I will start with a chilling statistic. We have now reached the 95th cyclist death on the roads in Britain. Some 82 of those were caused by collisions with vehicles, and many of those cases are still being investigated. The overwhelming majority of deaths to cyclists are caused by collisions with vehicles, and not because of carelessness.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 109WH

Indeed, we saw in statistics from Transport for London for last year that only 6% of cyclist deaths were attributable to carelessness on their part. The majority were attributed to fault by the driver. That needs to be stressed.

In many cases, of course, there is not enough evidence either way, but the majority of deaths are caused by motorists, so we need to be very clear about where the balance of fault lies in these instances. If we look at deaths and serious injuries together, last year 3,192 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads. For far too long, justice has been weighted in favour of the motorist.

Terminology is also an issue. We all refer to road traffic accidents, but I put it like this: if a cyclist is killed by a speeding lorry driver on a mobile phone, that is not an accident but a crime, and we should refer to them as road traffic collisions rather than road traffic accidents. That would help to drive a change in culture. This debate is not about being anti-car—I am a road user myself. In fact, most people who are campaigning on this issue both cycle and drive.

There are examples of unsafe cycling out there. I am sure that I owe my life to a traffic policeman who hauled me over the coals for cycling down what he called the “tunnel of death” between two lanes of slow-moving lorries and buses. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I did not shout; I just apologised very meekly. Sometimes, being informed about these things makes a difference.

Inconsistencies run right through our system. We need to look at the boundaries between careless driving, death by careless and inconsiderate driving, and death by dangerous driving. There is evidence, because of the higher conviction rates, that offenders are being driven towards lesser charges. That has huge implications for sentencing. In many cases, there is the decision that there is no one to blame at all. That cannot be right.

As with the Sentencing Council guidelines on the impact on victims of assault, let us have victim statements. Losing a child through a collision with a speeding motorist has no less impact than losing them as a result of an assault, so let us take that seriously. We should look again at strict liability in civil cases, and I would like the Minister to talk about that.

3.45 pm

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I would like to pick up on some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). Let us be clear—when people are behind the wheel of a vehicle, they are in charge of a lethal weapon. If somebody is killed or seriously maimed because of careless or dangerous driving, that is no different from killing or seriously injuring someone through any other kind of negligent or dangerous behaviour.

According to figures given to me in parliamentary answers, more than 500 killer drivers have avoided jail in the past five years. While the number of people convicted of causing death by careless or dangerous driving in England and Wales between 2007 and last year rose, there was a dramatic fall in the proportion of those convicted receiving a custodial sentence.

In 2008, there were 271 such convictions; in 2011, there were 383. However, in 2008, 90% of drivers who were convicted went to jail, while in 2011 only 50% of

17 Oct 2012 : Column 110WH

them did. That is totally unacceptable for the families and loved ones of the victims. They feel a deep sense of injustice and unfairness when they see somebody who has killed their loved one get off with little more than a rap on the knuckles. It brings the whole of our criminal justice system into disrepute.

I welcome the relatively new Minister, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), to her post. I have not had the opportunity to congratulate her personally because I do not see her anymore around our neighbouring offices. I hope this will not damage her career, but I was delighted at her well deserved promotion. I have a number of questions for her; if she cannot answer them now, I would be grateful if she wrote to me.

Has there been any change in the sentencing guidance issued to courts in relation to these offences? If the guidance has not changed, how does she explain the huge drop, which is way beyond the possibility of statistical fluctuation based on the individual circumstances of the cases? Will she agree to the request from CTC and other cycling and road safety groups for a review of how the criminal justice system is working in these cases?

We have a good record in Britain, going back over many years, of improving our road safety and reducing death and injury on the roads. That has not happened by accident; it has happened through joined-up Government policies that have boosted safety and changed our whole culture and attitudes towards road crime. I am sure that the Minister, who is a reasonable woman, would not wish to see the recent worrying reversal of that progress as part of her legacy. To avoid that, she needs to ensure that we can restore the confidence of the victims of road crime in the justice system.

3.48 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I want to speak about information and draw attention to the Victim Support survey, which stated that 82% of people did not know their local candidates for the position of police and crime commissioner. We have seen the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) working hard to change that percentage. More than two thirds of those surveyed thought that they should be better informed about an offender’s progress and what an offender is doing, particularly if they are serving a community sentence.

The Government have set as a priority the issue of information. Indeed, in response to a question that I asked in the House on 18 September, the Justice Secretary said that that has to be a priority. It has been mentioned before. Louise Casey told me that across a whole range of issues affecting victims the big task needed to improve the service dramatically is relentless information throughout the criminal justice system. She said that in 2010.

The previous Labour Government talked a lot about the issue, too. Indeed, in 2002 they threw £11 million at the Crown Prosecution Service, setting a target of tracking all cases of victims online by 2005. Sadly, as with many other targets set by the previous Government, that was not met and the money went into the ether.

We must ensure that we can do better than that. From my own experience—I declare an interest as a criminal defence solicitor, although not practising much

17 Oct 2012 : Column 111WH

now—I know that the system of criminal justice is too closed and too insular. The coalition programme said clearly that we must be the most open and transparent in the world, and that light must also shine in the shadows and darknesses of the criminal justice system.

We have some momentum across the political spectrum. The Institute for Public Policy Research report this year supported the tracking of cases online. In these days of information technology, we must be able to enable victims to track cases, from the moment when they are reported to the point at which justice is served. All too often the CJS Online information is largely impersonal, and when victims want personal, relevant, useful and timely information, it is lacking.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that victims are entitled not only to things being tracked properly and so on, but to proper compensation? Has he looked at the Government proposals on the cuts to compensation and does he agree that they need to be abandoned?

Mr Burrowes: I am happy to talk about that and, if the right hon. Gentleman is patient, I will respond shortly, but first I must finish my train of thought on information. It is important not to lose the momentum gained from the development of online crime mapping and take it into online victims’ justice mapping. That must happen. Yes, there is benefit from social media and peer support, but there are examples from across the sea, in Florida, where VINELink can be used to track information properly online. Avon and Somerset has TrackMyCrime and a 90% satisfaction rating for victims.

On the case for compensation, I was the shadow Justice Minister in 2008 and during a delegated legislation Committee it was interesting to note the concern in respect of removing or limiting the scope of compensation under the criminal injuries rules. The Labour Government were seeking to reduce the scope then, but I did not see the attention and concern among Labour Members that I see among them now.

An issue that we should all recognise is that “criminal injuries compensation scheme” is a misnomer; it is a criminal injuries contribution-to-compensation scheme—it is a contribution and essentially limited. Homicide victims who have not come through the criminal justice system but are going through the highly bureaucratic process do not get adequate compensation; they get to a maximum level, which is a derisory amount for the victims of crime in many ways. It is essentially limited, and compensation has to be broader than that.

Yes, we should provide the support, in particular where the offender has not been identified and brought to justice—that lies within the scope of the scheme—but we ought to recognise the progress made by the Government. For the first time, we have a statutory duty for compensation on all offenders who come to court. Let us ensure that, when cases get to court, victims are properly compensated, so that they do not have to go through civil and other remedies.

It is also planned that offenders will now have to pay an extra £50 million into the victims’ pot; there is the prisoners’ earnings scheme, which will go to victims, as well as the additional surcharges. Let us recognise that the issue of compensation covers a whole range of

17 Oct 2012 : Column 112WH

areas. Let us get the right compensation and the right information. Let us ensure, as I am sure we can with the new Minister, that we carry out the central task of doing so much more, so that those surveys from Victim Support and others do not come back and tell us that too many victims feel that the criminal justice system does not treat victims fairly.

3.53 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate this afternoon, Mrs Riordan, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing it. I speak today as a member of the trade union USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—I draw attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—but also as the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Parliament for four years. I am proud that I was able to introduce legislation that improved the lot of victims and witnesses in the court system in Scotland, as well as speeding up court processes to stop victims and witnesses from having a lot of their time wasted and to ensure that public money was not wasted in unduly lengthy processes.

Today I want to concentrate on the changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Just before Parliament broke up for the recess, I had the opportunity to present a petition to Parliament signed by thousands of people—mostly, but not all, members of USDAW—who were concerned about that. The process of presenting a parliamentary petition means that it is in formal parliamentary language, which I felt did not really give the flavour or the opportunity to explain what it is like for the victims of crime. That is why I was so keen to speak in this debate.

Earlier today I had the opportunity to hear directly from a number of people who have been victims of crime fairly recently, including a young man who was walking to his place of work to cover the shift of a colleague who had been unable to turn up. He was set upon by three drunken teenagers, hospitalised, ended up in a coma for some days and possibly suffered a stroke. He said that the criminal injuries compensation scheme allowed him “to reset his life”, as he described it. It perhaps did not provide all the compensation mentioned by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), but no one would ever say that monetary compensation is enough in such circumstances. What that young man said was that it had at least given him the opportunity to put right some of the wrongs.

I also heard from another young man from Glasgow, who was going home from his workplace—he works in retail—to see his baby daughter at lunchtime; at 2.40 in the afternoon he was violently attacked and left unconscious and with scars that will last for a lifetime. As he said, it is not only the physical scars, which both he and his family have to deal with, but the emotional scars. Every time he goes out, he sees faces in the crowd who he believes may yet be those same people who attacked him. His clear message to us as parliamentarians is that our focus should be entirely on cutting crime and not on cutting compensation. He laid out clearly that the compensation was not about the finance—he lost more financially, by being off work for a year, than he ever got back in compensation.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 113WH

I appeal to the Minister, who is new but whose background I know. She is a reasonable person, not to be seen—I am sure she does not want to be—as on the side of the assailants in such circumstances, rather than on the side of the victims. It is a real concern to me that the Government’s proposals would do away with compensation for a huge number of serious injuries—in particular those covered in the lower bandings, bandings 1 to 5. The amounts of compensation for the individuals are relatively small, but the message, the signal sent to the victims, is that the state—society—has recognised their suffering and is prepared to do something about it. I hope that the Minister will listen and that she will bring any proposals back to the Floor of the House for us all to debate in more detail.

3.57 pm

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate.

I want to associate myself entirely with the comments just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). I value her experience as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and I saw her work in the role to which she referred. I do not want to repeat what she said, but I do want to think a little about how we got to where we are.

Criminal injuries compensation is a relatively new concept. Whenever it was thought about in the past, it was considered to be a payment from the criminal to the victim. Relatively recently, in the 1950s, people started to look seriously at the responsibilities of the state. I will not go through all that history, but the first compensation scheme of its kind anywhere in the world was our compensation scheme, introduced by the Labour Government’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1964.

How that legislation operated was very different from how today’s legislation does. There are three particular things to note about the 1964 Act. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) talked about a contribution to compensation. The 1964 Act based compensation for crime on the compensation that would have been received for a similar civil injury. There was no limit, and that was the downfall of the legislation, because the budget became very high.

In the first year, around 44,000 cases were presented and more than £50 million was paid in compensation. That legislation was the first of its kind in the world, and throughout its gestation and progress through Parliament the Treasury opposed it. That must be noted.

The provisions of the scheme have changed substantially. Compensation payments have been restricted, and we have fixed bands of payments, depending on the gravity of the injury. The current legislation still meets the basic principles of the scheme—that the victims of crime should be compensated for their injuries in certain circumstances.

A financial payment can never fully compensate anyone for a violent crime. Physical and mental scars may take a long time to heal, and some never heal. I was a practising solicitor in Scotland for many years, and dealt with many victims. I also worked in the criminal

17 Oct 2012 : Column 114WH

courts and saw the effect of crime. I have been a victim, not of a violent crime, but it left a few scars that remain today.

It is important that the state should acknowledge the effect of violent crime on individuals—

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.23 pm

On resuming

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): This debate will now end at 4.50 pm.

Mr Doran: In the short time available to me, I want to make a simple point. One of the principles behind the 1964 Act was set out in the relevant White Paper:

“The Government do not accept that the State is liable for injuries caused to people by the acts of others. The public does, however, feel a sense of responsibility for and sympathy with the innocent victim, and it is right that this feeling should find practical expression in the provision of compensation on behalf of the community.”

The current Government intend to cut that provision, but I think that principle is still very important. The Treasury lost in 1964, but it looks as though it is winning in 2012. The victims of crime will be the losers.

4.24 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan.

On 16 September 2004, Robert Levy was stabbed and killed near Hackney town hall when he went to help a younger boy who was being threatened by a schoolboy with a knife. Robert was only 16 years old when he lost his life. His murderer was 15 years old.

Robert’s murderer is due to have his parole hearing in September 2013. I have received correspondence from the former Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), saying that Mr and Mrs Levy can apply to their local parole board to attend the parole hearing and read out their victim personal statement. However, Mr and Mrs Levy believe—I have a lot of sympathy with their position—that the victims of crime should have the right to speak, or to have a lawyer speak for them, at the parole hearings of the people who have harmed them or members of their immediate family. As I said, I have a lot of sympathy with that position. The Levys feel strongly that although articulate people can present their case well—in fact, I would think the Levys fall into that category—some people might not be able to do that and others might not even be able to write their victim personal statement very well. There is, therefore, an issue about parity in the law.

Mr and Mrs Levy are concerned that at the moment, the decision on whether victims of crime can speak or have a lawyer speak for them at a parole hearing is up to the discretion of the chair of the relevant parole board. They feel that reading out a statement is not adequate—I support them on this—and does not allow family members to respond to points made during the hearing. They would like to be able to have some comeback. The perpetrator has the chance to have other people speak for him, but they do not have anyone to speak on their behalf.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 115WH

I wrote to the Justice Secretary, the Minister’s boss, on 4 October. We have not had a response yet. That is not a criticism. I expect that he has to consider the matter, and we have had a good dialogue with Ministers. However, could this Minister say specifically in her summing-up of the debate whether the Department might consider what has been proposed and look into whether there could be better rights for victims, particularly at parole hearings?

This is not about retribution. It is about balance and ensuring that the perpetrator accepts responsibility for their actions at each stage of the process. For someone who has served a sentence, the crime becomes more distant. For the family who have to live without their family member—in this case, their son, Robert—the pain never goes away. It is important that perpetrators understand that the impact of their crime does not lessen with time.

I sincerely apologise, Mrs Riordan, because I may have to leave a little before the end of the debate. Perhaps I can correspond with the Minister, and if she would be willing to meet my constituents, I would be very happy to facilitate it.

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): I am now imposing a time limit on Back-Bench speeches of three minutes.

4.27 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. I would like to follow on from some of the points made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and ask the Minister to look at the sentences that drivers receive after killing or injuring cyclists, which many people feel are often derisory.

For example, British Cycling employee Rob Jefferies was killed when he was hit from behind on an open, straight road in broad daylight by someone who had already been caught for speeding. Unbelievably, the driver got just an 18-month ban, a retest, 200 hours’ community service and a small fine. That was in line with the guidelines, so there was no hope of an appeal. Mr Jefferies’ brother, Will, is following this debate. He said:

“The present state of the law meant that his killer could never receive a sentence proportionate to the crime.”

The lorry driver who killed another cyclist, Eilidh Jake Cairns, admitted in court that his eyesight was not good enough for him to have been driving. He was fined just £200. He was free to drive again immediately. Unbelievably, 18 months later, he knocked down and killed Nora Gutmann, an elderly pensioner. His eyesight was still poor and he was not wearing his prescribed glasses. If he had been convicted of causing death by careless driving the first time, he would have been given a driving ban and would not have been able to kill Nora Gutmann. The justice system failed not only Eilidh, but Nora.

When Cath Ward, who worked for the police in the west midlands, was knocked off her bike and killed, the driver was convicted of careless driving and received just a short driving ban. Cath’s friend, Ruth Eyles, wrote to me:

17 Oct 2012 : Column 116WH

“What shocks me is that the driver who killed Rob Jefferies will be able to drive again in 18 months…If that young man had had a legal firearm and had accidentally shot and killed someone through carelessness, would he be given a new licence 18 months later?”

All too often, incidents in which people are seriously injured are downgraded from dangerous driving to careless driving because it is easier to secure a conviction, but a conviction for careless driving usually results in the driver just having to attend a course.

We need a comprehensive review of how the justice system operates when people are hurt or killed on the roads that includes, first, a full analysis of how the police and coroners investigate such cases; secondly, a review of the charging standards and legal guidance used by the CPS; thirdly, a full examination of the offences available to the CPS, particularly causing death by careless driving; and fourthly, a review of the sentencing guidelines to ensure that they adequately reflect the actual or potential consequences of an offence.

British Cycling, of which I am a member, has called on the Ministry of Justice to start a review. Despite repeated letters and 78 MPs signing an early-day motion in favour, it has had no response to its request. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and welcome her to her post. Is she prepared to meet a delegation from British Cycling to discuss justice on the roads in more detail, as the organisation has requested? Is she prepared to undertake a review of the justice system?

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Order.

4.30 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): I want to share my knowledge of the Rochdale grooming case and, in particular, talk about an aspect that has not come to light or been much discussed: what one might term, the criminalisation of sexually exploited girls. The Howard League for Penal Reform recently produced a detailed report on that very issue, involving research by Professor Jo Phoenix of Durham university, entitled “Out of Place”. Soon after the Rochdale trial, I met a range of people involved in the case, including the victims. It became apparent that at least some of the victims had committed crimes that were clearly a response to the abuse that they had received—a cry for help.

Girl A in the Rochdale case described to me how on one occasion she tried smashing up a vending machine in one of the takeaways in which she had been repeatedly raped. The perpetrators of the rape had no hesitation in phoning the police, who attended and arrested the girl. It was during police questioning about smashing up the vending machine that she explained that she had been sexually exploited. It is the episode that people might remember; the police officer interviewing her yawned throughout the interview, as though he was not interested in what he was being told. It was at that stage that the girl’s parents first learnt about the abuse that she had received. That was in 2008, and we now know that no prosecutions, either of the girl or the perpetrators, took place and that the abuse continued for another two years.

From that incident and others, we also know that the perpetrators of those horrific crimes were emboldened to continue the abuse. As, I am sure, they saw it, they were being left alone to continue raping girls. Indeed, if the girls stepped out of line and committed crimes against them, the perpetrators felt emboldened enough

17 Oct 2012 : Column 117WH

to report it to the police. I was told of an incident in which one of the victims smashed up a taxi of a perpetrator, and she, too, was arrested.

I press the Minister to review the cases in which the victims were prosecuted, and possibly revoke some of the action taken against them. I shall conclude with an important point: in such cases, children must always be treated as victims, never as willing participants, and certainly never as criminals.

4.33 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I was one of the MPs who last month went to the delegated legislation Committee considering the Government’s proposals to cut the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We were absolutely determined to speak up against those cuts. Indeed, in contrast to many such Committees, where most of the speaking is left to the Front Benchers, there was lively and vigorous opposition, not only from the Opposition side, but from Government MPs. I thank the Minister for having the wisdom not to push the motion to a vote and to allow time for a rethink.

If the cuts had gone ahead, they would have ended payments to victims, who include postal workers and children, mauled by dangerous dogs and to victims of criminal injury who suffered any of a raft of so-called minor injuries, including multiple broken ribs, who are currently eligible for payments of between £1,000 and £2,000. Cuts would have been made to payments that currently range from £2,500 to £8,000 for more serious injuries, such as fractured joints and significant facial scarring.

The criminal injuries compensation scheme is the last resort for victims of crime, when payment cannot be recovered from the perpetrators of the crime or from insurance cover. It involves modest sums, awarded under stringent conditions to the victims of crime, many of whom suffer loss of earnings due to their injuries. It is particularly valuable for those on low pay, such as the third of front-line retail workers who do not earn enough to qualify for sick pay. Victims of criminal injury also include health workers injured by violent patients and postal workers attacked by dangerous dogs. We cannot compensate for the trauma of an attack, but we, as a society, should at least provide modest financial help for the victims.

Furthermore, even if an injury is work-related and the employer has employers’ liability insurance, the Court of Appeal has said that no employer could be expected to go as far as preventing any robbery from taking place at all, and therefore employers do not breach their duty of care by not preventing robberies. Clearly, there is a need for a safety net and for the criminal injuries compensation scheme. For the sake of victims of crime, I again ask the Minister to abandon plans to cut the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

4.35 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your watchful gaze, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this crucial debate and on the support he has had from colleagues.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 118WH

How society looks to and supports the victims of crime is most important. We had a proud record in government of helping and supporting victims, not least with a 43% cut in crime, but we recognise that there was and is much more to be done. That is why, among other things, we propose bringing forward a victims’ law at the earliest opportunity—hopefully, before not too long.

In welcoming the Minister, I must say, as I said some weeks ago, that we have high hopes that she and her colleagues will do far better than their predecessors in the two and a half sadly wasted years to date. Despite the little waver when she responded to an Adjournment debate on the criminal injuries compensation scheme before the issue went to the delegated legislation Committee, she rightly and properly pulled the statutory instrument on the scheme when it came to Committee, to ensure that it was not fully considered and an injustice was not continued. Her recollection of that fateful afternoon and evening will no doubt be such that she would not want a repeat of the clearly expressed unease from the Government Benches and across the Committee.

Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that the Government will not rush through both Houses a new proposal that has been only cosmetically changed? I urge her to assure Members that the criminal injuries compensation scheme will be properly considered on the Floor of both Houses. Will she also assure Members that proposals will not be brought forward unless a proper review and reworking of the scheme has taken place to address all the concerns raised by Members on both sides of the delegated legislation Committee and by various outside organisations?

It is important to stress that the criminal injuries compensation scheme is the last resort. It is important to the most vulnerable and innocent victims in society. We are talking about modest sums, but they are very valuable, particularly to those on low pay.

A number of Members mentioned dog attacks. It is horrendous when anybody is attacked, as a lot of postal workers are, but we must remember that all too often the victims of such attacks are children. Are we seriously saying that no compensation scheme or a weakened scheme would be right? Members on both sides of the House mentioned the information available to victims; the important issue of prisoner release needs to be addressed in particular. We also heard contributions about the attitude of professionals. I hope that the Minister will say something about that. They should be professional when dealing with victims of crime.

Restorative justice has to be done properly. It is not a cheap alternative. It is not something that can be swept in to deal with the matter and save a few quid on the side. If it is done properly and effectively and in the right circumstances, it is very good indeed, but it can be incredibly damaging if it is not.

The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, mentioned the case of her constituent Marie Heath whose son was murdered, and the good work of SAMM Abroad. I add my support to that organisation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) spoke about the four steps. They are extremely good points that the Government need to take on board. I have concerns that the Government

17 Oct 2012 : Column 119WH

still do not even know how much money is going to be delegated for PCCs to use for victims. I believe it is work in progress, which is a little worrying given that we are only a month away.

I will not repeat the points about cyclists at any length. British Cycling has done an extremely good job of raising the profile, and Members on both sides of the House have spoken well on that point. I simply urge the Minister to take the opportunity to have a proper root and branch review of the way that not only the criminal justice system but the entire system looks at victims of incidents—quite rightly, not accidents—where cyclists are involved.

There have been so many good points. I urge anyone observing the debate to read it in Hansard. I finish with a couple of points. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) raised the matter of Robert Levy’s murder, which raises important issues, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) talked about British Cycling, and I met Will Jeffreys, the brother of Robert Jeffreys. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) raised the appalling behaviour in Rochdale. The children’s commissioner said that the issue does not just affect certain communities; it is a problem in every community of every part of our country. That is chilling.

I look forward to the Minister’s comments. I have spoken for slightly longer than I intended. My apologies to the Minister.

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the Minister, may I remind her that the debate must finish at 4.50 pm?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): I am grateful, Mrs Riordan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. I am conscious that this may be one of the final times we hear from him. I want quickly to convey that he will be missed right across the House. I wish I had time to say more. There is so much to say and so little time.

I am delighted to be responsible for representing the needs of victims and witnesses in Government. I am committed to ensuring that they are high on the Government’s agenda, which is exactly where they belong.

At the beginning of the year, we launched a consultation that sought views on a far-reaching package of proposals. We called it “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”, because that is what we need to do. Victims too often feel themselves to be at best an afterthought and at worst forgotten in the process of justice. Despite improvements over the past two decades, the system has continued to fall short, whether in relation to helping victims recover from the aftermath of a crime, supporting them through the inevitable stresses of investigation and trial, or providing the right services in the right place, funded as far as possible by offenders rather than the taxpayer. The urgent need to remedy the current weaknesses is why we are implementing the package of proposals that we committed to in our response to the consultation.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 120WH

The Government have a responsibility to ensure that practical and emotional support is provided to help victims cope with the initial impact of crime and, in the longer term and as far as possible, recover from the consequences of crime. We are proceeding with plans to make improvements to the support available, raising up to an additional £50 million from the perpetrators of crime. On 1 October, the victim surcharge payable by an adult on a fine was increased. More than that, it has been extended to other disposals such as conditional discharges, community sentences and custodial sentences. Similar provision has also been made in respect of juveniles. The increase in revenue will increase the help that we can give to victims.

However, there is little point in ensuring that decent funding is available if we do not use it in the best way possible. That means prioritising support to those who truly need it: victims of the most serious crimes, victims who are persistently targeted and victims who are the most vulnerable in our society, and who may be isolated because of lack of support or family. That prioritisation of support underpins a second, related reform. For too long most funding decisions about victims’ services have been made in Whitehall. Past Governments have tested to destruction the virtues of monopoly purchasing of services, which I do not believe are in the interests of victims or taxpayers. We will take a more intelligent approach to victims and witnesses.

Under our plans, the Ministry of Justice will retain responsibility for commissioning services where either proven economies of scale exist or they are genuinely of a specialist nature. In our judgment, that means continued support from the Ministry of Justice for those bereaved through homicide, for victims of trafficking, and for rape support centres. We are also continuing to consider where else this approach would make sense.

Our coalition agreement also promised much needed stability for rape support services across the country, and we have given them long-term funding. We have also opened new support centres in areas lacking such provision.

For the bulk of victims’ services, however, funding will be devolved to democratically accountable police and crime commissioners. It is a plain fact that the needs of victims vary locally, and PCCs, much more than officials and Ministers in Whitehall, will be best placed to decide what their communities want and what they need. Hon. Members have raised the issue of national budgets and how much money will go to PCCs. I envisage that the majority of the budget will go to PCCs.

For many victims of crime, of course, their contact with the criminal justice system involves neither drawing on services to help them recover, nor—I shall come to this policy in a moment—seeking compensation. Rather, their priority is that the system treats them decently during the investigation and trial. It is unacceptable that victims still frequently feel that too little is being done. They have been given too little information and they are expected to sit next to the families of offenders. The Government are undertaking a review of the victims’ code and the witness charter to consider in detail how they can be made more effective and robust.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester Central will be pleased to know that we are taking a careful look at the operation of victim personal statements,

17 Oct 2012 : Column 121WH

which can be invaluable to victims in court, making sure that the impact of the crime upon them is really understood. We are committed to ensuring that offenders take greater responsibility for their crimes and do more to repair the harm that they have caused. I have already talked about the additional money that will be provided to victims through the surcharge. Restorative justice is something that could transform lives, and I will certainly be pursuing that.

The Government believe that the role of the victims’ commissioner is vital to making sure that victims’ needs are championed and their voices heard across Government. The announcement of our intention to fill the post of victims’ commissioner is another clear signal that the Government’s commitment to criminal justice reform is real.

There have been numerous contributions made today by hon. Members. I will quickly list them: the hon. Member for Manchester Central; my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel); the right hon. Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw); my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes); the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran); my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston); and the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for Dudley North (Ian Austin), for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into detail and comment as I would like on the issues that they raised, but I assure them that I have listened very carefully indeed to everything that they said, and I may have to write to them to clarify issues.

Mr Bradshaw: I am sorry that the Minister has not been able to respond to the points made by three hon. Members about road traffic victims. Would she at least agree to meet a delegation led by British Cycling to discuss the issue?

Mrs Grant: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and I agree to meet a delegation.

I am right out of time, so I will just say that our package of reforms is designed to ensure that victims’ services are put on a more intelligent and sustainable footing. It is designed, in particular, to ensure that those in greatest need of help and support get what they actually need when they need it. It is not about one size fitting all. I am committed to these reforms.

4.50 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.59 pm

On resuming—

17 Oct 2012 : Column 122WH

Parliamentary Language

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Before we start, may I remind Members of the importance of abiding by our usual rules and conventions during this debate?

5 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I do not think that you say that at the beginning of every debate, so I feel a little admonished already.

“Erskine May”, the volume that governs how we behave in Parliament and dictates many of the rules that are not written up in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, must be one of the most regularly ignored books in the history of English literature.Members will perhaps be surprised to know that it says:

“All Members should maintain silence.”

I do not know how often there is silence in the Chamber when somebody else is speaking. It is pretty rare, although on occasion the mood of the House can change on a sixpence. “Erskine May” also says that

“Members must not read any book, newspaper or letter.”

I have often seen Members signing Christmas cards in the House of Commons while a debate is going on, so I gently suggest that “Erskine May” is often ignored. I suspect that one of the reasons is that it is not generally available to the public—it costs £260 to buy. I believe that it should be available online and I cannot see any earthly reason why it should not be. All the Standing Orders of the House and everything else that dictates the way that we do our business are available online.

I know that some members of the public might think that there was a golden age when all MPs sat in the House of Commons and listened to one another carefully and attentively, only ever voting according to their consciences and not according to any party Whip, and that there was never any unruliness. In fact, the modern era has probably been one of the most ruly in parliamentary democracy.

On 24 July 1911, Tory MPs completely and utterly refused to allow the Prime Minister—Mr Asquith—to speak for the best part of 20 minutes by literally shouting at him at a very important point in his attempt to resolve a row between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Then, when F. E. Smith was going to speak on behalf of the Conservatives, the Liberals, who believed that Smith had orchestrated the shouting at Mr Asquith, all shouted at him until the Speaker had to suspend the sitting before eventually adjourning it for the rest of the day. It is the only time that I have found that the Prime Minister was literally unable to get a single sentence out and on to the record; I suppose that is what happens when there is a Chamber dominated by Conservatives and Liberals.

In 1920, things got even worse. On 22 November that year, a Conservative, John Elsdale Molson, attacked an Irish nationalist, Joseph Devlin, when Devlin raised the matter of the Croke Park massacre, which had happened the day before. Indeed, things got so bad that the Conservative dragged the Irish nationalist over the top of the Bench and started pummelling him on the Floor. A Liberal actually shouted out, “Kill him,” and obviously the sitting had to be suspended.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 123WH

Likewise, on 11 April 1923 the Speaker suspended the sitting because the Government had lost a vote the day before and Labour MPs were insisting that they should therefore change their policy on ex-servicemen. At that point, Robert Murray, a Conservative politician, and Walter Guinness, a Labour politician, ended up in a fist-fight and the rest of the day’s business was lost.

I mention all those incidents because people sometimes have this glorious image of a perfect, pacific past in the House of Commons. Sometimes we romanticise the past too much and I would argue that “Erskine May” has also entrenched some of the archaisms of the past that are no longer necessary.

Personally, I find the whole business of calling somebody an “hon. Friend”, a “right hon. Friend” or an “hon. Member” rather unnecessary. I do not know why; it just makes us seem as if we are hung up on titles. Ordinary members of the public have no idea what the difference is between an “hon. Member” and a “right hon. Member”—indeed, often Members themselves do not know the difference. It just seems so ludicrous when one Member has referred to another Member as “honourable” and then someone else pipes up and says, “Oh no, he’s right honourable.” I just think, “Honestly, have we not got something better to obsess about than our own status?”

Similarly, it is a particular irony that we always refer to one another by our constituencies, not least because we can rarely remember each other’s constituency names. So we will go, “The hon. Member for…somewhere down in the south-west,” or something like that, and then somebody will shout out the constituency name and it gets corrected and tidied up by Hansard. The irony of it all is that Hansard will actually then put the name of the Member.

It is bizarre that we play this game of having to refer to one another by our constituencies rather than our names. I do not think that the fact that people in the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament call one another by their names means they are any less courteous to one another; indeed, they might actually be a little more courteous.

There are also a lot of inconsistencies about how the Chair sometimes rules in relation to specific comments that are meant to involve unparliamentary language. For instance, Eric Forth regularly got away with using the term “PMPs”. When he was shadow Leader of the House, he always referred to “PMPs” as opposed to “PMQs”, with “PMPs” meaning “Prime Minister’s porkies”. If that was not accusing the Prime Minister of lying, I do not know what would have been.

That was quite a direct accusation of dishonesty, yet Jacob Rees-Mogg—sorry, I am not allowed to call him that; I must call him “the hon. Member for somewhere or other down in the south-west”—did not get into trouble for using the word “flipping”, but Sally Keeble got into considerable trouble for using a word that begins and ends with the same letters as “flipping” but is slightly different in the middle, and that was because it was used in a quotation.

Members are not allowed to use quotations. It says quite clearly in “Erskine May” that Members are not allowed to use a quotation at all, at any point. No extracts from books, magazines or newspapers can be used, and yet we do it regularly—in fact, we do it all the

17 Oct 2012 : Column 124WH

time. On occasions in 2002, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions used quotations as a means of accusing Stephen Byers of lying, but he was not reprimanded by the Chair for doing so, even though it is absolutely clear in “Erskine May” that a Member is not allowed to use the fact that they are quoting somebody else as a means of passing off an imputation of dishonesty against another Member.

I cannot remember Tom Watson’s constituency, but it is somewhere in the midlands—West Bromwich east, north, south or west. He was told off for using the word “pipsqueak” on 8 July 2010, yet the words “stoolpigeon”, “hooligan”, “blackguard” and “idiot” have all been used at various times by hon. Members and they have never been told off for using them. So I simply say that it is time for a greater degree of consistency about what we consider parliamentary and unparliamentary language. Indeed, I would say that it is time for a full redraft of “Erskine May”.

In particular, Members may not know that they are not allowed to be ironical in a debate in the House of Commons. It was a ruling of the Speaker on 25 August 1860, when he spoke to a Member:

“I should have informed him that to discuss any matter in the House in an ironical sense is unparliamentary and out of order.”—[Official Report, 25 August 1860; Vol. 160, c. 1827.]

When I have heard people make ironical comments in the House, I have often wondered whether those comments should be put in italics in Hansard, so that everybody catches the drift of what the person was really saying; sometimes it looks as if they are saying exactly the opposite of what they really mean. However, the ruling is still in “Erskine May” as a result of that decision in 1860.

I have already referred to the fact that “Erskine May” says that extracts from newspapers or books, and paraphrases of or quotations from speeches and so on, are not admissible. I think that that ruling is out of date and it is

“more honoured in the breach than the observance”.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): I am sorry to have to use the term “my hon. Friend”; in fact, I will just say “my Friend.” Does my Friend agree that some things cannot be put in “Erskine May” and that there should be some guidelines that just mean that we lead by example? For instance, when I have been going round the country asking people why they hate politicians, they say that one of the primary reasons is that they do not think that we answer questions put to us. We may think that senior politicians might lead the way on that issue, but the Prime Minister demonstrated the opposite today in an answer—or non-answer—to the question that my Friend put. That is the kind of thing that infuriates voters.

Chris Bryant: I will come later to what the Prime Minister said this afternoon, but to be honest I think that it was pretty scandalous. The whole point of Parliament is that Members are sent here on behalf of their constituents to be able to hold the Government to account, and that must surely require the Government to answer questions. Indeed, the ministerial code of conduct, ironically enough, was written by the Prime Minister in May 2010. It says absolutely categorically:

17 Oct 2012 : Column 125WH

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”.

It also says:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

People might think that that is just the ministerial code of conduct, and that the Prime Minister wrote it so he can ignore it. However, it is also a motion of this House —it was a resolution of this House carried on 19 March 1997. I cannot understand, and I do not think that our constituents will understand, why the Prime Minister should think himself able to declare that he will not answer a particular question from somebody, apparently just because he does not like them.

I happen to think that the Prime Minister did that because he had something to hide. He made it pretty clear that he chose not to deny the fact that there are additional e-mails between him and Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, of a salacious nature and embarrassing to him, which he refuses to publish. He could have chosen to deny that today. It seems absolutely clear to me that there is precisely such a stash, and he should, in the interests of democracy—and, frankly, in the interests of his reputation—publish them as soon as possible.

Incidentally, the Prime Minister said earlier this year that he was not going to reply to any of my questions, then he started replying to some of them and now he has gone back to not replying. I presume that today’s not-replying answer was precisely because I had asked a question that embarrassed him and because he had something to hide.

“Erskine May” also says that we are not allowed to ask certain kinds of questions:

“Questions which seek an expression of opinion, or which contain arguments, expressions of opinion, inferences or imputations, unnecessary epithets, or rhetorical, controversial, ironical or offensive expressions are not in order.”

That would rule out pretty much every single parliamentary question I have ever heard, certainly those on the Floor of the House; perhaps written questions are rather different. This seems to be yet another example of where we must consider changing how we write our rules.

Some of the issues are very specific, and I want to refer to how “Erskine May” says we are allowed to refer to other Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, judges, governors-general of other territories, the Queen, the heir to the throne and members of the royal family.

It is absolutely right and proper that we should not seek to bring members of the royal family into our debates, and not seek to pray in aid a member of the royal family to try, in some way or another, to influence a debate—by saying, for example, “Princess Anne agrees with me” or “Prince Andrew disagrees with me.” However, extending that to mean that we cannot say a word about a member of the royal family is inappropriate, because we can write about them in newspapers. As Members of Parliament, we can say things on television, and in debates on “Question Time” or “Any Questions?” so not to be able to say the same things in Parliament, which is meant to be the fundamental place of debate in

17 Oct 2012 : Column 126WH

our society, seems misguided and wrong. It relies on an understanding from the late 17th century, which is archaic.

“Erskine May” also states, incidentally, that we are not even allowed to ask a question about ecclesiastical patronage. When the Prime Minister, in the next few days, gets two names suggested to him as next Archbishop of Canterbury, we will not be allowed to ask him which name he put forward to the Queen for appointment. One of the problems with the Church of England today is that the whole process of appointing bishops and archbishops is far too clouded in secrecy. It would be far better to have an open and transparent system, as we have for any other Government appointment. Why can we not ask questions about how patronage is exercised?

Similarly, and this strikes me as very strange, we are not allowed to ask questions about how the Prime Minister exercises his patronage in the granting of honours. That is particularly bizarre, because in 1922 a Conservative Member, Colonel John Gretton—as I am sure you know, Mrs Riordan, he won two golds in the 1900 Olympics—wanted to ask Lloyd George if he could give a definite assurance

“that no money or other consideration of money value has been paid, or passed either directly or indirectly, in connection with any of the honours recommended by the Prime Minister in announcing the list of honours on the 3rd of June this year.”—[Official Report, 27 June 1922; Vol. 155, c. 1842.]

The Speaker refused to allow him to ask the question, but it seems to me absolutely quintessentially important that we should know whether money has been handed over to a political party or an individual for the granting of an honour. The Speaker relied on the answer that had been given by his predecessor, Speaker Lowther, on 21 July 1907, when another MP, Hugh Lea, wanted to ask Campbell-Bannerman, another Liberal Prime Minister, about a knighthood he had given to Sir James Brown Smith. We know, in retrospect, that those were corrupt arrangements, but we could not have found that out through Parliament. If exactly the same were to happen today, we would have no means of establishing whether there was a corrupt arrangement.

I want to come to the matter of imputations of falsehood. Earlier this year, we had a debate about the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now the Secretary of State for Health—a bizarre promotion to my mind, but that is a matter for the Prime Minister’s conscience and not for anyone else’s. I made allegations about him in the debate, which had been made by other people in different terms, but amounting to exactly the same thing. I will not repeat them here, because that would be inappropriate. Members have to understand that when a motion specifically refers to the conduct of a Member they must be able to make an allegation about that conduct, and that also applies to Members of the House of Lords and of elsewhere.

In the 19th century, there were direct accusations against Viscount Palmerston, who, because his viscountcy was an Irish one, was a Member of the House of Commons. The Speaker ruled very clearly that if the debate was about whether Viscount Palmerston had lied to the House, it was perfectly possible to make that allegation, although it would not be in any other kind of debate. We need to draw that line very carefully, because there will be times when our constituents want us to say

17 Oct 2012 : Column 127WH

directly, in words that they understand, adhere to and support, what the allegation is. Sometimes when we mystify parliamentary language, we do ourselves an enormous disservice.

I have already referred to the issue of what should and should not be said in Parliament, and there is just one other thing that I want to mention. If we are to do our job well in opposition—all of us, at some point, are likely to be in opposition—it is important that Ministers adhere to all the elements of the ministerial code. I note that on Monday the Home Secretary was not able to provide a copy of her speech to the Opposition before she stood up to make her statement. It was said that providing it beforehand was merely a convention of the House. That is not so. Section 9.5 of the ministerial code states:

“A copy of the text of an oral statement should usually be shown to the Opposition shortly before it is made.”

I think that “usually” is there because of the Budget, and only because of that. It goes on:

“For this purpose, 15 copies of the statement and associated documents should be sent to the Chief Whip’s Office at least 45 minutes before the statement is to be made.”

I cannot remember the Home Secretary providing a copy of her statement to the shadow Home Office team 45 minutes, 40 minutes, 35 minutes or 25 minutes before, and I very much hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell us that he will ensure that the Prime Minister will reply to questions and that all Ministers will provide Opposition spokespeople with a copy of their statements at least 45 minutes before they deliver them, as required in the ministerial code.

5.18 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is a former Deputy Leader of the House, on securing the debate. He has set out his detailed historical knowledge of parliamentary procedure and his long-standing interest in the matter. He highlighted some of the discrepancies that can be identified in “Erskine May”, and has entertained us with stories of how Parliament used to be. He presented an image that resembled a fight club, but with occasional use of parliamentary procedural language.

It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, particularly as the Government have no direct responsibility for parliamentary language. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the language used in Parliament is a matter for Parliament itself, and in this House it is the Chair rather than the Government who has responsibility for ensuring that what is said is in accordance with the rules and conventions of the House. We all rightly respect the Chair, and in responding to the debate I certainly will not be suggesting to you, Mrs Riordan, nor to the Speaker or his Deputies, how they should apply the rules of the House.

Having absolved myself of any responsibility for parliamentary language, I am happy to address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is right that we conduct debates in the House in a courteous and reasonable manner. Although we may profoundly disagree with one another, resorting to personal insult and abuse would demean the institution of Parliament and its Members. “Erskine May” states that

17 Oct 2012 : Column 128WH

“good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”

There may be times when those characteristics are not as in evidence as they might be, but we rely on the wisdom and authority of the Chair to set the limits.

Being too prescriptive about terms that are and are not parliamentary is easy. Much depends on the context in which they are used. As the hon. Gentleman may know, pre-1983 editions of “Erskine May” contained lists of terms that had been ruled unparliamentary. The disadvantage, of course, is that unparliamentary use is often more to do with context or the tone with which something is said. Simply having a list is no guarantee against parliamentary abuse by Members.

We have all experienced this, me included: I thought that my language was in good temper and moderation as I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on freedom of information, during which I did not accuse individual Members, but accused some of perhaps duplicitous behaviour in relation to expenses and a particular Bill, but I was slapped down because my language was deemed bad-tempered and immoderate. I felt that, in those circumstances, the language that I used was appropriate. To codify such things is extremely difficult, as they are not always black and white, which is why it is better for the Chair to judge the factors on a case-by-case basis.

I think that most Members would not want us to go down the Australian route, where a much more colourful turn of phrase is permitted. The terms of endearment that Paul Keating used towards John Howard include “desiccated coconut,” “mangy maggot,” and much worse. I hope most Members would agree that that is not the route we should go down.

The hon. Gentleman referred to arcane language. I understand his point. He said that the arcane language we use is often unnecessary or old-fashioned, but addressing other Members through the Chair provides some distance and perhaps reduces the antagonism that might be felt and, therefore, slightly lowers the temperature of debates, which should be welcomed.

Chris Bryant: I could talk through the Chair but, none the less, refer to Tom Brake, rather than the right hon. Member for whatever constituency he represents.

Tom Brake: Indeed, the hon. Gentleman could. My point is that, by talking through the Chair and referring to other Members as right hon. Gentlemen or right hon. Ladies, we are providing some distance and reducing the temperature, which, except for some rather bad-tempered debates, ensures that good-tempered and moderate language is used in the House.

People might feel that some of the terminology that we use—Adjournment debates, early-day motions, substantive motions and Divisions—do not help the public to engage, but others would argue that at least some members of the public appear to have little difficulty in following parliamentary proceedings on the Parliament channel. They seem to cope with some of that language. Of course, there have been some incremental reforms: we do not refer to the Public Gallery as the Strangers Gallery any more. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the new Chair of the Procedure Committee, might have views on such matters and want to consider the question of archaic language.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 129WH

One point on which the hon. Member for Rhondda was perhaps not entirely correct is that, in this House, we may refer to members of the royal family, the Speaker, members of other Parliaments and judges, provided that there is a substantive motion for the House to debate. In such circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate to debate members of the royal family or other categories, such as senior judges. Again, the fact that that is done through a substantive motion ensures that, for instance, the courts are treated with the respect they should and that there is a strong relationship of trust and respect between the courts and the House.

Chris Bryant: If, for instance, a member of the royal family is appointed by UK Trade and Investment to adopt an ambassadorial role on behalf of the country and the Government, is it not perfectly appropriate that Members of Parliament should be able to ask questions about the expenditure on their flights, how much it costs for them to travel, whether they have been doing a good job and whether, frankly, they have been a complete and utter embarrassment to the country?

Tom Brake: A debate on the hon. Gentleman’s specific points might be possible through a substantive motion, and I will write to him to clarify that.

Finally, time does not allow me to rehearse the 13 June debate on the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but that debate made something clear: when a serious allegation is made against a Member and provided there is a substantive motion, it is perfectly in order for that debate to take place and for matters contained in the substantive motion to be raised. The only caveat is that there is still a need to maintain good-tempered and moderate language in that debate, so that the genuine, substantive issues contained in the motion can be debated appropriately.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I have noted his concerns and will ensure that they are drawn to the attention of, for instance, the new Chair of the Procedure Committee. He raised the specific point about Ministers ensuring that statements are received within 45 minutes, which I will ensure is taken up with Departments.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 130WH

Chancel Repair Liability

5.28 pm

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): Should the vote due at 6 o’clock come towards the end of the Minister’s concluding remarks, I am content for her to write to me with her final remarks, rather than bring Members back at quarter past 6.

I am also sorry that the late start means my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) are not in their places, as they had hoped; sadly, they have other duties.

This debate is on the consequences of events that happened centuries ago, between 1536 and 1540 to be precise, so I will give a little context. Parliament and English democracy will be 750 years old in the year of the next election: it was in 1265 that Simon de Montfort first called the shires to assemble in what is generally recognised as the first true English Parliament. We honour him in the vale of Evesham with particular enthusiasm; he was killed later in the same year at the battle of Evesham. Our modern freedoms can be dated from exactly 50 years earlier: it was in 1215 that King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta. He now lies buried in Worcester cathedral. The inheritances of democracy and freedom, therefore, perhaps ring a little louder in the ears of an MP from Worcestershire.

The freedoms that Parliament defends often affect many thousands, even millions, of people, but the freedom of small groups is just as precious. So it is with the archaic workings of the law on chancel repair liability. “Archaic” is the word to describe those workings: we do not have to go back as far as King John or Simon de Montfort to establish its origins, but we do have to go back to Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, which concluded in January 1540.

I am no lawyer, let alone an ecclesiastical lawyer, but I hope that the essence of what I am about to say will be accurate. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, their land was sold off by the King. Often, there was a church used by the local community, associated with the land sold off, that had been sustained by the local monastery. The King wished the churches to continue to function, so he decided that those who purchased the land associated with them would be nominated lay rectors and have continuing responsibility for the upkeep of that part of the church used by the rector himself, the chancel. Thus the principle of chancel repair liability was established.

Often, the purchasers were major institutions, such as the schools of Eton and Winchester and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. They own to this day the land that they purchased from the King, and the liability to repair the chancels of the relevant churches has continued, providing many fortunate parochial church councils of the 21st century with a useful source of income for the maintenance of their mediaeval churches.

Other purchasers were less long-lived, or the land was sold and sold again and the liability forgotten. It still existed in law but had lapsed in practice, perhaps for centuries. Although lapsed, it was still enforceable, and so we come to 1994 and Aston Cantlow. Just across the border from my constituency, in Warwickshire, events unfolded that put an unwelcome spotlight back on

17 Oct 2012 : Column 131WH

chancel repair liability. A family purchased a property knowing the liability attached to it but expecting it to be unenforceable in modern law. The case went throughout the courts and eventually the family lost, which cost them a total of about £500,000. The courts asserted afresh, to much amazement, that the liability remained a valid claim on modern householders.

The then Government reflected on the advice that they had received from the General Synod of the Church of England, the Law Society and the Law Commission that the liability was an archaic law that should be scrapped, and ignored that advice. Actually, I think that they were right to do so. The major institutions that own land to which the liability attaches can afford the burden and budget for it. To remove that useful source of income from the cash-strapped Church would provide a windfall for some very rich and privileged institutions—including, by the way, and with some irony, the Church Commissioners themselves, who own considerable amounts of land to which the liability attaches.

Although the then Government may have been right not to abolish the law, they should still have chosen a different route. They decreed in 2003, in the light of the Aston Cantlow verdict, that the liability would lapse on any property to which it attached if it was not registered by October 2013, but only when the property first changed hands after that date. Registration meant that the existence of the liability would appear on the title deeds and be registered as such by the Land Registry. The liability would continue indefinitely on registered properties and, importantly, on unregistered ones until the first sale after the deadline. It was the ultimate long-grass manoeuvre, simply delaying the problem until the end of the 10-year period—now—but doing little to solve it. In the meantime, an unknown number of householders and landowners in an unknown number of parishes faced the threat that chancel repair liability might be registered on their property, even though its existence had been entirely forgotten.

As the deadline looms, the reality is becoming clearer for many small and unfortunate landowners. Evidence that I have seen from the Land Registry suggests that there has been a rush of registrations. It is believed that about 5,200 churches are entitled to claim the cost of chancel repairs from the lay rector. The majority of those lay rectors will be major institutions, but a significant minority will not. Let us say that just 10% of the parishes have private householders as lay rectors and that the average number of householders and small landowners affected in a parish is about 30—the number in the parish of Broadway in my constituency, where the situation arose recently. That would give us about 500 parishes and 15,000 private individuals. This debate is about the rights and freedoms of that small group. They may not be numerous, but they face jeopardy. If the Government believe in justice, they must take their plight seriously.

It is a real plight. The chancel of a mediaeval church can constitute about one third of the total church building. A repair bill of £200,000 would not be uncommon. In the case of Broadway, a regular bill every decade or so for about £7,000 can perhaps be expected. Fewer householders in a parish with the liability would mean a correspondingly higher sum. I know of at least one parish where only two properties are liable for repairing the chancel of the church.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 132WH

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has explained clearly the problems faced by householders. Given that back in 1982, the General Synod of the Church of England overwhelmingly supported a motion proposing that chancel repair liability be phased out and that the Law Commission’s 1985 report recommended that chancel repair liability arising from the ownership of land should be abolished after 10 years, does he agree that the Government should now consider implementing that recommendation or, at the very least, agreeing to set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry shortly after October 2013? It is outrageous that people should be facing the unfairness of chancel repair liability. A few householders are facing enormous bills.

Peter Luff: I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Lady says, but happily, I think I have a rather simpler solution. Let us see.

As I was saying, the sum would be payable pretty much on demand and would be unpredictable in both amount and frequency. A house in such a situation would be either unsaleable or substantially reduced in value. Some wrongly say that insurance is the answer, but it is not. When someone buys a house, the solicitor should do a search to establish whether the liability exists on the property. Such searches are complex and often difficult to conduct, so after a brief search, many solicitors instead offer purchasers chancel repair liability insurance.

Such insurance is available only where it appears that no liability is registered. Where liability is registered, insurance is not available. Where there is no awareness of the possibility that the liability might be claimed, no insurance is purchased; I doubt whether many of us here today have such insurance. For most property owners, the registration of the liability means that they will have to pay large sums at regular intervals for ever, passing on the liability to anyone foolish enough to buy their property.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that, as pointed out by my constituent, the Rev. Greg Yerbury of Penkridge, the matter applies not just to rural parishes but to many urban parishes as well? People might think that it is just a matter of country churches, but it is not.

Peter Luff: My hon. Friend, who I am glad to see has made it to this debate, anticipates the point that I was just about to make. I agree entirely. His constituent has been in touch with me, too, and I welcome the correspondence that I have had with him.

Other people say that householders can commute the sum by paying a lump sum to the Church, but that, too, is an arbitrary and unfair tax. It might extinguish the liability, but at considerable cost to the householder. It is important to realise that there is generally no easy way of telling whether the liability attaches to a property unless it has been registered. Proximity to a church is no measure of the likelihood that the liability attaches to a property. The land could be anywhere, town or country. It just had to be purchased by the right person when Henry VIII sold it in the late 1530s.

What transpired next was legal advice from the Church of England to dioceses that parishes should make efforts to register liability before the October 2013 deadline.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 133WH

A parochial church council that did not register the liability could be held in charity law to be in breach of its duty to maximise the income due to the charity. Failure to do so would make individual churchwardens and PCC members personally liable for the cost of chancel repairs.

Of course, had it not been for the Aston Cantlow case, all this might have remained theoretical. Chancel repair liability had been entirely forgotten in many parishes, but PCCs were now obliged to reactivate it. To make matters worse, English Heritage, showing what I can only describe as a regrettable lack of understanding, said that it would not provide funding for the repair of historic churches whose PCC had declined to enforce the liability.

A perfect storm now faced many PCCs, including the Broadway PCC with responsibility for the wonderful mediaeval church of St Eadburgha, which dates back to the 12th century. PCCs generally do not want to enforce the liability against their neighbours and friends. If they enforce the liability for the first time in living memory, they incur the wrath and indignation of the householders and landowners who were living in happy ignorance of their liability. If they do not, they become personally liable for the repairs and lose all grant aid from English Heritage. It is no surprise to me that since I began this campaign, I have heard from parishes and dioceses the length and breadth of England: from Norfolk, York, Cambridgeshire, Devon and Kent to Somerset, Oxfordshire, Cornwall, Staffordshire and Wiltshire. The issue is alive again, and communities around the country are living in fear.

At this point, I must turn the finger of blame on the national structures of the Church of England. Perhaps because it did not appreciate the growing scale of the problem and the increasing number of parishes caught up in it, the Church seems to have made no attempt to understand the implications of the advice that it offered and given no guidance on how dioceses should explain the other option open to PCCs, for there is another option; I would like the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) to listen carefully to this point.

The consequence in Broadway of the sudden arrival of letters from the Land Registry on the doormats of 30 local families, the Broadway Trust and landowners, some of whom live many miles away, was dismay, anger and cries of anguish. I heard that anger for myself at a public meeting in the village. Acting with the best of intentions and pursuing the only route that it believed to be open to it, the PCC had made enemies of a large number of local people. A diligent process of mapping, done entirely by volunteers comparing ancient maps with modern Ordnance Survey ones, had caused chaos. It is not an easy job.

As one vicar from elsewhere in the country wrote to me:

“It is not only a matter of the resentment that some parishioners are expressing when they find their properties are burdened with CRL. I am also concerned about the thousands of volunteer hours being expended on trying to trace, map and register CRL, often fruitlessly.”

In other parishes, there were no volunteers. As a churchwarden a good long way from Worcestershire told me:

17 Oct 2012 : Column 134WH

“Members of our Church have managed to obtain limited information but to further pursue the matter we will be forced to obtain, and pay for, professional advice.”

Sadly, the Anglican church in Broadway was seen to be behaving in a profoundly un-Christian way. As a correspondent from another part of the country told me:

“As a former PCC member, I can only say that I would have resigned immediately, rather than be forced to implement what can only be considered as a Draconian law. I also wonder if the Second Commandment of our Lord Jesus—to Love our Neighbour—is being disregarded by any diocese that invokes such an unfair law.”

To decree that a very small and random proportion of Broadway’s 2,000 or so inhabitants should, irrespective of their financial standing or personal faith, suddenly assume liability for the repair of an ancient church, is just plain wrong. The arbitrariness flew in the face of all Christian teaching.

To quote another parish in another diocese:

“The PCC is concerned at the enormous damage that registering liability would cause to the reputation of the church in the local community and the adverse effect this would have on the pastoral mission of the church, the furtherance of which is the first function of the PCC.”

The incoming vicar of Broadway, the Rev. Michelle Massey, realised that that could be the key to resolving the dilemma. If enforcing the liability was an obligation imposed on the PCC as trustees, would it also not be true that, if to enforce the liability was demonstrably un-Christian, that too would put the PCC in breach of its charitable responsibilities? Here was an ingenious paradox worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, were the consequences not so serious for everyone involved.

It transpired that other PCCs from around the country, also aware of the paradox, had sought the guidance of the Charity Commission under section 110 of the Charities Act 2011 and been informed that, on the basis of the specific circumstances in each case and with no general precedent set, they would be deemed to have behaved responsibly as trustees if they decided not to enforce the liability. The Broadway PCC put together a compelling case outlining the ways in which registration of the liability would work against their fundamental duties and the Charity Commission, with commendable speed, responded saying that it agreed. Broadway PCC was free not to enforce the liability and the PCC members would not be held personally liable.

The Charity Commission has recently put together some excellent advice to PCCs, which is now available on its website. All parishes worried about the issue should read it. The advice concludes:

“Section 110 advice can provide additional reassurance for PCC members that they have acted correctly and in accordance with their duties by protecting them against the possibility of any subsequent legal challenge to their decision. We are willing to consider providing such advice where PCCs consider there is a real likelihood of their decision being challenged and they are able to present us with a substantive case explaining how they have reached their decision.”

Meanwhile, and very happily, responsibility for the grant funding of repairs to historic churches is being transferred from English Heritage to the Heritage Lottery Fund. In line with that excellent organisation’s reputation for pragmatism, the fund has told me that it will not require church communities to register the liability to receive grant funding, so all is well—not quite.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 135WH

There are at least three remaining problems. First, and perhaps most importantly, many parishes are unaware of the options open to them if they do not wish to set neighbour against neighbour. Secondly, even though the current PCC in Broadway and other similar parishes have decided not to enforce or register the liability, and even though a liability unregistered by October 2013 cannot be enforced subsequently if the property is sold, it could still be enforced by a future PCC on a property that has not changed hands. A decision taken now not to enforce a liability does not mean that a future PCC might not decide differently. In practice, therefore, every landholder aware of his liability, which continues until the time of first sale after October 2013, cannot obtain insurance and, until his property is sold, could still face the possibility of a future PCC coming after him for the costs of chancel repair.

The third problem is time. Will there be time to ensure that all PCCs are aware of the courses of action open to them and, where necessary, for them to secure Charity Commission approval not to enforce the liability? Is there a real risk that a failure to get section 110 guidance from the commission could leave PCCs in a legal limbo, with liabilities unregistered and personal liability a real possibility? I think so.

The solution for my Broadway constituents is easy, I think. A simple piece of legislation is needed to ensure that, where a PCC acts on the advice of the Charity Commission and chooses not to enforce the liability, its decision is binding in perpetuity and cannot be revisited. A PCC can choose to sell land or buildings. It should also be enabled to renounce its right to claim chancel repair liability in perpetuity. In terms of ensuring that other parishes are aware of the options, I hope today’s debate will help draw attention to the issue and will focus the national Church authorities on what I see as serious neglect of their responsibilities.

The Church of England, at national and diocesan level, must act urgently to help PCCs to navigate their way round the minefield through which they are required to pass, drawing their attention to the very helpful advice of the Charity Commission. I am sure that the Government—the Minister is a very reasonable lady—will wish to do more than casually assert that chancel repair liability is a legitimate property right, as they have done in the past. If they believe in the freedoms and democratic responsibilities with which I began this speech, they must find a way to ensure that the liability is fairly applied and that the outrageous arbitrariness of this archaic law is ended.

In essence, the solution revolves around giving PCCs the right to renounce their right to the liability in perpetuity and to make their decisions, intended to have permanent effect, watertight. The state should not arbitrarily remove legitimate property rights, but where an organisation or individual wishes to give them up, the state should be willing to help them to do so. Chancel repair liability may be a complex problem, but it has, I believe, a simple solution, which I commend to the Minister.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing a debate on the subject of the approaching

17 Oct 2012 : Column 136WH

deadline for the registration of chancel repair liability. I am replying as the Minister with responsibility for general land law in England and Wales.

The debate has highlighted the issues that people affected by chancel repair have to address in light of the October 2013 deadline. I do not underestimate the seriousness and difficulty of those issues, and the problems that they can cause for communities; I am, however, for reasons that I will explain, not persuaded that any change in the law is necessary. I know this conclusion will be disappointing to my hon. Friend, but I will keep the matter under consideration and will monitor developments carefully.

As we have heard, chancel repair liability is an ancient, but enforceable, part of the land law of England and Wales, whereby property owners can be compelled to pay for the repair of the chancel of a church. The liability is thought to benefit about 5,200 ancient churches, and to burden a large number of properties. Liability as between owners is joint and several. However, the present owners of the properties affected by the liability are not the only people to whom chancel repair liability and the approaching deadline for registration are important. Anyone seeking to buy a property will want to know whether it may be affected by chancel repair liability. Searches will be conducted and insurance may be taken out.

On the other side of the liability, the owners of the benefit of the liability will have issues to address. In England, the benefit is usually owned by the local parochial church council. The members of the council, who are essentially charity trustees in relation to their local church, have potentially difficult decisions to make about registration and, should it be necessary, enforcement of the liability.

Nia Griffith: Given the difficulties the Minister has just referred to, could there not be a simpler solution by doing away with the need to have the liability in the first place? It seems very unfair, and she has just pointed out why it would be very difficult to put a halfway solution in place. Perhaps a final solution needs to be made that actually gets rid of it.

Mrs Grant: The main issue, though, is that it is a valid property right that has been upheld by the House of Lords. I will say a little more about the hon. Lady’s point as my speech develops.

In most situations concerning private property rights, only the parties directly involved are engaged, but with chancel repair liability, the surrounding issues may be important for the relationship of the clergy, congregation and wider community in parishes where the liability exists and may be enforced. The approach of the deadline for registration may well have given everyone in those groups pause for thought.

In the midst of all the activity that registration or the consideration of registration may have produced, however, we should not forget the essential fact that the existence of chancel repair liability over a property is long standing. No new liabilities have been created. The registration of a notice of the liability or a caution against first registration on the land register merely preserves the right to make a claim. Properties subject to a notice or a caution are therefore not subject to a new obligation. In legal terms, in relation to such properties, nothing has really changed.

17 Oct 2012 : Column 137WH

Of course, if the owners did not know about the obligation before registration, they will no doubt want to be sure that the registration is correct, but the issues brought out by registration would have arisen had the owner of the liability sought to enforce it. Failure to register may make a liability unenforceable, but registration does not guarantee that the claimed liability is legally enforceable. Whether a claim is sustainable will depend on the facts of the case. Homeowners and other landowners remain as free as they are at present to contest a claim. What registration removes is the uncertainty and unpredictability—the lack of discoverability—that currently surround the possible existence of chancel repair liability.

Peter Luff: What registration achieves is the unsaleability of property. Where a parochial church council wishes to give up the right in perpetuity, the Government have a moral obligation to enable it to do so.

Mrs Grant: My hon. Friend met with officials of the Ministry of Justice yesterday and they had an opportunity to discuss that and other issues, but he might also find it helpful to meet me at some point in the near future. If he could be a little patient and let me finish what I have to say, I might cast some further light on the matter.

People should no longer be surprised to discover that their property is subject—or, rather, claimed to be subject—to chancel repair liability. It is a positive development for property owners in general that chancel repair liability will be brought on to the register or wither for want of registration.

Registration of chancel repair liability is of course distinct from actual enforcement of payment of the liability, which will only arise if the chancel needs to be repaired. The October deadline does not affect that or the type of decisions that parochial church councils and other owners of the liability will have to make when money needs to be raised. I do not deny that deciding whether to register a notice or caution is a new step for members of parochial church councils, but it is a one-off and should not be any more onerous than past decisions to do with enforcing the liability.

Such decisions may not be easy and legal advice may well be necessary, but the Church Commissioners, the diocesan authorities and the Charity Commission are available to help to some degree. For better or for worse, parochial church councils and others who own chancel repair liability have an asset entrusted to them for a specific purpose. I accept that they may not wish to enforce the liability to preserve the harmony of their local communities, but they cannot wish away their responsibilities and, in any event, the providers of public funding for the maintenance of historic buildings will almost certainly take a close look at the reasons behind any decision not to register or enforce the liability.

We need to be clear about the nature of the deadline of 13 October 2013. The date was the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of the Land Registration Act 2002, and it is worth remembering why chancel repair liability became subject to a registration requirement. The need arose with the 2003 reversal by the House of

17 Oct 2012 : Column 138WH

Lords of the 2001 Court of Appeal decision in the Wallbank case. The Court of Appeal appeared to have resolved all the issues to do with chancel repair liability when it decided that the liability was not enforceable, and the Land Registration Act 2002 was drafted on that basis. The House of Lords subsequently decided that the liability was enforceable. In 2003, faced with a newly resurrected chancel repair liability, the then Government responded by making a transitional provisions order under the Land Registration Act, putting chancel repair liability on the same footing as other rights that had their status as overriding interests preserved for a period of 10 years.

Overriding interests are interests in land that bind a registered owner whether or not they are on the register. One of the aims of the 2002 Act was to bring more information on to the register, so that it formed a more complete record of legal ownership. Chancel repair liability is a good example of the kind of hidden burden that the policy was designed to expose. The October 2013 deadline for registration is a deadline in the sense that the liability needs to be registered before that date to ensure that it affects those who subsequently buy the land involved. No fee is payable for applications or registrations made before that date. Registration will generally still be possible after that date.

Naturally, the approach of the deadline has brought about a number of registrations and, unsurprisingly, issues around chancel repair liability have been awoken as the owners of the burden consider what to do, and those subject to it are reminded—or perhaps learn for the first time—that their property is claimed to be subject to chancel repair liability.

No doubt property owners subject to chancel repair liability would be delighted if the liability were to cease to exist. The Law Commission recommended abolition or apportionment of the liability as long ago as 1985. Abolition, however, would probably have to be accompanied by some form of compensation for the owners of the liability, and that money would have to come from somewhere.

There is no need to invent ways to release properties from the liability. It can be done by private treaty, although there are pitfalls, or under the formal procedure provided by section 52 of the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure 1923. I am not suggesting that they are easy or inexpensive options, but they are possible.

In conclusion, the requirement for registration will achieve a much better balance in the law between the interests of the owners of chancel repair liability, the interests of those who are subject to the liability and the interests of those who may at some time in the future become subject to the liability. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the matter before us today. We have had an intelligent and informed discussion. I am not persuaded that the case for a change in the law has been made, but I shall of course keep the matter under careful review.

Question put and agreed to.

5.55 pm

Sitting adjourned.