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The Prime Minister: Obviously I respect the hon. Gentleman’s view, but it seems to me that if we will the end, we should also will the means to that end. We should never overestimate Britain’s size or capabilities, but neither should we underestimate them. We have one of the finest armed services in the world. We are one of the world’s leading military powers, and we also have huge strength in diplomacy, soft power and development. We should not play a disproportionate part, but I think that we should play a proportionate part alongside allies such as France, America and the Arab world. To say that we should pass such a resolution but then just stand back and hope that someone, somewhere in the Arab world will bring it about is profoundly wrong.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I too commend the Prime Minister’s statement, and his courage and leadership. The Prime Minister will be aware of the significant position of Cyprus in the region, not least because of its sovereign bases. Does he anticipate the use of those bases in the implementation of the no-fly zone, and has that been agreed with the Government of Cyprus?

The Prime Minister: I do not want to go into too much detail about deployments. However, perhaps I could use this opportunity to make the point to those who have expressed concern about aircraft carriers that if we undergo operations in the southern Mediterranean to provide a no-fly zone and to carry out all necessary measures, the fact that there are so many friendly countries and members of NATO, such as France and Italy, means that there are plenty of opportunities for the basing of aircraft to ensure that we can deliver the effect that is needed.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I join colleagues in congratulating the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on their success. I think that this is a tremendous outcome. Of course, those of us in Northern Ireland will shed no tears over Mr Gaddafi, especially given his role over the years in supplying weapons to butcher British citizens on the streets of Northern Ireland. Is the Prime Minister in a position to give us an update, as was mentioned earlier in the debate, on whether the Red Cross will be active on the ground?

The Prime Minister: First, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that people in Northern Ireland have every right to remember the hurt and pain that they were caused by Gaddafi’s funding of the IRA—a wrong that has still not been properly righted. On the issue of the Red Cross, I will ask the International Development Secretary to contact the hon. Gentleman separately to make clear the position.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I too congratulate the Prime Minister. Just yesterday, I voiced my concern that inertia could lead to our generation’s Rwanda. I am glad that he, along with others, has secured agreement to this resolution. I am sure that that was helped by the chilling words that Colonel Gaddafi issued in his radio interview. He has also mentioned attacks on civilian aircraft. Has the Security Council been able to assess that threat? Is it just the empty hot air of a tyrant who knows that his days in power are numbered?

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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to what Gaddafi has said. He has said chilling words about what he plans to do to his own country and people, and he must be stopped. I too heard the reported remarks about civilian aircraft. Be in no doubt that, even aside from a UN Security Council resolution, every country has the right under international law to self-defence—a right that could be exercised in full.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that the merit of the operation to liberate Kuwait in 1991 was that it was finite and established order, and that the disaster of the war in Iraq in 2003 was that after it was won, efforts were made by outsiders to install a Government, which resulted in chaos and terrorism? Will he assure the House that those lessons have been learned?

The Prime Minister: I absolutely give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. It seems to me that we have to learn both the lessons of Iraq, by proceeding with the maximum Arab support and being very clear that there will be no army of occupation, and the lessons of Bosnia and not stand aside and witness a slaughter. It falls to Cabinets and Governments at this time, though, to recognise that no two situations are exactly alike. This is not Iraq; it is not Bosnia; it is not Lebanon; it is unique and different. We have to respond to it and use the right judgment to try to get our response correct. That is what this Government are determined to do, and as I have said, we are determined to take as many people with us as possible.

Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): May I thank the Prime Minister for his singular service over the past few weeks? Will he join me in paying tribute to those who will render an even greater service—the young men and women on whose skills, training and courage we will rely, as we have so often in our past?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. It is not the people who make the decisions who have the difficult choices and the difficult path ahead; it is those who have to carry out those decisions. We should be incredibly proud of our armed forces, of their professionalism, courage and dedication and of their ability to take on a task such as this and pursue it with such vigour. It is inspiring to see it happen. We should never take them for granted or ask them to do tasks that they cannot complete, but I have full confidence that they will perform magnificently, as they always do.

Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): May I add my voice to those of many other Members in congratulating the Prime Minister on what he has achieved, especially in the context of a coalition Government?

Can the Prime Minister give the House a sense of how long he expects the military engagement that we are about to embark on to last?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend refers to the coalition Government, and let me put on record what strong support I and the Foreign Secretary have had from Members from right across the coalition and right across the House of Commons. Ministers from both parties have been involved in the lobbying effort with other countries, and they have done an extremely good job.

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I do not want to go into too much detail about what could happen if Gaddafi does not do what is set out in the UN Security Council resolution, but as I have said, it is important that action would follow relatively rapidly. Obviously we want to do what is necessary to ensure that the terms of it are met.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I echo the congratulations from throughout the House to my right hon. Friends for the courage that they have demonstrated during the past week?

One difficulty that the last Administration had in relation to the war in Iraq was a general belief in the country that the war was not legal. I therefore welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurances that the legal advice will be published in summary. In order that there can be confidence across the country in the legality of the action that the Government are taking, that advice needs to be as full as possible. It also needs to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that will be the case, and that we will see the advice as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister: I can promise my hon. and learned Friend that he will see a summary position of the advice before the debate on Monday. I would say that, although I am never one to denigrate lawyers and their important work in any way, if he wants to see the legal basis, it is all there in the UN Security Council resolution. It is the strongest possible statement. I am glad to see the Attorney-General sitting next to me while I make those kind remarks about lawyers. I would very much recommend reading the resolution to see how strong the legal basis is.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): May I thank the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary for showing world leadership in an hour of need? The biggest risk to our national security would have been to do nothing at all. We cannot risk the emergence of another failed state at our southern tip exporting terror and human misery. Now that the UN has agreed on action, will the Prime Minister ensure that the action is swift, powerful and precise, and will he involve the broadest coalition possible, especially our Arab allies?

The Prime Minister: We should do everything that is necessary to bring about the UN Security Council resolution’s conclusions. That is what our aim should be and is what should guide us, and everything we do should be proportionate to that. I say to my hon. Friend that yes, we have made a choice, and it is a choice to play our part in joint international action to enforce international law, to uphold the will of the UN Security Council and to respond to the calls from Arab countries and the Arab League, and also to do the right thing for the people of Libya, who want greater freedoms, and above all, I think, for the UK’s national interest as well.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): One of the difficult things about no-fly zones is setting them up in the first place by taking out the air defence assets of the country involved, especially if they are deployed in

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areas of civilian population. What lessons have been learned from experience in Iraq and Bosnia about how best to do that?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our military have been involved in several no-fly zones over many years, and considerable lessons have therefore been learned. I do not pretend for one minute that it is easy. Indeed, I have never said that a no-fly zone is either easy to establish or the whole answer to bringing the appalling conflict by Gaddafi against his people to an end. However, it is one element of what is necessary to turn the pressure up further, and say that what we are seeing is simply not right.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): The Prime Minister has informed the House that we are preparing to deploy Tornadoes and Typhoons to relevant air bases. Would it assist if HMS Ark Royal was also deployed in the Mediterranean with a Harrier strike force? Will he bolster our position by reconsidering the decision to decommission those forces before it is too late?

The Prime Minister: It is not necessary, to carry out the operations that we are considering, to have an aircraft carrier. Indeed, other counties have not moved aircraft carriers to the area and the reason is in an answer I gave earlier. In that part of the world in particular, several bases are available to provide the basing to carry out the required operations. It is extremely important to bear that in mind.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the Prime Minister on obtaining the international, legal humanitarian intervention in Libya. May I ask him to clarify the position? Will we join France in recognising the rebels as the alternative Government?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend asks a good question. As he knows, in this country, we recognise countries rather than Governments. What matters is making contact and having communications with the transitional authorities, and speaking to and building a relationship with them. That is the right way to proceed.

Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): May I, too, congratulate the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on leading international opinion on the matter? I also welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments that we do not intervene unless in exceptional circumstances. That is an excellent contrast with the position on Iraq in 2003. This time, we have a positive legal opinion from the Attorney-General and the whole thing has been properly signed off by the United Nations.

The Prime Minister: I just wanted to ensure in the Cabinet meeting this morning that members could read the UN Security Council resolution, the Attorney-General’s legal advice and a draft of my statement. There will be difficult days ahead—these things never go entirely according to plan. There are always problems down the road. It is therefore important that the Cabinet makes a decision, drives it through and does what is necessary to achieve the goal that the whole House supports: the enforcement of the UN Security Council resolution, which will make our world a safer place.

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Business of the House

12.8 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): With permission, I should like to make a short statement following on from the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just made.

The business for the week commencing 21 March will now be:

Monday 21 March—Motion relating to the United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya, followed by motion relating to Members’ salaries.

Tuesday 22 March—Remaining stages of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 23 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 24 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 March will remain the same.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his statement. The House should have an opportunity to debate the resolution that the United Nations passed yesterday evening and above all, its consequences for the people of Libya and, in particular, for the deployment of British forces. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that there will be a substantive motion before the House on Monday and the fact that it will be available later today. It is right that the House should have the chance to debate and vote, as was the case eight years ago today and in 1991, a few days after action began in the Gulf war. Will the Leader of the House assure us—I am sure that it will be the case—that the House will be kept informed of developments, with statements, as appropriate, from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the revised timetable. We plan to table a substantive motion later today that the House will debate on Monday, and to keep the House informed. We had a full day’s debate in Government time yesterday, a substantive statement from the Prime Minister today, and we will have a debate on Monday. I can give the right hon. Gentleman the undertaking he has just sought.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I welcome Monday’s debate. Will my right hon. Friend be able to see his way in weeks to come to organising another debate on the middle east in view of the great interest in yesterday’s middle east debate in the House, and of the fact that events are fast moving, complex and complicated, and that they engage profoundly British interests in many countries other than Libya?

Sir George Young: I think my hon. Friend recognises that we have a good record of keeping the House informed on matters concerning Afghanistan and Iraq, and indeed the middle east and north Africa. I can give him the undertaking that he has just sought. We will keep the House regularly informed, and I hope there will be opportunities to debate the matter again.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity for the debate and the Leader of the House’s commitment to keeping the House regularly informed. That is most welcome—that is what Parliament is for. However, will he assure me that Members will have a facility to table amendments to the motion that is to be tabled later today? Clearly, if the motion is not tabled until, say, 2.30 today, it will be difficult to table an amendment. We will want an opportunity to debate amendments on Monday morning, so will he accept late amendments, and will they be acceptable?

Sir George Young: Whether amendments are acceptable is a matter for you, Mr Speaker, rather than for me. The motion will be like any other substantive motion and will be subject to amendments. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and we will seek to table the motion in good time so that those who wish to table amendments will have the opportunity so to do.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Although it is entirely desirable for the House to express its clear opinion before any military action is taken, will the Leader of the House make it clear that the Government do not consider themselves restrained from taking military action before the motion is carried if it is necessary to do so?

Sir George Young: Yes, that is indeed the position. If my hon. Friend looks at the statement that I made—I think—on 10 March, he will see that it refers to emergency action that might be necessary.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). Having taken the temperature of the House today, it is clear that the Government have more or less the assent that they would broadly need.

It is unusual for us to discuss matters of great import on a Friday morning. We tend to have lengthy, protracted—sometimes deliberately so—debates on private Members’ Bills. Hon. Members have private Members’ Bills tabled for debate on 27 days over the next few months when the House does not intend to sit, 19 of those Bills come from one individual Member, and because of the two-year Session, the last day on which the Government have thus far announced Friday sittings is 17 June. When will the Leader of the House give us the next dates, or preferably change the whole system?

Sir George Young: I anticipate a written ministerial statement before the Easter recess outlining the Fridays on which the House will sit beyond those we have already identified.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): In the light of the earlier exchanges with the Prime Minister, when I asked about the arms embargo and the “notwithstanding” provision of the UN Security Council, will the Leader of the House be kind enough to refer the matter to the Attorney-General, so it can be addressed when the summary of the advice comes out?

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is an extremely experienced Member of the House, having entered in 1984. These substantive matters can, should and will be debated on Monday. This is a narrow business statement.

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Sir George Young: Notwithstanding that, Mr Speaker, I will refer my hon. Friend’s comments to the Attorney-General.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): We welcome the opportunity to debate Libya. The Prime Minister mentioned that the position of British citizens affected in the past by Libyan-sponsored terrorism has not yet been settled. Will the Leader of the House allow time for a debate on that subject?

Sir George Young: It might be appropriate to raise that matter in the debate on Monday; it seems wholly relevant. The right hon. Gentleman may have heard the reply that my right hon. Friend gave, I think, at Prime Minister’s questions last week on the issue of compensation. The Ministry of Justice is considering the matter and hopes to come to a decision very soon.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Although I would have liked the debate to take place tomorrow, given that it will now be on Monday may I ask why we are having any other business on Monday? The debate on Members’ salaries, which now seems completely irrelevant, should be removed, and we should have the maximum amount of time to discuss this very important issue.

Sir George Young: I can assure my hon. Friend that the debate I have just announced will carry on until 10 o’clock, and the motion on Members’ salaries, which is protected business for 90 minutes, will happen after that.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for keeping Members informed about the Libyan situation. Is he aware of any other mechanisms that could be used to keep Members informed, for instance over the critical next 48 hours, because there could be developments and by the time of the debate on Monday much action might already have been taken?

Sir George Young: The House will not be sitting for the next 48 hours, but there are other ways for Ministers to communicate with Members and the public, and I am sure that those avenues will be used if and when necessary.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the Leader of the House and the Government on how they have, through the House, handled the Libyan issue since it started. We have had regular statements, yesterday’s debate, the Prime Minister’s statement today and now the undertaking for a substantive motion on Monday. The Government deserve 10 out of 10 for how they have approached the House of Commons on this issue. However, although the House always benefits from wise counsel, through the good offices of the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, can the House be assured that Monday’s debate will not be dominated by the usual

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suspects, and that many new Members will have a chance to participate, with an appropriate time limit being applied?

Sir George Young: Mr Speaker, you will have heard what I suspect was a concealed bid to be selected to speak on Monday. The matter is entirely in your hands and happily has nothing to do with the Leader of the House.

Mr Speaker: I have of course heard what the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has said, as I always do, and will study it carefully, as he would expect.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Will the Leader of the House not close the debate at 10 o’clock on Monday? This will be one of the most important debates in which I, as a Member of Parliament, could participate, and it is important that, although you, Mr Speaker, may impose a time limit, no Member lack the opportunity to participate in the debate.

Sir George Young: I hear what my hon. Friend says. I would say, however, that we had a whole day’s debate yesterday on Libya and north Africa, and it might well be that Monday is not the last time that we debate these matters. However, I believe that a full day’s debate on Monday is the appropriate decision for the time being.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to follow up the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). Things will move fast. We are entering serious and dangerous waters, and the Leader of the House should not hesitate to seek to recall the House either at weekends or during the recess so that we can debate the matter in detail.

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman is right that there are opportunities for the House to be recalled. A Minister of the Crown can make a request to you, Mr Speaker. That has been done in the past, and will be done in the future as and when necessary.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Yesterday’s debate was not a debate about potentially committing British soldiers to military action, but the debate on Monday will be. I would say that they are substantively different, and I urge him to reconsider her request.

Sir George Young: I hear what my hon. Friend says. I think I am right in saying that the debate on Iraq seven years ago was a one-day debate that ended at the normal time. However, there might be other opportunities to debate the matter later.

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United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill

Proceedings resumed .

12.19 pm

Mr Cash: Having had that ample demonstration of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom—the Prime Minister deserves our congratulations on that statement, given the opposition from within the European Union, for example—I can now resume the previous debate.

As I said, I want to cover a number of practical examples. It would be fair to say that 60% or 70% of all our legislation now comes from the European Union. When Members are debating Bills, there is frequently—almost invariably—no way for them to know whether the legislation emanates from EU law. When I was a member of the Statutory Instruments Committee many years ago, I managed to instigate a system to ensure that legislation emanating from the European Union was denoted by an asterisk to show where it came from. It would be extremely helpful for MPs to have that included in all Bills—for convenience, perhaps it could be in the explanatory notes—because if we are not entitled to legislate inconsistently with European law, MPs should know that. As for the proposals in this Bill and the clause that I suggested might be added to it—we come back to the “notwithstanding” formula, which has been brought up about half a dozen times in the last hour and a half—it is important that people should know the extent to which we are trammelled in our legislation. Indeed, many Acts of Parliament would be better understood by the public at large if they knew where the obligations came from.

That is one practical point. The other practical questions relate to the diversity, magnitude and volume of such legislation. We hear a great deal about better deregulation and attempts within the European Union to regulate better, but the statistics are incredibly bad. There is virtually no deregulation going on in the European Union, despite the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has placed a great deal of faith in renegotiating legislation, some of which has a very damaging effect on our potential for growth. In fact, I have recently quoted Lord Mandelson, who said when he was Trade Commissioner that over-regulation from the European Union amounts to 4% of GDP, and Mr Verheugen has demonstrated that over-regulation costs many billions of pounds. The most recent calculation I have seen is that since 1999 European over-regulation has cost the British economy and British business alone £124 billion. This is absolute madness. We are talking about over-regulation and unnecessary regulation, the manner in which it is passed and whether, on the basis of what the Government say—I would be fascinated to know how the Minister will respond to this—there is any intention whatever of following the precept that the Prime Minister—[ Interruption. ] If I can detach the Minister from his colleague, I would like to draw his attention to a point to which I would like him to respond. [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. It is courteous for Members on the Treasury Bench to pay attention. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is referring directly to Ministers, so it would be a courtesy if they were listening.

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Mr Cash: I am referring directly to the Minister to ask whether he will respond to a specific point made by the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition, in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2005 on the repatriation of powers. He stated that it was imperative to ensure British competitiveness by repatriating social and employment legislation. That has now apparently been directly contradicted by his boss, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has said that we will not take any so-called backward steps by repatriating powers. The measures involved include the working time directive and other matters that are absolutely essential to the growth that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be addressing next week in the Budget.

I know that the Minister has a job to do, and I have no doubt that there are moments when that is somewhat unpalatable, but the bottom line is that we are far more interested in the jobs of the British people than in whether a few lines in the coalition agreement override the commitment that was made not only in our manifesto but in statements by the then Leader of the Opposition that we would repatriate social and employment legislation. There is no getting round this, and I want an answer to my question. I am sure that the House does, too.

Mr Harper: I can give my hon. Friend that answer now. We did indeed put a number of proposals before the British people, and we did seek a mandate for them. It will not have escaped his notice, however, that we did not win the general election outright, and that we therefore formed a coalition—[ Interruption. ] He raises his eyebrows, but that is a fact. Earlier, he specifically said that we had sought a mandate for certain things. We did indeed seek such a mandate, but I must draw his attention to the fact that we did not get that mandate. The coalition then set out its policies very clearly in its programme for government.

Mr Cash: I hear what the Minister says, but I am afraid I remain unconvinced, not least because the first priority must be to ensure that we achieve growth. Reducing the deficit is supposed to be the fulcrum of the coalition Government’s proposals, but we cannot do that without increasing growth, and we cannot increase growth without reducing the burden of over-regulation, much of which comes from the European Union and has the effect of strangulating British business.

This is not exactly rocket science; it is completely obvious. I understand the Government’s dilemma, but I am certain that, in the national interest, we need to tackle the problem. That is why the formula to which I have referred remains embedded in the Bill. I stress the necessity for Government policy to shift the burden on British business to give it the oxygen it needs. We cannot trade with the European Union when most of its member states, apart from Germany, are in a parlous state of low growth. Many of the countries are virtually bankrupt. It would be completely self-defeating to continue to make all these treaties and pacts on European economic governance and competitiveness in defiance of the fact that Europe is suffering from very low growth.

We need to relieve the burden on small and medium-sized businesses in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe to ensure that we can achieve the growth that we need. That is a perfectly reasonable proposition, and it should not get in the way of the overall objectives of the

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coalition. Unfortunately, however, it appears that it does, because the Government keep on saying that they will not repatriate these powers. I find it astonishing that we are working against the national interest in this way, rather than working for it. Statements by the Deputy Prime Minister in this context have been extremely unhelpful, but I gather that the Minister is going to associate himself with those remarks and not attempt to give any sustenance to those of us who want the repatriation of powers through this Bill.

My arguments apply not only on the business front—[ Interruption. ] I see some hon. Members shaking their heads, but this country is in a parlous condition at the moment, and common sense ought to prevail. It is not asking a huge amount to ensure that we have a thriving business community. The situation would be emphatically improved if we were to adopt the policy that I am proposing, and have been proposing for many years. As I said before the interruption for the Prime Minister’s statement, that policy was formally agreed by us in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill in 2006 when we were in opposition.

Mr Harper: I would like to ask my hon. Friend a question. He drew attention to the repatriation of powers and spoke of using the mechanisms of the Bill to achieve that. Although I do not agree with it, I could understand the argument that the Bill would stop us giving away more powers to the European Union, but what mechanism in it would enable us to get back powers that have already been given away?

Mr Cash: The use of the sovereignty of Parliament to pass an Act notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972, which is inherent in the Bill. The Minister might recall that in opening my remarks, I specifically stated that I had a clause in mind that would put it beyond any doubt that the courts would be obliged to give effect to, for example, what the then Opposition properly did when they voted for my amendment to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

We should not be arguing about this. I find it astonishing that I should have to raise the matter in a debate. For a Minister to question whether my remarks are valid in one respect or another is again astonishing. I cannot believe it: I know the Minister’s business background; I know he understands the issues; I know perfectly well that he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. I believe that he would personally love to see the repatriation of powers—and I am sure his constituents would, as well. I am afraid, however, that it will do no good if he offers resistance to my simple, straightforward and common-sense proposals. This involves making adjustments to European Community law and requiring the judiciary to give effect to the latest inconsistent Act. I should not have to repeat myself; it is terribly obvious. It is all so simple that I cannot believe that the Minister would want to offer any kind of resistance to the proposition.

Let me provide a few examples—some from the business environment, some from elsewhere—from the massive tsunami of European law. I have already mentioned the working time directive, which is coming up for consideration by the European Scrutiny Committee. We recommended that proposals relating to it should be debated in the

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House, so we do not need to debate it immediately. I will say unequivocally, however, that the working time directive is causing a great deal of damage to small businesses. There are also questions in the pipeline relating to waste electrical and electronic equipment, which is a matter of concern to a number of manufacturers and to people in the waste disposal business.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. Does he agree that one problem now is that we have lost so much time for debate as a result of the important statement on Libya? I, for one, will withdraw from speaking so that we can reach a conclusion and vote on the Bill. I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend would reflect on that?

Mr Cash: Very much so. I am delighted to say that I have come to the end of my remarks, which were to include a reference to the European arrest warrant and powers of entry, as both those matters are causing problems for the citizens and people of this country. Fair Trials International has written an excellent brief on the necessary amendments, but as it knows all too well, only by using the sort of mechanism I have proposed—the “notwithstanding” formula—would we be able to deal with the problem. Further difficulties relate to rulings on pensions, the insurance question for women and so forth.

In a nutshell, this is a problem crying out for a solution. This Bill will provide it. Other measures are necessary to ensure that we retain the sovereignty of this House while at the same time dealing with the difficulties arising for the people of this country in a wide area of business and other legislation.

12.34 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in such a fundamental debate. My comments will be brief, partly because although the matter is so fundamental it is also relatively straightforward.

As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), this country has an evolving constitution, as even a cursory look at the history books will show. Over the best part of the last millennium, the most significant action was perhaps the 1215 Magna Carta, the seed of many of our liberties and freedoms, as mentioned in other great documents such as the US constitution. We have also had two Acts of Union, the 1689 Bill of Rights referred to by my hon. Friend, and the Parliament Act of exactly a century ago, as amended in the late 1940s. Of course, we have also had the European Communities Act 1972, which was confirmed by a referendum in 1975. Most people who did not study the treaty of Rome to any great degree thought that that was a referendum on free markets and, as it was referred to at the time, a common market. Those who did study the treaty of Rome would have realised the inexorable trend in greater political union that was about to start.

The European Communities Act was passed when I was just three years old, and of course I was still very young when the referendum took place. In the intervening four decades, the British people have not had a chance to express their views on the development of the European Union, which has grown hugely both in terms of member

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countries and competences. During the same period, this Parliament has on many occasions also failed to reassert its authority as an independent sovereign Parliament. I am sure in my view as a Member that this Parliament is sovereign in this country, but I fear that the elapsing of time and seeping of power and authority from this place to supranational organisations such as the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and other European institutions formed prior to 1972, such as the European Court of Human Rights, has led to serious questions about whether Parliament, and in particular the House of Commons, is sovereign in the governance of the United Kingdom.

Although I, my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members, if not all, are sure of that sovereignty, increasingly there are attempts to challenge and qualify it by courts within the United Kingdom, as judges seek to legislate from the bench, and by courts outside this country. A reaffirmation of this place’s sovereignty is therefore timely, because we do not have a written constitution, or at least not one that is written down in any one place.

Let us contrast that with other member nations of the European Union. The Federal Republic of Germany has its constitutional court, which is quite sure in its constitutional position that it is supreme when it comes to matters that affect that country. The debate about whether we write our constitution in one place is for another day, but nevertheless the time has now come, because of uncertainty and of challenges within and without this country, to reaffirm that sovereignty.

I know that the arguments against such a position are that, if we start to enshrine “sovereignty” in law, we will just open up the debate to lawyers and judges to define exactly what we mean by it. I also understand the argument that “sovereignty”, on the few occasions it is mentioned in legislation, often refers to territorial limits rather than to any legal definition, but the Bill’s wording is quite clear that sovereignty refers to the competence of this Parliament—of the legislation that we enact. That defines the sovereignty that we should reassert, and it therefore closes down the argument that the Bill would somehow do the opposite and open up the debate about the future of sovereignty.

Ideally, I would like to see a referendum on our future membership of the European Union, but, given the remarks that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), made a few moments ago, I suspect that, because of the realities of the coalition Government, we will not see such a referendum in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend could be more sanguine on the matter, because our coalition partners are desperate to have that vote. It was in their manifesto, so we just have to persuade our hon. Friend the Minister that it is necessary; we do not have to persuade our coalition partners.

Henry Smith: I am grateful for that clarification of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Clearly, 12 months ago I should have read it with a little more care, but I was busy trying to promote my candidacy in what is now my constituency. I still suspect that, although the

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proposal might have appeared in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto, they are less willing for it to be part of any coalition agreement.

I therefore maintain that we are unlikely—if my political antennae are correct—to have a referendum, and that is even more reason why we in this Parliament now need to reaffirm and reassert, through an Act, that this Parliament is sovereign. The electorate will not have a chance to have their say, certainly during this Parliament.

Ultimately, this is one of the most important debates that we can have in this place, because I am sent here to represent the interests of not only my constituents but my country, and I seek and am very proud to do those two things. I am deeply conscious, however, of the fact that my ability and that of right hon. and hon. Members to do so is frustrated by the constraints and—I will put it as strongly as this—the checks that are placed on this Parliament in enacting the legislation that we want to see.

We have heard a number of examples, whether they be the European Court of Human Rights on prisoner voting or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said earlier, our insurance industry’s inability to provide the products that the vast majority of people would consider perfectly rational. Those are just two recent examples, so I am very pleased to support the Bill and, as a new Member, very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for introducing it today.

12.45 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this important debate on issues about which many of us who are present today feel strongly. I agree with the powerful arguments that he advanced. The Bill is, of course, very similar to one of the same name that was presented some time ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

I share the concerns that have been expressed this morning, because, like others who are in the Chamber today, I believe in the sovereignty and primacy of this Parliament. I believe that it is the mother of all Parliaments, and should be the ultimate institution of power and authority in our country. Throughout history, the laws passed by this Parliament have seen the country enjoy success and prosperity beyond that which could have been envisaged. It is testimony to the respect that people have for our Parliament that our democracy, institutions and laws have been exported across the world, not just to our former empire and colonies but, I believe, far beyond.

This Parliament has an enviable record of delivering positive change and success, which is why I believe that we should never allow it to become irrelevant or allow its authority and power to fall into decline. However, even as a new Member of Parliament, I have already seen that happening. Unfortunately, in recent decades we have seen a continual undermining of the authority of this Parliament by the body that is called Europe, without the consent of the British people.

My views on this matter are, I think, well known. The Bill returns us to many of the debates that we have had previously on, for instance, the European Union Bill and the Sovereignty of Parliament Bill. The issue is that

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our powers are being eroded, and that all too often decisions are made in secret and without the consultation or the consent of the British people whom those decisions ultimately affect. That causes tremendous concern to my constituents and to me. I believe that, in an era of openness, transparency and fairness, they should know what is going on and should be entitled to a say on it.

There is a strong contrast between the approach that I have described and the domestic approach to constitutional matters when Parliament’s powers have been devolved. Across the United Kingdom, Parliament has devolved powers to other domestic institutions with the consent of the people, and has established a new constitutional settlement in an open, transparent and democratic way. Devolution from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has taken place by means of carefully considered legislation and referendums. We have seen that process in action with the Scotland Bill and the referendum that was conducted in Wales earlier this month.

Whether or not we agree with those decisions on devolution, they have been made in a transparent and open way and they carry democratic legitimacy, which is important. Unfortunately, very little of the transfer of powers from the United Kingdom to Europe and the pillaging of those powers has ever been carried out in such a transparent, accountable and democratic fashion, and the Bill rightly seeks to redress that.

I welcome this initiative because, like all Conservative Members of Parliament, I stood for election on a solid manifesto pledge to

“introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament.”

I welcomed the safeguards in the European Union Bill, which would, through a referendum, give Parliament and the British public greater control over transfers of power to Europe. The EU Bill is a step in the right direction, but, as has been said before in the House, the true test will come when it is challenged. As we heard earlier this morning, it has been reported that a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament has proposed changes to bypass the referendum lock and what he has apparently referred to as “the British problem”. In a letter to the President of the European Parliament, he shamelessly neglected the British interest by suggesting that future treaty changes be ratified with a four-fifths majority of member states, and observed that the effect of this Bill

“will be to severely delay and complicate all future treaty revision”.

I know the British people will be as astonished as I am that any parliamentarian would stoop so low as to describe any democratic process involving a sovereign Parliament and referendum as a problem, and seek to circumvent the layer of democratic accountability for laws that affect our country. Standing up for British interests and the sovereignty of this Parliament must come first, and those who think that that causes delay and complication have no respect for democracy.

Clause 1 adds additional safeguards to protect against those in Europe, such as Mr Duff, wishing to undermine our country. It makes it clear and unambiguous that Parliament is sovereign, and it provides a defence of the sovereignty of Parliament, complementing that in the

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European Union Bill. That is important because what irritates my constituents—and, it seems, the majority of the British public—is when laws from Europe are foisted on us and we as a country can do very little about it.

That brings me on to the whole area of the repatriation of powers. While we cannot reverse Labour’s betrayal over the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, we can enforce more vigorous safeguards for parliamentary sovereignty. There are two areas in particular where I think the Bill offers an opportunity to strengthen our democracy and restore power and authority to Parliament. First, by reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament, the Bill gives rise to the possibility that Britain might be able to repatriate powers from Europe. Secondly, the Bill gives us an opportunity to deal with problems from Europe in respect of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and their associated Strasbourg-based institutions. I have no doubt that those Members who are present could speak for hours about the powers we would like to have repatriated, and about those institutions and their detrimental impact on our laws, our legislation and our country.

On the repatriation of powers, I believe it is absolutely essential that Parliament can clearly and decisively legislate to disapply EU laws imposed on this country where they are not in the national interest. Over the next few years, British taxpayers will be handing over to the EU £50 billion more than they get back, and we face additional costs of over £20 billion stemming from the more than 80 EU directives currently pending transposition into UK law. Therefore, from a financial perspective alone, we simply cannot afford to go on like this, let alone in the areas where the EU is now exercising far too many controls over our lives, such as financial institutions and immigration policies.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend is, as always, making a powerful speech. Is it not strange that under the last five years of the Labour Administration, £19.8 billion net was given to the EU, but under this coalition Government the amount for the next five years will go up to £41 billion? Who would have believed that?

Priti Patel: I find that alarming, and I do not think it is financially sustainable. It returns us to the point about accountability and transparency. Hard-pressed taxpayers in our country want to know where this money is going, and how it is going to be spent.

While I would like a proactive strategy to be adopted to secure, with European agreement, the return of powers to Britain and money to British taxpayers, it is important that we have a clear legislative framework in place to ensure that we can act in this way and put Britain’s interests first. I am eager that, as result of this Bill, we should have the chance to repatriate powers, because my constituents are fed up with the unelected, unaccountable and undemocratic bureaucrats in Brussels thinking they know best and imposing laws on our country. That is simply wrong. Frankly, the way Europe acts, and the increasingly integrationist and federalist agenda it pursues, only serves to give the impression that the EU does not trust us to make our own laws and has complete contempt and disregard for the British public.

Whatever the motives in Europe are for taking powers from Britain, we have been making laws in this country from this Parliament for many centuries. We can take

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great pride in the laws that this Parliament has passed and we must ensure that it can continue to make laws, without restriction, diktat or command from Europe. Reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament gives me hope that, if needed, Parliament can legislate to repatriate powers without the courts ruling such measures incompatible with European law—of course we hear far too much of the term “European law” in this House. I look to this Bill, either in its current form or in an amended form, to facilitate that.

Time is short, but I wish to touch on a couple of other areas where the Bill can play an important role in securing British interests, the first is which is in respect of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. We have seen how those bodies have sought to undermine and block the will of Parliament over prisoner votes. I look to clause 2(a), on Ministers of the Crown being unable to implement any legal instrument inconsistent with the Bill without approval from a referendum, as a starting point to safeguarding the will of Parliament. After all, with this Bill reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament, Ministers would not be able to claim that they have to change our laws because Europe told us to do so.

This is not just about prisoner votes; it is about many areas, including finance, insurance policies—we know how they are going to change—and immigration policy. Intervention, diktats and changes in language are ever increasing and this is an alarming trend. The Council of Europe and the Human Rights Commissioner are critical of countries that wish to take a tough stand on immigration. It is of course in our national interest to secure our borders and make sure that we do not have illegal immigration, but we hear endless proclaimers attacking member states about the language used on immigration. We are attacked for the steps we take to patrol our borders and deter the entry of migrants who should not be coming into our country and are trying to do so for all the wrong reasons. I could go on about many of these points, but I will draw my remarks to a conclusion.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this debate but, more importantly and fundamentally, I seek assurances that the Government will act to ensure the protection of parliamentary sovereignty. I want to hear that the future British laws are going to be made by people in Britain and in the interests of British people.

12.57 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Briefly, this Bill is a melancholic throat-clearing exercise inspired by a choleric attitude towards Europe. I am sanguine that the Government will be phlegmatic, so for all the reasons I have adumbrated in every other debate on the European Union since I was first elected in 2001, I oppose.

12.58 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I do not think I will quite match the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for brevity. He will be pleased to learn that I am not going to go through all the reasons why the Government oppose the Bill and will oppose it if it is pressed to a vote, but I will touch on a number of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) got to the heart of the argument at the beginning of the

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debate when he discussed clause 1 and its reaffirmation of sovereignty. As he said, if this is indeed a sovereign Parliament, as we all believe it is, it does not need to reaffirm its sovereignty, but if it is not a sovereign Parliament, reaffirming its sovereignty is of no consequence.

My hon. Friend also made the point—I have been surprised that other Members have not discussed this—that this is not a Bill about the European Union. As clause 3(b) makes clear, it touches on not only our European commitments, but all the commitments we have made in all the treaties we have signed. I shall go on to discuss what the Prime Minister said earlier about our membership of the United Nations, which would be affected if the Bill became law.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend is of course right that this country is a member of a number of international bodies, including the European Union, the United Nations and NATO, but so are other independent sovereign nations. I do not think there would be any suggestion that the United States compromises its sovereignty by its membership of the United Nations.

Mr Harper: I will not dwell on that now, if my hon. Friend will forgive me. I will come to it later in my remarks, and he will be free to intervene on me then.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and several others touched on issues such as the European Union Bill, particularly the debate that we had on clause 18; the issue of prisoner voting, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned; and our relationship with the European convention on human rights, including the role of the Court. Those are all important.

There is no doubt that the sovereignty of Parliament lies at the heart of our constitution as one of our fundamental underpinnings. Since the time of the Bill of Rights in 1689, no one has seriously challenged the notion that Parliament is the ultimate arbiter of the powers of the Executive. Indeed, Parliament determined who the Executive should be: it intervened in the line of succession to the Crown and altered it. I will not go into the various changes to the line of succession, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) dwelled on that. I was disappointed that he did not feel the urge to set out his views on those historical events in more detail, and probably on a much better informed basis, than I would be able to.

It may be surprising to some that the adoption of parliamentary sovereignty is nowhere set out in authoritative form. The Bill sets out sovereignty without attempting to define it in any way in a piece of primary legislation. That would mean, in effect, that the courts would then be invited to define what we meant by sovereignty, to define what “reaffirming” meant, and to do a number of other things. The Bill would therefore take us down a dangerous road that would undermine the proposition of parliamentary sovereignty instead of defending it.

Mr Cash: I merely add that the most distinguished authority on the question of parliamentary sovereignty, Professor Jeffrey Goldsworthy, has indicated that clause 1 is the best way to deal with the situation with which we are faced. I have no idea where the legal advice that the Minister is getting comes from. If his advice comes from the same source as that of those who wrote the

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explanatory notes for the European Union Bill, the fact they have had to go into a steep reverse on this issue as a result of our Committee’s report indicates that the quality of the advice is appalling, and, I am glad to say, that the Minister’s comments are unnecessary and wrong.

Mr Harper: My remarks are clearly not unnecessary, because it is necessary to set out the Government’s view. I suspect that my hon. Friend and I will not see eye to eye on everything; indeed, on quite a lot, particularly regarding these issues. Of course, he is entitled to his view, but I happen to disagree with him.

It is worth saying that in the debate in Committee of the whole House on clause 18 of the European Union Bill—my hon. Friend has referred to the evidence given in the European Scrutiny Committee, which he chairs—it was specifically made clear that it was not intended to be a general clause setting out the origin of parliamentary sovereignty; rather, it sets out how EU law gets its place in the UK legal order, which is by Acts of this Parliament. That was the purpose of the clause, and it did it very well. The EU Bill makes it very clear that directly applicable or directly effective EU law had status in the UK only because it was granted that status by an Act of the UK Parliament. I think that that was a helpful thing to do. As the hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out, that was agreed to by this House. Those arguments will be had at the other end of the building, and I hope that in due course that Bill will be passed by this sovereign Parliament.

Mr Cash: The fact that the Government have changed the explanatory notes is self-evident. Will the Minister put it on the record that he at least agrees that they were changed, even if he is not prepared to make any other admission?

Mr Harper: I believe that my hon. Friend is correct in saying that the explanatory notes have changed, so I am of course happy to agree on that fact. There are still matters of debate, but you will be pleased to know that I will not repeat those, Mr Deputy Speaker, because this is not a debate on the European Union Bill. I want to touch on issues other than the European Union because the Bill before us goes much wider, and there are other reasons why it should be opposed by Members.

Mr Bone: May I ask the Conservative Minister whether he stood on a manifesto at the last election that pledged that a United Kingdom parliamentary sovereignty Bill would be introduced if he was a member of the next Government? Has he changed his position?

Mr Harper: I dealt with that point when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). Conservative Members stood on a manifesto that made a number of commitments. Indeed, he put it quite well in saying that we sought from the British people a mandate to do certain things. As I pointed out to my hon. Friends, much to our disappointment we did not get that mandate from the British people to the extent that we had hoped. We fell short, and that is why we formed a coalition Government. The coalition Government have set out our agreed programme. It contains quite a lot of what we wanted to do in our manifesto, and some

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of what the Liberal Democrats wanted to do in theirs, but we were not able to agree on all of it. The British people failed to give us that mandate so we are not able to do everything that we set out in our manifesto. That is disappointing—I find it disappointing and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) finds it disappointing. However, we are democrats and we have to live with the decisions of the British people.

Mr Bone: Look, there are not very many people here. People have gone home and nobody is really listening. Why does the Minister not give his own personal view rather than the coalition view on whether the United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill would be a good thing?

Mr Harper: As my hon. Friend knows, I am here to set out clearly what the Government’s view is. I would never say, just because there may not be many Members present in the Chamber, that words spoken in this House are not heard far and wide. We should be very careful about what we say and should weigh our words carefully, particularly when speaking in a Chamber of a sovereign Parliament.

I hesitate to say this because I am sure that it will provoke my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, but I think it is worth saying that the Minister for Europe dealt with the issue of sovereignty in detail in relation to clause 18 of the European Union Bill in this House and in the European Scrutiny Committee. He said that the Government’s view was that an amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone tabled, which was similar to what is in this Bill, would have invited exactly the sort of speculative consideration by judges that my hon. Friend feared. It is the Government’s view that the approach in this Bill would make things worse rather than better.

Mr Cash: The problem for this Minister and the Minister for Europe is that the Bill is not in law and we are already being affected by the assertions of certain members of the Supreme Court that the sovereignty of Parliament is not absolute. If it were not for that, there would not be a problem. This is a recent development. It is precisely because of the Court’s assertions of judicial supremacy that we are required to retaliate and to make our position clear through a simple declaration such as that in clause 1, just to make it absolutely certain.

Mr Harper: The flaw in that argument is that to put into an Act of Parliament the language in clause 1 would invite exactly the problem that my hon. Friend is concerned about. Because it would be in a statute that judges would have to interpret, it would invite them to start defining “sovereignty” and interpreting what Parliament meant by the words in the Bill. I do not think that is very helpful.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: I will give way once more on this point, then I will make some progress.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because this point is tremendously important and may, if he is correct, point to a fatal flaw in the Bill.

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I hope that he will deal with it carefully and precisely. I do not understand the idea that things that are in statute are justiciable but things that are not in statute are not. It seems to me that the judges can interpret the law of the land in the round, not just statutes. Will he focus on that point?

Mr Harper: The reason that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone gave for having the Bill and for reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament was the risk that judges might erode the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty by setting out some new, autonomous legal order in which EU law had authority in the UK regardless of whether Parliament continued to give it that authority. We had that debate on the European Union Bill, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made it quite clear that so far our judges have done nothing of the sort. In fact, they have had arguments put before them inviting them to take that stance and have specifically rejected them. That was why, in that Bill, which my hon. Friend and a number of other Members have talked about, we specifically set out that EU law had effect in this country only because it was given that effect by Acts passed by this Parliament. We did not think it was helpful—quite the reverse—to have a general sovereignty clause, which is what this Bill would introduce.

It is worth discussing one or two wider issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West was right when he drew attention to the fact that under clause 3(b), the Bill covers not just the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights but any rule of international law at all. It provides that no Minister of the Crown is to

“make or implement any legal instrument which…is inconsistent with this Act”,

in other words which affects the sovereignty of this Parliament. That seems a very wide term, including both domestic legal instruments and instruments that are binding in international law.

The Bill also appears to extend to any instrument, including any treaty, that the UK will make or implement, or has ever made or implemented. It appears that it would act with retrospective effect. It seems to me that that is quite deliberate given the words in clause 3 stating that it

“shall have effect and shall be construed as having effect and deemed at all times to have had effect”.

I shall come back to that in a moment.

I do not believe the Bill takes any notice of the changes that were made to the rules for ratifying treaties that were introduced in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which provides a number of tests and procedures for ratification that improve parliamentary involvement in the process. For example, when a Minister signs a treaty that does not come into force upon signature and to which domestic procedures concerning EU law do not apply, it may not be ratified unless it is laid before Parliament for a period of 21 days and neither House of Parliament passes a resolution objecting to it. If the House passes such a resolution, a Minister must lay a further explanation before the House, which may vote again within a further 21 days.

Only in exceptional circumstances may a treaty be ratified without the agreement of this House, and a Minister cannot override a decision of the House that it

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should not be ratified. If the Bill became law, what would happen if Parliament did not object to the ratification of a treaty but it was subsequently concluded that it was inconsistent with the Bill? What effect would that have on the sovereignty of Parliament?

I argue that the Bill is rather dangerous because of the effect that it would have on how we conduct international relations. It would make it impossible for us to participate in a number of organisations—for example, we belong to the United Nations and have signed a range of treaties connected with it. I listened closely to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said this morning about the Security Council resolution. He pointed out the wide authorisation that it gives us and other members of the international community to act but he also explained that it places clear limits on what we can do. If the Bill were in force, it would not allow us to enter into agreements that limit what Parliament can do unless we held a referendum. We could not sign up to any international treaty with which we had engaged that somehow constrained our behaviour, as most do, unless we held a referendum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West highlighted the Bill that we discussed earlier, which encountered no opposition, on the wreck removal convention. If we accepted the measure that we are discussing, we would pass primary legislation to hold a referendum on whether the British people should support the wreck removal convention. That would not be welcome.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend may have found a fatal flaw in the Bill, and I therefore ask him to consider it further. However, an EU rule has effect in this country above UK legislation, subject to the 1972 Act. That is not the case with agreements made in the United Nations or under other treaty conventions, which Her Majesty’s Government can abrogate at their own will.

Mr Harper: My point, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made when we debated the European Union Bill, is that EU law has primacy in this country only because Parliament has passed legislation to say so. The Government will not do it, but it is open to Parliament to change or repeal the Act so that EU law does not have primacy. It is possible, although we are not going to do it. That is the flaw in the argument.

Clause 4 is another good reason for objecting to the Bill because it purports to bind future Parliaments. It states that a Bill passed in this Parliament cannot be amended without the consent of the people in a referendum. An important aspect of parliamentary sovereignty is that Parliament may enact or repeal any legislation it pleases, and it cannot bind its successors. Clause 4 undermines that. It also states:

“No Bill shall be presented to Her Majesty the Queen for her Royal Assent which contravenes this Act”,

but is not clear who would determine whether a Bill contravenes “this Act”. It would clearly have to be the courts, which would then be engaged in assessing whether Parliament had properly passed Bills and whether Bills should have received Royal Assent before a referendum had taken place. That invites courts to have much more power.

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Mr Bone: The Parliamentary Secretary seems to be making specific points, which are more relevant to Committee. This is a Second Reading debate about the principle and we should not be discussing the detail. He should do that in Committee with us.

Mr Harper: I disagree. A disappointing aspect of the debate—I was disappointed even if no one else was—is that, in their comprehensive speeches, my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Stone spent much time on some issues, but little time on the actual Bill. I thought it was important to draw the House’s attention to the consequences of passing the measure and why the Government will oppose it if it is pressed to a Division.

The debate was helpful but the Government have concluded that, rather than strengthening and upholding parliamentary sovereignty, the Bill would undermine it for the reasons that I and others have set out. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to withdraw it. If he does not and he tests the House’s opinion, I urge hon. Members to oppose it.

1.19 pm

Mr Chope: I do not intend to withdraw the Bill—it is important to put it to the test. Constituents up and down the country will want to see whether their Conservative representatives are doing their best to try to implement the manifesto commitments on which we were elected at the general election, or whether we are prepared to allow those commitments to fall to one side because we are in a coalition. I understood that the Government were trying their hardest to implement the commitments, but from what the Minister has said, I remain to be convinced.

I am grateful to all those who have participated in the debate and those who have supported the Bill. I am particularly indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for his great knowledge on the matter; much of the Bill’s drafting is owed to his work in the past. He mentioned Jeffrey Goldsworthy, who has written a document on parliamentary sovereignty—I say document, but it was published as part of the “Cambridge Studies in Constitutional Law”.

Chris Bryant: He’s written two!

Mr Chope: He has written more than one document. I find it odd that the Minister asserts that everything that Jeffrey Goldsworthy says on the important subject of parliamentary sovereignty is wrong, and that the Minister is right—he has many attributes, but I am not sure that he is a constitutional law expert. I would prefer to go along with Jeffrey Goldsworthy’s expertise in the absence of any other compelling legal arguments.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for raising some interesting points, not least when he intervened when the Minister objected to clause 1. The Minister seems to be under the illusion that the courts in this country can only interpret legislation, rather than apply common law principles. My hon. Friend bowled the Minister middle stump on that.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for her support. She has done the House and the people a great service in tabling a host of

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probing and effective written questions that have exposed the Government’s policy for what it is—the Government are far too relaxed about the further erosion of our sovereignty.

I commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on the brevity of his speech. There is a lot to be said for Opposition Front Benchers making similarly short speeches when they do not have any support on their own side of the House at all, as is the situation today.

The idea that the UN resolution passed last night is inconsistent with the Bill is far fetched. May I suggest a better analogy? When this country went to a war in Iraq that, arguably, was illegal under international law, we were not prosecuted by some international criminal court. However, if we went into something that was at odds with the decisions of the European Court of Justice, we would be prosecuted and taken before that Court on the continent. That is the difference.

The Minister suggests that various details of the Bill could be made clearer. One way to do so would be to ensure that clause 2 refers to clause 1. However, the essence of the Bill is in clause 1, which stands on its own, reaffirming the sovereignty of this Parliament.

Mr Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is highly significant that the Government have rewritten—I am glad to say—the explanatory notes to make it quite clear that the supremacy of the United Kingdom Parliament is understood in those terms by the Government?

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend made a good point on that, to which the Minister did not really respond.

I tried earlier in the debate to give examples of where our sovereignty is under continued threat of erosion, not least of which was how we are left powerless when international courts make rulings against us. We are told that we cannot, as a sovereign Parliament, correct those rulings and redress the balance in a way that our constituents wish us to do. I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister did not respond to any of those issues, so the best thing to do would be to press the Bill to a Division.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 42.

Division No. 234]

[1.25 pm


Bottomley, Sir Peter

Cash, Mr William

Chope, Mr Christopher

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Peter Bone and

Henry Smith


Alexander, Heidi

Barker, Gregory

Brake, Tom

Bray, Angie

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Bryant, Chris

Burstow, Paul

Burt, Alistair

Byles, Dan

Chishti, Rehman

Corbyn, Jeremy

Doran, Mr Frank

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Fabricant, Michael

Field, Mr Mark

Gapes, Mike

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hoban, Mr Mark

Howarth, Mr Gerald

Hurd, Mr Nick

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lidington, rh Mr David

Luff, Peter

Mahmood, Shabana

McDonnell, John

Miller, Maria

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Randall, rh Mr John

Rosindell, Andrew

Ruddock, rh Joan

Shapps, rh Grant

Tami, Mark

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Willetts, rh Mr David

Young, rh Sir George

Tellers for the Noes:

Angela Watkinson and

Mr Robert Goodwill

Question accordingly negatived.

18 Mar 2011 : Column 653

18 Mar 2011 : Column 654

Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill

Second Reading

1.36 pm

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

This important Bill would extend the powers of the local government ombudsman to provide redress against local authorities that unreasonably ban events on the grounds of health and safety. The inspiration for the Bill comes from none other than Lord Young, whose commendable report to the Government on these issues last autumn resulted in a number of Government commitments. The Prime Minister wrote a foreword to the report stating that the Government agreed with all its recommendations and were keen to see them implemented. One of the recommendations that strikes a chord with people up and down the country—and certainly with hard-working voluntary organisations and charities—relates to local authority interference in charitable and other public activities based on arguments about health and safety.

As a suitable curtain-raiser for my Bill, and with wonderful timing, the edition of the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times published on Saturday 12 March carried the headline “‘Crazy’ safety rules ban running in pancake races”. The article went on to explain:

“‘Ludicrous’ health and safety rules have been panned for stopping competitors running along Beaulieu High Street in the traditional village pancake races. The annual event was flipped upside down as children and adults—including firefighters—were forbidden from going faster than walking pace on Tuesday afternoon. They were permitted to toss their pancakes.”

That was one thing that the health and safety people did not interfere with. The report went on:

“One eager youngster was even disqualified for infringing the ‘over-zealous’ rules by breaking into a run to cross the finishing line first. The road was closed to traffic and although the running ban was imposed to protect children, it was extended to adult races for the sake of ‘consistency’”.

Needless to say, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who was not in Lymington at the time, made some very robust comments that were communicated to the local paper. Who would stand up and justify such a ludicrous state of affairs?

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD) rose

Mr Chope: Perhaps my hon. Friend is going to do just that.

Tom Brake: I am not going to do that, but I am going to ask my hon. Friend whether he has checked the veracity of that report. He will recall that a story went round the world about a head teacher who had banned children from taking part in conker competitions unless they were wearing goggles. It transpired that that had actually been a joke by the head teacher, and that it had turned into a “true story”, even though it was nothing of the sort.

Mr Chope: I am sure that this story is correct. The reports in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times have a reputation locally for always being very

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accurate. Its editor, Charles Curry MBE, is over 90. I think he is one of the oldest newspaper editors in the country and I know he is conscientious in ensuring that everything that appears in the paper is fully in accordance with the truth.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): May I say how sorry I am that my hon. Friend did not move his Training Wage Bill? I would have voted for it, as I did for his sovereignty Bill, even though that needed some improvement. His second Bill did not need any improvement at all; I would have voted for it wholeheartedly.

On the present Bill, my hon. Friend has usefully drawn our attention to questions that need to be raised about local councils. We know that the Health and Safety Executive has tried to dispel the myths that have developed, and I pay tribute to the organisation. The conker incident was one it dealt with. As for local councils, however, my hon. Friend might want to turn his attention to the chilling effect of the questions that are raised. Too often, people ask whether there is a question that needs to be answered, but because they do not get an answer, they blame the local authority, which might not have taken any action and might not have been consulted. I hope that, whatever happens to the Bill, any local authority people reading our debate will agree to provide easy access to information and will try to let things happen rather than block them—unless there is an overwhelming reason why the organisers of an event need to be hindered.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his indication of support for the Bill I did not move. I did not move it because the Government indicated that they would not support it, whereas they have expressed—informally, at any rate—some support for this Bill. It is important for Bills to make progress as well as be subject to debate, so I thought it would be better to move straight on to my Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill. I am sure that the issues raised in the Training Wage Bill can be debated on another occasion, as they are fundamental to our current record level of youth unemployment.

Sir Peter Bottomley: May I, through my hon. Friend, invite every employer—public, private or voluntary—to ask how many young people they employ and why the numbers are so few? If the numbers are few because the cost is too great and the effect of employing them not great enough, we can raise their effectiveness, lower the cost or both.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The message from it is that we need to do more preparation to ensure that the next time my Training Wage Bill or similar provision is brought forward, the Government have to face the pressure from employers and from youth organisations, which should help to see it carried through.

As far as local authority issues are concerned, I share my hon. Friend’s point that we must not tar all local authorities with the same brush. Indeed, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health showed its sense of humour and commitment to the game of conkers by

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sponsoring the conker championships after the incident mentioned earlier. It wanted to shrug off the spoilsport image and dispel the myth that it makes children wear protective goggles for a playground game. It also entered a team in the world conker championships held in Ashton, Northamptonshire back in 2008.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Is it possible that that team used plastic protective gloves when dipping conkers in vinegar to harden the outside in order to get a better chance of winning?

Mr Chope: I do not have that sort of information. Since this is all mythical, I am sure that could not have happened in any case, any more than people would have put their conkers in the oven without using protective oven gloves. Obviously, my hon. Friend has great experience in dealing with conkers. One of the most dangerous aspects is using the skewer to make a hole through the centre of the conker, as people need to make sure that they do not puncture themselves at the same time. This all goes down to experience, and why should we not allow people to gain experience in the normal way in the hurly-burly of everyday life and have a bit of fun at the same time? Why are we creating a health and safety culture in which people over-react or fail to act responsibly?

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I am distressed to hear about the Shrove Tuesday fun deniers in Hampshire. When we are putting through a Localism Bill, it might initially sound counter-intuitive and centralising to give more powers to the local government ombudsman, but we must remember that localism devolves powers to, and through, individual citizens and communities. What we are discussing is a great example of protecting the individual celebrations that enrich the lives of many of our communities.

Mr Chope: I share my hon. Friend’s misgivings. It is extraordinary that a national Parliament should have to intervene, and that we cannot have common sense applied at the local level, but if that is how it is, that is how it must be. In his report, Lord Young hoped that it would not be necessary to introduce too much legislation to implement his recommendation, but said that legislation would have to be introduced if there was no other way of ensuring a sense of perspective and proportionality.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government will respond to the debate, and I am grateful to him for his informal communications with me over the last couple of days about the Bill. The Bill was drafted as an attempt to implement Lord Young’s recommendation. Clause 2 states:

“Where a local authority bans or imposes restrictions on any event on the grounds of health and safety, the local authority must provide the event organiser with written notification of the decision on the day on which the decision is taken…The written notification must include…the details of the ban or the restriction, and…reasons why the ban or the restriction has been imposed…On receipt of a written notification an event organiser may ask the local authority to review the decision and the local authority must conduct such a review within two weeks of the request being received and issue written notification of its further decision to the event organiser.”

If the local authority must justify its decision in the first place, and give reasons for it, it will probably be a lot more cautious about seeking to ban such events. An

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individual officer could not use his discretion or apply his prejudice to ban such events, as he would be brought to the attention of the chief executive and councillors of that local authority and have to provide justification. If the matter had not been dealt with satisfactorily within a fortnight, it could ultimately be referred to the local government ombudsman. The Bill would not impose an enormous extra burden on the local government ombudsman, but, in effect, would use his office as a long-stop to ensure that sanity prevailed in relation to health and safety issues.

The Beaulieu pancake race is only the most recent example. The examples that hit the headlines are inevitably the tip of the iceberg, as many other organisations are inhibited from even embarking on such activities because of fear of health and safety problems. I have various press cuttings, one of which, from Tameside, states:

“Town hall chiefs have denied being killjoys after they banned sparklers from Bonfire Night celebrations. Families going to the Richmond Street fair and firework display in Ashton have been told the children’s favourite is prohibited”,

because of

“health and safety considerations…A sparkler can reach temperatures of 1,000 degrees centigrade.”

I am surprised that we still allow sparklers even to be sold in the shops and that so many Members of the House have managed to get this far in life without being burned by a sparkler or having our children burned by sparklers.

There are many examples, including one in my constituency in Ferndown, where the erection of Christmas lights was banned not on the grounds of religion, fortunately, but on the grounds of health and safety. In another cutting, the BBC reported on 1 December that a west Wales town in Cardigan was told that it must go without Christmas lights in the main street because of health and safety concerns. Then, there is an example from the Virtual Festivals website, which reported that at a Devon rock festival last July a band was told that it would have to be without one of its props for an upcoming performance, because the use of a UFO—a fake spaceship—was banned on health and safety grounds,

“which deemed the elevated object a hazard to those in attendance.”

Sometimes, councils or organisers get around such bans by being imaginative. When a rugby club was told that it could not have a big bonfire on bonfire night, it showed its initiative by having a virtual bonfire. The club erected large screens so that people could see a picture of a big fire, and it had sound effects, giving people the impression that the fire was burning strongly. They had quite a lot of liquor to go with it, and I think that it was a very successful event. So it is not all bad news, but, because of the current ludicrous regime, people have had to use their initiative to try to get around such health and safety bans.

Other examples include sack races being banned because the children might fall over and hurt themselves and donkey derbies being banned because the children might hurt themselves. In May 2008, in the donkey derby at Llandudno in Wales, children were replaced as riders by inflatable animals because of health and safety laws, and there is the well-reported story of children not being allowed to wear swimming goggles in the pool on the basis that the goggles might snap and damage their faces. And so it goes on.

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We have a killjoy atmosphere and a defensive approach to health and safety, and that is linked—this is obviously not part of my Bill, but part of the background to it—to Lord David Young’s concerns about the creation of an atmosphere in which people feel that they must not take risks because, if they do, they might open themselves up to significant compensation claims. Another of his recommendations is to try to deal with the so-called compensation culture, which I think lies behind many of these crazy examples.

In almost complete contrast with the first Bill today, which deals with reaffirming the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament, this is very much a niche Bill designed to make our country a happier and more joyous place, to encourage more local participation and voluntary activity and to increase the range of activities in which children and adults can participate voluntarily, so that, when the history books come to be written, people do not find that all those traditional activities, which are held in villages and towns throughout the country each year, have been reduced to the lowest common denominator and can be exercised only virtually rather than in reality.

I propose that the Bill be read a Second time, and in so doing I thank the Minister for his indication that the Government are quite supportive of it. If it were ever to go into Committee, it would be some sort of record for myself, because, although I have spoken on numerous Bills in the Chamber on a Friday, I have yet to get a Bill into Committee, so I live in hope that this might be the one that breaks the mould.

1.54 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I have a few points to make and questions to ask. The Minister may be able to respond to some of them.

One question is whether measures such as this are “localist” or “centralist”. While we have been dealing with the Localism Bill, what I have considered to be sensible amendments and suggestions have been rejected by Ministers on the grounds that they would impose burdens and extra costs on local authorities. We must be careful not to do that in this Bill. Has the Bill a centralist aspect, and should that be avoided? Perhaps the Minister will tell me what he thinks.

Another question is whether the proposed measures could be contained in guidance rather than a Bill which, potentially, imposes burdens on local authorities. Given that the Localism Bill confers 142 order-making powers on the Secretary of State, it would be surprising if there were not some way of incorporating this Bill’s provisions in them.

Clause 2(1) requires a local authority to

“provide the event organiser with written notification of the decision”

to ban or impose restrictions on an event

“on the day on which the decision is taken.”

I find that rather peculiar. In my experience of local government, we hold our meetings in the evenings. It does not strike me as feasible to require a local authority to give written notification on the day on which a decision is taken. It is just a question of wording. I think that some reasonably short time should be specified instead.

Mr Chope: Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Barbara Keeley: It might be more helpful if the hon. Gentleman allowed me to run through my questions first.

Clause 1(3) uses the word “unreasonably” in relation to decisions to ban on the grounds of health and safety. It also appears in the Bill’s long title. The question of what is reasonable and what is unreasonable is a tricky one, although I think we all recognise that, over time, some silly decisions have been taken. The hon. Gentleman cited some of them. Anyone whose event is banned for any reason will feel that the decision was unreasonable, and I fear that burdens would be imposed on local authorities if every decision were challenged.

Clause 2(3) requires a review to be completed

“within two weeks of the request being received”.

Again, I am concerned about the possibly unnecessary extra burdens that that might impose on local authorities. A good event organiser would tend to seek permission for an event a long time before organising it. In my locality, such events as triathlons and marathons are often organised a year in advance.

We hear many stories about decisions that are taken for health and safety reasons, but I think it important for us not to denigrate health and safety entirely. At the time of the Young report on health and safety, a TUC health and safety officer, Hugh Robertson, said:

“For sure, silly things are sometimes done in the name of health and safety and the behaviour of some claims firms can be reprehensible. But the real health and safety scandal in the UK is the 20,000 people who die each year due to injury or diseases linked to their work. A serious review of health and safety would put far more emphasis on dealing with this avoidable death and suffering.”

I think it important for us to bear that in mind.

We have heard about firework displays being abandoned and pancake-tossing races being restricted, but let me make a serious point. On Sunday morning I was at a schools rugby tournament watching my nephew playing for Glasgow Academicals. He and his team played very well, but one of the boys suffered a broken leg in the game. That schools tournament was being held at a ground with proper facilities, and an ambulance safely transported the injured young player. He was able to rejoin his team with his leg in plaster, and be a hero on the way home. We must bear in mind, however, that there can be terrible injuries in rugby matches. This match was being played by 11-year-olds, and they were engaging in contested scrums. If a young person were to suffer a serious neck injury, for example, we would not want them to be a long way from medical help with no suitable transport or paramedics to deal with it. In some sporting events, such as fast contact sports or those involving water, there can be terrible injuries, and there must be a sensible consideration of health and safety to ensure that any such injuries are dealt with properly.

I ask the Minister and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) to address the concerns I have raised and the points I made about localism and centralism.

2.1 pm

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for having brought this important issue before the House. As he points out, it is

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a great concern of the coalition Government. We think that the balance between enabling events to take place and health and safety considerations may well have got out of kilter over the years. Reference has been made to the 2010 report by our friend Lord Young “Common Sense, Common Safety”, the purpose of which was to look across Whitehall to identify those health and safety laws that had got out of kilter with the reality on the ground.

I know that my hon. Friend is keen to break with his track record of not necessarily getting his private Member’s business through this House, and I shall turn to that topic later. First, however, I want to address some of the key issues he raises, in particular with reference to local authorities, which are the main focus of his Bill.

The Government believe that local authorities have become overly cautious in respect of health and safety—not on all occasions, and not necessarily right across the country, but certainly in individual instances. It is not difficult to find stories that demonstrate that. Indeed, my hon. Friend highlighted many such stories during the debate. Examples include banning sparklers because they are supposedly so dangerous that no child should be allowed, even under supervision, to go anywhere near one, and banning conker fighting. Most people will recall conker fights from their school days.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op) indicated dissent.

Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. He obviously was not a conker-fighting champion, and it is clear that he carries the burden of that to this day. He should know, however, that conker fighting is a long-established sport in many schools. The notion that we can remove all danger—all possible injury or risk—from every circumstance is a concept whose time has past.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that health and safety is sometimes used as an excuse? For instance, schools banning conker fighting is probably more about staff not wanting to clear up all the broken conkers that litter the playground—I remember that from when I was child—than any particular health and safety issue. We must always be careful when conker fighting, however: a friend of mine had a stone that looked remarkably like a conker, and he won many fights using it.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that conker fighting can sometimes be done in the wrong way. I well remember the many tricks, some of which have been mentioned in the debate, including baking the conker in advance.

Mark Tami: And using vinegar.

Grant Shapps: Yes, that is a chosen way to try to harden the conker, but I must bring the hon. Gentleman some bad news in that regard: I do not believe that vinegaring conkers does make them sturdy for the purposes of conker fighting.

To be fair and balanced, I must add that there are genuine reasons why activities—conker fighting or otherwise—can and may be banned. The hon. Member

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for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) rightly pointed out that there are significant health and safety concerns about deaths that happen in the workplace and she cited a figure of 20,000 deaths each year. One death is too many, so health and safety has an important role to play.

However, this debate is about whether health and safety is used as an excuse to prevent perfectly legitimate activities taking place—my hon. Friend suggests that it is—and whether people are overcompensating for the possibility of danger in almost every activity. I am familiar with the stories we hear each year of local authorities choosing to be overly prescriptive and cautious whenever any festival is celebrated—one thinks of the royal wedding that is coming up next month. A woman was recently in the news as she had been told that she could not put bunting up outside her house because it attached to a lamp post across the way. She was told that even though she had been doing this for decades—suddenly this was deemed to be dangerous. I had heard the stories of the Christmas lights that are not put up. I had not heard about the Devon rock festival and the UFO spaceship prop, but those examples sounded bizarre.

An issue has arisen through health and safety being used as a backdrop in order to ban things. Lord Young of Graffham published his report in October, rightly pointing out that more needs to be done to rein back the overzealous use of health and safety laws to ban things. This brings us to the nub of my hon. Friend’s argument, which is that the local government ombudsman could be provided with powers, through this amendment to the way in which he operates, so that he could pare back the more extreme health and safety excesses. The Government are sympathetic to that idea, and I have indicated privately to my hon. Friend that we would like this to be done in time.

However, I now have to inform my hon. Friend that we do not think the Bill goes far enough. Lord Young’s recommendations were clear on this matter. He made a number of recommendations about the compensation culture; the low-hazard workplace; raising standards; insurance; education; health and safety legislation; and local authorities. In particular, he recommended that when local authorities ban or curtail events on health and safety grounds, the official banning the event should write about those reasons and allow them to be presented to the organiser of the proposed event. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that hearing a decision only on the day may not provide sufficient notice if a meeting takes place in the evening. That well made point demonstrates at least one of the things that needs a little further thought and investigation.

Lord Young says that his approach would allow citizens to have a route for redress when they want to challenge local officials’ decisions. He said that local authorities should conduct an internal review of all refusals on the grounds of health and safety. In other words, he proposes that we go even further in order to provide redress, saying not only that councils should provide a written statement, which would not put the event back on and which would not make any difference at all, but that there should be some kind of process whereby citizens can see what has happened and why, and have the opportunity therefore to challenge it, perhaps through the local media.

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Lord Young also says that citizens should be able to refer unfair decisions to the ombudsman and have a fast-track process to ensure that decisions can be overturned within two weeks. Again, this all depends very much on timing. The hon. Lady made the important point that some events are set up months, if not years, in advance, so putting in place some kind of fast-track process, perhaps taking no more than a couple of weeks, to examine and potentially overturn a bad decision would be a very good idea. Again, it would need to be incorporated in this legislation.

Mark Tami: The point that I was trying to make earlier was that councils use health and safety as an excuse. If it is not that, they will find some other reason to say that they cannot do it, because they did not want to do it in the first place.

Grant Shapps: That is a wise and well made point. Far too often, that is precisely what happens. As the hon. Gentleman said in his first intervention, there is an attempt to hide behind health and safety legislation in wanting to ban something while in fact having a completely different agenda. It is important that there are some powers of redress that go beyond the local authority merely explaining in writing that it has banned it, because it will trot out the usual reasons for the ban—it thought the event was dangerous for traffic, and so on—but will not give the proper and full redress that is required.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I had some slight experience of local government in the past. Does my right hon. Friend agree that he needs to look at the possibility that the local authority will, so to speak, fund it out? In other words, in order to close a road for a function—I will not name any councils, but I know of a few that tend to do this—it will come up with some exorbitant fee as an excuse, and then try to land that fee on the organisers.

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, there are often reports of precisely that, and I have seen it happen. It joins up with what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said about how it is possible to hide behind the health and safety legislation in a variety of ways. When a local authority does not want an event to happen—perhaps it feels that it is in competition with something that it is doing—one way of avoiding it is to describe the problem as one of health and safety, but the other way is to price people out of the market. That goes completely against the spirit of localism, which I will talk about in a moment. There is an idea that local communities do not know best and that only a local authority can make these decisions, and they can hide behind excessive sums of money, making it almost impossible for organisers to put on the event. That is completely wrong, and it is something else that we are keen to address that is not yet encapsulated in the terms of the Bill.

Mark Tami: I know from my own experience of a case where the council said that the police had raised objections, for a whole host of reasons. People often then say, “Well, okay, the police have a problem, so we won’t do it.” When one follows it through and contacts the police to find out what is going on, they say they do

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not know anything about it. That goes back to the fundamental point that the council will try to price it out of existence or say that it is somebody else’s fault, whereas the bottom line is that they simply do not want it to happen.

Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Too often apparently insurmountable blockages are placed in the way of organisers who, rightly, want to get out there and represent their communities. Perhaps they want to have a street party to celebrate the royal wedding or another festival, or just to bring the community together on their estate or in their neighbourhood through a community day, yet they are constantly blocked. At every turn there is a cul-de-sac—a reason why it cannot be done.

Often those reasons are entirely spurious and trumped up. The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside mentioned the interesting situation in which the police apparently did not even know that they were being used as the excuse, or alibi, and cited as the fundamental blockage. Of course, that sounds very convincing. When a local authority officer tells someone that the police have banned the event, it is very hard to challenge that. It has an air of realism or likelihood about it—it sounds official—and of course that puts off all but the most tenacious citizens. Again, that is wrong.

Mr Chope: The Minister says, and I am grateful to him for it, that there is much in the Bill that he is content with, and that he wants it to go further. Will he explain how the Government propose to deal with the legislation arising from Lord Young’s recommendations? I have proposed a number of private Members’ Bills on individual items from that list of recommendations. How will the Government proceed with the overall implementation of the recommendations?

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend should be under no illusion that we are a fundamentally deregulatory coalition Government who are keen to sweep away burdens. We want to allow people to break free, particularly in their own communities, in order to put on street parties or to change their communities through things such as neighbourhood plans. The direct answer is that we will implement the recommendations in a variety of ways, including through the Localism Bill, which has been referred to. The Bill takes forward many of Lord Young’s ideas and concepts, including through neighbourhood plans, which will allow neighbourhoods to come together and describe the kind of place that they want to be. That cannot necessarily be blocked by the town hall. Suddenly, we will find that there is the flexibility to do many more things.

Barbara Keeley: I would not want this discussion to pass without saying something in defence of my local council. Hon. Members are very unfortunate in their experiences of local councils. Salford city council runs a lot of large community events, so it must be very different. It runs proms in the park, Christmas ice skating and many firework displays. We are obviously not as risk averse in my neck of the woods as those other places. I have found that the factor that does get in the way of events such as triathlons and charity

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fundraising runs, which I am very interested in, is clashes with TV football schedules, and I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. If Manchester United are scheduled to be on TV at 3 pm, one can forget about a fun run. What is a council meant to do when the police say, “You can’t have your run and this football match”?

Grant Shapps: Again, the police and the local authority have a legitimate role in, for example, crowd management and in ensuring that events go off smoothly. The hon. Lady mentioned her authority, so I will take the liberty of mentioning mine. Welwyn Hatfield council generally does a superb job on this sort of thing. It allows fun runs and each year there is a festival called Kaleidoscope, which now attracts upwards of 10,000 people. It started as a small, grass-roots, neighbourhood festival and has grown into something much larger. I pay tribute to the many local authorities that get this right. Of course, they do have to make judgments, along with the police and other authorities, about the safety of each individual event.

Sir Paul Beresford: I hope that the Minister, in putting the legislation together, will consider the other side of the argument. When I was a council leader, we had a file labelled “N.U.T.T.E.R.”. There were vexatious individuals who used to plague the local authority for absolutely everything. The local authority has to be in a position to say no and, if the individual is persistent, to say no firmly once and for all.

Grant Shapps: I think that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend for his experience not only as a local authority leader, but of the residents who made up his local authority.

One reason I feel it is necessary to look further at this Bill, rather than rush into it, is that it raises some interesting points, such as those made by my hon. Friend just now and the shadow Minister. The question is, when is a decision reasonable and when is it not reasonable? Does the local government ombudsman have the position, knowledge or expertise to make such judgments? This is a serious point. The point of having the local government ombudsman is to provide redress for a problem that has happened, just as with the parliamentary ombudsman. Like other ombudsmen, the local government ombudsman does not usually judge whether something is within health and safety rules. To ask the ombudsman to do that would, I fear, be to ask it to create a new structure or back-office function. After all, knowing what is health and safety and what is not is usually the product of experience. It comes from the development of procedures and from an awful lot of work by the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities, safety officers and so on. If the ombudsman were suddenly plucked out to make that judgment, that would go much further than its usual role of redress. For that reason and several others, I do not feel we have our ducks in a row as far as the Bill goes.

Mr Chope: On that point, I think my right hon. Friend misreads the Bill. I want the ombudsman to adjudicate and to intervene where the process has not been complied with. I rely on the transparency of the

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process to bring to public attention the reasons for banning something, in the hope that there would not be any need for further adjudication.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to my hon. Friend again. His intervention demonstrates that there is quite a bit more work to be done before we all feel that sufficient procedures are in place and that the ombudsman would not overstep into a role of judgment on health and safety grounds, which I think would be taking things too far.

In the few minutes remaining, I wish to address some of the other comments that have been made. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South was interested to discover how we thought the Bill fitted with the idea of localism. I know that she has gained good experience—or at least experience—from the Localism Bill Committee, and that she has examined the matter carefully. We believe that localism can flourish only if we put a framework in place. If we say to people, “Just go and do whatever you want”, but there are no rules, no framework and no guidance—nothing in place at all, not even a skeleton—that is not a route to localism. The natural order would regain control and local authorities and central Government would revert to type.

We need to put limitations in place, and the Bill is in that spirit and is intended to do exactly that. It is intended to put in place a degree of control, with the possibility that citizens will have power over their local authorities rather than the other way around.

Barbara Keeley: I am fascinated to hear that the Minister thinks we should have frameworks. Perhaps he would like to tell me—it might be slightly out of context, but he has brought us on to this point—why we do not have a national planning policy framework when we do have legislation that will bring in neighbourhood plans. If neighbourhood plans can be linked to the Localism Bill, that will be important, but that Bill has almost reached Report without having a framework in it.

Grant Shapps: I do not want to try your patience by taking us too far off the subject of the local government ombudsman, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the simple answer is that we will have a national planning framework. It will be consulted on by the summer, and it will be put in place as precisely what Members are arguing for this afternoon—a framework within which everyone can operate fairly.

There is certainly a lot that is good about the Bill that we are discussing today. The intentions behind it are certainly in the right direction, but my concern is that we have not yet gone far enough for it. We have not had the opportunity to work out how the local government ombudsman would make the decisions set out in the Bill, particularly if it had a quasi-adjudicatory role, which I think it almost certainly would.

Mark Tami: Does the Minister agree that when people go to the ombudsman, they perhaps do not realise that, as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) pointed out, it is about process? It is not about outcomes, it is about whether people have been treated fairly and whether the correct steps have been taken. People who have come to me have often thought that it is more about the outcome than the process.

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Grant Shapps: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. It is often misunderstood that the ombudsman is there to look at process and not to sit as judge and jury or make up or develop case law. The Bill as currently drafted misses that point, although I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that that is not intentional. We need to do further work to ensure that the ombudsman’s role is appropriate—if, indeed, that is the way to go.

We want not only to resolve the issue and peel back the layers of health and safety, which all too often stop good community activities taking place, but to go further. We want to ensure that, throughout the country, come next month, there are street parties wherever people want them. The cost has already been mentioned, and we do not want people to pay for, for example, closing the road on the eve of the royal wedding. Some groups might want to hold a celebration on the day itself, and they have to go through the whole process and fill in all the documents again.

I am sure that many Members have been involved in such events, but for those who have not, they are not insubstantial pieces of work. The documents that must be completed before any public event can go ahead often run to 20 to 40 pages. They ask a range of questions, many of which are way beyond the remit or knowledge of the individuals who fill them in. More often than not, they are nothing to do with the type of event that is put on. Too often, they are not accessible online and people still have physically to go to the town hall to pick up the paperwork. The bureaucracy is sometimes way out of kilter with the size of the event, which can often be small and involve people in only a few dozen houses. Again, we reach the uncomfortable position whereby people are simply prevented from taking part in the big society around them. That should not happen.

The Government’s view is that local authorities should help. They should not only accept that such events can take place and that people ought to be able to do things without unnecessary intervention from the ’ealth and safety police, but encourage the events. An important part of living in a local community is having the ability to do things, not because the Government have said that people have to do them, or the local authority has decided to stage a fun day, although that is perfectly legitimate, but because local residents—the community—have got together and made the decisions. Nothing could be more powerful in helping a community develop and produce better community relations than people coming together and doing those things themselves. I call it my painting the wall test. If people paint their own wall, they have some pride in the work; if somebody else does the job, it is just another wall. Community events, which bring the entire residential community together, are enormously important.

We must sweep away the health and safety culture that far too often prevents that. The Government will seriously consider introducing plans. We need a little more time to ensure that some of the loopholes that we have identified in the important debate this afternoon are ironed out. However, I give my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch an undertaking that we will

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endeavour to do that. I would welcome the opportunity to work with him and other hon. Members to ensure that we get it right.

We believe that implementing Lord Young’s recommendations is an enormously important part of ensuring that health and safety regulations are pared down to the point where they pass the common-sense test: is the risk involved in proportion to the benefit from the activity? That is a simple test, which can easily be applied and accommodated. However, we need to go a little further, and not just write something to the event’s planner to say that it is out of order for whatever reason, but ensure that citizens have a right of redress. They should know why their event was unable to go ahead and how many such events the local authority or those nearby are cancelling. We should consider whether a power ought to be vested somewhere, notwithstanding the complications that we have discussed about the ombudsman and others—

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 13 May.

Business without Debate

Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (amendment) Bill

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

Carers (Identification and Support) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Secondtime.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June.

18 Mar 2011 : Column 668

Freedom of Information (amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Secondtime.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June.

Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Secondtime.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 21 October.

Medical Insurance (Pensioner Tax RElief) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Secondtime.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 April.

Minimum Wage (amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Secondtime.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 14 October.