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Mr Nuttall: I thought it was to do it straight away, which is slightly different.

Clive Efford: In Committee we tabled two amendments, one of which would have done what the hon. Gentleman has set out. We also offered the Government the opportunity to consider taking the reserved power in the longer term. That was the amendment we brought to the House on Report, and he voted against the reserved power, which is again set out in this amendment.

Mr Nuttall: This is a very time-limited debate and I do not want to spend all my time on a preliminary point. The substantive point is that, whether or not the amendment is identical or slightly different to the previous one, this new clause certainly does provide for a reserved power. That is somewhat confusing given what the Chancellor said in his Budget statement last Wednesday:

“We will also extend the horserace betting levy to bookmakers who are based offshore, and we will look at wider levy reform and at introducing a ‘racing right’ to support the sport.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 791.]

That makes it apparent, or gives the impression, that it is going to happen, and that the reserved power will not be kept for a rainy day but is something that the Government definitely want to proceed with. We must assume that that is the case; otherwise, why introduce it in the first place?

That leads neatly to my second point. I will not quote word for word what the hon. Member for Eltham said on Report, because he mentioned some of it in his speech. On 26 November last year, when new clauses 10 and 11 were being considered, the Minister stated:

“Nor am I convinced that we should seek EU approval for an extension of the current levy when we do not know that it will satisfy the need for proper reform. I am not prepared to act in a way that could jeopardise the stability provided by the recent voluntary arrangement.

I have also been urged to take a power to extend the levy at a future point, but that assumes that all that we might wish to do is extend the existing system, and that would not be genuine levy reform. Even if we took such a power, we could find that it was too narrowly scoped to enable us to achieve what we wanted—for example, to meet the EC—”

I presume that means the European Union—

“requirements for any reform scheme to be state aid compliant.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 195.]

There are therefore two matters of confusion. First, what is the Government’s position on the proposal? Is it simply to have a reserved power, or is it to seek to introduce a measure at the earliest opportunity? Secondly, for what will the Government seek approval from the EU? Will they simply seek approval to extend the levy, or will they seek a wider reform, which was the reason given on 26 November for the delay?

Essentially, those are the two points that I would be grateful to the Minister for addressing when she replies to this brief debate.

4 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I want to make a few quick comments on holding a remote operating licence from the Gambling Commission. I will also comment on those based overseas who will be required to obtain a remote operating licence from the commission as a result of measures in the Bill.

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I bring that to the Minister’s attention because of the changes that will be introduced off the back of the Bill. Currently, remote gambling operators in only 31 jurisdictions can advertise in the UK. As a consequence of the Bill, the scope for advertising will widen sixfold to 196 jurisdictions, as long as providers get the operating licence. Providers from, for example, China and Brazil cannot advertise in the UK, but under the Bill, they will be able to do so for the first time if they get a Gambling Commission licence under Lords amendment 1. I make that point because, between 2006 and 2012, advertising on TV increased by 600%. With the licence comes the advertising. Perhaps the Government will give the House an indication of how they intend, through the licensing grant, to ensure that advertising does not spiral out of control.

I thank the Minister and the Lords for making the changes. Two welcome and important commitments were made in the other place. I divided the House on the introduction of a one-stop shop self-exclusion mechanism and got support from Labour colleagues to make that happen. I am pleased that those changes are included in the Bill because they will strengthen player protection. Put simply, a customer need ask only once in their local betting shop and their exclusion will apply to all shops in that chain and to all chains in the UK. That, too, is good news. The concept of a one-stop shop is to help to deliver an important tool to assist problem gamblers to take back control over their lives, as it is often described. That is good news.

I am pleased to see the financial transaction blocking amendments, which are good news. I am also pleased to confirm that the Gambling Commission has reached agreement with major payment systems organisations, namely MasterCard, PayPal and Visa Europe, to work together to block financial transactions with unlicensed operators that seek to use payment systems for illegal purposes. That is good news for the Bill and for the good work put into the process by Members of the House, and those in the other place especially, who made that happen.

I want to ask the Minister two questions. On the voluntary approach to the fixed odds betting terminals, there is an indication that there will be regulations. Will she indicate whether it is the Government’s intention to put the situation right in the Consumer Rights Bill? If so, we are probably at the stage where those measures need to be included in it. Consumer protection is also important. Is it the Government’s intention to provide for the FOBT voluntary approach regulations in the Consumer Rights Bill?

Lastly, I want to ask the Minister about a technical point. I would welcome any clarification she can give on how, prior to legislation, the voluntary approach to financial transaction blocking will apply to Northern Ireland. I ask because, as I understand it, the Gambling Commission, which does not have jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, will play the key mediating role. Will she indicate how that will work? Will it be done through the Northern Ireland Assembly and an amendment there, or will it be done through further UK Government changes?

I am very pleased that, at long last, the amended Bill seems to be going in the direction we want it go in. That is down to the hard work of Members in this Chamber

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and in the other place. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for his hard work. I thank the Minister, too.

Guy Opperman: I started out aged 14 as an apprentice stable lad. I worked my way up through a racing stable and then became a jockey at various stages of my life. I am lucky enough and privileged enough to have ridden upsides Tony McCoy, who famously asked me what my real job was. I am also very fortunate to be the Member of Parliament for Hexham, which is one of the finest racecourses in the country. It will strongly welcome the Bill as demonstrating support for smaller racecourses, as more money goes back into the racing community.

Any interpretation of the Bill will show that it is right that bookmakers now support the industry from which they benefit so much. I have met many bookmakers over the years as this matter has gone through the House. This is not an anti-bookmaker measure; it will produce a level playing field where bookmakers make a proper contribution to the racing community.

I welcome the announcements in the Budget. It is worth reminding the House that it is right that the LIBOR fines, paid for by those who demonstrated the worst of values, should now be supporting those who demonstrate the best of values. I support LIBOR fines going to St John Ambulance—I have certainly used its services in point-to-points and the like—and the VAT relief on fuel for air ambulances. We cannot have racecourses without those facilities. The Chancellor’s decision, ably set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), to extend the horseracing betting levy to offshore bookmakers and to consider wider levy reforms—something that has been a nirvana for so many people involved in racing—is fantastically good news. I will come on to the racing right to support the sport, which we need to address and expand on, in a moment.

In addressing the comments by the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), it is important to understand that the Gambling Act 2005, introduced by the previous Government, effectively introduced the system that we have had to amend, control and change. The Act was far from helpful. As someone who was working in racing throughout the period of the previous Government, I can assure the House that they were deeply unsupportive of horseracing.

I welcome the introduction of the racing right, which is fantastic. After all, racing is key to tourism, local jobs and the rural package that several small towns offer. I have been lucky enough to ride at all the big tracks, such as Cheltenham and Kempton Park. I am not denigrating, in any way, those tracks—their fences are a bit bigger and stiffer, and when one falls one certainly falls quite hard—but it is the smaller tracks, the Towcesters, the Ludlows and, of course, the Hexhams that are the true lifeblood of racing. They are vital to its future. The Bill will introduce the support that we want.

It is important to understand and make the wider point that some have touched on, which is that without support for racing there will be no bloodstock sales, no breeding, no studs and no veterinary support. I, for one, broke several bones. Without racing, I would have put various orthopaedic surgeons in the NHS in fewer situations. All those people will benefit from an enhancement of racing.

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We need more from the Minister on what constitutes the racing right. We accept and acknowledge that this is a good Bill and that we are heading in the right direction, and we accept and acknowledge that wider levy reform is for the benefit of one and all in racing, but we need to understand what exactly the racing right entails. That needs to be expanded on to a greater degree, because British racing is a wonderful institution and it needs all our support.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I want to put on record the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Lords amendment. This change has been campaigned for by Members in all parts of the House, but particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster). I found it rather frustrating that we could not deal with it in the House of Commons rather than expecting the Lords to improve a Bill that is generally considered acceptable. However, the amendment will help to level the playing field between onshore bookies and offshore gambling providers, which I think is in line with the overall aims of the Bill, and I am happy to support it.

Mrs Grant: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank all Members for what they have said today about this important issue, and for their contributions during the Bill’s earlier stages. I shall be fairly brief, but I want to deal with some of the points that they have raised.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), accused us of performing a U-turn. I certainly do not accept that accusation, and I am a little surprised that he made it. I have said time and again—and the hon. Gentleman has heard me say it—that the extension on its own does not equate to genuine levy reform. The amendment is part of a wider levy reform programme, which is essential and which will involve our looking at all the various options.

The shadow Minister rightly asked for further details about time scales and delay. Delay is the last thing that I want: we need to move ahead. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we will seek to complete all the necessary extension work in time for the 2015 negotiations on the 55th levy scheme, and that we will begin consultation on wider levy reform this summer. We hope to complete that consultation by the autumn. We want to get on with this, but it must be done properly, and there are a number of practical considerations that prevent us from doing it any earlier. As the hon. Gentleman will know, any significant change beyond extension would require primary legislation.

Mr Nuttall: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Grant: I want to make a few more points, but I will give way before I end my speech.

Clive Efford: Will the Minister give way, on that point?

Mrs Grant: On that point, I will.

Clive Efford: A review of the levy terms will take place in October. We are pretty clear about what we want to consult on in relation to the extension of the

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existing levy. Why can we not complete the consultation in time for the review, so that we can aim for earlier implementation? The longer we delay, the more the horseracing industry will miss out on potential income.

Mrs Grant: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Of course no one wants delay, which is why we want to take this power. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, things must be done properly and carefully, and that is indeed how they will be done.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the benefits of the levy. The levy contribution is likely to constitute a considerable sum, which, as he knows, will fund integrity, veterinary and breeding activities. As was pointed out earlier, the prize money from what we hope will be an increased levy will support the maintenance of quality racing at all the different kinds of courses throughout the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who I know has considerable knowledge of the industry, referred to the “racing right”. It is not a foregone conclusion that there will be a racing right, but we will certainly consider it during the consultation.

4.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) raised the point of the nature of the amendment and the question of whether the power is the same. I can tell him the key difference in the amendment we have put forward is that the power is more broadly scoped to ensure that we extend in a way that is state-compliant. He also queried why we are consulting and liaising with the European Union. We are doing so because the levy is existing state aid and the rules require that any change that is substantive—and this is substantive—must be notified to the Commission. Discussions have already begun and we are already trying to establish whether any precedent has been set in relation to the ruling on the French levy last year.

I want to cover a few more matters, including those raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Turning to broader issues, I know we should not stray too far from the horserace betting levy, but for the benefit of the House I will clarify that during the time that this Bill has been going through the Houses, considerable work has been ongoing and good progress has been made particularly in relation to a number of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, including setting up the reviews on advertising, agreements being reached with payment providers to block unlicensed sites, ongoing dialogue with the casino sector, progress with the Financial Conduct Authority to issue new guidance on spread betting, and—I know this is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart—the setting of a goal on a national self-exclusion model. None of those requires primary legislation.

I thank all those from across the House who have participated in this debate and in the passage of the Bill, and in particular my hon. Friends the Members for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) and for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for their continued support of the horse racing industry. I would also like to take this opportunity to recognise the important work done on this Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) while he was in ministerial

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office. Last but not least, I sincerely thank my excellent officials for their hard work, dedication and commitment. It has been greatly appreciated.

This Bill marks a small but significant step in increasing protection to consumers based in Great Britain and I am glad we have reached agreement on the horserace betting levy here today.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

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Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Bill [Lords]

Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

Queen’s and Prince of Wales’s consent signified.

4.18 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Simon Hughes): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am happy to be able to inform the House that the consensus that clearly prevailed in the last debate on the previous piece of proposed legislation will, I believe, prevail here. I am very happy to bring for the first time on to the Floor of the House a Bill which is small, perfectly formed, but very important and which will affect a very large number of people.

The Bill reforms certain aspects of the law of inheritance and the law relating to trustees’ statutory powers. The purpose and effect of the Bill will be to modernise and simplify this area of the law to create a fairer and more comprehensible set of rules and to make the process of administering an estate faster and easier for people at what will always be a difficult time.

The Bill gives effect to most of the recommendations made in the Law Commission’s report “Intestacy and Family Provision Claims on Death”. It will modernise and simplify not just the law of intestacy to make it fairer, but the process of administering an estate to make it faster and easier for all concerned. The Bill also makes some important technical improvements to the family provision legislation and to the statutory powers of trustees, to make sure that they, too, are clearer, more consistent and easier to apply.

A considerable amount of consultation was undertaken on the Bill—as the Law Commission would do—so it came to Parliament built on a broad consensus of support, and having been through the Lords, it now comes to the Commons. That support is very welcome. I wish to refer to the Bill’s two core proposals, briefly address the four bits of the background “scenery” to it and deal with some of the details. Slightly unusually, I am doing so on Third Reading, because as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who leads for the Opposition, and others will know, the Bill has come through a procedure which has been used only a few times in Parliament. When we deal with proposals from the Law Commission which are regarded as matters not likely to cause great controversy in the House, we have a procedure that predominantly takes place upstairs, so we have not looked at these matters in the Chamber of the House of Commons before.

The two significant proposals are that in future surviving spouses will be the sole beneficiary of an estate where somebody dies leaving no will and there are no children. Not only do we believe that is right, but the Law Commission’s research showed that a majority of people in the country favoured giving priority to a surviving spouse in those circumstances. The Bill therefore reflects public expectations by making the surviving spouse the sole beneficiary in such circumstances.

The other key issue is what happens when a person who dies intestate has surviving children. The Bill seeks to simplify the sharing of assets on intestacy in a way

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that is fair to those who have been closest to the deceased—so first comes the surviving spouse or civil partner, and next come any children or their children. We think that the Bill ensures that all those people will be adequately provided for in future. Removing the current requirement that there be life interest trusts will reduce costs and make the law easier to understand and apply.

Of course, we would probably never be able to pass a law that everyone in the country thought right or fair, but we hope we are legislating for the occasions when people do not leave a will in a way that most reflects what we believe they would have intended, given that we have no written evidence of what their wish would be. We hope we are reflecting the real life expectations of what somebody would want for their partner and children.

That leads me to the four short background points about why the Bill is important. Obviously, making a will is and remains the best way to make provision for loved ones and others after we have gone, but the figures are surprising. In 2011, just under 50% of the registered deaths in England and Wales were those that might be classified as intestate: where there was no written provision. First, therefore, it is important to say to people that making a will is really important. Many people do not do it and we hope that this debate and the consideration given to the Bill will remind people of the benefit of making a will.

Making or updating a will is not a complicated process. Some 480,000 people died in England and Wales in 2011, with 220,000 of those deaths leading to the personal representatives obtaining a grant of probate in respect of a valid will and 40,000 leading to letters of administration being granted. We do not know for sure whether that means that the remaining 220,000 did write anything, or even thought about writing anything. None the less that was the figure. Nearly a quarter of a million people died without any evidence of written arrangements. Therefore, with the support of colleagues and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, with whom I am meeting formally to discuss how best to proceed, we want to add to the work already done in the voluntary and legal sectors to encourage people to make their wills.

The Government provide information on a number of websites, including gov.uk and the probate services website, to help people who are considering making a will. Other organisations also provide advice. “Dying Matters” runs an annual awareness campaign about planning for old age and death. This year it is planned for 12 to 18 May, and the theme is, “You only die once”. That was not my title, but it seems a good one.

There is also a free wills month for those over 55. It is running this month, so people need to get on with it because there are not many days left. In November, there is a scheme called Will Aid. I make no apologies for wanting to encourage people to make wills. It is the one way that we can be certain that what is done with people’s assets is what they intended to be done. It is fundamental to the law of England and Wales that the person who writes the will decides what he or she wants to happen to their property after their death, and where the law applies it will give effect to those wishes, subject only to one qualification, which is that, under the

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Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, there is a safety net for people who should have been provided for in wills but were not.

My second point has become topical in recent days, so I want to make the Government’s position and the legal position clear. There has been some press coverage on whether Islamic law or sharia law trumps English law in relation to these matters. There was certainly a headline and a lead story in one of the Sunday papers last weekend that may have alarmed some people. People in this country are free to leave their property in accordance with their preferences and beliefs. The Law Society issued to its members a practice note on sharia law succession—it was the subject of the article in the Sunday press—which indicated that there has been a demand from some solicitors and their clients for information on how to plan ahead for death in a way that complies with English law. Far from promoting sharia law as an alternative jurisdiction within our country, the Law Society is clear that it is promoting English law and English legal services. Let me say this clearly. To suggest, as one newspaper did, that the guidance means that,

“Islamic law is to be effectively enshrined in the British legal system for the first time”

is both wrong and misleading.

If people wish to arrange their last will and testament in accordance with the principles underpinning Islamic law or any other faith or belief tradition, then of course they are entitled to do that, provided they comply with the law of England and Wales. They can write down how they want to dispose of their assets according to their faith view, but it is within English law, in a will that then gets implemented and is subject to rules that allow people who should have been included but have been left out to apply.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I declare my interest as a non-practising solicitor and as someone who has drawn up thousands of wills in the past. Does the Minister agree that there has been no change in the law? It has always been possible for solicitors to draw up wills in accordance with their instructions under English law. If they want, they can draw them up under laws of other countries, as long as they make it clear that they will be applicable in that other country, but not under English law. In so far as wills that are meant to be controlled by English law are concerned, there has been no change whatever in the law.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. He knows from his practice outside the House and from his time in this place that that is exactly the position. The law has not changed. The guidance does not change the law, it has not been changed elsewhere and it is not about to be changed. The Government have no plans to change it. We are simply reinforcing the clear view, implied by his question, that if somebody goes to their solicitor and says that they would like their will to be drafted in a way that reflects their beliefs about how they want to dispose of their assets, they can do so, subject to the overarching rule of English law. That often applies to the Jewish tradition, and might be the same for some Christians and people of other faiths. The law has not been changed and I want to knock on the head the assertion that the Law Society was somehow

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facilitating a change. The Law Society was simply ensuring that when it had had enquiries from its members about how to proceed they were given guidance, but that does not change the law one jot.

A third general point, which is important, is that people are living longer—and thank God for that. We are very lucky to have in this country a great, and growing, life expectancy. The Office for National Statistics tells us that nearly 14.5 million people in the UK are over 60, but with old age comes an increasing incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to Alzheimer’s UK, 800,000 people in this country have dementia. The Government are keen that it should be known that there is a legal facility open to people to make what is called a lasting power of attorney—an LPA—that gives an individual the opportunity to plan ahead for the time when they might lack the capacity to deal with their own affairs. We are talking not about after death, but about when people are still alive but might not have the physical or mental capacity to deal with their own affairs.

People can appoint somebody of their choice to make decisions on their behalf about their property and financial affairs or health and welfare. They can do that online through a facility introduced last year by the Office of the Public Guardian. The process is relatively simple: people are guided and prompted through each page so that the form is completed correctly. It can be printed off for signature and the LPA can then be applied for, and the fee is currently £110. It is registered as a document recognised in law.

There are 51 million adults in England and Wales, but the number of people who have made such an arrangement is small, and I hope the Bill will also remind people that one way of dealing with their affairs, for not just after they have left this earth but before, is to make provision now. The lasting power of attorney is the way to do that.

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): I declare my interest as a solicitor. A worrying number of people are still dying intestate. What further steps will the Government take to encourage them to make a will? Will the Minister also take this opportunity to encourage initiatives such as will week, in which people can make a will and the solicitor will donate the fee to charity? Rossendale hospice takes part in that with great effect.

Simon Hughes: I was going to deal with that later, but as it has been raised it seems logical to do so now. I am very clear that although the Government cannot make people do such things we have a duty to lead. At the moment, if people go on to the Government website they will be directed to places where they can receive advice about such matters, but clearly the numbers are still surprisingly low. A lot of people of all levels of intelligence—this is not a matter only for people with fewer exams and qualifications—have not written anything down, as their families discover when the time comes for them to leave.

Such programmes are run, by different organisations, across the year, and I have referred to three already. We want to make them more effective and I have started to engage with officials and my colleague in the other

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House, Lord Faulks, who leads specifically on wills in the Ministry of Justice, to work together with him—




He does other things as well, but, bizarrely, lasting powers of attorney and inheritance come to me and wills go to him for reasons that are above my pay grade.

Lord Faulks and I have had a conversation. We are working together and we hope to work with our colleagues in the Department of Health, because the other part of the planning-ahead system is thinking about organ donation, and I know that the Secretary of State for Health is keen that that, too, should be better promoted. I hope that by the end of this year we will have a co-ordinated approach so that from this year on, we will have an annual, regular, clear promotion for people to make their will, to arrange lasting powers of attorney if they need to do so, and to arrange to donate their organs if they wish to do so. One of the reasons why the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and I are to meet is to try to get maximum agreement, the best ideas, the most effective systems and the easiest use of the internet so that it is as easy as possible for somebody to find the right place and use it. I am sold on the idea that this is an area in which the Government need to do more and will do more.

Jake Berry: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he say specifically what steps he will take to encourage charities to increase the take-up of wills? I have seen for myself that it is a hugely successful fundraising activity for local charities in Rossendale and Darwen. It is also a big public service that they are providing to people who live locally. Often, the hospice movement, which will be managing the end-of-life journey for so many people in this country, can be a good place to find that information. There is surely a role for Government to support such charities in their work to encourage the take-up of wills.

Simon Hughes: I apologise for not dealing with that specifically. It is a very good idea and one that the Government support. I will take on board my hon. Friend’s idea. Perhaps he would like to come and have a cup of coffee, a cup of tea or even something else, and share his experience. The more people can be encouraged, the more charities can be helped and the more organisations can feel part of owning the process to the benefit of the community, the better, so I will be as helpful as I can. That is the backdrop. I hope everyone has got the message that we would rather people did not die intestate, but we must provide for those who do so.

I said that the Bill came from work by the Law Commission. Following a consultation paper that it published in 2009, it issued a report in 2011 entitled “Intestacy and Family Provision Claims on Death”, which included the draft Bill. The Ministry of Justice then carried out a public consultation. We published our response in July 2013, explaining the changes we proposed to make to the Bill. As a result of that consultative process, we are largely in agreement today.

There was a proposal to deal with the rights of cohabiting couples in intestacy. The Government have decided that it would not be appropriate to take those matters forward at present. They are not uncontroversial and raise other, wider issues. The Law Commission recognised that its work on cohabitation raised issues

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that do not apply specifically to the matters in the Bill. The Ministry of Justice is in the middle of a very large programme of reform of the family justice system, which I believe will be hugely beneficial, and we do not want to be distracted from that. The new family courts come into operation next month and we want to concentrate on sorting out and getting a much better service there, and on the issue of inheritance and trustees. Therefore there is no proposal to deal with cohabitees’ rights in this Session or in this Parliament.

The Bill started in the Lords on 30 July last year. The Lords took their job very seriously and I am grateful to them for being so attentive. It underwent detailed scrutiny and was amended three times in the other place. It then came to us in the Second Reading Committee upstairs and from there to the Public Bill Committee, where I believe we gave it adequate attention, although there were no further amendments.

There are two aspects to the Bill—intestacy rules and family provision. The first part deals with the division of property when somebody dies without leaving a will. The second part allows family members and dependants to apply to the court to vary the distribution, either under the intestacy rules or under the terms of a will.

Clause 1—this is the core and simple but important proposition—deals with the situation where the intestate leaves no children and has no other direct descendants. From the time the Bill receives Royal Assent—in a few weeks’ time—the surviving spouse or civil partner will be the sole beneficiary of the estate. That changes the current law. Under the current law, a surviving parent or full sibling or sibling’s children are entitled to share, after the spouse or civil partner has received the deceased’s personal effects and what is commonly called a statutory legacy—a lump sum, in this case the first £450,000. The clause will change those arrangements. The estate will go to the surviving spouse.

Clause 1 will also mean that where the intestate does leave children or other descendants, the surviving spouse or civil partner will be absolutely entitled to the deceased’s personal chattels, to a statutory sum of £250,000, and then to half of whatever remains on top of that. The other half will be shared between the children or other descendants. That also changes the current arrangements, because at the moment a surviving spouse or civil partner has only a life interest in the rest. That is complicated and it will go. Life interest trusts are really only an area of benefit to lawyers and are often a source of confusion, so they have gone. I hope that is clear. Spouses will know where they stand; children will know where they stand.

Clause 2 and schedule 1 deal with the way that the statutory legacy—the fixed net sum—is decided. It is the amount that the surviving spouse will receive where there are children or other descendants. The Bill will implement a new system whereby the Lord Chancellor will be obliged to make an order raising the level of the legacy if the consumer prices index rises by more than 15%, or at least every five years. So there is an automatic trigger when my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will address whether we ought to have more given as a lump sum to the surviving spouse. That was the result of a Government amendment on Report in the other place. As to the actual level to be set—this was debated in Committee—the Bill provides that unless the Lord Chancellor decides otherwise, the level will be set according

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to the procedure in the Bill. It will index the statutory legacy by an amount that reflects any increase in the CPI measure of inflation. The legacy can only increase; it cannot be reduced, so in the event of no inflation or deflation, it will not go down but will stay the same.

Clause 2 gives the Lord Chancellor the power to set the level of the statutory legacy without using that mechanism, and he is at liberty to set a level equal to, or even lower than, the pre-existing figure if he wants to. If he does want to do so, he must come to Parliament and explain why he has not used the mechanism in the legislation. We hope that the benefit of that is that spouses and civil partners will have an inheritance that does not slip behind in real value with the changing value of money in this country.

Clause 3 deals with what are called personal chattels. Under the current law, the surviving spouse or civil partner is entitled to all of the personal chattels that are not disposed of in the will. That has not changed as a principle, but it is updated by the legislation. We have defined personal chattels in the Bill as “tangible movable property”—the lawyers will know exactly what I am talking about—but with three defined exceptions. The first is money, and securities for money. That is not new. The second is property used at the death of the deceased person solely or mainly for their business purposes. The words “solely or mainly” have been added, and they will ensure that, for example, if there is a vehicle, such as a van, that was used by the individual and for their business, it is treated as something that is personal as well as a business asset. The third exception, which is new, relates to property held at the death of an intestate person solely as an investment. That is a narrow exception, which would apply only to property owned as an investment and which had no personal use. We are trying to be very clear about those things that go to the spouse because they are the personal assets of the deceased person. Again, that is what the public would expect and we want to make sure that what is reasonable and normal and to be expected is what the Bill does.

The numbers in clause 4 are small in significance, but as we agreed in Committee, the clause is important as a principle. It seeks to protect the position of children who are adopted after the death of a parent. Madam Deputy Speaker, you and all colleagues will know that, very occasionally, there are tragedies in which one or both parents of youngsters are killed, and they are then often brought up by aunts, uncles, godparents, or whoever it might be. However, the will may have made arrangements on the basis that the parents will be alive indefinitely, and certainly for many years after the children become adults, or there may be no will, because it will have been a sudden event that afflicted the family. The general rule is that after adoption, a child is regarded as the legal child of the adoptive parents and has no other legal parents.

Clause 4 ensures that a child whose parent has already died before adoption will not lose, as a result of adoption, any of the rights that they had before, in terms of interest in their natural parents’ assets. It is relevant where a child is adopted as a result of the birth parents’ death. That is normally a fairly speedy process, and it is not a secret one. We are clear that we want to do what common sense and justice would want us to do, which is to make sure that no orphan child should lose the inheritance from their parents. We are sure that that is what the parents would have intended. At the moment,

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that is not what would happen. We are changing the law to make sure that children in that very particular circumstance are better protected. It only affects children who are adopted after the death of a birth parent, which is obviously an important distinction.

Clause 5 disapplies section 18(2) of the Family Law Reform Act 1987 in certain circumstances. Again, that is a small point, but we feel it is important to correct and modernise the law. At the moment, when somebody dies intestate and the parents were not married to each other at the time of their birth, rights do not follow in terms of inheritance. Under the proposal, the administrators of the estate may presume that the parent died first, as did any other person to whom they may be related only by virtue of the father—that might be somebody who is another parent by virtue of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, in very unusual circumstances. The rule discriminates against unmarried fathers. In practice, it makes it less likely that the deceased’s estate will pass under intestacy rules to such a parent.

Nowadays, it is quite usual for both unmarried parents to be identified as the parent of a child. Both are often on the register of birth so there is no longer any reason for both parents not to have equal entitlement in law. Therefore, we will disapply the presumption if a person is recorded as the intestate’s father, or as a second female parent in the specified formal register of births. In that case, the estate’s administrators will have the same responsibility to the deceased’s father or other parent as they would to any other relative entitled under the intestacy rules. The change clarifies that where somebody is recognised as a parent, irrespective of whether there is a marriage certificate, that parent should have the same right as an unmarried counterpart.

Clause 6 amends various provisions in the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 by way of schedule 2 in the Bill. The Government’s original intention was to create an additional ground of jurisdiction for family provision claims to enable claimants who are habitually resident in England and Wales to bring such a claim, irrespective of the deceased’s place of domicile. Scottish colleagues raised concerns about how that would operate in practice across the border, and particularly, if it could displace Scots law. The Government therefore decided that we would not proceed with the proposal. We amended the Bill in the other place and therefore, there is no change that would impact adversely on Scotland or on any other jurisdiction.

The remainder of clause 6 makes a number of changes to the procedure for family provision claims, including some amendments to the categories of people who can apply to the court for provision. There is already a rule that allows someone to go to the court and say, “I’m a family member. I need some financial help.” The Bill modernises the law so that a “child of the family”—someone who might have been adopted in practice but not formally, for example—would be treated the same as any other child brought up in the same family. Therefore, the relationship between the parent and the “child of the family” would allow the inheritance rules to apply to the benefit of that child. We believe that it would be wrong for a deserving child who was brought up by the family not to be able to inherit in the same way as someone who was formally their child, either biologically or by adoption.

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Clause 6 also amends the wording of the 1975 Act, which defines a person who may make a family provision claim because they are considered to be a dependant of the deceased. Under the current law, the court has to balance the deceased’s contribution towards the needs of the applicant against any benefits flowing the other way before deciding whether the applicant can be assisted. If the applicant is found to have contributed more to the deceased than the deceased contributed to the applicant, the applicant is not regarded as a dependant. We think that this “balance sheet test” is technical and inappropriate in a modern society. Of course there has to be a link, but we understand that dependency is often mutual and that therefore someone should not be debarred from applying because there has been some benefit in the other direction.

Clause 7 makes various amendments to provisions that require certain types of grant to be left out of account when deciding the date when representation with respect to the estate of the deceased was first taken out. They are technical changes, so I do not intend to elaborate on them for the House.

The last few clauses are highly relevant to a large number of people. Clause 8 concerns a situation in which a trustee is able to use income from a trust for the maintenance, education or benefit of a beneficiary under the age of 18. It is common for a trust to be set up and for applications to be made for school fees, medical attention or for sending a child on a holiday or arranging an apprenticeship. The Bill provides that in future the amount of income that can be used for such purposes should be entirely a matter for the trustees’ discretion. Currently, there has to be an objective test of reasonableness, together with a proviso listing all the factors that trustees must consider and a specific restriction on the amount that can be paid out. We do not think that those are necessary, so clause 8 removed them. Trustees will still be governed by the need to fulfil their fiduciary duties, so beneficiaries will not lose out, but they will, following a request, have the flexibility to give to meet the need.

Clause 9 deals with a similar situation in which trustees are able to use their powers of advancement to make payments of capital to beneficiaries where that is thought necessary. Such payments are limited by the current law to one half of the beneficiary’s future share. We believe that this limit should go. In future, trustees will, if they think fit, be able to pay out the whole of a beneficiary’s share under the power of advancement. That gives trustees the flexibility they would certainly have if they were acting under a professionally drafted will or trust. Of course, payments cannot amount to more than the beneficiary’s future share. The clause was amended in the other place to make it clear that if trustees have exercised their power of advancement, the money or property given to the beneficiary can be treated either as a percentage of the overall value of the trust or according to its monetary value at the time of advancement. Trustees may expressly exercise their choice to treat advancement in that way, for example by writing it in the trust deed or by dividing up the trust fund.

The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent next month. We intend all its provisions to come into force simultaneously later this year on a common commencement date of 1 October. The date is to be confirmed by an order made by the Lord Chancellor.

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Of course, the provisions will apply only to deaths that occur after the Bill comes into force, because it is not retrospective. It is an England and Wales Bill, not a United Kingdom Bill, except for one part that repeals some technical matters. The only exceptions to its forward-looking nature are in clause 4, which deals with adoptions of children that take place after the death of a parent. The relevant date in that case is that the adoption has to take place after the Bill has come into force.

Clauses 8 and 10 also make changes that do not have the same timetable application. These are changes to trustees’ powers rather than arrangements for dealing with the deceased’s property, and they will apply only to trusts or trust interests that are created or arise after the Bill comes into force. The exception is the clarification of the powers in clause 9 that allow trustees to make non-cash advancements and to treat an advancement as a percentage of the overall value of the trusts. This provision is not governed by the timetable rule. It will apply to all trusts, including those created before the Bill comes into force, because it is a clarification of powers that exist in current law.

Some of that sounds technical, but the fundamental purpose of the Bill is to rid the law of a lot of technical restrictions. Hundreds of thousands of people still die without writing their will, and we believe that, for their families, this Bill will make life simpler and easier and lead to less conflict, less tension, and less cause for dispute. It will still be better for people to make a will, and we hope that they will, but where they do not, as I hope the House agrees, this Bill makes the law much clearer and provides for families where there is no will a much better, safer and simpler future.

4.56 pm

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): I thank the Minister for laying out in some detail the Government’s position on the Bill. As he outlined, it introduces a number of logical and constructive changes to the current laws on intestacy and family provision that apply in cases where a person dies without having made a valid will. As I have said in our previous debates, these are sensible reforms and Labour Members welcome them. The Bill simplifies what is, in practice, often an over-complicated area of family law. It revises legislation that has not been reviewed for over 20 years, in some instances amending laws dating as far back as 1925. It updates rules better to reflect the circumstances of families living in 21st-century Britain, and it irons out a number of minor technical issues.

I thank the Minister for the way in which he has steered the Bill through the House and engaged with Labour Members during this process. I also thank those in the other place and all the other Members of this House who have helped to scrutinise and improve the Bill, as well as the officials, officers and staff of the House who have helped to facilitate matters. I pay particular tribute to the Law Commission. The changes we are considering today are ultimately the culmination of a project it began in 2008 and the draft Bill it published in 2011. I thank it for its work over the past five years in helping to bring us to this point.

Let me turn briefly to the substance of the Bill. I have two general comments to make and one very brief question to put to the Minister. Both my points are

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reflected in the case of Pablo Picasso, with whom right hon. and hon. Members will be familiar as one of the great artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Forty years ago, Picasso died at the age of 91. As well as a glittering career and a substantial artistic legacy, he left behind a significant estate that included much of his artwork, five homes, and a small fortune in cash, bonds and other assets. This would become the subject of some dispute, because what Picasso did not leave behind was a valid will. It would take six years before his estate was settled. It was eventually divided up between six different heirs, and the whole case cost some $30 million.

That is not a unique case and right hon. and hon. Members will know of other, more contemporary examples, but, even though Picasso was born in Spain and died in France, the lesson is just the same for us considering laws here in the UK. In essence, matters of intestacy and family provision claims can be long and complicated processes. There are numerous cases every year and, although some of them are unavoidable, the law should be as simple and straightforward as possible and we should encourage people to avoid them altogether by making a valid will.

As I said on Second Reading, the Law Commission stated in its 2011 report on intestacy that there are

“many instances where the current law is outdated, confusing or places unnecessary obstacles in the way of those with a valid claim to share in a deceased person’s assets.”

I know that the Minister will agree that that simply is not acceptable, especially when the people who have to manage the distribution—or unsatisfactory distribution—of an estate will also be coping with the loss of a loved one at the same time. Therefore, although these are largely technical changes, we should be mindful that even the most minor of improvements to the way in which the system works could make a world of difference to those families affected. The Opposition are hopeful and confident that this Bill will resolve many of the issues and we will be looking closely at the situation.

The Minister and I are united in recognising the importance of encouraging people to make wills. As has been acknowledged many times during our debates on the Bill, its proposals will come into effect only when someone has sadly passed away without having made a will or some other sort of binding declaration. If I may restate the figures, roughly 220,000 people died in such circumstances in 2011 and the Law Commission estimates that as many as two thirds of the UK adult population do not have a will. According to a survey carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, that includes as many as a fifth of people over the age of 75 and more than 90% of young adults under the age of 25. The Law Commission has also stressed that those who need a will most are the least likely to have made one. We need to do all we can to reach out to all sections of society on the importance of this particular issue.

Discussing what to pass on after one dies is not the easiest thing to talk about, but we need to get much better at it. I know that the Minister agrees with that. As he has said, we will meet shortly to discuss that and I look forward to continuing this debate with him over the weeks ahead.

May I ask the Minister to clarify one issue? The Government have accepted almost all of the Law Commission’s recommendations for reforming the intestacy laws. However, they have not adopted rules that would

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have applied to the surviving partner in a co-habiting couple. The Minister has said that there are no immediate plans to address that, but it is an issue, because will-making is far less common among couples who live together but are not married. More than 2 million couples live in such circumstances, but only about 13% of them have made a will and many do not appreciate that they have no automatic right of inheritance if one of them dies without leaving a valid will.

The Law Commission set out proposals to address the situation in its draft Inheritance (Cohabitants) Bill, but the Government previously indicated that the changes would not be implemented during this Parliament. In 2011 the then Minister, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), informed the House that they had no intention to focus their efforts on them at that particular time. I am mindful of the Minister’s earlier comments, but given that the Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Bill is so close to receiving Royal Assent, will he reconsider and agree to look at that specific area prior to the next general election?

Let me conclude by repeating that the Opposition welcome the action that is being taken and we are ready to work with the Minister to help to get the reforms right, because if we can save just a few grieving families from having to go through the intestacy procedures and make life a little easier for those who have to, that will make a real difference.

5.4 pm

Simon Hughes: With the leave of the House, I rise briefly to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and to wind up the debate.

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the very many people who cohabit or live together, but are not married. I am grateful to him for his prompt, because it is very important to send out from this debate and from the work that we will do later in the year—this ties in with an intervention—the message that people who live together but are not married should

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understand that, under the law of the land, there is no automatic transfer to the surviving partner and that they do not have the same rights. In our constituencies, we have all heard the old phrase about being married by “common law”—“a common law husband” or “a common law wife”—but it has no legal status at all.

People can perfectly properly make a decision that they do not wish to get married—that is entirely up to them—but it is much more important for them to write a will to make the appropriate provision. If they want their partner to inherit everything, they need to say so, because that does not necessarily follow under the law of the land.

On the specifics of the process, I have said that the Government have no plans to legislate on the matter in this Parliament, and that remains the case. The reason is that we are putting this Bill through Parliament to be in force by the end of the year, our reforms of the family courts are to start in April and there are many other reforms to the legal system. However, I am very conscious of the need for the Government not to run away from the issue, and for parties in the run-up to an election not to run away from it in our manifestos. It will be an issue for whoever forms the next Administration. The law is already different in parts of the United Kingdom; for example, cohabitation rights north of the border are different from those here. I accept that we must not ignore this business.

I end by thanking the Law Commission, which does an extremely good job for us in this country. I add my tributes to it for the work that it does all the time to present us with considered and measured proposals for legislation. On behalf of the Ministry of Justice, I repeat our thanks to the members of the Law Commission in general, and to the lead commissioner in particular, as well as to the staff. I also thank our staff in the MOJ and others who have made sure that the Bill is a very good piece of legislation—agreed across the House—which will stand many people in good stead. We are indebted to many people for the work that they have done. I hope that the House will now give the Bill a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.

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Electoral Commission

[Relevant document: First Report from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Appointment of nominatedCommissioners, HC 1172.]

5.8 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as Electoral Commissioners:

(1) Ms Bridget Prentice for the period ending on 30 September 2018; and

(2) Mr Alasdair Morgan for the period ending on 30 September 2016.

The Electoral Commission was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as a body independent of Government. The chair of the Electoral Commission and the other electoral commissioners are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen, following an address from the House of Commons.

The procedure for appointing electoral commissioners is put in place and overseen by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. Candidates’ names are put before the House with the agreement of the Speaker. The Speaker’s Committee follows best practice guidance from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in relation to commissioner appointments.

Section 5 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which inserted new section 3A into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, states that four of the electoral commissioners should be persons put forward by the registered leader of a qualifying party for consideration for appointment. Those commissioners are described in the statute as “nominated Commissioners”. A qualifying party is one with two or more Members on the Floor of the House of Commons.

The motion before the House asks Her Majesty to appoint Ms Bridget Prentice as the electoral commissioner nominated by the leader of the Labour party to succeed Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and Mr Alasdair Morgan as the electoral commissioner nominated by the leader of the Scottish National party to succeed the right hon. Sir George Reid. Lord Kennedy and Sir George Reid have served the Speaker’s Committee and the House diligently. I know that Mr Speaker and the other members of the Speaker’s Committee would want me to place on the record their gratitude for the dedication of those commissioners to the work of the Electoral Commission.

Ms Prentice’s term will end on 30 September 2018 and Mr Morgan’s term will run until 30 September 2016, as has been the practice for such appointments. Given that both posts are vacant, the terms of both candidates will commence following Her Majesty’s decision to appoint them.

The candidates who are named in the motion have extensive political and electoral experience, as is highlighted in the report that was published by the Speaker’s Committee, which has been tagged as a document relevant to this debate. Ms Prentice served as the Member of Parliament for Lewisham East from 1992 to 2010, and as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice from 2005 to 2010. As a Minister, she was responsible for 14 areas of policy, including electoral administration. Mr Morgan was a Member of the House of Commons and the Scottish

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Parliament. He has demonstrated a deep knowledge of electoral processes and regulations. He also has a record of building consensus through chairing and convening a number of parliamentary Committees, including the Justice and Home Affairs Committee in the Scottish Parliament.

The statute requires that the motion be tabled with the agreement of the Speaker. I confirm that Mr Speaker has signified his consent. I trust that the House will approve the motion, and I commend it to the House.

5.11 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I will make a few brief comments and broadly echo the contribution of the Deputy Leader of the House.

It is clear that the procedure laid down by the House for the appointment of the commissioners has been followed thoroughly and rigorously, and that the nominations have gone through all due processes. The parties that were involved in making the decisions are clearly confident about the two nominees, and those who have been consulted are content with them.

The Deputy Leader of the House made a few remarks about the capacities of the two nominees. Mr Morgan clearly has a great deal of experience in the matters that concern the Electoral Commission, as has Bridget Prentice. Bridget Prentice was known to many Members of the House. She was a Member of the House for 18 years and I think most Members would agree that she gave distinguished service. She was a Whip and a Minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs and then the Ministry of Justice. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, she was responsible for the reform of electoral administration. She was a very well regarded Member of the House. The Opposition are happy to endorse her nomination and that of Mr Morgan.

Question put and agreed to.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 7 to 10 together.

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

Representation of the People, Northern Ireland

That the draft Anonymous Registration (Northern Ireland) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 24 February, be approved.


That the draft Enterprise Act 2002 (Protection of Legitimate Interests) (Amendment) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 3 March, be approved.

That the draft Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (Competition) (Consequential, Transitional and Saving Provisions) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 3 March, be approved.


That the draft Financial Assistance Scheme (Qualifying Pension Scheme Amendments) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 5 February, be approved.—(Mr Evennett.)

Question agreed to.

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Willenhall Crown Post Office

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

5.14 pm

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I applied for this Adjournment debate because of the strong concern felt in Willenhall, in the borough of Walsall, about the closure of the Crown post office. It is one of 70 such post offices that I understand are listed to be closed—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could have the Minister’s attention for a second.

Willenhall has been known over centuries for its lock manufacturing, and locks such as those by Yale are recognised everywhere and must have been used in every part of the country. Many of those lock firms have closed or move abroad, but Willenhall remains a thriving, residential, industrial place, and certainly needs to retain the Crown post office. Many people come to Willenhall market and frequently use the post office facilities, and the traders are obviously busy customers. The post office is located in the centre of the town, opposite the police station, and is very much part of the character of Willenhall. It certainly has no shortage of customers, and when I look in from time to time there is usually a queue. As far as I understand it, the argument for closure is not that the post office lacks customers, because that would not stand up.

I have no complaint about the way that the senior stakeholder manager—I think that is how he describes himself as part of the post office management—has kept me informed of developments. He has done so in a courteous way with e-mails about various developments, which I appreciate. Moreover, he has been willing to meet me and the councillors, including at a public meeting where he and his colleague were virtually in a minority of two.

My strong opposition to the closure is shared by those who live and do business in Willenhall. Willenhall should have its post office; it should be retained and I am totally opposed—obviously, hence this debate—to the decision to close it. As far as is possible, opposition to the closure is simply unanimous. I do not suppose the Minister is particularly surprised, because if a post office were to close in his area, there would no doubt be the same reaction. When I collected signatures for the petition, no one said, “I’m not interested,” which often happens with other issues. Indeed, they were only too willing to sign and knew what they were signing for. They were customers of the post office, or they were passing on the day that I was around collecting signatures, or on other days, and they took the view that the petition should be supported.

I do not take the view that the proposed alternative—a retail outlet—is an adequate replacement. The Post Office says, “The Crown post office will close, but before that happens a replacement will be found,” but as I set out, that will be along the lines of a retail outlet. I simply do not accept, any more than the elected representatives, the councillors, and those who live or do business in Willenhall, that that is a viable alternative.

The Communication Workers Union has also been active in supporting the community to oppose the closure. It will, of course, be said, “Well, one would expect it to do so; it is safeguarding jobs,” and even under this

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Government it is not considered a sin to try to preserve jobs. Nevertheless, we appreciate CWU support. Indeed, some of those in the CWU live locally and support the opposition to closure as residents as well as union members. The CWU makes the point that, in a recent report published in November 2012, Consumer Focus said that WH Smith was the worst performer on queue time, and that it scored badly on quality of service and accessibility. The report said that Crowns, on the other hand, perform the best on accessibility and show the most significant improvement, as well as scoring highly on quality of service. Perhaps that, too, can be taken on board.

Post Office management say that, once a transfer to a retail outlet is negotiated, there will be a public consultation over a six-week period. That seems nice and democratic. We are all in favour of consultation and going out asking people their views—I doubt whether anyone in the House would object to that—but the snag is that the consultation will be on anything but the crucial issue. It will not be a consultation on whether people want the post office to close. Indeed, at the public meeting I attended, I asked the person representing Post Office management who I have mentioned whether there will be any paper on which people can give their preferences, so they could say, “We want the post office to continue,” but there will be nothing of the kind. It is an odd form of consultation. The major issue is whether the Crown post office remains open. What is the consultation about? Will it be about whether there is enough car space in the proposed retail outlet or whether it is near toilet facilities and the rest of it? The crucial issue is the one I have described, but the people will not be asked.

The Minister—fair enough—might say in reply, “That’s not the normal practice.” I accept that and cannot say that things have been different elsewhere, but it would be a good idea to consult the public when a Crown post office is going to close, even if, at the end of the day, the decision remains the same. In that way, at least the people can give their views, for what that is worth.

A petition signed by many people, which I have mentioned, was handed to the Post Office. Walsall council, the local authority, at its meeting on 23 September 2013 carried a motion supported by all councillors. The motion stated that the council opposes proposals to franchise and/or close the Crown post office in Willenhall. The motion also states that to do so would downgrade the status of the office and lead to inferior customer service. It ends by saying that the closure of Willenhall Crown post office would have a negative effect on the local economy.

The latest information sent to me is that the franchise proposals, as they are described, will not occur in this financial year. There is not much left of this financial year, but the intention remains for franchising to occur in 2014-15. I wrote to the then Minister, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who replied on 30 June. Her letter could have been written by the Post Office—she did not add anything different from what Post Office management have told me. I invited her in my letter to come and visit Willenhall to see the position for herself. If she came in her ministerial role, she would be welcome—she would not be welcome in her politician role. No doubt she will say that Government policy is Government policy. Would it do any harm for a Minister to come and have a look at the situation?

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Since the Minister of State is responding to the debate, the invitation extends to him too. In Willenhall, he would be treated in a courteous manner, as one would expect, and he could have a look at the situation for himself. Would that do any harm? I do not think so. Perhaps in his reply he can state whether he will take up my invitation.

In conclusion, it is to be hoped that this decision is not set in concrete and that it can be looked at again. It is to be hoped that the views of the people of Willenhall can be taken into consideration in the proper way, and that it is recognised that this is a Crown post office with plenty of business. It is not a question of keeping it open out of sentiment. As I said, it does not lack customers. It is always busy and every time I go, there is a queue. We talk about localism. I hope that the views of the community can be taken into consideration on all these matters.

I do not have a great deal of hope. I will not pretend otherwise. I am sure, unfortunately, that the Minister will more or less state what was said to me in the ministerial reply. If that is so, I regret that, but I have no regrets at all—absolutely none—at raising on the Floor of the House of Commons an issue that is very important to my constituents. I believe I have a responsibility to do so. In doing so, I have the very strong feeling that there is hardly anybody in Willenhall, whether they are residents or traders, who would wish otherwise than to see the Crown post office remain open. I hope that that can somehow be taken into account by the Minister when he responds to my remarks.

5.27 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): Let me begin by saying that the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) has certainly discharged his responsibility to his constituents by raising Post Office Ltd’s proposals to seek a franchise partner to operate Willenhall Crown post office. He has set out very clearly his concerns, and the concerns of his constituents, on the proposed changes, and I fully appreciate those concerns. As Members of Parliament, we all recognise that post offices are a vital part of the local community, and I understand the real issues and worries that some constituents may feel when changes to our post offices are proposed.

Such concern is not surprising given that there were two major closure programmes between 2003 and 2008, when six branches in his constituency were permanently closed. Five branches in my constituency were also permanently closed. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that this Government are taking a different approach. There is no programme of post office closures under this Government and there will be no such programme. We recognise the important social role that post offices play in our communities. Since 2010, we have committed nearly £2 billion to maintaining the post office network at a minimum of 11,500 branches. We are providing for the modernisation of up to 8,300 branches by 2018, bringing improvements such as longer opening hours for the Post Office’s millions of customers. We are also protecting 3,400 community branches and providing an investment fund to deliver improvements to those branches.

The post office network is made up of nearly 12,000 branches, the vast majority of which are owned and operated by private businesses and individuals more

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commonly known as sub-postmasters. Just 3% of the network—approximately 370 branches—is directly operated by Post Office Ltd. That is the so-called “Crown” network that the hon. Gentleman has spoken about. This small segment of the much wider post office network has historically incurred heavy losses, which amounted to some £37 million in the last full financial year. They account for nearly a third of the losses incurred by the whole network. That is not sustainable, and those losses cannot continue. They are a drain on the company, but, more important, they are a drain on the taxpayer. No business, including the Post Office, can continue to allow some of its high street branches to cost substantially more to run than they bring in. That, I am sorry to say, includes the branch at Willenhall, which I understand costs £1.44 for every £1 of income that it generates.

In return for the historic financial commitment that the Government are providing for the Post Office, we require the company to eliminate Crown losses by 2015. That is good commercial practice, and it is also fair to the taxpayer. The Post Office has a plan to end the losses, which includes working with retail franchise partners in 70 locations to provide continued access to post office services where the Post Office cannot do so viably itself.

As for the franchising proposals, it is important to be clear that Willlenhall is a loss-making branch. Following a process of careful consideration and modelling, the Post Office does not believe that it can operate the branch profitably or sustainably. However, it does believe that another retailer in the community can do so. It has therefore advertised the opportunity to local businesses and retailers, and has received expressions of interest from a number of parties. It is assessing those responses to ensure that the most appropriate partner is chosen to provide access to services, but until we know more details, we cannot take a proper view of how the franchising proposals will affect residents of Willenhall. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that this is not a branch closure. Customers will continue to enjoy access to post office services at a new branch close to the existing one.

Mr Winnick: The Minister says that it is not a closure, but it is a closure, to the extent that the existing building will close. There is no doubt about that, and indeed the Minister has not said otherwise. What he is saying is that the post office facilities will be transferred to a retail outlet, and I have not challenged that.

While I am on my feet, may I ask the Minister a simple question? Are the views of the local community on the role that the Crown post office in Willenhall plays and has played for so many years being taken into account?

Michael Fallon: As the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned, a consultation will take place, and the views of local residents will be important. I think he will concede that the post office is not in an ideal condition, in terms of the state of the building. It could also be argued that it is not in an ideal location. The key, surely, is to ensure that customers can continue to access post office services at a new branch that is close to the existing one. What we do know is that the full range of services that are currently offered will continue to be available at the new branch.

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that before any changes are made, there will be that six-week local public consultation, under the terms of the code of practice agreed between the Post Office and the organisation Consumer Futures. The consultation will focus—perhaps this answers the hon. Gentleman’s question more directly—on the specific and detailed proposal to relocate the service. That will include issues such as the accessibility of the branch, the layout of the store, and the parking that would be provided. Anyone can express an opinion, and all responses will be considered carefully by the Post Office before a final decision is reached.

Already 17 former Crown branches have been reopened by the Post Office’s franchise partners. In these communities, customers are benefiting from continued access to the Post Office services they rely on, but in more modernised stores that deliver an improved customer environment and are fit for the 21st century. In all franchised branches customers are, importantly, also benefiting from longer opening hours, including in many cases on Sundays, too. That is important. It allows the Post Office to offer its customers the flexibility that they enjoy across the rest of the high street. Responding to its customer needs is the key to securing the long-term future of the network.

It is also the case that these franchised branches are now no longer a financial cost to the Post Office network. Franchising branches presents an excellent opportunity for a business in the locality, or a sub-postmaster, to take on and improve the branch. As with the many thousands of branches already operated by sub-postmasters, these franchised branches are being successfully operated by the Post Office’s business partners and sub-postmasters who are meeting the needs of their customers. They are also helping the Post Office become more sustainable and viable in the long term and reducing the need for taxpayer handouts.

Mr Winnick: I was not aware that the Minister was conversant with Willenhall, and he will no doubt respond on whether he will accept my invitation. He said that the post office is not in the most central place, but it is in the centre of Willenhall town. It is very near the market. I do not know of any location that could be more central in the town.

Michael Fallon: I am certainly going to pass the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation on to the post office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), and perhaps she can go and see for herself and establish beyond any doubt whether the location is optimal. Of course, I stand to be corrected by the hon. Gentleman, as he will know it far better than any of the Ministers, but it is my understanding that it is not on the main high street. All I have seen is a photograph of the location, but let me pass on his very kind invitation and we will see whether my hon. Friend is able to find time in her diary to take it up herself.

Mr Speaker: Order. May I just say to the Minister of State that we wish his hon. Friend the post office Minister an early recovery from her indisposition, but in the unfortunate event that it were to be lengthy, which

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we very much hope will not be the case, the Minister of State could always consider taking responsibility for the invitation and attending in her stead, and I am sure he would anticipate that with enthusiasm?

Michael Fallon: The House always benefits from your interventions, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your kind good wishes to my hon. Friend. I think the House has already guessed that my hon. Friend would normally have been answering this debate. I receive a number of kind invitations from all quarters of the House to visit, and I will certainly consider a visit to Walsall when I next draw up my regional visits programme.

The commitment I have outlined demonstrates that the Post Office has a plan that sustains and improves services. It is a plan that sees the introduction of new products and services. This is not a return to the closure programmes seen under the last Administration.

Alongside the plans to modernise and improve the Crown network, we are also delivering our network transformation programme, which is seeing the modernisation of up to 8,300 post offices by 2018. That includes Bloxwich post office in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which has converted to the new main model. The customers of that branch can now access Post Office services between 8.30 in the morning on their way to work and 7 o’clock in the evening on their way home. Across the UK, more than 3,000 sub-postmasters have signed up to convert, and nearly 2,000 branches, such as the one in Bloxwich, have already converted and are open and operating.

In 2010, we set out our commitments to the post office network in our policy statement, “Securing the Post Office network in the digital age”. I stand here three years later and tell the House that we are delivering on those commitments, and we will continue to deliver. We said then that there will be no programme of post office closures under this Government and there is not—and nor will there be. We said that we will provide £1.34 billion for the Post Office to modernise the network—we are providing that money and the Post Office is modernising. In November last year, we announced a further £640 million funding package to enable the programme to be extended to modernise and protect the whole network by 2018.

We said that we want to see the Post Office become a genuine front office for Government, and the company has so far won every contract it has bid for in the past three years, including the vital Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency front office contract. We said that we will support the expansion of accessible and affordable personal financial services through the Post Office, and we are doing so. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was delighted to be one of the first people to open a Post Office current account last year when the company began a pilot in East Anglia. We also said that we will create the opportunity for a mutually owned Post Office. We have held a public consultation on that, and the company, alongside its stakeholders, is engaging the public to agree its public benefit purpose.

In summary, this Government’s track record on the Post Office speaks for itself. We remain committed to the network and we are continuing to invest in it

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to secure its future. The proposals of the Post Office to seek a franchise partner in Willenhall will ensure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will continue to benefit from continued and improved access to vital post office services.

Mr Speaker: Order. Before I put the Question on the Adjournment, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) has a point of order relating to the Division at 3.23 pm, in respect of which she was a Teller.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As one of the Tellers on the motion on the

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charter for budget responsibility earlier today, I have to report that the correct number of Noes was 23, not 22 as called—mea culpa.

Mr Speaker: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful point of order, as will be the House.

Question put and agreed to.

5.42 pm

House adjourned.