ago and that it reported action being taken by trading standards officers in Leicestershire against a national rental company. That suggests not only that there is action that can be taken but that there is a problem, at least in some instances. I will not go into the details of that specific case, but it shows that the legislation that exists can have teeth when it comes to tackling offences in this area. Indeed, it also shows that the enforcement authorities have the power to act when cases are brought to their attention and when there are potential breaches of the law or unfair trading practices. The current regulations can provide protection, but it is fair to say that there are significant concerns about the experiences that have been highlighted by my hon. Friend.

Indeed, it is not only my hon. Friend who has highlighted such experiences. It is worth bringing it to the attention of the House that this is a subject on which, as the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs, I have received a variety of correspondence from hon. Members. In the last few months alone, I have had correspondence about it from six hon. Members, both Government and Opposition. That shows that my hon. Friend’s case is not an isolated occurrence. Of course, not everybody who has such an experience will necessarily go to their MP, which may suggest that this is widespread; if so, it is certainly a cause for concern. There is certainly room for improvement in this area, so I will also set out how we intend to ensure that we can develop and enhance the existing consumer protection regime.

The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 requires traders to carry out services with reasonable care and skill, and where charges are not agreed it requires that the consumer will pay a reasonable charge. If the trader fails to comply with the requirements of the Act, the law treats the matter as a breach of contract. So, if

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consumers believe that there might have been a breach of the Act, in the first instance they can get help by contacting Citizens Advice.

Another key piece of legislation affecting car hire companies is the snappily titled Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which require the material information that a consumer needs to make an informed decision to be expressed clearly. That helps to deal with my hon. Friend’s point about the importance of ensuring that, when they hire a car, customers can have that clear information, which includes information about their liability to pay for damage in the event of an accident or for other reasons. As I say, we think that that could well be material information, so it should be disclosed at the outset, although obviously that would ultimately be for the courts to decide.

Ian Swales: I thank the Minister for giving way, and for her very fluent and helpful speech so far. She mentioned the need to display information clearly and to make it clear to customers. Does she have any view about whether such words apply to contracts that have, for example, extremely small print on the reverse, which most reasonable consumers would have no time to read, particularly if they were standing in a queue of other potential car-hirers?

Jo Swinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I say, it is ultimately for the courts, in ascertaining whether the law has been broken in a specific instance, to decide whether information is material. I think that we would all recognise that it is not necessarily practical for a business to provide an explanation of all its conditions of trade to each individual consumer, in a very large font and with the conditions highlighted. That would almost be too much information. It is about striking the right balance and ensuring that the information that is material—as the regulations point out—is expressed clearly. Being overly prescriptive about that would not be helpful because in different industries different types of information would be the key information that the consumer needed to make a decision.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend makes a really important point. Like other people, I have hired a car in the past and I cannot necessarily put hand on heart and say that I read every single bit of the six-point text on the back of the rental agreement. In fact, if we did a straw poll of people in Westminster Hall at the moment, I suspect that I would not be alone in that. We need to ensure that we have companies acting in a way that is reasonable and that the contracts that people are signing up to would not be deemed to be unreasonable.

Pressure of time is a factor. My hon. Friend mentioned the scenario in which someone is in a queue, with other people behind them who are also trying to hire a car, and very often—as in my hon. Friend’s case—a car is being hired to go from one airport to another to catch a flight, so there is time pressure. There are a whole host of reasons why every last letter of a contract may not be read in detail, which is why it is important that the key information is displayed clearly.

The contract should also set out clearly whether the person hiring the car has to pay an amount to replace petrol. If the contract does not spell that out, the consumer is entitled to challenge any demand for payment, and if the contract does clearly spell it out, the consumer of course has the choice either to pay the charge for

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petrol that would be imposed by the car hire company or to shop elsewhere. I suspect that it is often in a consumer’s best interests to shop elsewhere and return with a full tank of petrol, but obviously that is a decision that they can make for themselves.

This issue is partly about the terms of a contract being explained clearly and, where they are material, printed in a sufficiently large font, in advertising, publicity material and leaflets as well as the contract. It is also about the conversation that the customer has with a member of staff, who can explain exactly what the customer can expect. It is reasonable for subjects such as a customer’s liability for potential damage to be clearly spelled out. For many people, the charge that my hon. Friend faced—one of £600—would be a huge amount more than the actual cost of hiring a car, and a really significant charge to be hit with. It is important to ensure that people are aware of any charges and, if necessary, that there are alternatives in terms of lowering any excess.

That said, this is not the type of transaction that people do every day. If someone needed to use a car that often, they would consider buying one. Because people will typically undertake such a transaction only once or twice a year, there is a bigger challenge here for consumer information. We cannot rely on the same pressures that repeat purchasing gives, where if someone gets bad service they take their next bit of custom elsewhere. The information gap is an important issue, and there is a role for consumer websites on which providers’ performance is rated and information is given about their reputation, so that people know which of them to trust. Such signals can help consumers to make good decisions.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations are enforced by local authority trading standards and the Office of Fair Trading when there are practices that have wider effects on consumers. As my hon. Friend mentioned, this area was looked into a little while ago. There is also the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. Consumer law protections are available, but my hon. Friend has raised issues of genuine concern. If a consumer pays a headline price to book a rental car, they should not then find out when they collect the car that to reduce their insurance excess it costs them twice as much as they thought it would, or that there are other surprise high charges, such as for returning the car with an empty fuel tank or for repairs. Sometimes, a driver under the age of 25 finds out that there are extra charges because of their age, or a parent who needs a car seat for their small child has to pay more for a week’s rental of the facility than it would cost to buy such a seat. The Law Commission is considering whether the current unfair terms legislation adequately protects consumers from such hidden charges, and will make recommendations about whether tougher legislation is needed.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the rules on damage, and whether robust evidence must be provided. He talked about time-stamped photographs, and with technology these days that would be an innovative solution for a company that wanted to make it clear that it was not ripping off its customers. That is generally a contractual issue but, importantly, the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, the members of which are responsible for 80% to 85% of car rentals, is signed

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up to a code that is clear about ensuring that damage is recorded and that consumers agree it at the time. It also has a conciliation service to which consumers can take complaints, and by which the traders have to abide. There is, therefore, some protection in place, but it is not an entire solution because it does not cover 15% to 20% of the market.

Ian Swales: The Minister rightly draws attention to the code of practice. Is she aware of what the industry does about companies that do not follow it? In the case I highlighted, there was clearly no communication at all—no attempt to make contact—about even the fact of damage, let alone the content, before the charge was levied. Does the Minister agree that that company was operating outside the industry’s code of practice?

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend tempts me to make a decision on that specific case and I hope he will understand that I am not able to. What I will say is that if members do not comply with the code of practice, they could certainly be considered to be carrying out a misleading action under the consumer protection regulations and that could properly be taken further with trading standards, which might be able to look into it. Although my hon. Friend’s case has been resolved, I am sure he has a wider concern, in that he would not wish the same experience to happen to others, and so an investigation by the local trading standards department could perhaps ascertain the facts of the case.

My hon. Friend mentioned insurance, which I have already touched on. It is important that contract terms are clear, so that consumers understand whether they are buying an insurance product and therefore getting the advantage of any regulatory protection. When car hire firms offer consumers the opportunity to purchase an excess waiver, that is often not the same as buying an insurance policy, and is therefore not covered by financial services regulation. When consumers are sold an insurance policy, the policy has to be provided by an insurance company, and in the UK the regulation of such companies is designed to ensure that they treat customers fairly. One option open to consumers, therefore, is to buy their own insurance policy, separately from the car hire contract, to cover the excess, but they would need to negotiate that with the car hire firm, to ensure that it was okay with it. For a one-off purchase, that would be a convoluted way of getting protection but, ultimately, buying from an insurance company means that consumers have the protection of the Financial Service Authority’s rules, and free dispute resolution from the Financial Ombudsman Service.

In heading towards a conclusion, I want to ensure that I have covered all the issues that my hon. Friend raised. He asked for the rental agreement to be clear, and although there are regulations that say that material information needs to be there, he makes a good point about whether in practice that happens as clearly as it

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should, particularly regarding displaying the excess that can be charged, because that is a key figure. An excess of £850, as he mentioned, would make many consumers think twice and at least ask the question, or be careful when they returned the car to ensure that they had a discussion, saying “And I hope you will see that there is no damage there.” I have just described the options for reducing the excess, either through insurance or an excess waiver fee, and the issue of damage notification is partially dealt with by the code of conduct, which is something that my hon. Friend can take further with his local trading standards.

My hon. Friend raised an important point about ensuring that if it is stated that a repair has been undertaken there is evidence that it has happened. Often, the repair service is being purchased by someone other than the person who is paying for it, so it is important to ensure that good value is achieved, and perhaps consumers could benefit from cheaper repair costs than those at whatever local garage the company seems to have a deal with. The company might not always be encouraged to get the best possible price because the customer who is paying is not standing there when they take the car in for repair. As there is not generally a repeat purchase, there is not necessarily always the time for the consumer to read every single bit of the small print, partly due to time pressures and partly because we know that that does not always happen in any event. Often when a car is dropped off late at night and the office is not open, the customer leaves the key somewhere and there is no opportunity to have a discussion, look at the car and agree that there is no damage. When it is not practical to have such a conversation, there is a particular challenge, and time-stamped photographs could certainly be part of the solution.

In conclusion, from the correspondence I have received I am concerned that in some cases there is a degree of sharp practice in the industry. I hope that car hire companies will carefully consider practices throughout their chains, and that if they uncover any evidence of this kind of practice they ensure it is stopped. We need, however, stronger consumer regulation, not just in car hire but across the board, and that is why we are introducing a consumer bill of rights, which will make regulation simpler and much more effective, ensuring a clear framework of rights that is easier for consumers and businesses alike to understand and use. We will carefully consider what the Law Commission comes back with from its review of what might need to change to give further protection to consumers in this area and, as there is legislation coming forward, I encourage any Members who have suggestions about how the regulation in this particular area could be improved to bring such proposals to my attention. We would, of course, be happy to consider what could be done to strengthen the hand of consumers in this and all other markets.

With that, I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is doing an excellent job on behalf of his constituents, and also for the wonderful charity Movember.

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Boundary Commission (Great Grimsby)

4.30 pm

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, particularly as this is the first time I have served under your benign chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I warn against the crime that the Boundary Commission proposes to commit, namely the murder of the Great Grimsby constituency, which I represent. The commission proposes to kill the constituency by splitting it in two, with four of its eight wards going into a new constituency of Grimsby South and Cleethorpes, and the rest going north in a shotgun marriage with Barton in a new Grimsby North and Barton constituency. Barton is 10 miles from Grimsby. I do not know of any other historic constituencies that are being treated in such a way, and it is certainly the only historic constituency in Humberside to be so treated. I have been proud to represent Grimsby for 37 years. In fact, it was only under me that the constituency rose to greatness by becoming Great Grimsby, so the Boundary Commission’s proposal to abolish it is a particular blow. The great majority of my constituents, and many organisations in the constituency, feel the same way.

Representing Grimsby has been a delight, not only because it is a community within a constituency, which is fairly rare, but because it is an historic constituency. Grimsby was first represented in Parliament in 1295 by two MPs: William de Dovedale and Gilbert de Reyner. I deny the rumours that I have been here that long that one of them was actually me. I was not here in 1295—Augustinus de Mitchellius was not here—but I am sure that those two are turning in their graves. While we had two MPs at the start, after the Reform Act 1832 was passed, we had one MP, who was always the borough Member, because the constituency coincided with the borough’s boundaries until the borough was abolished in 1992. I suppose that I am therefore the last of the borough Members.

Great Grimsby, therefore, is unique and historic, and it is one of the few parliamentary constituencies that is also a community. It is not a slice of a big city such as Hull or Bradford—or wherever it might be—and nor is it rural acres lumped together to build the necessary population. Destroying something as unique as Grimsby would be an act of simple political vandalism.

Grimsby’s one fault, if it has any faults—I do not think it has many faults—is that it is small. The electorate is only 61,000, which was big enough to survive all the previous redistributions, but not to reach the new norm of 76,000 electors per constituency, with only a 5% margin either way, that was necessitated by the Government’s decision to reduce the size of the Commons from 650 Members to 600. That proposal is wrong. The Government cannot economise on democracy by reducing the number of MPs to reduce expense. Reducing the number of MPs takes no account of their work load, which is increasing due to Select Committees and growing demand from constituencies.

Reducing the House in such a fashion will increase the power of the Executive by diminishing the number of Members outside the Executive. An Executive of more than 100 in a House of 600 would make them much more powerful than under the present situation. I

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deplore the change, and that unnecessary reduction has led to the redrawing of the constituency boundaries according to the new quota of 76,000 that has been imposed. Constituencies are now to be no more than 5% above or below that norm, which means that Great Grimsby and the neighbouring constituency of Cleethorpes have to be enlarged.

The Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals would have sensibly enlarged Great Grimsby by adding two wards from Cleethorpes, and would then have compensated Cleethorpes, which encircles Grimsby like Indians round a wagon train, although I should not say that in the presence of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I speak as one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. He and I know that visitors to Grimsby and Cleethorpes will not know where the boundaries are because it is just one urban mass. We, of course, remember where the passport control points used to be prior to the creation of North East Lincolnshire council.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s good point that cutting Grimsby in half is totally illogical, but there was an equal strength of feeling in Cleethorpes when, as he suggests, the first proposal was to take the north end of Cleethorpes. Does he agree that the sensible thing would be to ignore the supposed boundary between Yorkshire, Humberside and the east midlands, which would then allow villages such as Holton-le-Clay, Keelby and Tetney to be brought into one of the seats?

Austin Mitchell: I absolutely agree that that would solve all the problems. The problem is that the borders with Lincolnshire and Yorkshire have been so oppressive for the Boundary Commission, which says it will not ignore them. Humberside has to lose one Member, and the reshuffle results from that.

Cleethorpes was to be compensated by adding the south bank of the Humber up to Burton upon Stather and Winterton. The Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals were sensible. They brought my constituency up to 78,000 electors and Cleethorpes up to 77,000, although stupidly that constituency was to be renamed Brigg and Humberston, which must have annoyed people in Cleethorpes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman could confirm. Both constituencies would have been big, and people told the Boundary Commission that they were happy with the provisional proposals, but that was to no avail, because the next stage for the commission was to review its decisions on the basis of representations made by the parties and local people.

In Humberside, the bulk of the review dealt with Hull and its surrounding area, and with Scunthorpe, which is to our west. As we were not concerned in Grimsby, we issued a statement saying only that we were happy with the provisional proposals. We left it at that, and so did the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in their national evidence—both parties recommended that Grimsby should not be split. The Conservatives, however, made more wide-reaching proposals, which included splitting up the Grimsby constituency. To our amazement, those proposals were accepted by the Boundary Commission, which I deplore. I consider that decision to be both disastrous and unacceptable; it does not make sense.

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Why did the Boundary Commission change its mind so unpredictably? It gave a number of reasons that were more like excuses and had nothing to do with Grimsby. We were told that the commission wanted to accommodate some of the representations from Hull by changing its constituency boundaries, and there were therefore knock-on effects right down to Scunthorpe. The commission said that it did not want to split up the three wards of the Isle of Axholme, which is more of a geographical description than a community, so it took Burton upon Stather from the proposed Brigg and Humberston seat and gave it to Scunthorpe, thereby reducing the population of Brigg and Humberston.

The commission also used the excuse that it had received representations from Cleethorpes against splitting up that constituency. Well, Cleethorpes was not really split; it lost two wards but gained other areas along the south bank of the Humber. The constituency was supplemented rather than split, and it is silly to respond to a complaint about splitting Cleethorpes, which was losing two wards, by splitting Grimsby right down the middle. The commission’s proclaimed reluctance to split the Isle of Axholme was really an excuse for something that it wanted to do to the north and west, and we suffered the knock-on effect of those changes. Grimsby was sacrificed on the altar of change in Scunthorpe and Hull.

The commission therefore reversed its sensible provisional proposals and proposed the two new constituencies of Grimsby North and Grimsby South. Grimsby South is to go with four wards to Cleethorpes—the seat will be called Grimsby South and Cleethorpes—while Grimsby North will merge with the rural areas to the north. That proposal is unacceptable. The basic principle should be to keep existing communities together as far as possible. This is an historic constituency and a community within one constituency, which is the strongest claim for remaining a constituency. The commission has split up the one constituency in Humberside that is a genuine community.

The commission is also supposed to maintain common interests as far as possible. In Grimsby’s case, it is merging part of an industrial community with Cleethorpes, which has different interests and organisations, seaside and tourism concerns, and even a different school system in terms of the sixth-form distribution in the area. It is merging another part of Grimsby, to the north, with rural areas with which the town has little in common, given that our problems are urban—deprivation, poverty and low educational achievement.

The commission says that it has had a lot of representations on the lack of affinity that electors in rural areas feel with urban areas and vice versa, yet it proposes to ignore all that in the case of Grimsby. The commission is supposed to pay attention, too, to organisational and party links within a constituency. Our constituency boundaries are the same as the old borough boundaries, so the organisational links across borough organisations are strong and long-standing, and the political organisations in the wards are accustomed to working together. All that is now to be split up in Grimsby.

The whole procedure leaves a lot to be desired, given that the commission comes up with provisional proposals that we accept and therefore do nothing more, and then it changes them totally. No one in Grimsby has been

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given a chance to react to the new proposals until now. We face an uphill struggle, because the commission has published its views and we must now change a more settled view. Given that the commission is bound to be a little reluctant to change its mind again, this decision-making process means that we face an uphill struggle to upset the convenience of the commission. That is neither fair nor democratic, and I do not see how it can be viewed as reasonable by the commission.

I am therefore asking the commission not to divide Grimsby and not to abolish what I rightly see as the best constituency in the country. Some might say that Shipley has many claims, Mr Davies, but I think that Grimsby is certainly the best. The commission should go back to its original proposals.

As the commission has behaved in this unreasonable fashion and sacrificed Grimsby to suit other areas and constituencies with regard to issues that have nothing to do with us, I will be submitting evidence to show that it is perfectly possible to keep the two constituencies of Grimsby and Cleethorpes—I hope that that constituency will be called Cleethorpes, because it certainly should be—without splitting Grimsby. I will not go into the details now, but while it cannot be done by abolishing and adjusting wards, it can be done by splitting wards. I know that the commission will be loth to do that, but it can be done, and I shall be submitting evidence on a numerical basis to show that.

I know that the Minister cannot respond by saying, “Yes, the commission is wrong. You’re right, Mitchell, and the Government will intervene and help you.” I perfectly understand that she cannot speak for the commission. Several people have told me that it is a waste of time to protest about the abolition of Grimsby, however, because the commission’s proposals will not be accepted by the House of Commons. However, whether the proposals end up in force or in the dustbin, where I am happy to see that the Liberal Democrats intend to put them, they are still wrong, and yet the Government appear determined to get them through.

The position must be decided soon or we will face a farcical situation in which the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates for the next election on the basis of existing seats—they are comparatively new, after all, as the last redistribution was not too long ago—while the Conservatives select candidates for the new seats. All the fights that go on within the party about the redistribution game of musical chairs will then emerge publicly as people fight for a diminished number of seats. That is plainly ludicrous. Whether or not the Government see sense on this issue, they must make an early decision.

I want the commission to show that it has seen sense on its proposals for Grimsby by not abolishing the historic constituency of Great Grimsby. My main reason for securing the debate was to put the case for that, but I also put it to the Government that it is incumbent on them to make their decision on the redistribution clear before we have a farce in which different parties are selecting candidates for different constituencies.

My final plea must be to the commission. I do not want to be the last MP for Great Grimsby as a united constituency with one community and all the organisational links that join it together. Please rethink this in light of the evidence from Grimsby that we will be submitting and keep Grimsby one political unit and one constituency.

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4.47 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for allowing us to give these issues a good airing. It is absolutely clear that he is passionate about his constituency and its greatness, and I hear his desire not to be the last MP for Grimsby. That, however, is in the hands of others, as are so many things. I am sure that he will welcome the will of the people of Grimsby.

I will outline a few of the more factual aspects of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that I, as a Minister of the Crown, am in no position to suggest what the Boundary Commission for England ought to do or to comment on its proposals in detail. I shall have to stay carefully away from that. However, I can offer him my own experience of representing half of an extremely fine city, the city of Norwich. My constituents in the north of Norwich often confuse the boundary line. We do not have passport control; we reserve that for the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk. Within Norwich and its neighbouring local authority area of Broadland, such issues are also raised occasionally.

The hon. Gentleman has focused on the proposals made by the Boundary Commission for England in the current boundary review concerning his constituency of Great Grimsby. As I said, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the conduct or content of the review. The Boundary Commission for England is independent, and rightly so. I am sure we all appreciate that about the democracy in which we live, so I will not go into the individual decisions made by the commission to date. I have no doubt that he and other hon. Members here have made known their views, and those of constituents and residents, to the commission. It is for the Boundary Commission to consider the substance of his comments and balance them with others that they receive.

The legislative position that applies is that the four boundary commissions across the UK will conduct boundary reviews and make recommendations in accordance with the statutory framework set by Parliament. We should leave it to the experience and judgment of the boundary commissions to make those proposals, in accordance with that framework.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Boundary Commission for England is consulting on its revised proposals, which it published on 16 October, and on which he has commented extensively today. The deadline for responses is 10 December, so there is still time to make further representations on the proposed boundary, and I am confident that the hon. Gentleman is doing that. I urge not only hon. Members in this Chamber but anyone else who takes a serious interest in this matter to engage with that process. That is not just a matter for political parties; it should, as the hon. Gentleman said, be a matter for communities to voice their opinion on. I am sure that he is encouraging Grimsbians—he will have to let me know the word—

Austin Mitchell: Grimbarians.

Miss Smith: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is encouraging the fine people of Grimsby to do this.

Parliament will have the opportunity in due course to consider the final recommendations arising from the current boundary review, when the four boundary commissions have completed their reviews and submitted

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their final reports to the Government. We expect those reports in October 2013. The hon. Gentleman will know that all too well. We are in the period after the publication of revised proposals, and a written-only consultation of eight weeks follows.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): All the boundary commissions are working within the proposals for a smaller House of Commons. However, in the light of the decision of the Liberal Democrats and the possibility that the legislation might not go anywhere, is it not a waste of time and money at a time of austerity? Surely the decision about whether the boundaries are going anywhere should be taken in this House, and it should be taken at the beginning of 2013 rather than in October 2013.

Miss Smith: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter, because it allows me to put on record a point that will no doubt be of interest to hon. Members. This is an example of Government underspending, which is always to be applauded. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree.

We estimated that the review would cost £11.9 million or thereabouts. Some £6.6 million has been spent by the four boundary commissions on the review and related purposes till the end of October, and £3 million remains in the budget for the rest of the review. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that coming in under budget on this exercise is to be applauded. I see that he is writing down those figures, but they have already been brought out in parliamentary questions. He may wish to consider that before he writes his own press release about them. It is important to have regard to the figures and the costs of what we do, in every case. The £9.6 million current estimated cost that I cited is less than the previously estimated cost of the review and less than the previous boundary review, which cost £13.6 million.

The legislative position is clear. The House of Commons passed the Bill that I will mention in a second so the legislation is on the statute book. There is an obligation on the boundary commissions to return with their proposals by October 2013, The expenditure that we are talking about was necessary for the conduct of the review, as required by that legislation. I think that the boundary commissions have been successful in securing value for money when carrying out their duties.

An early point always made in support of the legislation was that, contrary to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, reducing the number of MPs would bring us closer into line with other democracies and would deliver an estimated saving of £13.6 million a year, which is worth having.

Let me mention some other reasons why the Government thought it necessary to amend the existing rules for setting boundaries. Parliament debated these at considerable length, as all hon. Members know, during the passage of the Bill that became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.

There is a significant difference between the sizes of many parliamentary constituencies, and I can provide some particularly illuminating examples. Based on the figures as at December 2011, the East Ham constituency has 92,000 voters and Wirral West has around 55,000. The differences are even greater when compared across different nations. At the same date, Arfon in Wales had an electorate of around 40,000. I do not imagine that

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there is a great desire to see such inconsistency continue, because it has the effect of making some people’s votes count more than others’, depending on where they live. I am sure that the residents of Great Grimsby have their view on that, as others do. Our reforms are designed to restore equality and fairness in setting constituency boundaries. The 2011 Act seeks to achieve votes that are more equal in weight throughout the UK.

The concern has clearly been expressed today that setting boundaries should not simply be a numbers process, but should instead respect local ties and seek to unite communities. I recognise that there is a balance to be struck in boundary setting. A sense of place must be respected so that different localities and places that take account of local ties can be represented by single Members of Parliament, where that can be made to be true. However, the other side of the balance must be that we seek equality in the number of electors in each constituency, so that throughout the country votes have an equal weight—in other words, we uphold the fundamental principle of one elector and one vote. The boundary commissions are still able to take account of factors such as physical geographical features and local ties, but these are subject to the overriding principle of equality in constituency size to ensure we maintain that key principle.

The commission’s guide to the review states that the regional boundaries we are discussing are not inviolable, and it is open to the hon. Gentleman to make a representation accordingly. The guide to the review states that the regional approach

“does not prevent anyone from putting forward counter-proposals that include one or more constituencies being split between regions, but it is likely that compelling reasons would need to be given to persuade”

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the Boundary Commission for England

“to depart from the regional-based approach we adopted in formulating our initial proposals.”

Again, we return to the fact that it is for the commission to take a view on the merits of the case, according to the legislation and other competing proposals for the area.

The consultation is open until 10 December. If the hon. Gentleman feels he has compelling reasons to put forward, he ought to do that. I would not dream of trespassing on the issue of whether Humberside or north-east Lincolnshire, or any other important aspect of the local geography, is more wanted by local people than others. That is not for me to say, as a mere Member for the fine county of Norfolk.

I think that all hon. Members agree with the principle that the boundary commissions should be independent. However, equality and fairness must be overriding principles in respect of something as important as people’s right to choose the Government of the day. The boundary reforms under the 2011 Act ensure that there is fairness in our political system and that votes carry a more equal weight throughout the country. I recognise the important points that have been made. I hope I have provided reassurance that the Government have taken and are taking these matters very seriously and that, crucially, there remains an avenue for the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and others to discuss them further with the Boundary Commission for England.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.