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I strongly welcome the fact that tenants can access the Warm Front scheme in England and the equivalent schemes in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, that applies only to tenants who directly qualify for such assistance. I also welcome the fact that local authorities have power under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (England) Regulations 2005 to class as a hazard the very worst-insulated properties and to take specific action. However, that happens only in the very worst properties and not, alas, those that are bad, but not so bad as to attract the attention of local authorities.
The "English House Condition Survey 2007" contains some startling statistics. In the jargon-which I am afraid is what this is-of the standard assessment procedure, the efficiency of property insulation is measured on an index from nought to 100, with 100 being excellent. The 2007 survey shows that the value of the housing stock in England increased from 42 in 1996, which was poor, to 50 in 2007, which is in the okay region of operation. That real improvement is because of Government publicity and the activities of social landlords and owner-occupiers.
Social landlords do the best in the survey-spectacularly. Their score on the index is 58, which is a good performance. Alas, for both owner-occupiers and private tenants, the score is still only 48, which is below what we regard as acceptable, and owner-occupiers still have a long way to go. However, there is a significant difference between owner-occupiers and private tenants, namely that the private rented sector, ironically, has a far higher proportion of very well insulated properties. Some 10 per cent. of private tenancies are in the very good category, whereas only 4 per cent. of owner-occupiers are. At the same time, although only 10 per cent. of owner-occupiers are in the worst categories, some 16 per cent. of private tenants are in conditions in which excess cold is threatening to their health. Some 400,000 people are in such private tenancies, of which 124,000 are described as vulnerable people-either the elderly or people who have sickness or disability problems that make them especially vulnerable to extreme cold.
The time has come when we need legislation to move things forward and to incentivise landlords, and sometimes to offer the stick as well as the carrot. The Bill therefore seeks to do a number of things. It seeks to introduce a
minimum thermal efficiency standard, which will say at the beginning that the very worst properties should no longer be in the private rented sector. That standard should progressively move up through the thermal efficiency ratings, so that landlords know that they have an incentive-the stick-to ensure that their properties are improved.
The Bill also seeks to make it illegal to put a property on the private rented market if it can be improved at reasonable cost, even if it is already above the legal minimum as defined elsewhere in the Bill. That says to landlords that if cavity wall insulation, for example, which is relatively cheap in the scheme of things, can be used, it ought to be used. Landlords should be progressively forced to make such improvements. However, we also need the Government to look at incentivising landlords, as well as providing a stick. While it is not part of this Bill, I hope that we will see an extension of the existing scheme to give landlords an incentive to invest in the insulation of their properties by way of grants. We should also consider whether it is possible to reduce value added tax for energy-saving improvements to property.
Many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens live in homes that are badly heated. Most of those homes are not simply badly heated because people cannot afford to heat them-although that may well be a significant part of the equation-but because the insulation is grossly inadequate for the purposes of modern living. It is in that light that the Bill is timely, because it will draw the attention of private landlords, their tenants and other agencies to the need to bring those standards up for environmental reasons, for the financial benefit of tenants and, in the end, for reasons of social welfare and health. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.
That the Seventh Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (House of Commons Paper No. 371) be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights met on 9 February to discuss a draft report on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It emerged at the start of the meeting that Trevor Phillips, the chair of the EHRC, had recently spoken to at least three members of the Committee about its consideration of the draft report and the publication of written evidence with the report. In our view, these discussions could constitute a contempt of both Houses in that they may have been an attempt to influence the views of certain members of the Committee shortly before it considered a draft report directly relevant to Mr. Phillips in his role as chair of the commission. We therefore recommended that the matter should be subject to investigation by the privileges Committees of both Houses, and so I ask the House to refer the matter in accordance with my motion.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am a recently appointed member of the Committee that has referred this matter to the House for referral to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. As the subject of one of the telephone calls referred to by the Chairman of the Committee and-as far as I am aware-the only Member of this House who received such a telephone call, I felt that I should make my view on this matter clear. It is right that I tell the House that I do not believe that Mr. Phillips has acted in contempt. He wanted to discuss whether the proposed report would be fair because he believed-rightly, as it turned out-that parts of the evidence that the Committee received would be redacted in the final report. I do not know how he knew this, and I did not ask him how he knew this.
The point of privilege is to ensure that Members of Parliament are free to say what they wish, and I wish to assure the House that there was nothing improper in the call or any attempt to interfere with my ability to say what I wished.
Fiona Mactaggart: Yes, I used his first name. That is usual when having a conversation with someone. For example, were I talking to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I would not call him the hon. Member for something, and nor would I call him by his surname-I would call him George. [Hon. Members: "Sir George!"] I would actually call him George, not Sir George.
I raise this point, because I am concerned about the lack of fair process in how the Committee's inquiry was conducted. I was shocked, as a newly appointed Committee member, to discover that this inquiry-the Select Committee's first inquiry into the work of the EHRC since its inception-had no terms of reference. Its only call for evidence was a notice reporting evidence from a group of commissioners who had resigned and inviting short statements in advance of evidence from Trevor
Phillips as chair of the organisation. I was able to attend only one evidence session, and I must say that it was more like a show trial of an individual than an inquiry into the work of an organisation.
I was not surprised, therefore, to receive a note from Trevor Phillips, following our telephone call, suggesting that if, as he feared, the report contained inaccuracies and unfair criticism, he would be within his rights to ask that the allegations be made without the cloak of parliamentary privilege. I think that he is right, although, given that the final report has not been drafted, I do not know whether it will be either unfair or inaccurate, and I will do my best, as a member of the Committee, to ensure that neither is the case. I believe, however, that the Standards and Privileges Committee should, as well as considering the report of the allegation of contempt by Trevor Phillips, also ask to see how the Joint Committee on Human Rights worked and consider carefully whether it operated in a way that was proper.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I say gently to the hon. Lady that we must not go down that route, and it would help our proceedings were she to withdraw her last sentence. She can then get on to-or back to-the terrain where she and the House were very safe.
The overuse of the concept of privilege risks undermining it as an important concept providing a vital freedom for Members of Parliament to say what they need without interference from the courts. If we are to preserve this vital concept, we need to use it well and sparingly, as was advised by the 1966 Select Committee on privileges. To imply that Members of Parliament might be inhibited in their work by a telephone call by someone whose career might be put at stake by a report that they are considering is, in my view, a misuse of this valuable concept.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I shall not detain the House for long, but this debate raises an important issue. I do not wish to trespass on the investigations to follow shortly from the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I believe that the whole House is in your debt, Sir, for giving this business priority today. The issue of privilege is tremendously important for every Member of the House.
I am glad that the Leader of the House is here-her presence is one of the reasons that I have risen to speak. In 1997, knowing that the issue needed contemporary examination, the Government very wisely set up a Joint Committee of both Houses, presided over by a Law Lord. I had the great good fortune to be asked to sit on the Committee, and a former Leader of the House-now Baroness Taylor-also sat on it. We went into the whole area of privilege in great detail, taking evidence from witnesses not only from this country but from abroad.
We deliberated long and carefully, and we produced a unanimous report that was widely welcomed both inside and outside the House. Again without wishing to trespass
on any current issue or possible current issue, let me say that it was important to establish whether we should retain the whole idea of privilege. Our Committee was unanimous that we should retain it, as a vital protection for each and every one of us, and at any time. Having reported to the House and received a favourable response from the Dispatch Box, we hoped very much that our recommendation that there should be legislation on the law of privilege would be accepted and that a proper statute would be laid before the House before too long.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the overwhelming majority of Members use that privilege responsibly? There is a vanishingly small number of occasions on which that privilege has been abused, either for personal interest, or on the basis of vendetta or gossip.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Our Committee indeed felt that, on the whole, privilege had been used properly, as it should have been. Nevertheless, we thought that something going back over 300 years deserved a new statute, and we recommended this. The Government responded perfectly favourably. The Opposition also responded favourably, but since then nothing has happened. The report is on the shelves gathering dust. As this Parliament ebbs towards its close, I hope that whoever is the Leader of the House after 6 May or whenever-that is, whoever is in the driving seat as far as Government business is concerned-will persuade the Prime Minister of the day that such legislation deserves priority in the new Parliament.
I shall leave it at that, Mr. Speaker. You have helped us today by giving us the opportunity to have this brief debate, from which I hope will flow a speedy investigation by the Committee to which the matter has been referred. However, I also hope that the wider issue of privilege will not be forgotten, and that we shall have a pledge in the first Queen's Speech of the new Parliament to legislate on the matter.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con):
I intervene very briefly in this debate to echo the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) has just made. There is one thing that worries me about the process, because I can think
of nothing more damaging to the reputation of an individual than to have a paper laid before this House with the words "Allegation of Contempt" on it.
I take privilege very seriously, but like many Members I am not sure what it is about, what its ramifications or wider reaches are, or how it impacts on witnesses or those who take part in Select Committee proceedings. I am nervous about this case, in that there is no notification to witnesses or participants who come forward to assist a Committee in its deliberations that they might be at risk of offending against the privilege of the House by taking the actions that, in this case, Mr. Phillips took. That is my caveat about this case. We are talking about a very censorious process, if the participant or the affected witness is unaware of what privilege amounts to in such cases.
Mr. Speaker: Sorry, the reason for the hesitation was that I had the distinct impression that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who has already made his case, was seeking to say something further. He might have been doing so, but I am not aware that there is provision for such; in fact, I was fairly convinced that there was not, and I am reinforced in that conviction by those who know. I therefore hope that the House will rest content.
Mr. Dismore: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wanted to respond to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), by simply pointing out that she was a very new member of the Committee and had not participated in most of the inquiry. Her views might therefore have been somewhat clouded by the fact that she had not heard most of the evidence at first hand, as we had.
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member-to be precise, we came into the House together in May 1997-and he is therefore very well aware that that does not constitute a point of order. However, it was an interesting point of debate and he has registered his views firmly on the record.
'(1) In Part 10 of ASCLA 2009 (schools), Chapter 2 (complaints: England) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 207 (power of Local Commissioner to investigate complaint), in subsection (5)(b) (power not to investigate vexatious complaint), before "vexatious" there is inserted "frivolous or".
(3) In section 216 (law of defamation)-
Mr. Coaker: I welcome Members across the House back to our deliberations on this important Bill. I hope that Opposition Members will recognise that elements of the amendments are a result of our discussions in Committee, and that I have reflected on the points that were made and come back with what I hope are helpful proposals.
As I have said, the new clause and the amendment arise from the debates in Committee. We have listened carefully to hon. Members, and are therefore proposing these important changes, which are designed to clarify the local government ombudsman's role as a provider of redress for the pupil and parent guarantees. New clause 17 will amend the parental complaints system that will form part of the redress for parents and pupils alleging a breach of the guarantees.
During our debate in Committee, many Members raised concerns that from time to time, complaints relating to a school that could serve only to absorb unduly the time and attention of a head teacher and governing body, with no real potential for a beneficial outcome, might be made to the local government ombudsman. In Committee, I provided the assurance that section 207(5)(b) of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009-the ASCL Act-is already framed so that the ombudsman may decide not to investigate a complaint, or to discontinue it, if he believes that the complaint is vexatious. He will have this discretion with any complaint, including those made in relation to the pupil and parent guarantees.
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