As a final but important justification for why the Bill is necessary, it is worth considering the situation of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. The power to obtain information from the private sector is contained in section 1941 of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997. The legislation is framed in a very similar way to the English commission’s existing power under section 17

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of the 1995 Act, but it entitles the Scottish commission to apply to the High Court in Scotland for an order requiring a private individual or private sector body to produce, or allow access to, material that it is believed might assist the Scottish commission in the exercise of any of its functions.

I hope that I have established how the Bill will improve the work and thoroughness of CCRC investigations and why it is necessary. I shall now attempt to anticipate and answer some questions that the new measure is likely to raise—questions that I have indeed asked myself, and on which I have consulted both the commission and the Ministry of Justice over the past few months. Indeed, some of these points were put to me in Committee.

I want to address up front one of the largest concerns that Members are likely to have with the extension of these powers: their possible intrusion into the lives of private individuals. Although consent and privacy are to be valued, where information, even of a personal and distressing nature, could make the difference between a person’s further incarceration or their freedom, I believe that it is right that that information can be requested, subject to due process and the provision of strict safeguards. Members should know that there are significant safeguards in place to ensure that this new power is not abused.

The Bill provides that there would be judicial oversight of the process. The CCRC could only compel a private individual or organisation to provide material by order of the court. All the same safeguards that currently operate for section 17 disclosures would apply, and the commission agrees that such a process would be appropriate. The main safeguard against improper intrusion is contained in the Bill itself: namely, judicial oversight. As specified in clause 1(1), a person will be obliged to provide the CCRC with private documents or other material only if ordered to do so by a Crown court judge.

In practice, the Crown court judge may make such an order only if they are satisfied that the material may assist the CCRC in its investigation of the alleged miscarriage of justice. Furthermore, unauthorised wider disclosure of any information obtained will be an offence under section 23 of the 1995 Act. In addition, the person from whom disclosure is obtained will be able to stipulate that any information obtained is not to be disseminated further without their consent, in accordance with section 25 of the 1995 Act.

As with its current practice when preserving public body material under section 17, the CCRC would not seek to exercise its functions in an unreasonable or disproportionate way, and it would remain mindful of the right to a private and family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights when selecting those cases where an application for a court order appeared justified.

Even so, if there are privacy implications, I believe that any interference by the new measures with that right would be legally justified. The material will only be sought pursuant to a review into an alleged miscarriage of justice, which is a serious matter. Therefore, arguments regarding intrusion into private life must be viewed in the context of the human rights implications of continued wrongful imprisonment, which is itself a breach of article 5.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly asked me in Committee what provisions were in the Bill to bring about any sanctions for private bodies or individuals failing to

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comply with the court order once issued. I undertook to investigate that point and report back to him. In the intervening period I have made inquiries with the Ministry of Justice, the staff at the CCRC itself and also some hon. and learned Friends in the House, and I am pleased to report back to him. It is true that the Select Committee’s report, which paved the way for this Bill, included an additional recommendation for a new measure for timely compliance, to apply to public and private sources.

The Ministry of Justice considered that possibility and how it could be practically applied. It concluded that the evidence that this is needed, or that its implementation would make a significant difference to the timing of reviews by the CCRC, was weak and that it could not consider “sanctions” to be appropriate for the CCRC to apply if bodies failed to comply with the disclosure. Moreover, however, on reflection, the lawyers whom I spoke to and the CCRC considered that there were no such provisions in the Bill because they were unnecessary. That is because the power to demand disclosure is subject to a judge’s agreement, and the existing rules on contempt of court would provide sufficient protection. If a private body refused to provide material to the CCRC after a request for voluntary disclosure, there would clearly be no penalty. However, if the CCRC has sought and obtained a Crown court order under the new provision, then non-disclosure by the private body would be a breach of that court order, and would place the body in contempt of court.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly also raised a foreseeable objection: that of cost. The Bill has no financial implications and will not impose a financial cost or charges directly on the CCRC or private bodies. However, Members may be asking themselves whether the new power could place an unjustified financial burden on private companies that would be obliged to retrieve material for the CCRC. I suggest that the best answer to the question is to look at where the equivalent powers have been in operation for a long time—namely, the Scottish CCRC, which has not reported such issues.

I wish to recap the main reasons why I believe the Bill deserves the support of the House. First, the important power to request privately held information is currently lacking, and that is hampering the work of the CCRC. The limits placed on the CCRC by its governing statute have occasionally hindered its work and limited its ability to help victims who may be innocent. Richard Foster, the chairman of the CCRC, has said he is confident that miscarriages of justice have gone unremedied because the commission lacks that power. It is impossible to tell in retrospect whether the outcomes of any cases would have been different had additional information been available, but I hope I have made it clear how the problem is fixed by the Bill.

Additionally, the power has been wanted for a long time. The CCRC has long complained of this weakness, and after a thorough inquiry the Justice Committee has said that there has been a failure of successive Governments to right the situation. I tell the House that the time has now come. Crucially, we must also remember that the Scottish CCRC has enjoyed the powers for 18 years. Not only would the Bill fix a discrepancy between the

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two legal systems—as a staunch Unionist, I believe that is surely a good thing—but we already have a working example of how the powers work. There is no record of abuse or invasion of privacy; the Scottish system is largely voluntary and complied with. Given that the commission has the legal recourse should it need it and that information is provided without great cost, only rarely would a court order be contested.

The House will be pleased to know that I have come to my final point. We must consider the human aspect of this debate. Although the British system of justice works well in the vast majority of cases, mistakes occasionally happen. Prisons are not nice places, and they are not supposed to be—that is why we use them as a deterrent. However, what about somebody who has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison when they know that they are innocent, that the system has made errors against them and that the key evidence that could prove their innocence has been withheld? Imagine how their experience is compounded. Those people are victims.

There are countless cases of people wrongly convicted who, due to psychological pressures resulting from their experience, end up taking their own lives still protesting their innocence and still, sometimes, locked up in prison. We have a moral duty to help those people to ensure that such incidents are minimised and that mistakes are swiftly and thoroughly investigated without hindrance, so that justice can be served. That is the ideal that the Bill will bring us a little closer to realising. I hope that the House will give the Bill its full support.

12.34 pm

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): First, may I echo the sentiments that have been expressed about the sad passing of our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough? We came into the House together in the 2015 intake, and he was always so supportive and so positive. He was a man with great dignity. We will miss him dearly, and our thoughts are with his wife and family.

I will keep my comments on the Bill brief, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) set out the case for it clearly and in great detail. The Opposition will not oppose the Bill, for the following reasons.

The CCRC performs a vital function in our criminal justice system. That system is crucial to prosecuting criminals, but also to supporting victims efficiently and effectively. However, sometimes, those processes do not work when someone is in fact innocent. The CCRC’s function is to ensure that those innocents can investigate their case and to consider whether there is a real possibility of their conviction not being upheld and of the case being referred to an appeal court.

The Bill will extend section 17 powers to require all persons, corporate and unincorporated, and all natural and legal companies, including partnerships, to provide the CCRC with documents or other material necessary to its investigations. That will put the CCRC in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the same position as the Scottish CCRC, which has had those powers for 18 years —nearly two decades.

The absence of powers to obtain material from the private sector has often disadvantaged applicants to the CCRC. The powers cover expert witnesses at trials and their personal notes; original contemporaneous notes

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of interviews recorded by clinicians in NHS files; information received by forensic medical examiners from victims of crime during their examinations; journalists and legal departments of newspapers; banking organisations; companies that have no direct involvement or interest in a case; companies that provide details of employees; private counselling records; third sector organisations such as the Samaritans, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and ChildLine; and campaign groups. They will now all be caught by the section 18A powers.

The overwhelming number of private individuals approached by the CCRC agree to disclose material, but the Bill is for those who do not. They will not be able to hide behind data security legislation or the fact that information has a security classification. The CCRC re-examines and re-tests material from crime scenes, but the Forensic Science Service was abolished by the coalition Government and replaced with a private organisation from 2012. Material was not, therefore, available under section 17, but it will now be available under section 18A powers.

In the past, the CCRC has had good co-operation with its requests for case files from solicitors representing applicants at trial and/or on appeal. In part, that co-operation has been due to the relevant professional codes of conduct. In recent times, as has been said, pressure on legally aided firms has led to the CCRC having difficulties obtaining legal material. Often, such requests are the last priority on solicitors’ work lists, and that has led to protracted negotiations, leading to delays and discussions about who bears the cost of transferring the materials in question. Section 18A will cut those lengthy delays and expedite justice.

The Opposition welcome the safeguards that the Bill will put in place. The CCRC should always attempt to obtain information voluntarily, but if such information were not forthcoming, there would be a court order accompanied by judicial oversight, as specified in clause 1(1). A person will be obliged to provide the CCRC with the relevant information, subject to the order of a Crown court judge.

The Bill will impose no financial costs or charges directly on the CCRC or private bodies. The Scottish CCRC has had only one contested proceedings case in nearly two decades. Will the Minister clarify, however, whether the non-disclosure penalties on private bodies will be the same as they are now for criminal and civil proceedings? In addition, with the CCRC’s funding by grant in aid from the Ministry of Justice in 2014-15 amounting to £5.67 million—a reduction of 30% over the past decade—does he anticipate that the creation of the new powers under proposed section 18A will lead to an increased number of cases, increased workload and therefore the need for increased funding?

As I said, the new power is necessary because not being able to request private information has hindered the CCRC’s working practices. Labour Members will support the Bill, because a person convicted of a crime that they did not commit becomes a victim. In prison, with all the pressure that brings, some victims of miscarriages of justice have taken their own lives. That cannot be allowed to happen again.

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12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Dominic Raab): At the outset, may I add my condolences to the family of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and say that we feel his loss in all parts of this Chamber?

I add my congratulations to those of others to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), who, in getting the Bill to this stage, has achieved no mean feat. Many private Members’ Bills fall long before they reach this point, and he has shown considerable tenacity, sagacity and modesty in securing its passage to this stage—[Interruption.] But not brevity, he tells me—you can’t have it all. He has done so within nine months of being elected to this House, which is also no mean feat.

I thank the other hon. Members who have demonstrated their support for and interest in this Bill. I note that my hon. Friend has managed to amass an interesting range of sponsors, from the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition to the Conservative chair of the 1922 committee. I am not sure whether that is entirely unprecedented, but it is certainly a rare and potent cocktail of parliamentary support, and I congratulate him on that.

In short, the Government support the Bill. It may be modest in size, but we believe it will make a significant contribution to the effective workings of our criminal justice system. When we think about justice, we usually think about the police, the courts, or perhaps the judges. We rightly focus on the victims and the witnesses, and on ensuring that justice is meted out swiftly and surely. Perhaps we do not spend enough time thinking about what happens when things go wrong. That is mercifully rare, but it does happen on occasions that someone is convicted who, it transpires, was innocent all along. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to talk about the impact of miscarriages of justice on individuals—the human toll. He put it incredibly well. British justice should be firm, but it should be fair, and that is what this Bill is all about.

In the 1970s, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there were some very high-profile miscarriages of justice. He spoke about them, and I do not need to repeat what he said. Those cases exposed the weaknesses in the criminal justice system at the time, and that led to the establishment of a royal commission on criminal justice in 1991. As hon. Members will recall, the commission’s remit included considering whether changes were needed in the arrangements for considering and investigating allegations of miscarriages of justice when all the appeal processes have been exhausted. The commission’s recommendations led to the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The existence of the CCRC ensures that those who have been wrongfully convicted have someone to turn to who will thoroughly investigate and reconsider their case. If there is a real possibility that their conviction would not be upheld, the commission will refer their case to an appeal court. The commission consists of 11 commissioners, one of whom serves as chair. They are dedicated and experienced people who deserve our support and encouragement. As I say, its purpose is to investigate cases in which it is alleged that the system has gone wrong and a mistake has been made. That is no easy task for the commissioners. It can involve trawling through reams of paperwork and great swathes

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of historical evidence. The ability to obtain that evidential material is clearly an essential tool in the commission’s work; I think it is the key to its success.

Currently, the commission uses the powers set out in section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 to require public bodies to give it documents or other material that may assist it in discharging its functions. Public bodies that the CCRC often deals with include the police, the NHS, councils, Whitehall Departments and the Crown Prosecution Service. Provided that the section 17 power is exercised reasonably, the CCRC’s ability to obtain information from the public sector is not restricted by any obligation of secrecy or limitation on disclosure. For example, it extends to information that may be relevant to national security and to personal information held by public bodies.

The CCRC does not, however, have the right to obtain the same information from private organisations and individuals. As we have discussed throughout the passage of the Bill, and as my hon. Friend pointed out, that can cause real issues in some cases, albeit a small number. There is no doubt that that has limited the commission’s actions and caused unnecessary delay in some of the reviews of cases it has undertaken. Obviously that is not just unfair but a waste of its resources.

When documents relevant to a particular investigation are held by the private sector, or indeed a private individual, the commission relies on voluntary disclosure. Although voluntary disclosure is not uncommon—most businesses want to try to do the right thing—organisations sometimes claim to be unable to provide the CCRC with the relevant material, perhaps because of a statutory restriction on the disclosure. Even when voluntary disclosure is made, it can often take protracted negotiation, which itself causes lengthy and expensive delays in the review process. As my hon. Friend has said, let us not forget the impact that that has on innocent people, particularly innocent people who are still in prison. The delay has a very real human cost.

The situation under the current legislation stands in contrast to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which, when it was established, was granted far wider-reaching powers under the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. The Scottish body has a similar function to that of its counterpart in England and Wales, to investigate miscarriages of justice in Scotland. However, it was established from the outset with powers to obtain material from both public and private sector organisations. It is a shame that there are no Members who represent Scotland present to hear us pay full tribute to the Scottish legal and justice system.

The Bill’s insertion of a new section into the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 is very welcome. It means that the CCRC will be able to obtain a court order requiring a private individual or private organisation to disclose a document in their possession or under their broader control. The court will be able to make such an order only if it thinks that the document or other material may assist the commission in the exercise of its functions. We are not talking about licensing or authorising fishing expeditions.

The involvement of the court is an important safeguard in the process. The individual or the company from which any material is requested will be able to put their

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case to the court if they think that the information either needs to be maintained for confidentiality or should not be disclosed. There are safeguards for documents that are, for example, commercially sensitive or subject to legal privilege. Clinics may want to safeguard personal medical records whose disclosure could be detrimental to the patient or patients concerned, and journalists want to protect their sources. All such things can be catered for in the process.

In short, there may be a whole range of circumstances where it is justifiable and appropriate that documents or other material remain confidential. The Bill provides a clear process for the courts to consider fully the circumstances of any particular case and to make an informed, sensible decision about how to proceed.

Once a court order has been made, failure to disclose the documents will be punishable by contempt of court. That is a significant sanction. The maximum penalty for that in the Crown court is two years, or a fine, or both. The penalty in any individual case will be a matter for the judges and the court, within the maximum limit. We think that is right and appropriate. Of course, it is not possible to imprison an organisation if it does not comply, but a fine has significant potential to damage a company’s reputation as well as to hit it in the pocket, and we think that will be a considerable deterrent. We also think that the prospect of being taken to court will probably be enough to persuade most companies to provide any relevant documents and material, and to do so quickly. Where a miscarriage of justice is concerned, it is even more important that we brook no delay in putting it right.

One reason why the powers are needed now is that more and more services that used to be in the public sector are provided wholly, or partly, by private companies. It was good to hear that the Opposition have no dogmatic objection to that. A good example of where that works effectively is the work that used to be done by the Forensic Science Service. As hon. Members will imagine, a key part of the commission’s work involves re-examining and re-testing material obtained from crime scenes. Much of that material is now initially tested and held by private companies.

When it comes to forensic evidence and samples, an important power of the commission under the 1995 Act is to request that samples are retained for later examination and testing. At present, such a request can be made to public bodies, but not to private individuals or companies. That is a good example of the situation that the Bill is designed to rectify. Documents that are in the possession of a private company might be destroyed, inadvertently or otherwise, and not be available for later examination by the CCRC. The Bill will ensure that the commission can request that the court orders a private organisation to retain documents or other material, which will reduce any risk that the company might discard or unintentionally destroy important material that the commission might need later.

Some private companies already have a policy covering what they retain, and they may be restrained by lack of space and facilities. The commission needs a mechanism to ensure that documents are retained in spite of any such policy. We think it will continue to be relatively rare for a company to intentionally destroy documents that later prove to be necessary in an investigation by

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the commission, but it is important that the powers in this Bill exist for future such contingencies.

We should, of course, acknowledge that the great majority of private individuals approached by the commission comply voluntarily. Cases in which organisations or individuals refuse to release documents are, thankfully, rare, but some simply refuse to assist. As with witnesses who are reluctant to come forward, there may be many reasons for that refusal. Some just cannot be bothered, others may be scared of reprisals—for example, where a case involves gangs—and others may be hostile to the criminal justice system in general, or to the commission.

We believe that the powers that the Bill gives the CCRC will make cases of non-assistance much rarer. The backstop of a court order will make it more likely that individuals and organisations will comply fully and without delay when approached by the CCRC. That is certainly the case in Scotland.

As we have considered what the Bill is designed to achieve, we have been mindful of the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Justice following its investigation of the matter during the 2014-15 Session. I will not go through all the points that it made, but the Justice Committee clearly felt that there was a need to act in this area. It argued:

“The extension of the CCRC’s section 17 powers to cover private bodies is urgently necessary and commands universal support.”

There appears to be cross-party agreement in the House to that effect. The Committee recommended that the commission should be able to apply to the court, and that important safeguard is in the Bill, so the Bill fulfils that recommendation exactly.

The Secretary of State for Justice wants a justice system that is firm but fair, and which delivers the best possible outcomes and commands the confidence of the public. It is clear from all the speeches, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, that the Criminal Cases Review Commission has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that the criminal justice system delivers firm but fair justice. I think the whole House agrees about the importance of the commission’s role in performing independent investigations, and that, as it does so, it should have all the information-gathering powers it needs. The Bill is an important, though modest and incremental, addition to those powers.

For all those reasons, the Government are very supportive of the Bill. The powers are appropriate, and the Bill’s terms will ensure that the powers are exercised proportionately and appropriately. The involvement of the courts will ensure that we get the right balance between confidentiality and the broader requirements of due process and justice. I think I will be joined by many colleagues—indeed, I hope by the whole House—in welcoming and supporting the Bill, commending my hon. Friend and wishing the Bill a safe, secure and swift passage in this House and through the other place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Bat Habitats Regulation (No. 2) Bill

Second Reading

12.56 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a surprise and a privilege to be able to address the issue of bat habitats again in the House so soon, relatively speaking, since I last spoke about the matter back in January 2015. You may recall that, in the last Session of the last Parliament, my Bat Habitats Regulation Bill attracted a lot of interest. The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench today—responded then by promising that various matters would be progressed. I see this debate as an opportunity to find out a bit more about what exactly has happened since he last addressed this issue in the House and about what he thinks should happen in the future.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to cut off my hon. Friend in full flow. This is further to my point of order earlier this morning about the security risk this country faces from a European Court of Justice decision to stop the UK kicking out of this country a Moroccan national whom the Home Office believes to be a severe threat to national security. It now appears that the person concerned is Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law. Whoever it is, this is a very serious matter, and this country and this House should be aware of it. What can be done to get a Home Office Minister to come to the Chamber as a matter of urgency to tell the House about this matter and about what threat this country faces?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for bringing this matter, which is indeed important, to the attention of the House again. As he knows, I have no power to require a Minister to come to the House, but I am quite certain, now that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter on the Floor of the House, that those who ought to take note of what he has said will do so. I trust that the matter will be brought before the House in due course, and the hon. Gentleman is of course well aware of the many methods that he can use next week to ensure that it is brought before the House.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for what you have said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I share his concern that this is a very important issue, particularly in the light of what has been said about the need for us to be able, as a result of the current EU renegotiations, to improve our own national security.

The EU is of course a significant issue in relation to the regulation of bat habitats. The only ways in which my Bill, as currently drafted, can be put on the statute book is either for the Government to agree to exclude it from the application of the European Communities Act 1972 or for us to leave the European Union. If the Bill does not reach the statute book, the need for such a Bill may be significantly reduced if we can leave the European

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Union. I do not know whether I will be able to draw out the Minister on that matter in this debate. Last year, I described him as one of the leading Eurosceptics. I hope that in the course of the next few weeks or days, he will re-establish his credentials in that respect.

This morning, I received a written answer to my question, which asked:

“what progress has been made…on developing a toolkit for effective and safe management of bats in churches as recommended in the University of Bristol report on Management of bats in churches, a pilot, published in January 2015.”

The Minister referred to that report when he responded to the debate in January 2015.

The answer that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) stated:

“The Government has invested significant resources into research and development to assess how we can reduce the impact caused by bats in churches. This has included a three year research project that concluded in 2013, as well as a pilot project led by Historic England that focused on churches with significant bat issues. Natural England is currently creating a licensing framework to provide the mechanism through which the impact of bats will be controlled in churches.”

I will pause at that point. Natural England seems to be taking an inordinately long time to create the licensing framework. One can only assume that either the matter is incredibly complex or Natural England is not investing sufficient resources in that objective. I hope that the Minister will put more pressure on Natural England to come forward with the licensing framework sooner rather than later.

The second paragraph of the ministerial response to my written question causes me concern. It states:

“A partnership of five organisations, including the Church of England and Natural England, is seeking Heritage Lottery Funding for a five year project to support the creation of a national support network for churches that have bat related issues. The outcome of the bid for funding will be known in March.”

That is an incredibly long timescale. Why can the funding not be provided directly by the Government now? Why do we need to go to the Heritage Lottery Fund to try to get it? Why will it take a similar length of time to the duration of the last world war to come up with a solution, if indeed that funding is available? Why, for all the talk, are we not able to do more, more quickly, to resolve what is for many churches and places of worship a really serious issue?

The seriousness of the issue is recognised in the material that has been produced by the Bat Conservation Trust and the University of Bristol. The Bat Conservation Trust has identified a number of case studies of churches where the problems with bats have been mitigated, rather than resolved. It also sets out in detail all the problems that bats can cause in churches, such as droppings and urine, health concerns, what happens when they fly inside churches and the problems that they can cause when building and conservation projects are under way in churches.

The Bat Conservation Trust has a helpful brief entitled “Solutions to bat issues in churches”, and it answers certain questions such as “Why can’t I get rid of bats in my church? What can I do about bat droppings in my

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church? Why do churches have to foot the bill for bat conservation? What help is available to churches with bats?”, and so on. It is clear from the way that those questions are asked that we are a long way short of finding a solution to this intractable problem that is causing an enormous amount of concern to churches.

In the previous debate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley referred to the fact that it is not just churches that are affected by this issue. The Bat Conservation Trust took up my response to that intervention, in which I said that we should perhaps start with just one small area, such as churches. The fact that I then contemplated the possibility that we might extend that provision to other buildings caused an enormous amount of angst among members of the Bat Conservation Trust, and it placed a riposte on its website. My point is that we have to start somewhere and try to get some urgency into the matter.

Philip Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking up my point about other buildings as opposed to just churches, and in order for progress to be made, I am very happy to drop my wide ambition to see this measure extended further. If it means that my hon. Friend can make progress on churches alone, I am happy to limit my ambition to that.

Mr Chope: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope that when he responds, the Minister will accept that dealing with churches would be a good place to start.

One criticism made of the Bill last year was that it contained no definition of a building used for public worship. To address that I have added clause 3, which defines a building used for public worship as

“a building use for the purposes of religious worship by a congregation or religious group whether or not the building is also used for counselling, social events, instruction or religious training.”

I hope that that will overcome the objection raised about the lack of definition in the Bill.

When responding to our previous debate, the Minister said that there were issues that were going to be addressed, and that in light of their vulnerability, bats have been subject to protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. At European level, that was augmented by protection under the European habitats directive in 1994, which was transposed into UK law with the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. He said that there would be a review of the relevant European directive, and that

“the European Commission has committed itself to reviewing certain elements of the directive to establish whether they are proportionate. So, in addition to all the work that we are doing nationally, a European-level review is under way.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 1199.]

Will the Minister tell the House where we are with that European level review, and say when he thinks it will reach a conclusion? What sort of conclusion does he think it will reach, and what evidence has been submitted by the Government to that review?

It is a great concern to me, and to a lot of my hon. Friends, that we have European legislation to deal with bats who do not fly across Europe. These are bats who reside in the British Isles. What business is it of the other countries in the European Union to dictate to us how we should look after our own bat populations?

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This could almost be a starting point for addressing the much-vaunted but totally ignored principle of subsidiarity. If we have a species in our country that does not move from one country to another, it should surely be a matter for domestic, rather than European, law. I would be very interested to know from my hon. Friend the Minister where he thinks we have got to on that.

There is some good news. Last year, I talked about the impact of wind turbines on bats. I put a provision in that Bill largely because of a proposed massive offshore wind turbine project in Dorset. The good news is that the project has now been rejected by the Planning Inspectorate. There will no longer be the adverse impact on bats on the mainland there would otherwise have been if connecting cables had been constructed through forest areas.

In responding last year to the aspect of that Bill concerning the impact of wind turbines on bat habitats, my hon. Friend said:

“That evidence is fairly mixed. Some studies in the United States and Canada suggested that there could be an impact, but, in order to clarify the position in the United Kingdom the Government are conducting their own research, which will be completed later this year.”

The research must therefore have been completed by the end of 2015. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could tell us the outcome of that research on the wind turbine impacts on our bat populations and habitats. He went on to say:

“If that research establishes that the current approach to planning in respect of wind turbines is insufficient to protect bats, we will review our approach at that point.”

There is a useful purpose to be served by having an almost regular review of progress on issues such as this. The other thing my hon. Friend said last time was this:

“In a changing landscape, where hedgerows and other linear features that are so important to bats have been lost as roosting sites, churches can be important to, in particular, some of our rarer birds. However, the Government recognise, and are sympathetic to, the concern of parishioners who are suffering from the effects of bat droppings on pews, precious artefacts and equipment in the public and private areas of their churches. To address that concern, we have invested considerable resources in research and development to establish how we can reduce the impact of bats in churches.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 1198.]

He then went on to refer to the three-year research project completed in March 2014.

At the beginning of my remarks, I referred to the answer to the question of where we are getting to in establishing a toolkit for effective and safe management of bats in churches. The answer seems to be that it is a long way off. In the meantime, what are we going to do? Something has to be done to make things better for churches and for the parishioners and others who use them. There must be a better solution than them having to put up umbrellas in church to avoid being defecated upon.

Why must our fantastic church monuments be covered with paper—not plastic, because it adds to the adverse impact on the artefacts—so that bats can carry on doing their thing inside our churches to the detriment of that important part of our heritage? It must be possible for bats to co-exist with historic churches. The challenge for the Government, which is reflected in the Bill, is to demonstrate a will to make it happen. For that reason, I ask that the House give my Bill a Second Reading.

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1.15 pm

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I associate myself with the Speaker’s remarks earlier following the sad death of Harry Harpham, the MP for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. Like many colliers, Harry carried himself with strength and dignity, and we will miss him greatly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on the selection of his Bill today. Bat numbers have been in the grip of a downward spiral over the last century. The loss of roosting sites and insects from pesticide use sent the bat population into a sharp decline. The habitats directive was an important mechanism aimed at halting this decline, and I am pleased to say that as a result bat numbers have stabilised and even increased in recent years. That is down to the hard work of the public, private and voluntary organisations involved in bat conservation. Together, they have ensured the directive’s success.

Dark, quiet buildings are a natural roosting spot for bats, and it is true that churches are a target. A nationwide survey concluded that one in six contained bats. It also concluded, however, that the number of bats was small and that congregations might not even be aware of their presence. Indeed, a separate survey by the Bat Conservation Trust showed that only 12% of churches expressed any concern about their presence. Having said that, urine and droppings can create problems, and in large quantities, they can make a church unpleasant to use and damage historic fabric.

The Bill, however, ignores the many measures being taken by organisations such as English Heritage and the National Churches Trust to help mitigate these issues. Plenty of advice is available on how to manage buildings, including churches, that contain bats. Most of this is offered free of charge and can even involve visits to affected areas. Indeed, if this requires a monetary contribution, public and non-governmental organisations can fund it for important sites. Furthermore, a Heritage Lottery Fund bid is currently being prepared by a partnership that includes the Church of England, Historic England and the BCT. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that earlier, and I hope, like him, that it is brought forward soon. Those actions are to be applauded and are an example of the system supporting itself without the need to remove vital protections.

In conclusion, there is no reason to water down the important legal protections for bats, and I urge the House to reject the Bill.

1.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I also associate myself with the comments about the sad death of Harry Harpham.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for giving me the opportunity to respond to his Bill. As he indicated, this is a Second Reading in more ways than one, because, a little over a year ago, I was stood at the Dispatch Box debating precisely the same Bill. This is an opportunity, as he said, to update the House on what has happened since, although it is obviously a short time in which to make progress on

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such a long-term problem. I am afraid, however, that the Government still do not support his Bill, for reasons I will explain.

All bats are subject to protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it a criminal offence deliberately to kill, injure, take or disturb bats. There is also a strict liability offence of damaging or destroying their breeding sites or resting places. The Act’s provisions protect bats from disturbance in their place of rest and the obstruction of such locations.

Most of the 18 species of bat found in the UK evolved to live, breed and forage in or around trees and caves, but many have now adapted to roost in buildings, including barns, houses, churches, tunnels and bridges, following the loss of their natural roosting sites through modern agriculture and forestry practices, and also through urban growth. Such artificial roosts are now essential to the survival of many bat species. However, the threat of demolition of old buildings, barn conversions, an increasing use of artificial lighting and the move towards air-tight buildings have highlighted the increasing importance of the remaining roosting sites. Decreasing the protection afforded to bats in these important sites is therefore likely to have a detrimental impact on the conservation status of bats in the UK and would be in contravention of our existing national legislation, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is also underpinned by our obligations under, for instance, the habitats directive.

My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes that surveys must be undertaken before any new buildings are built to assess the presence of bats in the area and, if there are any bats present, that building should proceed only if bat boxes or other artificial roosts are provided. The requirement to be aware of the existence of bats and to consider the impacts of any build on their numbers already exists. Local planning authorities have a duty to consider biodiversity and the requirements of the habitats directive when considering developments. Mitigation for damage to bat roosts and resting places may be required, but bat boxes and artificial roosts are only two of the possible measures that can be implemented. Each case should be considered on its merits. Furthermore, bats require not just roost sites, but suitable habitats in which to feed. The Bill does not take account of this.

The Bill also proposes to prohibit the placing of wind turbines in the vicinity of any bat habitat. Again, bat surveys are already undertaken at potential wind turbine sites when bats are nearby. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has commissioned research on the impact of wind turbines on bats, and I am told the report will be published shortly. My hon. Friend asked for an update on that report, and the fact that it is being published suggests that either it is nearing completion or the finishing touches are being put on it. We expect the report to be published in the spring. Should that research show an impact, we will consider what changes may be needed in the placing of wind turbines. I would make the point, though, that this is not believed to need new legislation; rather, there would simply be a change in planning policy guidance.

Finally, the Bill proposes that bats should be excluded from a building used for public worship unless it has been demonstrated that their presence would not have a significant adverse impact on the users of such a place. Unfortunately, the Bill does not define what a “significant

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adverse impact” would be. Such a blanket prohibition does not take account of either the potential importance of some churches to vulnerable bat populations or the work the Government are doing to alleviate the impact of bats in such places where they are causing a nuisance or distress. In a changing landscape, where hedgerows and other linear features so important to bats have been lost and other buildings used as roost sites, such as farm outbuildings or other traditional buildings, have been lost or demolished, churches can represent one of the few remaining constant resources for bats, thus giving them a disproportionate significance for the maintenance of bat populations at a favourable conservation status.

However, as I have said previously, the Government recognise and are very sympathetic to the concerns of the many parishioners who are suffering from the negative effects of bats in churches, such as bat droppings. To address this, the Government have invested significant resources in research and development to assess how we can reduce the impact of bats in churches. A recent three-year research project led by DEFRA, along with a pilot project led by Historic England, developed techniques to assist churches with significant bat-related issues. Solutions are ready to be implemented in some churches that were involved in this work. Natural England is currently creating a licensing framework, which will be the mechanism through which these techniques will be delivered.

Mr Chope: When does my hon. Friend expect Natural England to complete the licensing framework?

George Eustice: I do not have a particular timetable, but the framework is being developed based on the evidence from the research project. I imagine that it could be done relatively quickly.

I thought my hon. Friend took a rather “glass half empty” view of the parliamentary question and the response to it that he received today. The reality is that Heritage Lottery Fund money is being sought to support the roll-out of this work across England and to create an effective national support network for churches that have bat-related issues. He might have misinterpreted one element of the response, because it made it clear that this is a funding application, a decision on which is expected in March this year, and that that funding will support a five-year project. It is not the case that nothing will be done for five years or that further evidence gathering will go on for five years. If the project is supported, it will be largely complete after five years. There is more reason for optimism than my hon. Friend showed.

Mr Chope: Obviously, I would not expect the Minister to anticipate not getting the funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but can he guarantee that, whether or not that application is successful, this work will be carried out, because it would be perverse if it were dependent solely on the success of that bid?

George Eustice: When it comes to heritage assets, our churches are almost second to none. We have thousands of churches and they provide incredibly important heritage assets, so I think this bid will be a very strong one. If, however, for some reason the bid were unsuccessful, it goes without saying that we would seek alternative means to fund this important work.

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Major positive strides forward are already being made at one church. Work carried out at St Hilda’s in Yorkshire led to the impact of bats being removed altogether, while ensuring that the bats were still able to roost in the roof of the building. This is an excellent example of peaceful co-existence between bats and parishioners in churches.

Let me deal with the habitats directive, another point that my hon. Friend raised. The Commission is working on its REFIT—regulatory fitness and performance programme—proposals, looking at the implementation of the habitats directive. We think it unlikely that any major revisions to the list of species protected by the directive will be made, but the Commission is keen to ensure that implementation is proportionate. That work is carrying on. My hon. Friend will know that things do not always move at a pace in the European Union, but I can assure him that we are in regular dialogue with the Commission on this matter, and we are keen to see the REFIT approach to the directive taking place.

My hon. Friend’s Bill deals with the habitats directive by inserting a notwithstanding clause. The constitutional position is clear: Parliament has the right to set aside directives in the way he describes if it wishes to do so. It would, of course, cause difficulties for our laws internationally, which is why we have tended not to do this. He should understand that we sign up to other international conventions. He sought to make a distinction between the protection of migrating species and species that are here purely domestically. We have signed up to the Bern convention, which encourages wildlife protection in all the countries that are signatories to it—whether or not they are in the European Union and irrespective of whether the species are migrating. The Bern convention makes some reference to bats in this respect.

Mr Chope: May I give an example by referring to what happens with migrating birds in Malta? Although Malta is a member of the European Union, it does not seem that any of these rules apply to that country.

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George Eustice: The rules do apply to Malta. We have debated in the House some of the challenges posed by dove shooting in Malta, for example. Legal cases have been brought against the Maltese Government on precisely these issues. They have been required, under these regulations, to put in place protection for migrating doves, too.

In conclusion, the current licensing regime administered by Natural England already allows us to address problems caused by protected species such as bats and properly balances the legitimate interest of people in a way that avoids harming wildlife, without the need to change the law. For the reasons I have outlined, the Government oppose this Bill as being both unnecessary and inappropriate. I can, however, assure my hon. Friend that I take the issues he has raised very seriously. I hope he will recognise that although it is just one year on, we have indeed made progress with this application to the lottery project and with the ongoing review of the habitats directive. I hope therefore that he will see fit not to push this to a Division.

1.30 pm

Mr Chope: I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response to the points that have been raised. I hope that his optimism about the Heritage Lottery Fund bid is well founded and that that project is able to continue. It is not often that I would describe a piece of legislation that I have put forward as being premature, but in the light of what he has said and of the fact that we are shortly to have an in/out referendum, and on the basis of the Bill’s prematurity, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

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Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill

Second Reading

1.31 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Again, this Bill is a reiteration of one I introduced to the House previously, but that was first brought forward two years ago, rather than one. It sets out clearly what we need to do in relation to the benefit entitlements of those who are not UK citizens. It would:

“Make provision to restrict the entitlement of non-UK Citizens from the European Union and the European Economic Area to taxpayer-funded benefits.”

Interestingly, the Bill is put in identical terms to the one introduced in the 2013-14 Session. When I introduced that Bill on 17 January 2014, it received a lot of sympathy from the Government at the time, and I shall briefly cite some of the things that were said.

I said that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whom I am delighted to say is still in post, had the week prior to the introduction of my Bill been quoted in The Sunday Times with a big headline saying “Ban migrant welfare for two years”. When that issue was examined, it turned out that it could not be done then and it was an “aspiration” rather than a “policy”. I quoted the following:

“Sources close to Mr Duncan Smith stressed he was expressing an aspiration for the future, rather than spelling out a policy.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 1138.]

The background is, therefore, that the Government at that stage were keen on limiting welfare for migrants from the European Union and the EEA.

One interesting aspect of that debate was that the problem had also been referred to by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. He had pointed out that none other than Milton Friedman, that great free market economist who believed in open borders, had asserted that one

“can have a generous welfare state or open borders, but not both...There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state it is a different story: the supply of immigrants will become infinite.”

That is the issue that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been trying to address in his negotiations with other members of the European Union; we cannot have both open borders and unrestricted welfare. Of course, if we believed in a single superstate, as our European colleagues do, the issue would not arise, because we would all be living in one great state, with people moving freely from country to country with uniform benefits systems. That is not the policy of the present Government, and it is certainly not the wish of the British people.

Two years ago, we were hoping for a renegotiation, followed by a Conservative victory in the general election, with the promise of an EU referendum. The renegotiation is now taking place, but it is very sad to see the extent to which our aspirations have been watered down. Even the then Deputy Prime Minister said that it was wrong that people from countries elsewhere in the European economic area should be able to access child benefit for children living in another country. That issue was addressed

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specifically by the Conservative party at the recent general election, because our manifesto stated that we would ensure that nobody could access child benefit from the United Kingdom taxpayer for a child living elsewhere. Again, that seems to have been rejected in these renegotiations, which is very disappointing.

Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con): How does my hon. Friend think the general public feel about the current renegotiation and the watered-down benefit reforms?

Mr Chope: I think that the opinion polls tell the story—I am told that another one was published today. I think that the British public are enormously sceptical about the outcome of the renegotiation, and enormously concerned that those aspects that were spelled out precisely in our manifesto have so far not been realised.

Scott Mann: What does my hon. Friend think about the fact that the watered-down version we were presented with seems to have been watered down even further, with countries such as France and Germany suggesting that they might not support the legislation that the Prime Minister has already agreed?

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I am not going to go down that route, because my view is that, even if the high watermark of what the Prime Minister said in his recent statement, which is reflected in the documents produced by the European Commission, is maintained, it still falls significantly short of what we promised in our manifesto, and we will still be a million miles away from being able to remove access to benefits, which is what this Bill aspires to achieve and what the British people overwhelmingly support.

The Prime Minister answered questions after his statement to the House on renegotiation on Wednesday.

He said:

“40% of EU migrants coming to Britain access the in-work benefits system, and the average payment per family is £6,000…I think that more than 10,000 people are getting over £10,000 a year, and because people get instant access to our benefits system, it is an unnatural pull and draw to our country.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2016; Vol. 605, c. 939.]

There is a dispute about the extent to which such access brings large numbers of people in, but in any event the British people find it an affront that the money of those who have paid their taxes and into our insurance system for years is being used to fund people from another country who have not made such contributions.

There is a big issue here. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), I am not convinced that the Government have achieved enough, even at the high watermark, to satisfy myself and others. The only solution is to leave. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is laughing, but she will see that clauses 2, 3 and 4 of the Bill have to include the words

“Notwithstanding the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972”.

In other words, in each of those clauses I acknowledge that, under current European Union law, we cannot change our own law as we would wish.

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In answering the debate that we had two years ago about this issue, the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said that, although he might be tempted, he could not support the Bill because he would be in breach of the ministerial code in supporting a policy that could give rise to infraction proceedings. I fear that the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), whom I am delighted to see on the Front Bench today, is in exactly the same position: despite the temptation, he could not support the Bill because in so doing he would be in breach of the ministerial code for raising the prospect of infraction proceedings.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Is my hon. Friend suggesting that, in a couple of weeks, when it seems that the Prime Minister will allow a free-for-all for Government Ministers, this Minister will be able to say that he agrees with the Bill?

Mr Chope: That is an interesting point. Perhaps the ministerial code will have to be adjusted to take account of the fact that those who remain Ministers while supporting notwithstanding clauses, for example, should have an exemption. However, I am sure that there are more important issues at stake than the ministerial code.

Scott Mann: I hope my hon. Friend agrees that the decision will not be for this House, but for the country. I am grateful that the Conservatives went through the Lobby to put the referendum on the statute book and give people a say on whether we should be part of the European Union. Does my hon. Friend think that the decision will be made by this place or the great British general public?

Mr Chope: The people will decide. We trust the people: that is why we are Conservatives. We look forward to the referendum whenever it comes.

I know other hon. Members wish to participate, but before closing let me turn to the issue of declaration of nationality. All the responses from the Government suggest that the scale of the problem is as the Prime Minister described it on Wednesday. However, the Government do not know at the moment how many people from the European Union or the European economic area are claiming benefits because there is no information about nationality in benefit claims. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead responded to the Bill two years ago, he said this would all be put right under universal credit. Well, that is great, but universal credit is taking a very long time to roll out.

That is why I would be interested to hear what the Under-Secretary of State says about my suggestion in clause 1:

“From the date of the coming into force of this Act no national insurance number shall be issued unless the applicant provides a declaration of nationality…no application shall be made for a taxpayer-funded benefit unless the applicant provides a declaration of nationality.”

At the moment, we do not really have detailed information; all we have are some rough and ready calculations.

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We know there are large numbers of people in our country claiming from the benefits system who are not UK nationals. The Bill would address that problem full on and ensure that non-UK citizens from the European Union and the European economic area were not able to access our taxpayer-funded benefits. That is why I have the pleasure of begging to move that the Bill be read a Second time.

1.46 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): May I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about my former colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, Harry Harpham? I did not know him well, but at the engagements we did have, he was an absolutely delightful man. I pass my condolences to his family. He will be missed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I believe this is the third time he and his supporters have managed to get the Bill, in its various forms, read on the Floor of the House. He will have to give me his secret, because I have had no success with private Members’ Bills. I think we can say it is congratulations to the tenacious sextet—not Tenacious D, but Tenacious S.

On more serious matters, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that his timing with the Bill was perhaps a little surprising, given the state of the EU negotiations and the draft settlement that has been produced. I appreciate that the negotiations are tentative and that there are varying interpretations of how successful the Government are being, but hon. Members surely want to wait until the final settlement is known. After all, Mr Tusk has hardly digested the apple crumble and custard he had courtesy of No. 10.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet produced an impact assessment of the Bill’s potential effects, which he also failed to do on the previous occasions. I am deeply concerned about the apparent lack of an evidence base to support the measures in the Bill. We must all strive for better, evidence-based policy.

Mr Chope: I welcome the hon. Lady’s desire to have evidence-based policy. Surely she will recognise that it must be the first duty of the Government to let us know how many non-UK nationals are currently accessing these benefits. I have put down parliamentary questions on the issue and received answers to the effect that the information is not available.

Debbie Abrahams: The hon. Gentleman makes a relevant point, but all of us, as Members of this House, must make sure that whatever speeches we make, and whatever proposals or Bills we bring forward, they are evidence based. I would encourage him to do that.

I am incredibly proud to be British, but I am also an internationalist and an unabashed Europhile. Part of that is due to my personal experience. My great-grandparents were migrants from Poland and Germany. My grandmothers were French and Irish. My dad’s wife is Dutch, and she and my dad have retired to Spain. My brother’s wife is American, and she and my brother live in the US. My husband was born in South Africa. Before I became an MP, my work as a public health

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consultant took me across the world, and predominantly across Europe. I have seen the immense benefits of that cultural diversity and those employment opportunities, not only in my own personal life but in the economic benefits to the country as a whole.

The EU is our biggest trading partner, alone contributing £227 billion to the economy last year, with £26.5 billion in investment coming from Europe every year. There are 3.5 million associated jobs, of which 14,000 are in my area of Oldham. Britain’s EU membership makes us a major player in world trade. As an EU member, we are part of a market of 500 million consumers that other countries want to do business with. The UK is stronger in negotiating deals with countries such as China and the US as part of the EU group of 28 nations than we would be on our own.

It is not just Britain’s prosperity that depends on our EU membership. After the horrors of two world wars in the previous century, the EU fosters greater ties and supports struggling regions. I was working on Merseyside in the 1990s when European objective 1 funding was made available to that area. Our working together across Europe with our member state partners has ensured 70 years of peace between European states. Cross-border co-operation is essential for Britain’s future safety and wellbeing. Viruses such as Zika and Ebola do not recognise borders, nor do organised crime gangs and tax evaders, or carbon particulates and nitrous dioxide emissions. All those issues require our working closely with EU and other international countries, and the best way to achieve that is by being part of Europe, not on the fringes. That does not mean that we should not be striving for reform within all the EU institutions in strengthening governance, democratic accountability and sovereignty, but if you are going to change the rules, you need to be part of the club.

Mr Chope: But surely we, in our country, should be able to decide for ourselves how our taxpayers’ money is spent on benefits. If we choose not to allow that money to be given to people from outside the United Kingdom, we should be able to decide that for ourselves.

Debbie Abrahams: I think the hon. Gentleman is waving a red herring, to be fair.

Let me move on to the specifics of the Bill. I regret that the same effort that is rightly being put into ensuring that our social security system remains contribution-based is not being put into preventing the exploitation of workers and stopping UK-based employment agencies recruiting solely from abroad, undercutting wages for British workers. Why is that not a focus of the Government and of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill? Although there are many benefits associated with migration and migrants, not least the net positive contribution to the Exchequer—as shown in recognised evidence—we must also recognise that there are associated costs for areas with higher levels of migration, which puts pressure on local services and local communities. That has to be recognised and addressed, and local authorities must be provided with financial support to enable effective migration management and to maintain social cohesion. That was a focus of our manifesto offer at the last election. Again, could it not have been a focus of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill?

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I object to the tenet underpinning this Bill, which is a failure to consider the evidence that the number of migrants who have been claiming tax credits while working is small. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the data. He will be aware that because of a freedom of information request, HMRC has had to publish the number of migrants who are in receipt of tax credits. It has been shown that in the past year only 84,000 have been involved—just over 16%, not the 40% claimed by the Prime Minister on Wednesday. I look forward to him correcting the record, although I think I could be waiting some time. That does not even take into account the fact that one in 10 couples defined as “migrant couples” include a UK national. The UK Statistics Authority has said that the DWP data the Prime Minister used were “unsatisfactory”, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has called the figures “selective and misleading”.

The evidence is that social security is not a pull factor—jobs are. We need to protect and secure our contribution-based social security system. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. It is there to provide basic support if someone is living in and contributing to this country’s endeavours.

The Bill has little evidence base—that is being kind—and represents a bad case of scaremongering. The Conservative party must be more responsible in its approach to maximising our association with Europe and the economic benefits it brings. It should not deploy the negative divide and rule narrative that is unfortunately prevalent at present. That should not be the language of or the tenet underpinning the Bill. We must respect migrants and social security claimants, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the Bill.

1.55 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on his persistence, as the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) put it. I am very proud to be one of the Bill’s supporters. Although this is, regrettably, going to be a very short debate, it has been a useful one. My hon. Friend has set out a case that will strike a chord with many people around the country, and certainly with many people in the Shipley constituency. It has also been helpful to hear the hon. Lady entrench the Labour party as the party of welfare and keep up its 100% record of opposing any attempt to restrict this country’s welfare system. At least the Labour party has always been consistent on that matter.

Debbie Abrahams: Could the hon. Gentleman give a specific example of where I did that in my speech?

Philip Davies: The hon. Lady said she was against the Bill, which is about restricting benefits for foreign nationals. I presume that means that she wants to continue to give benefits to foreign nationals, which means that she is against welfare reform. If I have misunderstood her, I apologise, but I do not think that is a controversial interpretation of her remarks, which were of no great surprise to any of us who have known her for a number of years.

I want to make a few points. The hon. Lady said that she opposed the Bill because it is not evidence-based. The whole point about the Bill is that it is about

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principle. It is about the principle of who should be entitled to claim benefits in the UK. Should foreign nationals who come here without having made any contribution to the UK economy be able to claim benefits straight away?

Debbie Abrahams rose

Philip Davies: I will press on, if the hon. Lady does not mind; time is short, and she made her case earlier.

We do not need evidence to discuss matters of principle. In principle, surely it cannot be right that foreign nationals come to the UK and start claiming benefits straight away. We do not need any evidence about that. I am not even interested in how many people do that. I am arguing that, as a matter of principle, that should not be allowed to happen.

Debbie Abrahams: I specifically said that we should protect and secure our contribution-based system and that those people who contribute should be supported.

Philip Davies: But this country does not really have a contributory system in the same way as other EU countries. That is part of the problem. It is no good the hon. Lady wanting to protect something that does not exist and opposing something that would actually do what she claims she wants to achieve. Her actions on this issue are more important than her words, and if she opposes the Bill, her actions clearly do not follow on from her words. I do not see the need for evidence. This is a Bill about a principle that is important to many people. It is about fairness, not evidence.

I would have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s opinion if we had to give all these benefits away to secure a free trade agreement with the European Union, and that had a net benefit for our economy. If we had to give away something in order to achieve that, it might be worth doing. Given that we had a £62 billion trade deficit with the European Union last year, and that if we were to leave the EU we would be its single biggest export market, it is perfectly clear that we could have a free trade agreement with the EU for nothing. We do not have to give it access to our benefit system, and we do not need to give it a £19 billion a year membership fee. We can have what we want from the EU—free trade—for nothing. That is the deal that we should be seeking to secure. I do not think anybody can sustain the argument that if we were to leave the EU and stop giving benefits to EU citizens when they came to the UK, Germany would want to stop selling Mercedes, BMV and Volkswagen cars to people in this country. Of course they would not; it is complete nonsense for anybody to suggest that.

Mr Chope: Does my hon. Friend accept that people’s aspirations for retaining control over our own benefit system are gradually being eroded? It is extraordinary that back in 2014, the then Deputy Prime Minister said that he could not understand

“why it is possible under the current rules for someone to claim child benefit for children who aren’t even in this country.”

That was his view then, but he seems to have resiled from even that.

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Philip Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, because the situation regarding child benefit is probably one of the most indefensible in the benefit system. It does not matter how much evidence there is of how many people it applies to; it cannot be right, as a point of principle, that somebody can come into this country from Poland to work and claim child benefit for their children, who still reside in Poland and have never set foot outside Poland. It cannot possibly be right, on principle. We do not need any evidence to know that that is wrong; it is clearly and palpably wrong. It is strange that the Labour party is so wedded to its European credentials that it will inevitably have to see restrictions in benefits for all UK citizens to pay the bill for benefits to European citizens. I am sure that that does not go down very well in many of the estates in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

I do not intend to speak for long, because I appreciate that we need to press on, but I want to make a point about clause 3, which will ensure that nobody is paid a level of benefit above that of the equivalent benefit in their own country. I think I am right in saying that that the Prime Minister is trumpeting something similar in his deal regarding child benefit. As I understand it—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who is far more knowledgeable on the matter than I am, will correct me if I am wrong—the Prime Minister is saying that under the great deal that he has secured for the nation, Polish people, for example, who claim child benefit will be able to claim only for the child benefit rate in Poland, or whichever country the children reside in. That seems very similar to clause 3.

Mr Chope: My understanding of the documents that were published this week is that it would not be as simple as that. The amount of child benefit that could be claimed would be related to the difference in the standard and cost of living between this country and the other EU country. That, of course, would be incredibly bureaucratic.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but the Prime Minister is trying to secure the same kind of principle that my hon. Friend seeks in clause 3. For the benefit of not only our deliberations on the Bill but those who are trying to weigh up the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, I want to say that there is a huge danger in this aspect of the Bill. We have said that if somebody comes from Poland, they can claim child benefit at the UK rate for their children in Poland. If that is changed and the amount of child benefit that they can claim becomes only £2 or £3 a week, or whatever the equivalent might be in Poland, there is a danger that rather than saving the taxpayer money, as we all intend—including the Prime Minister, I might add—we may inadvertently increase the bill to the taxpayer. We are working on the basis that people will just carry on doing as they do at the moment. Who is to say, if we limit the child benefit to the rate in the home country, that they will not take the opportunity to bring their children to the UK in order to claim the higher UK rate? On top of that, there is the cost of schooling, any medical care and all the rest of it. We must be very careful about what we wish for.

A much more sensible approach to matters such as child benefit would be that if a foreign national comes to this country but their children still reside in the home

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country, they should not get anything. Whether it is the UK rate, the Polish rate or any rate whatever, the UK Government should not give them anything. That would avoid the unintended consequence of more and more people bringing more and more of their children to this country at a higher cost to the taxpayer.

Having made those points, I will sit down, because we all want to hear from the Minister. We all know that he is a very good man. The Bill did not find any favour with the shadow Minister, but as he is far more sensible, we hope he will have warmer words to say about it.

2.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): May I, too, echo the tributes to Harry Harpham, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough? He was a long-standing servant of his community, including as a councillor for 15 years. I know that he will be greatly missed by all.

It is a privilege to serve in the House today as the duty Work and Pensions Minister, and to respond to my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). Their forensic, constructive and diligent work has certainly kept the focus of attention on this area. The British public have sent a clear message that they are concerned that migrants are incentivised to come to the UK because of the attractiveness of our welfare system. That was clearly set out in the speeches of both my hon. Friends.

The Government share those concerns. That is why, during the past two years, we have introduced several far-reaching measures to restrict or remove access to a range of benefits for migrants who come to the UK without a job and who have not contributed to our economy. For example, EEA jobseekers can no longer access housing benefit at all. Their access to income-based jobseeker’s allowance is limited to the minimum we argue is allowable under EU law—just 91 days, in most circumstances—and even then only after they have waited for three months. We have also made similar changes to child benefit and child tax credit. On the specific point about declaring a national insurance number, it is the case that the number must be declared when making a benefit claim. It cannot yet be collected through the payment system, but that will be corrected with the introduction of universal credit. As universal credit rolls out, we will remove even such elements, meaning that EEA jobseekers have no entitlement to means-tested benefits whatever.

The Bill goes even further by proposing restrictions that would apply to EEA migrants who are working and contributing in the UK. The current framework of EU law would not allow us to deliver that, since clear European rules compel us to treat EEA nationals working in the UK no less favourably than UK nationals. However, the Prime Minister is renegotiating in Europe so that we get a better deal for Britain. That includes cutting the benefits EU migrants get to prevent our welfare system from acting as a magnet and to create a fairer system for people who work here and play by the rules. That is just part of our ongoing work to make changes.

Debbie Abrahams: Will the Minister give way?

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Justin Tomlinson: No, because I am short of time and we want to make progress.

Other key measures have already been taken by the Government, such as capping economic immigration from outside the EU; clamping down on non-compliant immigrant students while remaining open to the brightest and the best; restricting the right of non-EEA nationals to work in this country and bring in dependants; introducing a maximum fine of £20,000 per employee—more than four times the previous penalty—for employers who pay below the minimum wage ;and making sure that only those who secure graduate-level jobs stay on at the end of their studies. The Immigration Act 2014 will clamp down on those from overseas who abuse our public services, and make it easier to remove people with no right to be in this country.

Although the Government clearly share the sentiment behind the measures in the Bill, we are unable to support it because it goes beyond what the EU legal framework currently allows and cuts across the Prime Minister’s renegotiation. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) said, this Government and this Government alone trust the British public and have offered an EU referendum. The parties now in opposition opposed such a referendum throughout the last Parliament, but we trust the British public. I have set out how we are making considerable progress in this area, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will not feel the need to press the Bill further.

2.9 pm

Mr Chope: In responding briefly to this debate, I thank everybody who has participated, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, who supported the Bill.

I join everybody in the House who has paid tribute to Harry Harpham, whose tenure in this place was far too short. He had a distinguished period of public service over many years and it is extraordinary to think that he was deprived of the opportunity to spend longer as the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough.

The Minister basically said that the Government are very sympathetic to what I am trying to achieve in the Bill, but at the moment their hands are tied by European Union law. That point was reinforced this morning in an interview on the “Today” programme, which you may have heard, Madam Deputy Speaker, in which a former advocate-general made it clear that the only way in which we can regain control over our own laws in this House of Commons is to leave the European Union, and that no side deal can be done that would remove the sovereignty of the European Court of Justice in deciding these issues for us.

In looking at the rights of people from the EU and the European economic area who are not UK citizens to access our benefits regime, we are completely stymied by the fact that the European Union regards everybody inside the boundaries of the European Union as effectively members of one country with a common citizenship. I believe that the citizens of this country have a distinct and, frankly, superior citizenship right to those from other European Union countries. Why should we not be able to decide, in our own sovereign Parliament and our own sovereign country, who should and who should not

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have access to our benefits system? That is the principle at the heart of the Bill to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley referred.

A couple of years ago, the then Deputy Prime Minister, whom I have quoted, expressed amazement that people from outside the United Kingdom could obtain child benefit for their children who were not even living in the United Kingdom. We have not even resolved that matter in the draft agreements that the Prime Minister has brought back from his negotiations.

What is contained in the Bill needs to be introduced and implemented by this Parliament, but that cannot be done until we leave the European Union. Recognising that sad reality, but hoping for the best in the referendum, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

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Parks and Playing Fields in Public Ownership (Protection from Sale) Bill

Second Reading

2.13 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): I am sorry, but there is some confusion. The hon. Gentleman has moved that the Bill be read a Second time. Does he wish to speak to the Bill?

Mr Hollobone: No.

Question put.

A Division was called;Mel Stride and Sarah Newton were appointed Tellers for the Noes, butno Members being appointed Tellers for the Ayes, the Deputy Speaker declared that the Noes had it.

Question accordingly negatived.

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Speed Limits on Roads (Devolved Powers) Bill

Second Reading

2.16 pm

Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to air my Bill today, and I, too, add my condolences to those expressed about the death of Harry Harpham, our honourable colleague and friend whom we have lost.

My Bill sets out to allow parish, town and city councils to set their own speed limits in their designated patches. This came about from recent visits to schools in St Teath, and notably in Werrington, where the young people wrote to me and asked me to come to their school and talk to them about traffic management and how we might adjust speed limits in that area. They wanted a 30-mile-an-hour limit, and I said that I would try to do something about it, which is why I am piloting this Bill. I went to Werrington and had an interesting discussion with the residents there. Indeed, we spoke about all sorts of things, but predominantly about the speed of the traffic.

If we hold a referendum on this issue—we are keen on referendums on the Conservative Benches—it would be done in line with local, national and European elections, and those for police and crime commissioners, and we would run a ballot alongside those elections on the proposals put forward by a local authority. If two parishes that are joined together wanted to change the speed limit in their area because the road crosses between the two, they could submit a joint proposal, and the referendum would be held in both parishes, rather than just one.

I am a firm believer in devolution, and the recent historic devolution deal proposed for Cornwall covers bus services and the European spending programme, among other things. For me, a lot of that devolution takes place in unitary and county councils, and there is not a huge amount of it in town and parish councils. I felt that it was important to get something on the record to state that town and parish councils would like a say. Speed limits are a good thing for them to discuss, because local people know the roads better than people who live hundreds of miles away. They drive on those roads every day. The people who use them should be able to set the speed limits for them.

I would just like to run through a few of the details in the Bill. Parish councils may change speed limits only on minor roads, B roads, and single carriageway A roads with a speed limit of no higher than 60 mph. The Bill does not propose just reducing the speed limit; it would allow speed limits to be increased through a referendum. I have had representations from the National Motorists Association, which was very concerned that we were proposing only to reduce speed limits. I tried to provide some reassurance that the Bill was not just about reducing speed limits, but about providing the possibility of increasing speed limits in some areas so that traffic flow is suitable for a designated area.

Leading up to a referendum, a parish council would carry out a detailed public consultation, including at least one public meeting to outline the proposals.

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The proposals would then be put to a vote of the parish council—or town or city council. If the vote is carried, the council would be obliged to put the proposals to a referendum, with ballot papers included in the ballot papers for other elections, such as local, general, police and crime commissioner or European elections. That would mean the cost to parish councils is marginal. They would foot the bill, which would be small, for the printing costs of the ballot. Other than that, there would be no financial implications.

I propose a cooling-off period of 30 days after the full council vote, so that if the unitary council or county council were minded, it could implement the proposals without the need for a referendum. The referendum would still take place if it was not minded to do so. A referendum would be decided by a very simple majority-based voting system. The town or parish council would come up with a simple proposal, such as “Road A would be transferred from 40 mph to 30 mph,” or “Road B would be transferred from 40 mph up to 50 mph.” The proposal would be on the ballot paper and people could make their minds up on polling day whether they wanted to change the speed limit in their area. If the proposed speed limit is accepted, the emphasis would be on the local authority to implement the change within 12 months, so town and parish councils would pass a proposal for a referendum and the local authority would then be under an obligation to implement the result within a 12-month period.

The Bill sets out that a maximum of three roads can be taken into account at any one time. If we went beyond three, it could become very complicated. The printing costs of the ballot papers would be met by the town, parish or city council, but no additional funds for the cost of the referendum would be borne by those authorities. They could put counting processes in place to plan for referendums.

A county council or unitary authority would still reserve the right to implement speed limits without parish council consent on safety grounds alone. Once a speed limit had been put to a referendum, it could not be altered for five years unless the unitary authority or the police deemed that there were exceptional circumstances, or that safety concerns had changed and the road layout needed to be altered. There is a caveat to that, however. Those changes would have to come back to the town or parish council for them to change the order.

Speed limits could not be raised outside schools. In general, we believe that lowering speed limits outside schools should be encouraged. A county council, unitary authority or the police may block a proposal if it is deemed to be too dangerous—for example, raising a speed limit from 30 mph to 60 mph—and any safety concerns should be represented during the consultation process prior to a referendum. That should alleviate concerns about safety.

Finally, many parish and town councils are developing local plans. The Bill would take housing growth into account. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to air the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

2.24 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I join others in paying tribute to our friend Harry Harpham. He was a great defender of working people and his city

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of Sheffield, and his loss will be deeply felt. He will be missed very much, not least in Nottinghamshire, where he worked as a miner. I offer my sympathies to his family.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for his brief introduction to the Bill, and I completely understand the desire of many communities to exert a greater say over traffic movements, especially as the condition of local roads continues to deteriorate. Labour’s support for the devolution of powers, our encouragement of more 20 mph zones and our support for the reintroduction of national road safety targets are long-established.

I have concerns, however, that town and parish councils might not have either the resources or the expertise to administer the responsibilities that would be transferred to them in the Bill, and I have not been persuaded that a referendum should be held in these cases, rather than a local consultation. I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, but I am not convinced that the Bill represents a suitable mechanism for introducing appropriate speed limits at a local level.

2.25 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) proposes giving parish and town councils powers to hold local referendums to determine whether applications for speed limit orders should be made. If the electorate voted in favour, the traffic authority would be required to start proceedings to make the speed limit order.

Moving goods and people around quicker is good for the economy, but speed poses dangers too. In 2013—the most recent year for which we have figures—exceeding the speed limit was a contributory factor in 15% of fatal accidents and travelling too fast for the conditions was a contributory factor in 13%. In addition, where the speed limit was exceeded, there were strong associations with other factors—for example, a stolen vehicle or a vehicle being driven in the course of a crime or where there is impairment by drugs or alcohol.

Setting speed limits at a level appropriate for the road and ensuring compliance with the limits play a key part in ensuring greater safety for all road users. Local authorities are responsible for setting speed limits on their roads, as they have the local knowledge, which makes them the best placed people to do so. While completely sympathising with my hon. Friend’s intentions, therefore, the Government oppose his proposal, because speed limits should be evidence-led and based on road conditions. They should also be considered together with other measures, such as traffic-calming measures, signing, publicity and information. This should lead to a mean traffic speed compliant with the signed limit. To achieve compliance with a new limit, there should be no expectation on the police to provide additional enforcement, unless explicitly agreed.

Local authorities are asked to have regard to the Department for Transport’s speed limit guidance, issued in January 2013, which is designed to ensure that speed limits are appropriately and consistently set while allowing for the flexibility to deal with local needs and conditions. I suspect that many in a community could not take the decisions that a qualified highways engineer at the local

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highways authority could. I am concerned, therefore, that while local communities feel passionate about these matters, they would not be suitably qualified to make those decisions.

Consultation with those affected is of key importance in the process of making a speed limit order, so local people do have an opportunity to make their views known. In my constituency, in the village of Wykeham, local campaigners alerted local councillors to the need for a particular speed limit, and that speed limit was then put in place. Similarly, in the middle of Scarborough, where a rat run was developing, the same process took place. Local people do, therefore, have an opportunity to have their say. They can sign petitions and lobby their locally elected councillors, who make these decisions.

In some cases, increasing a speed limit can actually contribute to safe roads. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the previous Government increased the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles on single carriageway roads from 40 mph to 50 mph, and thus lessened the differential between cars, which would travel at 60 mph, and lorries, and that reduced the number of overtaking accidents. That has been in place for some months now, and we have not had any reports of an increased number of accidents.

I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s reasons for introducing the Bill, but we do not think it practical to give this power to parish councils, and I invite him to withdraw it.

2.29 pm

Scott Mann: In the light of the Minister’s response, I will withdraw the Bill. However, I will lobby the Secretary of State to try to get some of these powers in the devolution package for Cornwall, and I hope we might make some progress in devolving the power to town and parish councils in other areas. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

Business without Debate


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March.

Marriage and Civil Partnership Registration (Mothers’ Names) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March.

Driving Instructors (Registration) Bill

Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

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House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February.

Crown Tenancies Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February.

Working Time Directive (Limitation) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February.

Automatic Electoral Registration (No. 2) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February.

5 Feb 2016 : Column 1274

Local Services (Southend)

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

2.32 pm

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise in the House the important subject of the provision of services in the town that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) represent. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), in his place, because he and I were colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee and I know his expertise in this area only too well.

I say to my hon. Friend in a gentle way that, given the huge change in the provision of services by local authorities generally, I am somewhat confused these days about how the Department measures their performance. When I hear that Southend council is doing well, I want to be able to compare it with other councils, but that does not seem too easy at the moment. For instance, there does not seem to be anything in place to measure the health and wellbeing element of local authority provision, and the same goes for education. In my area, none of the secondary schools is under the domain of the local authorities anymore—some of the primary, junior and infant schools are—so I would like to hear something from my hon. Friend about how we would measure them, because it is important to have a yardstick to judge performance.

My hon. Friend knows only too well that I am very committed to Southend. I do not think we need to argue about it: Southend-on-Sea is the finest seaside resort not only in the country but in the world. I have argued that we have been far too modest about just what a great town it generally is. My role and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East is to come here to this Parliament—the mother of all Parliaments—and make the case for Southend to get the maximum provision possible in any moneys that are allocated. That is regardless of who the Government of the day might be.

Let me tell the Minister that I am in confusion about our local authority. I am in confusion about who actually runs it. Is it the wide number of local councillors split into seven different groups? Are they running it, or is it the council officers who are running it? I get so frustrated when I find credit being taken for things that I personally think are not truly down to the local authority. There does not seem to be much praise for central Government initiatives. If the Minister has time to reflect on my points today, I would be glad to hear from him. If not, perhaps he will write to me in due course.

Southend had a Conservative council between 2000 and 2014—for 14 years. The council was responsible for many of the high-profile projects and improvements to the local environment and amenities, which the current administration are claiming credit for. It never says, “Yes, it was five years ago when the now Secretary of State came down to Southend to sign the city deal”. All these years later—we know how long it takes for capital projects to be enjoyed by everyone—no praise is given to the once magnificent leadership of Nigel Holcroft and his deputy John Lamb. So good was that council

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that in 2012, we were made the council of the year and Nigel Holcroft very nearly became the leader of the year.

The then Conservative administration invested millions of pounds in the pier. Let me tell the Minister that I, together with a few other Essex and Kent Members, met the Chancellor two weeks ago. We spoke about a whole range of issues. I asked him whether, if there were any money available in the forthcoming March Budget, we could have some of it to help the marina. This is the longest pier in the world. We owe the Victorians so much, but it needs a bit of help now. Given that the Chancellor is minded to reflect on the success of the northern powerhouse, which I know is the responsibility of another one of our Ministers, I wondered whether we might be able to do the same thing. Madam Deputy Speaker is an Essex Member. Although she is not quite as near to the coast as one would like her to be, she knows all too well about the points I am making. I think the Chancellor wants to explore some mechanism whereby all organisations can be brought together to promote the Thames estuary. I asked for help in that respect.

The previous Conservative administration managed to bring about improvements on the pier by recycling the Royal Pavilion. A huge boat came down the river, bringing this large structure with it. It was bigger than 30 or 40 whales being washed along. It was absolutely magnificent. The Conservative council also invested in a new swimming and diving centre, which was used as a training centre for the Olympic games—and it is still being used now. Mr Daley apparently regularly dives there, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who took part in the bigger splash. I know she went and practised in that wonderful diving centre at Garon park. We also obtained funding for the first phase of the city beach, another wonderful project.

All that investment was aimed at making Southend an all-year round destination for families and a top visitor attraction. The Minister will know of the problems that many seaside coastal resorts have had. Because it is now possible to get on easyJet for £20 or so to travel to Venice, it makes it very tough to attract British-based residents to spend more than a couple of days in our seaside resorts. We are trying to enhance the wonderful facilities we already have there.

The previous council was also responsible for The Forum project, in partnership with the University of Essex and Anglia Ruskin University. We have a magnificent new library, business support centres and the arts centre, which was opened officially by the Duke of Kent this week—I was there, and he unveiled a bust of his cousin Her Majesty the Queen. It is a wonderful facility. The Forum provides the incubator space for start-up companies and access to tailored business support programmes. There is space for up to 10 businesses at any one time, and these will support more than 110 jobs over a 10-year period. That may not seem like a huge number over that period, but to the families who will be investing in this it means a great deal. That project would never have got off the ground without the energy, commitment, vision and funding provided by the Conservative council.

The development of Priory park, the new Southend museum and the outstanding Beecroft gallery—I will be there tomorrow, as we are having the opening of a

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wonderful new jazz centre—were all visualised and carried through by the committed and enthusiastic Conservative councillors. One of the aims of that council was to encourage and nurture the wide range of artistic, creative and literary talent in Southend, and provide venues and support for the many groups of young musicians and artists who make Southend a vibrant community. The Minister will know that next year Southend is the alternative city of culture, and when we celebrate that it is going to be global. The Conservative council was also responsible for pushing through upgrades to the A127, with the new roundabout and junction improvements, providing access to both Canvey Island and Southend airport. They are now much easier and quicker to get to, assisting local businesses and transport companies to do business in a timely manner. Both the arterial routes through Southend, the A127 and the A13, have been improved under the Conservative council. None of the current administration were involved in the bidding process, yet they claim all the credit—I find it so frustrating.

Southend has had a couple of blows at the start of this year. First, we learned that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will be moving from Alexander house in Southend to Stratford in five years. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a first-class Minister, is doing the best he can to get a good deal out of it all, but that is very challenging. The bigger blow is the disgrace at c2c. I was at the forefront of arguing for the franchise to be renewed for another 15 years, having been told that commuters would be more easily able to get seats and would have faster travelling times, but the complete reverse has happened. That has been a big blow for Southend commuters.

Conservatives also negotiated the Southend city deal, which was signed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In the executive summary for the deal, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council was praised for demonstrating

“its ability to deliver effective regeneration programmes of a transformational nature… delivered on time and on budget”.

The city deal obtained, among other things, direct business support for more than 1,300 businesses, creating or safeguarding more than 550 jobs in the area.

In 2014, the Conservatives lost overall control of the council and a “rainbow coalition”—those are not my words—of minor parties came together to keep the Conservatives from forming a minority administration. The Minister will realise that that is extraordinary, because the Conservatives were by far and away the largest group, being double the size of any other group, and had obtained by far and away the largest percentage of the vote. Yet all these others, Labour, Liberal, independents—I do not understand the concept of an independent, as these people must have a political philosophy so let us hear about that—and the UK Independence party joined together. Five UKIP councillors were elected but they have now split into two groups, and the independents have also split into groups.

If I had voted for these individuals in the local elections, I would be upset because it is wrong that they have somehow come together in this way. If we look at the political spectrum, we must ask how it happens that UKIP is working with Labour and the Liberals locally. It is extraordinary and it has been a disaster for the residents of Southend. We have nine Labour councillors;

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four Liberals; 11 independents, in two groups; and five UKIP councillors, again in two separate groups. It is very difficult to see any cohesive policies at all. Rather than having a vision for the town, as the Conservatives did, they are constantly courting popularity and not taking the hard decisions needed from a responsible council. Their reliance on council officers means there is no overall plan for the future of Southend and no transparency in the decision-making process. They are happy to criticise the previous administration for wasting money, yet they publish “Outlook” magazine, using public money to publicise themselves. There is a constant flow of press releases from their obviously overworked press officer in an effort to convince local residents and, in particular, the local media that they are doing a fantastic job.

Since taking power, this rag-bag administration have raised council tax by 1.95%, despite being offered a Government council tax freeze grant. Parking charges have been raised by 20% in the town centre, hitting local businesses hard. That is despite the claims they made when in opposition that car parking charges were too high and that that was affecting local businesses. Fees and charges for all services and Southend’s top attractions have been hit by an above-inflation rise of 20%. To add insult to injury, cremation charges have been raised by £100, hitting families with additional costs at a time when they are very vulnerable.

The current administration have reduced the waste budget by nearly £900,000. Their miserable record on the environment has seen 55 litter bins removed, and more are threatened with removal. Enviro-crime team officers have been axed, recycling schemes have been scrapped, including the white textile recycling sacks, and weekly rubbish collections are threatened. Four public toilets are threatened with closure; only prolonged pressure from the Conservative group has kept them open. The proposal to close them came from unelected officers, bringing into question whether Southend council is being run by elected councillors or not.

The current administration have left Shoeburyness residents—I referred earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East—open to flooding because they are not prepared to make unpopular decisions regarding the improvement of sea defences. They promised a review of flood defences when they were in opposition, but two years later it is still under review while residents’ homes and livelihoods are at risk. Their lack of leadership and experience has led to council officers having to take more and more responsibility for such decisions.

In April 2013 responsibility for public health functions was transferred to councils. Southend council’s health and wellbeing board, which really should be overseeing what goes on at Southend council—the Care Quality Commission and Monitor are currently doing that—should be a robust body responsible for holding service managers to account, but it seems to be used as just another council committee. I am aware that it is chaired by a UKIP councillor, or perhaps he is part of the break-away movement—I do not understand all the internal machinations of these political groups. Funding is seen as an opportunity to promote council schemes, to the detriment of local health services. The health and wellbeing

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board should be holding local health service providers to account to ensure that local residents get the best possible care, yet only yesterday I received notice that CQC has put a GP practice in my constituency into special measures following an inspection in September 2015.

In conclusion, this administration have tried to claim the credit for everything achieved by the previous Conservative council, including The Forum, despite having accused the previous council of borrowing and wasting too much money. Having claimed that the previous council’s borrowing was out of control, they have increased borrowing by £9 million. They are currently looking to outsource development work on the pier, which will completely change its wonderful character, despite opposition from residents. Entry charges to the pier have been raised by 20%. Local businesses, which rely on the flow of holidaymakers and day-trippers, have been dismayed as that has a direct impact on them, including the famous Rossi’s, which makes the best ice cream in the world. Extortionate parking charges in the town centre are also having an adverse effect on local shops and places of entertainment, including the Palace theatre and the wonderful Cliffs Pavilion.

The only policies that this council has come up with since being elected have been in search of media plaudits and good soundbites. It takes the credit for projects in which it had no input and blames national Government when the money runs out. It is wrecking all the good work done by the previous Conservative administration and letting local residents down. Therefore, what criteria does the Minister’s Department use to judge the performance of local councils? With more powers being delegated to local authorities, what provision is being made to ensure that local services are properly run and that elected officials are held accountable for their actions on behalf of the residents who elected them? Who decides when enough is enough, and what redress do local residents have when their council lets them down so badly?

2.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Marcus Jones): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing the debate. He has a great passion for his constituency and the interests of the people whom he represents. I represent a constituency that is probably about as far away from the sea as anywhere else in the country, so I will not challenge his assertion that Southend-on-Sea is the best seaside resort in the country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity to talk about something that I feel strongly about. Local services, whether in Southend, my constituency of Nuneaton or anywhere else in the country, are crucial to local people. He raised interesting points about finance; from what he says, it seems that a bit of a blame game is going on at times. We all know that there are challenges with the public finances. Local authorities account for a quarter of public spending, and it is only right that local government should find its share of savings. We need to reduce the largest deficit in our post-war history.

Sir David Amess: To date, neither my hon. Friend nor I have had one letter complaining about the allocation of funds. To whom are representations being made?

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Surely my hon. Friend agrees that they should be made through local Members of Parliament if the situation is to be addressed. Will he let me know or write to me about that?

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I may need to write to him about a number of things that he has raised in today’s debate.

It is important that we recognise that one reason for where we are with the public finances is the profligacy of the last Labour Government, who put the public finances at risk. In the same context, at the last election the Labour party stood on a manifesto in which it said it would reduce funding to local government. That is an important point.

Overall, councils have done a good job of achieving savings while balancing budgets, in many cases keeping council tax low and maintaining satisfaction with services. However, more savings need to be made. We have listened carefully to councils while preparing both the spending review and the local government finance settlement. I thank everyone who took the time and effort to respond to the recent consultation with considered comments about our proposals. Even in the context of tougher public finances, we have given councils extra help to protect services such as those that support the most vulnerable in our society.

Through our £5.3 billion better care fund, we are spreading best practice to all areas of the country and have put national clinical experts into the most challenged areas to help them improve. Over the life of this Parliament, we will maintain the NHS contribution to the better care fund in real terms, including additional local government social care funding worth an extra £1.5 billion by 2020.

Back in November 2013, the Government selected 14 localities in the UK as integrated care pioneers. Southend—then under Conservative control—was one of them. Steps were taken to promote the prevention agenda, reduce unnecessary hospital admissions and keep patients independent in their own homes for longer. Our aim is for local government and the NHS to work together in a genuine partnership and to be held accountable for delivery. There must be a commitment to achieve that ambition on both sides.

That brings me to localism. We are committed to giving local authorities even greater control by the end of this Parliament. By 2020, local government will be entirely funded by its own resources—council tax, business rates, and fees and charges. Many people never thought that possible until very recently. Alongside all the new flexibility, we have to be clear that all public bodies should adopt maximum openness and transparency, which are the foundations of local accountability and democracy.

Since 2010, we have put in place a number of strong measures to improve town hall transparency. People should have access to their local authorities’ meetings and information. We live in a modern, digital world, where filming and social media should be embraced in reporting on public council meetings. That is why we introduced the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, which give any member of the public the right to take photographs, film and audio recordings in public council meetings, and to report on them.

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In addition, the local government transparency code now requires local authorities to publish information about their financial transactions and assets. That enables the public more effectively to engage with and challenge their local authority. The code places more power in the hands of the public by increasing democratic accountability through wider access to information. With greater availability of information, not only can members of the public better understand and challenge their local authority’s performance, but greater transparency can lead to better and more efficient services.

The public rightly expect high standards of behaviour from their elected representatives, including local authority members. In 2012, the Conservative-led coalition Government did away with the discredited standards board regime, which had become a vehicle for malicious, vexatious and politically motivated complaints. New arrangements were put in place, giving local authorities control over how they promote and maintain high standards of conduct, and ending top-down, centralist control.

Every authority, including parish councils, was required to put in place a code of conduct that is compliant with the seven Nolan principles of standards in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. When it is found that a local authority member has failed to comply with their authority’s code, the council can censure that member. At the same time, we introduced tough new rules on pecuniary interests to ensure that local authority members cannot put their own interests ahead of those of the public.

Wilfully ignoring the national rules, giving false or misleading information, or taking part in the business of the authority when that is prohibited by the rules is a criminal offence punishable with a fine of up to £5,000 and with being disqualified for up to five years from standing for or holding office in England. With those new localist, proportionate and robust arrangements in place, we are confident that local people will be able to hold their elected representatives to account for their conduct. A criminal sanction will ensure that elected members always put the public’s interest ahead of their own interests.

When people are let down by their local authority, it is important that there is swift and effective redress so that things are put right. A good complaints process can not only enable somebody who has been let down by their council to get swift and effective redress, but be a useful intelligence gathering mechanism for local authorities, alerting them to a problem with one of their services, actions or decisions. Where redress cannot be achieved, the local government ombudsman can consider complaints from members of the public who consider that they have suffered personal injustice as a result of maladministration in a local authority.

There are also routes of redress where services for vulnerable people are concerned. For example, if there is evidence of systematic failure in the provision of good-quality social care, the Secretary of State for Health has the power to require the Care Quality Commission to investigate. Should the CQC consider that the council is failing in its functions, a range of improvement options are available, from a notice requiring specific action, with a deadline for completion, through to the recommendation that the Secretary of State should impose special measures on the authority.

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If my hon. Friend would like to write to me with further details of the GP practice that is being put into special measures, I will ask my officials to look into the issue and involve their counterparts at the Department of Health. As he says, local residents must be able to rely on the NHS to provide the best possible care, and we cannot tolerate poor standards of care.

The measures I have outlined ensure that we have a strong, 21st-century local democracy, where local government bodies are clearly accountable to the people they serve and to the taxpayers who help fund them. On my hon. Friend’s final point about redress for members of the public, I would say to him and to his constituents

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that if the public are so dissatisfied with the situation at Southend council, their final point of redress is, at the next set of elections, to vote in a Conservative administration that will provide high-quality administration for local people.

We recognise the challenges that lie ahead for local government. At a time of big opportunity, we want local government to take that forward, but we also expect it to be responsible, to be accountable, and to be open and transparent.

Question put and agreed to.

3 pm

House adjourned.