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|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 4th February 2011|
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Davies, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): On a point of order, Mr Bayley. Good morning, and welcome back to the Chair. On Tuesday, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich raised the pertinent issue of charging being restricted to the territorial sea of the United Kingdom or otherwise. I have written to him today, and I have ensured that copies of the letter are available on the table. My letter confirms the prescience of the observation of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View; the measure is designed to reflect provisions in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, so that the regimes are the same. It will cover not only the channel tunnel, but oil rigs and structures such as lighthouses that might be just beyond the territorial limit but could be reached by coastguard or other boats, if they required the assistance of the fire services.
When we adjourned on Tuesday, the Committee had agreed that clause 12 should stand part of the Bill. We now move on to clause 13, which is about predetermination—the difficulty that arises when people come to a meeting having already decided what they believe, irrespective of the evidence. That is not a problem that we have here at all.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be back in Committee Room 12 for a second day, for the seventh sitting of this Committee. The Law Society has expressed concern about whether “closed mind” is the right term to use in subsection (1)(b). The Law Society feels that the benefit of the clause could be eroded if an individual expresses a view on development and is later perceived to have had a closed mind. That would make an individual susceptible to challenge, and I do not think any of us want councillors to be challenged on such issues. Will the Minister consider tabling an amendment to correct that wording, if it is problematic?
Robert Neill: I have listened to the hon. Lady, and I will take the point on board, but we do not believe that the wording is problematic. Lawyers are like economists: if there are enough of them in a room, there will be a number of varying opinions. However, I do of course take the view of the Law Society seriously, and we will consider it. I get the sense from the hon. Lady’s observation that the objective of the clause is accepted by Members on both sides of the room, and given that, I hope that the clause may stand part as it is. If there is a difficulty, I will happily speak to the Law Society and other interested parties and keep the hon. Lady informed.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): My point relates to the definition of “relevant authority”. My constituency has a unitary council, and subsection (4) mentions a “county borough council”. Is that a unitary council for the purposes of the definition? Why were such councils not referred to in clause 7, where the definition of “local authority” excludes county borough councils and makes no reference to unitary councils?
Robert Neill: The provision mirrors the standard terminology. Although we have defined unitary councils, if we look at other enactments, we see that unitary councils are frequently referred to in legislation as district or other councils. That does not create any problems, as I understand it. I assure my hon. Friend that the clause covers all authorities, including unitary authorities, which have the functions of borough or county councils. She
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): Deep in the recesses of my mind, I seem to remember that county boroughs were established under the Municipal Corporations Act 1882. Many of those county boroughs have been subsumed into unitary or metropolitan authorities, but there are still some dotted around the country.
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is one of those interchangeable bits of terminology, but the purpose of the clause is to capture all directly elected authorities. It also, for the sake of fullness, includes co-opted—as well as elected—members of national park authorities and other relevant bodies, such as those that carry out planning functions.
The amendment makes a code of conduct for councillors compulsory, rather than voluntary. Members and co-opted members of a local authority should have a code of conduct to guide them and to ensure that they are accountable to the public. Of course, good local authorities would always have a code of conduct, but all local authorities need one.
In the constituency that I held before 2010, a councillor—of a different party from mine, I should say—was found guilty of misconduct and suspended on two separate occasions for bullying members of the public, officers of the council and, on one occasion, a policewoman. A quick search of articles in the press suggests that this is quite a common form of misconduct under the current code.
I want to mention the impact assessment for this part of the Bill, and I also want to register a complaint. More than 30 separate impact assessment documents for the Bill were published on Monday, and the Committee started on Tuesday morning. It is clear, Mr Bayley, that some of them are not finished, as they are full of empty tables. I think that is an insult to the scrutiny and
The impact assessment for this part of the Bill tells us that the misconduct of failing to treat others with respect amounts to 30% of breaches of the code, while acting in a manner that could reasonably be regarded as bringing the authority into disrepute amounted to 20%. The impact assessment says:
“Most of our councils welcomed the idea that they were subject to a code, but it was more on the basis that at least it was the same that the principal authorities—the counties, districts and boroughs—were treated to”.
“The problem here is that every council will make up its own mind. The choices that are available here do not seem quite right to us, because the options are: have no code at all; have some voluntary code that we have written for them; keep the old code— the Standards Board code—or write their very own local code. It is a bit of a mess, to be quite honest, and it needs clearing up.”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2011; c. 153, Q251.]
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, in its briefing to this Committee, said that arrangements envisaged in the Bill had three main elements. First, serious misconduct for personal gain would be a criminal offence, and quite rightly so. Secondly, individuals who have been personally disadvantaged by something a councillor has done will be able to complain to the local government ombudsman. Thirdly, for other instances of misconduct, the remedy will be left with the ballot box.
That seems like a clear analysis, and it also seems clear that many instances of misconduct will now probably go without remedy. Taking the instance that I gave earlier of the councillor in my constituency, he was re-elected after a three-year ban from public life, because there was enough support for his party for that to happen. Within no time, there were further complaints and another case of misconduct, this time against a policewoman. So the ballot box is no guaranteed remedy for the public against misconduct.
The Committee had excellent advice from Mr John Mann, who has been the independent chair of the London borough of Brent’s standards committee since 2002. I would like to thank him both for his evidence and for the work that he and other independent people do on the important issues of conduct and standards. Mr Mann makes it clear that he had to challenge the view in the council that councillors’ behaviour could be satisfactorily dealt with by the party whips. We have two Whips here and they do an excellent job, but they cannot do everything.
“I have no doubt that the existence of the Code and of the Standards Committee have led to a higher awareness of the issues and higher standards of behaviour. Our ability to impose sanctions, such as training, public apology and in one case suspension, has publicised the importance of high standards of conduct”.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I wanted to intervene on the hon. Lady, but I shall make a short contribution instead. The evidence that I have seen is that councils use codes of conduct to address points of debate, not conduct. In a case recently in my unitary authority, one councillor took another to the Standards Board not on any real point of conduct, but on a point of debate. The whole case cost something in the order of £25,000, which is a colossal waste of public money. I very much welcome the clause, which will prevent such instances.
Mr Raynsford: May I express shock at the comments that we have just heard? The inference of the hon. Gentleman’s comments is that it does not matter if there are breaches of standards, or if councillors behave in an inappropriate way, and that that should simply be left for the council to decide. The amendment aims to ensure that there is a code in every local authority area. The danger here is the pendulum. We know perfectly well that before the creation of the Standards Board there were many cases and complaints about thoroughly unsatisfactory standards of conduct in local government, involving criminal activity in some cases, with police intervention being necessary in certain instances. In other cases, there was bullying and utterly inappropriate conduct and behaviour.
For all the criticisms that have been made, the advent of the Standards Board and the standards regime has helped to improve standards in local government. I understand the view that the majority of Conservative Members have expressed, which is that the Standards Board was unduly prescriptive, and that a less centralised regime is necessary. I do not understand, and I certainly do not support, any suggestion that a recognised code of standards should not exist in every local authority. The argument that that should be left to local discretion opens the door to precisely the kinds of problems and abuse that existed in the past.
If the Government believe that enacting this legislation with that permissive power for local authorities to decide whether they want standards will absolve them of any problems, they are, frankly, deluding themselves. That will be a green light to certain authorities and public representatives. We are talking about a minority, and I do not want to overstate the case, but unfortunately people transgress and behave inappropriately in public life, in organisations including local government. If they believe that they can do what they like and get away with it, and that no pressure will be put on them—possibly because they come from a majority party in a local authority and believe that their leader and chief whip will cover up any allegations of misconduct against them—we are opening the door to a thoroughly dangerous and unsatisfactory situation that many of us thought we had eradicated.
It is in all our interests, as we know only too well in this place, to have clear standards of conduct. The public should feel confident that those who are elected to public office, whether here or in local authorities, will maintain the highest standards of probity and good conduct. We cannot take that lightly or see it simply as a matter of localism and devolution. Certain principles should be upheld in public life at all levels, and it is our responsibility as a Parliament to ensure that the framework promotes those standards. I give my wholehearted support to amendment 41. I hope that the Government will reconsider, because they are opening a can of worms, and for that, they may be blamed in future.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I will pursue my consistent theme of claiming that both sides are wrong. I am trying to steer what appears to me—perhaps only to me—to be a consistent course. In general, as I have said, I do not like “musts” for local authorities, except for a “must disclose.” I would much prefer there to be a “may,” which could also be a “may not.” A “may” is appropriate in the basic rules for how an authority operates. The Opposition’s argument is inconsistent when it comes to clause 16(5); what is the value in saying that an authority must have a code of conduct, but may or may not publicise it? If it must have a code, surely it must publicise it. Later on, there will be other “may” and “must” discussions to be had. The duty to disclose what the authority is doing is imperative to protect the electors and to ensure that the council is being run in an appropriate way.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I rise to support the amendment. Although it is small, changing “may” to “must” in relation to the adoption of a voluntary code of conduct makes a large difference to the establishment of a benchmark standard across the country. We have made great strides forward in conduct and codes, and it would be unwise to row back from that. I hear the arguments of the hon. Member for Bradford East, and they are well put, in that if one moves from “must” to “may”, one should at least ensure transparency and ensure a “must” in terms of publicising where one is, because that will encourage local authorities to adopt voluntary codes of practice.
As someone who led a local authority for some time, I recognise some of the silliness around the edges that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South mentioned. He is right about that, and it would be better to get rid of it. That, however, is about human behaviour; it is not about whether there is a code. The code gives everybody a clear standard on what they should be doing. In my role as leader of a council, it would have been helpful to have a code, because it would have been something that everybody could refer to, that was transparent and open and that assisted everybody in being up to the mark and in maintaining high standards, which is what we are all about.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is good to be back in front of you again, Mr Bayley. We are discussing an important provision, which, I remind the Committee, was included in the manifestos of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and was written into the coalition agreement in May. I
The issue that the amendment raises is what the legal statutory obligation on a local authority should be when it comes to monitoring and responding to breaches of good behaviour by its members. I remind the Committee that there is, for example, no statutory requirement on a local authority to have a code of conduct for its employees; as a matter of course, however, all local authorities do. Good practice is, in fact, universal on that point, but there is no statutory guidance framework. The Government therefore believe that if a local authority wants to adopt its own code of conduct, it should be free to do so. It is almost inconceivable that authorities will not adopt one, as has been found in the case of a policy for employees.
Coming from the National Association of Local Councils, that seems an extraordinary criticism, because it believes that every council should be free to make up its own mind on just about everything. As the tier closest to the community, it is right that councils should have that power. In giving evidence to the Committee, the representative was perhaps reflecting on the fact that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of all complaints reported through the Standards Board mechanism came from parish and town councils. Those complaints were often trivial, a waste of money and reputation, pointless and meaningless.
Ian Mearns: My only problem with the evidence from the National Association of Local Councils is that, as an organisation, it does not cover the whole country; it covers only town and parish councils. In particular, large parts of urban areas are not included, so the views of such communities are not reflected at all. Although its councils are spread around the country, it is a pepper-pot organisation that does not cover all of it, and it therefore cannot be said to reflect the views of councils around the country at all.
I want to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South made about bullying of staff by councillors—or indeed, bullying by councillors of anybody who is in a situation of formal employment. The primary protection for any employee stems from their position as an employee. The employer—the council or the police service, for instance—has a legal duty to provide employees with a safe system of work. Allowing a situation to arise where an employee is subject to bullying or harassment would be a breach of that
There are legal remedies available to anybody who is subject to intimidation or harassment, whether or not they are an employee. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it an offence for a person to pursue a course of conduct which “amounts to harassment” or
That Act gives people who are subject to harassment a right to go to the civil courts to obtain an injunction and damages. A council, as an employer, could consider undertaking proceedings to support an employee under the Act, if it felt that it was an extreme case.
In other words, the hon. Lady seeks to create a special category of situation for councillors—as compared with anybody else—who harass an employee or a member of the public. She is trying to re-impose a statutory duty on councils to have something that councils do not even have for employees, never mind for councillors, so we certainly want to resist the amendment.
Mr Raynsford: I find it difficult to follow the Minister’s logic. What he is saying, in essence, is that because there is an alternative route of redress—in this case through employment legislation—there is absolutely no need for a code. If you take that argument the whole way, there is no need for any code of standards whatever, because acting unlawfully would result in the possibility of criminal conviction. So a councillor who defrauds his authority does not need a code on standards of probity, because there is an alternative criminal route for remedy against him. That argument seems completely absurd. We are talking about standards—standards in public life and in local government. If the Minister is seriously suggesting that other remedies are available and that there is no need for any statement of standards, he is arguing a case that very few members of the public would think was in the least bit credible.
Andrew Stunell: It is fortunate, therefore, that that is not the argument that I am deploying. Tomorrow, when the right hon. Gentleman reads the Committee record, he will see that in my first few words, I made it clear that I think that local authorities will, as a matter of course, have a code. I remind him that nearly all local authorities had a code before it was a mandatory, statutory requirement, so I do not want him to erect a false argument and try to jam it down my throat. Let us stick with what I am actually saying: were an authority not to the very sensible thing and have a code, there are remedies available.
I want to challenge the right hon. Gentleman: if he believes that codes are so important that a statutory imposition is necessary, why was it never necessary in his time to impose a statutory duty on councils to have such a code for their employees? Was not that as important a matter? Of course, he does not see that need.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): This is a subject close to my heart, because before entering Parliament I ran what we in the Labour party call our local government committee in my borough. That is the body that deals with the selection and re-selection of candidates, and I am sure that there are
An external statutory obligation gives people who are trying to produce good local government in their area an external reference point when dealing with cases that come up. If they do not have that, they will always go back to a situation where things become subjectively based around the local politics of the area. That does not lead to good local government.
Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman is actually arguing for keeping the Standards Board. [Hon. Members: “No.”] Well, what is he saying? He seems to be saying that there should—[ Interruption. ] Well, let me point out to him what I think will appear on the record: he said that there should be an objective external body. The amendment is about whether an authority should have a code itself, not whether there should be an objective external body.
Andrew Stunell: Right. The hon. Gentleman is speaking in support of the amendment, but perhaps when he spoke about an external body he deployed an argument that took him beyond where he intended to go. The point I want to make clearly to the Committee is that we trust local government to manage its own affairs. We trust it, as the Labour Government did, to manage its affairs in relation to employees, and we trust it on the management of the behaviour of councillors.
I want to pick up on a couple of points made by other hon. Members. I look forward with real anticipation to the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East to the debate, and I hope that there will be an occasion when one side or the other gets something right. We will see what we can do about that. His point about “may” and “must” in clause 16, in which an authority that has a code may publicise it, is interesting, and I will certainly consider it at some point. I think he has described himself as a localist fundamentalist, so I hope that he agrees that on this occasion, and on the amendment, the Government have got it right.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South raised a point about the impact assessment. The Bill is large and complex and, of course, impacts arise from many of the provisions. We have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the impact assessments are substantial and thorough and, more to the point, that the interaction between different provisions is taken properly
into account. I apologise to her for not producing the impact assessments a long time ago, but with a large, complex Bill, we ought to aim for thoroughness rather than speed in the impact assessments.
Barbara Keeley: I really do not think that that is acceptable. I have looked at the impact assessments and a number of them are full of empty tables; where there are supposed to be figures, there are none. They look like a rushed job, put out on Monday even though they were not finished. It is an insult to the Committee to put out 30 documents on the eve of a sitting, when we should have had time to prepare. As I will keep saying, there was no reason to rush the Bill out and into Committee before it was ready. We hardly had any time between Second Reading and Committee; we could have been given a few weeks. If the impact assessments were not ready, it would have been a courtesy to give Committee members more time.
Andrew Stunell: I take note of what the hon. Lady says. However, I would like to make it clear that we want to keep the Committee properly informed in a timely way and ensure that the information that we provide is accurate and thorough. If she wants to raise specific points about particular impact assessments, I am certainly willing to listen to them, either in or outside the Committee.
Ian Mearns: It occurs to me that the clause seems to cover the adoption or otherwise of codes of conduct for members and co-opted members of authorities. There is no provision at all for adopting or not adopting a code of conduct for elected mayors.
Andrew Stunell: My understanding is that mayors are elected members and are covered by the same provisions. I could speak on another point for a minute or two while the scribblers confirm that. My clear understanding is that elected mayors, legally speaking, are members of the authority and are therefore fully covered. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, I refer the hon. Gentleman—as, of course, I knew all along—to clause 15(5), where that provision is set out.
Barbara Keeley: MPs, councillors and mayors are political leaders. That is an important distinction, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde was right to draw. We must not blur codes of conduct as they apply to staff—important as they are—with codes of conduct for political leaders. MPs have a code of conduct, which I am sure most of us believe is very important given everything that has happened recently. In addition, we take an oath, and the code of conduct links to that. I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for supporting the argument that we are making for the amendment, which is important.
I say to the hon. Member for Bradford East, who seemed torn between opinions on the matter, that we must think about local people and the staff of a local authority that has bullying and abusive councillors. In my constituency, I had a bullying and abusive councillor, and the ballot box was not a remedy. He was re-elected, got back into the same position and had to be banned from public life again for another period. The provision is not too much to ask for; it is a small thing.
If the Minister is so sure that every local authority will continue to have a code of conduct, why not allow this small amendment? I am particularly thinking about those people whose experiences of bullying and misconduct
In conclusion, the Minister is rather naive if he thinks that the remedies he has talked about, particularly for local authority staff, against a council’s political leadership are realistic. There is a very unequal power relationship in that regard, which is why people in public and political life have to adhere to higher standards. In councils across the country, more than 100,000 people are waiting to hear whether they still have a job and whether they will keep their job over the coming months and years. That situation will carry on this year and next year.
Liverpool is doing away with 1,500 jobs and Manchester is having to cut 2,000 jobs. Will those people who are waiting to hear about their jobs really bring remedies against the people who will decide whether they keep their jobs? That is a very unequal relationship and local authority staff need the protection of knowing that there is a proper code of conduct.
Barbara Keeley: I have two questions about the clause. As I said earlier, the current standards regime is being replaced by either criminal offences for serious misconduct —for example, abusing a councillor’s position for personal gain—or complaints to the local government ombudsman. It seems obvious, following the debate that we have just had, that the local government ombudsman will take the brunt of the cases that would have been referred to the standards system. What is the Department for Communities and Local Government’s estimate of the increase in work, and what resources are expected to stem from that change?
Secondly, the Mayor of London has commented that, under the Bill, standards, duties and powers will be a matter solely for the London assembly. The Mayor feels that such a regime should be shaped by the Mayor as well as the assembly, because the Mayor will be subject to the regime. The question of how such things cover mayors is important, so do the Government propose to amend the Bill so that the Mayor of London and the assembly will be jointly responsible for shaping the regime?
Andrew Stunell: I will do my best to respond to the hon. Lady’s questions, but if she wants further information, I may have to come back to the Committee with it. First, I reassure the Committee that, as we discussed in the previous debate, mayors are covered by the Bill—they are not excluded. However, there is a specific point in relation to London as to who has the ownership, or guardianship, of the code. That will be in the hands of the London assembly, which may not give the Mayor what he wants in terms of participation in the code. Representations have been made on the matter, which we will consider and come back to in due course.
On the local government ombudsman, the hon. Lady may want to take time to look at the impact assessment, which assesses the additional costs that will be transferred from the system that we are abolishing to the new arrangements. Once she has looked at that, I will be happy to respond, either in writing or in Committee, to any further queries that she might have.
Barbara Keeley: If I might clarify my questions, I understand that, as is the case with many of the organisations being discontinued, the abolition of the Standards Board will be expensive this year. Will the Minister write to me—and copy in the Committee—with this year’s costs of getting rid of the board, and with the estimated increase for the local government ombudsman?
Mr Raynsford: In the debate on the last clause, the Minister set out his view that it was unnecessary to require local authorities to have a code of conduct because they would all choose to have one in any case. I hope that that is the case, but of course we are left with the question of what happens if they do not.
When we come to this clause, however, the Government appear to adopt a different logic. They are not saying that it is up to local authorities to decide whether they have arrangements that require a declaration of interests. Instead, the Secretary of State may determine through an order whether particular interests should be declared. That is inconsistent with the view adopted in the previous clause, and I hope that Ministers will explain why, having said clearly that they trust local authorities to develop their own codes, they do not trust them to have procedures for declaring interests, and why the Secretary of State has to intervene in this case.
May I also ask whether the regulations are being drafted? If so, what will they provide, what particular obligations will be imposed, and when we can expect to see a copy of the draft? Again, a clause gives regulation-making powers to the Secretary of State without any indication to the Committee as to what his intentions may be in respect of the requirements that will be imposed on local authorities.
Mr Ward: I am sure that there is an answer to that. However, I am confused. To be consistent, why did the right hon. Gentleman not table an amendment saying that the relevant authority must have a register of interests?
Mr Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is less of a need for such an amendment because, clearly, the Government envisage a situation in which they will impose an obligation on local authorities to have a register. I wanted an opportunity to question them on how they proposed to do that.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern that we should be aware of what regulations the Government have in mind, what effect they will have and what the impact will be on local government. I hope that the Minister is able to give us a detailed explanation of what is envisaged, what regulations will be brought forward, when they may be brought forward and when we may have an opportunity to see them.
Mr Ward: I promise the Committee that this is the last time I will make this point—until the next time. By consensus, we will agree that we are not normal people; we are political activists and campaigners. I guess the view of my party is that the “mays” are acceptable because all of us would make short shrift of any local
However, that is not the case for the average member of the public. I believe that the control on, and justification for, the “mays”—which may of course be “may nots”—is that people will be aware of what the authority has decided to do. All the “mays” will require a clear statement by an authority, under its duty to disclose, that states, “This is what this authority has decided to do for its code of conduct and its register of interests.”
The “must” is because the authority must make that information publicly available, and it will be for the public to decide—with or without political campaigners—whether they believe that the authority is operating appropriately.
Barbara Keeley: I was not going to speak, but the hon. Gentleman has raised a point about consistency. In our assessment, the reason for having a “must” for the code of conduct and making it compulsory is that there is no remedy. When I spoke earlier, I mentioned the assessment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There is a remedy for serious misconduct for personal gain, because that would rightly be a criminal offence. There is a remedy where people think that they have been personally disadvantaged by something that a councillor has done, as that will go to the local government ombudsman.
I gave an example from my political experience where somebody was re-elected after serving a three-year ban. A commitment is often to a party rather than an individual, and sometimes people who should not be re-elected are re-elected. That is the reason. We agree. We support the tightening of the legislation and the criminal offences for things such as a failure to declare a financial interest or an attempt to make financial gain. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
Andrew Stunell: It has been a short but interesting debate. First, I will deal with the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. In that case, the essential difference relates to transparency and a register of interest that is, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East, published and available. People can see what the interests are and decide whether someone is behaving appropriately or prejudicially in relation to them.
“Regulations under this section may, in particular, make provision…requiring a relevant authority to make copies of the register available to the public and to inform the public that copies are available.”
Andrew Stunell: I reassure my hon. Friend that the “may” is about what the Secretary of State does, not about whether there will be publication. Perhaps the phraseology is parliamentary and legalistic, but the
The exact nature of those interests will be set out in secondary legislation. The hon. Member for Worsley
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 4th February 2011|