Other matters tend to be fairly straightforward. I am anxious about time and to hear what the Minister has to say, and I am sure that all hon. Members wish to see other important business progress. In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud on his Bill, which has the support of the whole House.

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I would like to think that my contribution has been helpful—people do not always say that my contributions to Friday debates are helpful, but on this occasion I hope it has been useful in raising issues that we may wish to consider further in Committee. We must ensure that we end up with a Bill that gives the best possible protection to an important part of British overseas territories, which is what we all want.

12.34 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): It is good that we are debating the Antarctic on the 100th anniversary of Scott’s death. It is a privilege to follow contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Stone (Mr Cash), although at times I have felt like Captain Oates. I was tempted to conjecture that I could step out of the Chamber because it was obvious that my hon. Friends would be speaking for some time, but their contributions were important and of significant weight. I will be much briefer, because I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak and make progress on their Bills.

I support the Bill and congratulate wholeheartedly my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who has fought courageously on behalf of the Antarctic and worked hard to secure the House’s attention on the region since he was elected in May 2010. I also support the British Antarctic Survey and welcome the stopping of its proposed merger with the National Oceanography Centre. Clearly, that is a right and proper decision, and we are rightly moving on.

It is good that the House is debating the British overseas territories. I made the case for the Falkland Islands in a one and a half hour debate in Westminster Hall in January, and other hon. Members have mentioned other communities of the British overseas territories. We must acknowledge and accept that the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are inextricably connected to the fate of the British Antarctic Territory. We need to do everything possible in the House and in the media to support the Falkland Islands and the British Antarctic Territory, because they are vital to a number of British interests. The Bill is a continuation of our support.

It can only be a good thing that the Bill supports environmental legislation and applies it to the Antarctic and historic monuments, and we should make progress on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford is a staunch advocate of the Falkland Islands and strongly supports their right to self-determination in the run-up to the referendum in spring next year, which will, as it should, strongly support British citizenship and reject any possibility of any Argentine involvement.

We should support the British overseas territories. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office White Paper issued in June discusses how our 14 overseas territories, one of which is the Antarctic, are “small communities” but “big societies”. The coalition Government set out their vision for the territories in the White Paper, which states that they need to be

“vibrant and flourishing communities, proudly retaining aspects of their British identity and generating wider opportunities for their people”

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and mentions the “environmental conservation and management” that is required. The Bill dovetails nicely with the White Paper, and attaches and addresses the individual points made on the British Antarctic Territory. Notably, the White Paper states:

“Environmental protection is an integral part of this strategy and is amongst its highest priorities: the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming, and therefore most rapidly changing places on the planet.”

Given that the White Paper was published in June, and that we are considering the fate of the Falkland Islands and other overseas territories, does the Minister agree that it is right and proper for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider allocating time to consider the White Paper? That was envisaged and discussed in the Falkland Islands debate in January, but I hope the Minister can find time for the House to debate that important White Paper.

12.39 pm

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on introducing the Bill. It is a great pleasure to deal with a genuinely bipartisan Bill. As he rightly said, the Bill follows a consultation on a draft Bill in 2009. I do not propose to detain the House too long on this issue, albeit for possibly a little longer than my 57-second contribution last week.

The Bill would implement a new annex to the Antarctic treaty that was agreed back in 2005 on liability arising from environmental emergencies. It requires anyone undertaking activities in Antarctica to ensure that measures are in place to deal with any environmental damage, together with contingency plans for any damage that might occur. The present Bill was based on the Bill consulted on in 2009 by the previous Government, but it does not contain part 2 of the original Bill covering the requirement for contingency and safety planning by all British operators. In that context, I understand that the Minister’s officials believe that these issues can be addressed through the permit system, so that part of the original Bill is not required. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to be a bit more explicit and to send a clear message to operators—and reassurance to those who have a passionate interest in the Antarctic environment—that that is the case, and that the Bill follows the long line of measures to protect this vital environment. I hope that the Minister will deal with that issue when he winds up.

The Antarctic environmental legislation is a very good example of international co-operation on matters of great concern for the future of the planet. The treaty froze territorial disputes relating to the continent in order to pursue peaceful scientific investigation and conservation. Several hon. Members have referred to examples of that, some of them at considerable length. In the 1991 protocol, stringent measures on environmental protection were introduced, including—importantly—a 50-year moratorium on mineral extraction. The current permit requirements for British expeditions entering the Antarctic were introduced in the Antarctic Act 1994—in another example of the bipartisan nature of these discussions and concerns about the issue—which implemented the treaty’s protocol on environmental protection.

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Why is this Bill so important and necessary? The Antarctic, as has been stressed by several hon. Members, is a pristine and highly sensitive environment that is of great significance in the global ecosystem. It contains, for example, 90% of the ice on earth and 60% to 70% of its fresh water. At a time of rising sea levels—mentioned with great concern yesterday by Mayor Bloomberg in New York—the melting of this ice would see a dramatic increase in sea levels. The seasonal growth of sea ice each year is one of earth’s most significant seasonal cycles, covering 19 million sq km at its maximum extent, which is one and half times the area of the Antarctic continent.

The Southern ocean also dominates the global oceans and influences the climates of many countries. In that context, I was pleased and honoured earlier this year to visit the Australian Antarctic division in Hobart, Tasmania. That is a valuable resource, and the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) will be well aware of the extensive co-operation with our Commonwealth ally, Australia, on this issue. This is a valuable resource not only for Australia but for the international community. It monitors the impact of climate and environmental change, conservation and ecosystems onshore and near shore, and in the vast Southern ocean.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will my right hon. Friend join me in hoping that the marine conservation zones are strongly endorsed and supported as a means of protecting fish stocks and the food chain from the larger mammals that inhabit the southern oceans? If the fish stocks are removed and too much krill are taken, long-term damage will be done to the whole ecosystem.

Mr Spellar: My hon. Friend and fellow allotment holder is exactly right. It is of considerable concern that no proper evaluation has been made of what take of krill in the Southern ocean is sustainable right the way up the food chain. Much more scientific work will need to be done before we understand the matter. Harvesting is right and proper, but we do not want mining of the populations in the Southern ocean, because of the deep long-term effects all the way up the food chain. I understand that even now there is considerable concern about whether there are adequate food supplies for penguins in the area. That demonstrates the enormous importance of the Southern ocean for the ecosystem, although, as I have indicated, it goes much wider than the Southern ocean area. I agree with him about that and with his comments about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Implementation of the treaty is rightly welcomed here, but the FCO should engage actively with other signatories to ensure the more rapid implementation of this important work.

Those measures are extremely welcome, and I am sure that any concerns that hon. Members have can be dealt with in Committee, as the hon. Member for Stroud indicated. The broad thrust, however, has support across the House. It is slightly disturbing and contradictory, then, that alongside these excellent measures we are looking at proposals to merge the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre. As I indicated in an intervention, the decision not to do that was extremely welcome, and I once again place on the record my tribute to the Science and Technology Committee, under its excellent Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member

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for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for producing a report that was highly critical of that measure. Its criticism was based not only on the scientific contribution, the excellent work done and the loss of scientific capability but, as hon. Members have mentioned, on a concern about the message it might send in the south Atlantic area.

Our noble colleague Lord West rightly drew attention to another problem that he claimed could lead to us sleepwalking towards another Falklands—a matter of enormous concern to him, obviously, given his heroic record.

Andrew Rosindell: The right hon. Gentleman might like to take the opportunity to confirm that should a British overseas territory, such as the Falkland Islands, be threatened, the Labour party would be 100% in favour of defending the right to self-determination of the peoples of that territory, unlike what happened in 1982, when many Labour Members opposed the actions of Her Majesty’s Government.

Mr Spellar: I regret and resent that question for two reasons: first, because the then Labour Opposition supported the action of the Government, and, secondly, because of the reasons for the action. I did not raise this before, because I thought this was a bipartisan issue, but the hon. Gentleman knows full well that it was the withdrawal of British capability in the south Atlantic by the Government he so praises that encouraged the Argentines to believe that we were losing interest, unlike the position taken by Jim Callaghan when he was Prime Minister, which he protected. It is outrageous for the hon. Gentleman to try to play politics. Unfortunately for him, when he chose his weapon, he chose a boomerang.

If the connection I have described was so obvious to many hon. Members in both Houses, I am slightly surprised that it was not so obvious to civil servants, the quango or Ministers. Notwithstanding that, it is extremely welcome that we have made the change we have, which enhances the measure we are considering today. It is a worthy and timely measure, and I hope that in responding the Minister will say not only what actions the Government will take, but what encouragement they will give to speed up international co-operation.

12.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on presenting this important private Member’s Bill at this time and on the detailed and knowledgeable way he introduced it. I am pleased to confirm the Government’s support for his Bill to introduce increased protection for the Antarctic environment. One of the encouraging things about the debate is the clear unanimity of purpose to put it beyond any doubt that Antarctica matters as much to the United Kingdom today as it ever has done. The United Kingdom has the finest possible traditions of Antarctic exploration and care for what is an immense but fragile landscape, a point made particularly passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

This has been an excellent and well-informed debate. Several Members have mentioned the centenary of Captain Scott’s final expedition, previous expeditions and the

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importance of keeping faith with his scientific legacy. The Bill’s provisions are a real and important part of that legacy. Antarctica is a unique global asset for science, in particular predicting the global impacts of climate change. At the same time, we must all recognise that human activity has increased significantly, with tourism, research stations and growing global interest. The consequences of a man-made emergency in Antarctica could be severe. The remoteness, unpredictability and severity of the climate, together with a lack of rescue or emergency services, would only heighten the impact of any incident.

The Government believe that the Bill provides appropriate strengthening of environmental protections by providing clear lines of accountability for dealing with environmental emergencies caused by human activity; putting the best existing practice into law; increasing the protection given to Antarctic marine plants and invertebrates; and helping further to protect Antarctica from invasive non-native species. There is a significant UK future in Antarctica. However, Members have raised a number of concerns about the future of the British presence in Antarctica and the south Atlantic. I want to provide the strongest possible reassurance from the Dispatch Box about the UK’s future in Antarctica and the wider region. The Government are absolutely committed to maintaining and developing the British scientific and physical presence in Antarctica.

Let me pick up one of the points that the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) made. He was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the Science and Technology Committee, but its work was one of many contributions and lobbying efforts made to Government. The Government have consistently been purposeful at all times about the dual mission and its importance to the region. We are also glad that the decision by the Natural Environment Research Council reflects the clear messages received from the Select Committee and from my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and his all-party group, and those received from many other Members, scientists and concerned members of the public. Indeed, let me say how articulate and passionate I found my hon. Friend’s contribution. He should be praised for the enormous contribution he has made to strengthening ties between the United Kingdom and all our overseas territories, and take personal credit for the significant role he has played. While I am in this ministerial office, I intend to continue to develop and build on the work of my predecessor, who was also enthusiastic, keen and passionate about this agenda.

I am pleased to confirm that the Government’s commitment to continuing the dual mission in the region is as strong as ever. I welcome the fact that, having completed its consultation, the Natural Environment Research Council agreed yesterday that it would not now proceed with the proposal that it had been talking about. The Minister for Universities and Science has placed a written ministerial statement before the House this morning to confirm that position.

Dr Huppert: Does the Minister agree that it is now essential to appoint a full-time director of the British Antarctic Survey to lead the organisation forward and to deliver the dual mission?

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Mark Simmonds: I agree that a full-time director of the British Antarctic Survey needs to be appointed as soon as possible, but I do not agree with the suggestion that Ministers should get involved with such an appointment. That is a matter for the BAS and for the other groups and organisations that need to be consulted.

I want to turn to some of the important issues that hon. Members have raised. It is right to put them in context, and also to correct the one or two misunderstandings that have emerged. I want to clarify the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), to ensure that the House is in no doubt about the United Kingdom’s sovereignty of the British Antarctic Territory, which stems from the oldest claim to the territory in Antarctica back in 1908. We have to acknowledge that the sector was subsequently claimed by Chile and Argentina, but, under the terms of the Antarctic treaty, sovereignty issues are held in abeyance and are neither confirmed nor denied. The United Kingdom continues to assert its sovereignty over the territory through the provision of legislation and postal services and the presence of the Royal Navy and the British Antarctic Survey. As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) correctly pointed out, co-operation with Chile and Argentina is good on the ground and in most international settings, and we are keen to maintain that positive good relationship.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister has probably heard the news today that there has been a breakdown at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources at its meeting in Hobart, because Ukraine, China and Russia appear unwilling to sign up to an agreement on linked marine protection zones. Those zones are clearly important for the protection of the ecosystem and fish stocks. The commission will reconvene in Berlin next year. What lobbying efforts will the Government put in, ahead of that meeting in Germany next summer, to ensure that we can reach an agreement to extend marine conservation all around the Antarctic area? Such agreement is essential, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) has explained.

Mark Simmonds: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that he will be patient, because I will address that issue in a moment. I am going to go through the points that have been raised in a logical, chronological order.

In his well-informed contribution earlier, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) asked about the military presence in Antarctica, and he was absolutely right to seek clarification on that important point. I can inform the House that the Antarctic treaty prohibits military testing or exercises there. However, military help with the logistics of national programmes is allowed. That is why HMS Protector will be in the Antarctic this year to assist with UK programmes in such areas as hydrographic charting, to give logistical support to the British Antarctic Survey and to provide a search and rescue capability.

The hon. Gentleman just raised the important point about the unfortunate breakdown in the negotiations in Hobart yesterday. It is extremely disappointing that there has been a failure to reach agreement on the new marine protected areas, particularly those in the Ross sea, which I think was the area to which he was referring.

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The UK has an excellent reputation, under both Governments, for the creation of marine protected areas. We were instrumental in setting up the first one in the Southern ocean around the South Orkneys, and we have announced a new one around South Georgia in the Southern ocean as well. Our commitment to the protection and sustainable use of the Southern ocean is undimmed and undiluted. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will continue to work to persuade other countries to reach an agreement on the creation of appropriate marine protected areas, and that we are pressing hard for an opportunity to bring the process back on track in anticipation, hopefully, of an agreement at the conference next year.

The hon. Gentleman also made a point about whether the Bill’s application is to only part of Antarctica or to the whole of it. I can assure him that it will cover British expeditions and activities anywhere in Antarctica. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), he asked about the time scale for the Bill’s ratification by all members. I can give an assurance that the UK will push for ratification by other members as fast as possible. Indeed, some—including Finland, Peru, Poland, Spain, Sweden and, recently, Australia—have already ratified the protocols before the UK. All 28 consultative parties to this particular liability index have signed article 6 of the environmental protocol. This Bill, along with other national Bills, is merely a ratification of what has already been signed up to, so we anticipate no significant issues or problems there.

In response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) about the EU’s possible interest in British expeditions or other aspects of the Antarctic, I can confirm that the Bill’s amendment to existing legislation reflects the growing international nature of science teams and the necessity for universities—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley—to secure easier recognition of world-class British expeditions, which inevitably have an international flavour nowadays.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone was absolutely right to highlight the importance of clause 15, which provides for orderly regulation and conservation of historic and monumental sites, and of clause 16, which increases the environmental protections of flora and fauna, along with marine plants and invertebrates. He raised the issue of the EU’s application for observer status. I can confirm that it is not for the Antarctic but for the Arctic Council that the EU is trying to gain such status. I can confirm, too, that this has not been agreed and that the EU has no status in the Antarctic treaty system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley gave a very forensic and detailed analysis of the legislative architecture surrounding this Bill. It will not come as a surprise to him to hear me say that many of the points he raised deserve thorough and detailed consideration in Committee. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I will be interested to discuss these issues to ensure that the Committee is happy with the thought process and detail, supplied by my hon. Friend and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that have gone into the Bill.

It is important to say that the Government are supportive of the Bill. We see it as making a significant contribution to organising Antarctic expeditions and other tours to take preventive measures and establish contingency plans

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to reduce the risk of environmental emergencies and to secure all-important insurance. The Bill is important, too, for updating existing Antarctic legislation to recognise and respond to the increasingly international flavour of scientific activity and to provide better protection through clauses 15 and 16.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley asked about the liability annex, which mirrors the issue raised by the hon. Member for Islington North. My hon. Friend asked about ratification, too, and I can confirm that once the annex is ratified, we will be able to show leadership, alongside those who have already ratified the environmental protocol, in the Antarctic treaty consultative meetings and actively lobby all countries to ratify at the earliest opportunity.

My hon. Friend raised a series of detailed but very important issues, which I do not intend to go into now unless the House absolutely wants me to. I get the impression that it probably does not. If it would help, I should be happy to write to my hon. Friend in the meantime—especially if he is not here—

Philip Davies: I am here.

Mark Simmonds: I apologise. He is here, sitting on the Front Bench. I shall write to him setting out the details, if he is happy with that. He may find himself on the Committee, in which case we can dig into some of the issues if he is sufficiently interested.

In response to the point correctly made by the right hon. Member for Warley, I can confirm that the provisions in the draft Bill on which consultation took place in 2009 regarding search and rescue can be implemented by means of the existing permitting regime as contained in the Antarctic Act 1994, and that primary legislation is therefore unnecessary. I am sure he agrees that there is no point in legislating when legislation is not necessary, or when the position is covered by existing legislative frameworks.

The Government believe that the Bill provides a real opportunity and gives proportionate support to the Antarctic environment. This country is rightly proud of its Antarctic heritage in the form of exploration, international co-operation and good governance. I am delighted to support the Bill on behalf of the Government, and I urge Members to give it their active support in Committee in order to ensure its expeditious passage on to the statute book.

1.6 pm

Neil Carmichael: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond.

We have had an excellent debate. It has thrown up some very interesting issues, which will doubtless re-emerge in Committee. I am immensely grateful for the wide support for this important Bill, and I obviously appreciate the expressions of support from the Minister.

We heard several fascinating speeches. I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), for Stone (Mr Cash), for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for their thoughtful contributions. We also

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heard some useful interventions, but I shall not list them all because I think that we need to move on to other business.

Let me say two final things. First, let me reassure the Opposition that a huge campaign was launched at a very early stage to ensure that the British Antarctic Survey was dealt with properly in terms of its autonomy and resources. That reassurance was given to us very firmly today by the Minister for Universities and Science. Secondly, let me ram home the point that the Bill reaffirms Britain’s presence in the Antarctic, and adds substantially to our capacity to protect that very important continent.

I have pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

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Presumption of Death Bill

Second Reading

1.8 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was fortunate enough to come 14th in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. Unsurprisingly, a few hours after hearing that news I returned to my office to find a full inbox, and over the next days the amount of mail that I received increased substantially. One letter gave me some hope. It was from the former Member of Parliament for Chertsey and Walton, Sir Geoffrey Pattie, who wrote that in the 1970s he had managed to get legislation on to the statute book having also come 14th in the ballot. That has given me a little encouragement, and I hope that the House will be minded to look seriously at my Bill and will allow it to proceed as well.

Having been given this opportunity, I thought carefully about the legislation I should present to the House. I concluded—on the basis of my time as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, and also on the basis of personal experience—that a means of supporting families by dealing with the uncertainties surrounding presumed death would be an extremely worthwhile cause to champion.

As I have said, I have some personal experience of the effects of such situations, although at one step removed. In 1996 my sister’s godfather disappeared. His name was Norman Harriss, and he was an airline pilot, married, with two sons. The case was reported at the time. He had taken a yacht on to the Solent. The yacht was found with the engine still running and the dinghy missing, and with no sign of him. A search ensued, but, unfortunately, he was never found.

When I was thinking about taking up this cause, I contacted one of Mr Harriss’s sons, Alistair, to ask whether he thought the proposals were a good idea and whether it would have helped his family if such a law had been in place in 1996. Fortunately, he was unequivocal in his response: he said he was more than happy for me to mention his father’s case and stressed the effects of his disappearance on the family when no provision was in place to acknowledge properly his father’s death.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I just want to put on record my total support for my hon. Friend’s work in this area. It builds on the work done by a brilliant organisation based in my constituency: Missing People. It has on its books hundreds and hundreds of examples similar to the case my hon. Friend has just outlined, of families who are unable to move on as a result of what is effectively a bureaucratic barrier. My hon. Friend’s Bill addresses that barrier, so I wish him all the luck in the world and I hope he succeeds.

John Glen: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I will talk about the Missing People charity later, but for now let me just commend it on the wonderful work it does.

Alistair said:

“The 7 year wait on the death certificate was a serious strain on everyone involved with my father’s case. Dad made sure that we would have been provided for in the event of his death but due to

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the circumstances the death certificate was not released for nearly 7 years. Our house was defaulted on and sold, the boat was sold and I very nearly had to change schools in the middle of my GCSEs. Due to some serious hardships from my Mum and step father I managed to complete my GCSEs and A-levels and am now flying as a commercial pilot. I think I was one of the lucky ones!”

As a result of my researches into the issues involved in such cases I have also been fortunate enough to meet Peter Lawrence, the father of Claudia, who has now been missing for more than three and a half years. I, along with many people throughout the nation, have been extremely moved by his story. I have listened carefully to his testimony, and he is very clear that the law needs to be updated. Peter would also like provision to be made for guardianship, and I shall touch on that subject, too.

For all the reasons I have set out, I hope this Bill can be progressed, and the law can be improved for people with missing family members who find themselves in the distressing situation of not being able to deal with their affairs following the disappearance of a loved one.

I am acutely aware of the fact that many people have spent a great deal of time—more than I have spent—in campaigning on this issue, and in bringing energy to advancing a solution to this problem. Some of them are present today, supporting the Bill. I must mention a 2009 private Member’s Bill introduced by the former Member for Daventry, Lord Boswell of Aynho. Unfortunately, his Bill did not make it on to the statute book, but I have based my Bill on its contents.

I also wish to put on the record my gratitude to Baroness Kramer, who has a similar Bill in the other place. Should my Bill be fortunate enough to progress, she will be able to assist in the other place. I have also had a great amount of cross-party support from hon. Members, particularly those associated with the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, especially the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who, unfortunately, cannot be here today.

At this point, I should mention the help I have received from the Missing People charity, whose sharing of expertise has been so invaluable on this subject. I am thinking, in particular, of the valuable evidence it gave the Justice Committee prior to the publication of its report in February. Missing People was founded in 1986 by Mary Asprey OBE and Janet Newman OBE following the disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh. The charity supports the friends and family of those who have gone missing, young people who have run away from home and missing adults. Missing People offers advice and practical support, as well as maintaining a database of missing people and providing a central point of contact to report sightings. It also provides advice on working with the media and the police, and on the legal and financial difficulties faced by families when somebody goes missing.

I would like to use my speech to pay a particular tribute to the chief executive of Missing People, Martin Houghton-Brown, who has been a tireless champion of presumption of death legislation. He has made his case persuasively in the media over many years and during the Justice Committee’s inquiry. Martin is, unfortunately for Missing People, about to leave that organisation, but I know that I speak for everyone he has worked with

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in wishing him well in his new role. Martin is generally acknowledged as one of the most effective advocates and campaigners in the charity world.

The Justice Committee’s report on presumption of death strongly recommended primary legislation on this subject. It stated:

“Non-legislative solutions to the problems of resolving the affairs of missing people are necessary but not sufficient. Primary legislation is required…the fact that, in 34 years, only one person who was the subject of an order under the Scottish Presumption of Death Act 1977 has reappeared is a compelling argument that the legislation provides a clear, robust court process to resolve the question”—

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab) rose

John Glen: I would be delighted to give way.

Mr Hamilton: I wish the hon. Gentleman well with his proposals. Would it not be relatively simple to use the Scottish and Northern Irish approaches, and then replicate them in England? That would make things much easier. We are not starting anew; we can actually adopt what happens in other areas to see how things can go forward.

John Glen: I am grateful for that helpful intervention. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and this Bill indeed builds directly on the provisions in Northern Ireland and Scotland, learning many of the lessons from their experience.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): The Scottish example, where there has been only one revocation, is often cited. I have not seen anything about the Northern Ireland example. Is that because there has not been a revocation of any particular measure there?

John Glen: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I am not certain on that point, so I would need to examine things further. However, my understanding is that such situations are extremely rare and it is quite probable that there has not been a revocation from the Northern Ireland legislation.

Let me return to the point I was making. The Justice Committee said that

“the fact that, in 34 years, only one person who was the subject of an order under the Scottish Presumption of Death Act 1977 has reappeared is a compelling argument that the legislation provides a clear, robust court process to resolve the question of whether a missing person is alive or dead. We therefore recommend that the Ministry of Justice introduce legislation based on the Scottish Act.”

It continued:

“The law relating to the affairs of missing people will only affect a limited number of people. It will, however, allow families placed in extremely difficult emotional circumstances at least to resolve the financial and legal affairs of their missing relatives. We believe the time is long overdue to extend to English and Welsh families the protection that is available to Scottish and Northern Irish families.”

At present in England and Wales we do not have a single certificate procedure that deals with a situation where somebody goes missing and is presumed dead. This, as the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) said, contrasts sharply with Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have legislated in this field.

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Scotland has the Presumption of Death (Scotland) Act which has been in place since 1977, and Northern Ireland has the Presumption of Death Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. If the Bill progresses and is enacted, it will put England and Wales on a par with Scotland and Northern Ireland in this respect.

It may be helpful for hon. Members to know that there are currently about 360,000 reports of people going missing annually, and 25,000 of those remain open for more than a week. About 2,000 people remain missing for more than a year, and in 2010 the charity Missing People had 346 cases on its UK database which were more than seven-years-old.

At present, when a person goes missing and is thought to have died and there is no corpse, a death certificate cannot be obtained in the usual way. This means that there can be difficulties for surviving spouses or civil partners, and property cannot be distributed in the way that it would if death were confirmed through the production of a body. There are a number of procedures that must be gone through in order to deal with the missing person’s affairs if they are presumed to have died. These include dissolving a marriage, applying for an inquest, sorting out probate, and dealing with benefits and other administrative matters.

All these are separate processes and involve considerable time, stress and legal advice, not to mention costs, to complete. Of course, there is great uncertainty and a lack of direction as the expertise and experience available among the police and legal profession is not generally available with sufficient depth in one single place. Therefore, a single process that provides a document that would act like a death certificate would be a great improvement for families going through this awful, traumatic experience.

Let me turn to the Bill and explain what it contains. It will introduce a new court-based procedure that will enable those left behind to obtain a declaration from the High Court that the missing person is deemed to have died. The High Court will be able to make that decision if it is satisfied that the missing person has died or has not been known to have been alive for a period of at least seven years. When the declaration has been made, a copy will be sent to the Registrar General for England and Wales and the details will be registered in a new register of presumed deaths, which will be linked for research purposes to the register of deaths maintained under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. The certificate will be conclusive as to the presumed death and effective for all purposes and against all persons.

Following this, property can then pass in the usual way, as if the missing person had been certified dead in the normal way. His or her marriage or civil partnership will end, just as a marriage or civil partnership ends on death.

There will be, in effect, a certificate of presumed death that can be used by those left behind to deal with the property affairs of the missing person as if he or she had actually died and a death certificate had been issued. There is provision to allow the declaration to be revoked should emerging facts require it, and of course the register would then be amended. Based on the Scottish experience, it is anticipated that we would expect, on average, 30 to 40 declarations per year.

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It may be helpful at this point to reflect on what is really involved. The situation can obviously be incredibly traumatic for many of these families. Families who have worked with the charity Missing People highlight the constant mental anguish and uncertainty as to what has happened to their missing person. On top of this, dealing with various financial affairs—changing mortgages, selling equities or other investments, drawing on pensions, or selling or disposing of property—can be particularly difficult. Many have pointed out that engaging a solicitor to deal with these affairs can be prohibitively expensive. I realise that the Bill will not be able to address the trauma and constant anxiety and concern that is inevitable when somebody goes missing, but it can simplify the complexity of dealing with an individual’s affairs and bypass the need for expensive legal advice and services.

I should now like briefly to go through the Bill and outline, clause by clause, its precise provisions. Clause 1 enables the High Court to make the declaration of presumed death, and it sets out who will be able to apply for this declaration—usually a close relative, spouse, civil partner, parent, child or sibling of the missing person. However, the Court can also hear an application from someone it believes has sufficient interest. There must also be a connection with England and Wales, either via the missing person or the person making the application. The missing person must either have been living in England or Wales at the time of the disappearance or habitually resident for the previous year, or the person making the application must satisfy similar rules.

Clause 2 relates to the two bases that the Court has for making the declaration. They are distinct. The Court must be satisfied that the missing person has either died or has not been known to be alive for at least seven years, although the person does not have to have been missing for seven years for the Court to believe them to have died. This part of the Bill also sets out when the Court deems the person to have died, which can be extremely important in determining property interests.

Clause 3 goes on to explain the effect of the declaration—that it is conclusive proof of a missing person’s death, and as such effective for all purposes against all persons. The declaration also ends a marriage or civil partnership, just as a marriage would end when someone has died. It also extends to matters of property ownership, and it is final once it is no longer subject to an appeal or any previous appeal that has been dismissed or withdrawn.

Clause 4 allows the Court to make any order it considers reasonable in relation to any interest in property acquired as a result of the declaration. For example, it requires that even if a variation or revocation order is made, any interest is not recoverable under certain conditions or under any conditions. Some hon. Members have raised the scenario of when a revocation is necessary, and clauses 5, 6 and 7 deal with this. Variation orders involve important safeguards. They allow the High Court to vary or even revoke a declaration of presumed death. That means that if evidence comes to light that the missing person is not dead, the Court can determine to revoke the order.

If that happens, there might be issues regarding property that has been disposed of as a result of the original declaration. The Bill addresses such circumstances. If a

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variation order is made it will not necessarily affect the property that has been acquired as a result of the original presumption of death declaration, but it will allow the court to make further orders that it deems reasonable and necessary as to the property acquired. A variation order does not revive a marriage or civil partnership; otherwise, subsequent marriages or civil marriages could be invalidated.

Schedule 1 provides for the establishment of a register of presumed deaths, to be maintained by the Registrar General. As I have said, the register would be linked to the register of deaths maintained under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, so it would be searchable in the same way as the register for death certificates.

Finally, clause 17 gives the Secretary of State the power to amend certain periods of time specified by the Bill—for example, the seven-year period in which a person has not been known to be alive.

The rest of the Bill is fairly self-explanatory, but I want to address a couple of points that hon. Members might raise. Guardianship is one of the most difficult issues that I encountered as I contemplated this Bill. I know that the Justice Committee has recommended that laws should be put in place to address this issue, and many people I have spoken to would like a provision to appear in the Bill. I also acknowledge the views of Peter Lawrence, who explained to me a couple of weeks ago how he found it frustrating that we could not make such a provision at this time. Guardianship would give a suitable person certain powers over the property and affairs of the missing person, but without having to satisfy the standards for a full presumption of death certificate. It would, in effect, be an interim measure that could then be superseded at a later point by a presumption of death certificate, if appropriate.

Such a system exists in Australia, where a court can make an order only if there is a need for decisions to be made about the missing person’s property, if the decisions are made in their best interests, and if all people with a relevant interest are notified. However, after consulting widely and taking advice from a number of respected experts in this field, I decided not to include guardianship in the Bill, despite my firm belief that it needs to be legislated for in the future—in fact, as soon as possible.

I was concerned that including guardianship would have caused problems for the passage of the Bill, because the structures of guardianship are very complex and require far more work than it is possible to undertake during the time frame available for this Bill. Ideally, there would need to be a consultation about the exact form that guardianship orders should take and the criteria that should be applied in making them. That would make this a more contentious Bill, so I took the view that it is more important to work towards getting presumption of death legislation on to the statute book for England and Wales, so that they can be on level ground with Scotland and Northern Ireland. I did not want the debate and concerns about guardianship to prevent that from happening.

If this Bill were enacted, it would be entirely right to push for guardianship. In fact, I believe that the Bill lays the foundations for that to happen very quickly.

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I consider it a first step in that process, and should the House wish for it to proceed it will be a stepping stone for further legislation.

It makes absolute sense for there to be an interim measure whereby the closest relatives of a missing person can be legally enabled to take control of their assets. Of course, many issues need to be considered and resolved, but if other jurisdictions have managed to overcome those obstacles and develop the appropriate legal framework, it seems incumbent upon this legislature to do so as quickly as possible, learn from their experiences and develop an appropriate guardianship system for England and Wales.

I anticipate that some people will be concerned about the costs of using High Court applications for declarations of presumed death. After consideration, however, I have decided that it is right that the High Court is used because of its expertise in the area. It should be the Court to take the decision in the first instance. As Members will be aware, the presumption of death is a decision of great seriousness and requires the careful weighing of evidence, as it has enormous, life-changing implications for those involved.

There is also merit in the point that the High Court should test the standards that will need to be applied in all cases. As there will be perhaps 30 to 40 cases a year, it would be sensible to have them at one court that has expertise and can establish those standards, rather than at a number of courts that may not be fully conversant with the protocol owing to it not having sufficient cases to develop expertise. However, I recognise the possibility that cases could be devolved to certain county courts under secondary legislation at a later date, if it seemed that the expertise was in place at those courts to deliver the same reliable outcomes as the High Court.

The time is right. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that it is now long overdue to pass legislation in this area. Not only is it right from the perspective of the numerous relatives and friends of those who are missing, but the need is generally accepted by all parties in both Houses. The Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s report was clear, stating:

“Introducing a single procedure to obtain a general purpose certificate of presumed death equivalent to a death certificate in England and Wales will bring the law of England and Wales into line with the law in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The new procedure will replace the existing range of procedures providing specific limited outcomes, which taken together currently provide the equivalent protection to that available in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This simplification should make it easier for those left behind to deal with the affairs of a missing person, who is thought to be dead, notwithstanding the very difficult circumstances in which they have been placed.”

That clearly indicates that there is wide and deep understanding of what should be done.

I hope that the Bill will bring some measure of finality to distressed families who have to live daily with the emotional trauma and distress of not knowing whether they will see their loved one again. Allowing friends and families to obtain a certificate of presumed death, after careful deliberation by a judge on all the evidence, will enable them to move forward and deal with the missing person’s affairs, and perhaps begin to rebuild their lives. I ask Members to support the Bill so that it can proceed quickly to Committee and move forward as soon as is practicably possible.

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1.38 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I will be brief. I think I am the only Member of the Justice Committee who is here today. Its Chair, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), cannot be here, so it was agreed that I would offer the Committee’s full support for, and welcome to, the Bill. We hope that it passes rapidly into law.

I compliment the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on his careful and caring introduction to a Bill on a difficult and traumatic issue faced by many families. When the Committee made its inquiries on the presumption of death, one could only feel the deepest sympathy for families from which somebody had disappeared 15 or 20 years previously. The sadness about the disappearance is always present, and although the family has to make a presumption of death there can be no closure. Everything remains open and questions are never answered, and the Bill makes a good step towards providing at least a degree of closure and order to the families and relatives of those who have disappeared. We already have appropriate legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and as the Justice Committee learned—indeed, this was referred to this morning—there has been only one case in Scotland of anyone reappearing after seven years, and no cases in Northern Ireland. It is important to recognise that seven years is a reasonable period to pass before a presumption of death can be made.

The Justice Committee took evidence from large numbers of people, and sent its recommendations to the Minister as required. I was grateful that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice, stated:

“I am pleased that we are accepting the Committee’s recommendations for the production of better guidance to present procedures and the introduction of a certificate of presumed death. I hope that these measures will go a long way to simplifying and demystifying what has to be done when a missing person is thought to have died.”

We must remember that when somebody has disappeared or is thought to have died, it is unbelievably traumatic for the families concerned. The lack of support and coherent guidance needs to be addressed, and I was pleased the Under-Secretary of State did that.

Paragraph 56 of the Justice Committee’s report states:

“While the numbers of people who have to deal with the repercussions of having a family member go missing are small, the pain and anguish those families go through is considerable. As things stand, their suffering is exacerbated by: a legislative patchwork of bewildering complexity; the inability to administer the financial situation of their missing relatives; a lack of information about the actions they are able to take; and ignorance of the correct procedures to be followed by police, lawyers, banks, insurers and others. We therefore recommend a threefold approach: the introduction of a presumption of death act to clarify the legal position; the introduction of ‘guardianship’ orders, so that financial stewardship of missing persons’ affairs can be established more speedily; and the provision of effective guidance for the families of missing people and those who provide services for them.”

When the Minister responds to the debate—I believe she was a member of the Justice Committee at the start of the inquiry—I hope she will provide some reassurance that when the Bill proceeds into law, public guidance will be offered to the families of those who have disappeared. Those people are often suffering complete trauma and do not necessarily understand what is available for them.

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Briefly, I will refer to recommendations 9 and 10 in the report. Recommendation 9 states that:

“The law relating to the affairs of missing people will only affect a limited number of people. It will, however, allow families placed in extremely difficult emotional circumstances at least to resolve the financial and legal affairs of their missing relatives. We believe the time is long overdue to extend to English and Welsh families the protection that is available to Scottish and Northern Irish families.”

The Bill clearly covers that point, which is welcome.

Recommendation 10 states:

“We recommend that the Government take steps to introduce provision for ‘guardianship’ orders modelled on the approach adopted by states in Australia, either via the introduction of the presumption of death legislation we have recommended, or some alternative legislative mechanism. This will protect the financial position of the missing person and his or her dependants.”

I realise why that point has not been included in the Bill and the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) explained it perfectly well. I hope, however, that the Minister will provide some hope that after the passage of the Bill a separate Government Bill—or, if necessary, a statutory instrument—will be introduced to cover guardianship so that the wishes of the Justice Committee, which have clearly been accepted by the Ministry of Justice, can proceed into law. I recognise that this complex area will inevitably involve foster care, adoption and the role of social services, and I understand why the hon. Member for Salisbury did not want to include that provision in his Bill at this stage.

The Justice Committee welcomes the Bill and thanks all those who gave evidence during our inquiry. We were impressed with the thought that people had put in and understand the stress they had gone through. If the Bill can alleviate that stress and bring about some resolution to families who have gone through horror, we will have done good work. I strongly support the Bill and hope that it receives a Second Reading today.

1.44 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): I rise to support the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on introducing it. I know—not from personal experience, but from speaking to colleagues who have been lucky in winning the private Members’ Bills raffle—that hon. Members are put under a lot of pressure by different organisations. My hon. Friend has wisely chosen to introduce a Bill that is at the heart of his experience and that will make a tangible difference to individuals’ lives. I hope it is deliverable, and I urge the Minister to support it.

Cases involving deaths are among the most harrowing that Members of Parliament deal with—they are the cases I felt least prepared to deal with as a new Member of Parliament in 2005. I have been asked to be involved in five cases when constituents have passed away, and surprisingly I have dealt with three cases of missing persons—all three went missing overseas.

I should like further debate in Committee—I am keen to serve on the Committee, and do not want to detain the House too long today—on deaths overseas and the role of the Foreign Office, and on what information local embassies need to trigger the certificate to allow the presumption of death to be dealt with exactly the same as it would be in the UK.

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I asked my hon. Friend about Northern Ireland, and am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for clarifying the absence of information on revocations in Northern Ireland. I accept his word that there is no information because there are no revocations, which is most reassuring.

I am also reassured, as other hon. Members will be, by the involvement of Lord Boswell, previously of this place. Like my hon. Friend, he was admirable in the discharging of his duties for those less fortunate.

We need to clear up the patchwork of complexity that my hon. Friend has described—that has been pushed for by organisations such as Missing People. I have read more about Missing People over the past few days, but through my own inadequacies I have not linked up with it when dealing with cases. The more we can do to publicise its good work in helping people in their moment of need, the better. I was amazed when looking at the fact sheets on its website at the numbers involved, which have been mentioned by hon. Members. In addition, the numbers mentioned by the Serious Organised Crime Agency are horrific. When people are at their lowest ebb and hoping that their relative is missing and not dead, it is difficult for them to take responsibility within that patchwork of complexity. The Bill will tidy that up, so that when people are dealing with the emotional strains of having a missing relative who has probably passed away, they will not also have to deal with the complexity of the law.

I urge hon. Members to keep the Bill focused. Like the hon. Member for Islington North, I would have liked it to deal with guardianship, but I recognise the wisdom of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury in keeping the Bill clean and clear-cut. Equally, I would have liked a Foreign and Commonwealth Office provision in the Bill—perhaps the Bill will be amended in Committee—but I would not want to include it if it held the Bill up.

I wish my hon. Friend well and congratulate him on his choice of Bill, and look forward to seeing it in Committee and in practice.

1.49 pm

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is a privilege to be called to speak in this debate. I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on his success in the ballot and choosing this Bill. I also note the immense work on this issue that has been done by the Justice Committee and the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults. Other hon. Members have also mentioned the immense amount of work done by the charities Missing People and The Children’s Society.

Far too often we forget how many people go missing every year. I was looking at the statistics just yesterday for 2009 and 2010, and there were more than 1,000 reports every day, amounting to 356,000 people being reported missing. Of course, many of those people quickly returned home or were found. In fact, the vast majority are back home with their loved ones within 24 hours, but many others do not return home. Indeed, in that year, some 2,000 people were still missing after a long period. Many of those people have not passed away, thankfully, but they are never heard of again. Many families are left in limbo, not knowing what to do

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or which way to go. After they have experienced that amount of stress and level of concern, they may be faced with the reality that their loved one will never return, that their life may have been taken. What can the families do? Unfortunately, there is no simple process in England and Wales, as my hon. Friend clearly demonstrated. It is an immensely complex system.

On rare occasions, the procedure has been overridden, such as after the tsunami in 2004, when very swift action was taken to deal with that devastating and horrendous loss of life. But that, I am afraid, is the exception. We have so often heard that there are processes in place for families to follow to deal with this situation, but in fact they are immensely complex. I am not a solicitor—I am very much a layperson—and when I read through what had to be done I was shocked by the complexity. The coroner’s inquest under section 15 of the Coroners Act 1988 provides that a coroner may report to the Secretary of State where he or she has reason to believe that a violent, unnatural or sudden death with unknown cause has occurred in or near his or her district but that the body is irrecoverable or has been destroyed. On receipt of such a report the Secretary of State, if he considers it desirable, may issue a direction to the coroner to hold an inquest. A death certificate will be issued as a result of the inquest.

That procedure was used after the tsunami struck, but it is very difficult to go down that route. In the past, Ministers have said that there are other options, including the decree of presumption of death and dissolution of marriage or the presumption of death order under section 19 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and section 37 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. There is also the leave to swear death, when a person goes missing and a member of the missing person’s family wishes to obtain a grant of probate in order to administer the estate of the missing person, and the certificate of presumed death. When people are at their lowest, faced with a dreadful trauma, they must deal with this incredibly legalistic and complex process. It does not help families in great distress. It is absolutely right, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has introduced this Bill. He has been very thoughtful in trying to ensure that it goes through.

As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out, there is legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland dealing with this subject. It is not about inventing something new but about learning from the very best practice and about seeing what is out there and making it relevant here, in England and Wales. That is what my hon. Friend has done. A lot of the equivalent legislation introduced in Northern Ireland dealt with the issue of those who were missing as part of the troubles. Of course, we do not have that legacy in England and Wales, but the distress of families is as acute here as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It is comforting to think that this Bill will help families. My hon. Friend mentioned that it was almost impossible to access life insurance and spoke about people losing their home and everything they had. I think of my family’s distress if I went missing—some colleagues might be quite grateful—and how they would deal with it. How would they pay the mortgage? How would they live? How would my children be fed? They would not want to have to worry about that; they would just want the state on their side and, having paid their

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premiums, would want their insurance company to support them. This Bill goes a long way towards ensuring that people in that incredibly difficult and awful position are not left alone.

It is a great pleasure to support the Bill, and I wish my hon. Friend the best of luck in Committee. I support it wholeheartedly.

1.57 pm

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I am pleased to welcome the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) to change the law on the presumption of death. I congratulate him on bringing it before the House. I also thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the rest of the Justice Committee for their work on the issue and the excellent report produced in February. It highlighted how traumatic it is for the relatives of a missing person to deal with their outstanding affairs. The Committee and the hon. Gentleman make a powerful case for legislation to simplify the process.

I also pay tribute to the Missing People for its tireless campaigning on this issue and for helping to bring about the opportunity to debate this Bill. The previous Government committed to working with Missing People to bring forward such legislation before the last general election. The hon. Gentleman detailed many of the concerns that led Labour to consider such legislation necessary, and we continue to view it as necessary.

For the most part, this is a relatively simple piece of legislation, and I see no reason why the Government would consider it necessary to delay its implementation. I hope that the Minister will commit to co-operating with us. We will certainly co-operate with them to ensure that the Bill proceeds as swiftly as possible.

1.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on his good fortune in securing a high place in the private Members’ ballot and his good judgment in choosing to introduce a Bill on the presumption of death. The Bill is clearly based on the Presumption of Death (Scotland) Act 1977 and the Presumption of Death Act (Northern Ireland) 2009—and, therefore, the Presumption of Death Bill introduced in this House in 2009 by the then Member for Daventry, my noble Friend Lord Boswell of Aynho.

The Bill is important because it will greatly improve the position of people and businesses left behind when a person disappears. At present, individuals—often family members—may have to use a number of procedures to deal with different aspects of the property and affairs of the missing person. This can make a difficult situation daunting. Meanwhile, it seems that different businesses adopt different approaches, and even legal professionals can find it difficult to identify the right solutions for their clients. The Bill will make a real difference in such cases.

The importance of the Bill is brought home by the stories of real people. I have listened carefully to the stories of hardship and distress that my hon. Friend the Member

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for Salisbury and others have described. I share their concern that the current law is not working as well as it should. I want to take this opportunity to add brief details from some case studies provided by the charity Missing People, which has worked so prominently in campaigning for a change in this important area of law.

The first case study relates to Janis from Merseyside. Janis told her story to Lucy Holmes, policy and research officer with Missing People. I shall summarise what she said. Janis’s husband James, in his 40s, went missing three and a half years ago. She spoke to solicitors, who told her that she would have to wait seven years until he could be pronounced dead. Only then would the mortgage and other financial matters be sorted out. The financial implications were an added stress, which Janis could have done without, and I shall mention some of the financial problems she faced. Janis and her husband held shares, but they were in her husband’s name. As a result, she was unable to access them. Janis and her husband had originally taken out a fixed-rate mortgage, but the fixed rate stopped a few months after he went missing. She tried to see whether she could get a mortgage holiday or a change in the product, but was told that she could not, because she needed two signatures—her own and her husband’s. She ended up locked in a standard-rate mortgage. Janis was also unable to sell her house without her husband’s signature.

The second case study relates to Julie, from west Yorkshire, who also told her story to Lucy Holmes at Missing People. Julie’s former husband Peter, in his 30s, has been missing for nearly 10 years. Julie believes that he has died but his body has not been found. He first went missing when they were in the middle of sorting out the finances for their divorce. The judge was sympathetic and explained that Julie would be able to go back and sort everything out, including her husband’s estate, if he was still missing after seven years. It was therefore always at the back of her mind that she would have to wait that long. The types of problems Julie has encountered include not being able to access Peter’s pension, which could be left to their children if she could declare him deceased. Julie also had problems finding a solicitor who could help her. None of the solicitors she tried—and she tried several—knew how to handle the case. Eventually she got a solicitor she knew to do it for free, in his own time. Julie needs to access endowment and insurance policies, but she cannot touch them because she needs her husband’s signature. She needs the money for her children’s university education, and finds the whole situation horrendous. She complains that there are no rules or guidelines.

These stories, taken together, create the strong impression that the disappearance of a husband has locked the wife who has been left behind into a financial conundrum from which there is no obvious escape and on which little information is provided.

The third case study was provided by Rachel Elias, the sister of Richard James Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, in evidence to the inquiry of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults in June 2011. She also provided written evidence to the Justice Committee inquiry into the presumption of death. Her brother disappeared on 1 February 1995, and has not been seen or heard of since that date. At the time of his disappearance, he was a member of the

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successful British band, the Manic Street Preachers. Once the family were convinced that Richard was dead, an application was made for a leave to swear death order. The process took about three years and cost them about £3,500. Rachel Elias commented on how hard it had been to prepare the paperwork and provide the corroborative evidence, 13 years after the disappearance.

The Justice Committee also took oral evidence from Vicki Derrick. Vicki told the Committee of the disappearance of her husband in 2003. She said that she could not change her mortgage or move house because they were in joint names, and that she could not get a life insurance policy to pay out. She described how she had moved overnight from having a joint income to being a single mother on a greatly reduced income, and how she had to rely on her family to support her. She somehow survived the eight years of uncertainty and difficulty, which came to an end in February this year when the remains of her late husband’s body were found. The finding of the body ended the need for a presumption of death certificate in that case, but that happened only by chance.

These case histories, and the other cases that have been described by hon. Members, tell of individuals from different backgrounds who have been visited by tragedy. I offer them my condolences and sympathy. I know that my expressing sympathy and solidarity will probably make little difference in the struggle that those individuals face in coping with their loss and trying to move their affairs forward when it seems almost certain that the missing person will not return. What can make a difference is simplifying the law to provide a clear path for people to take if they believe that the missing person is dead.

That brings us to the content of the Bill. There will be a single, obvious, all-purpose procedure for obtaining legal confirmation that a person is to be deemed to be dead. This should make the process of moving on more straightforward, not only for those affected by the disappearance but for those who advise them. Businesses such as insurers should also benefit because the making of a declaration will make it easier for them to know where they stand. In short, the Bill will provide a means to clarify the uncertainties caused by the disappearance.

Clarification and simplification must not, however, be introduced at the expense of rigour. The declaration of presumed death will be granted only following consideration of the evidence. No one should lightly be presumed to be dead. If the interests of the missing person, and of the people who would be affected by his or her deemed death, are to be protected, the process of obtaining a declaration of presumed death must be thorough and robust. To achieve this, the Bill creates a new court procedure and an associated process of registration.

The court procedure will enable a person with sufficient interest to obtain a legally binding declaration from the High Court that a person is to be deemed dead for all purposes, including the end of the marriage or civil partnership. The High Court will make the declaration if it is satisfied that the missing person has died or has not been known to be alive for a period of at least seven years. Based on experience in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we expect that on average between 30 and 40 declarations are likely to be issued each year.

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A court also has the power to deal with myriad consequential property-related issues that may arise as a result of the declaration. Once the court has made the declaration and the time for any appeal has passed, the High Court will send details of the presumed deaths to the Registrar General for England and Wales, who will enter the relevant particulars in the register of presumed deaths created under the Bill. The Registrar General will also include the entry in that register in the index of the registers of deaths. This will enable those left behind by the missing person and others to find out about the presumed death and, on payment of an appropriate fee, to obtain certified copies of the entry in the register of presumed deaths. These certified copies will, without the need for more evidence, be conclusive evidence of the death of the missing person. They will be usable in the same way and for the same purposes as death certificates in relation to an actual death.

There is, of course, a crucial difference between actual deaths and presumed deaths: the actually dead do not return, but the presumed dead may do so. Experience in Scotland suggests that this happens only rarely. None the less, the Bill, as it must, makes provision for amendment or revocation of a declaration by giving the court power to make a variation order on application. A variation order will alter the facts on which any property-related orders made as a result of the making of the original declaration were based. The Bill therefore gives the Court power to make such further orders as it considers reasonable in relation to any property acquired as a result of the declaration varied or revoked.

This power is subject to limitations—for example, to protect innocent purchasers—and in some cases the court is required as far as possible to have regard to the principles specified in the Bill in deciding what to do. These provisions are, I think, the most complicated in the Bill, but they are necessary and follow in general terms the Scottish and Northern Irish precedents that I have mentioned.

It is clearly vital that the court should have the best information that it can obtain in making declaration or variation orders. The Bill therefore gives the Court power, on application or of its own motion, to order third parties to provide specified information relevant to the question of whether the missing person is dead or alive. Details of the court procedure and the registration process will be set out in the rules of court and the regulations to be made in due course.

The Bill will, from time to time, result in the payment of a capital sum or of a transfer of a piece of property from one person to another, consequent on the presumed death. However, as described, circumstances could arise in which that capital sum or property should actually have gone to someone else. Recipients of these sums or pieces of property might well want to consider whether it would be appropriate to take out insurance against the possibility that these circumstances could arise in their own particular cases. That will be a decision for them.

In two cases, however, the Bill makes specific provision about insurance. First, it provides that the court can order trustees affected by a declaration to take out insurance against claims consequent on the making of orders in connection with the variation order. Secondly, the Bill allows an insurer to require the potential recipient

2 Nov 2012 : Column 557

of a capital sum made as a result of a declaration—for example, the sum assured under a life insurance policy—to take out insurance against claims consequent on the possible future making of a variation order.

The new procedure for a declaration of death will replace some, but not all, of the existing procedures by virtue of which a person may be deemed to be dead under the law of England and Wales. The Bill will, for example, repeal the declaration of presumption of death and dissolution of marriage under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. The new procedure is intended to replace the present probate procedure for obtaining leave to swear death orders. The retention of other existing procedures will preserve flexibility, and will ensure that not everyone seeking to establish a presumed death is required to go to the High Court if there is a suitable alternative procedure. However, the Bill will require assumptions regarding the time and date of death under other procedures to adopt the same conventions as are specified for declarations made under the Bill. There are similar requirements in the Scottish and Northern Irish Acts,

Members have made numerous points today. I acknowledge the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about guardianship, and assure them that I will take those concerns into account in reaching a decision on whether—and, if so, how—to develop legislation on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) asked whether there had been a revocation in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland legislation came into force only in 2009 and, as far as I am aware, no declarations have been revoked. The hon. Member for Islington North also raised the issue of guidance. I can confirm that the Ministry of Justice acknowledges the role of good guidance, and that substantial work is being done in that respect.

By creating this procedure and process, the Bill will achieve the objective of recommendations made by the Justice Committee in its Twelfth Report of the previous Session. As a former member of the Committee—although I was not a member at the time when the report was produced—I am pleased to learn that its recommendations are being implemented. The Committee’s inquiry into the subject of presumption of death followed an extensive investigation earlier in the Session by the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults. I regret that I was unable to attend the round-table discussion organised by the APPG last week, but I am pleased to acknowledge the good work that both it and the charity Missing People have done to raise the profile of the difficulties faced by individuals and families when a person goes missing and does not return.

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In their response to the Committee’s report, published in July 2012, the Government stated their intention to introduce

“legislation to create a certificate of presumed death…when Parliamentary time permits.”

If enacted, my hon. Friend’s Bill will achieve the same result as the Government’s intended Bill. I am pleased to confirm the Government’s support for it, and I wish it a swift and successful passage through the House.

2.18 pm

John Glen: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker.

We have had a useful discussion of many of the issues raised in the Bill, and I am grateful for the contributions made by Members, particularly the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who referred to the Justice Committee’s report. I pay tribute to the Committee’s work in laying the foundations for the Bill; I also pay tribute to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who unfortunately could not be here today.

The provisions relating to guardianship are clearly the most contentious, but it would have been difficult to proceed with the Bill if we had included them. I hope that, in Committee, we shall have opportunities to consider how we can best establish a basis for progress in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) made a powerful speech in which he raised what is, essentially, the new issue of people who go missing abroad. That will need to be given special consideration in Committee: we shall need to think about what can be done to ensure that the families of such people are helped in the best possible way, hopefully by means of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) powerfully set out the challenges involved in having to go down seven different routes in order to tidy up the affairs of someone who has gone missing. That underscores why this Bill is necessary.

I am extremely grateful for the support I have received from both Front-Bench teams, and I hope we can move forward swiftly. As many Members have said, it must be almost intolerable to have to deal with both the trauma involved in handling the affairs of someone who has gone missing and the emotional strain of trying to come to terms with the loss when it is difficult to believe that that person is dead. This House can put in place legislation that would allow a presumption of death certificate to be granted, however, and thereby at least enable families to tackle the affairs of someone who has gone missing and therefore move on in at least one regard. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

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Smoke-Free Private Vehicles Bill [Lords]

Second Reading

2.21 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the Bill has already been passed in the other place under the expert guidance of the Conservative peer, Lord Ribeiro, Members now have the opportunity to complete the process and put the Bill’s provisions into law after its Commons passage.

Some 15 months ago I was pleased to have the opportunity to present a ten-minute rule Bill that had cross-party support, but despite a positive vote on First Reading, it failed to gain a Second Reading because of lack of time. I was therefore delighted to see that Lord Ribeiro’s private Member’s Bill with almost identical provisions passed in the other place. I hope that Members will today follow the good example of the other place and act to protect our children from the harmful effects of smoke, by banning smoking in private vehicles.

I know from my meeting with the Health Minister, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), that her Department is committed to combating the harmful effects of smoking. While her Department is currently concentrating on other smoking-related areas, including the much-needed introduction of standard or so-called plain packaging, she understands why action on smoking in cars in which children are present is so important.

Opposition to this Bill is largely based on libertarian grounds. It is claimed that the motor car is a private space in which it would be wrong for the state to intrude. That ignores the myriad ways in which the state already intervenes. We are required to wear seat belts, abide by speed limits, stop at red lights, give way to pedestrians and not use our mobile phones while driving. More importantly, the libertarian argument assumes that the right to smoke trumps the right of the child to be free from harmful smoke. I have stressed in the past, and do so again today, that this is not just a health issue; it is a child protection issue, too.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I am amazed when I see a mother pick up her children—and also, perhaps, those of other families—in her car on what is called the mother’s run, and the first thing she does is smoke a cigarette even though there are perhaps four or five children in that car. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Alex Cunningham: I do, and it frightens me that this is a greater problem in my constituency than it is in many other parts of the country.

Opponents of the Bill often argue that it is difficult to enforce this sort of law. That is undoubtedly true, but I again draw the parallel with seat belts, speed limits, red lights, “give way” signs and mobile phones. British people do generally obey the law, as compliance with the seat belt law demonstrates. The primary goal of legislation is to build awareness and social norms, and I remain confident that this law would become largely self-enforcing. Additionally, we already have laws banning smoking in vehicles carrying passengers in the course of paid or voluntary work. That provision covers buses, trains, planes and taxis.

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Most people understand that cigarette smoke is harmful to children, and would not expose children to smoke in a vehicle. In a survey carried out by Ash, 10,000 adults, including over 2,000 smokers, were asked about the car they travel in most. Only 6% said that people should smoke whenever they like. Some 71% said that smoking should not be allowed at all in the car, and a further 9% said that smoking should not be allowed if there were non-smokers or children travelling. Few adults and only a minority of smokers would allow smoking in a car containing children. Given the significant health impact on children, who are unable to remove themselves from cars, I am sure that the Government would not want to dismiss calls for a ban as unworkable or impractical.

The Welsh Assembly Government have said that if the level of smoking in private vehicles does not drop dramatically in the next three years, they will consider legislating. We do not have the luxury of waiting three years to find out if something is damaging to children, we should do something to stop it now. The Northern Ireland Executive—

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con) rose

Alex Cunningham: I am not going to give way, as I have very limited time.

The Northern Ireland Executive are also launching a public consultation on options on banning smoking in private vehicles in the coming weeks. I welcome campaigns that raise the profile of this issue, such as the Government’s recent two-month marketing campaign to reduce children’s exposure to second-hand smoke. It featured a television advert depicting a child’s exposure to smoke in a car and offered family smoke-free kits. That was a helpful step in addressing this issue. However, the evidence shows that educational campaigns are most effective when accompanied by legislation. Seat belt use shot up from 25% to 91% when legislation was introduced alongside an awareness campaign. Department of Health figures indicate 98% compliance from the moment of the introduction of smoke-free legislation. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee found that usually the most effective means of changing behaviours at a population level is to use a range of policy tools, both regulatory and non-regulatory.

This Bill is intended to raise awareness of the risks of smoking in cars where children are present and to drive home the message that we, as adults, are responsible for the safety and protection of our children. I hope to convince the House of the need for the Bill, and I will provide scientific evidence to support my case. When we see a room full of smoke, we recognise it as somewhere that we would rather not expose a child to. There is a misguided perception that driving in a car with the window open will not inflict exposure to tobacco smoke on a child, because the smoke appears to be filtering out—that simply is not the case. There is strong evidence that second-hand smoke enters the back of cars where children sit, and they do not have the option to leave the car.

Research from the university of Waterloo in Canada shows compelling evidence that, whatever measures are taken by a smoking driver, a child in the back seat of a car will be exposed to damaging second-hand smoke. The research showed that a single cigarette smoked in a

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car can provide levels of second-hand smoke that are a great deal higher than those in a smoke-filled pub. Measures such as turning on the air conditioning, or opening one window or more, did not prevent dangerous levels of exposure.

I have said that this is not just a health issue, but a child protection issue. Children are much more vulnerable to second-hand smoke: they are still physically developing; compared with adults, they breathe into smaller lungs more quickly; their absorption of pollutants is greater; and their less developed immunes systems make them prone to respiratory and ear infections. Research by the Royal College of Physicians shows that we are taking on 300,000 primary care consultations a year, 120,000 new cases of middle ear infections a year, 22,000 new cases of wheezing and asthma a year, 9,500 hospital admissions a year and 40 sudden deaths a year. Each case is linked to second- hand smoke. This costs money—£23 million of taxpayer money is spent each year. The Bill could reduce that cost dramatically through the ban, although of course I acknowledge that other smoky environments contribute to the numbers.

In 2010, an NHS Information Centre survey of nearly 800 children aged between 11 and 15 found that one in five children had been exposed to second-hand smoke in cars. A survey by the British Lung Foundation of more than 1,000 children aged eight to 15 found that only 31% of affected children thought it appropriate to ask the adults in question to stop smoking, while 34% were too embarrassed or frightened to ask.

There are international precedents for action. South Africa, Mauritius and Bahrain have all outlawed smoking in cars where a child is present, as have seven of the eight states or territories of Australia, nine of the 13 in Canada and four of the 50 states in the United States, although nine municipalities there have imposed a ban. It is time that we followed suit.

Public support is very much on the side of change, and the Government would do well to heed the strength of feeling on the issue across the country. British Lung Foundation research shows that 86% of children surveyed were in favour of banning smoking in cars when a child is present, and 86% of adult respondents to a Mumsnet survey were also in favour.

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I know that I am rapidly running out of time, so I shall end my remarks to give the House an opportunity to make a determination on this matter.

2.29 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. It is 2.30. One of your best speeches, Mr Ruane.

2.30 pm

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

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 1 February 2013.

Business without Debate

transparency in uk company supply chains (eradication of slavery) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (19 October), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 18 January 2013.

bank of england (appointment of governor) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 July), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 18 January 2013.

Local services (planning) Bill

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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2013.

2 Nov 2012 : Column 563

Fire Services (London)

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

2.31 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): There is a view that to serve as an officer in the fire brigade, one has to be good at taking risks. Nothing could be further from the truth. To serve as an officer in the fire brigade, one has to be good at assessing risks. It is for this reason that, when I heard of the £65 million cut that the Mayor has proposed to the budget of the London Fire Brigade, I sought the views of those best able to assess the risks that such a cut might involve: the officers themselves. I want to begin by thanking the crew at the Wembley fire and rescue station for the time they spent with me and Labour Assembly Member for Brent and Harrow, Navin Shah, earlier this week outlining the very real concerns that they and their colleagues have about the impact that such cuts will have on the service they provide and on public safety.

What do we know? Well, we know that there is a leaked hit list of 17 fire stations that have been earmarked for closure. In alphabetical order they are Acton, Bow, Belsize, Clapham, Clerkenwell, Downham, Islington, Kensington, Kingsland, Knightsbridge, New Cross, Peckham, Silvertown, Southwark, Westminster, Whitechapel and Woolwich. If these stations go, 17 appliances go with them, along with 600 firefighters.

After this hit list was leaked, the chairman of the London Fire Authority, James Cleverly, provided a further list of 28 fire stations that he said would definitely not be closed. These are Barking, Battersea, Croydon, Dagenham, Dockhead, East Ham, Edmonton, Hammersmith, Harold Hill, Harrow, Heston, Holloway, Kingston, Lambeth, Lewisham, Leytonstone, Millwall, Mitcham, Old Kent Road, Orpington, Paddington, Plaidstow, Purley, Shadwell, Stratford, Walthamstow, Wembley and West Norwood.

We also know that the 17 stations on their own could achieve only £30 million of savings and we can therefore deduce that on top of the 17 stations earmarked for closure, a further 68 out of the 113 stations in London have the threat of closure still hanging over them. This is unacceptable. I ask the Minister to recognise that such uncertainty is bad for these communities, and to urge the Mayor to announce his definitive plans as early as possible.

London Assembly members on the fire authority were originally set to debate the proposals at a meeting on 22 November, but the Mayor has now said that the authority should defer this until after the local government finance settlement is known on 20 December. This means that the Mayor will avoid any scrutiny and, in effect, bury the announcement in the Christmas holiday season so that no proper public debate can take place until after the middle of January, with the final decision being taken in March. I trust that the Minister will regard this as reprehensible and make the necessary representations to the Mayor’s office to ensure that such a cynical move is not carried out. The Mayor has a public face of bonhomie and charm, but Londoners will not be fooled by such manipulation to stifle debate about their safety.

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As the 17-station hit list cannot deliver the totality of cuts that the Mayor has demanded, the LFB has outlined a preferred option that would see 30 stations and 30 appliances lost, along with 840 jobs, but even this would save only £45 million. To this must be added what the authority has identified as “back-office” savings of £14 million. These sound like bureaucracy savings that might be achievable without impacting on public safety, and I put this to the 30 or so officers whom I met. They pointed out that these back-office savings included a reduction in translation teams. For anyone who doubts the importance of that to a borough such as mine, let me point out that in Brent 130 different languages are spoken in our schools. Many residents are from refugee communities where parents and grandparents speak English poorly or not at all, and where cooking practices are widely different from those in the average English kitchen. The importance of translation teams in educating these communities about fire safety is absolutely fundamental. Good fire safety begins with fire protection. In Brent, and in many other London boroughs, the loss of so-called back-office functions will be even more dangerous than the proposed closure of fire stations. It is essential, therefore, that we know what equality impact assessment has been conducted into the proposed loss of translators as part of these cuts.

Another “back-office” function that faces closure is the local intervention fire education—LIFE—project. This project was pioneered in Brent, where youngsters with a history of arson offences were given a week’s intensive induction into the fire service. At the end of the week, they not only performed fire drills in front of their parents but had acquired a real understanding of the risks and dangers of fire. The project was a major success in two important ways. It turned around the lives of serial arsonists so that they no longer started fires, and it turned into friends youths who had previously thrown stones at fire crews when they attended fires. One particular estate in my constituency had been dreaded by fire crews because of the abuse that they used to endure from young people when they were attending incidents there. The LIFE project has completely turned that around.

When politicians are told by civil servants that it is possible to make back-office savings, we often breathe a sigh of relief and think, “Thank goodness it won’t hit front-line services.” The truth is that these proposed savings are every bit as damaging to the safety of the public and of fire officers themselves. They will result in many more incidents as translation teams are disbanded, fire safety education programmes in schools are cut, and innovative and effective prevention work such as the LIFE project is abandoned.

In my discussions with front-line firefighters this week, I was told that the loss of 17 stations and their crew, let alone 30, would in effect put crews on restricted attendance for approximately half the time. This means that instead of sending two appliances to an incident from the beginning, only one will be dispatched. They explained to me that the initial protocols and guidelines around an incident and the risk assessment that takes place will often mean that, under restricted attendance, crews have to wait for a back-up crew before they are able to take effective action.

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Such delays result in not only greater economic loss before a fire can be brought under control, but in extreme cases, increased danger to firefighters themselves or even loss of life to the public when no entry control officer is present from the beginning of an incident. As one officer in charge put it to me, “The public need to know it is going to take us longer to pull them out of a burning building.” He thought for a moment, and then added, “And in a major city like London, that is just unacceptable.”

Another risk that the officers foresaw was an inability to respond to a combination of major incidents. They told me that last year the service had been stretched to breaking point when, during the London riots, it was called to a major incident at the Sony distribution building in Enfield. The Sony incident lasted for six days, with relief teams being called from south of the river. Instead of crews being relieved every three or four hours, they were forced to work seven-hour shifts and told that no relief was available. These firefighters are courageous individuals who are prepared to endure such gruelling conditions when they accept them as the result of exceptional circumstances, but they simply could not countenance what the impact on their own personal safety would be if such exceptional calls on their resource become commonplace as the result of the potential culling of up to 840 of their front-line colleagues and 30 appliances.

Another officer recalled this summer’s Dagenham fire, which coincided with the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. In this instance, there was restricted attendance on what became a 40-pump fire. It is not just unreasonable but unsafe to expect our firefighters to work routinely under such conditions.

The concurrence of major incidents puts extraordinary pressure on the fire brigades. One of the key ways of relieving that pressure at present is through reciprocal arrangements and protocols of cross-border support, whereby teams from other authorities in the home counties come to support London crews and London crews go to the surrounding shire counties—even as far afield as Buncefield when required—for such emergency incidents. Officers are concerned that the loss of personnel in London and a corresponding loss of capacity in surrounding services will reduce the capacity of brigades to offer such cross-border support in the future. The public need to be aware that the Fire Brigades Union has already lost 1,500 officers since 2010. We must be clear that these cuts really will endanger both public and crew.

In his usual cavalier fashion, the Mayor has said that response targets will be maintained regardless of any cuts. The targets currently stand at six minutes for the arrival of the first engine and eight for the second. I note in passing that the target prior to 2008 was that the first engine should arrive within five minutes. The FBU regional secretary, Paul Embery, spoke with me yesterday, and told me of his concern that the computer modelling used to justify the Mayor’s statement is flawed. The FBU has asked that the system be independently audited to ascertain whether the targets could still be met under a cuts scenario, but this eminently reasonable request has been denied. Will the Minister speak to the Mayor’s office to ensure that the computer modelling

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system that the authority has used is independently audited, so that public confidence can be maintained in the process? The FBU has every right to be suspicious that response times will not be maintained, because it is already the case in four London boroughs that the brigade does not meet these response targets.

I have no doubt that the Minister’s officials will have armed him with statistics that show that the number of fire incidents to which the London Fire Brigade is called is at its lowest level since records began in 1966. He may be tempted to respond that last year, London recorded 26,845 fires, whereas 10 years before, in 2001, there were 55,063. That is a drop from an average of 150 fires to just 74 fires each day—a reduction of just over 50%.

The Minister’s officials may have encouraged him to conclude that a smaller number of fires requires a smaller number of appliances and firefighters. May I counsel him that that would be a foolish conclusion to draw? It would ignore the fact that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 broadened the remit of the service substantially. It placed more obligation on local brigades to focus resources on fire safety work as well as the traditional intervention work. Today’s firefighters are out and about in the local community giving talks in old people’s homes, fitting smoke alarms and taking part in youth engagement schemes in a way that they were not previously. That is precisely what accounts for the drop in incidents and call-outs in the past decade, and it cannot be used as a justification for depleting the service now.

The cuts to the force will put increasing pressure on crews and create a vicious cycle. Either less time will be spent on training, in which case lives will be put at risk, or less time will be spent on preventive community work, in which case the number of fires will rise and, again, lives will be put at risk.

Society has rightly become much more keenly aware of the duty that we have to those in our armed forces who put themselves in harm’s way for our safety. I regret that we have not yet recognised with equal force the obligation that we have to the men and women of our fire and rescue service, who daily expose themselves to danger and put their lives on the line to protect us. Nobody in the Chamber today would doubt that we owe them an enormous debt of thanks. I hope the Minister will agree that it is a debt that is ill repaid by a budget cut of £65 million.

2.46 pm

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing this important debate.

The London fire service has been protecting and serving Londoners for almost 150 years, but the Government’s decision to cut the fire service budget by 25% is putting it under enormous strain. As my hon. Friend said, the London Mayor’s reported plans for implementing the cuts could lead to 17 fire stations across London being forced to close and hundreds of firefighters and other staff losing their jobs.

I wish to focus on the impact of the proposals on my constituency. We are currently served by three fire stations, in Bow, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, and I echo my

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hon. Friend’s comments about the enormous gratitude we owe the firemen and women who protect us. We must do everything we can to ensure that they are supported in their very difficult job.

In Tower Hamlets, the fire brigade attended nearly 6,000 call-outs in 2011-12 alone. Its front-line service is vital for keeping the community safe, but the Mayor’s proposals to cut our local fire brigade would represent the deepest cut to a borough’s fire service in the whole of London, leaving us with nearly 100 fewer staff, four fewer appliances and only one remaining fire station in my constituency. That seems outrageous considering that Tower Hamlets had by far the greatest number of fire incidents in London last year.

The loss of vital front-line services would have a severe impact on the speed with which crews can attend fires in my constituency and across the borough. It would also dramatically reduce the fire service’s ability to engage in important community safety and fire prevention work. I am shocked at the apparent willingness of the Government and the London Mayor to take such risks with the safety of my constituents and residents in other parts of the borough and across London.

Densely populated constituencies such as mine are always likely to experience higher rates of call-outs and fire-related incidents. Last year there were 308 fires in people’s homes in Tower Hamlets, 35% higher than the fire brigade had hoped. How can the Minister support a Mayor whose decision to cut fire services so drastically, not only in Tower Hamlets but across London, is bound to put lives at risk? Some 33 London Labour MPs have written to Boris Johnson expressing our deep concern about the risk to the safety of our constituents should the cuts go ahead. Will the Minister write to us and explain how the Government will ensure that lives will not be put at risk as a result of these irresponsible proposals?

The Mayor and the Conservative chair of the fire authority deny that a list of specific closures has been drawn up, and refuse to clarify details of what exactly will be cut. They are not being straight with Londoners, and London Labour MPs call on them to hold an honest and open discussion with Londoners on the future of our vital front-line services. I imagine that the same concerns apply to colleagues in other parties where fire services are at risk. The Government must also take their share of the responsibility. By slashing 25% of the fire budget they are forcing the fire service in London to cut this year’s budget by £29.5 million, and by £35.5 million next year.

In conclusion, Tower Hamlets has the highest rates of fire call-out in the whole of London, yet Boris Johnson thinks that stripping our borough of one third of its fire stations is a sensible idea. Does the Minister agree that those cuts are irresponsible and will unnecessarily put safety and lives at risk? The Opposition call on the Mayor of London to reverse those plans, as nothing is more important to protect lives in London and ensure that our fire service men and women do their jobs to the best of their ability and with proper support.

2.51 pm

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing this important debate and on speaking with a

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characteristic and heartfelt sense of why this issue is important and of the role of individual fire officers and services. Both he and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) alluded to the fact that fire and rescue services in London is a devolved matter. I am sure that the Mayor will take great interest in the issues raised in this debate, although I strongly reject the idea that there is a cynical or underhand approach to the way he deals with this issue. I was sorry that the hon. Lady started to turn this into a partisan debate, which it should not be, and we must look at these matters on behalf of all our constituents. Before responding to the specific issues raised, I wish to commend—as did the hon. Member for Brent North—the remarkable courage and bravery of the men and women who serve in the fire service in London and in my area of Hertfordshire. I met some of those people recently.

A number of issues have been raised, and I would like to look at the context of this debate and at the welcome reduction in incidents of fire. I will respond to the point about funding streams and answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions on how we can best secure a more effective and efficient service.

Thankfully, the context of this debate is one in which the number of injuries and fatalities is falling. That is due in part to the efforts of fire and rescue authorities, the impact of the Fire Kills campaign, and changes in modern technology. The past 10 years have seen a fall in the number of accidental fire deaths of 40% nationally. Ten years ago there were 310 accidental fire deaths in the home, but latest statistics show there were 187 fatalities in 2011-12. Numbers of non-fatal casualties in accidental fires in the home are also decreasing. In 2011-12 there were 6,335 non-fatal casualties, compared with 9,278 in 2001-02—a reduction of 30%. Those statistics are reflected in London where the number of accidental fire deaths in homes has fallen by 45% in the past 10 years, and attendance at incidents has reduced by 38%. Clearly, any deaths are to be regretted, but hon. Members across the House will accept that those figures are significantly better, and that they must have a substantial effect on the nature of the fire and rescue services that we need now and in the future. The financial context is that the Government inherited a record deficit from the previous Administration. To date, we have been able to cut that deficit by a quarter. That is an important part of the context of the debate.

Every bit of the public sector needs to play its part, but the Government recognise that fire and rescue is a front-line emergency service. That is why we have sought to give funding protection when we have been able to do so. For example, reductions have been back-loaded to give more time for long-term savings to minimise the impact on the quality and breadth of the service.

In the context of London, it is worth bearing in mind that the reductions applied to the fire and rescue services have been less than those applied to local government as a whole. London fire service has had its formula grant reduced by 3.3% in 2011-12, but the Greater London authority has had a reduction of 4.9%. This year, London fire has had a small increase of 0.2% compared with a GLA formula grant reduction of 5.9%.

Clearly, operational matters such as the deployment of firefighters should and must be determined at local level, and it is for each fire and rescue authority to

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determine the operational activity of its fire and rescue service. It does so through an integrated risk management plan, and it must do so in consultation with the local community.

The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the question of fire stations. I am very much aware that there is speculation about fire station closures. The Fire Brigades Union has, I believe, named 17 stations that it believes are earmarked for closure. As an experienced parliamentarian, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment directly on speculation, and that fire station closures are rightly a matter for the Mayor of London, but I can advise hon. Members that any significant changes to the integrated risk management plan, such as closures, are subject to public consultation. That means that people will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Barry Gardiner: Will the Minister assure me that he will make representations to the Mayor that the computer modelling system that is being used should be independently audited? That would do a great deal to enhance public confidence in the proposals.

Mr Prisk: That is a slightly different matter from stations, and I will come to it in a moment.

I was talking about the speculation about the fire station closures. It is worth bearing it in mind that the London Fire Brigade has stated that it plans to build nine new fire stations—Dagenham, Leytonstone, Plaistow, Old Kent road and so on. Eight are being completely rebuilt on the existing sites, but one will be on a new site. It is important to bear it in mind that this is not simply a

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matter of closures, but a matter of deployment. That is an important local issue, and Ministers should not seek to overrule.

Let me turn to the future, which is an important part of the question. We have looked at how the grant system works, but the hon. Gentleman highlighted the new functions that the 2004 Act brought into play. It is important to bear in mind the balance of the debate. There are other funding streams. Funding for the new dimension capability, which addresses a number of the activities to which he referred, has increased by £9 million in two-year period from 2011 to 2013. That deals with some of the additional functions to which he referred, such as urban search and rescue, and the new operations of high-volume pumps. The Government have always had the stance that, should more be required, we will treat it as a new burden. That is an important point to bear in mind.

Given the time, I want to draw my remarks to a brief conclusion. It is true that funding reductions have been made to London’s fire services, but it is important that we see them in the context of a significant fall in fire deaths and casualties. In other words, demands on fire services are changing. That is why we believe that London’s fire service needs to respond. Although this is a devolved matter for the Mayor and local management, the Government are ready to help the service to manage change—I mentioned funding streams in that context. The very fact that the Government are providing those funding streams, and responding to the changes and challenges that face the brave men and women to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, are testimony to the constructive approach that we intend to take.

Question put and agreed to.

2.59 pm

House adjourned.