The cost of these thefts to our economy runs to many tens of millions of pounds, and I congratulate the Government both on their £5 million investment in the taskforce to tackle this problem and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, on introducing amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment

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of Offenders Bill. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 was written for a “Steptoe and Son” age. I therefore greatly welcome the Government’s commitment to updating it for the sake of our constituents, the country and the economy.

9.29 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): As we have heard, the explosion of metal theft in recent years has affected churches, railways lines, war memorials and countless public sector buildings, ranging from schools to hospitals, up and down the country. Criminals are hitting our city centres as well as many rural villages, making this a truly national crime. The growing problem of metal theft is costing the British economy more than £770 million a year, although the suspected number of unreported metal theft cases means that it could be argued that the overall cost to the economy is actually even higher. It is therefore right that the Government tackle this issue as a matter of urgency. As such, I am pleased to see that they are prohibiting the use of cash to pay for scrap metal. A cashless system will bring greater transparency to the scrap metal industry and will reduce the often anonymous transactions that enable criminals to sell on much of their stolen metal before disappearing without trace. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), I wish to use this opportunity to welcome the Government’s £5 million funding, as outlined last November, to establish a dedicated metal theft taskforce.

Although I commend the Government’s recent actions on this issue, I wish to focus the rest of my contribution on how we must now keep the momentum going. It would be foolish for us to believe that a cashless system alone will adequately stem the tide of metal theft. After all, as with all robust reforms, there is always a danger that clamping down on illegal activity within a specific sector will drive the activity further underground and into a deeper and more dangerous black market. So I urge Ministers to commit to a fundamental review of the situation in six months’ time, when I believe that the Government’s timely reforms will have had time to take hold. It is imperative that we do not simply introduce such reforms and then sit back, because there is a real chance that the scale of the problem will require even more measures to be implemented in due course. For example, should the first draft of the robust reforms fail to cut it, will the Government also consider providing police officers with new powers to enter and inspect registered and non-registered scrap metal sites, as suggested by the Select Committee on Transport? Likewise, should metal theft be plunged into a deeper black market, will Ministers consider implementing the sensible measures proposed in today’s motion? I will not go into all of these radical suggestions in detail, but they could all play a vital role in a strong second phase of the fight against metal theft.

I urge the ministerial team not to take their eye off the ball on this issue. Metal theft is a hugely expensive and disruptive crime, which has offered criminals a high return in recent years because of the rise in global commodity prices. After a suitable period of time I hope that the Secretary of State will update the House on progress and, if necessary, introduce further measures to penetrate the core of this damaging criminal activity, which cannot continue to go unchecked.

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9.32 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): As a member of the all-party group on combating metal theft, which offices initiated this debate, I welcome and support the motion. We must address the widespread and growing problem of metal theft, and ensure that together we deliver a robust approach to fight this crime, which is blighting so many lives and communities. My constituent, the venerable Ian Bishop, Archdeacon of Macclesfield, asked me some time ago to highlight the issue in the House, and I am pleased that the Government are taking action to introduce a cashless payments system. They are perhaps doing so in no small part because of the number of questions that have been raised by those of us who attend questions to the Church Commissioners in this House—this is perhaps evidence of the worth of attending those questions.

Ian Bishop has asked me to reiterate the concerns that he has expressed. Every Church of England church in my constituency has been hit by metal theft in the past four years, and that has had a seriously debilitating effect on both the financial stability and morale of churches. He recounts one minister sobbing on his shoulder following a metal theft. The insurance available to churches is wholly insufficient to offset the consequences of this crime. He explained it as follows today. Ecclesiastical Insurance, the major insurer of churches, can provide only £5,000 of compensation for incidents of metal theft. In extreme cases, when the historic fabric of a church suffers water damage, the costs of repair easily exceed £100,000, which means that churches are, in effect, uninsurable and left at the mercy of those who perpetrate these crimes.

Ian Bishop has also highlighted to me the “ludicrous position” of the Church Buildings Council and English Heritage being too slow to allow churches to use alternative materials on grade I listed buildings. Such an approach encourages metal theft to become a cyclical crime, with the criminals winning again. I feel another Church Commissioners question coming on.

It is not only churches that suffer. In my constituency there has been a significant increase in the number of thefts of iron work from highways in the past 18 months—sometimes as many as 20 to 30 gullies a day. These are very expensive to replace, with installation costing £300 to £400 per gully, and the costs are paid by local council tax payers. Just last Saturday a constituent reported that on walking to my surgery he noticed the theft of metal posts that had been put in place to protect the public from falling into the canal at a risky point. That left a dangerous gap between the water and the popular walkway alongside the canal. It was reported to me today, on telephoning his home to check his account, that on his return from my surgery he noticed that the next set of posts had been stolen too.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 needs to be updated. I, too, applaud the Government for their initiative in amending the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and I thank Home Office Ministers for introducing the move towards cashless transactions. However, we also need changes to police powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers and to give police the authority to search all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers. The police should be given the power to inspect any articles or records kept on site and there should be an ability to close dealerships.

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We need a move to a robust and compulsory licensing scheme to replace the present inadequate and outdated registration scheme. The use of CCTV should help. A comprehensive package of measures is needed to address this grave and far from victimless crime.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I call James Morris—to sit down at 9.38 pm.

9.36 pm

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): There have been many disturbing instances in my constituency relating to metal theft. Just before Christmas, tenants had to be evacuated from their flats after a gas leak was discovered on an estate in Halesowen. Lives are clearly being put at risk by criminals stealing this metal. We know that most metal dealers take all appropriate steps to check the provenance of the scrap metal they are buying. Soon after I was elected, I toured the Mason Metals recycling centre in Halesowen. Mason Metals was working with Dudley police on “Scrap Yard Watch”, an appointment-driven collection scheme to help householders to dispose of large white goods legally and responsibly. It has now launched a new membership card programme for its customers. That scheme is in addition to the statutory waste transfer note records and is run alongside other measures.

I very much welcome the Government’s announcement that cash transactions for scrap metal will be outlawed. I understand the concerns voiced by legitimate metal recyclers, but the growing problem of metal thefts cannot be tackled effectively without proper traceability. We also need tougher penalties for those who are caught and convicted so that punishments are more proportionate to the scale of the crime. A £1,000 fine is hardly a deterrent for the unscrupulous minority. The Home Secretary has said that sentences will be significantly increased, which is very good news. Scrap metal dealers who offer a market for stolen metal, whether knowingly or by failing to carry out adequate checks—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I am terribly sorry. I call Mr David Hanson.

9.38 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and the hon. Members for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for securing this debate on behalf of the all-party group. Today has been one of those rare occasions on which the House has a unanimity about it, as it does regarding our objectives for the Bill. Let me add to that unanimity by saying that the Opposition support the motion and hope that the Government will too, because urgent action is needed on metal theft.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) reminded us, this has been an emerging and long-standing problem. Indeed, Operation Fragment, which he commenced when he was at the Home Office, when I had the privilege of sharing an office with him at that Department, was an important effort in developing

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a programme to tackle metal theft at the end of the previous Government. Sadly, the problem has increased in that time, although this is not the fault of the current Government. About 15,000 tonnes of metal are stolen each year, with as much as half of that being stolen from scrap metal dealers themselves, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) mentioned. Industry and commercial victims agree that the figure is an underestimate. As the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) has said, there is still a significant problem with metal theft across the board.

There is a particular problem with churches, as was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry): 2011 was the worst year on record for the number of metal thefts from churches, with more than 2,500 claims. The problem of insurance has been drawn to the attention of the House today.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): In Bournemouth, we find that it is not just individuals who steal metal but organised groups. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to legislate not just against individuals but against those who organise the crime?

Mr Hanson: Serious organised crime as well as opportunistic individuals are behind metal theft.

Cable theft caused the delay or cancellation of more than 35,000 national rail services, with more than 365,000 minutes of delay and a £16 million bill. Those points were made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). Her Committee’s report highlighted them particularly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has played a role in raising the issue.

Every day, there are eight actual or attempted thefts on railways. I was particularly struck by the contribution of the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who illustrated the impact of metal theft on small businesses in his constituency.

Over the past year, 10 people have been killed in metal theft incidents. The gas leak referred to by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) was an extremely important incident. The Association of Chief Police Officers has estimated that metal theft costs the UK about £770 million a year, a figure that the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) mentioned, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) showed has been rising over the past few months.

I am most struck by the despicable nature of the crime. In his contribution, the hon. Member for Worcester said that door-knockers had been stolen from old people’s homes. People have talked about war memorials. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke about the theft of a memorial in the city of Hull for fishermen lost at sea.

These crimes are committed by people who do not respect their neighbours, their communities or the people who live in them, so I welcome the fact that the Government

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have acted to tackle metal theft head-on, but I genuinely say to the House that they need to go much further. I welcome the proposals to end cashless payments, as did the hon. Members for Congleton and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier). The proposals to increase fines are welcome too, but that is only part of what is required. The motion today, and its support from Members, has indicated that the House agrees.

I worry that the situation could be made worse by the amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that Lord Henley has indicated he will table on Report, which is likely to take place next month. Banning cash transactions, while positive, will not of itself solve the problem. Legitimate scrap yards will go cashless, but some yards, as has been said, will continue to take cash and to operate a black market. Only yesterday evening in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Rosser tabled an amendment that would give the police greater powers of entry and to shut down rogue scrap metal yards—measures welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) and others. Those proposals are in the motion and were welcomed by Members this evening, yet the vote last night—for vote there was, Mr Deputy Speaker—was lost by six.

Lord Henley argued against the amendment, but he should read the debate we have held today. The feeling on both sides of the House is that it is an important proposal, so he needs to revisit it when he and his officials draft amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) said, and as Lord Henley himself said last night, the 1964 Act is “beyond its sell-by date.” It was designed for the time of Steptoe and Son, not for the multifaceted organised criminals and opportunists of today. Lord Henley said:

“We wish to see a reform to that Act as soon as is possible, and we will make sure that we do it…We are looking for a coherent package of measures to tackle metal theft.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2012; Vol. 735, c. 52-4.]

Let me be presumptuous and recommend that Lord Henley look at the motion in detail. I commend the suggestions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on tackling metal theft. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) mentioned, those who follow best practice already do the things that the motion suggests.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford has introduced proposals to tackle metal theft, and that plan is supported by the British Transport police, the Association of Chief Police Officers, Neighbourhood Watch, BT, E.ON, energy networks, and Network Rail, to name but a few. It includes powers of entry for police, and tougher powers for them to close down rogue traders—a proposal that has been welcomed tonight across the board. It means that anyone selling scrap has to provide proof of identity, which will be recorded at the point of sale—again, that has been welcomed tonight across the board. It includes licensing scrap metal dealers, rather than the current system of registration with local authorities. It means, yes, doing what the Government say they are doing— banning cash transactions, especially for large-scale, high-value scrap metal transactions.

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Those measures will allow legitimate trade to continue, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) wants, but, by our making it harder and more expensive for opportunists and organised criminals to profit from metal theft, the cowboy traders that he mentioned will feel the burden of those measures very strongly. Prevention can play an important part. Private sector solutions such as SmartWater, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, are important. Other suggestions, such as the one made by the hon. Member for Sherwood, for alternatives to lead, are valuable, and can be looked at by the private sector.

We cannot, however, get away from the fact the House has spoken with one voice, and it wants the changes proposed in the motion. The Opposition support those measures, and I want the Minister to support them too. We need a much tougher licensing regime, and we must ensure that we require people to do the things that I have outlined so that we can stop extensive metal theft. The Minister will say that she certainly supports the banning of cash transactions. She will say that she supports increased fines, but if she says that she does not support the other measures in the motion she must explain to the House and to her hon. Friends why not, and why she will not undertake those actions. From my perspective—and I think that I speak for most Members who have spoken tonight, not on a party political basis, but on a House of Commons against the Government basis—those are important measures that we want collectively, across the board.

The motion was drafted by the all-party group, with support from every party. It has the support of every Member who has spoken tonight. Time is pressing, and we need to do this. Households face power cuts, commuters face increased delays, and churches and public buildings have been damaged. If the Minister does not support the motion, will she explain to the House why not? I genuinely hope, however, that she does and that she drafts measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in a different way. I will even forget the fact that her party voted against the amendment in the other place. I urge her to support such proposals, and she will receive a great cheer from the House when she does.

9.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing a debate on an issue that rightly concerns all of us. I congratulate the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) on tabling the motion.

Metal theft is a crime that affects us all and strikes at the very heart of our communities. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, it is a dreadful crime. They have painted a thoroughly depressing picture of the mentality of those who would desecrate churches and commit theft—whole brass bands gone and a building having to be demolished because of the amount of metal taken from it. There were really horrible stories from every constituency.

The consequences are there for all to see, not least the loss and disruption to telecommunications, as every hon. Member mentioned—I am not going to go over

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everything that was said, as more than 22 contributions were made—as well as to electricity and transport networks, and the damage to our religious and heritage sites. There were horrific stories right across the country.

We are not prepared to stand by and see our infrastructure and heritage destroyed, which is why the Government are taking the problem of metal theft so seriously and taking action. We are clear that the only sustainable, long-term solution is legislation, but we are equally clear that legislation alone is not enough. That is why we propose a coherent package of measures to tackle metal theft. We want to cut out the easy, anonymous reward for metal thieves by banning cash payments for scrap metal and making it much harder for illegitimate dealers to trade in stolen metals by introducing a more rigorous licensing scheme, which many Members across the House have called for. We want to deter thieves and illegal metal dealers by introducing more focused and sustained enforcement and tougher penalties.

To those who say that the Government are not going far enough or fast enough, I say that we are going as fast as we possibly can. Metal theft is a horrific crime, and the Government are stepping forward to take action. Two weeks ago the Home Secretary announced to Parliament the legislative action we will take as part of our package of measures. We will increase the fines for all offences in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964—the maximum fine will be unlimited—which will strengthen the deterrent and improve industry compliance with the current registration scheme. We will also create a new criminal offence in order to prohibit cash payments for the purchase of scrap metal. That has been welcomed on both sides of the House.

Prohibiting cash from an entire sector is a bold step, but cash transactions for scrap metal are often completed without any proof of personal identification or that the individual legitimately owns the goods being sold. This leads to anonymous transactions that create such a low risk for criminal activity that we have seen this epidemic across our country. Requiring transactions to be completed with traceable payments will dramatically improve the ability of the police and local authorities to enforce the existing registration scheme. The widespread use of cash, coupled with lax record keeping, also creates easy opportunities for tax avoidance. We will work constructively with the British Metals Recycling Association on how his measure will operate in practice.

The legislative changes to increase fines and ban cash payments will be made through Government amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. This is the quickest and most practical way that we can get these measures into law and crack down on metal theft. Members across the House have made it perfectly clear tonight that the House wants us to go further, but let me stress that we need realistic, achievable and effective legislative measures.

Robert Flello: Will the Minister give way?

Lynne Featherstone: I will not, as I am really short of time.

That is why we took the difficult decision not to support the private Member’s Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Hyndburn. It was not because we do not agree with the principles, but because unfortunately the Bill would not have received the necessary parliamentary time to achieve Royal Assent in this Session.

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Graham Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Lynne Featherstone: I am sorry, but I really want to make some particular points. If I have a minute at the end I will give way. Members have been asking all evening for me to answer the points raised, and I intend to do so.

Strong legislation is absolutely vital, but it must be backed up by strong enforcement action from the police and other law enforcement agencies. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers, local police forces and the British Transport police to strengthen law enforcement activity. Recognising the damage that metal theft causes to our economy, the Government have committed £5 million of additional funding to establish a dedicated national metal theft task force. The taskforce will complement and expand existing enforcement activity not only by the police, but by a range of law enforcement agencies.

The message we are sending out is clear: metal thieves will have nowhere to hide. We have recently seen some significant sentences given to metal thieves, which I hope will continue. I welcome the recent announcement by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, in which he instructed prosecutors to use every tool at their disposal to take a firm stand to convict metal thieves. I make it clear that we are in no way targeting the legitimate metal recycling industry, which does important work that is good for our economy and good for our environment.

Many Members on both sides of the House asked about a number of measures, and the Government believe that the measures that we have already announced will make a big difference, but we are open to new ideas and are already considering how we can further strengthen our approach to metal theft, including the proposals outlined in the motion.

We are considering, for example, how the existing registration scheme can be strengthened, with a robust licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers to replace the current registration scheme, and we agree that the existing scheme under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act is outdated and in need of improvement. The Home Office is already seeking to make such changes as soon as parliamentary time allows.

On greater police powers, which Members on both sides have asked for, we are keen to provide the police with sufficient powers, including entry and closure powers covering the scrap metal industry, to tackle metal theft offenders, and we are seeking clarity on whether we can include amendments to police powers of entry as part of wider measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

We want to regularise the position under the 1964 Act, whereby the police have the power to enter yards that are registered under the Act, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) said, their inability to go into unregistered yards is a real anomaly. In the meantime, the work of the dedicated metal theft task force, along with unlimited fines and the end of cash transactions, will tackle the problem until we can bring all those powers into being.

Any new scheme must support legal operators and promote the green economy, but it must also have the power to tackle scrap metal dealers who wilfully help

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the stolen metal trade, so we will consider further measures, listen to the outcome of the debate and see whether there is more we can practically do to stop metal theft. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Hyndburn, but I hope that Members appreciate that they did ask for an answer to these questions, and I have been trying to give them one.

Graham Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I have just a simple and straightforward question. Will Government Front Benchers support the motion tonight?

Lynne Featherstone: Government Front Benchers will not oppose the motion tonight, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will support it.

We are strengthening the law, cracking down on rogue scrap dealers and targeting the criminals who supply them. That is the right way to tackle this devastating crime. That is what this Government are doing, and this Government are taking action. Nothing happened during the previous 13 years.

9.57 pm

Graham Jones: First, I welcome the Minister’s words, because we are beginning to move in the right direction. We still have some outstanding issues, including whether the Government are going to be robust enough, but we have heard everybody’s comments tonight, and we in the plural sense—the public, Members and those in the other place—want to see tough action, so that is a key question for the Government.

Secondly, on the point about timing, Members want to see measures introduced as soon as possible, and one key issue for many Members is the fact that we have the summer recess coming up and the Queen’s speech, so legislation needs to come forward. We also have the Olympic games, and, to cite again the words I mentioned earlier, we are not far from a national catastrophe. Paul Crowther from the British Transport police said that the issue is second only to terrorism, so urgency is key in this issue, and many people both nationally and locally feel that way.

Robert Flello: Would it not be extremely embarrassing for this country if the Olympics were disrupted by metal theft?

Graham Jones: I say politely to my hon. Friend, “It wouldn’t be very good, would it?” It would not be a good advert if London ground to a halt and the rail network stopped, so it is imperative that we are seen to act.

I am grateful to Members for being here tonight in such numbers in order to express their opinion on the need to act on metal theft. The Government need not just to look at the timetable and to bring forward legislation as soon as they can; they need to go beyond legislation. We need to consider being far more proactive, so I am very grateful for Members’ contributions this evening.

Question put and agreed to.


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That this House notes that metal theft is becoming a serious issue for the UK; welcomes the Government’s announcement on introducing a cashless system and higher penalties; is concerned that the comprehensive package of measures which is needed to address this issue is not being introduced at the same time; believes that to effectively stamp out metal theft there needs to be a radical change in how the scrap metal industry is regulated; and calls on the Government to introduce a number of additional measures as a matter of urgency, including a robust licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers to replace the present registration scheme, a licence fee to fund the regulation of the licence, greater police powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers in line with alcohol licensing, police authority to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers, use of photo identification and CCTV to identify sellers of scrap metal, and their vehicles, vehicle badging for mobile scrap metal dealers, and magistrates’ powers to add licence restrictions and prevent closed yards from re-opening.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Before we come to the next business, may I say that this clearly was a popular debate and apologise to Members who put in to speak, but were constrained or did not get in at all?

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Local Government

That the draft City of Coventry (Mayoral Referendum) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 5 December, be approved.—(Angela Watkinson.)

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 41A).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Local Government

That the draft City of Wakefield (Mayoral Referendum) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 5 December, be approved.—(Angela Watkinson.)

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 41A).

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

EU Accounting Requirements

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 16250/11 and Addenda 1 to 4, relating to a draft Directive on the annual financial statements, consolidated financial statements and related reports of certain types of undertakings; supports the Government’s aim to reduce administrative burdens, particularly on small companies, through the harmonisation and simplification of requirements, including those for micro-businesses; and, as an aid to this, supports, within the scope of the proposal, increasing relevant thresholds whilst resisting harmonisation in areas that will increase administrative burdens on small business; and further supports, within the scope of the proposal, the Government’s aim of aligning the wording of new requirements for transparency in the reporting of payments to governments by companies engaged

7 Feb 2012 : Column 275

in the extractives sector (oil, gas and mining industries) with similar requirements which apply in the United States of America.—

(Angela Watkinson.)

Question agreed to.

Business of the House (21 February)


That, at the sitting on Tuesday 21 February, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means shall be entered upon (whether before, at or after 7.00 pm) and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours, after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business.—(Angela Watkinson .)

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice in relation to questions that are tabled for a response on a named day. I am frugal and careful in my use of named-day questions and have tabled very few in my parliamentary career. I think that it is important that when named-day questions are put down, they are answered accordingly. Last week, I tabled three questions to the Ministry of Defence on an important issue relating to workers in my constituency. The response that I received was that the questions would be answered shortly. That is an increasing trend with named-day questions. I would like to know whether you can assist Members in getting the Government to answer named-day questions in a timely fashion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Mr Speaker has made it known that it is important that named-day questions are answered on time. The hon. Gentleman

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has got his point across and those on the Treasury Bench will have heard it. I will bring the matter to Mr Speaker’s attention.


Police Cuts (Humberside)

10.2 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): The petition is from my constituents in north Hull, who are concerned about cuts to police in Humberside. I would like to mention in particular Demelza France, a shop worker who collected names at her workplace.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Hull,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the Government has a duty to protect citizens from crime; that the significant increase in police officers over the past ten years has helped reduce crime and make people feel safer; notes that under Government proposals the police budget will be cut by 20%, that over 16,000 police officers will be lost and that for Humberside Police Force cuts will be even greater than the national average, with a 25% reduction in the police budget; further notes that Humberside Police Force is projected to have 250 fewer police officers in March 2012 than in March 2010; and declares that the Petitioners believe that this will hamper the efforts of the police to prevent crime and keep citizens safe.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to support the work of the police in ensuring that the downward trend in overall crime continues by at least maintaining 2010 levels of uniformed police officers in England and Wales.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Asbestos in Schools

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

10.4 pm

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I sought this Adjournment debate in an attempt to highlight a most serious situation facing the nation’s schools—the presence of asbestos in many school buildings and the risk of exposure to it among pupils and workers alike. I say at the outset that in no way am I looking to score political points. I hope that my views, comments and questions in this debate will attract cross-party support.

Of the 33,600 schools in Britain, the Department for Education has estimated that more than 75% contain asbestos. Some 14,000 schools were built after the second world war, and almost all those built before 1975 contain asbestos. Schools refurbished during that period are also likely to contain it.

Exposure to asbestos fibres, even at low levels, can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a cancer affecting the lining of the lung. We should not be complacent about the presence of those dust fibres and the effects that it can have on an individual’s life. It is estimated that more than 4,000 people a year die as a result of exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma has a lengthy latency period, which simply means that the condition may not surface for perhaps 20, 30 or even 40 or 50 years following exposure. However, once the disease is diagnosed, it is largely fatal, with most victims dying within 18 months of diagnosis.

Does the Minister agree that the Government’s policy should be the phased removal of all asbestos from schools, with priority being given to those schools where the asbestos is in the worst condition or considered to be the most dangerous or damaged?

Exposure to asbestos in schools is endangering the lives of tens of thousands of schoolchildren and teachers, many of whom are completely unaware of their daily exposure. It has continued for generations, and year after year, individuals diagnosed with lung cancer, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are puzzled about the whereabouts of their exposure. In many cases, it happened while they were at school.

More than 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past 10 years. Disturbingly, figures relating to other school workers, such as cleaners and administration staff, and relating to the number of children who have died as a result of exposure, are unknown. Children are likely to be particularly vulnerable to asbestos exposure, because their lungs are still developing. If we use the ratio calculation used in the US, which is that for every teacher who dies nine children will die, that translates into the alarming statistic of 100 people dying each year here in the UK as a result of exposure at school.

The materials of greatest concern are those that readily release asbestos fibres into the environment. Many people mistakenly believe that those fibres are confined to asbestos lagging, sprayed asbestos and asbestos insulating boards, but that is not the case. Asbestos was commonly used to spray ceilings and structural beams,

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and extensively used in wall constructions and many other areas that are vulnerable to damage and disturbance by the school population on a daily basis.

Does the Minister agree that by law, all schools should be required to carry out a thorough asbestos survey, which should include air tests and detailed independent inspections? Will immediate consideration be given to that?

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I fully endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. In 2004, the Northern Ireland Assembly took a decision to undertake asbestos tests in all schools and to have it removed, and such decisions have been taken in other regions of the UK. Does that not reinforce his point that it is now up to England to follow suit?

Ian Lavery: That is the very reason for this debate. I want a survey to be carried out, followed by the phased removal of asbestos in a strategic manner between now and a given date. The hon. Gentleman’s comment adds strength to my argument.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. If we can identify where the asbestos is within each school, that stops repairs being done when the people doing them do not know that there is asbestos in there. It is important that that identification is done as quickly as possible.

Ian Lavery: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of the big problems—I will come on to this—is that many different types of asbestos are unidentified in the school buildings. People are very unaware of where and what it is. If we are not going to remove the asbestos immediately, how we manage it over that period is very important.

A report commissioned by the Medical Research Council concluded:

“It is not unreasonable to assume…that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.

Furthermore, the MRC report assessed lifetime asbestos exposure levels and it concluded that even in schools where the asbestos is in a good condition, the everyday background asbestos fibre levels are five to 500 times greater than outdoor levels. To try to put that into some context, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council defines “significant exposure” as

“a level above that commonly found in the air in buildings and the general outdoor environment”

and states that an exposure above that level would materially increase the risk of mesothelioma developing.

According to leading experts, the frightening reality of asbestos exposure is that there is no known threshold below which there is no risk. Even the most common of classroom activities can release dangerous fibres. That can be something as simple as slamming the door five times, which could release levels of amosite fibres more than 600 times greater than outdoor levels. That action routinely occurs in Britain’s schools on a daily basis. There are even simpler reasons for fibre release in classrooms, such as placing drawing pins in the wall and removing books from the book shelf. They are daily occurrences, too, in every school in the UK, and that is why I sought this important debate.

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If the respected experts are correct—as of yet, there has been little opposition to their findings—children and school staff are being exposed considerably day in, day out, which is deeply concerning. Will the Minister consider the introduction of a national audit of the extent and condition of asbestos in schools, in which the data should be centrally collated and open to public scrutiny?

The exposure to the lethal fibres on such a scale means that people are dying from the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma. We all agree that to do nothing is not an option—or should I say that I hope that we all agree? Fresh action is needed urgently.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on securing this very important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the Department for Education on making movements on training packages for staff? I hope that he will agree that we must go much further to ensure that staff are trained to cover the problems caused by drawing pins in walls. Does he further agree that if parents have any inkling that the age of the building is such that it might contain asbestos, when they visit the school they should ask to see its asbestos management plan?

Ian Lavery: The hon. Lady makes a number of very important points, which I hope to clarify in my speech.

The current system is difficult to remedy and, as such, Government policy is to manage the asbestos in schools and try to reduce the exposure incidence. So long as the asbestos is in good condition and is unlikely to be disturbed, it is thought that managing the asbestos in a prescribed manner is preferential to its removal.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Laurence Jackson school in Guisborough in my constituency, built at the time of the Macmillan Government, has about six or seven boilers whose piping is lagged with asbestos. Due to the antiquated boiler system, constant work is needed, meaning that the pipes are constantly being interfered with, increasing the likelihood of asbestos contamination. The school has a plan, but its capital requirement for dealing with the ongoing situation is only about £25,000. The likelihood of asbestos contamination increases every time the system is tampered with. Would he not say that even schools that have a plan can get into tricky situations like that?

Ian Lavery: My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is one reason we can no longer agree to leave asbestos in schools virtually until they are knocked down. We need a strategy in place for the immediate phased removal of asbestos. Yes, it will take time, but we need a strategy.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman say that phased removal is the right strategy for the long term. Does he agree that most parents understand that it cannot all be done at once, but that there is nothing to fear from sharing information more publicly so that there is more pressure from parents and more knowledge from schools

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about what they need to do in the meantime to mitigate the problem properly rather than to deal with it inadequately until phased removal is possible?

Ian Lavery: I accept that point, and I will come to it in my contribution. It is extremely important that parents and everyone involved in schools understand exactly what the management plans are, and understand everything relating to asbestos presence in the school building.

The problem at the moment is that we have the worst of both worlds. Asbestos is not being removed due to cuts to the schools refurbishment programme, but at the same time, it is not being managed properly. Effective asbestos management systems must be put in place and registered and monitored accurately, asbestos-containing materials must be clearly identified and marked, regular independent inspections must take place and defects must be repaired immediately.

Does the Minister agree that children should have the same rights as adults in an asbestos environment? Those rights could reasonably be exercised through parents, guardians and teachers. In addition, does he agree that schools should be treated as special places, as they are in other countries? Children’s special vulnerability to asbestos should be recognised in asbestos management procedures. Most importantly, does the Minister accept that the details of asbestos incidents in schools need to be collated centrally and open to public and internal scrutiny, so that the effectiveness of Health and Safety Executive, Department for Education and local authority asbestos management policies can be assessed?

A recent report by the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association was critical of many schools. The report criticised ineffective and at times dangerous asbestos management systems. ATAC expressed the view that school systems’ failures are not minor in the main, but fundamental, serious and endemic in schools across the UK.

If, as is likely, Government policy is to be maintained—that is to say, if the problem of asbestos is to be managed—then managed it must be. A well-trained work force are essential, as is a culture of openness with parents, pupils and teachers. Quality training of head teachers, teachers, school governors and others expected to manage asbestos is a must. All staff should be adequately trained in asbestos awareness so that any actions that might disturb asbestos fibres can be prevented. Also, instructions should be given to children to ensure that any disturbance is avoided.

If any management system is to work efficiently, individuals must be up to the job. Those tasked with managing the system must clearly understand their role and responsibilities under the current law. That is not happening at the moment, although some local authorities are better than others. However, the Secretary of State for Education recently announced that he proposes to move responsibility for health and safety in schools away from local authorities and give it to individual schools. That will make good and effective management even more unlikely. Will the Minister confirm that such training is adequately funded and will continue as long as management systems are in place? Furthermore, will he comment on the notion that standards in asbestos training should be set and that training should be mandatory? Will he recommend that the Department

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for Education and the HSE jointly develop asbestos guidance specifically for schools and that current standards be reviewed?

We have a huge problem with openness. The presence and incidence of asbestos fibre release is often played down. It is accurate to suggest that many parents are wholly unaware and not informed of the presence of asbestos in their children’s place of education. A recent survey showed that at least half of school staff were not informed of the problem either. Will the Minister demand a policy of openness and complete transparency about asbestos in schools? Does he agree that parents and teachers should have a right to know what asbestos is present in their and their children’s school, and does he accept that parents, teachers and support staff should be annually updated on the presence of asbestos in their schools and on the measures being taken to manage it?

In conclusion, this issue has often been seen by successive Governments as too big to handle. It is crystal clear that there are serious concerns about how asbestos is managed in schools. The longer the issue remains unaddressed, the more people will be exposed, increasing the cost to be picked up by future generations, as has happened in past decades. The Government and other interested experts should work together to ensure greater co-ordination, aiming at the complete eradication of asbestos fibres in our schools. Children, parents and staff should feel totally comfortable in the school environment and free from potential harm. Will the Minister agree to revisit this issue as a matter of great urgency, and take up the cudgels and introduce a detailed programme to secure our nation’s prized assets—our children—from this killer fibre?

10.22 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this important debate. I know that he is passionate about this subject, having campaigned for victims of asbestos-related lung conditions and pleural plaques in the north-east and in his role as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on health and safety. I have read its report, “Asbestos in Schools: the need for action”, very carefully.

The priority for this Government, as for the previous Government, is to ensure the safety of staff and pupils in schools. The report is welcome in raising awareness of the asbestos issue and makes several important recommendations, which I will address, as I will the hon. Gentleman’s questions. The Government’s policy remains consistent with that of the previous Administration. The Health and Safety Executive advice is clear. If asbestos is in good condition and not disturbed or damaged, it is safer to leave and manage it in place than to remove it. In the view of the HSE, removing it would involve a far greater risk to school children, staff and contractors than managing it until the eventual demolition of the building.

The Department for Education and the HSE are proactive in promoting good asbestos management in schools. To oversee this important work, my noble Friend Lord Hill, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for schools, established the asbestos in

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schools steering group, which is chaired by the Department and has a membership that includes my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), trade unions, campaigners, the HSE and Partnership for Schools.

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, responsibility for complying with asbestos legislation lies with those responsible for the maintenance or repair of non-domestic premises. For most state schools that will be the local authority, not the school itself, but where budgets for building management are delegated to schools by the local authority, the duty—as it is called—to manage asbestos will be shared between schools and the local authority.

Ian Lavery: Will the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen with the newly introduced free schools? Who would be responsible for the management plan and for ridding those schools of asbestos?

Mr Gibb: The duty to manage is the duty of the employer. In academies and free schools, that would be either the governing body or the academy trust. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman shortly to ensure that I am correct on the technical question of who, precisely, is the employer in those circumstances.

There is a need for head teachers and governors to be aware of their responsibilities when commissioning building or maintenance work. Duty holders should have already taken steps to identify whether asbestos is present in their buildings and assessed the condition of the asbestos, and should have access to records of that information. The duty holder also needs to assess and manage risks to ensure that people are not exposed to asbestos fibres. If the asbestos-containing material is deteriorating or subject to damage, remedial measures will be required. The HSE guidance on the 2006 regulations gives schools clear procedures to follow in assessing the risk from asbestos. The guidance requires assessment of the location, type and condition of the asbestos-containing material, and it is the duty of schools and local authorities to take the appropriate measures.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who has responsibility for employment, has set out the Government’s plans for reform of the health and safety system in Britain in the document “Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone”. The proposals make it clear that there is a need to focus attention on the highest risks. As a result, the HSE will not routinely inspect local authority-maintained schools. However, managing asbestos needs effective and ongoing attention from duty holders. The HSE’s recent inspection initiatives of schools under local authority control and those outside it, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, found that the majority were adequately managing asbestos, but a proportion fell below acceptable standards. The findings of those inspections have been published, so that all schools can review their asbestos management in areas where common weaknesses were identified. The HSE is also gathering intelligence to see whether further inspections of schools are necessary. If so, the HSE will monitor the duty to manage asbestos requirements through a series of inspections in 2013-14 to ensure that the HSE’s guidance and the findings of its recent inspection initiatives are properly implemented.

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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): Very briefly, what proportion of schools fell below the standards?

Mr Gibb: I do not know the proportion that fell below the acceptable standards, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman shortly with the precise figure from the HSE.

Everyone in the education sector has a role to play in raising and maintaining awareness. Where duty holders fall below acceptable standards, HSE inspectors will continue to take action, and they have robust procedures in place to enforce regulations. The Department and the HSE have put in place clear guidance for schools and local authorities to help them identify and manage the risks posed by asbestos. We are currently producing an asbestos awareness training website, containing online training packages for head teachers and governors, and teaching and support staff, as well as premises and caretaking staff. In addition to training, the website will allow schools and local authorities to share good practice and documentation on asbestos management. The head teacher’s course is undergoing trials and will be released later this year. We do not propose to make the training mandatory, as we do not want to impose one particular model where good practice may already be in place.

Another recommendation in the report, to which the hon. Member for Wansbeck referred, was that data about the extent, type and condition of asbestos should be collected by central Government. There is a need to maintain a register of asbestos surveys at local authority level, but we do not see the need for a national register of asbestos surveys of public buildings in England and Wales. It would result in the unnecessary duplication of the records that local authorities and other employers are required by law to keep, and the need to maintain two sets of identical data would increase bureaucracy.

Another recommendation in the report was that a system should be introduced so that parents and school staff could be regularly informed about the presence of asbestos and how it was being managed. A similar

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system is in place in the United States. We encourage a policy of openness, but it is for duty holders to determine which information to share with parents.

On the issue of proactively removing all asbestos, the HSE’s advice is clear. Removing all asbestos when a risk assessment has determined that that is not necessary is considered more dangerous to those removing it and to the building’s occupants than leaving it undisturbed. If the control of asbestos regulations are followed and asbestos surveys and management plans are put into effect, with periodic checks on the condition of any asbestos, the expert advice is that this will result in no significant exposure to asbestos.

The Government take very seriously the issue of managing the problem of asbestos in our schools. As the all-party group’s report makes clear, the majority of schools contain asbestos-containing materials, as do many other buildings, both domestic and non-domestic. The asbestos in schools steering group, established by my noble Friend Lord Hill, has asked the committee on carcinogenicity of chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment to look into the relative vulnerability of children to even low-level exposure to asbestos fibres. I have taken on board the hon. Gentleman’s point about the exposure of children to asbestos. This will be the first such assessment, as previous assessments have been for adults exposed to high exposure levels. We will review our policy on asbestos management and our advice to schools when we receive the committee’s report later this year.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I hope that he will be reassured that the Government are taking it very seriously. As previous Governments have done, we are following the expert advice of the Health and Safety Executive in formulating policy and managing safely the asbestos in school buildings.

Question put and agreed to.

10.32 pm

House adjourned.