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I am conscious of time—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—as are other right hon. and hon. Members. I am also eager to hear what the Minister and other Members have to say, but I have one or two questions before I conclude. I am keen for an update on what the Government have done since the consultation closed. I note that the Cabinet Office business plan commits to publishing a White Paper and legislation on establishing a statutory register for lobbyists by March 2013. A week may be a long time in politics, but that still does not leave the Minister much time to meet her own deadline. Unfortunately for the Government, this is not a leap year; we have just 28 days. On which of those days can we expect to see this draft legislation? Does the Minister have a long-term timetable for introducing the Government’s legislation, or will they use this Bill to meet their commitments? I am also eager to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what a register should look like. Do the Government support a code of conduct? Do they envisage including details of what companies are lobbying on, who their clients are and how much is being spent?

We need a statutory register of lobbyists. That has cross-party support, and in the absence of any action from this Government, we would welcome the Bill and support its progression.

12.26 pm

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). She gave the impression that she was impatient for Government action, but made no mention of the fact that the Labour party was in power for 13 years and had plenty of opportunity to legislate if it thought that this matter was so important.

Chi Onwurah: The Labour party in government consulted on a statutory register and, as I said, made it clear that the lobbying industry was drinking in the last chance saloon. It took some time to reach that position. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is not enough time in the current slightly open legislative programme for this Government to build on that, or is he saying that he disagrees with the conclusion that we came to?

Mr Nuttall: I start from the position that we jumped into this debate this morning and overlooked whether we needed a register in the first place. It seemed to be accepted from the moment that the debate started nearly three hours ago that it was all about how one defines a lobbyist and lobbying, whereas I want to start with what is the problem. The Bill’s promoter cited one or two specific instances that he was concerned about, but as always I would argue that one or two cases make bad law. We should not pick on one or two instances, which seemed to border on criminal behaviour, to claim that the solution is to introduce a register for lobbyists. Just as we cannot rid society of theft or burglary by making them criminal offences, if there is a problem with lobbying and lobbyists the answer is not to provide yet more regulation. It is almost as though legislators look around society to find a group that is not legislated for and then come up with a scheme to bring them under the control of the legislature.

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On Friday mornings, Back-Bench Government Members will often try to pilot through a Government handout Bill; it is somewhat more surprising to see an Opposition Member promoting a Bill that is broadly in line with the coalition programme for government, although I accept that there are differences.

Thomas Docherty: That is because I am an awfully helpful individual.

Mr Nuttall: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is trying to be helpful to the Government.

James Duddridge: Has my hon. Friend noted that the Government need help in this regard? At no point today have our coalition partner Members of Parliament been here to offer support; none have wandered through the Chamber, taken interventions or made speeches. Exactly the same thing happened last Friday, when they were also completely absent.

Mr Nuttall: Those Members must answer for their absence, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of our coalition partners on this matter. They have been absent this morning, so we can only guess at their views.

I am not clear what the problem is. My postbag is not overflowing with complaints about lobbying, although it is overflowing with opinions about lots of other matters, some of which are being discussed next Tuesday. I have been involved in politics for more than 30 years, and I can honestly say that in all that time I do not recall a single occasion when anybody brought to my attention a complaint about lobbying or lobbyists. I fail to see why the issue is such a big problem in our society.

There is a problem with the whole principle of the Bill, and its benefits are not clear. It was said earlier that this debate—and this is a good thing, to some extent—had become a general one about lobbying rather than a traditional Second Reading debate. I submit that that is because, although the Bill appears at first sight to contain lots of detail, it is in fact extremely vague. Much of the Bill raises more questions than it answers. All the way along, we are told that the answers will come further down the line and that we will find out in the fullness of time all the details about which I have questions. Even if I agreed with the principle of the Bill, which I do not, I would think that any Bill that left open as much to future legislation and definition, by way of orders and regulations through statutory instruments, as this one does should not proceed into Committee.

Clause 1 defines what is meant by “lobbying” in terms of the public register, and the purpose of the Bill is to establish such a register. It states:

“There shall be a register of organisations and individuals who carry out lobbying of Parliament, the Government and local authorities for financial gain, which shall be made public.”

We have not heard about the influence of all the quangos. In many spheres of life, the Government have effectively palmed off responsibility for regulation and control to third-party organisations—quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations—that govern so many areas of life today. Many of the decisions that they make are just as important as the decisions made by Ministers or Departments.

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Philip Davies: I agree with my hon. Friend. On a similar theme, he might like to comment on the civil service. We have all seen in “Yes Minister” how the civil service lobbies the Government in a surreptitious manner to try to protect its interests. Perhaps, on that basis, it might need to be placed on the register.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is probably common ground among Members on both sides of the House and from all parties that when one arrives in this place one soon begins to realise that the real power lies with the civil service. In fact, it is often the civil servants the lobbyists want to see, because they know that influencing the thinking of the civil service can be far more effective than, for example, influencing what a Back-Bench Member of this House may think.

I cannot see what would be the benefit to society of having a register of lobbyists. I can see lots of downsides, but I cannot see its purpose. Would it really be the case that every time somebody rang up to make an appointment with a Member, they, or their staff, would bother to consult it? It just would not happen, and even if it did, I cannot see what the purpose would be. Members of the lobbying profession are often, by definition, in the business of promoting themselves. Their websites often contain huge lists of their clients; it is not as though they are trying to hide on whose behalf they are acting. When somebody rings up, one knows straight away, or can quickly find out by asking one or two questions, on whose behalf they are calling. I am not confident that there would be any real use in having such a register.

That brings me on to the question of how the register would be arranged and organised and, more importantly, who would keep it. The Bill suggests that a new organisation, the lobbying registration council—not a new quango but a new industry-funded body—would be responsible for maintaining and supervising the register and keeping it up to date. However, we have no idea of what particulars would be entered on it. It is a blank canvas. Obviously, there would be the name and address of the company or individual and details of their clients, but how long would it be before someone said, “Well, frankly, that’s not much use”? It would be the thin end of the wedge. I suspect that those who thought that it was a good idea to have a register would soon be saying, “What we really want is to know who these lobbyists have met, and we want that recorded on the register. We want to know for how long they met a given individual, where they met, what was the purpose of the meeting, and what was its outcome.” Before long, what started off as a simple register of names, addresses and lists of clients would develop into an enormous database of facts and figures and lists of meetings. It would become a bureaucratic nightmare for those involved in the lobbying industry.

How will my constituents benefit from all that regulation and registration? When I look at things, I always ask, “How will my constituents benefit from this?” I can see that those who may want to engage in the lobbying industry will suffer as a result of the Bill, but I fail to see how my constituents would benefit in any meaningful way from a register of lobbyists.

We do not know what all this will cost. Again, it has been glossed over. We have heard about and debated lots of other things, but we have no idea about that

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crucial question. One of the first things that a lobbyist would ask is, “How much will this cost?” We have no idea.

Thomas Docherty: I know that the hon. Gentleman does not plan to detain the House, so it might be helpful if I point out to him that the current cost of the APPC register is only £200 to £300 per individual. I hope that that gives him an idea of the cost.

Mr Nuttall: That is a useful contribution, but the cost of £200 to £300 is for an entirely different register from that which the Bill proposes, which is statutorily based. The lobbying registration council will be funded by those who will pay to be on the register, so in order to determine the cost of registration we have to look at the LRC itself, which, as I have said, is a blank canvas.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend might want also to consider the potential cost to other parts of the state, such as the police force. According to clause 3, a breach of the proposed code of conduct will be a criminal offence. I presume that the police would have to investigate complaints of any breaches and that the Crown Prosecution Service would have to consider whether to press charges, so the cost to the public purse would be much bigger than the figure of zero that we were led to believe earlier.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If I have the chance later, I will address the fact that, before long, it will be argued that he who pays the piper calls the tune. This is meant to be a self-funded organisation, so it follows that, as soon as the first scandal arises—and, as sure as eggs is eggs, it will—everybody will say, “Ah! That’s happened because the organisation that’s meant to be supervising the register is paid for by the industry itself. It’s not an effective regulator after all. It’s not keeping an effective register. It’s not doing its job.” Before long, there will be calls for the organisation to be removed from “self-regulation” and for it to be paid for by the public purse. As my hon. Friend has said, however, even before we get to that stage there will be increased costs for the public purse, even if complaints are unproven and the police say there is no cause for prosecution. Given that we do not know what will be in the code, we do not know how likely that is to happen—it might be very likely.

Philip Davies: Given that two of the postcodes in my constituency are in the top 20 burglary hotspots in the country, I would prefer the police to concentrate on sorting out that issue than to dance around the issues in clause 3 of this Bill.

Mr Nuttall: I am sure that my constituents would agree with that. They would much rather that the police were on the streets fighting the crime that they are concerned about than wondering whether a lobbyist in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham or Glasgow has breached a provision of some code, the details of which we know not. I am extremely concerned about that.

The cost of the lobbying registration council will be dependent on its size and nature. There will be no obligation on it to scrimp or save, because no matter what the organisation costs, it will be passed on to those

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who by law—they have no choice in the matter—have to register. That is a licence to print money. The council can employ as many people as it likes. It can have as many expense accounts as it likes. It can have offices as lavish as it likes. It could have a whole office block in the centre of London and it would not matter. It could give all of its employees company cars and it would not matter.

Philip Davies: We might end up with the ridiculous situation in which the lobbying registration council has to register on its own register because it is lobbying to take further powers and increase the size of its bureaucracy.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It probably will have to register on its own register, because I am sure that before long it will want greater powers and to extend its reach into new areas. We have already come across a possible new area this morning. As has been pointed out, one of the gaps in the Bill is that it does not provide for the registration of those who want to lobby the European Parliament. The council may well lobby the Government to amend the legislation to cover that area. My hon. Friend is right that, on that basis, it would have to be on its own register.

We do not know how many members will be on the council. Will it be two or three, or thirty or forty? How representative will it be? Will it have to have members from every region of the country? Will it have to have members from different lobbying organisations?

Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, because I know that he is trying to move towards a conclusion. I remind him that all those matters will rightly be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I am sure that he has even more confidence in his Ministers than I do.

Philip Davies: I wouldn’t be so sure.

Mr Nuttall: I have every confidence in our Ministers. I hope that, as a result of this debate, the Government will continue to worry about the path that they have sent themselves down with the consultation. It is clear from the consultation that it is easy to say, “Let’s have a register of lobbyists,” but that when one looks at the detail, the problems arise. The devil is in the detail.

As I have said, I fail to see how a register of lobbyists would help anybody. That is what we should be thinking about. How will a register help? How will it solve any of the so-called problems? I fail to see that there are problems. I am not bothered about them, but perhaps other people are. In a healthy democracy, everybody lobbies their MP. I am sure that every MP has the same experience at the weekend. I will be going down the street and somebody will tap me on the shoulder and say, “I know it’s the weekend, but I would like to have a quick word with you about blah-de-blah-de-blah.” They want to explain their point of view and to influence me. That is the nature of representative democracy in this country; it happens every day of the week. Some people do it because they are interested, and others do it for reward. I fail to see, however, how having a register will help to solve those problems in any way, shape or form.

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Not only do we not know how many members will be on this lobbying registration council, it is not clear who will appoint them. How will they be appointed? Will they be appointed by the Government? Indeed, will they be appointed at all? Will they be elected? Will all members of the lobbying organisation, who have to pay for it, get to elect its members? Who will be eligible to serve on that august body? Will they need a qualification to be a member of the lobbying registration council?

This is the thin end of the wedge and I have seen no evidence this morning to convince me that a register is a good or sensible idea that will benefit my constituents in any way. A likely consequence of the Bill is that, just as we saw last week with the Offshore Gambling Bill, something that ostensibly starts out as a good idea will rapidly turn into the opposite of that. Given that the Act would apply only to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we may find that lobbying organisations faced with enormous regulation and fees will move offshore. They will say, “I’m not staying here and paying vast fees of thousands and thousands of pounds each year; I will move.” They will move offshore, either to Gibraltar or indeed outside the European Union altogether.

The promoter of the Bill mentioned that the fees might be £200 or £300, but it is not clear whether that will be standardised. Will the fee be the same for an individual as for a huge conglomerate or large multinational company with a huge client base? I suspect that the one-man band will pay one fee, and that the huge multinational will pay another—many thousands of pounds. For that reason, those multinationals might be inclined to think, “If we are faced with these fees and all that bureaucracy, we will move offshore.”

Thomas Docherty: I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman is trying to conclude his remarks. The point he raises is a matter for delegated legislation. The principle is that the fee will be based on the number of people who are signed up, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the clauses that state that it will be a matter for delegated legislation.

Mr Nuttall: I am grateful for that clarification, but the fee is something else that we simply do not know about. We are being asked to take it on trust. We do not know about it; it is a blank canvas and will be dealt with in the future. I am not satisfied by the principle behind the Bill, and even if I were I think it is a Trojan horse. Even if one accepts that it is sensible to have such a register—which I do not—this Bill would be the thin end of the wedge. Before long, what started off as a fairly simple exercise would soon grow like Topsy into expensive, unnecessary bureaucracy that would put British jobs at risk. For that reason, and many others, I oppose the Bill and urge Members of all parties to reject its Second Reading.

12.54 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on bringing before the House this morning not only this Bill, but a list of Bills? He is an expert in parliamentary procedure, and I commend him for that and for his initiative in making sure he got his Bill to the top of this morning’s list.

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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), I am less impressed with the merits of the Bill. My hon. Friend did us a favour this morning when he introduced into the debate the following issue: what problem are we trying to solve? It is no good examining a Bill’s merits in isolation; that can be done only when we look at what we are trying to deal with. Like him, I have not been persuaded today as to what problem we are so desperately trying to deal with. One is left with the impression that what lies behind all this—to the credit of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, he did not put himself in this camp—is some kind of view that lobbying, particularly commercial lobbying, is a bad, grubby thing that should be discouraged. We appear to be trying to find a way to clamp down on commercial lobbying. The consequence—where we will end up with all of this agenda—is that we will make Members of Parliament lobby shy. We seem to be trying to get to the stage where Members of Parliament avoid, at all costs, coming into contact with lobbyists— particularly “commercial lobbyists”, as they are described—and that would be a very dangerous thing.

I will put my cards on the table: I think that lobbying, including commercial lobbying, is a very good thing, not simply something to be tolerated. I may be unique in my lack of knowledge on a variety of subjects, and I am sure that there are many in this House, and outside, who would want to describe at length my ignorance on a range of issues. I acknowledge that; we cannot be experts in every subject. We know more about certain subjects than others, based on our interests and our experience, but there are many, many issues where our knowledge is limited. I have many such subjects. How on earth are we supposed to learn about them? How are we supposed to learn about the different points of view that people have in a debate?

There are many occasions when constituents contact me about issues on which I have very limited knowledge, inviting me to agree with them about something and take forward a particular point of view. It may be a very popular point of view, at least superficially. I like to say to my constituents, “I understand the point you are making. You appear, at face value, to be making a very good point. But before I commit myself one way or the other I would like to hear the other opinion.” If it is not a popular opinion, with no great groundswell of public support for it, that does not make it any less valid and it does not make it any less important that the voice is heard. Occasionally, the only people prepared to put such a point of view are lobbyists, and in order to do that they are often paid by the organisation concerned. I think that is a perfectly respectable thing for them to do. The view may well be completely unpopular and it may be beyond the pale for many people, but it is entitled to be heard. Before people make decisions in this House about issues that will have a bearing on people’s future livelihood, they are entitled to have heard the opposing point of view, too.

Just because somebody is lobbied vigorously does not mean that they necessarily have to agree with the person doing the lobbying. I make no apology for being available to people. I serve on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and I make no apology for allowing people who have a genuine interest, and organisations that have a financial interest, in the field of culture,

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media and sport, no matter which side of the argument they are on, to come to see me to let me know their view. That means that when we have evidence sessions before the Committee I can better understand the issues. It can prompt me to put certain points of view to others giving evidence.

Lobbying is therefore an essential part of the democratic process, and if we want to have good laws in this country, we should be making it as easy as possible for people to lobby us on their interests. We should not be doing anything to make it harder—anything that deters them from lobbying us or deters MPs from seeing them. The whole agenda is going off in completely the wrong direction. Parliament is much healthier thanks to the lobbying industry.

To be fair, I think that the promoter of the Bill would concur with many of my comments and would argue that the Bill seeks not to stop lobbying, but to legitimise it, and to make it more acceptable to the public—to clean it up. If I understood, that was also the case that the shadow Minister made: the Bill would legitimise, not stop, lobbying and make it seem more above board. That is a naive view. I do not think it will happen. I see the merit of the view of thinking, “Hold on. This lobbying is a bit murky, a bit behind closed doors. I wonder what’s going on. Let’s try and open it up, and all of a sudden the public will think lobbying a mighty fine thing,” but I am afraid they will not think that.

In fact, I suspect that instead of combating that attitude the Bill would make those points of view even noisier. If every MP had to register every meeting with a commercial or any other lobbyist—how on earth that would work, I do not know, but that is the agenda in the Bill—does anyone really think that certain interest groups and members of the public who take this cynical view would say, “Well, that’s fine, because it’s now all above board”? No, they will pore over every statement we make and every meeting we have had, and say, “Well, they’re only saying that because they had that meeting with that particular group.” This would not legitimise lobbying or make it any better. It would make it even worse, in terms of public opinion. It is naive to think otherwise.

Chi Onwurah: To clarify, my view is not that a register would mean that everyone would think lobbying is fantastic—I would not want to answer for the consequences for the industry in that regard—but that opinion would be better informed and that living in a democracy we want better informed debate and a better understanding of the access, means and process of power.

Philip Davies: I appreciate the shadow Minister’s view, but I simply do not agree with it. I do not see where the lack of transparency is. I have no problem telling anyone who asks me about which organisations I have met. If my constituents want to know who I have met—what lobbying firms and organisations—I would have no problem telling them, and I would like to think that that would be the attitude of most of my colleagues on both sides of the House. I do not see where the secretiveness is. If anybody is in an organisation relating to culture, media and sport, whichever side of the argument they are on, I am happy, time allowing, to meet them. As far as I can see, that is perfectly transparent. So I do not see the problem the Bill seeks to solve.

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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I oppose the Bill in principle. It will be a dog’s dinner, to be honest, and will not deal with any of the perceived problems we have heard about. In fact, the Bill is probably the worst of all dog’s dinners.

Let me turn to clause 1, which deals with the registration of lobbyists, and to the fact that there would be a register and the fees that would be charged. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North had an interesting exchange with the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, about fees. The promoter not only intended to be helpful but actually was helpful in setting out the fees that he thought would be charged. However, I share my hon. Friend’s cynicism about fees, in the sense that we all know where they start off but there is no telling where they will end up, particularly when a bureaucracy has an audience that has no choice over whether to join. People will have to join because it will be the law of the land for them to join, so the bureaucracy can end up charging what it likes.

Let me therefore say to the promoter of the Bill—I hope the Minister will hear this too, because if she and the Government are so misguided as to go down this path, we may as well try to make it as good as we can—that it would be helpful to have a cap in the Bill on the fees that could be charged. Just to make a suggestion, perhaps the fees would be no more than the £200 to £300 that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife seemed to think would be suitable. That would at least remove the issue of people thinking that the fees would go up and up, in a never-ending spiral, to try to satisfy a never-ending bureaucracy that would grow up as a result of this Bill.

We all see how these things work. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North talked about how such bodies start off being self-funded but end up having to be funded by the state. I think he is probably right. It is not an exact comparison, but we are seeing the start of something similar with the Press Complaints Commission. It is a self-funded body, but it is seen as being too close to the industry it is supposed to be looking after, so people are asking whether that is good enough and whether we need to do something else or get the state more involved. We can see how these things develop, and there is no reason why the same would not happen under this Bill.

I am sure that people will correct me, but it seems to me that clause 2 would introduce the offence of non-registration of one’s organisation. Then there is another criminal offence under clause 3 for breaching the code of conduct—the Labour party created lots of new criminal offences when it was in government and it appears to be continuing the same theme in this Bill. The promoter of the Bill said that we should not worry because everything would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval, and that that was fine—let me say in passing that he has more confidence in parliamentary scrutiny than I do—but as far as I can see the Bill makes no great provision for parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary scrutiny is what we are doing now, by discussing the merits of the Bill. It is the council set up under this Bill that would prepare the code of conduct with which, under clause 3,

“those included on the register shall comply”.

It will not be Parliament that draws up the code of conduct, so there will be no parliamentary control

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there. Once we had passed this Bill, the council would be free to establish the code of conduct as it saw fit and that would be that.

Clause 3 then says, in subsection (2):

“The Secretary of State shall give statutory effect to the code and any revised code by order.”

There is no great parliamentary scrutiny there either. We are basically giving the Secretary of State huge powers to act on his or her own terms and whatever he or she happens to think is the right thing to do. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I have a great deal of time for the Minister, but she will know, as we all do, that she will not be the Minister for ever, and we might not get as good a Minister in future. Indeed, we might be left with one who is not as talented and sensible. We might—if we want to be very depressing—end up with the Labour party in government. Who knows what we might end up with at that point? [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. What I do know is that we are going to get straight back to the Bill and not get into speculation about the next election.

Philip Davies: As ever, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are quite right. I was getting carried away with myself—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife did not help when he invited me to consider the prospect of a Lib Dem Government, which does not even bear thinking about. I will move on, for the sake of my own sanity more than anything else.

The idea that there will be a great deal of parliamentary scrutiny of the terms of the register and the code of conduct is not one that I recognise from my reading of the Bill. Also, I asked earlier who would enforce the criminal offences that the Bill creates. There will no doubt be all sorts of vexatious complaints from people who do not like a particular industry, from people who have been lobbying someone about something, and counter-organisations that do not like a particular industry will put in vexatious complaints here and there. People will be contacting their local police and crime commissioner, their local chief superintendent and their chief constable, and putting pressure on them to investigate this or that case. The police’s resources are stretched enough as it is. I have been opposed to the reductions to the police budget that have taken place over the past few years. Surely at a time when the police budget is going down, the last thing they need is more of these kinds of offences to investigate, when there is much more bread-and-butter crime to be dealt with.

Then we have to consider the Crown Prosecution Service. What will be the chances of getting a conviction for such offences? We all know what the CPS is like. It is very reluctant to take a case to court unless there is a cast-iron guaranteed certainty of a conviction. There will be all sorts of complaints relating to whether the code of conduct has been breached, for example, and it is hard to imagine the CPS taking anyone to court, no matter how much time the police have spent investigating a case.

The whole thing is a complete dog’s breakfast, and that is before we even come to the definition of lobbying in clause 4. Clauses 1 to 3 were bad enough, but clause 4 is the worst clause of all. We have had an interesting debate on the definition of lobbying. There is so much to say on that, and so little time in which to say it. I do

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not intend to speak at length. As you will know better than anyone, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am always anxious to proceed at a pace on a Friday so that we can get on to the next piece of legislation, and I do not intend to do anything different today. I will make a few remarks about the definition of lobbying, but I just want to say to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that I hope his second Bill, which I trust we will get on to in the not-too-distant future, is better than his first one. The first one has not been a good start.

Clause 4 gives the definition of lobbying as

“any activity carried out in the course of a business or employment which are undertaken for financial gain and are designed to influence the Government of the United Kingdom, Parliament, any local authority in England or any member or employee of any of those bodies in formulating its official policy.”

We could spend hours talking about clause 4, because it contains all sorts of loopholes, flaws and omissions. The whole point of anybody approaching a Member of Parliament, on any basis, is to lobby them. It might be to lobby them because the person believes strongly in something, perhaps in their local community, or to lobby them for financial gain. It tends to be one or the other. Someone might come to see me because they want to reduce the amount that they owe to the Child Support Agency, for example. That is a perfectly legitimate thing to come and see an MP about. I cannot always sort such things out, but I will always do my best for my constituents. They are lobbying me for financial gain, of course they are—it is a perfectly legitimate, respectable thing to do.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife seems to be trying to distinguish between different types of financial gain. From his definition in the Bill, he seems to be saying that some kinds of lobbying for financial gain are fine, while other kinds are not so fine and need to have something done about them.

Thomas Docherty: I am nervous about intervening on the hon. Gentleman and prolonging what has been a genuinely good discussion. Briefly, I am drawing a distinction between someone who is remunerated for carrying out the activity of trying to influence, and someone who receives a financial reward if they are successful. The former is lobbying; the latter is not.

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman tries to concoct some distinction through his Bill’s definition, but I do not accept the distinction he is trying to draw. For me, lobbying is what people do to Members of Parliament for whatever particular reason they have. It is perfectly legitimate, and I see no point in drawing a distinction between different types of lobbying—as if commercial lobbying is bad and any other kind of lobbying is good. All lobbying is good, and Members of Parliament should be open to all sorts of lobbying. They can take anybody’s self-interest into account when they are listening to the lobbying. I am sure we will all have said at some time, “Well, of course, you would say that, wouldn’t you, given the situation you are in.” We are all capable of doing that.

When I read the Bill, I presumed that it was all about protecting the public and giving them more confidence in the system. I do not think that that would be a

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consequence, but I can at least see the motivation. From what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said in his opening speech, however, the Bill seemed to be much more about protecting us from commercial lobbyists so that we do not get hijacked at a constituency surgery or something like that. I do not need protecting. I can protect myself and look after myself. If I do not want to listen to somebody’s argument, I will tell them I am not interested in what they are saying. I am perfectly capable of doing that without the help of the hon. Gentleman and his Bill. Frankly, if any Member is not capable of doing that, they should perhaps consider whether they are in the right profession. We certainly do need legislation to protect Members from people coming to see them and trying to force an issue down their throat. I would hope that we are all perfectly capable of dealing with that.

In conclusion, the Bill is unnecessary. I disagree with it in principle; I think it is going completely down the wrong lines. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, even if I thought this was a good thing in principle, I would remain of the view that the Bill was a very bad attempt to act on it.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): I join those who have contributed to today’s debate in congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on securing a debate on this Bill, and, as I understand it, he has another five on the Order Paper today and four last Friday, which is no mean feat. I thank the hon. Gentleman for having brought today’s proposals to the House and for allowing us to have what I think has been a very constructive debate.

Albeit from one of my ministerial colleagues, I have certainly learned a new word today—“dissensus”, which is presumably the opposite of “consensus”. I think it is a fine word and that it has a place in today’s debate—perhaps as a description of some hon. Members’ comments—but I am more interested in the opposite idea of consensus. I know we have all acknowledged how complicated the issue is and how important it is to be careful to get such legislation right.

The Government are committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. Following the election of May 2010, the Government said in the coalition’s programme for government:

“We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.”

We said in our consultation document:

“The purpose of the UK register is to increase transparency by making available to the public, to decision-makers and to other interested parties authoritative and easily-accessible information about who is lobbying and for whom. This will help ensure that those seeking to influence decisions do so in a way that is open to scrutiny, improving knowledge about the process and the accountability of those involved in it.”

At this point, I pause to pay tribute to the notion of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that anybody in public office ought to be able to hold a robust conversation with anybody who comes their way. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife would agree with that.

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Another important point in our consultation document is that

“the register is not intended to capture or deter a range of activity that is essential to a vibrant democracy. So, for example, the register is not intended to cover the normal interaction between constituents and their MPs. Nor should the essential flow of communication between business leaders and Government, civil figures, community organisations…and so on, be included.”

I think that helps to provide an answer to some of the many and varied points made today about the appropriate bounds of this debate.

Let me say something about transparency. The Government already release a significant amount of information—which Members and anyone else who is observing our debate can find on the website data.gov. uk.—and we have made a clear commitment to increasing the transparency of what we do and making it easier for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. That has resulted in the quarterly publication of details of ministerial meetings and Government procurement, and a number of other items of public interest.

I acknowledge what was said by, for instance, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) about the importance of transparency and the efforts made by many Governments in that regard. In my view, the present Government publish an unprecedented amount of information about those who are met by Ministers and senior officials, but at present it is not always obvious whom those people represent. The Government therefore want a register that will bring more transparency to the lobbying process.

With that in mind, I accept that some elements of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals have merit. I think he grasps the importance of having a relatively simple register that does not impose disproportionate burdens on those who are required to comply with his Bill. The Government are also determined to avoid unnecessary regulatory burdens that would prove detrimental to the United Kingdom economy. I am very mindful of the costs that may be associated with the statutory register, and I want to explore that issue fully as we develop and introduce our own proposals.

The hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of avoiding ambiguity when defining lobbying activity. That, too, is a view that I heard loud and clear in the responses to last year’s consultation. The Government are making it a priority to consider a wide range of definitions, including international definitions. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), who gave us a tour d’horizon of the systems used elsewhere. The parameters of the chosen definition will be made very clear in the context of the UK lobbying industry: I intend there to be no scope for ambiguity, so that we can ensure the success and effectiveness of the register.

The hon. Gentleman also recognises that there is little appetite for a publicly funded register of lobbyists, and his proposals for a fee-based system are certainly worth considering. A range of responses to the consultation dealt with that point; they can be found in “A Summary of Responses to the Cabinet Office's Consultation Document ‘Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists’”, which has already been brandished by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East.

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There are other parts of the Bill which I believe need further exploration. There is, for example, the hon. Gentleman’s proposal for the establishment of a lobbying registration council, for which he was taken to task in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). I think that it is an interesting idea, but, like others, I should like to know more about the council’s membership.

The hon. Gentleman proposes that the Secretary of State should be able to decide, through secondary legislation, what level of information disclosure should be required of those who are on the register. I should like to go into the matter in more detail with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to working with him constructively on that and other issues, including the issue of the code of practice which his Bill empowers the council to draw up. That is clearly a significant role for the council, and I should like to know how the necessary authority and expertise could be channelled in a way that would enable the code to be effective and enforceable.

I think that there is much to applaud in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, but it raises further questions which, as I know he agrees, need to be explored fully. I look forward to working collaboratively with him on those issues.

Philip Davies: Not too collaboratively, I hope.

Miss Smith: I can only assure my hon. Friend that on Fridays in the House we all seek to have debates that are to some degree collaborative.

Mr Nuttall: Has my hon. Friend had a chance to look at “A Summary of Responses to the Cabinet Office's Consultation Document ‘Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists’”? Paragraph 95 states:

“Concerns were also raised by a large number of respondents who said they could not identify the problem that the register was aiming to solve.”

Miss Smith: That takes me to exactly the points to which I want to return. As I have said, the Government are committed to the establishment of a statutory register of lobbyists, which we think would be an important step towards making politics more transparent. I certainly think it important to open up politics and make it more accessible to everyone. I agree with my hon. Friend that lobbying has an important function in politics, namely the putting forward of legitimate views when they are held. That helps in the development of better legislation. However, we need to address the question that he raises: what is the gap that needs to be filled in this case?

In our consultation on introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, various parties, organisations, individuals and businesses told us what the register should look like and what the gap is. That information is helping the Government reach conclusions on some very tricky questions, such as how we should define “lobbyist” and “lobbying”, what sort of information should be held on the register, and what penalties should be imposed on those who do not register. The hon. Gentleman has made various suggestions, which I want to take into account alongside those received from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

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Although the Government have made strides in increasing the transparency of what we do, thus making it easier for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account, there is one important gap. Our consultation document states that

“under the current system, when Ministers meet lobbying firms it is not transparent on whose behalf they are lobbying”,

and that is the gap we should address through this sort of legislation.

The Government consultation received a large response, showing just how important the issue is to the public and why we are working so hard to get our proposals right. Following the consultation, we are currently taking stock. The evidence from the consultation and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report will allow us to develop the statutory register in a way that increases transparency while ensuring equal treatment of all parties, and without placing disproportionate burdens on those affected.

The Government are committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists.

Thomas Docherty: Does the Minister intend to publish the revised proposals before the House rises at the end of the Session or, failing that, before the summer recess?

Miss Smith: As I have said, we are currently taking stock. It is important to take time to get these proposals right. This remains a coalition commitment, and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to move it forward.

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1.27 pm

Thomas Docherty: I thank all Members on both sides of the House for contributing to what has been a constructive and useful debate. The hon. Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) raised the issue of meetings. I find myself in full agreement with the Minister. We already have a ministerial quarterly statement—although I tried to check when it was last updated, and she might like to press her civil servants, to ensure that happens as frequently as intended. This Bill would not increase bureaucracy for Members of either House.

Questions were raised about the wider bureaucracy that might be involved. Earlier, I did not dwell on the General Medical Council system. As the hon. Member for Bury North knows, it was established under the Medical Act 1858. The current fee is the princely sum of £390, and the system has all the functions to which we have alluded. I hope that that reassures him and the hon. Member for Shipley as to the sums involved.

This debate has not gone on for as long as the Turks and Caicos election count, for which we are all grateful. As I am not a Liberal Democrat politician, I always believe in sticking to my promises, and I made a promise about withdrawing the Bill if the Minister was sufficiently eloquent. She has been eloquent about her intention to bring forward proposals in the very near future and about her promise to work with me and others on that. I am therefore satisfied that we are making progress on this issue, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.

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Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill

Second Reading

1.29 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

“In this age of moral equivalence it must be said that no other occupational group in the United Kingdom matches up to UNMS”—

the unique nature of military service.

“In particular, none belong 24/7 to the Crown, is exempted from normal working practices of the sort governed by the European working-time directive and national minimum wage legislation, has no organised representation, may not easily terminate their service particularly on notice for deployment, will probably sustain some sort of illness or injury if deployed and has liability up to and including death with all that means for dependants cascading through the generations.”

Those are eloquent words, and because they are eloquent words, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you realised that they were not mine. They are the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who I think, in the genuine cross-party spirit of this subject matter, has eloquently defined the unique challenges facing our military.

I have introduced the Bill after reading, as I know the Minister has done, the report published last year about some of the adversities that our armed forces face, not on the battlefield, not in theatre of operations, but when they are here in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I have had the privilege of serving with him in the House for the past two and a half years. I know he is a passionate supporter and champion of our military personnel and I welcome him to his role. I think this is the first time we have had an opportunity to debate the issue.

I thank The Sun, which has supported our campaign to put in statute particular protection for members of our armed forces. It is fair to say that there is no sensible Member of the House present today—I see that the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) is not here, so I am fairly confident that I can say that—who does not believe that protecting our armed forces is the first duty of the Ministry of Defence.

I have drawn the Bill narrowly. I place on record my thanks to Ms Kate Emms and Mr Simon Patrick for their incredibly sterling work in helping to draft the Bill. Let me clarify what the Bill does not cover. It does not cover the issue of trade and sales, or the outrageous cases in which service personnel are refused entry to pubs. I commend to the Minister of State an excellent book which he can probably get from the Library, although as I know he has deep pockets, he would probably go on to a website and buy his ministerial colleague’s book, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That”, which eloquently sets out some examples. There was the notorious case where Harrods refused service to a serving member of the armed forces who, I think, had come in after a Remembrance day parade.

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words earlier and also for his reference to the book, which was written by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is sitting on the Front Bench next to me. I am delighted to reassure the hon. Gentleman that I was present at my hon. Friend’s book launch and purchased a copy of the book from my own perhaps not quite so deep pockets. It is a very good read.

Thomas Docherty: I am grateful for that, and I am reassured that the right hon. Gentleman used his own money to purchase the book and did not borrow the £15 from his ministerial colleague.

As the book sets out, there have been some ridiculous examples, such as the one, when somebody in their uniform who had been at a Remembrance day service was refused service by Harrods. The Under-Secretary subsequently visited the store after a bit of a campaign in which he had been involved, and thankfully Harrods has changed its policy. I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that in your own constituency and others you are aware of incidents where, regrettably, members of the armed forces have been refused service on rare occasions.

The report contains allegations that banks and building societies have turned down mortgage applications from armed forces personnel, and they have been unable to get mobile phones. I am conscious of hon. Members’ comments on previous occasions about narrowly defining Bills, so on this occasion I have not put such incidents into the Bill, but when the Minister responds I hope he will consider how widespread the problem is. The Ministry of Defence may wish to use a report mechanism to provide greater clarity on it.

I want to focus on the even more abhorrent incidents, which, thankfully, are relatively rare, but do occur, of verbal and physical abuse of members of our armed forces. No one present today and no one watching our proceedings would not condemn unequivocally the actions of a mindless tiny minority who when, for example, the coffins returned from theatre felt the need to hurl abuse and intimidate those who had gathered to pay their respects. I know that the Minister takes that very seriously.

The report also contains accounts of an RAF recruiter who reported that she had regularly faced verbal abuse. People had apparently called her a baby killer, which I am sure the House would find utterly despicable. It is such incidents that the Bill seeks to address, as well as physical assaults. I am clear, as I am sure is the House, that we are not talking about where soldiers, sailors or RAF personnel get into a fight as any other person might, but where they have been subject to an assault because of the fact that they are either in or out of uniform.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for his Bill. In my constituency we are proud of our links with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has now effectively taken over from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Fortunately, I have not come across any cases like those he describes. Has he had representations resulting from occurrences in his constituency, and if so, will he outline them to the House?

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Thomas Docherty: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s attendance today and the points he has made. I refer him for the detail to the report, or indeed to the Under-Secretary’s excellent book, which he can purchase for a small sum. Just to give one example from the book, I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will recall, as I am sure you will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in June 2010, an organisation calling itself Muslims against Crusades attacked members of the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade in Barking. That is the kind of despicable act that he asks about, which we all take incredibly seriously.

Another point that the Under-Secretary makes very well in his book is that this works both ways. The Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff have also made that point. The Minister of State will recall that when we had the privilege of serving together on the Armed Forces Public Bill Committee we discussed the difference between our culture and that of the United States, which holds its armed forces in great respect. On the rare occasions that you get away from the House of Commons, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and travel to an airport in the United States, you will often find a VSO office providing refreshments and the opportunity to enjoy some relaxation. Regrettably, we have not yet persuaded our airports to do something similar. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on how we could do that.

The Chief of the Defence Staff makes the valid point that members of the armed forces have not always helped themselves. There is an ill-judged perception that some soldiers have gone looking for trouble. I think that perception is false, but I welcome what Army representatives said to the Defence Committee—that the issue is a cultural thing that they are working on. That is why the Bill is so important. It says that we recognise that the military have to do more, but we have to do more to protect the military.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): The Bill is incredibly important. Has the hon. Gentleman received any correspondence or communication from my friends and colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches apologising for not contributing in any way to the debate and not being here at all today—or, indeed, last Friday? Perhaps they have sent a note of apology and said they are all in Eastleigh delivering leaflets.

Thomas Docherty: I often think that Liberal Democrats are neither here nor there.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am sure that we are not going to get distracted on to discussing the Liberal Democrats or the coalition. We are going to discuss the Bill, which is about discrimination against the armed forces.

Thomas Docherty: You are entirely right, Mr Deputy Speaker; we should discuss serious matters, rather than the Liberal Democrats. It is right that the issue we are discussing should be approached by grown-up parties in a grown-up manner, as is happening today.

There is a genuine need for us to recognise that we can do more to protect our armed forces. I pay tribute to our armed forces. As a member of the Defence Committee, I have had the opportunity to spend a little

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time with them. I shall not open up the debate about service allowances. I know that the Minister never takes any pleasure in the choices that he feels he has been forced to make, but I hope the Bill is a small measure that will symbolise our determination not to tolerate hate crimes against our armed forces, that will move the debate on and that will provide greater protection for men and women who, as Ministers have in the past so eloquently set out, operate under unique and special circumstances. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.42 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): I welcome the Bill. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for introducing it, because he is a Scottish Member and the Bill applies to England and Wales. I hope that colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are looking carefully to see how it progresses in this Parliament, so that the whole of the United Kingdom benefits. One of the curious problems of devolution is that some sensible things that should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom do not because of the nature of the devolution settlement.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting so much on to the Order Paper today, most of which appears to be devoted to his Bills. Perhaps he could talk to colleagues on the Procedure Committee to ask whether it is appropriate, despite his many talents, for so many Bills to be taken forward by one person in any one day. Apart from anything else, it is an enormous burden for the hon. Gentleman, who spoke for an hour and a half in the first debate, to make a significant contribution to the second debate as well.

I turn to the Bill’s substance. To be frank, I am unclear about what has changed over time. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not here in 2008, although given his experience and command of the House, it is easy to think that he was. The former Member for Grantham and Stamford, who is now in another place—I am not sure whether to describe him as a colleague from the Government or Opposition Benches—proposed a similar Bill, which was rejected by the then Labour Government.

I am trying to establish whether this Bill is fundamentally different, whether the circumstances have fundamentally changed and whether the hon. Gentleman is saying, in retrospect, that the last Labour Government were wrong not to take forward the Bill on the national recognition of the armed forces proposed by the former Member. In all candour, I do not know whether the former Member was Conservative or Labour in 2008, although I am not sure that that is relevant.

I applaud the motives behind this Bill, which concerns an incredibly important issue that has been raised outside the House. I should like to go into a bit more detail on Lord Ashcroft’s report of May 2012 on the perceptions of our armed forces in society generally. It said that nearly one in 20 of the 9,000 personnel surveyed had had experience of violence or attempted violence in the previous five years. We should put this into perspective by saying that the level of violence towards other uniformed organisations—our fire service, ambulance service and police service—is equally appalling. I understand that there are differing circumstances. I also recognise that other Members would have criticised the Bill if the hon.

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Gentleman had drafted it even more widely. I merely raise this as a background issue rather than encouraging him to widen the scope of the Bill. I assume that it covers all our armed forces, including the Territorial Army.

Thomas Docherty indicated assent.

James Duddridge: That is good to know, and I apologise for not having picked it up in my reading of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the service chiefs. As the Bill progresses, I would be interested to find out a bit more about the representations made by service chiefs and other members of the armed forces and the degree to which they see this as a major problem in terms of the number of offences. Clearly, one offence is one too many. This is about sending a message of support to our troops in saying that we want them to be uniformed when off duty or going about their business, because that is a very positive thing, but the question is whether it is also about addressing the problem of a large number of offences.

Thomas Docherty: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for the services to make representations to Members of Parliament outside the ministerial channels. On the numbers involved, I am sure he agrees that even one would be one too many.

James Duddridge: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right, and he paraphrases my point. I also accept what he says about the service chiefs. Perhaps that question would be better directed at the Minister, but I suspect that he will find time to mention representations from service chiefs and other members of the armed forces. The armed forces are in a peculiar position compared with an accountant or a banker in making representations to Members of Parliament, and rightly so.

Let me turn to the detail of the Ashcroft report. We should not overplay the scale of the problem. We have said that one is too many, but 80% of our armed forces have not experienced problems or discrimination. In fact, 56% had had strangers come up to them and offer support, 29% had had strangers come up to them and offer to buy them a drink to thank them for the very good work that they are doing, and 26% had had spontaneous offers of discounts in shops and businesses—something that I would fully encourage. There were some problems at the other end of the scale, but there were many more positive than negative responses.

It is important that we send out a message to the armed forces that we support them and that we do take this seriously, but that in all probability they will not experience problems when going out and about in their uniform, which is a very positive thing to do in order to create civic pride and ensure that there is no gap between citizens and servicemen. It allows people to start conversations about what the armed forces do, it encourages recruitment, and it helps to do away with stereotypes in any way, shape or form. Although it is right to have this debate, I would not want members of the armed services to get the message that this is a massive problem that should deter them from wearing their uniform in public. In fact, as the Ashcroft report demonstrates, they are much more likely to be offered thanks, support, drinks and discounts than to experience any problems.

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In June 2012 the Defence Secretary wrote to the shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), on concerns about discrimination:

“You suggest the need for anti-discrimination legislation to protect those serving in the Armed Forces, similar, I assume, to legislation we already have to protect other groups in society. My advice is that the Armed Forces do not want to be singled out in this way”.

That is interesting and I hope that the Minister will probe in more detail the feedback he has received from the service chiefs and the armed forces more generally. I am not sure what the logic behind the argument is, but if they are saying that they do not want to be singled out we should take that seriously.

Thomas Docherty: This has been a constructive debate. We need to be clear—I hope the Minister will address this point—that, even though the armed forces would not expect to be singled out to an extent, we would none the less, despite their modesty, want to provide them with support, as this morning’s Sun has done.

James Duddridge: I see where the hon. Gentleman is going and think it sends a message. This also relates to the other uniformed services. We could do something collectively—perhaps not by amending this Bill, but more widely—to create respect for people who serve us, whether they be in the ambulance service, the fire and police services or the armed forces. Indeed, in my constituency of Rochford and Southend East there seems to be a worrying number of people who feel that it is right to take a pot shot at national health service staff. There is now a police station in Southend hospital to deter that type of activity. That is of particular concern and perhaps presents the case for a slightly wider Bill than this narrow one.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend might be moving on to this point, but if this Bill becomes law, those employed by the national health service might want to suggest that they should be given similar protection.

James Duddridge: Absolutely. One wonders whether we should look to raise standards overall. It is unacceptable to shout abuse at anyone, whether it be racist, homophobic or religious. The Ashcroft report states that some of those who responded to its survey had suffered absolute discrimination, such as being refused service in pubs or hotels, and 6% suffered violence or attempted violence. We should not necessarily distinguish between violence against someone in an Army or Navy uniform and violence against someone in an NHS uniform or, indeed, someone in a suit or jeans and T-shirt who is going about their business. There are many ways to tackle the underlying issues.

Having listened carefully to the speech made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife and the interventions that have been made, I think there is a need to send a specific message to the armed forces. Perhaps that is something that the armed forces covenant can look at and perhaps it, rather than this or any other Bill, could send the message to the general public.

I again thank the hon. Gentleman for proposing the Bill. I also want to reiterate and lay on record my gratitude to the armed forces and ask them to continue

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to wear their uniform in public. We like it and respect it. It helps to initiate conversations about what the armed forces are doing and it allows for pride. It is right that we discuss issues relating to the protection of people in uniform, as the hon. Gentleman has done. I thank him for initiating this debate and look forward to the Minister’s reply.

1.54 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I rise to support the important Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I congratulate him, not least because it is very unusual to see a Bill that takes up just one side of paper. As a former lawyer, I think that we see that far too rarely. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) for supporting the Bill.

We have been fortunate recently to have had many opportunities in the House to debate the armed forces and, in particular, the armed forces covenant, which the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has just mentioned. I am pleased that the Government and Members from all parts of the House—even our absent Liberal Democrat friends—have supported making progress on the covenant, although perhaps not as quickly as some of us would like. That reflects the widespread support for our armed forces, which I think has increased enormously in recent years. Perhaps that is because of their enormously important and professional work in the military action that we have taken in various parts of the world.

A key principle of the covenant is that no one in the service community should face disadvantage because of their service. That needs to be applied right across society. I therefore welcome the Bill because it seeks to strengthen the covenant further by making a simple change to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It would add service in the forces to the characteristics of a victim that can constitute an aggravating factor when the offender is sentenced. That protection is in place in relation to race, religion, disability and sexual orientation. We think that it is time to consider it for members of our armed forces.

We have heard reference to the valuable report by Lord Ashcroft, “The Armed Forces and Society”, which showed clearly that some members of the armed forces encounter problems in the community in everyday life. It showed that, regrettably, in the last five years, one in five members of the forces has experienced strangers shouting abuse at them while they have been wearing their uniform in public in the UK.

Members of this House must always bear it in mind that, on occasion, we ask the members of our armed forces to go to war. That is a profound decision for us as Members of Parliament and for Governments, and one that this House always takes very seriously. The individuals we put in that position must have our absolute support. We must therefore send out the message that we will not tolerate any individual receiving criticism for wearing the uniform that they wear so bravely at our request. It is quite unacceptable for them to be treated in that way. That is why we support the Bill.

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As the Minister and other hon. Members will know, this is not the first time that discrimination against members of the armed forces and their families has been raised in this House in recent months. In June last year, my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence called on the Government to consider measures to tackle discrimination against members of the forces in the light of the publication of Lord Ashcroft’s report. We asked the Secretary of State to set up talks that brought together all parties, the armed forces and the service charities to consider how discrimination could be tackled.

It is clear from Lord Ashcroft’s evidence that there is a significant problem with the attitude of some people towards our forces. We believe that we need to look at that problem seriously. We are disappointed that our suggestions have not been carried forward by the Government and we would like them to respond more positively. If the Government are serious about taking forward the covenant and helping to make a difference to the everyday lives of the service community, they must accept that discrimination needs to be tackled. I therefore urge the Government to back this important Bill.

The Opposition welcome the changes in the Bill that would protect further our armed forces. Reference has been made to less obvious types of discrimination, and we should not overlook those, because applications for credit cards, mobile phone contracts and so on are sometimes difficult for service personnel. We are pleased that the Government have made progress on those issues, particularly in relation to the pairing of British Forces Post Office with standard UK postcodes, and giving greater recognition to addresses. The first annual covenant report was published late last year and I am sure all hon. Members look forward to debating it fully, hopefully in the coming months. There is a commitment to work with financial companies and credit agencies to overcome problems that service personnel might experience in accessing services, and I would welcome any further update that the Minister can provide about progress on that front.

We hope that the Government will support this Bill. If they do not, they will be failing to take a step that adequately reflects the position that we owe to our armed forces.

James Duddridge: To be clear, Her Majesty’s official Opposition are urging the Government to do something, but there was an opportunity to introduce such a measure in 2008. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there was a problem in 2008 but that it was not evidenced and that that is why the Government did not act? Has Lord Ashcroft’s report now provided evidence that gives the hon. Gentleman confidence to suggest a change that his Government did not take forward?

Ian Lucas: One of the advantages of losing elections—if there are any—is that it enables one to reflect and collate more evidence. We have heard reference to the incidents in Barking in 2010, and the additional evidence provided by Lord Ashcroft. As a result of that additional information, we have had the opportunity to reflect and I have outlined our position today. I do not know the particulars of the 2008 legislation, but we entirely support the Bill under discussion. I know there is a great deal of

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good will across the House on this matter, and we have today heard the strength of support for our armed forces. We hope that that will be carried forward by the Government in their response to this excellent Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on his eloquence and on his audacity in promoting so many Bills today. I hope he will receive a positive response from the Minister who is, of course, so committed to the armed forces.

2.2 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and I commend the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for bringing this Bill before the House and giving us the opportunity to discuss what we all instinctively agree is an important subject. I also pay tribute to his knowledgeable service on the Defence Committee. He mentioned the important work of the Armed Forces Bill Committee. That led to the Armed Forces Act 2011—to which I shall refer in a few minutes—which enshrined the key principles of the armed forces covenant in law. I believe that we all did the right thing in that Act, and as I shall outline in my speech, it provides us with additional powers that may come in handy in responding to this Bill.

In a debate of this kind, which is rightfully conducted in a non-partisan spirit, it is important to make clear at the outset where we agree, as well as where we might differ. I think I speak for the whole House in saying that we all hold the same view about discrimination against members of the armed forces: it is a completely unacceptable form of behaviour towards the men and women who have committed themselves to defending this country, its people and its way of life—to defending us and our families. In doing so they make sacrifices and give up freedoms that their fellow citizens perhaps sometimes take for granted. Those who discriminate against service personnel, or against other members of the wider armed forces community, succeed only in diminishing themselves. In this House we can debate the best way of combating discrimination, but there is no dispute about the objective.

Discrimination can take many forms. Some of it is thoughtless or uninformed, for example, when public services fail to take account of the special circumstances in which armed forces personnel find themselves. Some of it is based on myth and prejudice—a view that soldiers create trouble or are unreliable customers. Like the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, I do not believe that that is normally the case, but we have to accept that some people have that misperception and we must challenge it. Some discrimination or abuse stems from genuine hostility to members of the armed forces, motivated by politics or perhaps by some unfortunate personal experience. It is on that very narrow part of the spectrum that the Bill principally focuses.

The Bill would have the effect of amending section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which lays down circumstances in which the criminal courts must treat an offence as aggravated, for the purpose of deciding on the appropriate sentence. The aggravating factors currently set out in section 146 are that the offender either demonstrates, or is motivated by, a hostility towards the victim which is based on the victim’s disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity. Section 145 of that

1 Feb 2013 : Column 1220

Act is also relevant, as it allows for an offence to be “racially or religiously aggravated” when a sentence is decided.

This Bill would add a further characteristic, so that the offence is aggravated if the offender’s hostility is based on the victim “being a service person”. The subsection on the meaning of a “service person” refers across to section 343B of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which was added by the Armed Forces Act 2011 and relates to the armed forces covenant. The definition in subsection (1) of section 343B is pertinent. It states:

“service people means—

(a) members of the regular forces and the reserve forces;

(b) members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law;

(c) former members of any of Her Majesty’s forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; and

(d) relevant family members.”

Mr Nuttall: My right hon. Friend did not mention cadets in that list. I am not sure if any guidance has been given on whether cadets would be covered by that definition, but does he think they would be?

Mr Francois: That is a good question. My understanding is that cadets would not ordinarily be covered per se, but they might be covered if they were a family member of a service person. We could be making law here, so it is important to understand the technicalities of the drafting. I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife will understand that we have taken his Bill seriously and we have looked very carefully at the legal effect of what he proposes.

James Duddridge: I apologise if my right hon. Friend has already covered this issue, but I would like to ask about the many uniformed armed personnel who are not British citizens; I think of American soldiers and service personnel based in this country. They are used to wearing service uniform and being easily identified as servicemen in America, but they may also wish to receive the same protections in the UK as this Bill proposes for our own servicemen. Are they also covered?

Mr Francois: I must confess that in preparing for this debate I had not looked at that question. My instinctive answer is that they would not be, because the Bill relates mainly to UK service personnel.

Thomas Docherty indicated assent.

Mr Francois: I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding, so I hope I have that right.

Further on in section 343B, subsection (4) gives the meaning of the term “relevant family member”, but effectively allows the Secretary of State to interpret it as best fits the context. The Bill, however, replaces that discretion, for this purpose, by specifying that it should cover “any relative”. If I have understood the hon. Gentleman’s intentions correctly—I hope I have—he wishes the new provision to cover a large group of people, including all former members of the armed forces and all relatives of current or former service personnel. Offences against them would be treated more seriously, if motivated by hostility to service people.

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Thomas Docherty: Perhaps I can assist the Minister. He will be aware, from the examples cited, that the types of occasions concerned are those such as remembrance services and funerals. That is why the Bill is so framed. He was right to highlight it, but there have been regrettable incidents at such occasions.

Mr Francois: Again, I can follow the hon. Gentleman’s thinking, but as I will explain it could present practical difficulties, if the Bill was passed, including for the courts. If he will allow me, I shall explain—clearly, I hope—why they might be.

We need to be clear about what the Bill will not do. Over the years, there have been reports of incidents in which hostility has been directed against service personnel because of their membership of the armed forces. Some of the actions of anti-war demonstrators, for example, fall into this category and have been widely and rightly condemned. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a protest at the homecoming parade of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. As that was my old regiment, I feel that particularly strongly, as he can imagine.

Those incidents should not be confused, however, with situations such as a refusal to admit members of the armed forces to a hotel or bar. These, too, have led to widespread public indignation, but it is important to recognise that the Bill does not address those situations, because they generally do not involve a criminal offence.

Thomas Docherty indicated assent.

Mr Francois: The hon. Gentleman nods in assent.

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do, and I have no difficulty in principle with the signal he wants Parliament to send—that offences motivated by hostility to the armed forces are serious offences—but I have considerable practical difficulty with how he proposes to send that signal. In effect, I believe that the law of unintended consequences would apply, and I will explain why in a moment.

As a general rule, before we go down the route of new legislation, we must consider whether there is a need for it. The answer in this case is, on balance, no. The courts already have a wide power in sentencing to take into account factors that make conduct more serious. Criminal acts based on an irrational hostility to a person because he or she is in the armed forces will, if anything, often lead to a higher sentence anyway.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does the Minister not accept that we need to send a clear message to people that such acts will be treated very severely?

Mr Francois: As I said, I can understand the signal that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife is trying to send, but if we are talking about changing the law of the land, we need to look at the practical effect, including on the courts. I am trying to walk the House through what might be the practical effect in the courtroom. If the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) will bear with me, I shall attempt to develop that point.

I am aware of no evidence of courts finding that they have insufficient powers to give an appropriate sentence to an offender in this regard. I am not aware that we have received representations from the courts asking us to amend the law in this way.

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In contrast, converting the flexibility that the courts currently exercise into a mandatory requirement—which is what the Bill says—would present them with practical difficulties. For example, in demonstrating to a court that the aggravating factor was present and should apply, the prosecution would need to show that the hostility was present. Perhaps that would be relatively straightforward in the case of a soldier in uniform, but the Bill as drafted extends the same protection to those not in uniform, which might be more difficult to prove. As we have seen, this provision also includes the families of service personnel and our veteran community—all 4.6 million of them, or about one in 10 of the adult population of this country.

Under the Bill as drafted, the court would presumably have to decide whether the offender was aware of that fact and whether it motivated the effect. The court might need to establish whether a victim was a relative—“any relative”—of a member of the armed forces. How are the courts to deal with a situation where an offence is motivated by excessive rivalry between different sections of the armed forces or, perhaps, a domestic dispute? A mandatory requirement for a higher sentence reduces the courts’ ability to take a sensible, common-sense approach to what is really going on in the circumstances they are examining.

Thomas Docherty: I regret that the Minister and I are slightly diverging in our perspectives. My concern is that some of these arguments could well have been used by civil servants who were sceptical about the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 dealing with relatives and how someone knows that someone else is gay. The Minister is a wise individual with a great deal of common sense. He knows what we are talking about, even if his civil servants do not necessarily know, and I am confident that if he was on a jury, he would know what he was looking at.

Mr Francois: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s vote of confidence in that respect. It is kind of him. The point I am making is that his Bill would mandate the courts. My argument is that the courts already have sufficient power to increase sentences if they believe that such sentiments are an aggravating factor, but can make that choice at their own discretion. It is not as though the courts could not do that without the Bill. They already can; it is just that the Bill would mandate them to do so, which might lead to some practical difficulties.

It is also worth pointing out that there is a fundamental difference between offences provoked by hostility to the work of the victim and offences motivated by prejudice against the inherent characteristics of the victim, such as homophobic crime. Section 146 of the 2003 Act is designed to help to change deep-rooted prejudices. It would be quite wrong to suggest that such provisions were necessary in relation to the armed forces, because I do not believe that such deep-seated prejudices necessarily apply.

I have not yet mentioned what I regard as the most telling argument against the Bill: the views of the intended beneficiaries. I am not aware of any general desire in the armed forces community for legislation of this type and it has certainly never been proposed to me by any of the chiefs of staff. The servicemen and women who wear

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their uniforms with pride want to be respected in their communities and to be considered part of those communities, and rightly so. We should not necessarily put them in a position where they are forced to explain why they require protection in law in a way that is not enjoyed by, for example, firemen or ambulance staff. It is a firm principle of the armed forces covenant that special provision for service people may be appropriate in some cases, but I am not necessarily convinced at this stage that the way the hon. Gentleman has drafted his Bill would achieve the desired effect.

Finally, we have to recognise that the criminal law is a devolved matter. The hon. Gentleman is aware that this is a difficult area—in fairness to him, the Bill clearly states that, as drafted, it extends to England and Wales only, so he is definitely cognisant of that—but the Bill opens the way to a situation where offences against members of the armed services could be handled differently across the UK. We have no interest in creating further anomalies of this kind. I have no doubt that the Scottish Parliament would be as firm as Westminster in its views on discrimination, but we also need to acknowledge and recognise that the question is perhaps not as straightforward when seen from the perspective of Belfast. The introduction of a provision similar to the one we are discussing today could, practically, be quite problematic in Northern Ireland under certain circumstances.

In pointing out the problems with the Bill, I would not wish the House to draw the conclusion that the Government are complacent or that we are doing nothing to counter discrimination against service personnel—quite the opposite. The armed forces covenant and the principles that we enshrined in statute in 2011 have a high profile across the whole of Whitehall and beyond. The first principle, that members of the armed forces community should not suffer disadvantage as a result of that membership, has given rise to many initiatives that are making a real, practical difference.

In the first statutory annual report on the armed forces covenant, published in December 2012, we described what we were doing to make those principles a reality. Let me give the House some examples. We are working to remove the disadvantage that the children of service personnel can face in the schools system as a result of their mobility, through the admissions code and through the service pupil premium. We have been consulting on the disadvantages faced by reservists in the workplace. We are ensuring that service personnel and leavers encounter a level playing field in access to social housing or Government-funded home ownership schemes.

At the same time, we are working to build the links between the armed forces community and the wider community, to improve the knowledge and understanding that must be at the centre of that relationship. From knowledge flows the esteem for our servicemen and women that is ultimately the most powerful way to counter discrimination. The community covenant has now been signed in over 230 local authority areas from Cornwall to the north of Scotland, signifying a real determination to strengthen ties with the armed forces. I am confident that, during the year, it will continue to gain further support. The grant scheme linked to the community covenant has allowed us to back a range of schemes that will help to put those declarations into practice. To that, we can now add the £35 million fund

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created as a result of the LIBOR fines, which will support charities with projects to help the armed forces and their families.

In giving the Bill careful consideration, I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife will not mind me pointing out that it is not an entirely new proposal. That fact was highlighted earlier by my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). It is always good to see him in his place in the House of Commons. Something very similar was proposed by the then Member for Grantham and Stamford, now Lord Davies of Stamford, in his “Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of the Armed Forces” in 2008. The hon. Member for Wrexham said that he could not quite remember the details of the report, so I shall refresh his memory. On page 6, in the chapter on “Increasing Visibility”, the then Member for Grantham and Stamford said:

“We further recommend that the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service and Ministry of Justice consider issuing guidance respectively to the Police, Prosecutors and Judiciary to the effect that where victims of violence or threats of violence are persons in military uniform, those offences should be considered aggravated by that fact.”

The Labour Government of the day responded to that report a few months later, in the name of the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). By then, of course, the author of the report had become a Defence Minister. Nevertheless, the Government’s response to the recommendation I have just referred to was very clear. It stated:

“We are confident…that Service personnel are properly protected against criminal offences by the criminal law as it stands.”

It went on to state that

“we do not think that a change in the law is necessary or appropriate.”

Given that robust response, I had expected the Opposition to take the same view of the Bill as we do.

James Duddridge: I had previously held the noble Lord Davies of Stamford in high regard, but I reassessed that because I felt that he had moved from this side of the House to the other side for reasons of naked opportunism. Is my right hon. Friend correcting me, and saying that it was not naked opportunism but related to his services to—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. The hon. Gentleman should not mention a Member of the other House in that way. I am sure that he will want to withdraw that comment.

James Duddridge: I withdraw the term “naked” and the other word that I used. I do not know which—

Mr Deputy Speaker: And the discussion of a Member of the other House.

James Duddridge: A plethora of apologies to cover all bases. Perhaps it is best if I leave my right hon. Friend the Minister to reply in any way that he deems permissible.

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Mr Francois: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Lord Davies might have changed parties, but I will leave it to others to decide whether he has changed his mind.

Across the country, attitudes to our armed forces are positive and healthy. That is not only a good thing in itself; it is also an important contributor to morale. We should not underestimate the strength that our servicemen and women draw in doing their very difficult job from the knowledge that they have the respect and backing of their fellow citizens. They deserve it, and they earn it; we do not need to enlist the help of the criminal courts in order to engender respect for our armed forces.

Thomas Docherty: Will the Minister give way again?

Mr Francois: I am about to conclude, but I will give way briefly if the hon. Gentleman wants me to.

Thomas Docherty: Very briefly, is this an issue that the Minister will look at in the coming armed forces covenant report, and will he consider reporting back to the House on it?

Mr Francois: The hon. Gentleman pre-empts me. I was about to say that as a result of the Armed Forces Act 2011, we have a new vehicle at our disposal in the form of an annual report to Parliament—effectively a report on the state of the armed forces covenant. As I have already mentioned, we produced the first report in December last year. I acknowledge that it does not refer in detail to the issues we have been debating this afternoon. Given the concerns expressed, however, I can see the case for monitoring developments in this area, and for including any findings in the next report at the end of 2013. The focus of the annual report on the removal of disadvantage as one of the key covenant principles gives us sufficient latitude to do so. I sense no will in the House to object to our being able to achieve that.

On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that my caution about the law of unintended consequences does not diminish in any way my respect for what he is trying to achieve. On the understanding that we will most definitely look at this issue in the context of the armed forces covenant report, I hope he will consider withdrawing his Bill.

2.26 pm

Thomas Docherty: This has been a very positive, consensual and useful debate. Briefly, I think there is a difference between the armed forces and other uniforms. The armed forces are unique in that they have no professional body; there is no equivalent of the Police Federation, the Fire Brigades Union or the GMB. That is an important point to note.

I am heartened by the fact that two Ministers have been prepared to give up their time to be here. I am heartened, too, by the pledge given by the Minister of State. I welcome that, and I look forward to working with him on it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.

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Train Companies (Minimum Fares) Bill

Second Reading

2.27 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful to have so much time to speak to this Bill this afternoon. I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will probably not get too long to discuss his excellent Bill, and indeed that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) will not get long to discuss the Bill he has so ably brought before us.

I am sure that your constituents, Mr Deputy Speaker, just like mine, are facing rising costs in train fares. A recent report by Passenger Focus found that 40% of passengers were over-paying for their train fares. In 2009, the Select Committee on Transport published an excellent report that received cross-party support, and that said that the current fare structure was cumbersome, bureaucratic and difficult to understand. I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would be as surprised as I was to learn that the current fare regulations stretch to more than 1,000 pages. That goes back to the fact that when the railways were privatised, British Rail—not the most flexible organisation—had a bureaucratic and cumbersome process.

I very much welcome the fact that the Department for Transport is now reviewing the fare process, even if, like some trains, it is going a bit slower than we would like. I have been contacted by many constituents about this issue. It is interesting to note that under the current devolution settlement, this matter is reserved to the UK Parliament, so it is great to see in his place one of the devolution Ministers, who I am sure will respond in due course. I do not know whether the Government are talking actively to the Welsh Assembly Government or the Scottish Executive about this matter.

I shall be brief, because I hope to give the Minister a chance to respond in a few minutes.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Thomas Docherty: Very briefly.

James Duddridge: Would the hon. Gentleman consider amending the Bill to allow the issue of tickets enabling people to travel throughout the United Kingdom for a fixed price for a whole year? That system operates in Germany.

Thomas Docherty: It is a very good idea, although it would be Great Britain rather than the United Kingdom, because Ireland has a separate deal with Northern Ireland.

If my constituents go to one of my local railway stations at 8 am, ScotRail is not required to tell them what is the lowest fare. If they ask, ScotRail—

2.30 pm

The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March.

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Business without Debate


Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (2 November), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 1 March.


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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March.


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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March.


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

Hon. Members: Object

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March.

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Chalk Stream Abstraction

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

2.31 pm

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for allowing me to speak on the Adjournment today, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me begin by saying to the Minister that I am going to give him one hell of a beating over the next 15 minutes, and I hope he can suck it up and take it like a man.

We are a blessed nation. When God made this great world of ours, He gave India the Himalayas, He gave Brazil the Amazon rain forest, and He gave South Africa the savannah. Then God thought to Himself, “What can I give that great country, England? What can I give England that it can be proud of?”, and He gave us 85% of the world’s chalk streams. The world’s chalk streams are one of the most precious previous ecosystems available, and God decided that we should have custody of 85% of that resource; so we are indeed a blessed nation.

As I grew up with my grandfather in Hampshire and Wiltshire, I spent many happy days trundling down the river banks, fishing rod in hand, with my grandfather carrying the picnic basket containing the tomato soup and my grandmother’s cheese and ham baps. We would sit there on the river bank, looking at the sparkling water, the kingfishers, the damselflies, the mayflies and the water voles, and the two of us, for that moment in time, were kings. But now, I am afraid, the House must hear the bad news. For the last 30 or 40 years, we have watched our precious chalk streams die. We have watched them drain away, abstracted to death.

Just after my grandfather died in January 2012, I visited the River Kennet at Manton, where we had had so many adventures together. I stood in that river with the former Member of Parliament for Reading, West, Martin Salter, and it was dry: dry as a bone. We stood in that river with my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), in whose constituency it falls. It was dry; it had gone. There was no more water, and there was no more wildlife: no voles, no fly life, no fish, nothing. There was just a tiny puddle in the weir pool. I said that there were no fish, but in fact there were about 20 fish left in the weir pool, clinging on for life.

That was in January 2012, when we were facing an environmental disaster. We were only saved by a once-in-a-hundred-years event—the coming of the great rains in the spring of last year, which lasted throughout the summer and continued into the winter. Without those rains, there would have been standpipes across the country, and we would have been in crisis. Cobra would have been meeting. That is how close we were to the water system failing and our losing many more of our rivers, not just the upper Kennet.

As a result of this near-disaster, the all-party group on angling and interested parties from around the country—chalk streams are to be found in the east of England, the west country and as far away as Yorkshire, as well as in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire—held a summit at Stockbridge. The mood was one of extreme anger because this precious natural resource was being

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allowed to die, and we were standing aside and watching that happen—we were watching our chalk streams drain away.

We in this House lecture Brazil on the Amazon rain forest and Indonesia on its rain forest, yet we are appalling custodians of our own precious resources. We are not in any position to lecture anyone about the environment.

The Environment Agency attended that summit meeting, and its civil servants looked us in the eye and assured us that it had the highest regard for our chalk streams, and that it was committed to conserving them and making sure they remained for future generations to enjoy. I do not want to say this, but I am going to: what total and utter rubbish. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. I said to those at the EA, “You come and visit our streams in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.” If they were to visit them today, they would need a pair of waders, as we have had historically high levels of rainfall, but if they had come last spring, they would not have needed to bring waders, or even gumboots or ankle-boots. In fact they could have brought their bedroom slippers and still not got their feet wet, because these rivers have been abstracted to death, and some of them are not even there any more. Last year, we lost three, and another two were 50% dried up. They will come back, but there will not be any wildlife in them, there will not be any fly life and there will not be any fish.

What really sticks in the craw is that the EA puts out press releases saying, “Our rivers have never been cleaner than they are now.” Some of them might well be clean, but they might also be only 1 inch deep, so that message is deliberately misleading.

Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire are in this situation because we have been building houses for decades; we have been growing the population of the east of England for decades without any thought to how we are going to supply the water. We just keep sucking it out of the ground through abstraction. The last major reservoir that was built in the south-east and east was the Queen Mother reservoir, which was constructed 40 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of houses have been built in the intervening time.

In 1950, there was a debate in this Chamber about the state of the Mimram, running along the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. There was concern about its future back then, when households were abstracting an average of 60 litres of water a day. That figure now stands at 180 litres of water a day across the region, and, as I have said, there are so many more homes, too.

We are on the cusp of an historic event, as the draft water Bill will soon come before the House. The Bill must be robust. First, it must deal with Ofwat. I am not going to pull my punches: Ofwat is a really shocking organisation. It really is a disgrace, and it has worked against conservation in this country for many years. It has no regard for conservation. It is not interested in what happens in the natural environment. If a water company wants to install metering to try to reduce usage, it will not happen if it is going to cost anybody any money. Ofwat needs to be given some responsibility for the environmental consequences of its actions. We cannot carry on in the same way as at present.

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We need to get far better at capturing and storing water. We currently have an abundance of water, but a lot of it is going down the rivers into the sea. As a result, it is replenishing the aquifers, which is a good thing, but the aquifers will be sucked dry again and in two or three years we will right back where we started. That means rivers that barely flow, rivers that do not support any life, rivers that are in essence dead—environmental vandalism on a extraordinary scale. As I said, how dare we lecture the developing world on its responsibilities to its natural environment when we so casually disregard our responsibilities to our natural environment?

I was educated in America, where people are far more aggressive in pursuit of conservation issues. Trout Unlimited in America routinely takes state and federal Governments to court when they are letting down the natural environment. It mounts court cases, fights court cases and wins court cases. I do not advocate direct action in this country. Sometimes I want to man the barricades, break the water pumps, let people know how I feel, burning tyres in the street in Stockbridge, for example, to make the point, but that is not the way forward. It might be tempting, it might be momentarily attractive to become a sort of middle-class Swampy, but that is not the way forward. If this Government, if future Governments cannot get it right, we have to go to law more often. We have to hold Governments to account.

We have an excellent Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). His heart is in the right place. He has it within his powers to do something truly great. If he meets resistance in Ofwat, get rid of that resistance—show ’em the door. If the Environment Agency is not willing to step up to the plate, show those responsible the door. We need a can-do Government and a can-do Minister working in a can-do Department. We are at the business end of the coalition. We are halfway through the Parliament and now is the time to make the difference, to leave that legacy by which we will be judged.

So I urge the Minister in his remaining two and a half years at the Department—who knows, he might be there indefinitely as the Conservatives sweep the board in 2015, but I am almost sure that he has another two and a half years in that Department and I will ask him to do great things while he is there. This is not just about fishing, as much as I love fishing and catching beautiful wild brown trout that have swum our rivers since the ice age; it is about how we treat and regard our environment.

I am appalled when I hear that plans are made to build houses in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire without any thought being given to how we are going to supply those houses with water. In my part of the world 70% of our water is abstracted and there are tens of thousands more houses to be built, so more and more abstraction. We have a roll-call of shame—the River Beane, the Ver, the Bulbourne, the Chess, the Misbourne, the Gade, the Wye, the Lea, the Colne, the Mimram—some of them on their knees, some no longer on their knees but in the dust, because there is no hope for them if things continue as they are now.

On many of the rivers that do not flow there are still abstraction licences that are not even being utilised. On the River Lea, which is at about 10% of its historical flow, 15% of what it was 300 or 400 years ago, there are abstraction licences that are not being exercised, but if

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the water companies see fit, they have the right to exercise them. We are on the cusp not just of things going along in an unsustainable way, but truly collapsing off the cliff.

I feel passionately about the matter. Normally I am a good-natured, mild-mannered Member of Parliament and I have tried to be good-natured today, but this Government must get a grip. We have kicked the issue into the long grass for far too long. Successive Governments have not tackled it. If we do not do so, we should say to Brazil, Indonesia and parts of Africa, “Get on with what you want to do with your own environment. We are totally useless at looking after our precious natural resources. Who are we to lecture you?” If I ever come to the House at a time when no action has been taken to address the problem of our own natural resources, if I ever come to the House and hear colleagues and Ministers pontificating about what Brazil should be doing in respect of the Amazon rain forest, I will either walk out in disgust or make a scene, which will be very unattractive for all concerned.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity, and Minister, I look forward to your response. You have the potential to be a great man. You are a great man in creation at the moment. I really do hope that the Department will march to your tune, that you will crack the whip and that Ofwat and the EA will get a grip, step up to the plate and sort out this terrible, terrible unfolding catastrophe.

2.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): The House does not need to be told that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) is passionate about this issue, and it is a passion that I share. I compliment him on his eloquence and look forward to addressing some of his points, but, more importantly, to being judged by my Department’s actions as we seek to resolve these issues.

My hon. Friend will know that I have form on this issue. I cut my political teeth trying to address over-abstraction in a chalk stream, the River Pang, which I am lucky enough to have flowing through my farm. I was a councillor at the time and I was asked to set up an environmental body that brought together local authorities, parishes, the local community, Thames Water, and the then National Rivers Authority, to see what could be done to improve the habitat around the river, to achieve better flows and to protect the environment. It was a passion that I had then over 20 years ago, and it is one that I now bring to this job as I seek to do precisely what he wants, which is to see rivers such as the River Pang and the ones he described in his part of the world restored to health.

One of the trends in conservation now is something that some people thought would never happen, and that is when green non-governmental organisations work with business to achieve a result that both desire. One of the best partnerships that I have come across in my job is the one between WWF and HSBC. Their Rivers on the Edge campaign seeks to restore chalk streams and is doing great work, and I feel both held to account by it but also passionately involved in making sure that it works.

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My hon. Friend rightly says that our water resources are under pressure from development and a growing population, changes in lifestyle and changes in the climate, but there have been a number of changes in recent years that may just put us more in the right direction. One of them is the clear driver towards sustainable development. To me, that means developers having to prove as part of the planning process that what they are doing will at the very least have a minimal impact on the environment. In terms of water usage, that includes the demand end of the water supply in the home right through to the impact on the environment. That is key in terms of our catchment approach to river management.

At one level, I come before the House and say that we want to restore the health of these rivers because we have to comply with the water framework directive. But what a paucity of ambition that would be if it were the sum total of what we seek to do. We want to restore the health of these rivers because we want to restore them. They are, as my hon. Friend describes, part of our culture, part of our heritage. He described them as a divine gift, but whatever hon. Members believe, they are something that this country has and if we believe in good stewardship of our natural resources he is absolutely right: we must turn around these failing rivers and make them flow again and be vibrant environmental features for future generations.

There is a problem in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Public water supplies come predominantly from the chalk groundwater—the same groundwater that flows through our chalk streams. Many of our chalk streams are in a poor state, and restoring flows is essential to increasing the diversity of plant, invertebrate and fish species found in those rivers.

My hon. Friend had some hard words for the Environment Agency. I am not complacent; I am not saying that how Government approach the issue has always been right. However, we do need to balance that argument with what is happening.

Mr Charles Walker: I shall give the Minister a specific example. As we speak, the River Mimram is being downgraded from “over-abstracted” to “over-licensed”. It is clearly over-abstracted. May I ask the Minister to look into that redesignation and come back to the House or write to me in response?

Richard Benyon: I certainly will. I have had my ear bent about the Mimram in the past, and I will make sure that I respond to that specific point.

The Environment Agency is working closely with local groups and environmental bodies to carry out habitat restoration to improve chalk streams. All rivers have targeted plans, actions and resources to remedy the poor conditions, so that local people can tell whether or not we are achieving what we set out to do.

Just over a year ago, we published our water White Paper, which set out a vision for a resilient and sustainable water industry and for future reform of the abstraction regime. We know that the current system is not flexible enough to cope with the challenges of climate change and the increased demand from a growing population, which my hon. Friend so eloquently described. The condition of our chalk rivers acutely highlights that.

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The new system needs to be sustainable, resilient and ensure that water remains available to support growth, supply households and protect the environment. Reforming the regime is complex in both economic and environmental terms. Tackling over-abstraction and the damage that it causes is a priority, but we need to recognise that the water is being abstracted for uses that are critical to the operation of businesses and for households.

Mr Walker: Of course water is required by industry and households; that is why we need to build more reservoirs. We had the chance to build a major reservoir at Abingdon, but that project seems to have fallen by the wayside. We must start building major reservoirs in the east and south-east; it is the only environmentally responsible thing to do.

Richard Benyon: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently went to the Abberton reservoir in East Anglia. It has just been enlarged by a vast percentage of its original size by Northumbrian Water, which owns the water company in that area. There is extra capacity there, but I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Over generations, we have decided that the cheapest way to provide water for homes and businesses is to suck it out of the ground. That is how we have kept bills low for households and businesses. Successive Governments have wished, perfectly reasonably, to keep water bills low. We continue to have that ambition, but we also have environmental ambitions. It is a question of whether we have the balance right, and I am prepared to concede that we do not. I urge my hon. Friend to read our White Paper to see how we set out the importance of a resilient water industry and sector. That will become clear as we develop the issue not only in the water Bill, but in other measures that do not need legislation.

Reforming the abstraction regime is complex, in both economic and environmental terms. Tackling over-abstraction and the damage that it causes is a priority. However, any change that we make will affect people’s livelihoods, so it is important that we take time to get the reform right and work with abstractors to understand and minimise the potential impacts. That is why we aim to legislate for that early in the next Parliament, rather than including specific abstraction measures in the water Bill that we hope will go through Parliament in the next Session. The key point is that we can start to address, without legislation, my hon. Friend’s concerns in many areas.

We are working closely with our stakeholders to understand the potential impacts of reform, from our national advisory group to the people on the ground who actually use the water. Through the year, we will be starting a number of dialogues with different groups, using social and digital media, in the run-up to our formal consultation at the end of the year, so that everyone who shares our passion for these rivers can be involved in this process.

Right now, we are tackling over-abstraction. Abstraction reform is only part of the story. We are able to take action to tackle the kind of abstraction that is damaging our rivers, and we want to make better use of the tools we already have. The Environment Agency has reviewed thousands of licences and changed many of the most

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damaging. Through the restoring sustainable abstraction process, the agency is working closely with water companies—the largest abstractors in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire—to improve flows in these rivers. Their work on restoring sustainable abstraction, together with catchment-scale investigations to identify these and other issues, such as diffuse pollution, will give us early notice of the issues we need to tackle in the next river basin management plans, starting in 2015, when there may well be a requirement for new upstream water storage, such as reservoirs.

Mr Walker: Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) on all the work they have done in support of local chalk streams, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who is chairman of the all-party angling group, on his efforts?

Richard Benyon: This House is full of people with a real passion for these environments. As the MP for a constituency that contains a number of chalk streams, I know about the leadership that has been given over many years by the hon. Members my hon. Friend mentions, and by others who are no longer in this House. He referred to Martin Salter, a former colleague on the Labour Benches, whose work with the Angling Trust is very important in raising these matters. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to our colleagues who campaign on this.

We want water companies to begin to prepare new water resources management plans for consultation in spring this year. We want them to include in those plans actions to address sustainable reductions where investigations have shown that these are needed or likely to be needed. Last year we published guiding principles that can be used by the Environment Agency to assess whether abstractors are causing serious damage to water bodies. This will enable the agency to use powers to modify the most damaging abstraction licences without the need to pay compensation. This is a major change and a major step forward.

We are also developing better tools and incentives to help water companies to manage their abstractions sustainably. We are working with Ofwat on something that we are calling our abstraction incentive mechanism, which was developed with WWF and several others, and which will encourage water companies to abstract their water from more sustainable sources. This is about making an environmental evaluation as to whether water abstraction is damaging or less damaging in terms of where it occurs. I commend it as one of the measures that we are taking in the next periodic price review process which will start to address the problems that my hon. Friend describes. We are also working with the Environment Agency and Ofwat to change how water companies are funded for changes to damaging abstraction licences. This offers us a real opportunity for a way forward.

I have had time to touch on only some of the measures that we are taking. There are other, more technical, means that I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend and the all-party group. I am constantly trying to find new and better ways to make sure that over the next few years we

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reverse the decline in these extraordinary ecosystems. We are not just talking about the channel where the river flows through, beautiful though that is; rich in habitat, when healthy, though it is; and wonderful though it is for people like my hon. Friend and I who enjoy fishing. We are also talking about the whole catchment —the whole environment of the valley that the river flows through. It is absolutely vital that we in the Government, with voluntary bodies, local authorities, and, most importantly, water companies and other abstractors,

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work towards a solution in which these extraordinary habitats are restored to how they justly should be, so that people can come from all over the world to see a really special environmental feature.

Question put and agreed to.

2.59 pm

House adjourned.