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6 Mar 2007 : Column 1381

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that although the verifiers of signature and date of birth are probably about right as guarantees, there is a concern that many people who genuinely need a postal vote may not fill in the forms that have been provided because it is another form and they do not like bureaucracy, or they simply do not get round to it? Will she therefore commend the electoral registration officer in Sheffield, who has not merely sent out one form, but has sent a second form as a reminder to those who have not returned the first one? Will she encourage all registration officers to do that, and even to go beyond that and send out a third and fourth form, if necessary, to ensure that people who need a postal vote do not lose out?

Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. It is good to see that electoral registration officers are being proactive in encouraging people not just to register—the register has gone up this year by some 500,000 or thereabouts—but to take part in postal voting, particularly where people were used to being on the postal vote register in the past. We have had to start with a clean new register and I hope other electoral returning officers will follow Sheffield’s example.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Given that a staggering one in seven postal votes in last year’s local elections in Tower Hamlets may have been fraudulent, does the Minister support Sir Alistair Graham’s call for the Government to abandon next May’s internet and telephone voting trials? Are not Ministers ignoring one hard truth: once ballot papers are allowed to leave polling stations, the opportunities for fraud multiply and the secrecy of the ballot is compromised? Is it any wonder that the Council of Europe, better known for investigating elections in Belarus and Albania, is threatening to send monitors to the UK?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is usually such a charming man. I can see that he was having difficulty trying to manufacture anger in his question. May I say two things to him? No, I do not agree with Sir Alistair Graham that we should stop doing pilots. The whole point of piloting is to ensure that we get the system right. Secondly, I am disappointed that the Council of Europe motion, concocted mostly by some of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, took no account of the action that we had already taken and the strengthening of the security of postal voting that is in place.

Community Courts (Nottingham)

21. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What progress has been achieved in locating community courts in Nottingham; and if she will make a statement. [125133]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): Community court sittings dealing with cases from the Aspley and St. Ann’s areas of Nottingham will commence within a community building when the right building is found.

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Mr. Allen: I welcome again the Government’s community court initiative on reuniting communities and the justice system that is meant to serve them. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet senior judiciary to clarify a couple of matters: first, communities’ involvement in the possible appointment of judges in community courts; and secondly, relaxation of the very stringent accommodation criteria that are necessary for magistrates courts so that they can be located in the neighbourhoods that they are intended to serve?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing commitment to ensuring that there is effective community justice in his area of Nottingham. It is absolutely right that everybody involved in the justice system has to do things slightly differently if that connection between the community and their local court is to be re-established. That means looking again at the criteria for the kinds of buildings that could be used as courts, and it raises the question of how the local judiciary could be chosen. One of the strongest points in favour of the Liverpool community justice centre was that community representatives from local tenants associations had the opportunity to be part of choosing the judge, David Fletcher, whom they now regard as their judge for their local community.


22. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What the average (a) waiting time for and (b) duration of an inquest was in the last period for which figures are available. [125134]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The average time from the date of death to the conclusion of the inquest is estimated to be 23 weeks. That is based on the information returned by coroners for 2005. Information about the duration of inquest hearings is not recorded separately.

Chris Bryant: That is a bit of a shame, because it often takes a very long time for an inquest to be heard. Families who are grieving and want closure on the situation that they have had to face find that very difficult. In places where there are logjams, such as Oxfordshire, would not it make more sense if some cases were not dealt with by the Oxfordshire coroner just because they have come through Brize Norton, but went through the individual areas where people come from?

Ms Harman: When I said that information is not centrally recorded, I was talking about the duration of each inquest—how long each one takes to hear. We do keep information about the average time that it takes from the death to get to the hearing.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about needing greater flexibility so that various coroners can help other coroners who have built up a backlog of inquests. That is particularly so in the context of inquests into armed forces deaths that are encountering delays in Oxfordshire. We are trying to sort out the situation as best we can within the current legal framework, which is very rigid and archaic. The coroners reform in our forthcoming Bill will make that much easier to do.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will the Minister give an undertaking that in future there will not have to be a nearly 10-year delay for an inquest as important as that into the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and delays of years for people killed in the service of their country, costing a fortune, as she knows? Can we have a guarantee that there will be a limit to the time that it takes for an inquest to be opened and the answers given?

Ms Harman: One problem is that each coroner’s jurisdiction is entirely self-contained. There are no central performance standards, there is no central monitoring,
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and there is no chief coroner to provide leadership such as the Lord Chief Justice provides to judges. As a result, while some areas are conducting inquests very promptly, in others there are delays that nobody in this House would regard as acceptable. We will be able to deal with that when we have our legislation on coroners. However, we are not simply waiting until that happens—we are trying to ensure that we get a much better picture of where the delays are and that we work with our colleagues in local government to ensure that there are no such delays. I think that the inquest into the death of Princess Diana was unprecedented; certainly, the length of time taken has been exceptional.

6 Mar 2007 : Column 1385

bill presented

Retail Packaging Recycling

Andrew Stunell, supported by Chris Huhne, Martin Horwood, David Howarth, Norman Baker, Tom Brake and Mr. Dan Rogerson, presented a Bill to require that certain retailers shall provide free of charge a collection point for any packaging materials sold or supplied by them; and to require them to recycle or safely dispose of such materials: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed. [Bill 71].

6 Mar 2007 : Column 1386

Private Parking (Regulation) Bill

3.34 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I beg to move,

I want to make it clear from the outset that people who provide private parking spaces on their land should be able to protect them. Many businesses are affected by people who park vehicles on their land and create problems. Pubs, shops and businesses in town centres want to ensure that their customers can park, and we need to make sure that they have the right to do that. It is important for businesses to protect their parking spaces for their customers and employees.

Many organisations use private security companies to enforce parking regulations on their land. The Private Security Industry Act 2001 provides for the regulation of such matters. It also provides for the security industry authority to license organisations that undertake immobilising and clamping activity in private car parks.

In addition to holding a valid security industry authority licence, vehicle immobilisers must observe specific requirements. First, a vehicle must not be clamped, blocked or towed if it displays a valid disabled badge or if it is a marked as an emergency services vehicle that is in use as such. Secondly, any licence holder who collects a release fee must provide a receipt, which must include: the location of the clamping or towing; the name and signature of the person who clamped the vehicle; the licence number of the organisation that carried out the clamping, and the date on which it happened. The immobiliser must wear a licence. Those who work without a licence commit a criminal offence, which is punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £5,000, six months’ imprisonment or both.

The problem is that there is no clarity about the sort of signage that private clamping companies have to provide on sites before clamping is undertaken. There is no standard process. The fees are also a problem. The legislation simply states that fees should be “reasonable”. That causes several difficulties.

The BBC in the midlands has recently undertaken some work in Birmingham to examine the operation of private clamping in the city. It got a woman driver to park a vehicle on a privately owned space and leave the scene. Almost immediately, the clampers from a private company emerged and began to tow away the vehicle. The woman returned to be told that she had to pay hundreds of pounds in cash to the company to release the vehicle and that she would be escorted to a cash machine to make the payment. When she said that she could not pay, she was left to make her own way home alone late at night. The company’s behaviour was clearly unacceptable. However, people will pay almost anything to get their car released.

My constituent, Paul Watling from Telford, was also caught out on an area of land in Birmingham. He fully acknowledged that he was parking in a private space. However, the signage on the site was poor and he had to pay £350 to get his car released from clamping. He
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was virtually frogmarched to the cash machine by some fairly aggressive and intimidating clamping agents.

The Bill proposes that clamping companies must inform the local authority in their area of activity of the scope, style and location of signs to be used on private land. I am trying to drive towards some standardisation of the signage in local authority areas. The Bill also proposes giving the local authority the power to set a range in which penalty fees should be set. Clearly, that may vary between different towns and cities, depending on the market and the scarcity of parking spaces. I believe that the decision should be made locally by the local authority. However, we should consider setting a maximum amount for such fees—£350 in cash is extortionate.

The second element of the Bill concerns the provision of disabled parking spaces on private land. The Department for Transport provides advice on the provision of spaces for disabled drivers. The Disability Discrimination Act requires service providers to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people can enjoy services. Department for Transport leaflet 5/95 suggests:

Most disabled persons’ parking bays in off-street car parks, such as supermarket car parks, are not covered by blue badge scheme regulations. Such car parks and parking bays are likely to be privately owned and managed by the individual business: the agreement, and any cost to use them, will be between the owner and the motorist or customer.

If a disabled motorist or passenger complains to, for example, a supermarket that a non-disabled motorist has parked in a disabled bay, an employee of the store can ask the driver to move their car but cannot legally insist on it. In some instances, the owners of private car parks are reluctant to take action against people, because they think that it is bad for business. In my view, not providing bays for people with disabilities and mobility problems is bad for business. One of the problems is that spaces tend to be close to the store and people feel that they can park briefly in one of those
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spaces when they use a cash machine or pick up friends or family who have been shopping. Such behaviour is not acceptable.

A number of surveys have been conducted on the use and abuse of disabled parking bays in recent years. In 2005, a survey carried out by Baywatch found that one in five bays were being abused on supermarket sites. The Bill would require all owners of private car parks with disabled parking bays to have a clear written strategy on enforcement, which is available to the public on request. It would also require owners to submit an annual report on their enforcement activity to the local authority and the Disability Rights Commission or its successor bodies.

I have considered proposals to extend the blue badge scheme on to private land and, for example, supermarket car parks. My main concern about an extension of that scheme is that many authorities already find it difficult to enforce the provision on public car parks. The Bill does not therefore include such proposals. Supermarkets and other car park owners who provide disabled places are, however, drinking in the last chance saloon: they need to act more effectively, or we will have to bring in more draconian legislation.

In closing, may I thank Douglas Campbell, chairman of Mobilise, and John Pring of Disability Now for their help on this issue? I also thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), whose support for the Bill has been especially helpful. I am conscious that the House is fairly full this afternoon. To ensure that the next speaker can make his points, perhaps Members will leave the Chamber quietly once they have listened to the presentation of my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by David Wright, John Mann, Mr. Iain Wright, Mr. Dai Havard, Chris Mole, Mike Penning, Philip Davies, Mr. Robert Flello, Martin Salter, Helen Jones and Ann Coffey.

Private Parking (regulation)

David Wright accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision about penalties relating to parking on private land; to make provision about compliance with notices concerning parking for disabled people on private land; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 72].

6 Mar 2007 : Column 1389

Speaker’s Statement

3.44 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have a statement to make relating to the main business.

In the debate on House of Lords reform, I have selected amendment (c) to the motion on hereditary places.

For the benefit of the House, I will set out the procedure to be followed at the end of the debate tomorrow. Under the Order of the House of 27 February, at 5.30 pm tomorrow I shall put the Question on the first motion, on retention of a bicameral Parliament. Thereafter, the Questions will be put successively on each of the remaining motions until the last. On that motion, on hereditary places, as I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, I shall put the Question on that amendment first. I shall then put the Question on the main Question in the usual way.

I also inform the House that I have decided to apply a 10-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches on both days of the debate. When the opening speeches have been made, in the exceptional circumstances of this debate I am prepared to give an indication to those wishing to speak of whether they will be called today or tomorrow. I do not expect any Member to approach the Chair before the opening speeches have concluded: Members will have to listen to all three. [Interruption.] I must always give Members fair warning when it comes to these matters.

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House of Lords Reform

3.46 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker: With this we may take the following motions: Options for Reform of Composition: No.1—

Options for Reform of Composition: No.2—

Options for Reform of Composition: No.3—

Options for Reform of Composition: No.4—

Options for Reform of Composition: No.5

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