If we look at the European Union, we see that the states that are monarchies—Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and even, with all its troubles, Spain—enjoy less partisan and less conflictual politics. When it comes to growth, distribution and a fair social settlement since the second world war, we find that the EU’s monarchies
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generally have a much better record than the EU’s republics. The royal families, however, are also much cheaper there. In Spain, with its King, Queen and wonderful royal palace where I had the privilege and honour of having dinner with the Crown Prince of the Asturias and the lovely Princess—and Prince Charles—a few weeks ago—
The food was free, but I paid for my own air fare. The total cost of the whole Spanish monarch is €8.4 million, while the Queen of the Netherlands gets by on €828,000.
Mr Leigh: Surely we should make a comparison with other major countries. In fact, the cost of the Queen bears favourable comparison with the cost of the Italian and the German Presidents—and who has ever heard of them, and what do they do for their country in comparison with our Queen?
Mr MacShane: I do not really want to get into discussions about German lineages. I recall a previous German President who actually walked the length and breadth of Germany in his summer holiday, and he did not receive anything remotely like what we pay our official Head of State.
It is interesting to note that Scotland’s First Minister, Mr Salmond, has ditched his party’s original republicanism and now asserts that an independent Scotland—if that unlikely event were to take place—would keep the monarch as its Head of State. However, I would like to see any future monarch living a lifestyle in tune and in touch with that of the nation. We can see the Duke of Cambridge, who serves with RAF officers, and his wife living a lifestyle much closer to that of the rest of the nation.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman has referred to people who have ditched their republicanism. Will he join me in welcoming the decision of the Sinn Fein mayor in the Irish Republic who welcomed Her Majesty and shook her hand—despite Gerry Adams’s advice to do otherwise—showing an increasing acceptance of the monarchy everywhere?
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, or the Chair of any other Select Committee could examine the high levels of expenditure that we have discussed this afternoon. I am sure that the Bill will go through without opposition, but if the monarchy is to continue in future years—after the time of Her Majesty—some things will have to change.
I welcome the Bill and the way in which it is being presented, and I think that the Opposition are handling the matter as they should, but a wider debate is needed. Let me say again—not on my knees—that there is nothing that can be discussed in our newspapers, pubs and meeting rooms that cannot also be discussed, in full detail, in this our House of Commons.
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Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): Unlike the shadow Chancellor, I have not spent the last 48 hours carefully considering what to say in the debate, so I shall keep my remarks short. I have not been enjoying the tennis either; my mind has been occupied with other matters.
I welcome the approach that the Chancellor has outlined, and the prospect of the longer debate that we shall have on Second Reading when the Bill has been published. I want to place on record, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, the affection and esteem in which Her Majesty the Queen is held throughout the country. Every time I visit a primary school in my constituency, two questions are entirely predictable, and have been asked throughout the last decade. They are “Do you know the Prime Minister?” and “Have you met the Queen?”. There is a subtle but profound difference between those questions, which shows that young children can be very perceptive about the relative influence of Members of Parliament and the Queen. The Queen has visited the city of Bristol many times throughout her reign, and has always been warmly received.
Although I welcome the Chancellor’s approach, I think there is an important point to be made about the future finances of the monarchy. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said about the importance of transparency. The reformed system of financing the Head of State—and this may be the first major reform since the accession of George III —must be transparent and open to scrutiny. Three years ago we discovered in a very painful way that resisting transparency does no institution in our land any good, and I believe that the institution of the monarchy will be enhanced by transparency over its financing.
Both the right hon. Member for Barking and her predecessor as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee referred to the royal palaces. Thanks to the initiative of Mr Speaker, this palace is now open on more occasions during the year so that members of the public can come and see the place with which we are so familiar, but Buckingham palace is still only open for one month a year, except to those who are fortunate enough to be invited there for a formal occasion. I hope that consideration will be given to whether it would be possible for grand places such as, in particular, Buckingham palace to be open to the public on more days during the year. That would both enhance the income of the royal palaces and the royal arts collection and enable more people from all over the country to see what is probably the most famous building in the world.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
I speak as—I hope—a radical democrat who really believes that sovereignty resides with the people and should be only cautiously delegated to Crowns and perhaps even Parliaments. Nevertheless, I declare myself a monarchist, not just for sentimental reasons but because I believe that the monarchy performs an important role as an impartial focus for national sentiment at a time when public confidence in other public institutions, with which
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we are of course familiar, may be seen as being at an all-time low. Moreover, it is clear—certainly from the celebrations of the royal wedding day in my constituency—that royal occasions provide a terrific excuse for a party which will make people feel good, and that must be a good thing at a time when we are increasingly measuring national well-being as well as simple economic indicators.
Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) that I consider those to be rather better justifications for the civil list and the spending of public money on the monarchy than the fact that monarchy offers better value for money than the DVLA, which I think is a dangerous road on which to embark. Obviously affection for, and confidence in, the monarchy has been reinforced by the conduct of the current Queen, who has performed her role over many decades with enormous dignity and professionalism. It is important that the monarchy has also moved with the times, not least by responding appropriately to the recent austere financial situation in which this country finds itself. I am therefore very supportive of the Chancellor’s announcement.
Martin Horwood: I think that is a rather inappropriate question actually, but I was strongly inclined to do so, although it might be a rather expensive window, so if we can bring the cost down a bit, that might be appropriate.
I was making the important point that it is entirely right to bring greater audit and transparency to the arrangements for the Head of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) said that too, and he is also absolutely right that public money and public confidence must go together. However, some issues remain to be tackled if we are to maintain that confidence over future generations for the Queen’s heirs and successors.
I am pleased that the Minister for Equalities is sitting on the Front Bench as well as the Chancellor, because I want to discuss the issue of absolute cognatic primogeniture. I am not referring here to the situation of Catholics in the succession, which is simple in terms of equalities but rather complicated in terms of the role of the Church of the England as the state Church; that raises all sorts of issues. The issue of succession to the Crown by women in order of birth is important, however. Without wanting to cause any embarrassment to Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, it is an issue on which we have a window of opportunity that may close in a year or so.
This was an issue in Sweden in the 1980s, when the birth of an infant daughter following the birth of the young Crown Prince Carl Philip meant that it became a question of disinheriting a young heir to the throne. It would be unfortunate if we were to go down that path in this country, so if we want generally to modernise the monarchy, now would be a good moment for this issue to be addressed alongside the financial issues. We could then look forward to future generations of the monarchy enjoying the same affection and confidence as Her Majesty the Queen.
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So far in the debate, we have missed a crucial point. We have just focused on the cost of the monarchy, but our sovereign represents the greatest institution in our land; it is that bit that makes us British, and we do not want a mean monarchy. We want a proper and well-funded monarchy, not a bicycling monarchy, even if riding the Mayor of London’s bicycles.
The subject of this debate encapsulates the connection the monarchy gives us to our history. What did the Commons spend its time debating in the 16th century? It spent its time debating that the King should live of his own: that the King—Henry VIII for much of that era—should be able to use his own resources to provide for all he needed to spend. This debate returns us to that same principle.
The Crown Estate provides an extraordinary link with our history. We could probably find some acre of the Crown Estate somewhere—probably in Somerset—that was the property of Alfred the Great, but we would certainly find that there was property in the Crown Estate that came with William the Conqueror and from the dissolution of the monasteries. St James’s palace started as a leper colony founded by Queen Margaret in, I think, 1118. It was then part of the endowment of Eton college, which was, very tactfully, given back to the Crown by Eton when Henry VIII said, “If you don’t give it back, I’m going to dissolve you.” [Interruption.] That was a missed opportunity, I think some on the Labour Benches are saying. The Crown Estate is an extraordinary link with our history, which is what makes us the country—the United Kingdom—that we are. Some attack that and say, “We want a good value monarchy.” That makes Her Majesty sound as though she is something to be bought off the top shelf at Tesco, and it really cannot be how we wish to approach our constitution. The Crown is an essential element of that constitution; everything of importance that happens is done in the name of the Crown.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said that he wanted the royal family to be treated as any other family but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) pointed out, if they were any other family they would not be paying such a high tax rate. Given the 15% provision, Her Majesty will be expected to pay an 85% tax rate, which is more than the 50% tax rate that many of us hope will go over the course of this Parliament.
Paul Flynn: Over the years we were kept in ignorance of the royal tax rates and it was only as a result of a campaign in this House about 12 years ago that we were given any information at all about this. I would welcome it if the hon. Gentleman is asking for full transparency on the royal taxes, but I am not sure that that is part of the suggestion before us today.
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is particularly sensible to be investigating in close detail how the royal family spend their money. I recall a line about motes and beams; we have had quite a problem with our own expenditure in this House and I am not sure that we have got things entirely right. Before we start criticising the monarchy and looking over every biscuit that the Queen buys, we should make sure that we have our own house in order.
When the Crown Estate was granted in 1760 by George III, at the same time as he gave up his claim as King of France, the monarchy was in deficit and it needed extra money to fulfil the functions that were being fulfilled. Some of those functions were greater than those now paid for by the civil list. That is all certainly true, although Parliament would vote excess resources to pay for things such as the Army, so my hon. and noble friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) was not entirely fair on the point about paying for the Army.
Now the Crown Estate is in substantial surplus and I think that the Chancellor, in his proposals, which in many ways are very good, may be being somewhat canny, because the next sovereign would be able to cancel this arrangement and say, “I should like £200 million a year, thank you very much.” There is no requirement on a new sovereign to agree to hand the Crown Estate over in return for a civil list. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said that this is taxpayers’ money and not the Crown’s money, but it really is the Crown’s money because, on becoming King, the Prince of Wales or any other sovereign could simply rescind the agreement and claim it back. The Crown Estate is the sovereign’s property, which the sovereign gives to Parliament to help to pay for the costs of the nation; it is not taxpayers’ money that is being handed over. [Interruption.] Does the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) want me to give way?
No, he is going to let me carry on. As a result of what I have described the Queen is paying a higher rate of tax than anybody else. We should remember that and I hope that the Chancellor will be generous. I would like the 15% provision to be increased because we want to have a glamorous monarchy that befits the status of our nation. We are a great nation, a noble nation and a nation that has had power across the globe in the past. We have one of the finest histories of any country in the world. When I see the coronation coach being pulled through the streets of London, I want to see it being pulled by the finest horses that money can buy and I want to see it gilded with the finest gold that can be bought. I want Her Majesty to have as a jubilee present the finest window that can be funded by Members of Parliament. That is the status of monarchy that we want and I urge the Chancellor to remember
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that. Even though I know that we are in this time of austerity, that we are all in it together and that the Opposition spent all the money, maxed out the credit card and so on, we should look after Her Majesty.
We have had an interesting debate and, as has been said, this is just the start of the process. It is an unusual process, given that we have not yet had sight of the Bill and that this is a preliminary debate. The debate has ranged from yachts, trains and the prospect of the monarch taking out a Boris bike for the day to other important issues that are perhaps slightly off-topic, such as primogeniture, succession and whether first-born females and Catholics will one day be able to take precedence in succeeding to the throne. We heard from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that St James’s palace was once a leper colony that was given to Eton. By the time the Bill goes into Committee—I very much hope that he will be a member of that Committee—I might have worked up a gag about that. I am still working on it at the moment.
As we have heard, the demands on the royal household are vastly different today from when the House last discussed the issue. The financing arrangements are largely unchanged since 1760. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has made clear, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the new sovereign support grant, which we feel will be better equipped to meet the royal household’s needs. We will support the Chancellor in reforming the arrangements although, as he would expect, we will ask questions and will want to know in detail how the arrangements will work.
Efforts have already been made to ensure that grant support to the royal household is fair to the taxpayer in the context of wider Government spending and we welcome them, too. Last year, the Chancellor announced in his spending review that support for the royal household would be frozen at £30 million in 2011-12 and 2012-13 before the new arrangements are put in place. That will necessitate a 14% reduction in royal household expenditure in 2012-13.
We have also heard from a number of speakers about the significant efficiency savings made by the royal household in recent years, although the hon. Member for North East Somerset also expressed the view that the monarchy should not go down the Tesco value route, which led my hon. Friends to ask about the Lidl—or Aldi—monarchy. I suspect that that those are not places where the hon. Gentleman often shops.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) asked whether the efficiency savings would be a continuing process or whether the end of the road had already been reached, with all the savings being made that could be made. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) highlighted some points where further savings could be made and I hope that that will be addressed when the Bill goes to Committee.
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figure was chosen to maintain the current level of expenditure, or something in that ballpark, to the end of this Parliament. It has been estimated that 15% of the Crown Estate profits would provide some £37.5 million a year, 25% higher than the total grants that are currently provided. As a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, we need to consider the appropriate level of expenditure for the royal family. There might be a case for increasing that amount and we must consider carefully how demands on the royal household have changed. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said in his opening speech, the pressures on the royal household from issues such as security have increased greatly.
There could also be a case for reducing the royal grant if, for example, there were further efficiency savings. I note that the Chancellor is proposing a cash floor to avoid real-terms cuts to the royal grant in future, which is a significant commitment in the context of wider Government spending cuts, but we should, however, also consider whether there is a potential need for a cap on the amount raised. We should consider the proposed mechanism for uprating the royal grant each year, too.
As has been said, profits from the Crown Estate could rise significantly, particularly because of its links with wind farm developments, which could bring in substantial revenues. The rise is described as exponential in the short term and significant in the longer term, so we need to consider whether a cap might be appropriate.
Parliament must also be certain that any new arrangement will be stable and work in the long term. If the royal grant or reserves fluctuate significantly, that could, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said, lead us into the unwelcome situation of an almost annual review of the finances. We will need to strike a balance when building flexibility into the formula, and some might say that seven years is too long a gap to leave between reviews, but we will need such flexibility if Crown Estate revenues rise significantly.
One fact that has come to light, as Members have already said, is that the Crown Estate owns 55% of the foreshore around the United Kingdom and all the seabed up to 12 nautical miles from the coast. Although I do not think that the House will go down the hon. Gentleman’s suggested path and transfer ownership of the foreshore to coastal communities, despite some in the south-west facing high water bills because of the extra costs associated with being on the coast, I think that we need to look at the issue in the context of the UK being the world’s leader in offshore wind power.
Opposition Members and Members in general very much support further investment in renewables, but is it appropriate that increased Government investment in such technologies should directly support the royal household? Indeed, that goes for private and public investment. The Government have made available some £200 million of public funding for investment in renewables, a proportion of which could end up accruing to the royal household via the sovereign grant, so what flexibility can be built into the new grant to deal with such situations?
There is a need to ensure the appropriate parliamentary oversight of the sovereign grant and of royal household expenditure, and we heard from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), as the former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and from my right hon.
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Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), as the current Chair. She described the measures as a sensible act of modernisation, and both Members said that they look forward to getting their teeth into scrutinising the process and making it more transparent.
Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that we must start by looking at everything, the total expenditure, including not only, as I said, support from the military, but, for example, the cost of the lord lieutenancy service? If we do not do so, we will not be informed or really understand what the monarchy costs.
Kerry McCarthy: As I have already said, security is a big element of spending on the royal family, but other elements need to put into the mix, and the Chancellor’s announcement of the merger of the three separate funding pots will help with transparency and with looking at everything in the round.
We very much welcome the agreement that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee will audit royal household funding, but as the Bill goes through the House, we will seek clarity on when and how often those audits will be carried out, clarity on what disclosure there will be of the information and evidence used in the process and, indeed, clarity on the Committee’s remit to look at issues such as those that my hon. Friend has just raised.
In conclusion, we support the Chancellor’s initiative, but we will seek clarity on the level at which the new grant is set, on the arrangements for uprating it each year and on whether there will be flexibility on that and on the level of parliamentary oversight. We hope that by the time the Bill reaches its final stages there will be cross-party consensus on the new arrangements.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): The last time that the House substantively debated this issue was during proceedings on what became the Civil List Act 1972, and, as the system that the Act implemented comes up for renewal, it is only right that we debate its merits and potential for reform.
I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for, in particular, a lively and informative debate about reforming the sovereign grant. As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), the royal family contributes a tremendous amount to our country, and they paid fitting tributes to its work on behalf of the nation. We also heard from other Members their thoughts about the royal family and how they should be funded in future.
Of course, the last time we had such a debate was back in 1972. I have not yet had time to read that debate; I am not sure whether it would have been as entertaining as the one we have had today. We heard suggestions about whether we should have a biking monarchy. I am sure that Members will be interested to know that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were given a tandem Boris bike by the Mayor of London; I am sure that they will use it frequently.
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right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) for the measures that we are bringing forward. We want to reform the system so that we can put the grant funding on a sustainable, long-term footing and, as we have said, open it up to full parliamentary scrutiny. I think the colleagues I mentioned appreciate the objectives that we have in mind. In addition, we want to take the opportunity to modernise and simplify some peripheral elements of the current legislation.
As the Chancellor set out, we have been guided by three principles: first, ensuring that we have sustainable, long-term financing for the royal household, free from annual political interference; secondly, ensuring that it has some flexibility so that the royal household can manage its finances efficiently; and thirdly, ensuring accountability by establishing proper checks and balances to prevent sums from becoming excessive. Following those principles, we have arrived at the proposals that we are debating—initially, although we will have a Second Reading debate shortly—for a new sovereign grant.
These are genuinely significant reforms that are designed to last. Linking the sovereign grant to Crown Estate profits means that arrangements will be durable where the old system was not. As we have heard, 15% of Crown Estate profits is the starting point for deriving the grant amount. It will be based on 15% of profit in the year two years prior—so, for example, the grant for 2013-14 will be 15% of the profit for 2011-12. That will provide an amount that should keep royal spending broadly in line with spending in recent years in real terms. The percentage will be reviewed every seven years. In the unlikely event that an increase is proposed, it will require affirmative resolution in Parliament; and, of course, there are powerful control mechanisms that ensure that the grant never becomes unmanageable.
Furthermore, the Bill brings accountability arrangements for the royal household into line with those for other Government Departments. We think it is important that Parliament should have the ability to scrutinise the expenditure when it sees a need to do so—
Justine Greening: There will be a cap at 15% of the spend by the royal household in the previous year. If the hon. Gentleman waits for a few more minutes, when I will have a chance to present the Bill to the House, he will have even more information at his disposal to understand exactly how that cap will work, how the review will take place, and who will perform it.
Mr MacShane: The hon. Lady keeps saying that the royal household will be brought into line with other Government Departments. Does not that imply that there will be a Government Minister who is accountable to the Commons for what the royal household is spending and will, from time to time, answer questions on it?
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As for accountability to Parliament, sovereign grant expenditure will be audited annually by the Comptroller and Auditor General and those reports will be laid before Parliament. Should it wish to do so, the Committee of Public Accounts will also be able to scrutinise grant expenditure and will be able to invite the royal household to give evidence. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Barking, her Committee is already looking at how it may wish to fulfil its role in the accountability of the sovereign grant. In fact, that was one of the main things that Parliament argued for before the Civil List Act 1972. It was not implemented at that time, but it is right to do so now.
I very much welcome the valuable contributions of Members on both sides of the House—those of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), the hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), and my hon. Friends the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). They set the context for the debate that we will have on Second Reading of the Bill, which I will shortly present. Once that Bill is before the House, Members on both sides of the House will have a better chance of understanding the proposals and how they will impact on the sovereign grant.
As I have said, this is only the first debate. There will be an opportunity to debate the matter in more detail on Second Reading and in Committee, which will be a Committee of the whole House. I am pleased that we have had a good discussion this afternoon, and that there is agreement on a number of fundamental issues.
Her Majesty the Queen has given exemplary service to the country throughout her 60-year reign. She, and other members of the royal family who support her in her official capacity, will continue to play a vital role in representing and promoting the UK and the Commonwealth. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would agree wholeheartedly that it is right to provide the royal household with stable and sufficient support in those duties.
As I have pointed out, the royal household has significantly reduced its expenditure. As the Chancellor said, total spending by the royal household has reduced by almost £10 million over the past two decades. That is a real-terms cut of more than 50% in 20 years, which no other Department can claim to have achieved. It is also right that we ensure that that provision is transparent and accountable. In fact, on current assumptions, we expect the sovereign grant to be between £34 million and £36 million for 2013-14 and 2014-15. Such a level of support is lower than it would have been under the old
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system. As we have heard, in cash terms, that is broadly in line with the current level of spending, but in real terms, there is a cut of 9% over the course of this Parliament. As I said, that is lower in real terms than royal household expenditure in any of the past 20 years. The cost amounts to 51p per person per year in the UK. That is a remarkably low price to pay for the royal family’s profound contribution to public life.
The sovereign grant Bill will put that funding on an efficient, sustainable footing, and provide for it to be fully accountable to Parliament and the public. These are necessary reforms and I commend the Bill to the House.
(1) new provision be made for, or in connection with, the financial support of the Sovereign and of the heir to the throne;
(2) any sums payable in respect of provision so made should be payable out of money provided by Parliament;
(3) provision be made enabling the continuation, in the reigns of Her Majesty’s successors, of the payment of the hereditary revenues of the Crown as directed under section 1 of the Civil List Act 1952;
(4) provision be made about allowances and pensions under the Civil List Acts of 1837 and 1952;
(5) any sums payable in respect of such allowances and pensions by virtue of any provision so made should be charged on the Consolidated Fund;
(6) it is expedient to amend the law relating to the financial support of members of the Royal Household.
That the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Secretary Clarke, Mr Secretary Hammond, Mr Secretary Hunt, Danny Alexander, Mr Mark Hoban, Mr David Gauke and Justine Greening bring in the Bill.
The Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household (Mr John Randall): The Prince of Wales, having been informed of the subject matter of the Bill so far as it relates to the Duchy of Cornwall, recommends it to the consideration of the House.
Justine Greening accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the honour and dignity of the Crown and the Royal Family; make provision about allowances and pensions under the Civil List Acts of 1837 and 1952; and for connected purposes.
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Legislative Reform Order (Epping Forest)
That the draft Legislative Reform (Epping Forest) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 21 March, be approved.
The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games will be the greatest sporting festival this country has ever seen. Athletes, officials, media representatives and spectators will come from all over the world to enjoy top-class competition, together with all the associated events that come with the Olympics. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members are as excited as I am about the prospect and number of applications for tickets, even if it has inevitably led to disappointment for a lot of people. It shows that the British people are similarly looking forward to the games.
Such a big event inevitably requires a significant safety and security operation. Indeed, the police are preparing for the largest ever peacetime security operation in this country. I am pleased to be able to say that planning is well under way, as was confirmed by the audit and review that the Government carried out on taking office. In securing major events such as the Notting Hill carnival, the Metropolitan Police Service has developed a well-tested approach to hosting large numbers of officers from outside its usual areas of work through the use of a temporary muster, briefing and deployment centre. That provides a facility where large numbers of officers can be gathered, fed and, most importantly, briefed before being sent off to their duties.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I thank the hon. Lady for her opening remarks. We are all looking forward to the Olympic games, and we are very excited in the east end of London, but on this specific proposal, will she tell me what other venues were considered for this important site?
Lynne Featherstone: I will come to the venues. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that 29 were considered, but that only this one—Wanstead Flats in Epping forest—was considered suitable. That was an operational matter for the police; it was not for the Government to intervene or make suggestions on. I will deal with that in more detail later, however.
Three muster centres are planned for the London 2012 Olympics. The main one will be needed to support the main Olympic park area, the transport hub at Stratford and other Olympic facilities. The police and emergency services already have facilities built into the park itself, but the police need to have a base that is a sensible distance from the site, not least so that they can respond sensibly in the event of an incident that puts the park out of action. The Metropolitan police are satisfied that the fairground site at the southern end of Wanstead Flats in Epping forest is the best option for a deployment centre. The fairground site offers the best combination of location and access, minimises disruption to local people and is the most cost-effective solution to the needs of the police.
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Flats and the fairground area would not necessarily concur with her observation? Given that she is a Home Office Minister and given that the Home Office—effectively in its broadest family—has considered these proposals, will she tell the House why residents in the area were not told of the other venues considered by the Metropolitan police and on what basis they had been rejected? Surely that should have been part of the consultation process.
Lynne Featherstone: My understanding was that there were three consultations, but indeed the other sites were never open to selection by local people. As I explained to the hon. Lady, however, that was because the police said that, operationally, only this site would facilitate a muster centre of the necessary size and in a suitable location.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): There were three consultations, but at least two were deeply flawed. If anybody speaks to the people who live near the fairground site, which is almost entirely in my constituency, they will struggle to find anybody who supports the construction of the muster centre.
The City of London corporation, which is responsible for Wanstead Flats, is content with this approach. I should make it clear that the Government accept that there will be some disruption and inconvenience to local people, but are satisfied that this is the best solution to a specific problem, serving the wider public interest. It is also worth pointing out that the Metropolitan police will pay £170,000 in lieu of rent, in addition to the costs of making good the site. That sum will help to create lasting legacy benefits for those who use Epping forest.
Lyn Brown: The Minister rightly says that the police are paying £170,000 a year, effectively for 120 days, which works out at about £1,500 a day. Given the cost of putting the area back to its former use once the muster site has gone, is she really convinced that that is enough money properly to reinstate the flats to a state at which they can benefit the local community?
Lynne Featherstone: I think the hon. Lady has misunderstood what I said. The £170,000 is additional to the duty and obligation on the police to put the site back to its original condition within the 90-day period, and the £170,000 is for the local area to spend to advance the site and make it better than it was before. The cost of putting it back to its current condition is above and beyond the £170,000.
Wanstead Flats are legally part of Epping forest. The Epping Forest Act 1878 prohibits the enclosure of any part of the forest, even on a temporary basis, and that is why we have brought forward a legislative reform order to make a temporary amendment to the Act. Let me make it quite clear that the Government have no wish to see any change to the status of Epping forest, which is a well-loved amenity. Accordingly, the order before us is strictly time-limited and at the conclusion of the games the muster, briefing and deployment centre will be removed, the land will be restored to its former status and the full protections of the 1878 Act will remain intact. No lasting change to the law will be made.
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Our proposals have already been subject to consideration by three separate parliamentary Committees—the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Hybrid Instruments Committee in another place, and this House’s Select Committee on Regulatory Reform. It is on the latter that I should like briefly to focus. I am grateful to the members of the Regulatory Reform Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), for its very thorough and comprehensive report on the order, which was published on 6 May. I am pleased to note that it stated at paragraph 49:
“The Government…believes there are good reasons to maintain the restrictions in the 1878 Act rather than removing them in their entirety, so has proposed to limit the position, coverage area and duration of the LRO provisions. We support this belief and agree that the proposal is a proportionate measure to achieve the policy objective.”
“that the proposal strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person adversely affected by it…and…does not remove any necessary protection.”
I would like to address a couple of concerns that the Committee raised, some of which have also been raised by Members. The first relates to consultation. The proposal was subject to three separate consultation processes during the second half of 2010, covering the police proposals to use the site, the specifics of the LRO itself and the planning permission from Redbridge council. The latter was unanimously approved by the council’s regulatory committee on 24 February 2011, subject to conditions to which the Metropolitan Police Service has agreed. Every effort was made to involve and consult local people and to give them an opportunity to express their views. That included leafleting the streets most directly affected and holding public meetings and exhibitions in the area. Respondents and petitioners clearly were not deterred from contesting the principles in the proposal. The previous Security Minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, held two specific meetings on this issue with the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and I am grateful to him for his support in this matter.
“has respectably arguable grounds for concluding that its consultation was adequate.”
It is also worth pointing out that the Hybrid Instruments Committee in another place invited petitions against the order and, having considered them carefully, decided not to recommend that the order be referred to a special Select Committee, in part because
“Many of the matters complained of in the petitions have been so dealt with, in particular by the normal planning process or in the report to the House by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (4th Report, 2010-12), that no further inquiry into them is necessary”.
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I shall touch on one specific issue—whether the Home Office should have consulted just on the legislative options for Wanstead Flats or whether it should also have introduced possible alternative sites into the equation. As the published documents make clear, the Metropolitan police considered a very large number of possible sites in north-east London for the muster, briefing and deployment centre. Applying objective criteria they concluded that Wanstead Flats was the only suitable site. That was the clear professional, operational advice from the police to the Government, and I think it would have been very difficult, and dangerous, for the Home Office to try to countermand that advice. I do not believe the effectiveness or the clarity of the consultation process would have been enhanced had we included reference to alternative sites that had already been ruled out as unsuitable. Indeed, to have done so might have unnecessarily alarmed residents living near those sites.
Finally, on the question whether this sets a precedent for future development on Wanstead Flats or, indeed, other open spaces, the answer is emphatically no. The Olympics are a unique event in terms of their scale and the policing challenge they present, and I can think of nothing else that would require similar arrangements to be made. More than that, the particular legislative route that we have adopted means that even if a future Government were minded to put buildings on Wanstead Flats, even temporarily, they would have to start all the procedures again from scratch and secure fresh parliamentary approval. Nine months into the process and after three public consultations and three parliamentary committees, I can assure hon. Members that that is something not easily obtained.
I am sorry to have spoken at some length, but I thought it was important to address these issues. In conclusion, I return to where I started. The success of the 2012 safety and security operation depends on the police being able to operate effectively, and the muster, briefing and deployment centre on Wanstead Flats is an integral part of that. The proposal before the House is a proportionate measure. It enables the policing operation to take place while making no lasting change to the protection granted by the Epping Forest Act.
Lyn Brown: Notwithstanding the other points that I have made, does the Minister genuinely believe, and can she categorically assure my constituents, that this is a temporary, one-off measure, that it will not happen again and that it will not be a precedent for future use by anybody else following the Olympic games?
Lynne Featherstone: Yes. If there ever were to be anything on the scale of the Olympics—something that none of us in the House today can imagine—the process would have to be started all over again, and there would be opportunities to comment. The answer to the hon. Lady, in the scope of what one can imagine, is yes.
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(Stella Creasy) on the way in which they have represented their constituents’ views on this matter. Anyone who has had a conversation with them about the issue is left in no doubt about the strength of the opposition locally to the proposals.
I am sure that we all welcome the fact that we have the Olympic games coming to London. We also understand that it is impossible to have the world’s greatest sporting spectacle take place in our great city without we, as hosts, accepting some inconvenience if we are to put on a safe, efficient and enjoyable games. Our aim must be to showcase our city and country and confirm our status as one of the world’s leading nations, a place that people want to visit and do business in. However, we must also remember that foremost in the minds of local people is the legacy. One way that the success of the games will be judged, when the pomp and fanfare has been and gone, is the legacy left for the people of London, particularly those who live in and around the Olympic boroughs. We all understand and accept that in order to deliver a safe and efficient games the Metropolitan police must be free to make judgments and decisions on operational matters, and the Minister has our full support in that, but it is unfortunate that this decision is being made in the face of local opposition. I am sure that the Minister will want to reassure local people that their concerns about the future of the site will be considered.
Wanstead Flats is a highly valued and essential open space in that part of London. In the short time I had to prepare for the debate, and being that sort of anorak, I decided to look up the history of Wanstead Flats and discovered that attempts to enclose it and restrict access for the common people have long been a source of controversy. In 1871, Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley, attempted to enclose another piece of the flats. An advertisement with the headline “Save The Forest” encouraged working men to “Attend by Thousands” an open air meeting on Wanstead Flats on Saturday 8 July 1871 and protest against the enclosure. We are dealing with a highly sensitive site in east London that has a history of local activism to protect it. As that piece of history demonstrates, it is clearly because local people have campaigned effectively to protect it that it is still there for us to debate in the House today.
According to the briefing paper provided by the Residents of Leytonstone and Forest Gate campaign, to which I am grateful, the site is designated as green belt and green corridor land, as heritage land and as a site of metropolitan importance for nature conservation. To of the north of the site is a part of the flats that is designated as a site of special scientific interest. As a veteran of the campaign to stop the east London river crossing and protect Oxley woods, which is also an SSSI, I sympathise with the people who are sensitive about the use of the site and wish to protect it for the future.
The Epping Forest Act 1878 lays down a legal framework for the preservation and management of Epping forest, requiring its conservators to keep it for local use. I will not list the six requirements set out in the Act because I want other local Members to have enough time to speak. Suffice it to say that the previous Government introduced the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, which gives the powers to set aside the 1878 Act, which is what the Minister for Policing
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and Criminal Justice is doing. It is a little churlish of me, but I thought I should point that out as another U-turn.
When we deal with local communities like the one in east London, we must remember that they will still be there when everyone has gone home, waiting to see whether the organisers of the games have proved as good as their word and delivered on their promises. The people opposing these plans feel that insufficient effort has been made to find alternative sites and there is concern locally that it could set a precedent for future events. I welcome the comments that the Minister has just made to give reassurances on that.
Will the Minister clarify the position on the future use of the 2006 Act? Is it the case that to use this site in the same way in the future, the same procedure will have to be used and Members of Parliament will again have the opportunity to bring the matter to the Floor of the House if there is strong opposition? Will she also give an assurance that the corporation of London will consult the local community and involve it in future decisions on this site? From the conversations that I have had, there is a feeling that the local community has been left out of those discussions.
Lyn Brown: Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the site being restored following its use as a muster site, I know from my time in local government how much argument there can be about whether there has been true restoration of green and open spaces. There are inevitably arguments about how much restoration will cost and to what standard it should be done. Given my fear that the £170,000 will be used to restore the site, rather than to enhance it, does my hon. Friend agree that the police are getting the site rather on the cheap and that they should up their cash so that local people really have something to invest in the site at a later date?
Clive Efford: I am not qualified to say what the true value of the site is and what a proper rent would be. However, I do not think that the £170,000 should be used to restore the site. It should be available as a legacy and be spent in consultation with local people. I was just about to make that very point.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): To be clear, we are talking about a large structure, stables for up to 54 horses, an area for dogs and parking for 375 vehicles on a site that has dense vegetation. Many of my constituents very much enjoy going to the Wanstead Flats. I hope the shadow Minister can understand why we are concerned about the restoration of the land, not just in its quality, but in its content. That is vital to the future of the site.
Clive Efford: Absolutely. People will need reassurance about the management of that process and should have some input into it to ensure that the standards are not diminished, that the site is restored to its former state and that the damage is not permanent. The only way to reassure the local community is to involve it in the process. I ask the Minister to clarify who will ultimately be responsible for overseeing this. Does she have any influence over the body that will be responsible so that she can ensure that it involves the local community?
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I am grateful for the Minister’s unequivocal statement that the £170,000 is for the restoration of the site and not its repair. Will she guarantee that it will be spent in consultation with local people, who have demonstrated through their campaign a great love of and commitment to the site? From their experience of living near the site and visiting it regularly, they will have essential expertise and ideas on how the money can best be spent.
I hope the Minister agrees that when it comes to the legacy, it is issues such as this that will determine in the long run whether local people and communities in the Olympic boroughs feel that the Olympic games have been in the interests of ordinary people, their local communities and London. I hope that the Minister will do everything in her power to ensure that those communities are involved not just in planning the legacy on this side of the games, but in delivering it post the games.
Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I rise as Chairman of the Regulatory Reform Committee. The draft order and the explanatory document were laid before the House on 21 March under section 14(1) of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006. The Government recommended that the draft order be subject to the affirmative procedure, under section 17 of the Act.
The draft order proposes an insertion into the Epping Forest Act 1878 that would allow the Metropolitan Police Authority to erect a muster, briefing and deployment centre on Wanstead Flats for up to 90 days. As we have heard in the debate, it will be quite a busy centre, with perhaps upwards of 3,500 police officers on certain days of the Olympics, providing security at the Stratford centre, the Olympic stadium and various other stadiums in that part of London.
The Home Office has reassured the Committee that the draft order is a temporary provision that constitutes no precedent, as we have heard from the Minister. It believes that it is the most efficient way to ensure the safety and security of the 2012 games, following a site selection process that found Wanstead Flats to be the most suitable location. Clearly, we are all concerned about security.
The Committee considered the draft order on 3 May. It concluded that the affirmative resolution procedure was appropriate and recommended that the draft order be approved. The report was agreed, but following a Division in which the Committee divided five to three. Under the procedures of the House, when there is a Division the matter has to be referred to the Floor of the House.
I think it fair to say that members of the Committee were sympathetic to local Members, particularly the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), who wanted to attend the Committee but could not under the Standing Orders of the House. He made representations himself to the Metropolitan Police Service and the consultation, and I hope that he will catch your eye in a moment, Mr Deputy Speaker, to represent the views and concerns of his constituents. The debate provides an opportunity for local Members to make their concerns known.
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Lyn Brown: The hon. Gentleman is an honourable man. Does he not agree that given the state of the consultation, local people have a right to be concerned? Does he also accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) that how and where the £170,000 will eventually be spent is a concern, given the botched consultation?
Mr Syms: There were clearly problems with the consultation, although it is true that, as the Minister said, there were only 31 replies. However, my Committee still found that it wished to approve the order, and I hope that the House will do so today. It seems to me that there would be a very good reason for local Members to write to the Home Office to put pressure on the Metropolitan police, and indeed the City of London corporation, so that there is some local involvement in how the £170,000 is spent. Once the site is repaired, if it is used by many of the hon. Lady’s constituents, they clearly ought to be consulted about what improvements are made. That seems to be a matter for another day, but I am glad that she has put her point on the record.
Although the difficulties with the consultation were unfortunate, the Committee concluded that that should not inhibit the progress of the draft order and did not alter the fact of the site’s utilisation. There was concern about the adequacy of the consultation, because the wording used in the consultation document was potentially deficient. Wanstead Flats was described as
“essential to ensuring the safety and security of the Games”,
The consultation was poorly conceived, which raised unnecessary worries among local residents, and took place nearly a year after Wanstead Flats was identified as the preferred site. It was limited in scope to rule out comments on alternative sites, and the document contained a factual error about the criminal sanction. The poor design and preparation of the consultation gave the impression that the process was a done deal, and that the legislative reform order was being used as the easiest way to reach the desired solution. That is one reason why we are having this debate on the Floor of the House today.
The fact that the Metropolitan Police Service is clear that it requires the site for the policing of the Olympics is a persuasive, but not conclusive, reason for the narrow terms of the consultation, as it has no statutory function in relation to the Olympics. Direct responsibility for the centre lies with the Metropolitan Police Service, which formulated the site criteria. Its assessment against those criteria found that Wanstead Flats was the only site to meet all of them. However, it would have been more appropriate if the consultation document had taken that assessment as a starting assumption that the Department expected to adopt unless persuaded otherwise.
As we have heard, the consultation generated 31 responses. The explanatory document dealt with them in a rather perfunctory manner and should have contained a more detailed response and information. Despite the
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concerns raised, the report concludes that the Department has “respectably arguable” grounds for believing that its consultation was adequate.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Lords reported on the draft order on 4 May. It, too, considered the Government’s consultation to have been “very poorly handled”, and drew this to the House’s attention, while concluding that the draft order was appropriate to proceed. As we have heard, a Hybrid Instruments Committee of the House of Lords considered the draft order on 23 May, concluding that there ought not to be a further inquiry by a Select Committee into any of the matters complained of by the eight petitioners.
There were genuine concerns, which is why the matter has been referred to the Floor of the House, so that local Members can raise those concerns. I am sure that there are further discussions to be had on another day about the details of the improvements to the site and the £170,000. However, I hope that the House concludes that the site in question is the most appropriate and will support my Committee’s decision by voting for this order today.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): We have certainly had contrasting debates this afternoon. Let me start by saying—I will make my reasons clear—that I am speaking against the order. I do not support it in any way, and I do not want to mislead the Minister by putting her in the position of believing me somehow to be offering my support, because I am not. The order and the proposed creation of the muster centre have caused deep concern among my constituents. Wanstead Flats are a cherished local amenity and have been since 1878. They have actually been a local amenity for longer than that, but they have been recognised in statute for nearly 140 years, since 1878. The decision to build a police muster centre for the 2012 Olympics on a piece of much-cherished and precious piece of common land is simply wrong and should not have gone through in the first place.
Let me go back over some of the history of Epping forest and Wanstead Flats, which are partly in my constituency. Epping forest has been fought over for centuries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) mentioned. In the 18th and early 19th centuries there were fights over enclosure. Repeated attempts were made to enclose the land—as there were across the south-east of England—but the campaigns launched and fought by local people kept it as common land. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were battles over house building. As London rapidly spread eastwards into Essex, there were successful campaigns to maintain Epping forest—and, therefore, Wanstead Flats—as a local amenity. The Epping Forest Act 1878 was the result of those campaigns, and it has kept the area as an amenity for local people ever since.
The City of London corporation has long been seen as the defender of local people—ironic, in view of what has happened recently. It has fought battles against landowners and others to prevent encroachments on common land. That is why the City of London corporation was made the conservator of Epping forest. Over the past 150 years there have been more recent battles,
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particularly over Wanstead Flats. The 1878 Act states clearly that the land should remain open and undeveloped. On an 1882 visit to High Beach, another part of Epping forest, Queen Victoria declared Epping forest dedicated to the free use and enjoyment by the public “for all time”. However, the City of London, having had quite an honourable record, has now spinelessly lain down and abandoned its traditional defence of local people and the local amenity, and decided to go along with the creation of a police muster centre without even the use of primary legislation to do so. There was some house building there during the war, between 1939 and 1945, but that took place under the wartime emergency powers legislation, which is a crucial point. That was primary legislation, and as soon as hostilities ended, the emergency powers legislation lapsed and the 1878 Act came back into prominence. As a result, the houses were moved—as a matter of fact, I recently met somebody who lived in one of the houses on Wanstead Flats until about 1950-51.
“It is a large site close to the Olympic Park and new Westfield shopping centre through which a large percentage of visitors to the Park will transit.”
However, the site is actually not particularly near either, so that argument starts to fall down. Many locals—certainly people in my constituency who live near the site—have asked why the muster centre cannot be built on the Olympic site itself. I have yet to hear a compelling argument in favour of the muster centre being established on Wanstead Flats, which are a considerable distance from the Olympic site and from the Westfield shopping centre.
I also have to raise the question of security. A number of local people have said that the police muster centre could be a target for terrorists. That is certainly a possibility, given that the plans for the centre are widely available online, whereas the specific plans for the Olympic site itself are rather more difficult to get to grips with.
As far as traffic is concerned, the route from the muster centre to the Olympics will be a circuitous one involving the use of the A12. The reserve plans, for use in certain situations, involve the use of fairly narrow roads such as Cann Hall road, and an increase in traffic could cause serious problems for police transport accessing the Olympic site. Mixed messages about transport have been given to the public in east London. An Olympic planning document states that there will be a traffic downturn during the games, although I cannot imagine what evidence that is based on. Local businesses, on the other hand, have been clearly told that they should expect a rise in the volume of traffic. Both cases seem to have been put forward as an argument for building the police muster centre, so I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me which is correct. Is there going to be a downturn or an upturn in traffic? How will that answer back up the argument for the creation of the muster centre?
On compensation, I have to say that £170,000 is a paltry amount to pay for the site. The rent on an equivalent brownfield site in the south-east of England for a period of 90 days would be in the region of £1.5 million. Wanstead Flats are obviously not a brownfield site, and an equivalent site would cost nearer to £3 million
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to rent for that period, yet the City of London corporation is perfectly content to say to the Metropolitan police, “We’ll take 170,000 quid.” That is an absolutely pathetic amount of compensation, especially as far as local people are concerned.
Stella Creasy: It is estimated that the land will be out of use for at least six months while the vegetation recovers, yet we will get no recompense for the lack of use of that common land for all that time.
Three consultations have taken place, as has been mentioned. One was a straightforward planning consultation conducted by Redbridge council, the local planning authority. The Metropolitan police consultation was one of the most bizarre that I have ever come across. It could be accessed only online, so none of my constituents could write a letter to the Metropolitan police. They had to make their submissions to the consultation online and it dealt only with specific questions. I believe that those factors alone should render that consultation null and void, because it was not a proper consultation. It was conducted entirely on the Metropolitan police’s terms, and it excluded an awful lot of people in my constituency who do not have access to the internet.
The Home Office consultation focused on section 34 of the Epping Forest Act 1878, which was a bizarre way to go about it, given that that section ceased to be in force in about 1882. I would have thought that someone might have spotted that. The section of the Act that the consultation should have dealt with is section 7, which I want to quote in full. It states:
“Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Conservators shall at all times keep Epping Forest uninclosed and unbuilt on, as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public; and they shall by all lawful means prevent, resist and abate all future inclosures, encroachments, and buildings, and all attempts to inclose, encroach or build on any part thereof, or to appropriate or use the same, or the soil, timber, or road thereof, or any part thereof, for any purpose inconsistent with the objects of this Act.”
It is difficult to argue that that is in any way ambivalent. It is absolutely crystal clear: that building on Wanstead Flats or in Epping forest—the Act covers the whole of Epping forest—was intolerable to Parliament at the time.
The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 is being used for the first time to attack the central purpose of legislation from a past era. The 2006 Act has been used in the past to make what can now be seen as relatively minor amendments to legislation, but here it attacks the central thrust of the 1878 Act because it undermines section 7—the whole basis of the legislation. The purpose of the 2006 Act was to remove regulatory burdens, but in this case, it is about removing protection—protection afforded to the people of east London since 1878.
This should never have gone ahead and it has probably happened because of all the mistakes made during the consultations. It is almost certainly vulnerable to judicial review if anyone wanted to take up that case. There are, however, one or two guarantees that we need to secure from the Minister at the end of this debate.
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For a start, we need a guarantee that the muster centre will be gone after 90 days. The original plan was for 120 days; it was then cut to 90 days, so we need an absolute guarantee that the police’s muster centre will last for no more than 90 days. Secondly, the Minister has already touched on this matter, but it needs to be made absolutely clear that this will not set any precedent. We are potentially amending primary legislation, which could be used in future court cases to set a precedent that might allow developers to build on Wanstead Flats. That needs to be dismissed absolutely so that in future court cases, today’s proceedings can be cited and developers told clearly that the Government had no intention of creating a precedent.
We also need guarantees that the order will be complied with to the letter and we need to know how the consultation on the disposal of the £170,000 will be conducted. Who will be consulted, who will run the consultation, and who will make the judgment that the land has been returned to its original use and its original state? I can feel an Adjournment debate coming on at some point in the future if we are not satisfied that all the criteria are being met. In the meantime, I leave it to the Minister to answer these questions.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I begin by apologising for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of this debate. I was attempting to enter the House but the events occurring in the immediate area around Parliament right now have undemocratically deprived me of access. Given that we are debating a narrow order, Mr Deputy Speaker, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss the workings of democracy, so I will not do so or take up any more of the House’s time on the subject, but I do make the point that if Members of Parliament are denied access to the House of Commons through action taken by other people in the Westminster area, that is an affront to democracy. That is the best excuse I have ever had for being late!
Although this legislative reform order specifically refers to Epping forest and I represent the Epping Forest constituency, I must explain that the piece of land in question is not in my constituency, but almost entirely in that of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer). It is he who has the duty to speak on behalf of local people, but I have every sympathy with the points he has made. Wanstead Flats are part of Epping forest, and although my Epping Forest constituency does not cover the whole of the forest geographically I am nevertheless always concerned for the protection of our wonderful and ancient forest. It is the duty of us all, and particularly those with an interest in this particular area of London and Essex, to be concerned for the preservation of Epping forest itself. Any threat to our forest is unacceptable.
The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead has waxed lyrical—and rightly so—about the dangers of enclosure and about the historical position that has seen the people of east London and Essex fight literally for centuries to ensure the preservation of our forest. As the hon. Gentleman has just explained, that culminated in the Epping Forest Act. All of us who are concerned with the forest and its preservation will never allow anything to happen, in the House or anywhere else, that would undermine its preservation. Enclosure was wicked
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and took resources away from people who needed them, but nowadays the threat is somewhat different: it is generally a threat of house building and overdevelopment on what ought to be one of the most important lungs of London. I agree with all that the hon. Gentleman said in that regard.
In 1882 Queen Victoria visited High Beach, which is in my constituency, and only a couple of weeks ago I went to see the oak tree that she planted when she was there. Actually, that one died; another was planted two years later, and still stands as a permanent reminder of the importance of preserving the forest for the people. Queen Victoria said that she was dedicating
“this beautiful forest to the… enjoyment of my people”
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the forest must be preserved for the enjoyment of the people for ever, but I disagree with him slightly on another point. I feel able to support the order because it refers specifically to a 90-day period. If it were a general order allowing the forest to be used in any way in perpetuity, I would join the hon. Gentleman in expressing deep concern. Furthermore, the area in question constitutes only about 2% of Wanstead Flats and is already used for circuses, fireworks and other forms of enjoyment. It is therefore geographically suitable for the purpose for which it is to be used during those 90 days.
I hear what Opposition Members say about the payment being made by the Metropolitan police. As the Minister explained earlier—I was not present, but owing to the wonders of modern technology I was able to listen to her on a mobile phone—
As the Minister explained, the Metropolitan police are making a significant payment to the conservators of Epping forest, in lieu of rent, and in addition to the payment for the restoration of the site. I hear what Opposition Members say about the amount involved, but the important point is that the entire amount paid by the Metropolitan police will be used for the enhancement of Wanstead Flats. Opposition Members argue that the amount should be greater, but I do not agree. Money paid by the Metropolitan police is taxpayers’ money, and if it is used for the enhancement of Wanstead Flats, it obviously cannot be used for the prevention of crime and the maintenance of law and order. There is a wider interest. It is absolutely right for an amount to be paid for the enhancement of Wanstead Flats, but it should not be larger than the amount that has already been negotiated.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady interpret the order as meaning that the restoration must be completed before the end of the 90-day period? My reading of it does not make it clear whether it means that the Metropolitan police must have left by then, or that the restoration must have taken place.
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Mrs Laing: I cannot answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I agree that assurances must be given on a time scale within which the work on Wanstead Flats must be undertaken and completed. It is not for me to answer the detail of his question, however.
Although I am very concerned at all times for the preservation of Epping forest, I do trust the Committee that examined the order; I have heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) has said, and I trust him and his Committee to have properly scrutinised this proposed small piece of legislation. On that basis as well, I can support the order.
Like all our other commonly owned property, Epping forest is there for the good of all the people, not just those who live in the immediate area of Wanstead Flats or the forest itself; and for the good of all the people, there is a wider public interest here. The Olympics are also for the good of all the people. My part of London and Essex will benefit enormously from the fact that an historic world event is being held on our doorstep. Therefore, we have to play our part in contributing to the effort for the Olympics for the temporary period that that effort is required. The conservators of the forest are trying to accommodate that wider public interest by making arrangements with the Metropolitan police for Wanstead Flats to be used for this temporary period, and I therefore feel that I can support the order.
Lynne Featherstone: I wish to respond briefly to some of the many concerns raised in this debate. I am grateful to all the Members who participated, and I appreciate that this proposal raises strong local feelings about the protection of what is a valuable open space in north-east London. I can assure the House that I would be adding my voice to that of the opponents of the proposal if I thought that this was an attempt in any way to destroy a much-loved open space or to weaken permanently the protections guaranteed by the Epping Forest Act 1878. It is neither of those things. This measure is constrained in scope and time, and it will leave all the provisions of the Act in place exactly as they were, while Wanstead Flats will be restored to its previous state.
The hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made speeches, and they understandably have a strong interest in the subject. They show great care for their constituents and the well-being of this much-loved space. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked if £170,000 was sufficient in lieu of rent. That figure was arrived at following discussions between the Metropolitan police and the City of London on what would constitute a reasonable payment for the temporary use of the land. The police are a public service, so they rightly should consider getting best value for money. It would be odd for London taxpayers to expect their local police to spend more money, not less.
The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) asked whether local people would be consulted on the nature of the structures put on Wanstead Flats. I am sure that the Metropolitan police will want to consult local people. He also asked whether local people will be consulted on the future of Wanstead Flats. That is a matter for the City of London corporation, but I can assure the
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House that the City has said it will consult local people on the use of that part of the £170,000 that is above and beyond what is required for the use of the land.
Lynne Featherstone: I do not have to hand an official answer per se, but I would be surprised if local people, the hon. Lady and other hon. Members did not raise this issue if the restoration were not done to what local people felt was the right standard and if the area had not been restored to the state in which it was found. The restoration is about that and the £170,000 is about enhancing the land above and beyond the state it was in when the police first came to use it.
Lyn Brown: Should we find difficulty in appealing against the state in which the flats have been left after the police have gone and after the restoration has taken place, to whom would we appeal? Will the hon. Lady write to me or have the appropriate Minister write to me on that point?
I was asked whether the legislative reform order procedure would be required if ever a proposal were made to put something similar on Wanstead Flats, and the answer is yes. As I explained during my opening remarks, we would have to go through all this all over again—there is no question about that.
The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead asked why the facility was not part of the local Olympic park itself. There will be facilities for the police and emergency services, including front-counter services, on the park, but we are talking about different things here, as there are operational reasons why a briefing centre needs to be a reasonable distance from the park. Obviously, if anything happened in the park, people would need to come from outside to deal with it.
Redbridge council considered the traffic problems as part of the planning application and was content that the proposals would not damage the local environment. Transport for London raised no objections, and the location was chosen, in part, to avoid potential traffic nuisance.
Before the hon. Lady wanders too far from this subject, may I take her back to the issue of the site? It is not good enough just to say that the City of London corporation is responsible for restoring the site for the local community. After all, the previous Government and this Government have been all over this project of
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delivering the London Olympic games; no doubt, Secretaries of State and other Ministers will be posing for photographs with famous sports personalities and so on as they arrive. So it is not good enough to say that all this about restoring the site is a local skirmish between the local community and the City of London corporation. Does the Minister not think that the Government have a duty to ensure that the corporation is as good as its word and to represent local people who have these concerns when the site is being restored?
The traffic issue might be one of the things that worries local people the most. The Olympics will be taking place during the school summer holidays, so traffic levels will be lower than normal. The muster centre will cause some increase in the level of traffic, but all officers will arrive by coach, not in individual vehicles and, as I said, Transport for London is content that this proposal will not give rise to undue problems.
I was asked whether this order would set a precedent, and the answer is no. I am happy to put on the record the fact that should any future Government want to do something similar—I can see no reason why they would; that is outside the scope of imagination because the Olympics is the biggest event this country will be hosting—they would have to repeat this procedure and secure parliamentary approval all over again. I was asked how we can be sure that the police will be off the site after 90 days, and that they will have no legal power to be on the site beyond that point.
Stephen Timms: I want to pick up the point I raised with the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). Does the order mean that the restoration must have happened within 90 days or simply that the police must have left within 90 days?
We are satisfied that the proposal is sound in principle and practice and all the statutory gatekeepers have broadly agreed with us. As I said, that includes the three parliamentary Committees as well as the local council, as the planning authority. The proposed LRO will ensure that the 2012 games are a safe and secure spectacle that can be enjoyed by all those involved, particularly those who have tickets.
That the draft Legislative Reform (Epping Forest) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 21 March, be approved.
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Liverpool Passport Office
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House a matter of great importance: the dismissal of 14 staff at the Liverpool passport office because of a major error made by their employer, the Identity and Passport Service, an executive agency of the Home Office.
I thank the Minister for meeting Liverpool MPs and arranging for us to discuss the situation with him and key staff. I also thank him for forwarding us a copy of the internal review into the issue, although it came complete with many redactions. The key facts are not disputed. On 21 March 2011, 14 permanent staff at Liverpool passport office were called to a hastily convened meeting to be told that what they thought was their permanent employment had abruptly ended. Four were dismissed immediately and 10 were switched to temporary employment, which has now finished for most of them.
The reason given was that the IPS had made a major error in awarding those staff permanent employment status from September 2008 when they were recruited under a friends and family scheme. The rules under which they were recruited meant they should only have been given temporary employment status for a maximum of two years. The employees were unaware of that fact and they had been given permanent status by their employer. The sudden dismissals without warning shocked and angered the staff, some of whom had left their previous employment to take up what they thought was a new career. Others had taken out loans or mortgages on the basis of their permanent employment. Indeed, the whole office remains upset.
I want to raise serious, still unresolved, issues about the conduct of the IPS in this sorry saga and the current status of the dismissed staff. There is considerable confusion about what happened. I have in my possession a very interesting letter dated 4 January 2011, written by Paul Luffman, head of employee relations at IPS, and addressed to Barry Forrester at the office of the Civil Service Commission. According to the letter, the IPS’s error was discovered in its recruitment audit at the end of March 2009. The Minister’s reply to my parliamentary question on 31 March 2011 contradicts that, stating that the error was discovered in March 2010.
Why did it take one or perhaps even two years to inform the staff that there was a question mark against their employment? According to a reply I received from the Minister for the Cabinet Office on 27 April 2011, the IPS told the Civil Service Commission on 27 April 2010 that it was dealing with the situation, replacing the permanent contracts with temporary ones. In reality, they were doing no such thing. Who signed off that incorrect information? Who gave the wrong information to Ministers? When did the Minister discover that the information was wrong?
It also appears that the recruitment audit file was not returned to the Liverpool office as it should have been; it was sent to the Peterborough office and destroyed. Paul Luffman’s letter asks the civil service commissioners if there were any alternatives to terminating the
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14 permanent employment contracts, and that indeed is the key question. I understand that the letter was never dispatched. Why?
It is alleged that the letter was never dispatched because of concerns that it would embarrass David Normington, then permanent secretary at the Home Office and now first civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments. Is that correct? It is worth noting that David Normington would be in a difficult position to adjudicate the current situation.
Instead of the 14 Liverpool staff being informed of their problem at a time when more alternative jobs were available, they became unemployed two years later, when job opportunities were decreasing and educational and training courses were being curtailed.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): My constituent, Denise Wheatcroft, who is 58 years old and the oldest of the group of 14 people, took the post with the Identity and Passport Service because she thought that it would guarantee her employment until her retirement. She now finds herself without a job aged 58. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if Denise had been informed of the situation when it was discovered, and in advance of the current situation, given the cuts that are impacting on Liverpool in particular, she would have been in a much better situation than she is today?
It has been said that the decision to dismiss the 14 employees was taken on the basis of “legal advice”, and it has even been claimed that to maintain their employment would have been “illegal”. I challenge that. I have seen no evidence that any formal legal advice was sought or obtained, and Paul Luffman’s letter seeking such advice was never sent.
Telephone conversations and personal discussions, which I am told took place, do not constitute formal legal advice; nor is there any record of the questions to which any verbal advice responded. The suggestion of “illegality” in allowing those employees to continue with the permanent status that they were awarded is grossly misleading and an attempt to divert attention from what has happened and from the culpability of those who are responsible.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate about a running grievance that affects a number of our constituents. Does she agree that, regardless of the recruitment method and whatever flaws it had, there is no real evidence that it would be illegal to rectify the situation, so the Department and, by extension, Ministers have a real opportunity to redress a terrible example of bad faith on the part of the Department?
It is possible that, given the circumstances in which the permanent employment status was awarded, continuing with it was contrary to an interpretation of current departmental rules, but that is a very different proposition
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from any notion that it was illegal. We are, indeed, discussing a unique situation, and it required an imaginative and flexible approach. In any case, advisers advise, Ministers and their staff are responsible for decisions and the advice itself is influenced by the question posed. Where is the instruction from the Civil Service Commission to dismiss the 14 staff? Does such written instruction exist? If so, will the Minister publish both question and answer?
Correspondence from the then Liverpool regional manager in June 2010 refers to advice that the Civil Service Commission could make an exception to permit these employees to be made permanent staff. Annexe E of the internal review quotes the human resources business partner as stating:
“The Civil Service Commissioners recruitment principles do allow for some exceptions—I believe there could be a small opportunity to attempt these”.
Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this important issue to the House. I should like to support the points she is making and add that given that this is a unique and extreme situation with many missing parts, perhaps the Minister could look at it again with fresh eyes.
I want to return to the question of whether there was another way of dealing with the matter. I have quoted the views expressed by the Liverpool office regional manager in June 2010, and I would now like to refer to Paul Luffman’s letter—the letter that was never sent from the Department to the Civil Service Commission. In referring to what has happened and what should be done about it, it says:
“I would like to discuss this directly and in detail with the Civil Service Commissioners to see whether IPS is able to use one of the exceptions to fair and open recruitment, before resorting to withdrawal of the contracts. I understand that the civil service commissioners recruitment principles do allow for some exceptions to fair and open recruitment, and I believe there could be an opportunity to attempt to use these (albeit retrospectively) to rectify the situation.”
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) regarding the importance of this issue. Given the additional information that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) has provided to the House, and the cross-party unity that seems to have broken out, does she agree that it is not good enough for the Minister simply to bury his head in the sand, and that the first thing that should happen is for him to reinstate the Liverpool 14?
We see from the written information that we have to hand that there was the possibility of an alternative way of dealing with the IPS’s grave error with regard to these employees, yet it appears that it was not properly pursued, and that for some bizarre and unknown reason the letter written by the Department to the civil service
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commissioners asking that the matter be looked at was not posted. That has to be one of the great mysteries in all this sorry episode.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I join colleagues on both sides of the House in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on her tenacity in uncovering the information that she is sharing with the House. My constituent, Christina O’Brien, who is one of those affected, will be encouraged by what she has discovered. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to reconsider this matter so that we can see these 14 hard-working staff re-employed at the passport office?
Mrs Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and I will certainly do as he requests. Fourteen people are unemployed as a direct consequence of a major error made by the IPS—an error that it failed to address constructively. They are the victims of an unacceptable catalogue of events.
The internal review document that I have seen contains many redactions at critical points. That is why it is not a proper and satisfactory explanation of what went wrong and why. Perhaps it is time for an external inquiry if matters cannot be put right. To add insult to injury, I understand that a business case has been submitted for the imminent recruitment of staff at the Liverpool passport office on the same or similar grades as those of the dismissed employees. It seems that the jobs are still required, although the 14 people who were doing them satisfactorily were dismissed. In those circumstances, I must press the Minister. Can the dismissed workers have priority consideration for those posts, which I understand are about to be part of a recruitment drive?
“Surely we have a duty of care to those who are in this position through no fault of their own.”
No duty of care was shown by IPS. The key questions on what has happened and why the matter has not been rectified remain unanswered. In those circumstances, and given all the information I have presented today, and the contributions of my colleagues on both sides of the House, I call for the reinstatement of the 14 dismissed workers as a matter of natural justice.
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) naturally takes an extremely keen interest in the future of the passport office and its staff, and I recognise the sentiments that she and hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed.
The hon. Lady may be aware, although she did not mention it in her speech, that an employment tribunal hearing date for six of the people involved has been fixed in Liverpool for 30 September. I hope that she and the House will appreciate that, in view of that pending action, I am unable to comment on matters of legal interpretation, as they will be for the tribunal to determine. She and I, and others, have had discussions about the legal interpretations, and she gave powerful views on them, but as I said, I cannot comment from the Dispatch Box on matters that are for the impending tribunal to determine.
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The hon. Lady made a number of points and revealed a number of things. She said that she had got hold of an e-mail from, I believe, 2009. She will understand that I have had no access to that, not least because it was sent under a previous Administration. If she wishes to provide that to me, I will investigate and get fully involved in seeing what it tells us.
The hon. Lady made a powerful point about the question that could be asked to the commissioners. She will remember that at our recent meeting, she made the perfectly reasonable point that she wished to ask questions of the commissioners. I asked her to send me her question on the interpretation of the advice, and said that I would be happy to put it to the First Civil Service Commissioner. I have not received that question, but my offer still stands. If she or any of the hon. Members who were at that meeting wish to send me the question that they would like to ask the Civil Service Commission, I would be more than happy to ask it.
Mrs Ellman: I have written to the Minister recently on the legality of the situation. Those matters should be addressed to the commissioners. However, he previously remarked that he would not have had access to information given under the previous Administration. I would be most surprised if the civil service does not make all information available to Ministers, including information that existed under previous Administrations. This not a party matter, and surely the civil service deals with all information regardless of who is in government.
Damian Green: Of course this is not a party matter, but Governments do not have access to the papers of previous Governments—that is a long-standing rule. Let us not go into the constitutional niceties, though. It is a fact that I have not seen this e-mail that the hon. Lady mentioned. If she wishes to send it to me or hand it to me at the end of the debate, I will happily take it away and look at it. She will be aware that the IPS has offered its sincere regrets to the individuals involved, and I can only add my apologies for the distress that resulted from this operational error, which, as she said, took place under a previous Administration. The IPS has clearly apologised.
Steve Rotheram: I accept that this problem was not of the Minister’s making, but it is a problem for him to act on. It is not good enough to hide behind the legalities and legal niceties. It is a unique set of circumstances, and I do not believe that reinstating these 14 people from the passport office would set an undue precedent. Even before the tribunal sits, he should use his powers to right this wrong.
Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman invites me to take a legal decision, but a legal process is in action under the tribunal, and what he calls hiding behind legal niceties I would call obeying the law, which it is a good idea for Ministers to do.
Mr George Howarth:
The Minister will know that, while a tribunal is pending, it is open to any employer to review the situation, decide that it is not worth proceeding to a tribunal and try to rectify the situation by their own actions. If he wanted to be bold, he could overrule what his officials are telling him and say, “Look, there is a moral case here.” It has been put effectively by my hon.
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Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and in the light of what she said, I think that we should resolve this situation before the tribunal.
The hon. Lady made a number of other legal points. As she will be aware, the civil service rules do not permit exceptions to enable permanent appointment under this type of system, although they can enable the extension of fixed-term contracts up to a maximum period of two years. She mentioned the letter from Paul Luffman, which was indeed a draft letter that was never sent. It was not sent to the commissioners because the Home Office human resources team were dealing directly with the commissioners, not the IPS.
I want to put on record what happened. The core of the problem sits with an error made by the Liverpool passport office in September 2008 in preparation for the peak demand period starting in March 2009. At that time, the Liverpool office ran a recruitment exercise using friends and families as a candidate-attraction method. The IPS issues more than 5 million passports each year and demand is subject to seasonal peaks. It manages the seasonal variations through the use of flexible employee deployment and through a variety of employee contracts. These contracts include full-time, part-time and part-year appointments and will occasionally include the appointment of staff on fixed-term or casual contracts.
For a number of years, the IPS has, in areas of the country where there are challenges for the permanent recruitment and retention of lower graded staff, used a localised process for the recruitment of fixed-term appointment or casual staff. In this case, short-term opportunities were advertised through the existing network of IPS staff. The recruitment process is closed, which means that the job opportunities are not advertised publicly and therefore other potential candidates are not given access to information about the opportunities available. However, those candidates given the information are selected fairly and are required to demonstrate appropriate levels of competence and behaviours through an application and interview. They are also subject to normal referencing procedures.
Posts advertised under the friends and family scheme should be clearly described as either casual or fixed-term appointments. By definition, friends and family schemes are not fair and open campaigns and, under the civil service Order in Council, cannot result in a permanent appointment to the civil service. Posts advertised and appointed in this way can result only in fixed-term or casual appointments for a maximum of two years. IPS works to defined policies for deploying and recruiting staff. Since 2005, the management and administration of IPS recruitment has been overseen by the IPS central resourcing team in human resources at its headquarters in London. The error made by Liverpool passport office in 2008 and 2009 was that it employed those 14 staff on a permanent basis. The recruitment had not been authorised by IPS’s head of resourcing and the Liverpool office had not described the scheme as falling under the friends and family provisions. This resulted in a list of candidates being subsequently employed on permanent civil service contracts by mistake.
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In March 2010, the IPS central resourcing team carried out a routine audit of IPS external recruitment. The audit identified concern about the friends and family recruitment scheme that was adopted at the Liverpool office in 2008 to employ staff in 2009. The concern primarily arose from the fact that staff had been permanently recruited without any open competition or advertisement of the vacancies. IPS considered that the civil service Order in Council had been contravened on the grounds that permanent contracts had been agreed through a process that was not subject to open competition. In view of the contravention, IPS looked to withdraw the permanent contracts and place the individuals involved on fixed-term contracts.
The following month, April 2010, IPS notified the civil service commissioners that a total of 14 permanent contracts were being withdrawn and replaced by fixed-term appointments of under two years. However, that action was not taken immediately. Instead, IPS explored whether alternative approaches existed that could alleviate the potential impact on the staff employed. That process was protracted but IPS was unable to find new evidence to support any other approach. It was not until February 2011 that the final decision was taken to cease the permanent contracts. Having reached that decision, IPS briefed the local senior management team and national trade union representatives from the Public and Commercial Services Union. The PCS local branch was briefed on 16 March 2011 to allow employee representatives time to prepare and consider an appropriate response. On 21 March 2011, the decision to dismiss the affected staff was carried out. The 14 staff affected, still in employment, had their permanent employment contracts terminated immediately and four of those staff, who had already completed two years’ service, by exception were offered a five-week paid notice period. The remaining 10 staff were offered and accepted fixed-term contracts of up to two years, including time already served. Of those 10 fixed-term contracts, three were scheduled to end on 14 June 2011, two on 31 August 2011 and five on 30 September 2011.
Stephen Twigg: The Minister has just described the sequence of events. Does he agree that one of the most disturbing features of this saga is that the problem was identified almost a year before the directly affected employees were informed? Would it not, with the benefit of hindsight, have been a great deal fairer for the employees concerned to have been advised that there might be an issue as soon as it came to light? Frankly, the situation in terms of finding other jobs, especially in the public sector, was a lot rosier in April 2010 than it is now.
Damian Green: As I have just said, the reason for the delay was precisely because the IPS management were searching desperately for ways to avoid where we have come to. It was done with the best of intentions, but I appreciate the power of the hon. Gentleman’s argument.
So far, four staff have elected to leave before their scheduled end date and four are still in post. Six of the staff who have left have found jobs elsewhere. Discussions with individual staff about potential compensation payments commenced in the week starting 20 June 2011. That is one of the matters that was discussed
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when I met hon. Members a few weeks ago. Those discussions remain under way and it is hoped that agreement about a suitable level of compensation can be reached. Those discussions will continue ahead of the tribunal hearing of 30 September.
At my meeting on 8 June with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and others, the question was raised of whether the people affected would be guaranteed an interview if any new recruitment was planned at the Liverpool office. IPS is unable, for legal reasons, to offer a guaranteed interview. However, it is open for the people involved to apply for posts under any future recruitment campaigns, and their experience of the work and the skills and competencies would be taken into account as relevant factors in considering any application.
A detailed review of what has happened and the lessons to be learned was immediately commissioned and reported in April 2011. The review has been shared with the staff, the unions, the hon. Lady and other interested Members. It is of course a matter for the individual staff concerned to take the matter further. As I said, six of them have submitted employment tribunal papers. It may well be that others choose to follow that approach. That is for them to decide, but it is important for me to acknowledge here that the people involved did a good job for IPS. We should make it clear that they were not asked to leave because they were inefficient or were unable to their job. We should also make it clear that IPS is engaging with all the people involved to determine whether we can reach an equitable settlement that will bring the matter to an earlier conclusion and reduce any further impact on those involved.
As I said at the outset, this matter arose due to an unfortunate error in 2008 at the Liverpool passport office. The review, which reported earlier this year, identified that a number of practical improvements have been implemented. A key change is that the recruitment of any staff is subject to central processing, which means that although local interviews and managing of the process take place, it will be a matter for the IPS central resourcing team formally to agree and approve any new appointments and the recruitment methodology to support them. Staff cannot be put on the payroll without that process having been completed. That is a key processing change and, as part of the next generation of human resources expertise in IPS, it will allow access to the right level of expertise, ensure that the right governance arrangements are in place and ensure that decisions are legally compliant. That has now been in place for over a year.
IPS has admitted that it failed to complete the right processes in 2008 and 2009, and it has taken steps to recover the situation. I appreciate that 14 people consider, rightly, that they have been disadvantaged in the whole process, but I can only emphasise again that the cancellation of their contracts is not a reflection of their ability or their contribution. Human resource services across government have to meet exacting standards and while IPS’s actions in this case have clearly had a serious detrimental impact on the individuals involved, I believe that it was an isolated error and that IPS has taken the right steps to avoid the situation being repeated.
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Members who are, perfectly rightly, concerned about their constituents and who have engaged on the issue to ensure that we can bring the matter to as speedy a conclusion as possible, not least and most importantly for the benefit of their constituents.
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