It is difficult to see what access to court records would provide for the public unless there were some search facility. My hon. Friend said that there would be, but that is not specified in the Bill. Such a facility would

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be very costly to develop, as literally millions of records a year would need to be sorted through. Someone could find the result they were looking for only if they knew the exact person, court or hearing involved. Effectively, the public would have access to endless data but get very little useful information—a costly exercise for very little public value.

We are also concerned that the Bill could work against rehabilitating those convicted by the courts. Let me explain why I say that. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 sets out various times after which a conviction becomes spent—when it does not have to be disclosed. My hon. Friend said that it would be done in real time, or within relatively real time, and that an electronic system could be devised incorporating a natural lapse of spent convictions. The aim of current legislation is to allow individuals to move on with their lives, particularly those whose offence was at the lower end of the scale. In order to safeguard the more vulnerable elements of our society, such as children and the old or infirm, certain professions are exempted from the Act, and all convictions, whether spent or not, have to be disclosed.

That is where the Criminal Records Bureau comes in. That is why we have an expert body doing the criminal records work. It does the necessary checks, and passes the information on to a prospective employer when relevant. I think that most people would consider that to be perfectly reasonable. It strikes a balance between open access to the criminal records system and the rights of those who have transgressed to move on with their lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) made a point about people who change their names in order to get away from a criminal record. The Bill does not address that point. However, the CRB has in place a thorough system of identity checking. The registered body, which must countersign any application to the CRB, is under a statutory duty to carry out thorough identity checks. The proposed online system would not put in place anything to cover that loophole.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will know that we are changing how the system operates through the provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Bill that is before the House, as I mentioned briefly before. Furthermore, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was itself the subject of a recent Green Paper, and the results of that consultation process are still under review by the Ministry of Justice. We would not want to take any action that could prejudge or impact in any way upon that review. However, if we put in place the system proposed in the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, there would be considerable potential for anyone to circumvent the provisions of the 1974 Act and find out about matters that have become spent.

To avoid that we would need to put in place a series of checks to weed out such spent offences, which would add to the cost overall. However, if court registers were made available online or in some other electronic form by the CRB, there would be no guarantee that removing the spent conviction from the records would achieve much.

Stephen Phillips: It is not simply that there would have to be an expensive exercise of removing records on just one occasion; they would have to be removed on a rolling basis over time. That is another defect in the Bill.

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Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that helpful intervention. He raises an important point.

As we have seen, all sorts of information travels around freely on the internet, irrespective of whether it was intended that the information should get out. I was talking about the suggestion that the information be available online or in some other electronic form. In that case, it could not be guaranteed that if a spent conviction was removed, it would stay removed. The information would have been extracted into other forms of database long before then. It could also allow unscrupulous individuals to go on what are politely called “fishing trips” to see what they could find out about an individual. [Interruption.] I hear “neighbours” from a sedentary position. That is just one possible unintended use of the information available.

People could also use the information to get round the CRB system, however. They could deny individuals education or employment. They could even obtain information leading to more unpleasant actions such as revenge attacks, including in the context that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) mentioned about neighbours checking who is in the vicinity. People could obtain information to see where and how revenge might be visited upon those whose records came to light so easily.

With any system, there must be a balance between the needs of all those who are affected. In our view, what we currently have succeeds, more or less, in achieving that. Those who could be a threat to children or vulnerable people are kept out of certain roles by the protection offered by CRB checks. In the case of offenders, they can put their past behind them, as allowed for by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, and I hope become productive and useful members of society again. In the Government's view that process could be significantly undermined if the Bill were to proceed.

The Bill also contains a reference to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and says:

“Information held by a criminal records office…shall not be ‘personal information’ for the purposes of the…Act”.

The Freedom of Information Act does not define personal information. Instead it provides that certain types of personal data as defined in the Data Protection Act 1998 are exempt from disclosure. Personal data are defined in the 1998 Act as data that relate to a living individual who can be identified from those data, or from those data and other information that is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller, which is, in the case we are discussing, the CRB. It includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of that individual.

It is important to note that “data” are also defined in the 1998 Act as information that is being processed by means of equipment operating automatically in response to instructions given for that purpose; is recorded with the intention that it should be processed by means of such equipment; is recorded as part of a relevant filing system or with the intention that it should form part of a relevant filing system; does not fall within the categories above but forms part of an accessible record as defined elsewhere in the Act, and refers to, among other things, health and education records; or is recorded information held in any form by a public authority and does not fall

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within any of the categories I have listed. We can be fairly confident that, in whatever form it is provided, the information we are discussing today would be considered "personal data" for the purposes of the 1998 Act, given the definitions I have just set out.

In addition, section 2 of the 1998 Act makes it clear that sensitive personal data include information about an individual's racial or ethnic origin, his political opinions, his religious beliefs, his sexual life and information of any proceedings for any offence committed or alleged to have been committed, the disposal of such proceedings or the sentence of any court in such proceedings. Sensitive personal data are given special protection under the 1998 Act. In order for the processing of that data to be lawful, it must comply with the eight data protection principles that are set out in schedule 1. Those principles are as follows: that the data are processed lawfully and fairly, meeting conditions in both schedules and, in the case of sensitive personal data, the conditions in schedule 3 as well; that data are obtained for specified and lawful purposes and will not be processed in any manner incompatible with those purposes; that data are adequate, relevant and not excessive; that data shall be accurate and up to date; that data shall not be kept for longer than is necessary; that data shall be processed in accordance with the rights of the data subject; that technical and organisational measures shall be taken to prevent unauthorised or unlawful processing; and that data being transferred outside the EEA must be sent only to countries that ensure an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to processing data.

For sensitive personal data to be processed lawfully, one condition in both schedules 2 and 3 must be met. The conditions in schedule 2 are as follows: that the data subject consents to the processing; that the processing is necessary for the performance of a contract; that the processing is necessary for compliance with a legal obligation; that the processing is necessary to protect the vital interests of the data subject; that the processing is necessary for the administration of justice or for the exercise of a function of a public nature exercised in the public interest; and that the processing is necessary for legitimate interested purposes by the data controller or third parties, except where this is unwarranted due to the prejudice to the rights and freedoms of the data subject.

The conditions in schedule 3 are as follows: that the data subject explicitly consents to the processing; that the processing is necessary because of an employment obligation; that the processing is necessary to protect the vital interests of the data subject in respect of other people where consent cannot be obtained; that the processing is carried out in relation to trade union, political, philosophical or religious purposes with appropriate safeguards, and as long as this does not result in the disclosure of data to a third party without the consent of the data subject; that the information has been made public by the data subject; that the processing is necessary for the purposes of legal proceedings; that the processing is necessary in the interests of justice; that the processing is necessary for medical purposes; that the processing is necessary for identifying equal opportunities, and other specified reasons, including the police exercising their common law powers.

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The objective of the part of the Bill relating to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 would appear to be to prevent details of convictions from being released.

Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act provides an exemption from disclosure for some personal data. Where the applicant is seeking information on himself, the information is completely exempt under section 40(1) and the applicant should instead make a request under section 7 of the Data Protection Act. That is known as a subject access request.

Where the applicant seeks information that includes the personal data of a third party, it may be released only to the requesting member of the public if to do so would not contravene any of the data protection principles set out in the Data Protection Act. Those principles ensure that an individual’s personal data are, among other things, only processed—in this context released—when it is fair and lawful to do so. It cannot be right that the protection of an individual’s personal data against unfair processing should automatically be overridden in the way envisioned in the Bill. Not only is it not right but there would be real concerns about whether this part of the Bill would be compatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights. I will say a little more about that shortly.

The issues are not only freedom of information, but the Data Protection Act. Court registers contain considerable personal information—names, addresses, dates of birth, driving licences—on individuals, and not just offenders but victims and the not guilty. Such records are all subject to the Data Protection Act, and we would need to consider how publishing them, especially in the sort of volume that we are talking about, would impact on people’s personal rights.

Clause 1(3) requires that the criminal records office must ensure that

“the registers it holds are no more than one month out of date at any time”.

Courts already have a target to result all cases within six working days. So this would be eminently achievable, although there would be issues about the filtering that would need to take place to remove records not in the public domain, which may slow the process up a little. However, records are not updated after they have been published, so if someone successfully appeals against a conviction, the original conviction would remain in the magistrates court register. Someone searching the register would have no idea whether the individual had appealed, nor what the outcome was. If Crown court registers were not published, people would never be able to find out about an appeal hearing. Creating links between systems and updating information in real time would be extremely complex, not to mention costly. At the moment, the Criminal Records Bureau does this work by examining all the records and giving out the information on only the most current position.

I have already alluded to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which states:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

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Clearly, as we have heard, a balancing exercise needs to be carried out, and although there may well be a public interest in having an open justice system—which we do have—that still needs to be weighed against the rights of the individual.

As was said in the Supreme Court case of R (on the application of L) v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, which concerned the disclosure on an enhanced CRB certificate of information that had not resulted in a conviction in relation to an individual seeking to work with children, the correct approach when looking at two competing convention rights, or when looking at whether interference with article 8 is proportionate, is that neither right takes precedence over the other.

Stephen Phillips: I am afraid that at this point in the Minister’s argument we may be parting company. The mischief with which the Bill seeks to deal is the fact that this information is already in the public domain. Is she suggesting that our courts should close their doors because article 8 means that there is some interference with people’s human rights as a result of their being subject to open criminal proceedings?

Lynne Featherstone: That is not what I was suggesting. We do have an open justice system, but I am saying that the balance is between having an open justice system and the rights of an individual.

Before I conclude, I wish briefly to deal with one issue that I have not yet mentioned, which is the mistakes made by magistrates courts. It is sad to hear of such poor record keeping and I hope that magistrates courts will seek to address it. I am sure that those in the Ministry of Justice will read the report of this debate and may wish to take the matter further.

We need to take all the considerations I have mentioned into account. I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch had the laudable intention of opening up criminal records and making them more accessible, but I have set out the great difficulties and challenges in doing that, and the mischiefs to which it may lead. It is the Government’s view that, at this time, there is no need to add give the CRB the additional work load that this Bill would impose, nor is there a sufficient public need for this sort of system to be set up. I must therefore inform the House that the Government do not support the implementation of this Bill.

1.10 pm

Mr Chope: That comes as a great surprise to me. I thank the Minister, however, for her response. All the mischiefs she said would arise were my Bill to be enacted are the very mischiefs that can arise at the moment when information is gleaned at the time of the court case by the media. That takes me back to the point I made at the outset, which was that if

“the press or the media had covered the case and was able to get a copy of the newspaper report or media broadcast then”—

at that time—

“although the personal data in question would have been processed by becoming part of those reports—the Appellant would have had legitimate access to the information and the personal data he was seeking…If the local newspaper or media outlet put the court report within a webpage on the internet or as a ‘podcast’ to be downloaded by the Appellant—whether there was a ‘search’ facility on the site allowing specific names or topics to be highlighted

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and retrieved or not—and then viewed, printed out, played or stored, then all of that is legitimate processing of personal data within the current statutory legislation.”

I am grateful to those who participated in the debate. I think that everybody, except the Minister perhaps, recognises that there is an anomaly. It is inconsistent that court cases can be dealt with differently as regards public access to information about those cases depending on whether they are covered by the media, whether an individual is present in court and so on.

If the Minister reconsiders the issue, I hope that she will recognise that there is an anomaly. If she accepts that there is one, I hope that she will feel that it is incumbent on her Department to try to find a solution. Although my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) poured quite a lot of cold water on my Bill, he accepted that there was an anomaly and that this was an attempt to address it. When the Director of Public Prosecutions talks about the possibility of introducing cameras into courts and reasserting the importance of public access to the criminal justice system, it seems anomalous that we have this problem. One thing that has come out of the debate is that I have accepted that my Bill is probably not the right solution to the problem at this time, but I hope that the pressure of the debate on the Minister will be such that she will try to get her officials to work on coming up with a proper solution—perhaps one that could be brought forward as an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill on Report, as all the issues relating to the criminal records office are being dealt with in that Bill.

Finally, I am very concerned about the inaccuracies on the registers, which must cause everybody great concern. The Criminal Records Bureau is producing inaccurate material. I had a constituent who was a wing commander who wanted to do some voluntary work somewhere. He found that somebody had stolen his identity and that his records had been linked with the criminal records of another person. That caused enormous embarrassment and, in the end, it was only after we went to see the then Minister in the Home Office that things were put right. My constituent was the victim of fraud, but there seem to be a lot of victims of mistake.

Lynne Featherstone: On the point that the Criminal Records Bureau might be holding incorrect information, I am sure my hon. Friend will be glad to know that one of the new provisions in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill means that the certificate will now go only to the individual applicant and not to the employer, giving them the chance to dispute the information before it causes any harm to their employment.

Mr Chope: That is helpful, but my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham was making the point that inaccurate information is being recorded in courts. We must have a system to put that right. My Bill relates only to prospective court registers, not historical ones. Even so, I hope we can have a system whereby from now on magistrates court records of convictions are 100% accurate, rather than containing anomalies and inaccuracies. That is my hope—perhaps it is an aspiration—but having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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St George’s Day and St David’s Day Bill

Second Reading

1.15 pm

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

We often hear from parliamentarians in this and the other place that radical and controversial ideas and legislation should be piloted before being introduced, so I am delighted to tell the House that 50% of my Bill was piloted this year. A quirk of the calendar meant that the nearest working day to St George’s day—23 April—was a bank holiday. Furthermore, thanks to the royal wedding and the Prime Minister’s generosity to the nation, we shall have nine, not eight, bank holidays this year.

Why should we make St George’s day an extra, permanent bank holiday? St George became the patron saint of England 661 years ago; his chivalry, values and story were seen by King Edward III as a better fit to the England he wanted to rule than the previous patron saint, Edward the Confessor. St George lived more than 1,000 years before that date. He was an immigrant, a Roman soldier born in Turkey, or possibly Kurdistan, perhaps with colouring a little closer to mine than most would imagine. We know him most famously as the dragon slayer, a man whose bravery freed a town from the tyranny of a vicious dragon. He was a man whose Christianity led him to be persecuted and eventually executed on the day we now celebrate in his name. He was adopted and taken into the hearts of the English people for the values he represented, not for who he was or where he was from.

Although celebrated before 1350, it was only after St George’s adoption as patron saint that he became ingrained in England’s national psyche. It is said that his popularity and the celebration of his name day increased substantially after Henry V rallied his troops by invoking St George before victory at the battle of Agincourt: “Cry God for England, Harry and St George” wrote the great bard William Shakespeare, in commemoration. It is perhaps fitting that the great bard himself was born on St George’s day in 1564, in my constituency of Stratford-on-Avon; he died on the same date 52 years later.

Today, St George represents part of our often under-celebrated national identity.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): When I first saw that my hon. Friend intended to present the Bill, I rejoiced, and I agree with everything he has said so far, but when I saw the contents of the Bill I became alarmed. Does he not agree that the Bill is actually quite divisive? In clause 1, he tells us that the Welsh, but not the English, can celebrate St David’s day and that the English, but not the Welsh, can celebrate St George’s day. Is it not a nationalist measure that is likely to increase friction between England and Wales, rather than a Unionist policy, as I want, because I support the Union? Is the Bill not likely to be very divisive if passed in its present form?

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, although I remind him that Scotland celebrates St Andrew’s day and Ireland celebrates St Patrick’s day. I do not believe that it is divisive in any way for England

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or Wales to uphold their saints. In fact, the more we can deal with such things positively, recognising their importance, the closer and stronger the Union becomes. When things are forced down people’s throats, they begin to become rejectionists. I am afraid that I therefore disagree with my right hon. Friend.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Something concerns me about the Bill. I am all in favour of celebrating St George’s day or St David’s day, but why does the Bill suggest that it is necessary to have a bank holiday to celebrate them on another day? Surely, if those days fall on a weekend, the celebrations can take place then, without the need the for anyone to give up work on the previous Friday or the subsequent Monday.

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. If I understand him correctly, he suggests avoiding bank holidays and celebrating at the weekends, but that is precisely my point: if we had a bank holiday, we could celebrate on whichever date the saint’s day falls, not necessarily on a Saturday or Sunday.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend misunderstand my point. If St George’s day was to fall on a weekday, I could understand the case that he makes for having a bank holiday. If St George’s day falls on a weekend, I cannot understand the case for having a bank holiday on the previous Friday or the subsequent Monday.

Nadhim Zahawi: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it is important to have a bank holiday, because what a bank holiday would do to the nation’s psyche is to deliver a permanent reminder of St George’s day, rather than people casually saying, “Well, if it falls on the weekend, it’s fine.” Otherwise we cannot do the thing that we most want to do, which is to recognise it permanently and specifically.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I saw an example just last month—as my hon. Friend says, St George’s day coincided with a bank holiday this year—in my constituency, where the scouts and guides paraded to Queens square in the centre of the town and sonnets were read to celebrate the bard’s birthday on St George’s day. There was an extra sense of community spirit in celebrating St George, precisely because of the coincidence with the bank holiday. Certainly, enshrining such a bank holiday in law would aid that sense of community in both England and Wales.

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank my hon. Friend. He is exactly right; that is why I believe that the Bill should have a Second Reading.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I support the proposal and have supported such campaigns in the past. I am keen that we do everything we can to celebrate St George’s day and what it means to be English and British, as well as to celebrate the Union. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing casual about how we celebrate St George’s day already, despite the fact that there is no bank holiday. Just a couple of weeks ago, I proudly took part in the celebrations of St George’s day in Dudley—we have them every year—and there is a nothing casual about them, but the point about the date is an interesting one. There is already a series of bank holidays—

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Whit and Easter, and so on—at this time of the year. Of course, the Welsh celebrate St David’s day with an Eisteddfod festival. I am not an expert on the Welsh, but I think that that takes place during the summer—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We must have shorter interventions.

Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I would just remind him that because of a quirk this year, we have had a number of bank holidays, and the nation found them positive. There were some economic benefits too. It may be preferable to have a bank holiday at a different time of the year, but for me the importance of St George’s day overrides that consideration.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I entirely agree that we should have a bank holiday on St George’s day. Could not the problem be solved by moving the existing bank holiday on May day to 23 April? If we need to create an extra bank holiday, one could be created on, say, Trafalgar day.

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My Bill calls for an additional bank holiday, not the movement of an existing bank holiday. I hope those on the Treasury Bench are listening and taking note of such suggestions. I am pleased that my Bill is provoking debate and such good ideas.

To many, St George’s day is a celebration of all that is great about our nation. At the last election, every major party vowed to promote national integration and social cohesion. A national day celebrated by all, regardless of their background or heritage, would only help that process. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has said, we must all encourage our children to learn about our nation’s past, the bad and the good, and we must celebrate our shared history. What better way to do that than a national day, officially recognised by the Government?

There are those who say that St George’s day is a Christian holiday and not representative of our multicultural nation, and those who say it plays to the fringe right of this country. I disagree. St George, after all, is the only Christian saint to appear in the Koran and the only saint to have a mosque bearing his name. Even in the world of faith, he is not uniquely Christian. Yes, the fringe right may well have hijacked our symbol of patriotism, which should sadden all of us in the Chamber, but today in the House we can go a long way towards reclaiming it.

Let us remember what our Prime Minister said on St George’s day last year:

“Today we are celebrating St George’s Day, and we are reclaiming St George’s Day as an important day . . . for good reasons.

And one of the most important reasons is that we should be reclaiming the flag from the BNP and saying the flag belongs to the English people, all of them.”

He went on to say:

“People come to our country and want to feel part of our country.

They want to feel part of something and celebrating St George’s Day will help them feel that sense of belonging.”

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As the son of immigrants to this country, a son of parents who fled persecution to find safe haven here, I could not have put it better myself.

It is important to lay another myth to rest—that an extra bank holiday would affect our productivity and be economically damaging. As a businessman and an entrepreneur, I have built up a strong and enduring business and I totally reject the idea that one extra bank holiday would have that effect. The working people of this country will get done the work that they need to get done, regardless of an extra day away from the office. The concept of work has changed. It is no longer about turning up at a particular time and leaving at another time. It is, instead, about outputs and what is done, not how long it is done for.

Ian Austin: On the point that the hon. Gentleman made about reclaiming the flag from the far right, this is a campaign that I have run ever since I became a Member of Parliament in 2005, calling on Dudley council and all other public bodies to fly the Union Jack, our national flag, which contains the flag of St George, on all public buildings all year round. Will he endorse that call? Does he agree that we should fly the Union Jack proudly, as a symbol of the values that make this the greatest country on earth, all year round and not just on the so-called special days of the year?

Nadhim Zahawi: I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. He may recall that during the World cup I urged the Prime Minister to fly the flag of St George over Downing street, although, sadly, it did not fly for very long, but his point is well made.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend’s patriotic zeal, but if he wants a truly national public holiday, why do we not choose 21 October, Trafalgar day, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested, given that it celebrates an event in which 4,000 Irishmen, 6,000 Scotsmen and 600 Welshmen, and even the odd American and French volunteers, fought on the British side, and a true-born Briton gave his life? Why do we not celebrate that day rather than the day of a mythical Greek who went around slaying mythical beasts?

Nadhim Zahawi: My hon. Friend will not be surprised if I disagree with him on that point.

This April obviously included an extra bank holiday, and retail sales increased by 5.2% as shoppers took advantage of the additional holiday.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Does my hon. Friend have similar data for Wales on 1 March?

Nadhim Zahawi: I do not, but I am happy to source more data for Wales. However, I would not be surprised if something similar happened throughout the country, as when people have an additional day off, they use it to visit retail outlets.

The other beneficiaries would be our local pubs and great British breweries, especially the micro-breweries, which would undoubtedly attract many who wish to toast St George, and in Wales, St David, just as many already toast St Patrick and St Andrew. With the creation

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of special events building on those that already occur throughout the country, our leisure and tourism industries would also do very well.

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): There has already been some discussion about whether we want an extra day. I entirely support the Bill, but is my hon. Friend aware that the Government are already considering another bank holiday later in the summer to extend the British tourist season? That would not be as welcome as my Daylight Saving Bill in achieving that end, but perhaps we could consider both options.

Nadhim Zahawi: My hon. Friend is quite right; the Government are considering that. As I cast my eye towards the Treasury Bench, I see no better champion of this country’s patriotism than my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who is a great patriot himself.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech; I was mid-way through my lunch, but I am delighted to be here strongly to support the Bill. Is not the crux of the matter that it would address a grave injustice? The Scots can celebrate St Andrew, the Irish in the north of Ireland can celebrate St Patrick, but the English cannot celebrate St George, and, of course, in Wales we cannot celebrate St David. I want to put it on the record that the entire Welsh nation strongly supports the Bill.

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He was a champion in helping me to draft the Bill and putting his name to it right at the outset. I am sure that his constituents and the people of Wales in general will recognise his commitment to putting this Bill on the statute book.

I spoke about the special events that could be developed by the leisure and tourism industries. In Stratford we already celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the weekend nearest the 23rd April. I am sure that the turnout would be all the larger and that local businesses would do all the better if the date were set in stone—the same every year—rather than having to be moved around.

We must also put the proposal in context. With only eight a year, the UK ranks 16th in Europe when it comes to bank holidays; France and Sweden have 11 a year and Germany has 12. Even the notoriously hard-working Americans have 13, although I accept that they take shorter summer holidays than we do in Europe. Are critics really saying that these extra bank holidays are pulling down those countries’ economies? Figures today from Germany and France demonstrate the growth in their economies, yet they have more bank holidays.

Finally, this policy has true cross-party support and, more important, huge public support. On St George’s day this year, I teamed up with Facebook’s Democracy UK page to ask users whether they supported the Bill. I am told that the response rate was 800% higher than usual, and I am delighted to say that an incredible 89% of respondents supported the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) has been presented with a petition, to be presented to the House, with the

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signatures of 3,674 constituents asking for a St George’s day bank holiday. Other Members have received e-mails from constituents asking that they support the Bill. In the world of research, where I hail from, YouGov found that 68% of people thought it appropriate for the country to have an extra bank holiday, with St George’s day being the most popular option.

Today we have an opportunity to do something great for this nation. It is an opportunity to tell the public that we are listening to what they want, and it is an opportunity to deliver real social and economic benefits. I hope that colleagues will join me in supporting the Bill in order to turn those opportunities into reality. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.37 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I rise to make a short contribution to the debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for bringing the debate to the House. I am sure that the campaign he is spearheading is very popular, if not populist. However, I have some slight concerns about the international comparisons that have been made. The reality is that across most of continental Europe, bank holidays, which are normally associated with particular feast days or national events, are not transferred to the following Monday or previous Friday when they fall on the weekend. For example, if Christmas day falls on a Saturday, in Germany that is it and they do not get the following Monday off. That happens in most continental European countries, if not all. My hon. Friend alluded to America, and I appreciate that they tend to take shorter holidays in the summer, with 10 days' statutory entitlement being quite normal.

I applaud my hon. Friend’s patriotic stand in seeking to ensure that we have holidays that celebrate our country, but I would like him to consider the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), which I agree with, that people do not require a holiday to be able to celebrate our wonderful country, as happens in our civic parade in Saxmundham and in similar events elsewhere in Suffolk Coastal.

In reference to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) has just made on how the Government are considering other bank holidays, I see that as a really important contribution to establishing why we need 1 May to be a bank holiday—I know that that may be controversial on the Opposition Benches. Why not choose a day of national celebration? It could be the Queen’s birthday or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) suggested, Trafalgar day.

Nadhim Zahawi: I applaud my hon. Friend for thinking through some of the issues surrounding the Bill, but does she agree that, whichever day we settle on, it should be one that the nation supports as the right day to celebrate?

Dr Coffey: That is a fair point, and there is no more popular day than a day celebrating one’s country, although, with reference to what was aid by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who is no longer in his place, I am conscious that we have always to support the United Kingdom. We have had the royal

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wedding day, and with the diamond jubilee next year I think that such moments of unity may be more appropriate dates on which to build.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend mentioned public holidays in the United States earlier, and until not that long ago some states celebrated some public holidays and other states did not; Martin Luther King day is the most relevant example. We could have national and sub-national holidays in this country. They could work quite well, and I see no problem with having a Trafalgar day, a St George’s day, a St David’s day, a St Andrew’s day, a St Patrick’s day and so on. That works in other countries with subdivisions.

Dr Coffey: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. In Scotland they have not only new year’s day off, but 2 January. Perhaps they have such a good time at Hogmanay that they need two days to recover; I do not know the convention around that. Of course, it was not until fairly recently—perhaps within our lifetime, my hon. Friend may note—that Christmas day became a day off in Scotland, so I fully accept that different countries within the United Kingdom might have different traditions that they wish to modify.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): In Scotland, apart from the obvious public holidays such as Christmas day that appear on fixed dates, many public holidays are local holidays. Different local authorities will choose different days for their spring or autumn holidays, so the system works perfectly well not just within a whole nation, but locally. Will the hon. Lady be clear about May day, however? I was concerned that she was suggesting that the May holiday should not continue, and I hope she was not, because if that approach were to be associated with introducing St George’s day and St David’s day, it would destroy the otherwise bipartisan approach to the debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who has introduced the Bill, would not want that either.

Dr Coffey: I am not trying in any way to associate that idea with the Bill; I am trying to suggest that the Government should take some time to think about the public holidays that affect each individual nation and the United Kingdom as a whole, and to decide whether they are well spaced out, whether there is a concentration around a particular time of year and whether we could do with moving some—be they 1 May, 30 May, the one in August or similar—to different points of the year. It is a long stretch from 31 August right through to Christmas day, especially when we have so many holidays granted to us earlier in the year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon commented on economic activity, and I should like to see more understanding of that issue. I will not oppose the Bill, because it merits further debate, but I look forward to the Government’s comments, particularly given that some of my local business people have said, “Another bank holiday means another day that I have to pay someone who may not be generating value for my business.” That might seem a bit miserly, but it is not intended to be. That is the reality, and we need to ensure that we are as productive as we can be. We should fly our flags with pride on St George’s day, 1 March,

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30 November and 17 March, but we must ensure that we do not put ourselves at a disadvantage compared with our international competitors, and not just those within the European Union.

1.44 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I rise to make a short contribution to the debate. I want to make two preliminary points. First, I extend my sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) on moving the Second Reading and on being such an advocate of a full debate about whether St George’s day in England and St David’s day in Wales should form bank holidays, as St Patrick’s day in Northern Ireland and St Andrew’s day in Scotland do.

Secondly, I stress—not least because, for perfectly understandable reasons given the constituency that he represents, my hon. Friend focused his comments on St George’s day—that, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) said, and as I know given my surname and with grandparents and relatives in Troedyrhiw in south Wales, there is great support in Wales for the Bill and for ensuring that there is also a public holiday on St David’s day.

With those preliminary remarks behind me, the only point that I want to address is one that has troubled some hon. Members: whether the Bill, as formulated, is in any way a divisive measure in preventing citizens in the various constituent parts of the United Kingdom from celebrating saints' days that are not public holidays in the constituent part of the UK from which they come. As I understand it, that is not the principle that lies behind the Bill. It would be perfectly acceptable for Englishmen and Englishwomen living in Wales to celebrate St George’s day, or for Welsh people who have the misfortune to live in England to celebrate St David’s day, in just the same way that I am sure many Scots living in other parts of the United Kingdom celebrate St Andrew’s day—and we all know that the Irish celebrate St Patrick’s day wherever they happen to be in the world, and do it very well indeed. That mischief does not exist in the Bill, and hon. Members who have sought to suggest that it does are wrong.

Much more importantly, this is a Bill whose day has come. The time has come for this sort of measure to be properly debated and for the Government to consult on it, because for too long the symbols associated, in particular with St George, have been purloined by the wrong people in this country. It is about time, as any decent and proper Englishman such as the Minister can tell us, that we took those symbols back and began to celebrate what it is to be English, Welsh, Scots or Irish. There is no problem with that. This is a Union of four strong nations, and the Bill would not in any way undermine it.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and, I hope, to receiving assurances that the Government, even if they will not lend their support to the Second Reading of the Bill, will give it serious consideration in the context of whether there should be further bank holidays in this country. I, for one, look forward to the day when, even if I can celebrate Trafalgar day—although I am not sure what I would do with that day in October—I and all my constituents will have the opportunity to

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mark the day on which the patron saint of this country is celebrated. For those reasons, I will support my hon. Friend’s Bill, and I hope that others will do the same.

1.48 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) on introducing the Bill. I also congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because before you became an occupant of the Chair you led the way in previous Parliaments in promoting a series of patriotic measures. I strongly support this proposal. I strongly believe that we should celebrate St George’s day and that we should, as the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) said, reclaim these symbols from those on the far right, who have traduced them.

We heard several other proposals in the debate. For example, the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) suggested a day of national celebration not on St George’s day but on Trafalgar day. I think we should look for a day that enables us to celebrate much more what we are as a people and a nation, and the unique contribution we have made to the rest of the world. People sometimes ask me what it means to be British. I believe that it is not about where you were born, what you look like, where your parents were from, the religion you practise or any other such factors, but the contribution you make, what you believe, and your adherence to the great British values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance, to which I believe our country has a particular and unique attachment.

People say that every other country can claim those values just as much as Britain can, but I do not believe that to be true. For example, when other European countries rounded up Jews in the second world war, put them on trains and sent them to concentration camps—we were reminded of that only yesterday with the trial of Demjanjuk—Britain, uniquely, provided a safe haven for Jewish children such as my father, who came here at the age of 10, unable even to speak English. I therefore think we can say that this country has a unique commitment to the values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance, and that we should stand up for that. We should pick a day to celebrate that reminds us, children in Britain and everyone who wants to live in this country that it is those values that make us British and that make our country so special.

When the Minister responds, I would like to hear what thought he and his colleagues have given to picking a date that can be set aside for an annual moment of reflection and celebration to remind the whole country of the unique contribution that British people have laid down their lives to give to the rest of the world.

1.51 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) on moving the Second Reading of his Bill, and on making so many pertinent points.

Many great and some not so great men and women have attempted to define the English identity. I will not compete with them by trying to weave tea, Shakespeare,

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queuing and tabloids into a national narrative. I am even less well qualified to pontificate on the essence of Welshness.

The Labour party strongly supports the celebration of the English and Welsh national identities. We are proud that we helped to reclaim the cross of St George from the British National party. I think it is true to say that when we now see it flying on our streets, all English hearts can swell with pride, rather than fear racist insults. The Welsh have been ahead of the English in maintaining a strong focus on and pride in their national symbols: the flag of St David, the daffodil and their national dress.

Many St George’s day celebrations are held in my constituency of Newcastle upon Tyne Central. Kids of all ethnic backgrounds delight in recreating St George’s feats of heroism, to which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon referred. I tried to emulate St George’s courage and skill by competing in the egg and pan race at the Villa Victoria’s St George’s fun day in the Westgate area of Newcastle. I am afraid that I was not worthy of his memory, but I will have another opportunity next year to carry off the golden frying pan.

Dr Thérèse Coffey: Perhaps the hon. Lady would have more joy if she participated in “Dragons’ Den”.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I will consider that in the run-up to next year’s event.

The royal wedding in April was a huge celebration of national identity. A million people came to London to celebrate with good humour and great pride, and all over the country people gathered in pubs, parks, streets and halls to watch. Even republicans managed to enjoy it in their own way and with good grace. We hope that the Government are already putting in place measures to ensure that the Queen’s diamond jubilee next year is as “amazing” as the wedding, as Her Majesty is reported to have characterised it.

The Opposition do not oppose Second Reading and look forward to seeing the Bill in Committee, but a number of important issues have to be considered before we will support it. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon considered the economic impact, and we are aware of the Government estimate that an additional national bank holiday would cost £2.9 billion. That would have clear implications for business, trade unions and other stakeholders.

There are issues besides costs for the Committee to examine. For example, we must make fair international comparisons. As the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said, I am not sure it is fair to claim that we have significantly fewer holidays than others, because in France, for example, if May day falls on a Saturday or Sunday there is no day off in lieu. With our strong sense of fairness, we ensure that a bank holiday is always a working day. Taking that into account, I believe that, on average, other European countries have only a slightly larger number of bank holidays. The French Government are reportedly considering reducing the number of public holidays. The hon. Lady pointed out that the US has more, but the trade-off is that far less holiday time is provided for businesses and workers.

There is a further concern that is the subject of daily and hourly discussion throughout these isles—the weather. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian

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Austin) said, an April bank holiday has little chance of coinciding with an English heat wave—nor, I am told, is March the best time to showcase Welsh sunshine. As a nation, we are working harder over longer hours, in more stressful conditions, so should we not have a decent chance of decent weather on a day off?

Furthermore, some might question the principle of telling hard-working men and women what they should do with their time off. It does not sound very English, does it? Unlike the French, the English have no need of an académie to celebrate the language of Shakespeare. Some might question whether a bank holiday is necessary to strengthen the homeland of Churchill, Brunel, Boadicea and St Cuthbert, to name but a few, or for that matter the home of Owain Glyndwr and the Eisteddfod.

As has been mentioned, however, a poll conducted for St David’s day 2006 found that 87% of people in Wales wanted it to be a bank holiday, with 65% being prepared to sacrifice a different bank holiday. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) referred to the strong support in Wales for a St David’s day bank holiday. We therefore believe that there is strong evidence of popular interest in making St David’s day and St George’s day bank holidays, and that it is worth while examining in more detail how the matter can be taken forward. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is in pre-consultation on the May day bank holiday, and as a result we hope to learn more about British attitudes to bank holidays. We hope, though, that we will not lose our May day bank holiday.

We believe that we should celebrate our national identity, and unlike the Government we believe in promoting strong local, regional—we have not yet banned the R-word—and national identities. We look forward to discussions in Committee to see whether the Bill is the best way of doing so.

1.58 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): Would that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, had been in Long Sutton in my constituency when St George’s day was celebrated. You would have been able to enjoy, as I did, adorned by the rose of England, the people and personalities of that splendid town. Many people, like me, enjoyed vanilla ice cream made and served by Laddies of Holbeach at an event organised by Jack Tyrrell, whose triumphant election to Long Sutton parish council I know the whole House will wish to celebrate. I can think of no one better than you, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am not in the habit of flattering the Chair, as you know—to have added their celebrity to that occasion. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to invite you to join me in my constituency when the event is next held.

Last Sunday, I marched, as I do every year, at the head of scouts and guides, cubs and brownies, and beavers and rainbows from Spalding marketplace to the church of St Mary and St Nicholas to celebrate St George’s day —rather late, the House will note, because of the royal wedding and all the events we enjoyed as a nation that obliged those organisations to delay their usual celebrations. It is an annual joy to be part of that and to see young people experiencing the benefits described by so many Members today of national identity, including the purposeful pride instilled in our hearts by our understanding of what we are and where we have come from.

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It has been the habit of those in the bourgeois liberal class—by that, of course, I do not mean the Liberal Democrats; I am using “liberal” with a small L—who are doubt-filled and guilt-ridden to understate the significance of that sense of identity. Let that passing phase in our history be now put to one side. Let us all, as a nation, understand that this sense of belonging feeds our sense of worth and value.

To that end, I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s Bill and the chance it has given us to debate these matters. At its heart, it is a celebration not only of St George’s day and St David’s day, but of St George and St David themselves. In anticipation of this day, preparing with the diligence that I hope I usually display, I took the trouble to wander into Central Lobby and look at the fine mosaics of St George and St David—and also of St Andrew and St Patrick—that adorn that place. You will be familiar with them, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have purchased two small postcards for you, which I will give you at the end of today’s proceedings. The mosaics, which were added to Central Lobby a considerable time after the Houses’ rebuilding after 1834, are a wonderful display of the very symbols of identity to which the Bill draws the House’s attention.

St George, you will remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, stands between virtue and purity—other elements in the national identity, described by many Members, and exemplified in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), that make England what it is. Virtue is holding a lion’s skin, illustrating the triumph over brute force, whereas purity holds a bunch of white lilies. I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend, but St George is clearly a rather pale-skinned youth in the illustration, by the way, but of course that might be poetic licence. The figure of St George says so much about what we are as Englishmen.

It is appropriate to take this opportunity to celebrate St George and St David. Lest I be accused of any prejudice, I will say a word about St David too, for there is a fine mosaic of him, too. He stands between two angels. I cannot help but notice my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) at the end of the Treasury Bench, and I want to point out for his benefit alone that St David was originally the saint of Pembrokeshire, and only later became the saint of the whole of Wales. The two angelic figures standing either side of St David in that mosaic, which we pass every day, represent the harp of harmony and the lamp of light. May harmony and light be brought to all our proceedings today and every day.

I would like to put a couple of other things on the record before I move to the specifics of the Bill—mindful, of course, of your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker. No party in this House has a monopoly on patriotism. It would ill serve us to pretend so. Patriotism, the belief in something greater than that which divides us, is an essential component in building a society that works. The things that drive and unite us must be greater than the differences that we enjoy. Indeed, the fact that we can tolerantly enjoy differences is emblematic of what is best about being British.

In those terms, the Bill is topical. I am sure that everyone enjoyed the recent celebrations of national identity, best shown by the royal wedding, to which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) referred. It was a truly happy day for those directly involved, and it is marvellous how that happiness

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reverberated across the whole nation. Indeed, my young son Edward played the part of the groom in a royal wedding celebration at John Harrox primary school in my village. He was proud to do so, borrowing my top hat for the occasion.

We would all love another holiday—I would love many more holidays—but there are costs to be paid. I hope that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon will not think I am a killjoy for pointing that out. I do so with some reluctance, because I think we are often excessively utilitarian in public policy. I do go with Wilde:

“A cynic is the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

We weigh and measure public policy solely by utility at great cost. None the less, we must be mindful of cost, in particular because of the times in which we live. It would be less than responsible not to take into account the points made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central about the possible cost of an additional public holiday, to which I will return in a few moments.

I will now read from the script that was prepared for me, although I will do so fleetingly and will not let that constrain my rhetoric unduly.

The Government regularly receive requests for additional bank holidays to celebrate a variety of occasions. The current pattern of permanent bank holidays is well established, and in recent years leave entitlements for many workers have increased. It might therefore seem, in the eyes of some, unnecessary to announce a further bank holiday, but there will be a holiday next year to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee, as there was to celebrate her golden jubilee. We should celebrate that with exuberance: no understatement and lots of celebration in Westminster and across the country, for my disdain of the bourgeois liberal class extends to its claim that to be exuberant is to be vulgar.

Ian Austin: No one has ever suggested that I am a member of any sort of bourgeois liberal group. Thirty years ago next year, British forces liberated the Falkland Islands. They did not just free the Falklands, but fought for democracy and freedom more broadly. Would it not be right for the nation to celebrate that anniversary next year, and every year, on 14 June, as an example of Britain’s commitment to democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance?

Mr Hayes: In response to that, I should say that a nation that forgets its past is likely to neglect its future. As a conservative—with every kind of “C”—I fully understand that we are part of a continuum, and unless we learn from what we have done, we are unlikely to do well now or as we move forward, so it is right that we mark the occasion that the hon. Gentleman describes. It is important that we celebrate that victory and also pay proper respect to those who were part of it. I do not know what the official plans are, but given the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, the least I can do is ask the Ministers responsible to drop him a line. I think it would be wrong if that passed without any comment or note. Such occasions are worth marking in an appropriate and measured way.

Nadhim Zahawi: I stand in awe of my hon. Friend’s powers of oratory and sound and clear thinking. On the

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cost and the point that he has just made about a similar event next year—an extra bank holiday to celebrate, quite rightly, the Queen’s diamond jubilee—could we not in the intervening time assess the cost of an additional bank holiday? We would therefore be able to make a sound decision about whether my Bill’s proposal for a permanent bank holiday could be supported in future.

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend is certainly right. Although we cost such proposals in a clear and empirical way—and notwithstanding my comments about utility—it is right that we should consider the matter in the round. We should assess the effects, both good and bad, on business, because clearly many businesses will benefit from an additional holiday. The tourist business, many of our resorts and parts of our leisure industry would benefit. However, there would be other costs to business, and it is right to listen to what business organisations say. Indeed, I will describe what they have said as we progress through this short but important debate.

The history of bank holidays will help us to draw some conclusions. Bank holidays are a relatively new phenomenon, of course. Before 1834, the Bank observed about 33 saints’ days and religious festivals as holidays, but in 1834 the number was reduced to just four: 1 May, 1 November or All Saints day, Good Friday and Christmas day. Frankly, in my view, that was rather a meagre ration. In 1871, the first legislation relating to bank holidays was passed when the banker and politician, Sir John Lubbock, introduced the Bank Holidays Act 1871, which specified the days as holidays.

I understand that Sir John Lubbock was an enthusiastic supporter of national and local cricket, and was firmly of the belief that bank employees should have the opportunity to participate in and attend matches when they were scheduled. Dates of bank holidays are therefore dates when cricket games were traditionally played between villages in the area where Sir John was raised. It is that rather partisan approach to bank holidays, built around Sir John’s personal tastes, which forms the basis, or at least the origins, of the matters we are speaking of today. Nevertheless, people were so glad to be given time off, whether it was to watch cricket or not, they called the first bank holidays St Lubbock’s days for a while. That did not perpetuate, but I hope that politicians of note might consider that, at least in popular if not official terms, special days could be named after them; one never knows, but if my hon. Friend’s Bill were to be successful, his name might, at least colloquially, be attached to the day’s holiday that people enjoyed. However, that rather self-interested motive of course has nothing to do with his bringing the Bill to our attention.

As is often the case, Scotland was treated separately because of its separate traditions, and so, for example, new year’s day was a holiday there whereas Boxing day was not. The 1871 Act did not specify Good Friday and Christmas day as bank holidays in England, Wales and Ireland because they were already recognised as common law holidays, and common observance had meant that they had become customary holidays since before records began.

Exactly a century after the 1871 Act, the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, which currently regulates bank holidays in the UK, was passed. The majority of the current bank holidays were specified in the 1971 Act, but holidays for new year’s day in England, Wales and

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Northern Ireland and for May day were introduced later. From 1965, the date of the August bank holiday was changed to the end of the month. Curiously, there were a few years—for example, 1968—when the holiday fell in September, but this no longer occurs, presumably reflecting a change in the way of defining the relevant date. The Whitsun bank holiday, Whit Monday, was replaced by the late spring bank holiday, which was fixed as the last Monday in May in 1971.

Under the 1971 Act, certain holidays are written into legislation. Those which are not are proclaimed each year by the legal device of a royal proclamation. A royal proclamation is also used to move bank holidays that would otherwise fall on a weekend, so adding an additional one-off holiday, as was the case this year. In that way, holidays are not lost in years when they coincide with weekends. These deferred bank holidays are termed bank holidays in lieu of the typical anniversary date and in the legislation are known as “substitute days”. Although we have fewer public or bank holidays than many other European Union member states, they do not always have substitute days and so, in some sense, the comparison is misleading. That point has been made by a variety of speakers today, including the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central.

To give those north of border a chance to have a longer celebration at new year, 2 January was made an additional bank holiday in Scotland by the 1971 Act—the rest of the country was given the chance to celebrate, less enthusiastically perhaps, by having new year’s day off instead. May day is the most recent of the eight bank holidays and is thought by some to be a controversial choice. It was introduced by the then Employment Secretary, Michael Foot, in 1978, just before he went on to lead the Labour party. At the time many opposed the move, saying that the May day holiday was essentially a communist idea because most countries behind the iron curtain enjoyed it, but it is now in the calendar and a fixture in bastions of communism such as the United States. I think we can assume that those charges did not bear as much weight as their advocates suggested.

The first bank holiday Act was a welcome innovation—

Mr Nuttall: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr Hayes: On the point of communism or bank holidays?

Mr Nuttall: On the point of the May day bank holiday. Does the Minister agree that one solution to the problem of finding an extra bank holiday for St George’s day would be simply to move the May day bank holiday to 23 April? That would resolve the problem of a loss to the economy, which has been discussed, and it would create a day around which we could all unite for St George’s day.

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Mr Hayes: I wondered whether a bright Member of this House rather like my hon. Friend—who certainly is that—might make just such an intervention. It is arguable that one might transpose those dates. It is not the spirit of the Bill, which suggests an extra day, but none the less it is an argument that could be made and that has been made very succinctly by my hon. Friend in his brief intervention.

In conclusion, let me say two things. I want to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon—I know how pleased he will be that I am able to make this announcement today—that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport tourism strategy allows for a consultation on moving the May day bank holiday and one suggestion is that it might be moved to St George’s day or St David’s day. That consultation will give everyone an opportunity to have a proper debate about such arguments to the satisfaction of my hon. Friend the Members for Stratford-on-Avon and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). Of course, that is not to prejudge the outcome of the DCMS process.

One can do no better on such occasions than to quote our great poet, who was born on St George’s day and died on St George’s day. Anyone in this place who has doubts about the existence of the divine and would attribute that to coincidence is surely rather less wise than that great man himself. He said:

“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’”

2.21 pm

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response and the positive news that a consultation on a St George’s day bank holiday will definitely be forthcoming. I shall obviously push hard to ensure that the option of an entirely new bank holiday, rather than just moving May day, is included as an option in that consultation and I hope that my hon. Friend will meet me and supportive colleagues to discuss the matter in the near future.

In the light of that fact and of my hon. Friend’s response, I think it would be quite right to withdraw the Bill in order to give the Department time for consultation and an opportunity properly to collect public opinion as well as to give the Government time to respond to that opinion. I am quite sure that the English, Welsh and indeed entire British public will continue to show their strong support and that, in the near future, we will be able to deliver a St George’s day bank holiday for our nation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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Consumer Protection (Private Car Parks) Bill

Second Reading

2.23 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am acutely conscious that we have very little time left before the Adjournment debate, so I shall try to give the abridged version of a Second Reading speech. I am also conscious, while I am talking about time, that it was only just over a year ago that I was elected to this place and I would not have imagined that I would be presenting a private Member’s Bill on the provision of consumer protection and private car parks. Whenever I contribute in the Chamber, I try to bear reference to my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament and, in my time as a Member of Parliament, I have unfortunately come across a rogue car park operator in my constituency that, for the most minor infractions or for no offence at all, regularly issues motorists with apparent fines or at least demands for payment for very dubious reasons.

The operator often claims payment from motorists, saying that they did not purchase a ticket, but when a motorist produces evidence that they did indeed buy a pay-and-display ticket the operator says that it was not properly displayed and demands payment. Many people are, in essence, intimidated into parting with their money; demands are often made for £70 rising to £140 if the amount is not paid within two weeks. Many elderly and vulnerable people have been tricked into making a payment that is not a criminal fine but merely a demand from a private car park operator. Many fear for their credit rating, because they receive threatening letters, often with the claim that the company will send in the bailiffs.

When I raised the issue with the planning and licensing sections of my local authority, I was told that planning legislation does not allow local authorities properly to control the actions of such rogue private car park operators. Their operations are not covered by the licensing regime either.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Is it not the case that car park operators are required to identify through visible signs the status of the land on which they encourage people to park? The signs must show the terms that apply and any penalties for contravening them. If an individual falls foul of those obligations, in essence, they have only themselves to blame.

Henry Smith: I agree. If somebody contravenes the conditions for parking on private land, it is perfectly reasonable for the private operator to seek restitution. However, as I said earlier, operators often claim that people have not purchased a ticket when, in fact, they have, and demand payment. There are many responsible private car park operators, but I regret that a minority let down the industry.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I welcome the Bill, irrespective of the outcome today. In Windsor, we have a car park such as my hon. Friend describes, so I encourage him to make his case as forcefully as possible.

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It is important that people have a sensible form of redress when they are incorrectly or unfairly treated by private car park operators.

Henry Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.

My instincts are not to reach for the statute book and additional regulation, but there is a gap in the legislation and it needs addressing. The provisions of my Bill would do that straightforwardly, at no additional cost to the taxpayer. The Bill would give local authorities a licensing function over the operation of publicly available paid-for car parking. Just as taxi companies or public houses are licensed, so too, through an application fee, could private car parks be licensed, to ensure that rogue operators behave responsibly.

People might say that surely the industry can regulate itself, and there is indeed a body—the British Parking Association—but it supports the Bill, because it recognises that self-regulation has not worked. Other organisations, such as Consumer Focus, the AA and the RAC, also support the Bill.

The Bill offers relief to the motorist, who can fall foul of the somewhat questionable practices of a minority of operators. Liverpool Victoria estimates that motorists are paying apparent fines or penalties of about £60 million a year. They should not be paying those penalties and they should have the right to appeal. With that brief conclusion, I commend the Bill to the House.

2.29 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing a Second Reading debate on his Bill. I fully understand many people’s concerns about a minority of car park operators and the activities that have given rise to the Bill.

2.30 pm

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

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 21 October.

Business without Debate

Sale of Tickets (Sporting and Cultural Events) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (21 January), That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 21 October.

Re-export Controls Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

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

13 May 2011 : Column 1537

Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (18 March), That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 10 June .

Medical Insurance (Pensioner Tax Relief) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

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

Building Regulations (Review) Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

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

13 May 2011 : Column 1538

Credit Rating Agencies

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson .)

2.32 pm

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House for giving me the opportunity to debate this very important issue today, but before I do so, I should like to say to my constituents that I have been a Member for a year this week, and I have loved every week. It has been a great pleasure to serve the people of my constituency, and I will continue to work my socks off for them so long as I have the privilege of sitting in the House.

This debate comes at a crucial moment. The world is seeking to address the failings of the financial system in the wake of the 2008 crash. Much of that work is being driven by the G20 and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. Of course, credit ratings are hardwired into the new rules that are being implemented now. The sovereign debt crisis that is occurring in the eurozone reminds us of the sheer power of credit rating agencies. Of course, a number of recent studies have posed serious questions about the operation of the credit rating agency market in the wake of the 2008 crash, and I wish to explore some of those issues in the short time available this afternoon.

I should add that the European Commission will shortly publish its proposals to improve the regulation of the agencies. I hope that this debate will perhaps not only inform the national debate on the issue but give us more clarity on the Government’s position. Just three firms—Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch—control some 95% of the credit rating market. They rate a range of debt instruments, and their ratings are embedded in investment plans, price triggers and the new capital requirements that are being implemented.

A downgrade by one of the big three agencies can make or break an entire economy, as recent events in the eurozone have shown. Just last month, Greece’s Prime Minister accused them of

“seeking to shape our destiny and determine the future of our children.”

Some people might say that that is unsurprising, given Greece’s position at the moment and the difficulties that it has faced, but Greece is not the only country that has complained. The US Assistant Treasury Secretary, Mary Miller, also weighed in last month following the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s of its outlook for US sovereign debt.

The credit rating agencies thus exercise huge power, despite the deep failings exposed during and after the financial crash. Investigations into the financial and economic crisis that have been conducted since then have shown that the agencies played a large part in causing and then exacerbating the financial crisis. The US Senate sub-committee on investigations last month reported that

“perhaps more than any other single event, the sudden mass downgrades of residential mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations were the trigger for the financial crisis.”

The report of the US Government’s financial crisis inquiry committee stated that

“the failures of credit rating agencies were essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction. The three credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown.”

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Here, the Financial Services Authority in Lord Turner’s review of 2009 said much the same when it concluded that

“the credit ratings-based system played an important part in the origins of the crisis”.

These are not isolated claims. Studies published by the Financial Stability Board, the Bank of England and the European Commission’s de Larosière group reach a similar conclusion. The key points are these. In the years preceding the financial crisis, the credit rating agencies fuelled a dangerous liquidity boom by underestimating the credit default risks of sub-prime mortgages and complex structured products. When the bubble burst, sudden downgrades to the ratings embedded in the investment plans, mandates and capital reserve requirements automatically triggered a liquidity crisis which, in effect, made a bad situation much worse.

Multiple major studies have concluded that the big credit rating agencies were key contributors to a financial crash that cost this country well over £1 trillion. It is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that the flaws in the credit ratings business are dealt with as a matter of urgency. One such flaw, which must be addressed, is the fundamental conflict of interest that arises through the so-called issuer-pays model. Under this model the issuer of a security can shop around for a rating, creating a race to the bottom in the integrity of ratings. Competition for this lucrative business puts pressure on rating agency staff to downplay risk and to collude with issuers, particularly when rating elaborate packages of structured debt. The result, seen in the sudden mass downgrades at the start of the financial crisis, is a dangerous ratings inflation.

This process was a common observation of all the investigations that I mentioned. The de Larosière report, for example, said

“the conflicts of interest in CRAs made matters worse. The issuer-pays model, as it has developed, has had particularly damaging effects in the area of structured finance.”

The US Senate report concurred, saying:

“The conflict of interest inherent in an issuer-pay setup is clear: rating agencies are incentivized to offer the highest ratings, as opposed to offering the most accurate ratings, in order to attract business.”

These findings are supported by evidence from within the rating agencies themselves. In internal correspondence published by US congressional investigations, staff joked that a deal

“could be structured by cows and we would rate it”,

and discussed “adjusting”, “spinning” and “massaging” ratings methodologies in order to preserve market share. I have read many of the documents and e-mails myself.

A 2008 survey of finance professionals by the CFA—chartered financial analyst—Institute found that 11% of respondents had witnessed agencies altering ratings under pressure or influence from outside parties, so any serious regulation of the system needs to target the inherent conflict of interest in the issuer-pays system.

This brings me to the recent moves by the European Commission. Recent EU legislation has taken some important steps in the right direction. It makes it mandatory for all credit rating agencies operating in the EU to register with the new European Securities and Markets

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Authority, which will monitor their methods and potential conflicts of interest. It also gives that authority powers to investigate agencies and, in the event of infractions, suspend agencies’ licences. For me, the question is: does this do enough? I am not sure that it does, because it does not fundamentally challenge the issuer-pays model that has been shown to incentivise ratings inflation.

I mentioned earlier that the European Commission is due to publish a series of new proposals, and the options that it floated in its consultation in November, which finished in January, included the creation of a European credit rating agency, support for investor-owned agencies, an independent clearing board to allocate ratings business, a network of small and medium agencies, and an obligation on institutional investors to obtain their own rating before purchasing a product. The Commission has said that it is about to table new legislation in this area. Does that accord with the Treasury’s understanding? I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me when that legislation is expected to be published.

The UK’s tripartite authorities produced a response to the Commission’s options in January 2011, which largely rejected the suggestions that had been placed on the table, placing great confidence in the pre-existing EU regime. Their response also called for a “more narrowly focused” approach to further reform. Most contentiously, their response said that there was

“no hard evidence that conflicts of interest in the ‘issuer-pays’ model lead to ratings inflation”.

It has to be said that that is very difficult to reconcile with the findings of the various investigations into the role of the issuer-pays model in the causes of the financial crisis, which I have just mentioned. I ask those interested in this to read the reports that I have mentioned and decide whether the tripartite response is appropriate.

It is clear to me that tackling the conflicts of interest is central to reforming the system. I know that Treasury Ministers, perhaps the Chief Secretary to the Treasury excepted, have not historically been the biggest fans of the EU, but I urge the Government to be bold and adopt an open-minded approach to the Commission’s proposals when they come out.

As the Financial Times has pointed out, a publicly owned but independent credit rating agency

“would go some way to mitigate”

the risks of the issuer-pays system. A variation on that idea, a European credit rating foundation funded by the financial industry, recently received the backing of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, which has called on the Commission to conduct a

“detailed impact and viability assessment”.

In the US, the Senate has already approved an amendment establishing a clearing body for credit ratings.

Finally, I draw the attention of the House to the Bank of England’s financial stability paper of March 2011, which explored the feasibility of moving from an issuer-pays to an investor-pays model. That concluded that, despite the obstacles, the challenges to such a radical change

“may…not be insurmountable”.

Ministers, particularly from the Treasury, with whom I tend to have much discussion on the Treasury Committee,

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of which I am a member, enjoy reminding me that much of what I have just mentioned happened on the watch of the last Labour Government, and I have admitted and said many times in the House that we did not get the regulation of banks completely right on our watch, although I do not remember there being a huge clamour for a massive clampdown from the Opposition at the time. What people out in the real world want to know from the Minister this afternoon is not how awful he thinks my lot were, but what the Government will do.

The 1997 Asian crash and the 2001 Enron collapse both exposed flaws in the way the agencies operate, yet their power remained unchecked and their failings went unaddressed then. We are all well aware of what followed in 2008, and we cannot afford a repeat of that mistake in 2011 and beyond. The status quo is not an option. Ultimately, the pensions, savings, jobs, homes and livelihoods of our constituents depend on a credit rating system built on integrity and accuracy. We owe it to them to ensure that that is precisely what the system is.

2.44 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on securing the debate in this, the anniversary week of his election to Parliament? I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain and discuss the Government’s policy on credit rating agencies—an issue that has generated a fair amount of interest, including outside the United Kingdom. It might be helpful if I start by outlining the Government’s current position and set out the steps that have been taken here and in Europe to address the shortcomings in this area, but before doing so I would like to make two observations.

First, the financial crisis has clearly highlighted the fact that reform of CRAs is essential, as the hon. Gentleman has argued, both in the way they are supervised and regulated and in the way they conduct themselves and explain their decisions to the market. That has already led to significant regulatory changes. CRAs must now register to be recognised in the EU and comply with rigorous procedures and controls in using their ratings. The European Commission has identified further measures to address over-reliance on CRA ratings and to improve competition and CRA accountability.

However, although reform is necessary, CRAs play an essential role in international markets. They provide the market with a neutral assessment of credit worthiness, a service that is valued by investors and crucial to the functioning of the international financial system. Reform should therefore aim to improve ratings quality and the way ratings information is used by investors, but it should not unduly undermine what is an essential service to international capital markets.

Recent market events have highlighted concerns about the role of CRAs, which is why we fully support international efforts to improve their regulation, to introduce greater transparency and competition and to reduce reliance on credit ratings, while acknowledging the complexity of the issues and the important role played by CRAs. The UK authorities have been, and will continue to be, active in both the EU and the G20 processes, including discussions on possible further measures that the Commission is considering in this area.

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With regard to what has been achieved to date, the hon. Gentleman is obviously aware that the first European credit rating agency regulation—CRA1—came into force in December 2009. It ensures that CRAs demonstrate that they manage potential conflicts of interest adequately and improve processes relating to the issuing and monitoring of ratings. It requires more robust internal control functions, greater transparency of methodologies and processes, due diligence procedures and the disclosure of performance. It provides a minimum standard of CRAs' systems and controls, ensuring that ratings in the EU are of a high quality.

As the hon. Gentleman will also be aware, that regulation has recently been amended to place rating agencies under European supervision. To be recognised for regulatory purposes, CRAs must go through a registration process, ensuring that they meet the standards of the new CRA regulation. From June, the newly established European Securities and Markets Authority will have the power to ensure that CRAs comply with the regulation. Other jurisdictions, including the US, are adopting similar regimes to ensure a consistent international standard. Those requirements of the European legislation apply to all asset classes and are aimed, in particular, at addressing the problems associated with structured products, an area where, as demonstrated during the crisis, CRAs have evidently failed to provide reliable ratings in some countries. CRAs are also banned from providing advisory services and are required to demonstrate that they have sufficiently analysed the underlying data in producing ratings for structured products. Overall, we consider that those measures will help to improve the quality and reliability of ratings.

Mr Umunna: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gauke: I will give way, although I suspect that I am about to answer one of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

Mr Umunna: I have a further point and a question about what the Minister has just said. I should have mentioned that I have met the senior management of the rating agencies, both here and in New York, and it is fair to say that they do not necessarily welcome such massive reliance being placed on them; they did not necessarily ask for responsibility on such a scale. What have the Government been doing at G20 level about these issues?

On a subsidiary point, the Financial Stability Board will obviously take an interest in this issue. Will the Minister tell me, or write to me to let me know, the members of the Financial Stability Board’s council? I understand that Lord Turner is a member, but it is a bit of a shadowy organisation and there have been some questions, not necessarily about its integrity, but about who is involved, because obviously it has a role to play in this area, too.

Mr Gauke: I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman in response to that query.

The UK Government have been very much engaged at G20 level and at a European level on the issue. In the context of European engagement, the next stage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech, is the further work that remains to be done. The European Commission released a consultation document in

13 May 2011 : Column 1543

November 2010 on additional measures that might be adopted on credit ratings. The main proposals related to reducing over-reliance on ratings and the additional measures related to increasing regulation on sovereign ratings; enhancing competition, such as establishing a public CRA, as the hon. Gentleman suggested; potentially increasing CRAs’ exposure to civil liability; and addressing the conflicts embedded in the “issuer pays” business model.

The Government, together with the Bank of England and the FSA, have published a joint response to that consultation, setting out in detail our view of the Commission’s proposals, and I am very happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with a copy. In summary, we support measures to reduce reliance on CRA ratings—a point that he made in his intervention when he said that many of the problems relate to the level of reliance on such ratings. We also support measures to increase transparency and disclosure, and to stimulate competition by lowering barriers to entry. We believe, however, that measures to impose civil liability or to establish a public CRA to issue ratings, particularly sovereign ratings, would be counter-productive and lead to unintended consequences.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of a public CRA, but the potential conflicts of interests in any such arrangement—particularly in the context of sovereign debt—would undermine credibility. Alternatively, although I am not sure whether the two arguments are mutually exclusive, there is the danger that a public body would crowd out other credit rating agencies and reduce competition, and neither of us would be keen to welcome that. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, however, the Commission will publish its legislative proposals in September.

The recent sovereign debt crises have raised concerns about the role of CRAs in sovereign borrowing. The

13 May 2011 : Column 1544

Government believe that, above all, it is crucial to ensure the impartiality of all ratings, including sovereign ratings, and that means improving transparency by CRAs to facilitate investor understanding, rather than regulating sovereign ratings in a way that compromises their credibility.

Internationally, there has also been a welcome initiative with the Financial Stability Board, considering measures to reduce the over-reliance on CRA ratings. That initiative is investigating what alternatives to CRA ratings can be used in regulatory requirements, in investor mandates and contracts and in central bank operations. Ways to encourage due diligence by market participants themselves are also being explored.

As I said earlier, the Government fully recognise the concern about CRAs. The coalition Government saw from the financial crisis that greater regulation was required to ensure high-quality ratings and a more judgment-based use of ratings by the market. The current sovereign debt crisis further highlights the need for CRAs to communicate consistently and effectively their analysis to the market, and for investors to understand what ratings represent.

That is why the coalition Government are supporting a reform package in Europe which focuses on the root cause of the problems associated with CRAs, while being cognisant of and safeguarding the essential role that CRAs play in the international financial system. We believe that, in addition to the substantial progress already made by CRA1 and CRA2, further reducing mechanistic reliance on CRAs, increasing transparency and reducing barriers to entrant CRAs would be effective ways of achieving that goal.

Question put and agreed to.

2.54 pm

House adjourned.