The simple message is that much of what the Government have said and done has been welcome and positive, particularly the work on the Portas pilots. The national planning policy framework was a great piece of work, which has hugely improved the planning framework. Will the Minister tell us why officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government still refuse to amend use class orders or look again at the general permitted development rights to clear up the absurd loopholes that are damaging communities and town centres across the country? It would be possible to make simple changes under secondary legislation to

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give communities a say by requiring any change of use of a valued community facility, such as a local pub, to go through the planning process. Overnight, that would stop such assets being sold behind the backs of communities; it would stop there being 22 betting shops on the street in Tottenham that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) mentioned; it would stop Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores being imposed on communities without their having any say whatsoever; and it would stop the nonsense of viable, profitable businesses being closed. The damage that such changes of use do to the local economy is borne out by the fact that twice as much of the money spent in a pub is recycled into the local community as of the money spent in a supermarket.

I finish with a word of warning to the Minister, who is a big friend of pubs, and who is passionate about them and about other small shops, business and services. The Government have announced that they will introduce a statutory code of conduct for the giant leased pub companies to stop them overcharging their lessees year after year—a scandal that has closed and is closing many otherwise viable, wanted businesses. That is good news, but already some of the leased pub companies have threatened to start mass disposals of their pubs. Around the country, pubs are being bought up by small breweries, micro-breweries and local entrepreneurs and by communities, some of whom are using the community right to buy. Unless the DCLG takes responsibility and changes use class orders and general permitted development rights, the leased pub companies will be able to dispose of such pubs for other use, as they have threatened to do, without giving the community a say in the matter. Joined-up thinking is required, and my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues must take that responsibility seriously and deal with the problem. It is a simple matter for them to ensure that, where such pubs are viable and wanted and where a realistic offer is made for them, they are sold as pubs, so that they can continue to be an important part—indeed, the mainstay—of our high streets and our communities up and down the country.

3.25 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. It is an extremely important debate, and because the Minister and I serve beautiful city constituencies—in his case Bath and in my case Durham—it is relevant to both of us. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare made two important points that I agreed with and want to emphasise. First, change is coming to the high street and we need to think better how to prepare for and manage it to ensure that the cityscapes that we treasure are not damaged. Secondly, we must recognise that planning is important in shaping places and that it can be positively used for the benefit of our communities. We do not hear that very often; we usually hear that planning is a brake on growth and that it is damaging. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman used Milton Keynes as an example of what positive planning can achieve. We might not see the outcome of planning decisions for several years, but 30 years on we can see that Milton Keynes has benefited from careful planning.

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Several hon. Members made important points about their communities and protecting their high streets. I will, rather cheekily, pick up a point that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made strongly. He said that localism was important, and he was worried that some of the changes that the Government are making might damage localism and take decisions away from local planning authorities. The Opposition objected to the changes contained in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which will transfer many decisions to the Planning Inspectorate. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues did not join us when we opposed the Government’s plans.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) made powerful speeches about use class orders, which picked up on the point made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. They made important points about the need for local people and local authorities to have more control over use class orders, which I will discuss in more detail later. The Government have just produced a school food review report that suggests that fast food outlets should not be available near schools. It will be interesting to know whether the Minister has had any conversations with his colleagues in the Department for Education about how that could be implemented.

More generally, we heard a plea for more flexibility to be given to local authorities on how use class orders are used, which I have been advocating for a long time. I see no reason why use class orders cannot simply be given to local authorities to use as they want. Local authorities represent their communities and know about what use classes should be available, how they should be used and how to rescind one and to put another in its place. If the Minister wants to extend his localism credentials, this is something I could give him on a plate: take use class orders away, look at them and give them to local authorities. That would be a much more sensible way forward.

To return to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, he referred to how local councils can already protect views through conservation areas, under the Civic Amenities Act 1967, which established the right of local authorities to designate a conservation area. The policy has been fairly successful, because we now have 8,000 conservation areas throughout England. Under the Act, conservation areas are defined as

“areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”.

That can and often does in practice include views, so although I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely, I am not exactly sure what additional protection he thinks is needed for particular views.

John Penrose: I was thinking either of the much larger example of an entire skyline, which would be hard to preserve, protect or allow to alter in a particular way through the conservation area designation, or of the very narrow, specific example of a particular line of sight, perhaps on a small scale, down a particular street with something that happens to be framed at the end of it, which would be a criminal waste to allow to be got rid of but which is too small and too specific for the conservation area legislation to work.

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Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification. Local authorities can already designate and protect views through their local plans, however, which leads me to wonder whether we need additional regulations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham talked about what is already happening in London; the Greater London authority plan includes some good examples of whole views being protected, in particular urban landscapes that are thought to define London. The plan not only protects the views but gives more detailed guidance about what should happen to protect them. That facility is available to all local authorities through their local plans, but I suspect that they are not all using it as well as they might be. Perhaps this afternoon we should be putting a big plea out to local authorities to ask them, when they are putting their local plans together, really to think about views—outside a particular street or part of it—that might be important to the local community or area and that need to be protected. They should outline what the views are and put additional guidance in place. They could all learn easily from the London experience, where that seems to have been done rather well.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned that UNESCO also protects views, to and from world heritage sites, one of which I have in my constituency. He made a strong point and a lot more could be done by local authorities to ensure that such views are protected. From time to time councils have to be reminded, when a development application appears before them, that they have to think about the world heritage site. Those three elements already in existence go a long way to giving the protection that the hon. Gentleman was discussing.

I want to pick up on one other point made by the hon. Gentleman, which was about using additional regulations to pre-empt where developers might want to develop. That is an extremely difficult thing to do: always being one stage ahead of developers is probably impossible. Each case is best dealt with on its merits, bearing in mind the protections that can already be drawn down by local authorities. I am absolutely not convinced that more regulation is needed in this instance.

A lot of hon. Members this afternoon have raised issues about the high street, and it is worth picking up on a few points. Some of the figures about use of the high street are interesting: high streets with strong conservation areas are doing better. For example, Cambridge is doing well in protecting its high street and the volume of commerce taking place in retail there. That tells us something about how communities are starting to think about their own high streets and how tourists are thinking about them, because a high street is a lot more than simply a retail experience. The hon. Gentleman brought out this point well: we sometimes get bogged down in thinking about our high streets only in terms of retail. It is tempting to do that because we get regular figures about what is happening to the retail sector, which is important because it is an indicator of the health of our high streets, so we need to take the figures seriously. But what they tell us is that we need to diversify the high street and to think a lot more about community and housing use. This strays on to the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West about

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the importance of pubs. They are part of the leisure offer that is important on our high streets, but which we are very much in danger of losing.

Again, use class orders are important, because we need councils to have the flexibility to decide whether the retail space that might not be fully occupied can instead be office, leisure or housing use, and to be able to change it back. One of the problems with use class orders is that it is sometimes difficult constantly to change use, but we need that degree of flexibility. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says.

No one mentioned how complicated it is at the moment for local authorities to draw down money to support regeneration of the high street, outside of Portas. On that Portas money, even if local authorities got £100,000, we know that only about 12% of the money has been drawn down so far. There are lots of different tiny funding pots, and we perhaps need to bring them together into a more coherent regeneration framework, so that local authorities can find a straightforward way to develop their high streets in line with the local community opinion of what should be provided. I am probably telling the Minister that Portas is good as far as it goes, but it is not the whole answer.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has done us a great service in bringing forward this subject for debate this afternoon. We need to think about how to protect what we value in the high streets, how to encourage them to develop and, in the current climate and from now on, to diversify. We need additional tools to do that, but I am not sure that they include additional planning regulation.

3.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship and to participate in this debate, which has been led by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I join the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in praising my hon. Friend for his work when he was Minister for Tourism and Heritage. He was also the gambling Minister and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, some issues remain outstanding from my hon. Friend’s era. Before responding to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods)—I will echo many of her comments—I will refer briefly to some of the other excellent and helpful contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) asked whether planning was a help or a hindrance, and reminded us that he had five years’ experience of being in charge of planning. He worried about the speed of operation on some occasions and then chided the Government for putting pressure on local planning authorities if they did not act quickly. There was a slight inconsistency in his comments, but he clearly cares as passionately as I do about the importance of local decision making, and I suspect that he will be pleased to see the amendments that have been tabled to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill in another place to deal with the concern that he expressed. We are looking for ways of speeding up some matters, not least, for example, current consultation on the planning application procedure, and I think that will be welcomed by him and other hon. Members here today.

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On issues relating to change of use from commercial to residential and some other permitted development rights, one of the consultations has now finished and the Government are considering their reaction to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) referred to some other aspects of permitted development and I draw his attention to the fact that consultation is still open—

3.43 pm

Sitting Suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.20 pm

On resuming—

Mr Foster: Before we had our short break, I was referring to the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. I look forward to his dusting off that old policy document from the Conservative party and making it available to my Department. We will look at the various proposals for seaside resorts with great interest.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham rightly praised my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare for his work as a former Minister. I pointed out that my hon. Friend also had a remit in response to gambling. One of the things that he was able to do towards the end of his period of office as the Minister with responsibility for gambling was to help ensure that the Government could announce a review of the concerns that the right hon. Member for Tottenham raised in respect of what he called bookmakers. That increasingly seems to be a misnomer as more and more of them seem to do their business from fixed-odds betting terminals, about which the right hon. Gentleman joined with me and hon. Members of all parties in expressing concern. I am delighted that the review that he rightly said is needed is now under way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West on his excellent work as a member and chairman of the save the pub group. I am delighted that he was full of praise for the work that the Government have done in response to the concerns expressed about tied pubs and so on. I am grateful to him for praising the Government on the national planning policy framework and—notwithstanding the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes—the work that we are doing on the Portas pilots and the town team partners, of which Otley, as he reminded us, is one and is benefiting from that scheme. He also rightly pointed out that not all regulation is bad. I have made that point on several occasions. Those who seek to deregulate merely for the sake of deregulation have missed the point. Although the Government are seeking to remove unnecessary red tape, we are also mindful that some regulations are critically important.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West in praising areas such as Cambridge that have introduced supplementary planning guidance, among other things, to protect pubs in their immediate neighbourhood. I repeat what I said to him earlier: consultation on some of the matters that he raised closes on 7 March, so any right hon. and hon. Members who wish to contribute to the discussions are welcome to do so.

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The hon. Member for City of Durham saved me a lot of effort. For once, even though we are on opposite sides of the Chamber, I have great sympathy with much of what she said in response to the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare in this excellent debate.

My hon. Friend began by reminding us that we face various challenges. He said that on the one hand we need to get more houses built, but on the other hand there are pressures in achieving that without encroaching on the green belt. He also pointed out what happens in our high streets and the dangers that have existed, particularly in relation to out-of-town supermarkets and developments. He rightly praised a former Member of the House, Mr Gummer, for his work. I remind my hon. Friend that we have gone further in the national planning policy framework, which has now established a clear sequential test. Before out-of-town developments can take place, all the various stages of that testing procedure must be gone through.

My hon. Friend said, with great perspicacity, that change is always necessary to meet changing demand. He was not putting his head in the sand. He accepted that change has to take place. It has to take place in the high street in response to, for example, online shopping. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes gave the example of a street in Grimsby where the challenge of changing circumstances has not been picked up and has had pretty disastrous consequences.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare clearly accepts that we have to get a balance between conservation, design and urban development. He pressed me in much the same way as he did in his excellent article in The Daily Telegraph on 2 January, when he wrote that

“individual buildings are preserved by listing, but we need a similar set of rules to ensure the best city and townscapes are saved too.”

Like the hon. Member for City of Durham, I must say to my hon. Friend that we already have in place measures that will deliver what he seeks to achieve. Many local councils are already taking innovative planning approaches to safeguarding urban views and are developing strategies to support their high streets. There are many different ways in which that is being done, but it is predominantly through local plans and the supporting evidence that goes alongside them.

Others have adopted sensitive approaches to heritage conservation—I know my hon. Friend cares passionately about that—urban design, designated conservation areas and so on. For example, South Kesteven council has undertaken a townscape character assessment of Grantham, which considers the town’s evolution and character to guide decisions on new development, achieving what I think he seeks. The document assesses the design of the buildings and the relationship between them as a contribution to the distinctiveness of the town. It details key views to landmark buildings and heritage assets, which are issues of material consideration in various development proposals.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham referred to examples in London, where he thinks we have got it about right. The supplementary planning guidance in the London plan sets out protected panoramas, linear views, river prospects and townscape views that contribute to the character of the city. Other parts of the country

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have adopted a similar approach. The right hon. Gentleman praised my constituency of Bath. Bath and North East Somerset council has already done something along the lines that he seeks. Burnley, Hampshire, Preston and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead are other examples.

The hon. Member for City of Durham made a very important point. Powers exist, but perhaps not enough councils are aware of the opportunities to achieve the sort of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare wants. I will certainly talk to my ministerial colleagues about her suggestion that we should do more to promote the powers that already exist, and perhaps share with councils examples of good practice that could achieve much of what my hon. Friend wants. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that suggestion. We will do what we can to take it forward.

My hon. Friend raised issues to do with high streets. He suggested that we look at the parapet above the shop with its often rather garish colouring, where, very often, we see empty spaces. He will be delighted to know that I recently announced a challenge to the Portas pilot and to the town teams to make proposals for the large sum of money that I have earmarked to bring back into use, for residential purposes, the spaces above shops. I entirely accept that there are difficulties, which he alluded to, including access to the space above shops and security, which is why we have asked the many teams to consider innovative solutions. We are on to the issue; we are providing some money and help from the Department, and we have many people looking for bright ideas. I know that he wants me to go even taller, which I will come to.

John Penrose: I may be pre-empting the Minister’s next remark, but I urge him to think a little more radically. I welcome the measures and steps that he describes as having already been taken. In some cases, because buildings were designed for a different purpose 100 or 150 years ago, it is not possible to retrofit them in a way that delivers the additional potential uses as accommodation, offices or whatever. Therefore, the only way to get them to work, even without public money, is to allow enough commercial headroom for entire buildings to be redeveloped.

Mr Foster: As my hon. Friend said, he has forestalled me. In the few minutes I have left, I have headroom to refer to that issue. He made it clear that he does not seek new regulation. He talked about the possibilities for townscapes and views. They already exist but they could be promoted further. He suggested that having done that, we might also increase the density of all sorts of developments and go higher above shops, if necessary with demolition.

I assure my hon. Friend that I will discuss his various proposals with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is the Minister with responsibility for planning. However, may I say to my hon. Friend that what he

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seeks is already possible within existing legislation and the current planning rules? It is up to a local authority that wants the type of development he proposes to ensure that such a possibility exists within its local plan, and individual planning proposals can then be introduced. However although it is possible to do that within current planning rules, I will discuss the issue further with the planning Minister, and we will contact my hon. Friend to arrange more discussions with him.

John Penrose: The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I welcome his remarks, but is he indeed correct that such powers exist? We think that some powers to protect urban views may already exist, but are not being properly used, so will he undertake to disseminate that information more widely? Clearly, although the powers exist, they are not being widely used and might benefit from being more thoroughly understood.

Mr Foster: I am more than happy to assure my hon. Friend that we will look at the exact legislation with respect to his specific points, and if it is necessary to disseminate that information more widely, we certainly will, just as we will for legislation on streetscapes.

I know that hon. Members wish to get the next debate under way, but may I comment on the Portas pilots? I am grateful for the widespread support for the work done, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. Some very exciting proposals are emerging from the Portas pilots and town teams considering various issues. We intend to disseminate examples of good practice as widely as possible to help develop those who are not one of the 300-odd schemes with which we are directly engaged. I am delighted that high streets and town centres can benefit from those very exciting proposals.

I want to comment on my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, who is now back in the Chamber. In his absence, I praised him for his work on the all-party save the pub group. I absolutely assure him that we are very alert to his concerns. As he knows—he referred to this—the right to bid gives a community the opportunity to register a facility, such as a community pub, as a community asset, which is one way to provide some protection. In my constituency, as he knows from tweets I sent out only the other day, I recently got a pub to look at being listed as a community pub. That is one option, but I entirely accept the issues he raised about whether we need changes to planning use class orders. I assure him that the Government are considering that.

Finally, I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. I know that he feels strongly and passionately about this issue, on which he has even put pen to paper in national newspapers. I think I can assure him that in most areas where he wants developments, opportunities already exist, and that in most places where he wants protections, they already exist. I assure him that we will look at the issues raised in the debate. We will at least help to disseminate the information available more widely, and if changes are needed, we will consider them.

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Israel/Palestinian Authority

4.36 pm

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): May I say how delightful it is to have you chair this debate, Mr Dobbin? I am pleased to have secured this half-hour debate, because it gives me an opportunity to raise the issue of hate incitement against Israel and the west by the Palestinian Authority.

The year 2013 has been identified as the year of peace for Israelis, Palestinians and all the people of the region, but Israelis and Palestinians in particular face many difficulties if they are to secure peace. Overcoming those difficulties will require determination and willingness to compromise. For Israel’s part, they will need to readopt the land for peace doctrine that in the past has secured landmark peace agreements with its neighbours.

The Palestinians also have an important role to play, and I want to use this debate to raise one thing that they ought to do. It is clear that a culture of hate has wormed its way into the very fibre of Palestinian society. Incitement to hate is pervasive in Palestinian school textbooks, on television programmes and at cultural and sporting events. Palestinians have been consistently and unremittingly taught to hate Jews, Israel and the west.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that as the children of a future for Palestinians and Israelis alike, teaching them to love rather than hate each other and their doctrine can be the only right way forward?

Gordon Henderson: I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a perfectly sensible point. I shall say something along those lines later.

Incitement has been done with very little condemnation by the international community, including, I have to say, the United Kingdom. My contention is that that activity fundamentally harms the peace process and any hope for a two-state solution. Ignoring incitement and hate education because we do not want to rock the boat will not help us along the path to peace, and it does not provide the steady foundations needed for peaceful coexistence.

Incitement takes many forms. It ranges from the denial of Israel’s right to exist to the abhorrent glorification of violence and infamous Palestinian terrorists. PA officials readily speak to western audiences about their determination to reach peace with Israel, but a very different story is presented to their domestic audience. Official Palestinian Authority media regularly paint a picture of a world in which Israel does not exist. In its simplest visual form, that is expressed through the distribution of maps depicting geographic Israel replaced by the “State of Palestine”.

During the Palestinian application for statehood at the United Nations in September 2011, the PA’s official TV channel broadcast a map that depicted all of modern Israel and the Palestinian territories wrapped in the Palestinian flag with a key through it. Therefore, at a time when President Abbas was telling the UN that he sought two states living side by side, residents on the west bank were being shown a map carrying an unmistakeable message of Palestinian sovereignty over

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the whole area. In addition to denying Israel’s existence, official Palestinian Authority media vilifies and demonises Israel and the Jewish people. Last summer, a PA TV broadcast showed a painting depicting Israel as an ogre with a Star of David skull cap that impales and eats Palestinian children in Gaza.

Just this month, PA TV broadcast a music video honouring a number of convicted terrorists. The song featured excerpts of a speech by President Abbas, stating, “We will not rest until all prisoners are freed and the prisons are emptied.” One of the terrorists who was honoured in that video was Ibrahim Hamid, who is serving 54 life sentences in Israel for planning a series of suicide bombings that killed 46 Israelis during the second intifada.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The matters that he brings to the attention of the House are truly shocking and put a question mark over the status of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace. Would it be good for the Government to direct more of their funding to support genuine co-existence projects that bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of two states?

Gordon Henderson: I agree with the hon. Lady. Teaching peace will always be better than teaching hatred. We must encourage the Government to put money into such a venture. I will come on to how the money is currently being spent by the British Government.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In addition to the hon. Lady’s suggestions, we must also ensure that we expose those terrible examples of output on PA TV. The one that my hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago was changed after that exposure. The key to bringing about such change is ensuring that British Government officials and representatives in the region make official protests about every single example of such output on TV.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. I remind Members that we need to leave adequate time for the Minister to reply.

Gordon Henderson: Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I will do my best to speed up. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope the Government will take that lesson on board. I have brought with me some examples that I will be passing over to the Minister. In the past, there has perhaps been a denial of such things, but when the examples are seen in black and white, they are hard to deny.

As a direct result of PA-endorsed incitement, dying for the sake of Palestine remains an ideal that is an accepted part of Palestinian discord. Shockingly, the official Facebook page of Fatah in the Lebanon recently posted a photo of a mother dressing her young son with an explosive suicide belt and encouraging him to blow up the sons of Zion.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Fatah’s Facebook page routinely publishes pictures and slogans venerating arms and violence against Israel. In some pictures,

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young children are even shown carrying rifles. Does my hon. Friend agree that such glorification of violence during the peace process plays into the hands of the extremists and makes the idea of a two-state solution impossible?

Gordon Henderson: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is shameful that such incitement to hatred has been denied by too many people. I appreciate the Minister’s efforts in recent weeks to further the matter in the Foreign Office, but what discussions has he had with his colleagues in east Jerusalem on the issue of incitement and hate education and how will the Foreign Office play a part in ending it?

The Palestinian school textbooks have included the same inflammatory messages that I have mentioned. I read with great interest a recent report into this matter by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. The US-funded report concluded that both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks could do more peacefully to portray the other side. The findings once again highlighted the fact that both sides in the conflict need to prepare their populations for a peaceful future. The report also shows the need for those responsible for Israeli ultra-Orthodox education to re-examine the material that they are putting out.

However, there are shortcomings in the report about which any reasonable and unbiased person should have concerns. Those shortcomings could explain why a number of the study’s scientific advisory panel and leading stakeholders have refused to endorse the report. For instance, the report fails to emphasise that the ultra-Orthodox school system, which makes up only 8% of the Israeli student body, is not Government-regulated. It does not represent an official Israeli line and should not be seen on a par with the PA-authorised textbooks. The report’s other major failure is that it justifies the levels of incitement found in Palestinian textbooks by asserting that perhaps it is because the Palestinians are at an earlier stage of nation building, are the weaker of the two adversaries and have suffered more hardships in day-to-day life. We must not be distracted on the path to seeking peace by that sort of moral relativism.

Consistent with the Palestinian Authority’s policy of glorifying terrorists, the PA financially reward terrorism by paying a monthly salary to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons convicted of terror offences. It pays a monthly salary of anything between £240 and £2,100 to prisoners serving multiple life sentences for involvement and facilitation of deadly acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings. The longer the time in prison, the higher the salary. To put it crudely, the more horrific the terrorist activity and the more Israelis who are killed, the larger the salary. In total, the PA is paying salaries totalling approximately £3 million each month to 5,500 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons.

I was shocked to learn that those payments are part funded by the British taxpayer. Indeed, the payments come from the PA’s general budget, into which the UK contributes more than £30 million each year. I am unaware of any known safeguards in place preventing the use of UK aid to that end. Previous attempts by my parliamentary colleagues from all parts of the House to raise that issue have been met with apparent denial and a declaration that the payments are simply “social welfare payments to the families of prisoners.”

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I wholeheartedly believe that dependent spouses or children should not be held responsible for the crimes of family members, and I doubt that any of my colleagues here today would disagree with me. None the less, PA legislation repeatedly refers to “salaries”—or ratib in Arabic—and not “social assistance” or “welfare payments”. Crucially, that legislation stipulates that a prisoner is not obligated to give his salary to his family. Unmarried prisoners also receive the same basic salary as those who are married and have children. Finally, a small stipend for wives and children paid to prisoners is received separately from the standard salaries.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he is aware, numerous questions have been asked of our Government in relation to those payments. Time and again, we have been told that they are salaries and not social assistance. However, in December 2012, a Palestinian Authority statement, which was released through its official news service, explicitly stated otherwise. That statement, which is made in the name of the Palestinian Minister responsible for prisoners’ affairs, Issa Karake, announced that those payments were salaries and not social assistance. It went further by stating that any talk of social assistance was incorrect rumour. How can my hon. Friend square that issue with the denials made by our own Government?

Gordon Henderson: I cannot—I have to ask my hon. Friend to put his question to the Government, because I cannot answer for them. However, since these payments are not explicitly given to those in need, it seems logical to assume that they are given as a form of reward for prisoners’ terror acts; to me, that is quite logical.

As I have shown today, those are the very same acts of terror that are all too frequently praised by the Palestinian Authority. I have no doubt that the Minister will have been in contact with his colleagues at the Department for International Development about this issue. However, can he tell me what discussions he has had with his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts on this issue? Furthermore, what assessment has he made of this very serious matter?

In conclusion, the PA’s failure to deliver on their commitment to end incitement explicitly undermines the principles and conditions on which the peace process is built. That incitement highlights the extent to which Palestinian society has not publicly begun to absorb the changes needed for a practical and genuinely peaceful co-existence with Israel. I contend that incitement is a form of abuse of Palestinian children. We must remember that those children are the next generation of peacemakers and state-builders. Simply put, no peace agreement will be able to guarantee peace in the medium to long term if a generation of Palestinians is growing up indoctrinated to hate Israel, Jews and the west.

I am reassured that this is an issue that the Government are starting to regard with increased seriousness. Indeed, the Prime Minister made his position clear at a United Jewish Israel Appeal dinner late last year, when he said:

“Britain will never support anyone who sponsors a football tournament named after a suicide bomber who killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant. We will not tolerate incitement to terrorism.”

The Government rightly hold Israel to account when Israeli policies stand in the way of peace in the region. By the same reasoning, it is important that they adopt a

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similar policy with regard to the Palestinians. The Palestinians will take any British silence as a green light to continue this practice. We must insist, as a policy, that the PA end the indoctrination of its youth with views that jeopardise a future of peaceful co-existence.

To that end, I ask the Minister to give me an assurance that the Government will make, and will continue to make, representations to the PA that incitement against Israel is unacceptable and in contravention of the Oslo agreement. Widespread PA-endorsed incitement has gone unchallenged for too long. The PA are clearly not making any effort to educate their people in peace and co-existence with Israel. As we move forward into this “year of peace”, the need to abandon all messages of incitement is more important than ever.

4.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I echo the pleasure of other Members in serving under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin; as long-established friends, it is particularly good to start in such a way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) has secured an important and timely debate, and I appreciate his courtesy in sending me a copy of his speech earlier this afternoon. I welcome this opportunity to reiterate the Government’s position on incitement. We oppose, in all circumstances, the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. We deplore incitement on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including any comments that could stir up hatred and prejudice in a region that, perhaps more than any other, needs a culture of peace and mutual respect, as my hon. Friend and other hon. Members made clear.

We do not hesitate to raise instances of incitement with both the Palestinian Authority and Israel whenever we feel that it is appropriate to do so. I am in regular contact with our colleagues in the consulate general in Jerusalem, and in answer to my hon. Friend’s questions, I can say that we have a regular dialogue with both the PA and the Government of Israel, in which we reiterate the need for both sides to prepare their populations for peaceful co-existence, and we take some of the specific issues that he has raised directly to Palestinian sources through our colleagues in Jerusalem.

By opening my response in this way, I emphasise my concern, which I know the House understands, about incitement, but I will not provide a commentary on all such allegations, not all of which we can verify, and nor can the UK be held responsible for them. As I will make clear, and as my hon. Friend made clear in his remarks, it is not possible to deal with this in isolation from the backdrop of the ongoing issues between the Palestinians and Israel that have beset the region for too long.

I do not fully share the bleakness of the rhetoric with which my hon. Friend began his remarks, particularly his comment that Palestinians have been consistently and unremittingly taught to hate Jews, Israel and the west. I genuinely find that far too wide an expression to cover all Palestinians everywhere in the region. I also feel that to neglect any sense of any activity that may

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have been perpetrated by Israelis during the occupation as any part of popular anger against Israel misses an important part of the context. That is not to minimise the damage done by incitement, but not to mention that and not to feel that it is part of the context is, in my view, simply wrong.

On the PA’s leadership, it is important to stress that we consider that the track record of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad shows their genuine commitment to non-violence and a negotiated two-state solution. To quote the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres last April:

“President Abbas is constant in his announced position—for peace, against terror, and for a two-state solution. I think we have never had a wider basis to conclude peace than under his leadership.”

The Israeli Government have repeatedly praised the strength of the co-operation between the Palestinian and Israeli security forces in improving security and preventing violence, including violence against Israel. It is for these reasons that we firmly believe that the PA, under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, are indeed firm partners for peace.

Andrew Percy: I am a little alarmed at that statement by the Minister, because there are many examples—example after example, indeed—of senior Palestinian officials at the very top levels attending sporting competitions named in honour of people who have murdered innocent Israelis, or of their attending ceremonies to rename squares and streets after people who have murdered innocent Israelis. So while they may say one thing to the west, they may be saying something slightly different in Arabic.

Alistair Burt: The Prime Minister was clear in his denunciation of those who set up sporting tournaments or who support activities named in memory of the so-called martyrs and the suicide bombers. Of course, that is the clear position of the UK Government.

Again, however, to neglect the context in which people see the position of prisoners and those who have been engaged in activities against Israel is to fail to understand the context of the issues that we are discussing. It does not make the glorification right—it is not right—but not to understand how that operates in the occupied territories is to miss something fundamental. To place it all in terms of the rhetoric and not to understand the wider context will not help us to get to where we need to be, in our encouragement for all engaged in this issue to find a solution, which—as my hon. Friend made clear—has prime importance this year in particular.

Gordon Henderson: May I make it clear that I understand the context in which the incitement takes place?

Alistair Burt: You did not say it.

Gordon Henderson: I used this debate today particularly to refer to that incitement. I mentioned the fact that Israelis are not blameless in this situation—I understand that—but what is wrong, under any circumstances whatsoever, is some of the practices that have taken place to incite hatred against Israel and Jews, and there is no condoning of those practices whatsoever.

Alistair Burt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his clarification, and given time—in the next eight minutes—I am happy to make our position even clearer. However, he did not spell out the context in his speech as clearly as he has just done, and that is vital. We will condemn

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the incitement and the naming of events after the so-called martyrs, but not to understand the context is to miss something, and I appreciate what he has just said.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) rose—

Alistair Burt: This is perhaps the last intervention that I will take, and then I must deal with some of the issues that have been raised.

Mr Hollobone: I appreciate that the Minister condemns the glorification of violence, but the point is that—in effect—that glorification is being part-funded by the UK taxpayer, because British taxpayers are paying £30 million a year to the general budget of the Palestinian Authority, and the state TV and radio broadcaster is pouring out some of this hatred, as shown in some of the evidence that the Minister has heard today. Unless the UK Government get cross about that incitement, it will not stop.

Alistair Burt: The Government’s memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority makes it clear that our aid to the PA is intended to contribute towards a peaceful and prosperous Palestinian state and society, by improving fiscal sustainability, improving public satisfaction and lowering fiduciary risk. The memorandum of understanding makes it clear that all funds must be used to deliver against those agreed outcomes.

We engage closely with the PA to ensure our money has maximum effect on achieving the intended goals of the project. We have a number of safeguards in place to ensure that our money is spent as intended—we keep them under constant review—including safeguards to ensure that UK money does not support Hamas or other terrorist organisations, either directly or indirectly.

I am well aware of the allegations surrounding PA financing to Palestinian prisoners, including to those convicted of acts of terrorism. The PA Prime Minister has made it clear, both in public and to the UK Government, that payments to families are intended to sustain families whose primary breadwinner has been imprisoned, while payments to prisoners in Israeli jails are made at the request of Israeli authorities to meet basic living conditions. We have discussed these issues with the PA at the highest levels in recent months, and continue to encourage the PA to ensure that these payments are more transparent, needs-based and affordable. I assure hon. Members that these discussions are current and ongoing.

Although there are genuine issues with nomenclature and translation, it is still vital to make certain that correct payments are being made, which we believe, up to now, have been appropriate. But it is essential to be clear about this. I note the strength of feeling among hon. Members. I will give an assurance that we will continue to press the PA in relation to this issue, and I expect colleagues to raise it in due course.

The issue of textbooks comes up on occasion. There was a recent US-funded study into Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. Allegations of methodological flaws have been raised. I am not sure that they are sufficient to deal with the underlying results of the study, which we have only just been able to glance at. Our sense is

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that it is in line with previous studies, which have found that incitement and extreme negative characterisations are very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks. However, also in line with previous studies, the report found a profound need for textbooks on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to do more to promote a positive portrayal of each other, reflecting the principles of co- existence, tolerance, justice and human dignity. We will continue to engage both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli authorities in relation to the background of that report.

My hon. Friend has a number of issues in his back pocket. I had a briefing on some of the material some weeks ago, through Palestinian Media Watch. There are some tough examples. I think that I was expected to be shocked, but I was not. Hon. Members should not mistake me. Some material was shocking and offensive. It has no place in any political or historical discourse in which any credible democratic authority has a part. But my deep and genuine worry is that this incitement is not simply a cause of separation between peoples and hatred; I am afraid that it is a symptom of it.

My overwhelming feeling in looking at some issues, particularly in relation to children, was sadness that those on both sides of the divide who wish to emphasise difference and separateness are steadily winning that battle. One example, which my hon. Friend may be aware of, is a little girl of about seven years of age reciting with pride a poem about a suicide bomber, or so-called martyr. If we see a child reciting a poem about such a thing, instead of what ought to be filling her mind, how do we react? Anger towards her is clearly not appropriate. Whoever’s fault it is, it is not hers. I felt sadness for her, but anger that those who possess the ability to take down some of the barriers between Palestinians and Israelis simply do not do so, but continue actions that perpetuate the hatred.

The Palestinians should not praise the so-called martyrs and the suicide bombers, and we will rightly condemn this, but progress in the middle east peace process, perhaps, will play an even more effective part in ensuring that what we all wish to see—the growing together of people, without these barriers—comes to pass. Israel must examine its own actions in the occupied territories, to ensure that it does not allow an opportunity to fuel popular anger about Israel, which has not come about solely because of exposure to the media, but by the experiences of occupation of too many in those territories. To neglect that is to miss something of considerable importance.

Accordingly, we believe that the only way to combat violence and incitement is to reach a comprehensive two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are urgently working with both the US and the European Union to start the peace process. This was a major subject for discussion in talks between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State Kerry yesterday in London. That is the most important way forward. Incitement on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unacceptable and worthy of the condemnation of the House. If we do not get progress in 2013 on the middle east peace process, the context in which incitement and violence takes root will not be truly dealt with. I urge all hon. Members to focus the same determination on that issue as on their rightful condemnation of incitement where they see it.

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Communications: Social Media

5.7 pm

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

On 19 December 2012, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, issued interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. It was a welcome move in the right direction and I hope that Parliament and the judiciary will study internet abuse more closely and begin, as I have been urging Ministers to do for some time, to distinguish between the different degrees of online abuse.

As I explained in my Adjournment debate in September last year, trolling first came to my attention following the tragic death of Liverpool teenager, Georgia Varley, in October 2011. Since then, it has become clear that there is no clear-cut definition of trolling. Too often, this is confused with cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking or even child grooming. Trolling is something very different. I would characterise it as something said online that carries online consequences and poses no offline, real-world risk to the individual in receipt of the message. Trolls demonstrate immoral and unethical behaviour and, quite often, as in the case of Georgia, they trade entertainment on the back of an individual’s personal grief. In essence, the victims of trolls suffer psychological, not physical, abuse.

It is a growing problem in British society and one that Parliament and the legal process have been slow to recognise. I want to focus on concerns regarding the advice given to prosecutors, suggesting that messages sent that are of a grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false nature do not meet the public interest test, inasmuch as they are unlikely to lead to prosecutions. Indeed, Crown Prosecution Service rules state:

“Just because the content expressed in the communication is in bad taste, controversial or unpopular, and may cause offence to individuals or a specific community, this is not in itself sufficient reason to engage the criminal law”.

That should concentrate the minds of parliamentarians. There are rightly concerns because the guidelines fail to articulate exactly what trolling is or identify what kind of people are commonly victims of it; instead, the guidelines attempt to issue a one-size-fits-all solution that is not contextually bound and takes no consideration of personal relationships between the sender, the recipient and/or the subject matter.

The guidelines set out by the DPP that most relate to that issue are referenced in section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. The interim guidelines attempt to make a clear distinction between the different degree of abuse sent via social media, and so instruct prosecutors accordingly. For example, because of the seriousness of the potential offence threatened in a message as outlined in paragraphs 12(1), 12(2) and 12(3), such misdemeanours would be prosecuted robustly using, it has to be said, mainly legislation designed for offline offences.

We are advised that offences deemed to have been committed in accordance with paragraph 12(4), which are likely to be grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or false, are unlikely to lead to a prosecution despite the distress, hurt and needless anxiety that such contraventions can cause. That is where the guidelines have failed adequately to address the growing problem.

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Indeed, the directive highlights one of the major problems for prosecutors, because, in accordance with the guidelines, something said online is not punishable in law in the same way as something said offline. In essence, the guidelines fail to address the increasing grey area of trolling: the difficulty of proving what a troll intends and what a victim interprets the troll’s intention as being. That, coupled with the ease with which anonymity is afforded to social media users, has led to deliberately manipulative and deceptive behaviours with which prosecutors have not been able to get to grips. Put differently, there is a fundamental failure to grasp the intention of trolls: namely, it is their sole purpose on the internet grossly to offend with obscene messages. The DPP’s justification for what I perceive to be leniency is that it is not in the public interest to prosecute such people, which is germane to my critique of the guidelines because, in my opinion, they misinterpret the public interest.

In describing the dilemma, I am aware of a quote from an illustrious former Prime Minister and Merseyside MP, Harold Wilson. He said:

“I doubt whether any Member could provide a legal definition of what he means by the public interest, capable of covering changing national conditions and of being applied to all…cases”.—[Official Report, 22 April 1948; Vol. 449, c. 2035-2036.]

I do not profess to being legally trained, so I would no doubt fail the Wilson test, but as the use of social media increases exponentially, the exposure to such gratuitous activity increases in proportion. It stands to reason, therefore, that the public’s propensity to want to see such crimes dealt with by the criminal justice system will have increased consequently.

Paragraph 39 of the guidelines specifically addresses the question of public interest. The guidelines advise that if a suspect has taken swift action to remove the communication or has expressed genuine remorse, he or she should not face prosecution. I broadly welcome that clarification, but swift removal does not necessarily mean someone has not already been grossly offended. The internet allows individuals to build an audience of tens, hundreds or even thousands within a very short space of time. Under the guidelines, an individual troll could post a series of grossly offensive messages that are seen by many people, but simply removing the posts within a short space of time—and “swift removal” is not defined in the guidelines—makes it hard for action to be taken against that troll.

Similarly, deletion does not take away the possible psychological impact on someone who has already seen the message. Deleting a message from the internet does not delete it from someone’s mind. Additionally, the guidelines advise that if swift and effective action has been taken by others, such as a service provider, to remove the communication in question, or otherwise to block access to it, prosecution is not in the public interest. Surely that would depend on the particular type and frequency of such transgressions. The guidelines are a “get out of jail free” card that offers virtually no deterrent whatsoever. To all intents and purposes, prosecution can be avoided because of the discretion of others, which is something we should not endorse.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I have two points. First, he talks about people retweeting a message on Twitter. Does he agree that,

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whether someone is the first or the fifty-thousandth person to retweet a message, there should be equal liability? Otherwise some people would not be prosecuted because they retweeted later than others. Does he also agree that it is good to have a review of the guidelines? We need to make the public aware of how defamation laws apply to social media, otherwise people will say, “Well, I did not know.” The message has to go out to the country: “If you commit a crime or breach the defamation law, you will have to face the consequences.” We need new guidance, but, equally, people must be aware of the existing guidelines.

Steve Rotheram: The hon. Gentleman will know that, in law, ignorance is no excuse. So someone could be prosecuted for defamation if they transgress the guidelines. On the first point, I believe that anyone who engages in social media should be aware of the social consequences of posting such tweets or Facebook statuses, as my assistant, who is a regular Facebook user, tells me they are called.

The guidelines advise that if a communication is not intended for a wide audience, nor is that the obvious consequence of sending the communication, the offender should not face prosecution, particularly where the intended audience did not include the victim or target of the communication in question. That is weak and, with respect, misunderstands social media. In the case of an RIP memorial page on Facebook, for example, a troll’s message on a status is not directed solely at the person who authored the status but is also directed at other people who have commented on the status and all those who have visual access to it. In the case of Georgia Varley, more than 4,500 people had liked her page and were therefore able to see a whole host of comments, unfortunately including those posted by trolls. That calls into question how the DPP uses the term “wide audience.” Does a prosecutor have to investigate the computer literacy of a suspect to determine whether they knew the exact figure of the audience in receipt of their post? Additionally, the subject of an RIP memorial page on Facebook would, of course, be deceased. The intended victim of the troll, therefore, is not necessarily the deceased person but the reader of the message.

The guidelines also advise that if the content of a communication does not obviously go beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in an open and diverse society that upholds and respects freedom of expression, no prosecution is necessary. Of course I agree with that, but I also believe that greater consideration must be given to enforcing the law when grossly offensive comments have been made. There should be some online equivalent to offences committed offline. Only two people in England have been successfully prosecuted and jailed for sending messages considered to be grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing. Is that really an effective deterrent to the people who are sitting at their computers right now, contemplating sending a disgusting message that might cause gross offence?

I understand that questions have been raised about a person’s right to freedom of speech offline versus their right to freedom of expression online, and I accept that it is about proportionality, but the reality is that anyone who knows anything about trolling will say that the problem is that too much grossly offensive material

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exists, and it would be far too resource-intensive for the criminal justice system to investigate each and every case.

I agree with paragraph 29 of the guidelines, which suggests that any parliamentary proposal would have to ensure that it did not have

“a chilling effect on free speech”.

We must take into consideration the European Court of Human Rights directive, which protects an individual’s right to speech that is offensive, shocking or disturbing. There is still a debate to be had about whether free speech even applies to the sending of communications via social media, or whether it is classed as freedom of expression, which is not an absolute right.

We are talking about vile, insulting and unacceptable behaviour, such as the comments that I have seen posted on RIP memorial pages on Facebook and that were revealed in a BBC “Panorama” documentary. We are not talking about someone’s legitimate right to express themselves freely. There is a world of difference between a fair comment and a wilful denigration without validity that aims simply to cause as much hurt and offence as possible. If we try to protect trolls’ freedom to offend grossly, we are essentially defending the indefensible.

The guidelines clearly give preference to physical abuse or the risk of physical abuse over psychological abuse. When I met the Crown Prosecution Service, its view was that, given the complexity of online abuse, the police are not afforded enough time to compile the evidence necessary to take a case to court. Often, a maximum of six months is not long enough to gather sufficient proof of the alleged offence for a successful prosecution. In any such investigation, the police must routinely combat fake accounts, fake identities, fake e-mail addresses and issues with mobile communications, such as pay-as-you-go devices. Deception makes it difficult for officers to know where to start when looking for a troll hiding behind the anonymity of a computer.

However, that should not prevent us from trying to rectify the problem and eradicate the grey area that I have described. In fact, as I have said, I believe that granting the police and the CPS additional time to gather evidence for court cases would allow them to obtain evidence that meets the test of what is grossly offensive and even expose patterns of behaviour in some individuals that could lead to criminal prosecution.

As well as additional time to compile evidence, the police need innovative approaches to assist them. For example, the university of Central Lancashire is in the early stages of looking at ways to identify trolls through written word patterns. Dr Claire Hardaker, a lecturer in linguistics and English language at the university, said:

“Everyone has a unique way of writing, of putting certain words together, which is subconscious. Many teenagers say they are able to identify who sent a text to them just by the style of writing and word habits or the way the words are written. Someone might be pretending to be someone else, but by analysing the way they write online, we can determine a probable, age, gender, even a probable region from where they come from.”

Such creative approaches could be invaluable in convicting trolls. However, it is also true to suggest that any such invention will be for nothing until the DPP can adequately provide prosecutors with a definition of trolling that is separate from cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking or grooming and that can be robustly prosecuted where appropriate.

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One conclusion that I reached early in my investigations into trolling is that a multi-agency approach is needed to tackle the problem effectively. As I have repeated, I am of the firm belief that the way to deter individuals from sending grossly offensive comments on social media is to change the culture of online users. That in turn requires a clear lead from the judicial system. That does not necessarily mean changing the law, but it does mean changing the application of the law, which the guidelines fail to do. The final part of Harold Wilson’s quote in the Commons is:

“In the last resort this House is, and must be, the authority which decides whether or not any particular practice is in the public interest.”—[Official Report, 22 April 1948; Vol. 449, c. 2037.]

He was, of course, right.

I conclude by thanking hon. Members for taking part and by asking the Solicitor-General the following questions. How does he define internet trolling? Does he agree with the DPP’s assessment that messages sent via social media that are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false are unlikely to warrant prosecutions because it is not in the public interest to do so? Does he agree with the approach set out in paragraph 12, which is to assess initially offences that may have been committed using social media? What steps is he taking to work with prosecutors to find new ways to identify trolls, such as the scheme devised by the university of Central Lancashire? Finally, will he consider my request to increase the period of time that the police have to collect their evidence on trolls before a case must be brought before the courts?

5.26 pm

The Solicitor-General (Oliver Heald): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. It is a topic about which he feels strongly and on which he has led and campaigned for some time. I agree that the sort of behaviour that he has described in this debate and on earlier occasions is completely unacceptable and wrong and must be tackled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and the hon. Gentleman made the point that a multi-agency set of different approaches are needed if the issue is to be tackled effectively. My hon. Friend mentioned defamation, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware of some of the constructive work being done with media sites to ensure that comments are taken down quickly and effective action is taken, but much more can be done.

I start by addressing the hon. Gentleman’s four questions. The interim guidelines distinguish a range of different kinds of behaviour in the social media field. I am sure he would agree that a prosecutor would tackle a case where there is a credible threat of violence, for instance, differently from another case. Similarly, if an individual is being targeted and harassed persistently, that is another kind of case. There are offences that can be used to prosecute particular kinds of conduct.

There are cases involving activities such as credible threats or harassment, therefore, and then all the other cases, which can vary widely in what they involve. They

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do not necessarily have the aggravating factors that would lead a prosecutor to charge someone with a serious indictable offence such as threats to kill, or harassment, but it does not follow that the cases in that other category, which are so different from each other, will not be prosecuted. In fact, the guidance is designed to cover the whole field.

Secondly, the wording of paragraph 12 is subject to public consultation. I will ensure that what the hon. Gentleman said today is conveyed to the Crown Prosecution Service, so that his comments are not only on the record in this place but part of the consultation. The approach taken in the interim guidelines is to distinguish offending of different gravity. A case of trolling, which, broadly speaking, is social media jargon for posting provocative or disruptive messages, can fall into any one of the categories of offending set out in the interim guidelines, depending on the facts.

Thirdly, I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to work in the academic sphere to develop technology and expertise that might assist the police in the investigation of such offences. The consultation extends to those with an interest in such matters. The police, certainly, are interested in the techniques. Finally, there is the question of whether statutory time limits need to be extended. That needs to be considered in the context of the consultation. The issue is important.

More generally, I provide assurance that the CPS can and does prosecute cases successfully. The CPS reports an increase over recent months in the number of social media cases. Since the publication of the interim guidance on 19 December, the principal legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions agreed that 15 cases should be proceeded with by prosecution. The interim guidelines issued by the DPP have been developed to assist prosecutors. They were also developed in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers. The idea is that points of the sort that the hon. Gentleman made about the academic evidence can be taken into account in the consultation. It is important to remember that the police investigate offences and gather the evidence, and that the guidelines are intended to help them as well.

The public consultation provides an opportunity for practitioners, other interested parties and the general public to contribute to the framing of the final guidance. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should urge people with an interest in the issue to take part; I will ensure, as I hope he will, that as many colleagues as possible and those outside this place take the opportunity.

The interim guidelines set out four broad categories for prosecutors to consider when deciding on the appropriate charges. Have there been credible threats of violence? Are there communications that specifically target an individual? Has there been a breach of a court order? Finally, does the communication breach section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned?

Malicious communication may warrant a far more serious charge being pursued. The interim guidelines are aimed at requiring the prosecutor to consider a range of potential offences that might arise. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the deeply unpleasant practice of trolling in the case of Georgia Varley—a website set up to commemorate that young girl’s life

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was targeted. Under the interim guidelines, prosecutors are reminded that communications used to threaten and target others can give rise to a range of serious offences. The hon. Gentleman is right: the person who died would not be the target in such circumstances, but the relatives and the people who cared for that individual are targeted, or can be. When a particular person is targeted but a harassment charge is not possible, because of the legal requirements, clearly prosecutors would carefully weigh up whether they can take the case under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act. It might well be in the public interest to do that.

Similarly, section 127 of the Communications Act provides an important safeguard against the misuse of social media, such as the sending of grossly offensive messages. The wording of the legislation is broad enough to encompass quite a range of behaviour. The guidelines should assist prosecutors in assessing each individual case. We do not want to restrict free speech but, as the hon. Gentleman said, with rights come responsibilities. While recognising important principles of free speech, the interim guidelines do not offer a charter for those who want deliberately and repeatedly to harass and cause distress. It is important to recognise that.

Another point to make to the hon. Gentleman is that paragraph 12.4 of the interim guidelines, the large category of messages, is set out as a particular category. There is then an analysis of the court cases concerning sections 1 and 127—the judges’ comments and how the

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cases should be looked at in the European context. All that is examined. Finally, there is a paragraph that deals with what the threshold would have to be in order to prosecute cases. It is therefore a more reasoned and complex exercise than might have been thought.

The requirement of prosecutors to prosecute cases of this sort has been demonstrated in cases that the hon. Gentleman is aware of, such as that of Sean Duffy, who was successfully prosecuted and sentenced to 18 weeks’ imprisonment following the death of a young lady. Matthew Woods was prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act and sentenced to eight weeks’ imprisonment for posting on a Facebook page grossly offensive messages regarding the missing children, April Jones and Madeleine McCann. It is wrong, however, to think that those would be the only cases involving social media to be charged and brought before the courts with the risk of imprisonment. Such offences are very much the ones that do not involve threats to kill, blackmail allegations or harassment charges. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that there are offences involving indictment and Crown court trials, with substantial sentences available, that could be used in appropriate cases.

The consultation runs until 13 March—

5.37 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).