In the past 10 years or more, there has been a radical change in the mix of industry, business and public service in the north-east. Much of that was led by One NorthEast, the regional development agency, and by forward-looking local authorities of all political colours working in partnership. The result was that the north-east was slightly less vulnerable when the world economic crisis hit us, but we still need major change and investment

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to ensure that the region does not slip way back to where we were in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of unemployed claimants in my constituency of Stockton North in February 2011 was 3,812. That is 9.2% of the economically active population aged 16 to 64, which is a good reason why we need growth not only for my constituency, but for the whole north-east, where 10.2% of people are unemployed.

I would like to make a final comment on the RDA—I am sure that many hon. Members will welcome my saying that. Other RDAs may not have been a resounding success, but One NorthEast was. It was an organisation that we could be proud of. It played a huge role in developing the region’s renewable industries and in helping local firms grow. More importantly for me was that it also put together strategic land and other assets—packages—to build on for the future. With the demise of One NorthEast comes the question of what will happen to its assets. I am very worried that the Government might be preparing a fire sale for billions of pounds of RDA assets, such as business parks and development land, or that they will just pool them into some central bureaucracy in London. We argue that local enterprise partnerships should have first say over the RDA assets, which would enable real local influence. LEPs currently have one hand tied behind their backs, with no dedicated funding stream to aid them with their start-up costs and initial research. That would give them a real boost and real clout. To deny them operating funds is like giving a child a toy and forgetting to put the batteries in it.

Tees Valley Unlimited, the new LEP in my area, has confirmed that it has submitted 20 bids to the Government’s regional growth fund, asking for almost £80m of support. If granted, I am told that those plans have the potential to create a significant number of jobs. However, as we know all too well, the total pot of money for the regional growth fund is not nearly enough at £1.4 billion over three years. In comparison, in 2010-11 alone, the RDA fund for one year was £1.4 billion. It is clear that the money will be spread thinly. In the first round, which closed in January, bids worth £2.78 billion were made to the regional growth fund. Clearly, many bidders will be disappointed tomorrow, when I understand that we will learn who has, and who has not, been successful.

On a more positive note, I was pleased to learn in October that the Government are committed to offshore wind and did not cut Labour’s £60 million investment in our ports to ensure that that part of the renewable industry is supported and encouraged to invest in the north-east. We have yet to see whether the Government will deliver on that. If we are to meet EU targets that require Britain to increase the proportion of electricity that comes from renewable sources, from 7% to 30% by 2020, the Government must do more on renewable industry. Despite rising unemployment and the sluggish economy, there are a few good stories in region. The Hitachi trains were mentioned earlier, and the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for investment from Sahaviriya Steel Industries in Teesside steel, will create or secure hundreds of jobs.

We wait to see whether there will be a Budget for real growth, backed by substantial resources when the Chancellor stands up tomorrow. Resources must be the key. A jobless recovery would be a disaster for our

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region, and without growth there will not be enough new jobs. So far, the Government have been much too focused on the Budget deficit, cutting too far and too fast. I hope that they have finally realised that without a genuine plan for growth and real resources, the economy will continue to be sluggish.

12.9 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to address colleagues under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh, for the first time, I believe. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this debate, and hon. Members on their interesting contributions. I wish we had more time, because I am sure that more could be added to the debate. I shall not deal with each of the speeches now but will refer to them in my comments.

It is imperative that the north-east has a strong voice in Parliament. The new generation of MPs who came into Parliament in the last general election are a powerful group who have contributed hugely to the voice of that region being heard in Parliament, and I am sure that they will continue to do that. That is enormously important when we know that regional assemblies have gone away for a while and that the Government’s focus is on local government.

The north-east is a powerful region. I was born there, and I am proud of the fact that I come from there. It has a distinct identity within England, and Ministers have to understand that. The voices that we have heard included that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who spoke about Newcastle airport. She told us how important its development has been to the region and how it has introduced so many more tourists to the area. People are able to see what a beautiful region it is and what a superb place it is to invest in.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland about the varied industries in the north-east, from the chemicals sector, which is long established on Teesside, through, of course, to coal, steel and shipbuilding, which, I am afraid is long gone. The demise of those industries under the previous Conservative Government largely forged my identity in politics. The concern of Opposition Members is that the policies that are being pursued by this Government are a rerun of policies in the 1980s. We profoundly disagreed with what happened and think that it is a mistake to repeat it.

The hon. Member for Wrexham—I am sorry, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—made some succinct comments about the deficit. Labour Members accept that it needs to be reduced, but we remember that 3.5 million people were unemployed in the United Kingdom under the previous Conservative Government, as opposed to the 2.5 million who are unemployed now. All those people received benefits that were paid from taxpayers’ money, and largely funded by the benefits the Conservatives received from the North sea oil revenues that were available at the time. That waste and spending of public money will be repeated if this Government continue with their policies, which will create a lack of confidence in the economy and business community, and less demand in the economy, less consumption by people and a smaller market. All that will lead to

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increased unemployment, increased burdens on the state and the type of long-standing depression that we had in the ’80s and again in the ’90s, when unemployment reached 3.5 million again.

Fortunately, the north-east has developed its economy since the 1980s. There has been development in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) at the Clipper site, which is a magnificent site on the banks of the Tyne, and development of the low-carbon industry in the north-east with companies such as Romag, which brings so much benefit and forward thinking to industry.

I should mention at this juncture the appalling decision by the Government to bring forward the review on feed-in tariffs, which is hugely damaging for companies such as Romag. The Government purport to know something about business, but that review will result in a lack of long-term stability for decision making. Business complains so much about that. The Government are changing a successful scheme, bringing forward a review, creating instability and creating difficulties for successful businesses that are benefiting not from state support but from direct investment, often from outside the UK. The whole industry would welcome the Government’s looking at that again.

It is important that we accept that regional development agencies are no more. I have attended several debates, and know about the success of One NorthEast. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) recognised it in an interesting speech. However, we are moving on. The Government, as they are entitled to, are talking about local enterprise partnerships now, and we need to ensure that they work for the benefit of the north-east region. We need to address what I consider to be some of the failings of LEPs.

The first failing is the lack of resources. LEPs cannot sensibly contribute to driving the region forward if they do not have the resources to set up and develop businesses in their area. It is important that the partnerships should have resources. Of course they need to work with other LEPs in the region, but it is interesting that the Government themselves are showing a lack of confidence in LEPs; for example, on the hugely important issue of broadband. The authority that will contract for the provision of broadband services in the north-east and other areas of England will not be the LEP but the local authorities in individual regions. Having so many contracting bodies trying to formulate an infrastructure for a communications industry will be complex and difficult, and relying on delivery by individual local authorities which may or may not decide to take forward applications to develop broadband services in their area is a big mistake. LEPs, which cover larger areas and which more closely involve business than some local authorities do, should have a role in formulating a policy to take that forward.

The instruments that need to be used by LEPs must be made available to them by the Government. That must include, to some extent, financing, and it must also include the ability at least to be involved in securing funding.

We have heard references to the regional growth fund. There is general agreement in this room that there should be a rebalancing of the economy. The irony of the regional growth fund is that it is not regional at all. Its approach is entirely centralising. It is based not on

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localities but on a small group of people in a centralised area making decisions for areas about which they know little. That is the tragedy of the operation of the regional growth fund.

We all know that the fund is too small. The number of bids that have been made to it do not correspond in any way to the money that was available through RDAs, and we all know, as the hon. Member for Redcar pointed out, that the limits on the application of money by the regional growth fund are such that many of the grants and support that were given to small businesses in the regions will no longer be available to them. That is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed by the Government.

The other urgent issue that needs to be addressed is the lack of investment by banks and regional bodies in business and industry. We heard a massive amount about that from the Government when they were in opposition—day in, day out—but it has largely disappeared from their public pronouncements. I regret that the only thing that this Government have done as far as investment in business is concerned is to extend Labour’s successful enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which was a strong support for business and industry at a time when it was difficult to secure investment and keep businesses going.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ian Lucas: I have only a minute left, so I cannot give way.

I remember being criticised by the Minister when I sat where he is sitting now, and I shall criticise him now, although he and I get along very well. I do not recall his criticising me for spending too much money at the time. I remember his criticising me for not getting money out more quickly in support of the car industry. I do not remember the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats opposing the introduction of the car scrappage scheme, and I do not remember their opposing any of the support that brought fundamental investment to the UK and benefited regions such as the north-east. Only now do we hear their constant mantra. The Government’s problem is that they will not reduce the deficit. They are damaging the economy in the same way as they did in the north-east in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. I hope and pray that they do not make the same mistake again.

12.20 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) not only on the debate, but on an interesting contribution. We may disagree about the outcomes and the analysis, but a debate on how to enable different parts of the United Kingdom to grow sustainably is important. This is the first time I have been described as a McCarthyite zealot, but I shall work my way through it, and the hon. Gentleman hinted that he was perhaps not fully serious. Nevertheless, I shall put that comment up on the wall and remember.

I thank other hon. Members for their contributions. We have had an excellent and balanced debate, and it has been helpful, not least because I shall be travelling

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to the north-east tomorrow night, and I am looking forward to meeting some of the businesses that have been referred to. On the tourism front, if I am allowed a couple of days off during the Easter holidays, I am hoping to start at the north-eastern end of Hadrian’s wall and to head westwards.

Alex Cunningham: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman will spend some of his money in our tourist industry in the north-east of England. Is he aware that money to promote tourism in the north-east was choked off through the regional development agency this year, and that we saw an increase in the number of visitors to Yorkshire and Cumbria to the detriment of the north-east?

Mr Prisk: The hon. Gentleman started well, before coming to a money issue. We are looking not only at the need to deal with public finances, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) accurately described, but at how they are organised as we change the landscape for public bodies. We must revisit the regional approach to tourism, allied with the RDAs’ work, which is what VisitEngland will do with local enterprise partnerships and so on. I greatly value the role of tourism, but I want to move on.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) referred to airports, and she will understand that as it is just 24 hours before the Budget, I would be wise not to pre-empt the Chancellor, not least if I hope to continue to be Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

We all share the wish of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland that the north-east enjoys sustainable and long-term economic growth, which is certainly our overriding priority. We are seeking not only to tackle the public finances, as any incoming responsible Government would need to do, but to ensure that we have a new model for growth. In practice, that means not just rebalancing the geography, challenging as that will be—I will come to RDAs and LEPs—but ensuring more sustainable roles in different sectors.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) was a Minister, and we jousted when he was, but he and his colleagues were right when they established, for example, the sector skills council, Automotive Skills, so that the Government could be a better partner. We have continued it, and that sectoral role is important. In the Budget tomorrow, we will seek not merely conventional tax and spend, but to set out the detailed work that has been undertaken throughout Whitehall on a growth review looking at manufacturing, construction, retail and other core parts of the economy, so that we have an agenda and a strategy that is the most comprehensive, pro-enterprise and pro-growth Budget for a generation.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland mentioned both at the beginning of his comments and later the role of small and medium-sized enterprises. Before I go into the specifics of the north-east’s economy and LEPs, it might be worth reminding hon. Members of the key changes that will help, and have already been announced, irrespective of what may or may not be said tomorrow. As hon. Members know, we are reducing corporation tax to 20p. We are doubling the threshold for small business rate relief, which is very

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important for businesses outside the greater south-east, so that for more smaller businesses that fixed overhead will fall instead of remaining as it is. Six months ago, we introduced the national insurance contribution holiday for new firms.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we must encourage more entrepreneurs in the north-east. I have spoken to many SMEs throughout the country, and the shift in relief for entrepreneurs—10% capital gains tax—has given a boost to people who start a business, build a business and create jobs. Taking the limit up to £5 million is an important improvement.

Mrs Hodgson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Prisk: With respect to the hon. Lady, other hon. Members have spoken and I should first respond to their points in the five minutes remaining.

The tax changes are important, and I hope that hon. Members recognise that they have been matched with a clear commitment to the Federation of Small Businesses on Friday that, for three years, microbusinesses—those with up to 10 employees—will have a three-year moratorium on all domestic regulation. Many SMEs have told me that the problem is not just one measure, but the fact that the Government constantly provide things to do when they want to get on and grow their business. That moratorium will be important, and it has been warmly welcomed. More will be said about the regulatory issue later.

My opposite number, the hon. Member for Wrexham—for a moment, I thought there had been a geographical shift when he referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham as the hon. Member for Wrexham—talked about finance. He was right to say that there are issues. We have extended the enterprise finance guarantee, which is a scheme that needed to be extended, and we are proud that we have ensured an additional capital opportunity of some £2 billion. That should help about 6,000 additional viable businesses. We have gone further and put another £200 million to one side for capital for equity investment programmes. Those are important plans to help high-growth businesses throughout the UK. In addition, we have managed to secure from the banks a £1.5 billion growth fund to inject into SMEs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that those are important changes.

Mrs Hodgson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Prisk: With respect to the hon. Lady, I have three minutes left. She did not make a contribution to the debate, and I must respond to hon. Members who spoke.

On the balance, there are challenges in the north-east, and no one denies that, but we should recognise that manufacturing there is doing well. A survey by British Chambers of Commerce shows that for the most recent quarter manufacturing grew most quickly in the north-east out of all the regions. Hon. Members have rightly referred to the decision on Tata Steel and Sahaviriya Steel Industries, and we hope that it will progress in the next few days or weeks, so that the agreement that was tragically mothballed a while back will be developed. Some 800 jobs will be created at the site, which will sit alongside the existing 700 jobs, but that is not all. There

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is a £420 million investment by Nissan, and the Hitachi development in County Durham, which are very welcome and very important.

I turn to RDAs and LEPs, where there may be a difference. No one denies that the RDAs, including One NorthEast, made successful and worthwhile ventures during their time—I accept that—but in 11 years, that agency received £2.7 billion to spend, and the reality is that the gap between the north-east and elsewhere grew. The reality of the gross value added—the measure per person—is that when it started it was approximately 83% of the national average in the north-east. Eleven years later, having spent £2.7 billion, it fell to 78%. It has not only not improved, but gone backwards.

There is a challenge, and the two partnerships that have been created, which I greatly welcome and am looking forward to meeting tomorrow and Thursday, have an opportunity to address their local priorities rather than what we think is best for them, which is an important shift. They can work together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) has rightly pointed out, because they do not need Government permission to do so. I have every confidence that the business and civic communities will make that alliance and work together. We will set out the specific actions that they will be able to undertake. I will respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar in writing about the regional growth fund.

The enterprise zones, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) has campaigned on—

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order.

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12.30 pm

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): In January, a cross-party group of eight UK parliamentarians, including myself, visited Pakistan to look at the challenges facing that country. Given the close historical, economic and social ties between our two nations—over 1 million people living in the UK trace their roots to Pakistan, and that country is on the front line in the war on terror—getting the policy towards Pakistan right is crucial to the UK.

The aims of the visit were to give UK politicians a better understanding of the democratic challenges facing our parliamentary colleagues in the national and provincial assemblies, to understand the impact of amendment 18 on the constitution, to energise existing bilateral links, and to learn more about the work of the UK Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the British Council in Pakistan.

All those in the delegation hope for a longer and broader debate on UK Government policy on Pakistan in the future, and I am sure that other hon. Members in the Chamber will wish to participate in that. Today, however, I will focus my remarks on one specific issue: the murder on 2 March of Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, and the plight of Christians in Pakistan.

During our visit, our delegation met Shahbaz Bhatti in the Ministry for Minorities. We discussed a range of issues, including interfaith dialogue and the murder of the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim politician who was killed by one of his bodyguards after he criticised Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian in the Pakistani Cabinet, but he stood up for all minorities in Pakistan and wanted to see the tolerant, liberal and secular country envisaged by the country’s founding father, Jinnah, who said

“let all people worship freely in churches, masjids and temples.”

I will explain a bit more about Shahbaz Bhatti and his work. From 2008 until his assassination at the age of 42, he was the first Federal Minister responsible for minorities. At the time of his appointment, he said that he had accepted that post for the sake of

“the oppressed, down-trodden and marginalised”

of Pakistan, and that he would dedicate his life to

“struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities.”

He added that he wanted to send

“a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair.”

During his time as a Federal Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti took steps in support of religious minorities. Under his guidance, the Government introduced for minorities affirmative action regarding 5% of all federal employment, and designated 11 August as a holiday to celebrate minorities. The sale of properties belonging to minorities while law enforcement authorities took action against them was banned, and a national campaign was launched to promote interfaith harmony through seminars, awareness groups and workshops. Shahbaz Bhatti initiated comparative religious classes in schools and universities, introduced a prayer room for non-Muslims in the prison system, and started a 24-hour crisis hotline to report

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acts of violence against minorities. He began a campaign to protect religious artefacts and sites belonging to minorities.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was also a critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and that was what led to his recent and untimely murder. He had been the recipient of death threats since 2009 when he spoke in support of Pakistani Christians attacked in the 2009 Gojra riots in Punjab, and those threats increased following his support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate and I have some brief comments. I accompanied him to Pakistan some weeks ago, and had the pleasure of meeting Shahbaz Bhatti. From that visit, we learned that the country is more progressive than one might have initially anticipated. Some laws are very progressive, such as the 18th amendment that concerns devolving power and money to provinces and regions. This Government, and the previous Government, could learn from that.

It is not for us to tell other countries what laws to have, but the issue with the blasphemy law is not so much the law itself but rather the interpretation of that law, both formally and informally. Formally, the penalties linked to the law are far too severe, and informally—this is the problem—

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order. This is an intervention. Please bring it to a close.

Simon Danczuk: The interpretation of the blasphemy law is the problem.

Andrew Stephenson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he pointed out, we met Shahbaz Bhatti during our visit to Pakistan and we saw different sides to the country. Some things filled us with hope for the future, and some things led to real concern. That is why I hope that we can have a longer debate in which all hon. Members may participate fully and relate their experiences of the country.

Asia Bibi is a 45-year-old mother of five from Punjab province. She has become the first Christian woman to be convicted and sentenced to death, by hanging, under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. As of today, she remains in jail despite many people acknowledging that she was falsely accused of blasphemy, and repeated international calls for her release.

According to the BBC, on the day he was murdered, Shahbaz Bhatti was travelling to work through a residential district having just left his mother’s home, when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets. At the time of the attack he was alone and without any security. The group Tehrik-i-Taliban—the Pakistani Taliban—told the BBC that it carried out the attack, and it left pamphlets at the scene stating that it had done so because Shahbaz Bhatti was a “known blasphemer.”

The assassination was condemned by the Pakistani Government, whose spokesman stated:

“This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan.”

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President Zardari vowed to combat the forces of obscurantism and said,

“we will not be intimidated nor will we retreat.”

The Government declared three days of mourning and Prime Minister Gillani led a two-minute silence in Parliament.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of Release International and Open Doors, two organisations that work on behalf of Christians in Pakistan, highlighting and cataloguing brutality against them by radical groups. Does he feel it is important for our Government to convey to Pakistan in strong terms that something must be done on behalf of Christians in Pakistan, to ensure that they are not subjected to authoritarian and critical blasphemy laws?

Andrew Stephenson: I agree. There are growing calls across the country from people of all faiths saying that we must engage more effectively with the Pakistani Government, and that the rights of all citizens must be respected, whether they are Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian or of no faith at all. The rights of all Pakistanis must be respected.

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He will know that as vice-chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, I was due to host an event with Shahbaz Bhatti in this House, just a few weeks before he was assassinated. Unfortunately, he had to return to Pakistan because of the instability of the Government. My hon. Friend will also know that I visited Islamabad recently. I am sure that, like me, he has received a huge number of e-mails and letters from the Pakistani diaspora in Britain, where people are equally outraged about the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti. Does he agree that we have a responsibility to ensure that the voice of those people is heard, and that their condemnation is relayed to the Pakistani Government, urging them to take action?

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I agree that we must work across faiths. I think that all people recognise that Shahbaz Bhatti was not just a Christian, but one of Pakistan’s most progressive politicians. His death is a blow not just to the Pakistani Christian community, but to all Pakistanis and to the nation of Pakistan.

Following Shahbaz Bhatti’s death, I tabled early-day motion 1518 not just to condemn his murder, but to recognise the work that he had done in Pakistan and to urge the Government of Pakistan to consider reviewing section 295 of the Pakistani penal code, commonly referred to as the blasphemy laws. I am pleased to see that as of this morning my early-day motion has gained the support of 82 other Members of Parliament.

The blasphemy laws were first introduced by the British in 1860 in a mild form that gave equal protection to all faiths and provided for a maximum sentence of two years in jail. Unfortunately, they were given their present form by General Zia ul-Haq in 1986. There is now a mandatory life sentence for desecrating the Koran and a death sentence for blaspheming Mohammed. Unlike the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 in the UK, which prohibits people from stirring up hatred against religious groups or individuals on religious grounds, the Pakistani blasphemy laws protect the Islamic scriptures and the person of Mohammed from criticism or insult.

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Although all of Pakistan’s population of 170 million people are subject to the blasphemy laws, it is worth remembering that religious minorities make up only about 4% of that number.

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate and on his work as chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his moving words last Thursday at the memorial service for Shahbaz Bhatti. Like other colleagues, I had met him; in fact, I met him two weeks before his untimely death and was extremely impressed by him. The practical point that I want to make is that it needs to be pointed out continually—I think that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) was coming to this point—that the majority of people affected by the blasphemy laws are Muslims. People use the laws quite often in vexatious business disputes to get rid of the person with whom they are arguing on a trumped-up charge, while they carry through the business deal that they wanted. If we are to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis, who are the only ones who can alter those laws, we need continually to be pointing out that yes, the treatment of Christians is appalling, but equally many Muslims in Pakistan suffer from the abuse of the laws by their fellow co-religionists.

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my hon. Friend for that point.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is about Government policy on Pakistan. I have visited Islamabad myself. I visited the Nowshera region, the flood-hit region to the north of Islamabad, in November and I went on to Kashmir—to Mirpur and Dadyal. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to hear my hon. Friend the Minister reaffirm the Government’s position—their stated thoughts—on the situation in Kashmir, because if we are to have security and peace and an end to the violent murder in Pakistan that we are hearing about, it would be a great asset—a great positive move forward—if there were peace and stability in Kashmir as well. That is a real cause of instability in the region.

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for their contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood is exactly right to say that the majority of people affected by the blasphemy laws are Muslims. However, we have seen a disproportionate effect on some of the minority communities. Also, even simple allegations made under the blasphemy laws have quite often led to mob violence that has killed many hundreds in Pakistan before cases have ever come to court.

There was an interesting article by the daughter of Salmaan Taseer in The Guardian recently. Shehrbano Taseer wrote that

“more than 500 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others have been charged under the laws.

Thirty-two of those accused—and two Muslim judges—have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes.”

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That was before the trials were heard. It is worrying that religious zealots in Pakistan have now deemed man-made laws non-negotiable, with a very real threat of death hanging over anyone who disagrees.

I would therefore welcome the Minister’s comments on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan and, more importantly, as other hon. Members have pointed out, their abuse and misuse in the settling of scores and other disputes against Christians and other minorities in the country. I hope that he will agree that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with those of all faiths who want to see a debate about reform of the laws, so that they can no longer be used as a tool of oppression against Christians and other minority groups.

I met a group of Pakistani Christians on Sunday 13 March at Woodlands Road Baptist chapel in Nelson in my constituency. In addition to many Pakistani Christians who live in Pendle, such as David Dean, who organised the event, we were joined by others, including Canon Yacub Masih and Wilson Chowdhry from the British Pakistani Christian Association. I know that the Minister is aware that a number of Pakistani Christians live in Pendle, as some time ago, before the election, he attended an event at which some of them were present. I know that he will remember talking to them.

At the meeting, I heard from many about their shock at the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, but also about their desire that his death should be a wake-up call not just for the Pakistani Government, but for the international community. Those at the meeting felt that there was no better illustration of the rising problems of anti-Christian discrimination in Pakistan than the murders of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti over reform of the blasphemy laws.

Concerns were also expressed about whether the UK could not do more, given the amount of money that we give Pakistan in foreign aid. As the Minister will be aware, that issue was picked up by Cardinal Keith O’Brien last week, when he criticised the Government for increasing overseas aid to Pakistan to more than £445 million without demanding religious freedom for Christians and other minorities, such as Shi’a Muslims. Cardinal O’Brien was quoted in the press as saying:

“I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.”

Although I share the cardinal’s concern about the plight of Christians in Pakistan, I am not sure whether withdrawing or cutting aid in response to Shahbaz Bhatti’s death would be the most productive thing to do right now. I would, however, welcome the Minister’s comments on what the cardinal said, because many people would agree with them.

To date, no one has been arrested and brought to justice over Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, which makes matters even more painful for the religious minorities that hold him in such high regard. It is of course possible that the security services in Pakistan and the Government do not know who the killers are or where they are. However, with no one being arrested and held accountable for so many other incidents of violence against minorities, such as in Sangla Hill in 2005—

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and the concern of many that it seems that the

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gentleman who was murdered had requested a bullet-proof car and bodyguards just a few days beforehand? None of those requests was agreed to, and shortly after that he was murdered. Is there not concern about that as well?

Andrew Stephenson: Many have raised those concerns. Having visited Pakistan and seen the security available not just to Ministers but to all politicians in the country, at provincial level as well as national level, it strikes me as somewhat unusual, shall I say, that on the day when Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered, he had no security and no armoured car to use on the way to work.

That no one has been brought to justice for Shahbaz Bhatti’s death is a real concern for many. As I was saying, there have been so many incidents in the country— not just against individuals but much larger incidents, such as in Sangla Hill in 2005 and in Gojra in 2009, and no arrests have been made for those incidents.

In the time allowed, I have tried my best to describe the situation in Pakistan. I could have added numerous other incidents of persecution. Many were detailed to me by Pakistani Christians now living in this country. I believe that the only way in which we will see Pakistan become a liberal and tolerant nation, which values and treats all its citizens fairly, is through increasing rates of education in the country. I was therefore pleased to see an increasing focus on education in DFID’s recent aid review. The Minister may like to touch on that in his reply. The Government of Pakistan also need to do more to reverse the gun culture, to promote tolerance and to ensure that no part of the Government, the military or the security services appeases or supports extremists.

I pay tribute to organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the British Pakistani Christian Association and many others, which do so much good work in promoting interfaith harmony and raising the profile of issues such as those I have outlined, which would rarely make it into the British press without their help.

By focusing only on Christian and minority rights, I fear I have painted a fairly bleak picture of Pakistan and its future, but that was not my intention. With the right leaders, things can and will change for the better. The country has so much potential, and we need to work with it to ensure that issues such as those I have outlined are resolved. In doing so, we will ensure that Shahbaz Bhatti did not die in vain, but gave his life to make Pakistan a greater and more tolerant nation.

12.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) for securing the debate. Many colleagues in the Chamber also went on the visit to Pakistan and share our communal passion for Pakistan, and I thank them, too, for their contributions.

Time is desperately short, and colleagues will understand if I am not able to answer all the questions that have been raised, but I do want to make some remarks. I also want to put on record my appreciation for my hon.

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Friend’s work as chair of the all-party group on Pakistan and for the fact that he raised this subject during the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s visit earlier this year.

Time is tight, so let me say just a couple of things about the relationship between our two countries before turning to the meat of my hon. Friend’s remarks. The United Kingdom and Pakistan are close and historic friends and partners, and that partnership is set to continue. Nearly 1 million British citizens claim Pakistani heritage. More than £1 billion of trade flows between our two countries each year. There are 1.4 million journeys between Pakistan and the UK each year. We are building on the many strong ties we share.

At the end of his remarks, my hon. Friend said that he had focused on one area of our relationship and that he feared he had given a negative impression of Pakistan, but I can assure him that those of us who are friends of Pakistan recognise that there are many parts to our relationship, and we will continue to build on our history, our extensive cultural and business links and all the deep family connections. My hon. Friend need have no fear that his remarks will be misinterpreted.

The Pakistani diaspora in the UK makes a huge contribution to our national life, including our Parliament, our schools, our legal system and our universities. Its members make a remarkable contribution in the media, business, sports, entertainment and many other areas. It is clear that the British Pakistani community has offered, and will continue to offer, much to this country.

Pakistan faces many challenges. Last year’s flooding prompted a huge outpouring of support from this country. That support came not only from the Government but from churches, mosques and every community in the UK. The Government provided £134 million, giving a very strong sense of support.

Our bilateral aid review indicates that UK aid to Pakistan is likely to more than double to an average of £350 million a year until 2015. That will help to tackle poverty and, with the Pakistani Government, build a stable, prosperous and democratic Pakistan. The country faces economic challenges, and we are working with its Government to tackle them. We support the difficult reforms that Pakistan seeks to introduce. We also have strong links in terms of combating terrorism, which afflicts us both and which has echoes in some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), in particular, discussed the situation in Kashmir. The Government’s long-standing position is that it is very much a matter for the Indian and Pakistani Governments to deal with, although we understand the wish for self-determination among the people of Kashmir. We continue to encourage the parties to do as much as they can to deal with the situation—it is clearly difficult, and that has been the case for a long time—so that Kashmiri people have the opportunities they seek. We will encourage that dialogue wherever we can, but it is not the UK’s position to mediate in that situation.

Let me turn now to freedom of religion, which was at the heart of the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle. The many links between the UK and Pakistan mean that we engage with each other on many subjects, such as counter-terrorism, security policy, trade, development and the rule of law. A theme that underlies

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all that is human rights, which is critical to the conduct of UK foreign policy. It is as relevant to our relationship with Pakistan as it is to our relationship with many other countries. We do not shirk our responsibilities to highlight our concerns about human rights to our friends. We will raise our concerns about human rights wherever and whenever they occur, without compromise. We are improving and strengthening the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on human rights. That will be underpinned by British values and by our support for democratic freedoms, universal human rights and the rule of law.

My hon. Friend has set out compelling reasons why freedom of religion and the rights of minority groups are issues on which we need to speak out. It is vital that the Government of Pakistan uphold the fundamental rights of all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their faiths or belief. Pakistan can benefit only if all its citizens can play a central role in society. All Pakistani citizens should be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination or persecution, regardless of their religious beliefs or their ethnic group. I can assure my hon. Friend and all hon. Members present that we regularly reinforce the importance of upholding those fundamental rights to colleagues at all levels in the Government of Pakistan.

The Government of Pakistan have taken some positive actions on the rights of minority groups. They have reserved quotas for minorities in the public sector and Parliament. They have set up a complaints procedure for those encountering discrimination or abuse. Through our lobbying and project work, we will continue to support those who wish to see reform in Pakistan. Worryingly, however, allegations continue that the blasphemy legislation is being misused against Muslims and non-Muslims. That abuse often results in prison sentences for those accused of blasphemy, and we continue to hear of cases in which those accused of blasphemy offences have died in custody.

As well as raising the wider issues of freedom of religion and minority rights, we continue to engage directly with the authorities in Pakistan in relation to Asia Bibi. She was found guilty under the blasphemy laws and is the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. In December 2010, I raised Asia Bibi’s case with the former Pakistani Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. I have also discussed the blasphemy laws with the Pakistan high commissioner in London. Baroness Warsi highlighted our position to the Speaker of the National Assembly in Pakistan when they met on 17 January.

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Those who champion such values in Pakistan are now under threat. The assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad on 4 January was shocking. He was a strong advocate of religious tolerance and of the importance of reforming the blasphemy legislation to prevent its misuse. The scenes of congratulation following his murder and the behaviour of the lawyers who strewed rose petals in the path of his killer outside the courts were sickening, and those involved are a lasting disgrace to their profession.

Shahbaz Bhatti spoke out courageously on the issue before us, and his assassination marked a new low point in Pakistan’s struggle against violent religious extremism. He was a powerful voice against extremism and a fearless voice for tolerance and respect for minorities. His death is a tragic loss for Pakistan and for us all. I met him on a number of occasions as a fellow Minister, and also as a believer in the rights of minorities and a Christian. I did all I could to support my friend in his difficult role and in his attempts to revise his country’s blasphemy laws. It is deeply saddening that his courage in urging peaceful, moderate change was met with such violence. This was an attack not only on a dedicated Government Minister but on the people of Pakistan and their future. I was proud to speak at his memorial service last week. Following his murder, the Prime Minister wrote to express his condolences to President Zardari. The Foreign Secretary, Baroness Warsi and I all made statements condemning his killing.

The Christian community in the UK is correctly very active in supporting the persecuted Church wherever it is under pressure. I commend the work of the Barnabas Fund, Open Doors and others in this field. As a member of the board of patrons of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, I understand these issues very well. The Government will take up cases and we will do more work, including, I hope, a Wilton Park conference.

I wish the solution was as simple as a declaration of freedom of religion that was instantly acceptable and enforceable in any society with which we have contact. However, the sad truth is that that is not the case, and nor will it be, no matter how loudly we shout about it. We are talking about conservative societies that are fearful of change. We are sensitive and patient in addressing their fears, and we recognise that our overt intervention may be harmful or dangerous. However, we wish to make sure that we continue to raise these issues and work with people in these countries in the way they think best, so that we can free people from religious persecution and fear. In that way, we can get to the position we all want. I commend my hon. Friend for raising this issue.

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Cross-border Child Custody

1 pm

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I want to use this debate to highlight a case that shows that our legal system has badly failed one of my constituents, Mr Robert Bennett. I raised his case in an Adjournment debate on 4 December 2007, when there were ongoing legal proceedings in England and Scotland involving the custody of my constituent’s child. He has now exhausted all remedies in the courts, but there are legal issues that I want to discuss. I rely heavily on the advice given to my constituent by Mr Alan Inglis, a barrister and advocate, who has considerable experience of family law in the courts of Scotland and England.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. Mr Bennett married and had a child. The family lived in Aberdeen, and therefore were habitually resident in Scotland. Without Mr Bennett’s knowledge, his wife left the matrimonial home in September 2000 with the child and moved to London. He did not know her exact whereabouts and at no time did he consent to his daughter’s removal. A few months after Mrs Bennett left the family home, she commenced legal proceedings in Willesden county court, where she obtained an ex parte residence order and an order preventing Mr Bennett from removing the child from her care.

A key part of the law that determines such matters is the Family Law Act 1986. Section 41 is the key part here, and I can summarise its effect as follows: where a child under the age of 16 is moved from, for example, Scotland to England, as in this case, then in certain circumstances a court in England would have jurisdiction to deal with any issue relating to the child after one year has elapsed. One of those circumstances is set out in subsection (2)(a), which states that it is required to be shown that there is

“the agreement of the person or all the persons having, under the law of that part of the United Kingdom, the right to determine where he is to reside”.

In this case, that means both parents. Mrs Bennett had effectively abducted the child from Scotland to England, and Mr Bennett, as a legal guardian of the child, had not given his consent.

Mrs Bennett made her application to the court before the year set out in the legislation had expired, and Mr Bennett also entered appearance in the case within the time limit. Notwithstanding those facts, the judge in the Willesden court made an order in favour of Mrs Bennett. It is clear that none of the lawyers involved at that stage—the solicitors or the judge—properly understood the implications of the 1986 Act, or, for that matter, indicated that they were even aware of its existence.

Mrs Bennett’s solicitors had a duty to the court as well as to their client, and should not have raised the action, because any interpretation of the Act would make it clear that the Willesden court had no jurisdiction. The judge should not have granted the order, and Mr Bennett’s solicitors should not have neglected to raise the point of jurisdiction before the court, despite his explicit instructions. I should add that Mr Bennett took action subsequently against his solicitors for that neglect and received an award of compensation.

That was the first stage before the one-year period had expired. As the case moved through its various stages, it seems clear that none of the judges who later

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considered it looked very closely at Mr Bennett’s rights under the legislation as a parent and legal guardian of his daughter. The 1986 Act provides that

“Where a child…becomes habitually resident outside that part of the United Kingdom...he shall be treated for the purposes of this Part as continuing to be habitually resident in that part of the United Kingdom for a period of one year beginning with the date under which those circumstances arise.”

That section therefore applies only where the child has already become habitually resident in another part of the UK, and it postpones the legal effect of that habitual residence for a period of one year. Correctly construed, it does not operate as a time limit of one year on habitual residence as held later by the Court of Appeal in England.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of examples similar to the one that he clearly outlines? Is this an isolated case or do many others fall into this category?

Mr Doran: There are lots of examples of couples splitting up and moving to different jurisdictions, but, as far as I am aware, this is the only case in which the 1986 Act has not been properly construed—at least, that is my allegation.

In Mr Bennett’s case, for the child to have become habitually resident in England and, therefore, to give the English courts jurisdiction, both parents would have been required to consent, and even then there would have been a delay in operation of one year. There is ample legal authority to show that habitual residence cannot be changed by the unilateral action of a parent who shares parental responsibility with another. That is also the law in Scotland, and it follows that the courts in England have never had jurisdiction in this case because both parents had not given their consent.

Despite those facts, at every stage in the court proceedings in England, from the judge at first instance through to the Court of Appeal, section 41 has been interpreted as giving the English courts jurisdiction as soon as the child’s stay in England had exceeded one year. In its judgment, the Court of Appeal, through Lord Justice Wall, said:

“on the facts of this case Section 41 ceased to have effect in September 2001”.

As additional cover, the court also argued that even though there was no jurisdiction, the original decision was not a nullity. Lord Justice Wall said:

“The normal rule about orders, which on their face are regular, but which are in fact made without jurisdiction, is that they remain in force until they are discharged”.

He quoted the case of Hadksinson v. Hadksinson in 1952, but I am advised that it is questionable whether that case supports the Court of Appeal’s position. The ratio decidendi of that case is that there is an

“unqualified obligation of every person against…whom an order has been made by a court of competent jurisdiction to obey it until it is discharged”.

The difference between that case and Mr Bennett’s case is that the Willesden court was not

“a court of competent jurisdiction”.

I have been directed to “Halsbury’s Laws of England—as a Scottish lawyer by training, I am not very familiar with it—and page 314, chapter 10 of the fourth edition says:

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“Where a court takes upon itself to exercise a jurisdiction which it does not possess, its decision amounts to nothing”.

When it was clear to Mr Bennett how the English courts were dealing with his case, he raised the issue in the Scottish courts by raising an action of divorce. I will not go through all the processes, but the case eventually reached the inner house of the Court of Session, having started its processes in the Aberdeen sheriff court. The inner house decision is directly in conflict with that of the Court of Appeal. Among other points, it noted that the order that initiated the proceedings in England was made without jurisdiction—a very clear statement. It agreed that the habitual residence of the child of a marriage cannot be changed without the consent of both parents. It doubted that the effect of section 41 of the 1986 Act was automatically to change habitual residence one year after an abduction. It recorded the failure of the English courts to hold a welfare hearing during the whole period when the matter was before them, despite a recommendation from Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that it was necessary, which is quite a serious matter. However, the inner house of the Court of Session also accepted that

“the Court of Appeal considers that the English courts have jurisdiction to make orders respecting the child with which this divorce action is concerned”.

The word “considers” is very important. The inner house does not cede jurisdiction, but recognises that the English court thinks it has jurisdiction. It is clear that the inner house of the Court of Session did not wish to get into a direct conflict with the English courts, and it has been tactful and diplomatic in the way in which it has questioned the decisions of the English courts.

Over the years, I have written to the Ministry of Justice and the Scottish Government about the apparent conflict in the law. I understand that meetings were held between representatives of the Scottish Government and the Ministry of Justice. I have not been formally advised of the conclusions of those meetings, although I received a brief letter from Scotland’s deputy Justice Secretary, who said that the meetings had concluded that section 41 of the 1986 Act did not require changing. It was as blunt as that. That view is probably correct.

As I pointed out earlier, the problem seems to be one of interpretation and application rather than the legislation itself. However, I am deeply concerned about the way in which the courts have acted in this case and the impact that the decision of the Court of Appeal could have in other cases. I find it extraordinary that all the lawyers involved in the initial proceedings in the Willesden court could either be so ignorant of the legal position in such cross-border cases or so easily misinterpret the legal position.

As the case moved on through the system, all the arguments that I have presented today were presented by Mr Bennett, my constituent. Part of the tragedy is that once he had discharged the lawyers who so wrongly advised him and who refused to carry out his instructions, Mr Bennett found it virtually impossible to find another solicitor to represent him, and he was forced to represent himself. He is a very single-minded individual and has become extremely knowledgeable in this area of law.

Reading through the various judgments, it is quite clear that the judges viewed Mr Bennett as an obsessive who was more concerned about legal principles or niceties than his daughter. I get the impression that he

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was not taken seriously. He desperately wanted contact with his daughter and felt that he was the more suitable parent to look after the child. He also strongly believed that it should be for the Scottish courts to decide the matter. It is probably fair to say that he was not learned in the law and did not treat judges with the respect that they are used to. He also became frustrated at what he believed was their refusal to consider his arguments.

I have had the opportunity to meet Mr Bennett and his child, who is disabled. He visited my office several times with the child on a previous matter. When we spoke about the difficulties that he was having with this case, I was in no doubt that he had a strong relationship with his daughter and was able to care for her. He and his wife—they are not divorced—split care between them, and he made quite a contribution to the care of the child in the household. Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity to have his side of the argument on residency or access considered by the court.

In Scotland, the inner house of the Court of Session made it clear that the court could have been obliged to consider the interests of the welfare of the child by carrying out the usual investigations and having an appropriate hearing regardless of the other issues in the case. The courts in England took no action in this respect. In addition, Mr Bennett was told by a legal adviser that if he tabled a motion on residency or contact, it would prejudice his argument on jurisdiction. He would effectively cede jurisdiction to the English court. That matter needs to be considered seriously by the Minister.

Cases such as Mr Bennett’s are not that unusual. What is unusual is his tenacity in pursuing this point of law. It is wrong that, in all the years while the English courts were considering the matter, no consideration was given to the interest of the welfare of the child—apart, of course, from Mr Bennett’s continuing interest in maintaining contact with his daughter.

I practised in the Scottish courts for a number of years, and family and child care law were my special areas of interest. I have not held a practising certificate since 1988 and do not claim any special expertise, but I do know that the guiding principle in all child care cases is and should always be the paramountcy of the welfare and interests of the child. Those interests cannot be met if a court has a case before it for about four years and does not itself inquire into that child’s situation. I am not significantly well versed in English law to know whether that suggested failure is a failure of the various courts in this case or a failure of the system, but I believe that the Minister should look into the matter urgently.

As I said earlier, Mr Bennett was put in an invidious position, because he was told by legal advisers that if he tabled a motion on contact or care and control, he would prejudice his case on jurisdiction. He should not have faced that dilemma. If they do not already have the power to investigate a child’s situation of their own volition—I suspect that they do—the courts in England should have that power, without prejudice to any other issue before them.

When there is a clear conflict between the decisions of the courts in England and Scotland, public confidence in the system requires there to be a proper inquiry. I do not know what understanding was reached by the Scottish and English civil servants who met to discuss this case,

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but I do know that nothing has been published. It is not enough to say that everything is okay and that everything is working fine, when clearly it is not. I should like a report published on the discussions that took place and on the details of the conclusions that were reached and why they were reached.

Of course, there is another way to resolve this case: to take the matter to the Supreme Court. That might seem appropriate, given the conflict between the two jurisdictions. Unfortunately, when Mr Bennett and his advisers—he now has legal advice—attempted to take the case from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, his application was refused.

Without fully understanding all the mechanics, the idea that courts in Scotland dealing with the same circumstances and the same legislation could be in complete conflict with the courts in England is difficult for the lay person to understand. It is extremely regrettable that this important issue has not been considered by the Supreme Court. I know how important it is that politicians do not interfere in any way whatever with the judicial process, but I believe that a number of serious matters need to be fully considered, and the best place for that is the final court of appeal of both civil jurisdictions—the Supreme Court.

The issues that I have raised primarily affect my constituent and his daughter, who is denied access to her father. However, breakdown of marriage and movement between jurisdictions is not uncommon in our society. I believe that the courts in England have got the interpretation of the law completely wrong as it is applicable to this case. Now that the case is concluded, I hope that the Minister will agree that a serious injustice has been done and that Mr Bennett is fully entitled to feel that the legal system has let him and his daughter down badly. It is incumbent on our legal system and the Government to do something to correct the situation. As I said, changes do not necessarily need to be made to the Family Law Act 1986—unless section 41 can be amended so that it is more clearly understood, particularly by lawyers.

I ask the Minister to give serious thought to the matters that I have raised today, and to consider how we can move forward, so that the case of B v. B does not stand as a precedent to be applied in similar cases of conflict.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this debate. It has enabled him to raise the concerns of his constituent on the difficulties that can arise when a child is taken from the part of the United Kingdom where he or she is habitually resident. May I say how sensitively he put his constituent’s case? He did so in the personal context a concerned parent. That should not be forgotten.

At the outset, I should make it clear that in all cases involving a child’s upbringing—including where the child should reside and who should have contact with the child, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said—the court’s paramount consideration must always be the welfare of the child. The welfare of the child should be

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paramount in all cases involving decisions about his or her life. The welfare of the child is paramount in the law in all parts of the United Kingdom. English courts are required to consider the child’s situation and hear any application made by a parent; the courts can also make orders on their own initiative, as required under the Children Act 1989.

The Government appreciate that disputes about arrangements for children—for instance, where the child is to reside, contact and the continuing involvement of both parents in the child’s life—will be extremely upsetting for all concerned, and will frequently be damaging for the child. The Government firmly believe that it is in the best interests of the child for both parents to continue to be involved with his or her upbringing, and for both parents to have regular contact with the child, provided it is safe.

The Government are conducting a review of the family justice system in England and Wales, and one consideration is increasing contact between children and the non-resident parent following divorce or relationship breakdown. The serious problems that can arise for parents in maintaining a relationship with their children when a relationship has broken down will be increased if the child is moved from one part of the UK to another. There is then a cross-border element in the family situation. The hon. Gentleman made clear the distress caused to his constituent by the circumstances surrounding the removal of his child and subsequent events. When a child is taken without consent, it inevitably causes great distress for the parent who is left behind. The parent can also be left facing considerable difficulties in obtaining the return of their child. As the child has been moved from one part of the UK to another, the parent has to deal with the question of which court will have jurisdiction. The Family Law Act 1986 provides rules of jurisdiction in the different territorial parts of the UK. The primary rule is that the courts of the part of the UK where the child is habitually resident will have jurisdiction in any proceedings regarding the child. That much is clear.

Identifying habitual residence is a question of fact for the courts. However, the 1986 Act contains rules to prevent a person who removes a child from his or her habitual residence without consent from benefiting from that wrong. That benefit could occur if the person could take advantage of any change in the child’s habitual residence resulting from the unlawful move to claim that another part of the UK now had jurisdiction. Allowing jurisdiction to change immediately in those circumstances would encourage child abduction, which is clearly contrary to a child’s welfare. Lengthy disputes about which courts should hear a case delay resolution for the child and are also clearly not in the child’s best interests. It is important that clear rules exist to prevent abuse of jurisdiction through child abduction.

As the hon. Gentleman describes, section 41 of the Family Law Act 1986 deals explicitly with the situation in which a child under the age of 16 who is habitually resident in one part of the UK becomes resident in another part without the agreement of all the people who have the right to determine where the child should reside. In those circumstances, the 1986 Act provides that the child shall be treated as still habitually resident in the part of the United Kingdom from which he or she was removed for a period of one year from the date

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of removal. In practice, that usually means that the courts of the part of the UK in which the parent from whom the child was taken lives will have jurisdiction over any proceedings regarding the child during that year even if the child becomes habitually resident elsewhere. To ensure that children are always protected, a court in the jurisdiction in which a child is present can take urgent, provisional action to protect the child.

In that way, the 1986 Act promotes child protection; it discourages wrongful removal of children by removing any jurisdictional advantage that the person removing the child hopes to gain. The Act also provides an important protection for the parent who did not consent to the child being taken, as the person has a significant period of time in which to challenge the removal of the child and to make an application to the courts of the child’s original habitual residence for the child to be returned. Once jurisdiction is accepted by the correct court, it will consider the merits of the case in the light of the child’s welfare. That may or may not involve a return of the child to the original habitual residence. The court will consider with whom the child will live, and how contact with the non-resident parent should be supported.

Mr Doran: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he is explaining this situation, but he is talking about when the law is operating as it should. What I am dealing with is a situation in which the law has not operated as it should.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I was coming on to that. However, I will say now that it is accepted that the original English without-notice decision was made without jurisdiction. However, there were numerous ways in which the order could have been challenged, either on the point of the lack of jurisdiction or on the terms of the order made. It must also be accepted that courts can make orders, and sometimes have to make orders, for the welfare of the child without all parties being informed of the application, if that is felt to be appropriate in the circumstances of an individual case. Such orders would usually be drawn up so as to provide for a review at an early stage—perhaps after seven days—so that all parties can make representations.

If the courts of the part of the UK to which the child has been taken make an order in respect of the child, then the parent who did not consent to the child’s removal can challenge that order in the court which made it on the basis that the court did not have jurisdiction to make it. It is very regrettable if an impression has arisen that to challenge the jurisdiction of the court to make an order is, by implication, to accept the jurisdiction of that court. That is absolutely not the case in English law, and indeed nothing in the 1986 Act seems to suggest it. The law is clear that to challenge the order in the court in England and Wales, which made it in this way, is not to surrender to or accept the jurisdiction of that court. This is a rule which is clear both at national and international level. However, even orders made without jurisdiction must be obeyed until such time as they are successfully overturned, and proper action must be taken to overturn them.

However, balancing the requirements of a child’s welfare requires that the rule in section 41 does not last indefinitely. Habitual residence is a question of fact for the courts to determine, and it is generally accepted,

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including in international law, that the interests of a child are usually best determined by the courts of the territory in which the child is habitually resident, as that court is best able to judge the child’s needs and situation there—the court is “proximate” to the child.

A year is a long time in the life of a child, especially a young one, and circumstances can change very quickly. If nothing is done in the original jurisdiction to address the removal promptly, and within the year at most, that child’s life will have moved on and courts need to be able to address the child’s situation as it is at the time any application is made. There seems to be little point in making the child’s habitual residence the primary rule of jurisdiction in the Act to ensure a close connection between the court hearing the case and the child’s actual situation, only then to refuse to acknowledge the reality of the child’s situation in determining jurisdiction because a non-consensual removal occurred quite some time in the past—even more so when that removal could have been dealt with promptly by the courts of the child’s original habitual residence had they been seized of the case by the left-behind parent within a year.

The hon. Gentleman has asked for the Government to examine this matter and consider a review of the provisions of the Family Law Act 1986. The Government do not consider that a formal inquiry would be appropriate here as the provisions of the law are quite clear and generally provide reasonable protection for children who are wrongfully removed. The Government do not believe that it is necessary to amend the provisions of the Family Law Act 1986. However, it is important that the provisions of the Act should be operated properly in practice and that the courts should follow its provisions as they determine the question of jurisdiction for proceedings.

The Government have undertaken to consider whether the question of jurisdiction regularly causes difficulties. Following the hon. Gentleman’s previous debate on cross-border contact issues in December 2007, officials wrote to the Law Society in England asking for its assistance in identifying the extent to which jurisdictional issues arose in cross-border cases and the extent to which they prevented people making substantive applications and having their cases resolved and whether any procedural or other changes might be required. Similar inquiries were made by the Northern Ireland Court Service with the Law Society of Northern Ireland, and by the Scottish Government with the Law Society of Scotland. Following receipt of the replies, officials have discussed the question of what further should be done to address the jurisdictional issues. Concern was expressed about the courts’ ability to deal with jurisdictional issues, particularly by Scottish colleagues.

I am not convinced that jurisdictional issues are preventing people from having their cases resolved. However, I fully accept that the sort of unfortunate circumstances underlying this debate today must be avoided if at all possible. We will consider whether anything more needs to be done.

The underlying question in all proceedings relating to children must be the welfare of the child or children concerned. The provisions relating to jurisdiction in the Family Law Act 1986 are intended to support the child’s welfare by deterring wrongful removal of children, but also by ensuring that the court with the closest connection to a child makes the decision about that child. Underlying

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the Act is the premise that it is normally better for decisions about a child’s upbringing to be made by the courts of the part of the UK where the child is habitually resident. That continues to be the case, even if the child was moved without consent.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Scottish courts have criticised the English High Court. It is not for the Government to comment on the observations of a judge in deciding individual cases.

Mr Doran: The hon. Gentleman referred to a survey of the various law societies. May I have the summary or the details of the responses?

Mr Djanogly: I will certainly correspond with the hon. Gentleman on those issues. With that comment, I bring my points to a conclusion.

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Civil Recovery (England and Wales)

1.30 pm

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity given by Mr Speaker to have this debate and to the Minister for doing a back-to-back session by responding to two successive debates.

Colleagues who have looked at the Order Paper and seen that this debate is about civil recovery in England and Wales may not have realised immediately what the subject of the debate is. “Civil recovery” is not a phrase that people regularly use. I want to introduce the debate by giving two examples of incidents that came to my attention as an MP in Southwark and that precipitated my interest in the subject.

A constituent of mine came to me after her 15-year-old daughter was accused of stealing £6 worth of goods from a London store. The daughter was then sent a demand on behalf of the store from which she was alleged to have stolen those items asking for £137.50. The explanation given was that she was being asked to compensate the store for the £6 worth of items and to pay the rest of the costs of the administration, the store security and so on. Another constituent then approached me on behalf of one of her daughters, who had been with two friends at Primark. One of the three girls—not my constituent’s daughter—was accused of stealing, but demands for £87.50 were sent to all three girls on behalf of Primark. These two incidents alerted me to what I have since discovered is a very widespread practice.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): My right hon. Friend is right that this is a widespread practice. I want to draw to his attention to a very similar case involving a constituent of mine. She was stopped and accused of shoplifting. Nothing was found, and she was released by the police, but subsequently she received a letter from a civil recovery company saying that she needed to pay £70.

Simon Hughes: Like my hon. Friend, all Members of this House who are MPs for any length of time will discover, if they go through their casework files, that this practice is being brought to their attention. At the beginning of this debate, I unambiguously want to pay credit to the citizens advice bureaux and in particular to Richard Dunstan, who had done some work on this issue long before I became aware of it. On behalf of the CAB, he has brought together all the examples of this practice in the best possible place. As a result of his work, two briefings have been published by the CAB, which I recommend to colleagues and others who have an interest in this subject. The first, “Unreasonable demands?”, was published in December 2009, and the second, “Uncivil recovery”, was published in December 2010. The subtitle of the second briefing tells us succinctly what we are talking about. It is:

“Major retailers’ use of threatened civil recovery against those accused of shoplifting or employee theft.”

Colleagues in both the last Parliament and this one have shared my interest in this subject. In the previous Parliament, I know that Ian McCartney was particularly concerned about the issue, and in this Parliament I know that Baroness Hayter has already registered her

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interest in the subject. I am grateful to her for her continuing interest, which I think that she will want to pursue in the other place.

None of us who are here for this debate are defending shoplifting or employees who shoplift or take property from their employer. However, there are proper procedures, proper criminal processes and proper civil processes. What should not happen is that people who often are young—that is, under the age of majority—vulnerable, mentally ill, distressed or disturbed are intimidated, charged extortionate fees or threatened with what are, bluntly, bogus actions, either by the shops themselves or more frequently nowadays by those who are employed by shops to act for them.

I have discovered that this problem is significant. In each of the past three years, some 100,000 people have received one or more letters demanding a substantial sum of money as “compensation” for their alleged shoplifting or employee theft, and threatening civil court action and associated extra costs if the sum demanded is not paid promptly. Since 2000, more than 600,000 people have received such civil recovery demands, issued by one of a handful of agents acting for well known high street retailers such as Asda, Boots, Debenhams, Tesco and TK Maxx. In the great majority of those cases, the value of the goods or cash allegedly stolen was relatively low. If the accusation is of shoplifting, the value was just a few pounds. In four out of five cases, the goods were recovered intact for resale. In many cases, somebody was apprehended when they were accused of leaving a store with an item—for example, an eyeliner worth £2 or a grocery item worth £1.60—without having paid for it. They then paid for it and were released, but they still received the civil recovery demand later. Among those cases reported to the CAB, one in four of the recipients of such demands are teenagers, most of them aged between 14 and 16, and other recipients are particularly vulnerable.

In many cases, the alleged theft is strongly denied, so it is not always the case—indeed, it is normally not the case—that these allegations are accepted by the person who is charged. In some cases, there was clearly an innocent mistake; in other cases, there was an error; and in other cases there was confusion. However, it matters not, because these stores have behind them a small but growing army of lawyers and other companies that are making a hefty profit from this business.

There is a common feature in these cases. If the sum demanded is not paid, the threat of county court action is often repeated. There is a second threat and then a third threat, giving ever closer dates of notice. However, at the end of all these threats county court action does not materialise, because it was invalid and unjustified in the first place.

The most prolific civil recovery agent, a firm called Retail Loss Prevention, is the biggest player among a small army of players in this sector. It has confirmed that it has never successfully litigated a fully contested county court claim in respect of an unpaid demand. The CAB has also received advice, which I have seen, suggesting that there is no obvious legal authority for most of these demands. Taken together, those two facts suggest that the practice of threatened civil recovery relies on fear and/or shame, as well as ignorance of the law, for its effectiveness.

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When I began thinking about how I would raise this issue, I wondered which Government Department I would, as it were, “summon to answer” to me in the first place, because it is very clear that this matter is not only the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. However, I thought that I would start there, because it is a justice issue, and I am very grateful for the Minister’s presence today and for his Department’s interest in this subject. Shortly, I want to put to him some specific issues that I hope his Department can pick up, because I believe that it has a responsibility to do so and that it can do things.

There is no way that that we should continue to permit this system of civil recovery, and I hope that today’s debate will precipitate a working-together across Departments. Obviously, there is a Home Office interest in this issue and there is also an interest for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as an interest for the Ministry of Justice, in trying to ensure that we shut down this business and make those who are involved, which are otherwise reputable major retail outlets, behave in a much more reasonable way.

Nobody condones retail theft. It is a big issue, and we need to ensure that stores are not pilfered and that there is the best possible policing of them. However, even if one accepts that retail theft is a big problem, the percentage of the money stolen from shops that is recovered by these means is a very small proportion of the total. So it is not as if the retailers involved are able to cover all their costs by doing this type of thing. I will turn to some examples.

Tom Brake: Has my right hon. Friend considered that we should take up this issue in a protection of freedoms Bill No. 2? It is probably too late for the Protection of Freedoms Bill that is about to start its Committee stage, but it could be considered in a future Bill.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will address the areas that the Ministry of Justice can pick up. If over the next few weeks, with concentrated efforts in both Houses, we can get a coalition—as it were—of determination to do something, I, with my hon. Friend and others, will look for the earliest available opportunity to deal with the legislative changes that I think are part of the response that is needed.

On the protagonists, I have listed some of the major retail players, and I will now deal with the agents. In eight out of 10 of the cases reported to citizens advice bureaux the demand was issued by a Nottingham-based company called Retail Loss Prevention Ltd. Since 1999, that company has issued more than 550,000 demands on behalf of dozens of retailers, including Argos, E.H. Booth, Debenhams, Harrods, Iceland, Lidl, Matalan, Morrisons, Mothercare, Netto, Primark and Waitrose. The company retains some 40% of any money it recovers and the remainder goes to the retailer client. The owner and managing director of the company, who is being pursued by Citizens Advice and by others in the media, has said that the company is

“passionate in our belief that we are helping the community by going after the ‘soft’ criminals who are often seen as lower priority by the police”.

In seven out of 10 of the cases that have come to the notice of citizens advice bureaux, the demand was issued on behalf of one of just six retailers—Boots, TK

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Maxx, Tesco, Wilkinson, B&Q and Superdrug. The predetermined fixed sum demanded by RLP in most if not all shoplifting cases varies according to, and is determined by, the total value claimed of the goods or cash involved. If the value is between nothing and £10, the sum demanded is £87.50 and the 21-day settlement offer is £70; if the goods are worth between £10 and £100, invariably £137.50 is asked for, with a discounted 21-day-period amount; if the value is more than £100, £187.50 is asked for, with a quick-pay discounted amount of £150; and if it is more than £300, £250 is asked for, with a quick-pay amount of £200. It is clear that the company has never justified the legitimacy of its action. It has been asked persistently about the evidence for its actions, and it has repeatedly declined to produce any evidence that claims have regularly and successfully been pursued by means of county court proceedings.

The company has also clearly misrepresented the position. Until last November, RLP’s website stated that

“we have established operating procedures for Civil Recovery and agreed guidelines with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland (ACPOS)”.

However, in October last year, the assistant chief constable who leads on retail crime for ACPO wrote to Jackie Lambert at RLP stating:

“Whilst there may have been agreements in the past about exchanging data and operating civil recovery with ACPO…there are no such agreements in place now and indeed on several occasions over the last few years I and my colleagues have asked that such references be deleted. Please remove from your website any and all references which state or imply that RLP operates its civil recovery in agreement or cooperation with the Police Service. Clearly if you have an agreement with an individual force you could make reference to that, but I know of none.”

In November last year, ACPOS said:

“At no time have ACPOS entered into any formal agreement with RLP or assisted them in any civil recovery”.

The other players are Drydens, a law firm based in Bradford, Nottingham-based Civil Recovery Solutions and, more worryingly in a way, a Florida-based law firm, Palmer, Reifler and Associates, which is a major player on the United States civil recovery scene but is not regulated to practise in the UK and uses Wigan-based law firm Goddard Smith as its agent. Lastly, there is the London-based firm Civil Recovery Limited, which acted for only Tesco and was closely related to a security company called TSS, which supplies security guards to Tesco, Boots and other retailers. Civil Recovery Limited ceased trading last summer.

Penultimately, there is of course a civil wrong if someone steals something from someone else. There is a tort as well as a crime, and there is a breach of contract if an employee steals from their employer. I am not arguing that there might not be proper civil proceedings, but this is a contrivance. It is an intimidation, with the protagonists selling their services to the retail fraternity and then recovering a large amount of money under clearly false pretences. What please can we do about it?

I would like the following from the Ministry of Justice. I would like it to ask the Law Commission, which has a report in the pipeline, to ensure that it urgently reviews the entire law on civil recovery, with a view to eventually ensuring, by law if necessary, that civil recovery

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is limited to cases involving serious, determined and/or persistent criminal activity for which there has been a criminal trial and conviction. I would like the Ministry, as a matter of urgency, to prepare and disseminate public information and advice on threatened civil recovery, and in particular on the options available to people who might receive a civil recovery demand from Retail Loss Prevention, Drydens or other civil recovery agents. That could be done through the Government’s public information service—Directgov—citizens advice bureaux and other advice outlets.

I also want the Ministry of Justice to talk to the Solicitors Regulation Authority to see whether it needs to take further action to ensure that the civil recovery practice of solicitors, including employed solicitors, is consistent with the solicitors’ code of conduct. I would then like the Home Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the retail industry and the police to identify and develop a range of alternative ways of dealing with those involved who, if they are young, mentally ill or vulnerable, are often better dealt with by cautions and the early stages of the pre-criminal procedure in my experience.

As the total amount recovered by the civil recovery agents for their retailer clients each year seems unlikely to be more than £16 million, the practice is clearly completely unacceptable, given that they say that they lose £4 billion every year as an industry. I hope that some major retailers will hear this debate and agree to review their practice. Most of all, it is clear to me that the practice has become an opportunity for great profit-making by a few at the risk of improperly influencing and intimidating people who ideally should not be in the criminal process, unless they are regular offenders, and certainly should not be the victims of communications that distort the facts, misrepresent the law and often put the fear of God into people who certainly do not have the money to pay large sums.

I hope that the Minister can be helpful, that he understands the importance of this issue to all our constituents, and that today will be the beginning of the end of this practice. I am very grateful to all those people who have brought the issue to the public’s attention, and I hope that there will be continued significant public reporting, until the practice is ended.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)for providing me with this opportunity to outline the Government’s position and the action being taken in respect of civil recovery.

The Government are firmly committed to working alongside business and trade associations to find effective solutions and responses to business crime, including retail theft. My right hon. Friend identified that civil recovery is dealt with by a number of Departments in addition to the Ministry of Justice—for example, the Home Office, in preventing and tackling retail crime; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in retail business, sponsorship of Citizens Advice and employment relations; and both DBIS and the Office of Fair Trading, in consumer protection legislation. As my right hon. Friend requested, and as I will come to later,

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the Law Commission is reviewing this area, and officials in the Departments that I have mentioned will respond in due course.

Civil recovery is the legal means by which anyone who has suffered a financial loss due to the wrongful actions of someone else can seek appropriate compensation under civil law. Civil recovery schemes are used by many high-street retailers to deter shoplifting and recover from shoplifters the management, administration, security and surveillance costs incurred in dealing with the case, including the costs of the civil recovery action itself. That ambition is both understandable and justifiable. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. Businesses employ civil recovery agents to recover through the civil courts often relatively low-value losses arising from, for example, shoplifting or employee theft. The alternative would be criminal proceedings rather than a suit, with the likelihood of a criminal record for the person being prosecuted.

Retailers have a clear legal right to recover the costs of goods that they lose as a result of crime. The Government recognise the appropriate and proportionate use of civil recovery as one option available to retailers for dealing with low-level criminal activity that also amounts to a civil wrong. We believe that civil recovery, when used proportionately, provides an effective response to low-value and often opportunistic crime that often involves teenagers and other vulnerable people.

The national retail crime steering group set up by the Home Office with the British Retail Consortium provides a forum for the Government, law enforcement agencies and retailers to discuss and devise strategies for tackling crimes of concern to retailers. At that national level, the Government are working with industry and business to broker solutions that cannot be solved by local action alone and to promote the sharing of effective practice. The group focuses on the significant crime issues affecting businesses, including tackling shop theft, violence against staff and the growing threat of e-crime, to adopt a task-focused, action-orientated approach.

We are encouraging businesses to do more to protect themselves from crime. Effective crime prevention advice is available for businesses to use, and we are making it a priority to share effective practice examples of businesses working together and in partnership with the police and other law enforcement agencies to tackle retail crime across their local areas.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, most retailers who adopt the civil recovery procedure normally employ specialist civil recovery companies to seek damages on their behalf, to meet the losses caused by individuals who steal from them. I understand that in addition to the actual cost of any goods stolen or damaged, retailers seek to recover the overall costs that they have incurred in dealing with the matter. The additional costs are usually claimed to cover the costs of general store security measures such as CCTV, security tagging and security staff, as well as any administrative costs incurred by the retailer.

In the great majority of cases, the value of the goods or cash allegedly stolen is relatively low, sometimes just a few pounds. However, the sum sought in damages can be substantially higher once additional costs are included. Such costs are often charged as a fixed sum of between £100 and £150, depending on the value of the goods or cash involved. I note that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the amount of £137. The practice adopted

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by most companies involved in the sector is to write to individuals demanding payment. Failure to pay is followed by a threat of a court action for unpaid damages and the subsequent use of debt collection agencies. Such individuals are advised that their details will be entered on a national database, which can be accessed by retailers, prospective employers and credit providers.

Let me be clear that the Government are entirely satisfied that retailers have a legal right to recover the value of any goods lost or destroyed as a result of an individual’s actions. Defendants can go to their local CAB and receive advice about what to do with the claim. The Government accept that a retailer arguably has a legal right to recover any additional costs or losses directly caused as a result of dealing with a case. However, we appreciate that there is no statutory or other clear basis for setting the amounts of such costs or losses that can be recovered in an individual case. Therefore, the amount of money, if any, that a retailer can recover from an individual accused of low-level theft in respect of its wider costs is entirely a matter for the courts based on the circumstances and facts of the case.

I say “if any” because my officials have not yet been able to identify any cases in which the issue has been tested before the courts and a definitive judgment given. A specialist recovery company confirmed to Citizens Advice in 2010 that it had never issued a claim seeking recovery where an alleged shoplifter had failed to pay the sum requested. Therefore, that area of the law remains untested. CitA—the new name for Citizens Advice—has undertaken a lot of valuable work, for which we are grateful, to highlight what it believes are the relevant problems. I will refer to that valuable contribution later. However, given that some civil recovery is clearly entirely legitimate, we consider that the question deserving further examination involves the means used and the proportionality of losses recovered.

Simon Hughes: Has any work done by the Minister or his officials confirmed that the amounts sought in such cases have no relation to the costs incurred? People should be entitled to recover the £5 cost of a stolen item, but the £135 or £235 top-up fee does not appear to have any basis in reality.

Mr Djanogly: That would be a matter for the courts to decide, and as I have just tried to explain, there has not yet been a test case. A test case might be a good idea.

There is no clear basis for setting claims for additional costs at a specific level. Indeed, retailers can seek to recover such additional costs only to the extent that they can show that they have been incurred directly as a result of dealing with a case, so it is not at all clear how such costs could be set at standard levels. However, as I said, the point has yet to be tested fully in the courts.

As I said, Citizens Advice has raised a number of concerns about how civil recovery companies operate and has conducted valuable work on the matter, culminating in two reports. “Uncivil Recovery”, which was published in December 2010, set out detailed case studies drawn from 300 CitA-reported cases in which individuals had been accused of shoplifting or employee theft and were then pursued for substantial sums of money as compensation for what was described as

“loss and damage caused by your wrongful actions.”

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I understand that in the vast majority of cases the police were not involved, nor were criminal charges brought. CitA suggested that it is unfair to use the civil courts in such circumstances, argued that the practice of civil recovery effectively relies on fear and ignorance of the law for its effectiveness and made a series of recommendations.

We believe that the recommendation that the law should be clarified to prevent any civil recovery unless there has been a criminal trial and conviction would result in undesirable additional pressure on the criminal justice system. As I have mentioned, the Government accept fully that some civil recovery is entirely legitimate. Accordingly, we consider that the question of the means used and the proportionality of losses recovered might deserve further examination. However, we accept that one important issue is what approach companies acting on behalf of retailers adopt when pursuing such cases.

In that context, I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that the topic, and whether any guidance needs to be issued or other action taken, is being considered across a number of Departments, and good progress is being made. For instance, the Law Commission intends to seek views on the question in a paper soon to be issued on consumer redress for misleading or aggressive practices. The Law Commission project reviews the directive on unfair commercial practices implemented in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trade Practices Regulations 2008 and asks whether consumers should have a right of redress of breaches of the regulations, and that includes the question whether civil recovery is a commercial practice within the meaning of the directive.

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The issue is not beyond doubt, but on a broad interpretation of the meaning of a commercial practice, the directive could apply to civil recovery where it is used against shoplifters. That would not make civil recovery illegal, but specialist recovery companies would not be permitted to send misleading or aggressive letters. More generally, the Law Commission is also considering whether there should be a statutory right of redress for people to reclaim, along with moderate and appropriate damages for distress and inconvenience, any moneys that they might have paid as a result of a misleading or aggressive letter.

The Citizens Advice report implies that civil redress is sometimes uncalled for, but the Government do not support that position. The report is certainly useful in raising important issues, not least those that concern aspects of consumer protection, but I accept that some technical issues need to be resolved.

Simon Hughes: I see that the Minister is on his last page, so I will ask him one last question. A Law Commission report is imminent. Do the Government have a plan to bring together views across Departments and produce a coherent collective response later in this parliamentary Session? I am sure that it would be welcome in both Houses.

Mr Djanogly: I cannot guarantee the timing today, because it will need to be agreed among several Departments, but the issue will be considered on a cross-departmental basis, and we will come back with proposals.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11 ) ).