Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Steven Mark and Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
‘(1) The Firearms Act 1968 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 28A (Certificates: supplementary) insert—
28B Assessing public safety
(1) When assessing the threat to public safety under sections 27, 28, 30A, 3 0B or 30C the Chief Police Officer must ensure that a range of background checks are performed.
(2) Where these checks uncover substantiated evidence of violent conduct, domestic violence, mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse, the presumption is that the Chief Police Officer should refuse the licence application unless exceptional evidence can be brought forward by the applicant as to their suitability to possess a weapon.
(3) When assessing public safety within this section the Chief Police Officer must follow any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.”.
‘(1A) Background checks under subsection (1) must include, so far as practicable, consultation with current and former partners of the applicant.’.
‘(1) Section 43 of the Firearms Act 1968 (power of Secretary of State to alter fees) is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) Before making an order under this section the Secretary of State must consult with chief police officers to ensure the level of fees collected by the police under sections 32 and 35 are sufficient for the police to recoup the costs they incur through the administration and assessment of firearms licences made under this Act.”.’.
We had good discussions on dogs last week. We now come to an equally important topic: guns. This morning we are discussing clause 100 and new clauses 5 and 6. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South for tabling amendment (a), to which I will also refer.
I genuinely welcome clause 100. There is no argument from the Opposition about the need for that vital provision. It will help reduce crime, murder and serious organised crime and send a clear signal to those who engage in the sale, trade or hire of weapons that the House of Commons does not support their business.
When I was lucky enough to be in the post that the Minister how holds—in my last few months in office—I visited the National Ballistics Intelligence Service in the west midlands to look at the tracking of weaponry and the renting of guns. It was clear from that visit and discussions with officials that there is a real trade in weapons for hire, and that those weapons can be traced to a range of activities: robberies, murders and intimidation. The common theme is armourers for criminals who undertake such activities. Clause 100 will send a clear signal that that is something we wish to stop and I therefore welcome it.
However, we have tabled new clauses 5 and 6 and amendment (a), because, in addition to clause 100, measures could and should be taken, in the light of recent events and as part of good practice, to strengthen the fight against firearms misuse. Firearms licensing is an important public safety measure. The ability for individuals to hold firearms for work or sport or leisure purposes is perfectly legitimate. This is not about stopping people holding weaponry under legitimate circumstances.
Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) introduced a private Member’s Bill, which secured cross-party support, to tackle discrimination linked to mental illness. I understand the background of why mental illness might be in new clause 5, but would the right hon. Gentleman explain how one differentiates the ill that he seeks to tackle here and cross-party support for the view that mental illness itself should not lead to discrimination?
The presumption is that individuals should be refused a licence pending assessment of their suitability to possess a weapon. The hon. Gentleman will see that, in subsection (3), I have also included the words:
There have been—and still are—cases whereby people with histories of violent conduct, domestic violence, schizophrenic behaviour and other mental illnesses, and drug and alcohol abuse have either been granted a firearms licence or not had their licence revoked. I am trying to set out the principle—and I am happy to reflect on this with the Minister—that there should be some check to ensure that we stop and look at some particular factors that could contribute to the misuse of firearms downstream, while not preventing people who are suitable for a firearms licence from having one.
I hope that the guidance that could be issued under the proposed new section would satisfy the concerns of the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire. I do not want to stigmatise people with alcohol or drug problems, or mental illness. However, those problems should be a contributing factor in an assessment of whether somebody is entitled to own a firearm, which is a lethal weapon; and where those contributing factors could lead to its misuse. It is important that we deliberately check those things.
Under sections 27, 28, 30A, 30B or 30C, the Firearms Act 1968 states:
“A firearm certificate shall be granted where the chief officer of police is satisfied—
In my view, those provisions do not sufficiently differentiate the background checks that need to be made into anybody who applies for a firearms licence. The purpose of the new clause is, in a sense, to put the issue on the agenda. I may or may not push it to a vote at the appropriate time, depending on what the Minister says, but I want to put background checks on the agenda.
As I said, new clause 5 puts a presumption on refusal when there is,
Let me consider one particular case. I could cite many others, but the murders committed by Mr Michael Atherton in County Durham on 1 January 2012 sparked a debate with the Independent Police Complaints
On 1 January 2012, Mr Atherton went to a property in Horden, County Durham, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). Hon. Members will note that he has signed new clause 5 because he shares our concerns. Mr Atherton then shot dead Susan McGoldrick, his partner; Alison Turnbull, Mrs McGoldrick’s sister; and Tanya Turnbull, Alison Turnbull’s daughter. Ultimately, he turned his weapon on himself and killed himself. Following that tragic triple murder and suicide, questions were raised about Mr Atherton’s suitability to own a firearm in the first place. I will not go into great detail, because the Minister will be aware of the case, but there was an investigation following a referral to the IPCC. The IPCC, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others looked at the circumstances around Mr Atherton’s murder of those three individuals, and the IPCC has recently produced a report, a copy of which I have in my hand, into the shooting and the Durham constabulary’s granting, management and review of the shotgun certificate and the firearm licence.
The benefits of new clause 5 relate to circumstances such as those involved in Mr Atherton’s murder of those three individuals. The first national recommendation of the IPCC inquiry—in paragraph 6—states:
“The Home Office should revise the current legislation and guidance to allow for a single uniform test for the assessment of suitability and fitness to possess both firearms and shotguns. ‘Fitness to be entrusted’ should form a specific element of the shotgun application process to ensure clarity and consistency around both applications.”
The shadow Home Office team consists of myself and my researcher, Sam, so the wording of new clause 5 might not be as watertight as the wording the Home Office might have used, because we do not have access to the same legal resources. However, I hope that the Minister will support the principle in the IPCC recommendation that “fitness to be entrusted” should be a specific element of the shotgun application process. I would like to hear his thoughts on that.
“The Home Office, Association of Chief Police Officers…and the College of Policing should devise clear guidance and tighter restrictions around applications for firearms or shotgun certificates where there have been previous allegations of domestic violence/incidents which have not resulted in convictions. Checks with police Domestic Violence Units should be a mandatory requirement for all new applications.”
Again, the wording of new clause 5 might not be watertight, but the Home Office needs to examine the principle following Michael Atherton’s murder of three individuals. Without the new clause, there would not have been a discussion of these matters, and the Home Office needs to reflect on them.
Stephen Barclay: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point when he says that checks should be made regarding domestic violence, for example. However, I imagine there is no impediment to forces that believe such checks should be made making them now. Is he saying that no police forces are cross-checking or that some are while others are not? If it is the latter, and
Mr Hanson: There is no impediment at the moment. Individual chief police officers will undertake licensing checks according to the 1968 Act. That gives them a range of models, but, crucially, unlike the new clause, it does not say there should be a presumption that the chief officer should refuse the licence
What I am seeking to place on record for debate is that, if there is a history of domestic violence, there is a presumption that the application will be refused rather than the position at the moment, which is that the matter will be investigated, but the licence can still be granted. The presumption changes to one of proving that one is safe to have a weapon, rather than the presumption that that history is a factor to be considered. I do that because the IPCC’s national recommendations went further. Paragraph 17 of the report states:
Again, that is not me, but the IPCC. Having looked at the case of Michael Atherton—one example of many that I could give the Committee today—it said that we need to look at cautions, bind-overs and fixed penalty notices. That is why I have included in new clause 5 domestic violence, violent conduct, drug or alcohol problems—or, indeed, mental illness, which was the debateable point that the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire raised.
If someone has been cautioned for violent conduct, that would, at the moment, not necessarily mean presumption that the individual is refused the licence. It would simply mean that the authority had to examine the matter, but it may not even show up because those checks are not done. I want a presumption that those issues are examined seriously and that, if they show up, the licence is refused unless the individual can prove mitigating factors of the sort set down in guidance by the Minister.
Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): It is my understanding that, in the case that my right hon. Friend is considering in Durham, police licensing officers were advised that there might not be sufficient grounds, and they were concerned about legal challenge were they to refuse the licence to the individual concerned. I understand the point that the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire made, but some confusion remains around the current guidance about where it is appropriate to renew a licence, and police officers have been concerned that they may be subject to legal challenge under current legislation were they to refuse it.
Mr Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because she has made the point that there is a range of mitigating factors that the police themselves—in Durham in this case, but also across the country—have to look at, and they have to worry about these particular issues. I am also grateful to her for tabling amendment (a) to new
“supports the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation, following its inquiry into controls on firearms in 2010, that national guidance should be revised to ensure not only that issuing forces take into account intelligence about criminal behaviour that does not result in a conviction, as well as convictions resulting in non-custodial sentences, but that they be expected to take such behaviour extremely seriously.”
“In particular, they should take account of bind-overs, arrests and police call outs for domestic violence and an accumulation of convictions for offences where the penalty falls short of that requiring prohibition, thereby encouraging greater emphasis on patterns of behaviour.”
In a sense, the new clause supports the contentions of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in relation to its investigations into Michael Atherton. I am challenging the Minister: if these matters are important, what is his response to the IPCC’s recommendations? What is his response to those particular issues? I have some indication from press reports. Mr Bobby Turnbull, the brother and son of two of the deceased, raised some issues with the Home Office concerning the case of Mr Michael Atherton. He has led a strong campaign, with my hon. Friend the Member for Easington and others in the north-east. He has met my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). He has lobbied the Home Office hard for the type of changes that new clause 5 reflects in spirit, even if it does not necessarily nail them down word for word.
“In a letter to Bobby Turnbull, who lost three loved ones in a gun massacre, the Home Office’s head of firearms, Sheila Alexander, said it intends to introduce stronger and clearer guidance on how the police should consider applications when there may be a history of domestic violence.”
I know that the Home Office intends to respond to the IPCC’s recommendations. However, I tabled new clause 5 so that the Minister can, while open to scrutiny from members of the Committee, explain what the Home Office will do. The present information says that the Home Office is looking at guidance, and according to press reports, we can expect that guidance by the end of the year, but we still need to look at these matters in detail.
Following the Horden shootings, Mr Tweddle, the coroner overseeing the inquest on the murders of the three individuals I mentioned earlier, said that he wanted a “root and branch” reform of gun licensing reform after ruling that the three women shot in a house in County Durham were unlawfully killed. He said:
“The systematic shortcomings highlighted by me today lead me to conclude that, on a balance of probabilities, the four deceased would not have died when they did in the manner in which they did had there been robust, clear and accountable
“This is incredibly important to me because of the murder of my mother, Alison Turnbull, my sister Tanya Turnbull and my aunt Susan McGoldrick on 1.1.2012…Atherton was licensed to own six firearms, despite having a history of domestic violence and alcohol problems…New Clause 5 will prevent persons with similar histories from obtaining firearms unless they can provide exceptional evidence that they are not a threat to the public. This places the onus on the applicant not the police. I believe that this will result in a reduced risk to the public from people who have violent and abusive pasts.”
“I do not believe in a ban on firearms, but I want to see the common sense approach of denying firearms licenses to those who pose a risk to public safety implemented. This will help prevent such tragedies like the one that cost us our beloved family”.
New clause 5 is worthy of debate, and I want to hear from the Minster what it would mean in practice. I would also like to hear from the Minister what his guidance is intended to be, when it is intended to be produced, whether it has any legislative back-up and how it will be enforced by the police. Ultimately, what is his assessment of what I think are still loopholes in relation to the management and authorisation of firearm licences? As I said at the outset, I could have listed a range of cases over many, many years in which drugs, alcohol and domestic violence criteria had an impact upon individuals who have licences. The vast majority of people who hold a gun licence do not use it for the illegal purposes that I mentioned in the case of Mr Atherton, but some do.
Our job as legislators is to ensure that, with the Home Office, we tighten the law as far as possible, to help reduce the risk of the type of incident I have described as soon as we possibly can. That is why I support and accept amendment (a) tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. As the IPCC said, looking at discussions with former partners will also help to strengthen the checks taken when licensing firearms. When my hon. Friend makes her contribution I would welcome support for her.
I turn briefly to new clause 6, which simply says that we wish to examine the cost of issuing firearm licences in the first place. New clause 6 puts a requirement on the Minister to consult the Association of Chief Police Officers on the level of fee for the licence. At the moment, taxpayers, including every member of the Committee whether participating, watching or working, subsidise gun licences to a considerable extent. According to ACPO, last year the cost to forces of issuing gun licences was in the region of £18.6 million over and above what is raised from the general public in the
I accept that new clause 6 may not be phrased in a way that meets the objective, but we can check that, but the principle is to ask for the Minister’s view on whether gun licences should pay for themselves, in terms of the cost of issuing those licences. Does he think that it is still appropriate for members of the Committee, and all the millions of taxpayers we represent, to subsidise the cost of gun licences to the tune of £19 million a year? In these difficult times, that money could be spent on front-line policing, on a range of other policing matters and on important issues of policing as a whole.
We issued a freedom of information request to all police forces to ask about their costs for licensing firearms. I give only two examples, but I could have given 43. Last year, the cost to Devon and Cornwall police of issuing firearms licences in their area was £1.2 million. They generated £514,000 in revenue, which meant that the taxpayers of Devon and Cornwall subsidised gun licence applications to the tune of £736,000. That is a considerable amount, which could be recouped from the people to whom the licences are issued. In Thames Valley—a large force—the total cost was £928,000 but the revenue generated was only £148,000, meaning a net cost of £780,000 to the residents of Thames Valley for the issue of gun licences.
The Government are, in principle, committed to full cost recovery across the public sector; accordingly, they have put up the costs of our passports and our driving licences, yet at the moment, there appears to be no movement on firearm licences.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): The right hon. Gentleman mentioned passports. I should point out that, going back to a previous life when I was Immigration Minister, I cut the price of passports, so to say that the cost of passports always goes up is not true.
Mr Hanson: The principle with passports is full cost recovery. If I have slipped up in my vista of Home Office knowledge on that particular example, I say to the right hon. Gentleman, touché. I will take that one on the chin if that is the case, but I will tell The Daily Telegraph that it needs to research these matters better, as that newspaper provided the information. Self-evidently, its journalists need to take a lesson in Home Officery from the Minister. We will put that aside. As I have said, it is only me and my researcher, poor old Sam, dealing with these matters. We try our best.
Returning to the important point in this debate, the Government are committed in principle to full cost recovery across the public sector. Should he wish to do so, I would welcome the Minister making an intervention to tell me whether the facts I have given on the costs for gun licences in Thames Valley and Devon and Cornwall are wrong. I think he will find that the figure of £736,000 in subsidy from Devon and Cornwall is correct, as is the figure of £780,000 in Thames Valley. I could list figures for the 41 other forces—figures that are, I believe, correct. Whatever we say about passports, the point is that taxpayers are subsidising firearms licences to the tune of £19 million a year.
New clause 6 simply says that we should consult the Association of Chief Police Officers about the cost of the licences. That would reassure chief police officers, who are currently saying—not to me but, dare I say it, to The Daily Telegraph—that they are concerned about the £19 million shortfall. The Minister should reflect on that and try to respond positively.
Stephen Barclay: Is that £19 million the current figure? If so, could the right hon. Gentleman enlighten the Committee as to what he would expect the revised figure to be if the additional measures set out in the new clause were adopted?
Mr Hanson: The £19 million is a figure that was quoted by ACPO on 9 June 2013—as recently as four weeks ago. ACPO is arguing for a rise in the fee for gun licences to help compensate for police costs in issuing the licences. To be fair to ACPO, it is not saying that there should be full cost recovery. Instead, it wants the fee to rise to £94; the current figure is £50. That would allow recovery of some of the £19 million loss, but would not cover it in its entirety; it would not be full cost recovery.
Stephen Barclay: The logic of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is surely that there should be full cost recovery. If so, should he not be straight with people who, in future, will want firearms licences as to what would be the full increase in the fee that the Opposition are calling for?
Mr Hanson: The fee at the moment is £50, and there is a shortfall of £19 million. That shortfall will rise depending on the number of licences issued and their cost, so the fee will need to rise. I believe in full cost recovery, but I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a figure for a new fee today, because we do not know how many licences will be issued or what the cost of issuing them will be. The key point is that new clause 6 would lead to the Minister discussing the cost of issuing the licences with ACPO.
Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very act of putting up the price would deter some people who perhaps should not be getting gun licences? An increase would mean that only people who need gun licences for professional and business reasons would see them as a viable option.
Mr Hanson: That is a perfectly valid point. If the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire wishes to continue the discussion, I will simply say again that the cost of issuing a licence is around £200 but at the moment the fee is £50, so he and I, as taxpayers, are subsidising gun licences to the tune of 75%.
We should look at how we can get full cost recovery on gun licences. Under new clause 6, the Minister would have discussions with ACPO before any gun licence fee is set. At the moment the fee is £50; ACPO says it should be £94 and that it is currently subsidised by £19 million. I say we should aim towards full cost recovery. We could do that over a staged period and I am very relaxed about it. Is the Minister satisfied that taxpayers still subsidise the issue of these licences? If he is, could he tell us why, and indicate how he intends to look at ACPO’s genuine concerns that it is subsidising the cost of the licences?
Stephen Barclay: As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s value-for-money case. To be clear, the Opposition’s position is that gun licence fee payers should pay four times what they currently pay for a future gun licence. Is that the position?
Mr Hanson: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, before he starts preparing his press release, that the new clause says that the Secretary of State should consult ACPO about the appropriate level of fee. The current fee is around £200. I would be quite relaxed about moving towards full cost recovery in due course. That would be a saving to the taxpayer. The Government often ask us how we would pay for things. We are now spending £19 million on subsidising gun licences, at the same time that the Government are cutting millions of pounds from policing.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to listen to my argument, at the moment ACPO says it wants to increase the licence fee to about £94. I say that the cost is around £200. I am happy to look, with the Minister, at how to increase the fee. I would not be prepared, were I the Minister, to continue for ever subsidising gun licences from the general taxpayer, in the way they are currently subsidised by local and national taxpayers. That is a reasonable compromise. If the hon. Gentleman wants to put out a press release saying, “Labour committed to fourfold increase”, we will debate that. I think most people would not wish to subsidise those applying for gun licences. That is a perfectly reasonable position.
Is the Minister happy to maintain the £50 licence, and therefore the £19 million subsidy? Does he accept that he should consult ACPO that wants a rise to £94? Does he believe that new clause 6 would be a beneficial addition to the Bill?
We have had a useful debate on three key issues. I welcome clause 100, support new clauses 5 and 6 and agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South on amendment (a). I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
Bridget Phillipson: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. My amendment seeks to test the Government’s position, along with new clause 5 that focuses on reducing the harm and death that can result when those with a history of violence or alcohol or drug abuse have access to firearms.
I understand that the Home Office has been considering the measure I propose in my amendment. I have raised the matter today so that the Minister can respond in detail and explain the Government’s current thinking on this important area.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set out, we have seen too many tragic cases involving firearms, not least in the north-east with the appalling events in Horden in the neighbouring constituency to mine. I join him in paying tribute to Bobby Turnbull, who has been determined and brave in his campaigning. He has sought to change the law so that no family should ever again experience the loss that his family has had to endure.
The Home Secretary indicated in the Government’s supplementary response to the Home Affairs Committee report that her Department would work with ACPO to bring in stronger guidance on how reports of domestic violence should be treated by the police when considering firearms applications. In that response, she specifically mentioned the Canadian practice of consulting the partners of firearms applicants. However, she said it needed greater examination because no one wants victims to be placed at a greater risk of harm by a measure that seeks to protect them. The Home Secretary’s response was published in December 2012. I would be grateful if the Minister can tell the Committee what stage the discussion has reached, and what conclusions, if any, the Government have drawn on consulting the partners or former partners of applicants for firearms licences.
The Minister will know that in December 2010 the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the Government consider that proposal. It is now more than two and a half years later, and I am anxious that we make some progress. I want to hear what the Government’s thinking is, because we need action if we are to avoid such tragic cases occurring.
It has been suggested that the revised guidance that the Government have talked about will involve police licensing officers consulting domestic violence and public protection units as part of an application process. That is welcome. Unfortunately, all too often victims of domestic violence are not known to the police because they do not report what is happening, and the police may never have even been called to their home.
When I worked in a women’s refuge, I came across women who had expressed concern about their ex-partners’ access to firearms, some of which were held illegally, but most were held legitimately. Some had been threatened directly with those firearms. For example, I remember one woman telling me that her partner kept a shotgun under the bed to intimidate and control her and to prevent her from leaving.
Victims need to have confidence that the licensing system is robust, and that people with a history of domestic violence will not be able to hold firearms. Will the Minister explain what further action he can take to ensure the police feel empowered to act on concerns reported to them outside the renewal and application process?
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady. Will she help the Committee by indicating whether the police are already empowered to contact partners and former partners of people who apply for gun licences? What does she think new clause 5 would add to the current regime?
There is a need for greater clarity. Police licensing officers need to have more confidence in the work they do in ensuring that victims of domestic violence and the general public are confident that the people who hold firearms licences are fit and proper people. I recognise that many people hold firearms licences for good, legitimate purposes, such as for sporting and farming reasons. No one wants to impinge on that. However, we need to make sure that the appropriate people hold licences. My amendment would ensure we have the widest possible understanding about the background of the applicant, so we can prevent tragedies occurring in the future.
On the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, of course the police should act on concerns when they are raised. However, with the current legislative framework, I am not entirely confident that the police will always feel they have the law on their side in making sure that people who hold firearms legitimately are the right people to hold licences. My amendment seeks to draw out the Minister’s position on this issue, to see what Home Office thinking is, and to make sure that we have a system of firearms licensing that protects victims and the wider community and ensures that the only people who have access to firearms are those who hold them for legitimate purposes and do not pose a risk of harm to others.
I hope the Minister will offer some reassurance on this issue. I appreciate the work that the Home Office has done so far. Although we have further to go, and, unfortunately, progress has been slow at times, the system needs reform and we all want to do everything that we can to avoid future tragedies. I hope that the Minister will set out how he will address the principle outlined in new clause 5 and my amendment.
Damian Green: Welcome back to the Chair, Mr Dobbin. New clause 5 would create a presumption that if an applicant for a firearm exhibits substantiated evidence of violent conduct, domestic violence, mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse, the police should not grant a licence to unless there is exceptional evidence to demonstrate the suitability of that applicant.
I am happy to assure the Committee that the police already have the ability to take factors such as domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse into account when assessing the risk to public safety. As a result of the tragic shootings on new year’s day 2012 in County Durham, which were mentioned by the right hon. Member for Delyn, we are carefully considering the recommendations made by the Independent Police Complaints Commission about firearms licensing, including cases where there is evidence of domestic violence.
The new firearms guidance on domestic violence and abuse is to be introduced by the end of the summer, in time for the later stages of the Bill’s consideration. The right hon. Gentleman reasonably asked me for some indication of what will be in that guidance. It will make it clear that although each case must be assessed on its merits, evidence of domestic violence and abuse will generally indicate that an individual should not be permitted to possess a firearm. I hope that that provides him with some reassurance. Similarly, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said that amendment (a) would introduce a system whereby there is greater involvement of partners and ex-partners in the application process, as happens in Canada.
Stephen Phillips: Perhaps I am intervening too early. Greater involvement is of some reassurance, but will my right hon. Friend put some flesh on these bones: will that encompass a requirement to consult with partners and former partners for a set period preceding the application, and if not, why not?
Damian Green: Let me explain to my hon. and learned Friend and to the hon. Lady. We are in the process of preparing the new guidance. The new process will involve interviews of partners where judged appropriate in the particular case, provided that that would not place those partners at risk of further reprisals and violence, because if one went to partners and ex-partners and the application subsequently failed, that might be an incitement to reprisals that may include violence. We would want to avoid that.
The new approach will not follow the Canadian model of requiring the partner to sign the application form, first because that may also place partners at an unacceptable risk of harm. Secondly, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the Canadian model results in a decrease in domestic violence-related murders. The hon. Lady asked for an indication of our thinking and that is it. We are, however, revising firearms guidance to make it clear that the police can interview widely if they deem that necessary to establish whether an applicant is fit to be entrusted with a firearm. That could include interviews with partners, ex-partners, other family members or associates depending on the circumstances of the case. The guidance will strike the right balance.
Evidence of domestic violence can be considered, and I absolutely take the point that it should be considered, but the balance we are trying to strike is to do that without increasing the risk to the victims that we are trying to protect.
Let me deal with some specific points raised by the right hon. Member for Delyn. The test for a shotgun in section 28 of the Firearms Act already requires a chief officer of police to be satisfied that the applicant can be permitted to possess a shotgun without endangering public safety or the peace. I believe that that statutory test, accompanied by the Home Office guidance, is sufficient to provide the safeguards that he was asking for. The guidance is being revised and will highlight the fact that cautions and bind-overs should be taken into account when assessing fitness for firearms or danger to public safety for shotguns.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about a statutory presumption. Arguably, having a fixed statutory presumption against the grant of the certificate would fetter the discretion of the decision maker, who has to consider all the circumstances in the round and must begin with an open mind. A public law decision must be taken with an open mind if it is to be fair and reasonable. A fixed statutory presumption would tilt the balance too heavily away from the grant of the certificate in all cases.
From the drafting of new clause 5 it is unclear what would constitute “exceptional evidence”—no definition is provided. The phrase “mental illness” is clearly very broad and could potentially include anyone with a history of having suffered depression or anxiety, which captures a sizeable proportion of the population. The proposal that the applicant would have actively to prove their own suitability does not fit with the existing test in the 1968 Act.
New clause 6 seeks to introduce a legal requirement for the Secretary of State to consult with the police before revising the licence fees so that they achieve full cost recovery. We are currently in the process of revising the fees, and I can happily reassure the right hon. Member for Delyn that the police are very much involved—I regularly meet police leaders on this matter. The work is informed in part by a proposal from the national policing lead for firearms licensing. Consultation with the police is integral to the fee setting process. I therefore do not believe that the changes are required.
Damian Green: I am moving on to the subject of full cost recovery. I think I am right in saying that at one stage in his speech, the right hon. Gentleman said that new clause 6 simply asked me to consult the police. That is not the case; it says that the level of fees should be
in other words, that there should be full cost recovery. That is an interesting point. As the right hon. Gentleman says, generally, the Government are committed to that for those parts of public service where it is appropriate, and he raises an important point about the use of police resources.
The way to cut this Gordian knot is to investigate what the full cost is, why it is as high as it is and, if possible, bring it down. That is precisely what we are doing. We are updating the firearms licensing system through the introduction of an online e-commerce system. In other words, it is moving from an old-fashioned paper-based system to a much more modern online system that will massively reduce the administrative burden on the police. That will result in cost savings in the administration of the licensing process.
Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman made the point that, in general, we wish to move to full cost recovery. However, we are not going to move to the figure that he suggested—£200—on the basis of what may be full cost recovery in the existing, rather inefficient, rather old-fashioned paper-based system. Those who legitimately own firearms deserve a system that absolutely provides safety for the public, alongside all the issues that we were discussing under new clause 5. They also deserve a licensing system that is efficient.
Mr Hanson: Will the Minister then give some indication of when he expects the new paperless online system to be operational? When it is operational, would he expect the purchasers of a licence to pay the full cost, or would he expect the taxpayer to subsidise any gap in that cost?
Damian Green: It is coming in now and is already used in some forces. We hope and expect that all forces will be using it by 2015. That will be the point at which we consider whether we should move to full cost recovery. I am happy to say that we will continue to consult the police regularly on that matter.
Stephen Phillips: Is not the difficulty with new clause 6, which is plainly designed to move to a system of full cost recovery, that it does not take into account, for example, farmers who need to own guns in order to do their job and put food on the table of British consumers? The Opposition have not thought about that at all, and they would saddle those farmers with additional costs for simply going about their business.
Damian Green: My hon. and learned Friend makes a powerful point. Another point I want to make is that the right hon. Gentleman agreed with the hon. Member for Rotherham that a connection exists between the cost of a firearms licence and the provision of safety, which we all want, but I urge him strongly not to go down that road. There is one argument about how much various firearms licences should cost, and there is a separate argument about ensuring that the system tries as far as possible not to allow guns to get into the hands of anyone whose past behaviour—for example, a history of domestic violence—suggests that they are likely to misuse them. That must be the priority of a gun licensing system. It is also important to strike the right balance when it comes to the cost of a licence, as we have discussed, but the two issues must not be confused.
Stephen Barclay: Could my right hon. Friend assist me in interpreting new clause 6? It appears to suggest that fees must be sufficient to allow the police to recoup their costs immediately, not in the future or incrementally. Would that not result in a fourfold increase in the cost of a licence?
Damian Green: I agree—that would be my interpretation of new clause 6. Perhaps I should stop intruding on the private grief that is the drafting of the new clause, however. The underlying, wider point is that one should not accept what is now regarded as the full cost of a system. This provides a vivid example of the universal need to try to make such systems cheaper for those who use them, less burdensome for the police and more efficient. The new online system is designed to do just that; we will indeed be producing more with less.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for clause 100. It increases to life imprisonment the maximum sentence for certain offences connected with the manufacture and supply of prohibited weapons and ammunition. It also creates a new offence of possession for sale or transfer of a prohibited firearm or ammunition, which will, similarly, carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It applies the existing minimum mandatory sentences to the new offence.
We all know that the use of prohibited firearms by urban street gangs and organised criminal groups continues to have a disproportionate impact in our communities. We have some of the toughest gun laws in the world and, as a result, firearms offences continue to be relatively rare. We can always do more, however, and clause 100 ensures that our laws properly punish and deter all criminals and protect our communities. We think that the actions covered by these offences are more serious than simple possession and purchasing or acquiring prohibited firearms or ammunition. Such behaviour is generally associated with the trafficking of firearms. Our intention is to target the behaviour of those who choose to supply firearms to the criminal market by applying a tougher maximum sentence to those individuals. The clause targets the middlemen responsible for supplying illegal firearms to street gangs and organised crime groups. Those middlemen are morally as culpable as those who pull the trigger and should therefore face a higher maximum penalty.
New clause 5, with the helpful amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, would be a positive addition to the Bill, and I reserve the right to return to it later in our deliberations, when we will have an opportunity to vote on that issue if we so wish.
I support the principle of full cost recovery, and we should attempt to achieve full cost recovery in the administration and assessment of firearm licences made under the 1968 Act. The new clause states that the Secretary of State must consult with chief police officers, because they have said that they are almost £19 million in arrears due to the failure to raise the fees in the past 10 years—seven years of which were under my party’s Government and for one year of which I was the Minister responsible.
I accept that in times of particular financial stress, when we face very large reductions in policing budgets, the police look at savings. Savings are not only made by cuts in services; they can be made by looking at charges for services. I still did not get a sense from the Minister whether, even if the paperless system he has talked about is effectively up and running by 2015, he would go into the election committing to having full cost recovery on firearms licences.
I will tell you a secret, Mr Dobbin—it may be worth a press release for the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire—I suspect we will go into the election saying that we should have full cost recovery. That is not because we want to penalise farmers. I represent a very rural constituency, and I do not want to penalise farmers any more than I want to penalise truckers or car owners who use cars for their businesses. The state does not subsidise those licences; those people pay full cost recovery for them.
It is perfectly reasonable that, if the state has to choose what it spends taxpayers’ money on, subsidising firearms licence applications should not be a priority. Even if the cost were £200 for a licence, that would not be excessive, given that the current cost of £50 has not been raised for more than 10 years.
This debate on full cost recovery is a reasonable one to have and the Minister should consider the issue. As with new clause 5, I reserve the right to return to new clause 6 at an appropriate time later in our deliberations. I am grateful for the Minister’s response and I hope we have had a useful debate. I look forward to reading the press releases in due course.
‘(8) It shall be a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish guidance about the effect of this section before it comes into force to such descriptions of persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(9) A person exercising public functions to whom guidance is given under this section must have regard to it in the exercise of those functions.’.
‘(9) It shall be a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish guidance about the effect of this section before it comes into force to such descriptions of persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(10) A person exercising public functions to whom guidance is given under this section must have regard to it in the exercise of those functions.’.
Bridget Phillipson: Forced marriage is a serious concern that affects thousands of young people across the United Kingdom, but there are no reliable estimates of its extent. The Government’s forced marriage unit’s figures indicate that the number of cases stands at roughly 1,500 to 1,700 a year, but experts and agencies alike admit that it is a hidden problem and that too many cases go unreported, which is what we heard from experts during the oral evidence sessions. In 2009, the then Department for Children, Schools and Families estimated that the national prevalence of reported cases of forced marriage in England was between 5,000 and 8,000. In 2007, civil remedies to deal with forced marriage in England and Wales were introduced under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, and guidance was issued to public bodies as a result.
The Home Affairs Committee’s 2008 report on “Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage and ‘Honour’-Based Violence” and its 2011 report “Forced Marriage”, its eighth report of Session 2010-12, both made it clear that the Government’s response to the problem showed significant weaknesses. The 2011 report recommended that the Government criminalise forced marriage, as it had become clear that forced marriage protection orders were not protecting individuals satisfactorily.
The increase in cases handled by the forced marriage unit and in calls made to the honour network helpline since the 2007-08 inquiry demonstrates that more young women are coming forward to seek help. That is welcome and encouraging, but it underlines the need for greater support for victims and more effective mechanisms for identifying them. The lack of support is unfortunately exacerbated by the occasional unwillingness of public bodies effectively to tackle the issue. Although statutory guidance exists following the 2007 civil legislation, it is not being followed or properly implemented by a host of agencies, which could be doing much more to identify and support victims.
The new measures before us today will criminalise both the breach of forced marriage protection orders and forced marriage itself for the first time. Given that the law is changing, the Government should re-examine the statutory guidance and revise it in light of the changing nature of the offence. It should also be recognised that the guidance is not being sufficiently followed by public bodies. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will set out what action the Government intend to take and whether they intend to work across Departments to tackle the issue, in particular with the Department for Education, where significant weaknesses exist in how forced marriage is addressed.
The Government’s forced marriage unit began a review of the implementation of the statutory guidance that was introduced in October 2010 following the 2007 legislation. That guidance is relevant to all persons and bodies in England and Wales that exercise public functions in relation to safeguarding and promoting the well-being of children and adults. Unfortunately, the review had many findings. Many agencies had not embedded forced marriage within existing children and adult safeguarding structures, strategies and procedures. There was a lack of commitment within agencies to address forced marriage. Approaches to training were inconsistent, with few agencies routinely and regularly training their staff to respond to cases of forced marriage efficiently and
As a result, the review had several recommendations. All agencies should have a forced marriage strategy and policies and procedures in place, together with an inter-agency protocol for handling cases and sharing information. There should be clear lines of accountability and training on forced marriage should be offered. All agencies should also have the ability to monitor and evaluate cases.
The criminalisation of forced marriage and the breaching of a forced marriage protection order is an opportunity to ensure that some of the October 2010 recommendations of the forced marriage unit are finally implemented. That is the purpose of the amendments that I have tabled to clauses 103 and 104. They would ensure that new statutory guidance was published by the Government and distributed to all relevant public bodies, and require organisations and individuals who received it to follow it when carrying out their duties. Unfortunately, criminalising forced marriage in itself will not be enough to protect victims and potential victims.
Those measures would be welcomed by many agencies. In the forced marriage unit report, agencies asked that multi-agency guidance on forced marriage include more about information sharing and an adaptable leaflet for victims and professionals. One agency requested that guidelines be more succinct for front-line practitioners. The measures would also target improvements in the approach adopted by schools towards forced marriage, an area that was of particular concern to the forced marriage unit, as we heard in oral evidence.
The 2010 report was critical of the attitude of schools towards forced marriage. First, only one school responded to the questionnaire from the forced marriage unit. It found that schools and colleges were difficult to engage with in a number of regions because they tended to shy away from raising awareness about forced marriage with their pupils. The reasons cited were not wanting to stigmatise particular ethnic groups and concerns about the reactions of parents and governors. As a consequence some schools refuse to display posters and leaflets or participate in training and raising awareness.
Indeed, we heard oral evidence from the two organisations that work in this area that schools remain a significant concern. One witness reported that it was not even possible to ascertain the number of people affected by forced marriage. They were told that they would have to seek the information from each individual school, which is simply not practical. We do not have a proper estimate of the number of young people who may be disappearing because of forced marriage, and we need that data if we are to have a proper evidence base that can further inform the debate. The unwillingness to raise the issue of forced marriage within schools means that the issue is not addressed within safeguarding structures.
The 2011 Home Affairs Committee report reiterated many of the concerns raised by the forced marriage unit about schools. We heard evidence from Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana that little had changed in schools
In 2011, the Home Affairs Committee was extremely worried that schools were continuing to refuse to engage in preventive activity and wrote to the Secretary of State for Education to express that view. The Committee rejected the Secretary of State’s assurance that schools were already aware of the guidance available on forced marriage and called for teachers to be given active support from the Department for Education, as it was vital for child protection. In response, although the Government accepted the role teachers play in protecting children from forced marriage, the Secretary of State for Education did not believe that his Department should be directive or prescriptive to schools on such issues.
This Committee heard further evidence that, after another two years of inaction from the Department for Education, forced marriage is still not being treated as a child protection issue in many schools. The compilation of new guidelines gives the Government an opportunity to implement a fundamental change in the way that schools approach forced marriage and adopt many of the recommendations made by the two Select Committee inquiries and the forced marriage unit report. That could put an end to the situation in which schools collect no data on disappearing students so that we do not know the full extent of the problem.
In conclusion, I support the measures that the Government have put forward in the Bill. I appreciate that they have at times divided opinion among those working in the sector, but I think they are the right step. However, criminalisation in itself is not a panacea. To draw a parallel, female genital mutilation was criminalised more than two decades ago but there has yet to be a single conviction for that crime in the UK, despite the fact that 24,000 women in this country continue to be exposed to the risk of female genital mutilation. If this Bill is to effectively tackle forced marriage, and if criminalisation is to have the effect that we all want of stopping this dreadful practice, a broader, more comprehensive approach needs to be adopted. Criminalisation is only one important part of such a process. The Bill should ensure that public agencies and bodies provide a consistent and appropriate response to those within their care who are threatened by forced marriage. The amendments I have tabled would thus incentivise public agencies to improve their best practice and encourage Departments, in particular the Department for Education, to discuss openly how best to tackle forced marriage beyond criminalisation.
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Dobbin. I have no idea whether forced marriage is a problem in my constituency, and therein lies the point that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South has made—that there are no consistent or useful data that can enable constituency MPs to understand the extent of the problem. My constituency is largely
I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said and concur with her entirely that part of the problem is the lack of available data. Indeed, the Home Affairs Committee made that point when it commented that victims fall through the cracks because of the failure to share data. She made some interesting points about who is responsible for sharing that data; it is perfectly acceptable to comment on schools that have children who do not come back after a summer recess.
I did a little research and was interested to note that Karma Nirvana, which came to give us oral evidence, recently reported a 52% increase in calls to the charity helpline from Kent in one year. I know the county incredibly well and was astonished by that. That reinforces the point that others have made—that in many respects this is a hidden crime. I am therefore pleased that the Government have brought forward these measures; it is important that we do so for the safety and security of our youngsters, and we must take this issue very seriously. However, we need to look at the available data and at how we can best improve the sharing of them.
A point was made powerfully and emotionally on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who had a big case in his constituency of forced marriages and the abuse of younger children. He made it very clear—this is also the purpose of my short contribution today—that he wanted the Home Office to consider introducing a new police power in the Bill to require specific hotels or bed and breakfast establishments to collect details of identity and proof of relationship for persons under the age of 18. That information should be passed on to the police, which would allow them through their intelligence to collect that data, understand it and use it as best they can. In response to my hon. Friend, the Home Secretary said that that was an important and powerful point and one that she would consider.
This is an opportune moment to raise that issue alongside the wider one of data sharing mentioned by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, because it is clear that at the moment we have no reliable data. If we are truly to understand the scale of the problem of forced marriage, it is important that we have such data immediately.
Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I would like to speak very briefly in support of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. Prior to becoming an MP some two months ago, I was a front-line child protection social worker and witnessed first hand the effects of mental and physical abuse suffered by child victims of forced marriage and witnessed the adults involved. I encountered daily all the issues raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, as did the other agencies I worked with. My experience therefore tallies with the evidence given to the Committee by Karma Nirvana and Freedom that criminalisation alone, while welcome, is simply not enough to ensure that children and families are adequately
Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South.
“Schools and other educational institutions have a key role to play yet are often not engaging on these issues as highlighted by our research The Missing Link (2011). Teachers should be equipped to identify and respond appropriately to girls at risk, yet they are not consistently trained to identify risk and respond appropriately.”
“Our experience shows that the education system has been the slowest to respond to the need to address forced marriage. There needs to be considerable attention on increasing awareness and creating monitoring mechanisms for all forms of gender-related violence and equality issues in schools…We are of the view that heads of secondary schools and further education colleges have an obligation to provide clear and well publicised information on a range of gender-related violence issues and Ofsted has an important role to play in monitoring how these issues are addressed.”
Has the Minister had any discussions with the Department for Education about the role of schools and Ofsted? My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South also mentioned the Home Affairs Committee. What action has been taken on its recommendation that we write to schools to urge them to be aware of their responsibilities in relation to forced marriage?
Damian Green: All of us, on both sides of the Committee, share the abhorrence of the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South for forced marriage. It is a relatively recent phenomenon in this country, and we clearly need to get better at stamping it out; indeed, that is the purpose of the legislative changes in the Bill. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for South Shields bring to bear her experience from a previous career, because it is valuable.
Let me deal with the amendments and then answer some of the specific questions that have been raised on both sides of the Committee. The amendments seek to ensure that statutory guidance on the new offences created by clauses 103 and 104 is published by the Secretary of State and that those professionals receiving such guidance adhere to it in exercising their public functions.
It is, of course, vital that the new legislation is accompanied by appropriate training and guidance for all relevant professionals, and the Prime Minister said as much when he announced our intention to legislate
As it happens, statutory provisions already exist in this respect. The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which the hon. Lady mentioned, inserted new part 4A in the Family Law Act 1996, providing a civil remedy for forced marriage—the forced marriage protection order. Sections 63Q(1) and (2) of part 4A of the 1996 Act make provision for guidance. Section 63Q(1)(a) states:
“The Secretary of State may from time to time prepare and publish guidance to such descriptions of persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate about…the effect of this Part or any provision of this Part”.
The reference to “this Part” means part 4A of the Family Law Act. As clause 103 amends part 4A to make a breach of a forced marriage protection order a criminal offence, it follows that section 63Q(1)(a) covers the preparation of guidance about the new offence. Similarly, section 63Q(1)(b) applies to the preparation and publication of guidance about other matters relating to forced marriages. Clearly, making it an offence to force another person to enter into a marriage without free and full consent is, indeed, a matter relating to forced marriage, so it follows that that section covers the preparation of guidance about the offence in clause 104.
The one difference is that the amendments would place a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish guidance, whereas the existing statutory provision does not. However, the fact is that multi-agency statutory guidance for those dealing with forced marriage has been published in accordance with section 63Q of the Family Law Act. The first edition was published when the provisions came into force in 2008, and a second, revised, issue of the guidance was published in January 2010.
A review of the implementation of the guidance was published in January last year; measuring how it is used on the ground is one thing that is crucial. The report focused on how statutory agencies have applied the strategic principles in dealing with forced marriage cases, and also provided some key recommendations to improve that response. Those recommendations will be taken forward, and the guidance will be further revised to reflect the creation of the new offences. So will other relevant guidance, including the guide to the court process on forced marriage protection orders, a revised edition of which was published as recently as June last year.
I hope that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South will understand from what I have said that there is already multi-agency statutory guidance. It is aimed at senior managers, and it covers broad obligations. It is relevant to all agencies that exercise public functions to safeguard children or protect adults, or any third party agencies to which those duties are delegated.
The new practice guidelines will directly target education professionals as well as health professionals, social services, police and housing authorities. I hope that that answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Ashfield about what goes on in schools. It will be squarely aimed at them as well as at the other parts of the public sector that have direct responsibility.
Similarly, it was reasonable to raise the point about contact between the Home Office and the Department for Education. The inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which is chaired by the Home Secretary, oversees the implementation of the action plan, which covers forced marriage and the new legislation. The Department for Education is a full member of the working group, so it is directly plugged into the work that we are doing, led by the Home Secretary, to try to up our game.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South asked what we are doing to monitor the implementation of the guidance. As I have said, a review of the implementation was published in January last year, and it considered how statutory agencies have applied the guidance. They are under a statutory duty to have regard to it when they exercise their functions. Failure to have adequate regard to it could make the agency subject to a legal challenge by way of judicial review, for breach of statutory duty; thus there are considerable obligations on agencies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford raised a good point, and we are actively considering the proposal made on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley that there should be a targeted power to require hotels and guest houses to record the details of those under 18. It is well worth further exploration, and we are happy to look at that, possibly later in the consideration of the Bill. I agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley raised an important point.
I hope that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South and members of the Committee behind the thrust of what she is trying to achieve with the amendments will accept that they are unnecessary. I hope she will agree to withdraw.
Bridget Phillipson: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s response. I welcome much of what is in the Bill on forced marriage, but there is still a long way to go in tackling the issue, and I would like to test the will of the Committee on amendment 118.
‘(2A) A person commits an offence if he or she—
(a) causes a person to enter into a marriage who lacks capacity, as determined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005,
(b) uses violence, threats or any other form of coercion, or practises any form of deception for the purposes of causing another person to enter into a marriage, and believes, or should reasonably believe, that such conduct may diminish the other person’s capacity to make decisions, to the extent that they no longer have capacity to consent to the marriage.’.
‘(1) A person commits an offence if he or she—
(a) applies to enter, for leave to remain or to settle in the United Kingdom, and
(b) relies on a sham marriage in support of that application.
(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to a fine or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.
(3) A “sham marriage” is a marriage entered into primarily for the purpose of avoiding the effect on one or both of the parties of one or more provisions of United Kingdom immigration law or the immigration rules.’.
Richard Fuller: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Despite our disagreement on the previous amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, I think we all listened intently to her descriptions, particularly in relation to honour in the matter of forced marriage.
I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to another reason for forced marriage, that is for immigration purposes. That is my intention in new clause 17 and amendment 127, which would add after the word coercion “or any form of deception”. Deception in relation to immigration purposes is as much an aspect of force in marriage as some of the pertinent issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South.
“The main reasons are around the family. It is about control. It is about money. It is about immigration and getting people to stay in the UK or come over.”––[Official Report, Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2013; c. 77, Q147.]
“Another motive is first cousin marriage, which ensures that family members remain within family kinship, maintaining and securing land and property rights.”––[Official Report, Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2013; c. 78, Q149.]
“It can be here in the UK or it can be abroad, hence the link with entry to the UK and the wish to have a visa to become a British subject.”––[Official Report, Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2013; c. 78, Q150.]
under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which shows that marriages arranged primarily for immigration purposes are an increasing issue. It is therefore appropriate that this Committee considers the connection between forced marriage and immigration.
There is a substantial difference between arranged marriages and forced marriages. Many of my constituents have an arranged marriage and are delighted by the process—it is a perfectly reasonable process, and some would argue that it offers guidance for many others on the ways in which marriages might eventuate. I want to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about the intent of my proposals. I also recognise that the Government have tightened up the rules, in particular, with regard to deception, by lengthening the time before indefinite leave to remain can be granted and making that entitlement provisional for two and half years.
However, in my view the focus of much of the legislation is too specific, inasmuch as it relates to the marriage ceremony. I was pointed by the Clerk to the guidance on the criminal provisions for sham marriage. That talks about issues that relate at a particular point in time—the marriage—regarding the celebrant and witnesses to a marriage, but in practice the application of those provisions assumes a common knowledge of all parties at that particular point in time, whereas in my experience there are instances, significant in both number and human consequences, where there is not common knowledge. In effect, there is a deception that only becomes evident long after the time of the marriage—specifically, at the granting of leave to remain. In my view, that is as much a forced marriage as some of the other circumstances that we have already considered, the provisions on which, in part 9, receive support from Members on both sides.
I would like to draw on some examples, significant in both number and implications, that I have heard in my time as a Member of Parliament. In a number of instances, a spouse immediately departed their partner after being granted indefinite leave to remain. In the shortest case, that happened after 40 days. Clearly, that was a sham marriage and involved force—deception as a force, not brutality or honour or someone telling them to do that. In another example, there was a life-changing accident and a spouse, just granted status, abandoned his wife. In a further example, sexual assault while in marriage was alleged, but leave to remain was granted and then the person abandoned his spouse. In perhaps the worst example, because there were multiple abuses, a person whose spouse came from abroad abandoned her immediately after the granting of indefinite leave to remain; she then remarried in similar circumstances and the second spouse left shortly after the granting of indefinite leave to remain. People who have suffered from that type of deception are in as bad a situation as those who have been put through some of the circumstances of forced marriage we have discussed, but what is their recourse under the Bill and under the immigration rules?
When the Minister responds to the amendment and the new clause, which I shall not press to a vote because my aim is to probe the Minister, will he tell us what can be done in those circumstances? The only recourse that such people seem to have is to ask the Border Agency to follow up and remove the granting of indefinite leave to remain, but we know the likelihood of that occurring and UKBA’s ability to do it, so that is no solace.
Marriage and immigration rules are a sensitive issue, particularly now—indeed, my local paper, the Times & Citizen, has been highlighting some of the changes in the rules and how they affect some of my constituents—and it is absolutely the case that the Government must get the rules right. Equally, it is important to see the other side of marriage and immigration rules, where force, coercion or deception have resulted in people essentially being used as passports. In all such cases, I believe that criminal sanctions for forced marriage should apply.
Stephen Phillips: I shall not detain the Committee long; I simply wish to voice my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford. He has raised an extraordinarily important issue, not only for his constituents and mine but for all the people in this country, because we have reached a position where marriage is being used to circumvent immigration rules. Everyone in the House will deprecate that, not only as purely circumventing the rules that are designed to ensure acceptable levels of immigration in this country, but because of what it says about marriage, which is an institution that we have debated in this Parliament and which I know every member of the Committee values.
I therefore want to congratulate my hon. Friend publicly for raising the issue as he has done. I know that he will not press the amendment and his new clause to a vote, but I do want to hear from the Minister that perhaps there ought to be a consultation on what can be achieved in this area, and that the Home Office is therefore susceptible or amenable to introducing provisions to deal with the problem highlighted by my hon. Friend. For that reason, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
Without in any way belittling the cases mentioned by my hon. Friend, I cannot resume my seat without noting that his amendment and new clause may be drawn too broadly. I say that only because amendment 127 refers to “any form of deception” used for the purposes of causing another person to enter into a marriage, and I suspect that in many marriages there is perhaps not deception, but at least some spinning of the truth before the marriage is contracted. I wondered idly, for example, whether it might have caught the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves: would she, by virtue of the painting that she persuaded Holbein to paint, have been practising some form of deception upon our former sovereign, who, as I recall, remarked that she was nothing so fair as she had been reported? Be that as it may, the issue is a serious one. Perhaps the Minister could indicate either that the Government will table amendments on Report, or that they will consult on what can be done to deal with the extraordinarily important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford has made by moving the amendment.
Paul Maynard: Let me say, in time-honoured fashion, that I do not wish to detain the Committee long or to press the amendment to a vote, but I do wish to extract a few indications from the Minister of his views on the subject.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford has eloquently described some of the motivations behind forced marriage and the reasons why people go down that path. It will come as no surprise to many members of the Committee that those with a learning disability who lack the capacity to take adequate decisions and interpret the world around them are particularly vulnerable to those who have ulterior motivations. The forced marriage unit calculates that approximately 4% of its case load consists of people with a learning disability. That in itself is a shocking figure, but the Government have admitted that the real figure is probably five times larger. That is not an inconsiderable number of people.
The incidence of forced marriage is, regrettably, higher among south Asian families. Equally, the incidence of learning disability is higher among south Asian families, according to Mencap. That self-reinforcing cycle is underpinned by the motivations—honour, land and so on—that contribute to this practice. Individuals who have a learning disability may struggle to interpret the complex world that they live in, so they rely on a support network that consists primarily of family and friends—the same people whom members of the Committee and those who are listening to or watching our deliberations may also think of as their own personal support network. It is terrible to think that those on whom individuals with a learning disability rely may be the most liable to send them into a forced marriage. Such individuals are in a double bind, because those on whom they ought to be able to rely are perhaps those who pose the greatest risk to them. Although I do not seek to press my amendment to a vote, I hope that the Minister will give some indication that the guidance that will accompany the legislation—should it be passed, subject to the will of the House—will contain explicit provisions on learning
Gloria De Piero: I rise to speak more generally about the clause. It is important to recognise that there are two sides to the argument about criminalisation. Several long-established women’s organisations, including the Southall Black Sisters, Ashiana, which runs the only forced marriage refuge in the country, and Imkaan, a much respected BME women’s organisation consisting of academics, judges and others, disagree with the witnesses who gave powerful evidence to the Committee, both of whom supported criminalisation. Those organisations argued in written evidence that victims may be more reluctant to report an offence if they believe that family members such as parents may be criminalised, particularly in cultures in which family honour is important, or if they fear that they will be ostracised by their communities. It is important to consider those arguments, and I would like to hear how the Minister intends to ensure that victims feel supported and confident about reporting. In cultures where parents’ wishes carry great force, would parental pleas to marry a certain individual in order to preserve the family honour or family interest be interpreted as coercion, as set out in the clause?
It is also important to define the dividing line between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage to which an individual consents. Many organisations argue strongly that criminal law already addresses the underlying elements of forced marriage, whether they be rape, kidnap, assault or murder. The same is true where there is no specific case of domestic violence; enforced marriage is arguably a form of domestic violence. Those underlying substantive crimes carry maximum penalties exceeding the seven years proposed for forced marriage. Many organisations that have written to us made the point that there is a danger that perpetrators will be charged with the lesser offence of forced marriage, rather than with more serious offences that carry greater sanctions. It is important that the Minister gives us some assurances on that issue.
Some of those organisations have suggested that, rather than create a specific offence of forced marriage, we could treat forced marriage as an aggravating factor in those serious crimes. Did the Minister consider that approach? Has he heard the arguments on the alternative side of the debate on criminalisation, which we did not hear in Committee? Why did he decide that criminalisation was the way forward? As I said, we have not tabled any amendments, but we are aware of the great strength of feeling in many of the organisations that made the points I have outlined.
Damian Green: I am grateful to all hon. Members who have moved amendments or otherwise contributed to this debate about an important and sensitive issue. As the hon. Member for Ashfield suggested, I have grappled for a number of years with whether we should criminalise. I hope to explain why we have come down on this side of the debate. However, I will start by going through the purpose of the clause and the various amendments and new clauses that have been tabled.
Clause 104 contains two separate offences designed to capture two different sets of behaviour. Subsection (1) captures violent, threatening or coercive behaviour to cause another person to enter into a marriage. Subsection (2) captures deception involving tricking a person into leaving the country by fabricating or concocting a false story, such as a family funeral or wedding, so that the victim leaves voluntarily but on a false premise.
Our approach has been to criminalise behaviours where we have an evidence base that they are occurring in practice. The two separate offences are designed to address the behaviours evidenced in the cases with which the Government’s forced marriage unit has dealt when providing direct support to victims of forced marriage.
We are aware of cases involving an element of deception to cause another person to enter into a marriage, as opposed to specifically luring them overseas to get married, but the cases that have come to the attention of the forced marriage unit have also included some use of violence, threats or coercion, and would accordingly be captured by the offence in subsection (1) of clause 104.
Amendment 127, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, raises the interesting scenario of someone being deceived into marrying in the UK without any element of coercion. It is difficult to conceive how even in that scenario, the marriage could be maintained without coercion once the deception was identified. If there were no element of coercion, the marriage could simply be annulled without recourse to criminal law.
My hon. Friend said he did not propose to press amendment 127, but he raised some important points that I am happy to consider further. If a loophole is identified, we will seek to close it at a later stage. As I said, I shall go away and look at the practicalities of what actually happens in this field.
Similarly, amendment 53, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, raises a separate but equally important issue. The Government regard forced marriage as a form of violence against women and, sometimes, men. It is domestic abuse and a serious abuse of human rights. When it affects people with disabilities, it can be an abuse of vulnerable adults, and when it affects children and young people, it is child abuse. Marriage without consent or the capacity to consent is totally unacceptable. By making forced marriage a criminal offence, we are sending out a clear message that the brutal practice will not be tolerated in the UK; that also addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Ashfield.
People with learning disabilities are among the most vulnerable in society, and they may need extra protection. Evidence suggests that children and adults with learning disabilities are both more likely to be subjected to abuse and less likely to be protected by existing safeguarding systems than non-disabled people. Some people with learning disabilities may lack the capacity to give informed consent to a marriage and all it entails. In such a case, however well intentioned the actions of the family or carer may be, it is a forced marriage and it is abuse.
The Government are clear that we want the provisions in clause 104 to capture forced marriages where someone does not or cannot consent. Clause 104 provides that a person commits an offence if he or she believes, or ought reasonably to believe, that their conduct may
The Mental Capacity Act 2005 applies to all people aged 16 and over. It aims to empower individuals to make their own decisions whenever possible and protect those who lack the capacity to do so. I would be concerned about applying that Act in its entirety to the forced marriage offence, as there may be individuals covered by the Act who do have the capacity to consent to a marriage.
Equally, by specifically linking capacity to the 2005 Act, competence to consent in other circumstances may be perceived to fall outside the clause. The legislation has been specifically drafted to allow for flexibility of usage by practitioners tackling all forms of forced marriage. Defining certain types of behaviour within it goes against the essence of that flexibility, and I do not think that we should take that step.
My hon. Friend rightly asked about guidelines. Multi-agency practice guidelines have been in existence since 2010 to support practitioners tasked with tackling forced marriage involving victims with a learning disability. When it has been identified that more robust interventions would need to be considered, the forced marriage unit will work with local partner agencies, such as the police and local authorities, to ensure they are effectively implemented.
Finally, I turn to new clause 17. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. friend the member for Bedford that it is unacceptable for any application to enter or remain in the UK to be based on a relationship that is not genuine or lacks the free consent of both parties. Over time, that has been one of the loopholes in our defences against illegal immigration. It has been exploited, and I know that at some stage the UKBA made significant and successful attempts to close it.
It is important to bear in mind that a sham marriage for immigration purposes is not the same as a forced marriage. In sham marriages, by and large both parties have consented to the union, in my experience, although one party may have been duped into believing that their relationship was genuine. They could have refused to marry if they chose to.
The main purpose of a sham marriage is to gain an immigration benefit for at least one party involved, with the beneficiary often required to pay a substantial sum of money. By contrast, the reasons cited for forced marriages are complex and may include cultural and familial motivations, however misguided. As the Committee heard during the oral evidence sessions, immigration can be one of the motives for a forced marriage but it is by no means the only one, and it is not a factor in all cases of forced marriage.
I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s concern that we fully consider all aspects of false marriage, but I am not persuaded that new clause 17 takes the right approach. First, I do not expect that the new clause would increase the ability to tackle forced marriage. For example, it
Secondly, the new clause would apply only to cases where a sham marriage had taken place and the immigration application had been submitted on the basis of it. Powers already in place provide a broad basis for tackling cases where marriage is for immigration benefit, before even getting to the stage where an immigration application is made. Since April 2012, investigations conducted by the Home Office into suspected sham marriages for immigration purposes have resulted in 78 individuals receiving a conviction or caution under those offences. We are not persuaded that the new clause would lead to any increase in the number of convictions or cautions resulting from investigations into this area of abuse.
Thirdly, the new clause as drafted would apply only to cases when an application based on a sham marriage was made under the immigration rules or UK immigration law. Many suspected sham marriages involve non-EEA nationals marrying EEA citizens—were Anne of Cleves still with us, she might come under this provision—where the aim is to remain in the United Kingdom under the provisions of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006. In such cases, the non-EEA national does not need to rely on making an application to be entitled to remain in the UK. The new clause would therefore not help in tackling that type of sham marriage.
The hon. Member for Ashfield also made a number of general points. Where the behaviour resulting in forced marriage also involved a separate criminal offence—rape or an assault causing grievous bodily harm, for example—there would be nothing to prevent the Crown Prosecution Service from considering whether it would be appropriate to charge the offender with those other offences as well as the forced marriage offence. The CPS would be expected to follow existing guidance on selecting charges, to ensure that those properly reflected the criminal behaviours involved and offered sentencing powers that reflected the level of criminality in a given case. I hope the hon. Lady is assured by that.
In summary, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, I will go away and look at whether there is a loophole that amendment 127 would close and we will consider that further. As for amendment 53 and new clause 17, I share the wish of my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys to see all incidents of forced marriage comprehensively dealt with and effective action taken against sham marriages. I hope that I have been able to persuade them that the amendments are not necessary.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 104 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Hanson: There are occasions when I wish to detain the Committee, but amendments 2, 3 and 4 do not represent one of them. However, I would like the Minister to explain what they seek to find out. Clause 105 allows for regulations to be prepared or approved by the College of Policing, which, for the purposes of clarification, we welcome. However, it gives a caveat; throughout the clause, there are phrases saying that the Secretary of State may make regulations unless she considers that
“doing so would impair the efficiency or effectiveness of the police, or…it would be unlawful to do so”.
“it would for some other reason be wrong to do so”.
The Secretary of State will have two methods of refusing to agree a regulation: if the regulation would impair “efficiency or effectiveness” or if “it would be unlawful”. The Minister is taking on the powers of Henry VIII—whether he was married to Anne of Cleves or not at the time—when he says
Amendments 2, 3 and 4 would delete the phrases. I am happy to listen to the Minister explain for what other reason it could be “wrong to do so”, if the regulation does not impair “efficiency or effectiveness” and is not unlawful. In what circumstances does he expect the Secretary of State to exercise his or her powers? We should remember that the power remains with any future Secretary of State until the legislation is repealed.
Damian Green: I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question directly, but first I will say that the clause is the cornerstone of the College of Policing’s ability to set standards for police officers and members of the special constabulary in England and Wales.
The creation of the college cements the status of policing in England and Wales as a profession, placing it alongside other fields such as law, medicine and accountancy. As with other professions, the Government believe that the police should set standards that members of that profession should meet. The clause will enable the college, on behalf of the police, to set standards for policing regarding rank, qualification for appointment and promotion, the maintenance of personnel records, training, deployment and, where necessary, practice and procedure.
For the college to be able to set those standards, its decisions will need to have legislative effect. The standards the college sets are absolutely critical to the long-term strength of policing in England and Wales, so it would not be right to leave the decision as to whether such standards should be followed on a voluntary basis. That would not be right for police officers or the public.
Enabling the standards set by the college to have legislative effect necessarily involves a role for the Home Secretary. She will need to continue to make regulations through the appropriate parliamentary process. As the Bill makes clear, the Home Secretary may make regulations on the subjects to which I have referred only if they have been prepared by the college. In the future, we expect that in the vast majority of cases the Home Secretary will make regulations prepared by the college in the terms they are drafted, although that may not always be the case.
The provisions that are the subject of these amendments have caused some interest. The right hon. Gentleman appears to be suggesting that the wording of parts of the clause gives the Home Secretary carte blanche to disregard the views of the college and decline the regulations it has prepared. I am happy to assure him that that is absolutely not the case.
The power of veto that the amendments would remove is designed to cover instances in which there is not necessarily a disagreement between the Home Secretary and the college, but where the Home Secretary feels she is unable to make the regulations as drafted. She may not wish to do that because they would not achieve the policy intention that the college hoped to achieve. She may not wish to make the regulations as drafted because their meaning is not sufficiently clear, or because they contain an error.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, even the best and most well intentioned drafting occasionally contains an error. In the event that such circumstances arise, it is sensible to allow the Home Secretary to decline to make the regulations as drafted and ask that the college prepare a fresh draft, instead of requiring her to lay before Parliament regulations that she knows to be defective.
During the evidence sessions at the start of the Committee, the right hon. Gentleman put a lot of questions to Shirley Pearce and Alex Marshall about the power of veto. It is worth remembering that both were supportive of the powers that the Home Secretary has retained. Alex Marshall said:
“Clearly, the Home Secretary has a responsibility for the safety of the citizen and therefore needs to retain that power, where necessary, to ensure that the right standards are set or that the right area in policing is covered.”––[Official Report, Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2013; c. 50, Q99.]
“it would for some other reason be wrong to do so”,
which is perhaps the widest term, is not a catch-all; it should be read as covering similar kinds of things to those in proposed new section 50(2ZA)(a) and (b) of the Police Act 1996. As the explanatory notes to the Bill explain:
“This limb could be used to cover a case where it would not be unlawful to make the regulations in the terms proposed by the College but it would be undesirable to do so because, for example, the drafting was obscure or defective.”
The right hon. Gentleman asked, perfectly reasonably, when the provision would be used. It is a backstop power that I would expect to be rarely used, if ever. The chair of the college, Professor Pearce, put it well in her evidence to the Committee:
“I would be very surprised if that were used, and I would be very surprised if it came at us out of the blue. We would hope that we had engaged in discussions so that we never got into the position of having standards turned down.”––[Official Report, Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2013; c. 51, Q100.]
I wholeheartedly endorse that view, but that is no reason to have an emergency backstop power, which is what is proposed and what the amendments seek to probe. On that basis, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can agree to withdraw the amendment.
Mr Hanson: The Minister’s comments do not take away from the fact that the provision is still in the legislation, and can be exercised by any Secretary of State until such time as the legislation is changed. As the legislation reads at the moment, the Secretary of State can effectively veto a draft on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness, that it would be unlawful to do so or that for any other reason it would be wrong to do so. It is a wide power; it can be for any “other reason” that the Secretary of State believes. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his explanation, but he might want to reflect on the provision and perhaps put some caveats to the other reasons that it would be “wrong to do so”.
At the moment, any future Secretary of State in five, 10 or 15 years’ time could, under the provision, determine that they would veto the College of Policing’s recommendations. Effectively, they would not have to give any public reason for doing so and they can choose any reason they want. That seems to be an unfettered power. I accept that it is open to scrutiny by the House and the other place, but at the end of the day, it is still an unfettered power. I leave that thought with the Minister, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Mr Hanson: The Opposition support the establishment of the College of Policing and we believe that the provisions, including clause 106, are a valuable addition to the regulatory framework that provides statutory guidance and support to police forces. There are no problems with that. The only reason I rise on this matter is because subsection (4) states:
Some weeks ago, we spent some time, possibly in this Committee Room, establishing the National Crime Agency. One of the elements still outstanding, despite our legislating on the matter, was the fact that the National Crime Agency had not yet secured the agreement of the Northern Ireland Assembly to operate in Northern Ireland, or for the asset recovery scheme to operate in Northern Ireland. I raise that point because under the current legislation, the College of Policing must consult with the National Crime Agency. My question to the Minister is simply this: what progress is he making to ensure that the National Crime Agency operates in Northern Ireland? When does he expect to reach agreement with the Northern Ireland Assembly on these matters? If the National Crime Agency is not operating in Northern Ireland when the Bill receives Royal Assent, what is the status of subsection (4) regarding College of Policing matters relating to Northern Ireland?
You were fortunate not to have to chair the Crime and Courts Bill Committee, Mr Dobbin, because it went on for a considerable time and we discussed many issues. When the legislation was passed, one of the key holes in the establishment of the National Crime Agency was the failure to get it adopted in Northern Ireland. I understand that there were legitimate reasons for that due to the challenges in Northern Ireland, but will the Minister clarify whether there has been any progress on that issue so that we know the exact status of clause 106 when, I hope, we agree to it shortly?
On the wider matter that was indeed discussed at length previously, discussions are continuing with the Northern Ireland Office on whether the NCA’s remit in Northern Ireland can be extended to devolved matters. I am afraid I cannot give him an end date for those discussions because, as he will know from his experience in government, discussions of that sort in Northern Ireland tend to take some time. They are taking some time and they continue.
In terms of the guidance notes issued by the college, the NCA has a certain amount of remit on reserved matters in Northern Ireland, which should reassure the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope he will also be reassured that subsection (4) of the clause does not cover Northern Ireland. Codes of practice issued under section 39A of the Police Act 1996 cover only police forces in England and Wales.
‘(c) the scope of use by police forces of civilian and contracted staff.’.
Mr Hanson: The amendment would change the guidance note issued under clause 107, which currently allows for guidance about civilian staff employed by local policing bodies and chief officers to be issued by the College of Policing. It defines relevant civilian staff as
“individuals, other than constables, who…are employed by a local policing body or chief officer of police, or…provide services to a local policing body or a chief officer of police, in pursuance of contractual arrangements but without being employed by the body or officer”.
My purpose in seeking to delete those words was to get from the Minister a flavour of why he is effectively creating, through the College of Policing guidance notes, two classes of civilian staff: those who are public facing and those who are not. If the College of Policing is to issue guidance about civilian staff employed by a local policing body or chief officers, why should there be a differential for those who
Many civilian staff will not have frequent contact with members of the public. Does that mean that the College of Policing cannot issue guidance to those individuals, or does not or will not want to? I should like the Minister’s clarification because the choice of phrase seems curious. I am sure that there is an explanation, and it deserves a wider audience than there would have been had we not tabled the amendment.
Amendment 59 is, I hope, slightly more substantial. Regarding guidance issued by the College of Policing, it seeks to add a new paragraph (c) under subsection (2). As well as being able to issue guidance on the experience and qualifications expected of relevant civilian staff, or the training expected to be undertaken by such staff, the College of Policing could produce guidance on the use by police forces of civilian and contracted staff. A range of debates is ongoing about the use of civilian and/or contracted staff by the police, and the amendment offers the Minister the opportunity to provide clarity on that and the guidance that could be issued.
The Minister will undoubtedly reply that all the current contracting and civilianisation of staff follows legislation introduced by the previous Government. For the benefit of doubt, I confirm that. He will doubtless also remind the Committee that some years ago I told a
Would it be helpful if the College of Policing gave guidance on the length of contract for any staff employed by local policing bodies or chief constables? As the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham will know, in Lincolnshire a contract was issued by the police prior to the election of the police and crime commissioner that will outlive the eight-year tenure of any police and crime commissioner elected last November. Could the College of Policing offer guidance on the length of contract for civilian and contracted staff? Could it talk about contracted staff in relation to transparency and possible surpluses or profit margins? What about guidance on value for money or staff transfers from the public sector to the private sector? Is there guidance on what should be included in contracts for the public and private sectors?
Should the college offer a view on what is open to potential contracting or civilianisation? Is there guidance on the choice of potential private sector partner or tests for those providers? Will guidance notes be issued on whether a test for resilience has taken place? I do not wish to criticise G4S, but the Olympic example showed that there was not the resilience in the private sector partner to deliver what it was contracted to deliver. Should there be guidance from the College of Policing on those matters? Should it look at whether there should be freedom of information on contracts and all the matters I have described?
I tabled amendment 59 to highlight the continuing growth in civilian and contracted staff. At the moment, although the legislative framework is there, I get little sense from the Home Office that any guidance is given on how, when and in what circumstances the private sector should interface with the public sector on the delivery of policing. It would be useful for the College of Policing to have as part of its responsibilities under the clause the ability to issue guidance to police officers about the use of civilian and contracted staff. That would avoid the current situation, where we could have a Lincoln example, but a different model altogether next door in Humberside. For the benefit of doubt, we will have an argument at some point about public and private sector contracting and about the roles and responsibilities of each. My point is that the College of Policing should have a role in setting down some guidance. The debate is not “public sector good, private sector bad”—we can argue that elsewhere; it is about whether someone should set guidance. The College of Policing seems to be in pole position to fulfil that role under clause 107, subject to the Secretary of State’s examination of efficiency and effectiveness, lawfulness and whether it would be “wrong to do so”, which is the total veto power we have just agreed under clause 105.
Damian Green: Clause 107 extends the ability of the College of Policing to set standards for police staff. As the Home Secretary and I have made clear, in order to succeed, the college must be an inclusive organisation. Its standards must cover police officers and police staff alike. Clause 107 helps to achieve that aim. Not all the staff working for a police force are in the employment of either the chief constable or the police and crime commissioner. Some are employed by private sector companies providing services through contracts. There are examples across the country already, such as in Avon and Somerset, in Lincolnshire and in Cleveland to name three of those with the broadest scope.
Such contracts cover a range of functions, including some parts of policing that provide services directly to members of the public, such as the control room and the custody suite. I am sure that members of the Committee will agree that it is important that the public are reassured that when they ring 999 or when a criminal is detained, the individuals responsible for such functions meet the highest standards in terms of experience, qualifications and training. That is why the College of Policing has powers to set standards in respect of those functions. Amendment 47 takes that power beyond the functions where the staff of private sector contractors have frequent contact with the public. To extend the college’s powers in that way would mean that it would be able to set standards for individuals working in functions such as human resources, finance and ICT. Such functions are important and provide many key services that enable a police force to function effectively. Without the ICT upon which officers depend to do their jobs each day and the payment of salaries at the end of the month, it is difficult to see how a police force could operate at all.
However, those functions are not unique to policing. They are common to all businesses and public services and it is rightly the responsibility of employers to satisfy themselves that staff are appropriately skilled and qualified, and carry out their work to the standards
The Government therefore do not believe that the remit of the College of Policing should be extended to cover areas outside the scope of its expertise, which lies in its knowledge and understanding of policing and of what the job entails, the skills and abilities that are needed to perform it effectively and the training that is needed by officers to ensure that they are able to fight crime. In order to provide an effective service to police officers and police staff, as well as to the public, it is imperative that the college focuses its attention on the area that it understands and knows best—policing—and not on areas where expertise is found in greater depth elsewhere.
I make it clear that individuals working in functions such as HR, finance and ICT will not be cut adrift by the college. The college will have much to offer such people, particularly in terms of material that helps them to apply their knowledge in a policing context. In terms of the basic standards to which they should adhere, however, that is properly the subject for their employers and for existing professional bodies and I do not expect the college to duplicate work carried out elsewhere.