12 .34 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on having had the determination to present the Bill.

I am not sure whether I need to declare an interest. I have kept horses and ponies for a long time, but I can assure the House that I have never fly-grazed one of mine. Like many other horse owners, I am acutely aware of the cost of responsible horse ownership. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time focusing on a reduction in numbers—not altogether successfully, because the direction of travel always seems to be up.

My hon. Friend rightly identified the issue of irresponsible ownership, but let me emphasise that the vast majority of Britain’s horse owners are entirely responsible. Their animals are, in many ways, treated like their children. Just like other pet animals, they are part of the family—loved, cherished and looked after. There are many of them: although no accurate figures exist, which is a problem in itself, it is thought that there are between 600,000 and 1.2 million horses in the United Kingdom. They are also big business. In 2011, the British Equestrian Trade Association estimated that the horse industry contributed £2.8 billion to the British economy every year.

According to some terrifying statistics produced by Equine World UK, the cost of keeping a single horse can range between just over £3,000 and £10,000 a year, depending on how the horse is kept. The British Horse Society has produced a detailed breakdown of the costs of responsible horse ownership. Interestingly, there is no total at the end, and I did not dare tot up the sums; suffice it to say that they are the sort of eye-watering numbers that I have spent all my life trying to keep from my father.

Those figures, of course, relate to responsible ownership. They include farriery costs and the costs of vaccinations, worming, equine dentists and vets. Those are costs that all who cherish their animals willingly pay, but the

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owners described by my hon. Friend simply do not bother with them. That is the reason for the horrific welfare cases with which so many equine charities are struggling to cope. When they are called to places such as Alton in Hampshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), the rescue charities are not contending with fit and healthy animals; they are dealing with starving, sick animals, riddled with parasites, and with hooves that have grown to such an extent that they bring to mind pictures that used to be seen only in advertisements for foreign welfare charities.

I picked Alton—perhaps unfairly, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire cannot be here today—largely because when I was chief executive of the National Pony Society, it was based in that town. The NPS is Britain’s oldest pony charity, and is dedicated to the welfare of British native breeds and the British riding pony. It does not have a rescue facility of its own, but it is a member of the National Equine Welfare Council.

I remember from meetings that I attended back in 2008-09 that the welfare crisis was well known then, and the rescue centres were already struggling to cope. Wind the clock forward five-plus years, and the situation is much worse. The numbers are much higher, the cost of feed has gone up, and charities that were previously struggling to cope have now gone beyond breaking point. That does not mean that they are not doing their absolute best in extremely difficult circumstances. When, as happened in Alton, they are called to a field of 45 horses that have been dumped by their owners—and, in that instance, multiple owners were thought to have been involved—for whatever reason, and have been left to fend for themselves as a herd, the charities are already at capacity, and in many cases, sadly, there is only one viable option. No one likes to talk about euthanasia, but for sick, old, lame and starving horses it can be the kindest option. However, there are then the costs of destruction. The British Horse Society estimates that it can easily run to £500 per animal, and who is to pick up the bill when animals are not necessarily microchipped or freeze-branded and no one can trace the legal owner?

The case that I have just described occurred on what was definitely private land. Let me now say something about what happens on local authority-owned land. I have never forgotten the sight of two small ponies trotting down Coxford road in Southampton right past the general hospital. Few Members in the Chamber today will recognise the geography of Southampton, so let me assure them that that is right in the urban core of the city. I have no idea where those two ponies had come from, but the only pieces of open land anywhere near there are the cemetery, the municipal golf course, Southampton common and the sports centre, all of which are owned by the city council.

I do not know if those ponies had come from any of those areas, but I do know that fly-grazing has been a problem in the city for many years. It has happened on both private and public land, but areas such as Peartree green have frequently been abused in this way, and it causes distress and concern for local residents. Many of them are simply not used to seeing relatively large animals with potentially dangerous traits—I learned from a very early age that they kick at one end and bite at the other—and it can be extremely scary, especially

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for the parents of young children who wish to use the play areas and the sports pitches, and also for the horses themselves, which are not usually used to being in an urban environment and can sometimes be found tethered with inadequate access to food and water and without the sort of shelter responsible owners lavish upon them.

Of course in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency we might reasonably expect horses to be commonplace. There is a small corner of the New Forest in my constituency and at Canada and Wellow commons we can find the indigenous New Forest ponies in abundance. I am the first to celebrate feral ponies running wild—our traditional mountain and moorland breeds, which can be found in their natural state all over the British isles. It entertained me earlier to hear the Minister speaking of the national parks of Exmoor and Dartmoor, but in many cases it is our national parks where we find our native species running free, from the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in the south-west to the original Thelwell ponies on the Shetland islands—as an aside, Norman Thelwell was one of Romsey’s most famous former residents, who lived on the banks of the river Test. However, these are distinct cases and very different from the situations my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has identified in his Bill, but I am sure he has considered them, and fully considered how the national park authorities might address this sort of issue, should they encounter it.

In other parts of my constituency there have been real problems with semi-feral herds of ponies, including an unfortunate incident earlier this year at Braishfield, where a large number of ponies escaped and ran loose through the famous Harold Hillier gardens and arboretum, causing much damage. While there can be an almost comical aspect to the prospect of police community support officers, police officers and local residents running through the gardens chasing after roughly 80 ponies, it is not funny for a motorist who encounters a dark-coloured pony in the dead of night standing in the middle of the road.

If we find a horse or pony loose, they are very tricky to identify. Yes, since 2009 all foals have had to be microchipped, but when there are large fields of horses with no discernible owner indiscriminately breeding among themselves, who exactly is checking whether they all have passports or microchips? Local authorities simply do not have the resources or the expertise to be matching fields of feral horses to what in many cases is non-existent documentation.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer rightly referred to the problem of over-breeding and identified that in many instances owners might decide simply to continue breeding when there is no viable market for the stock they produce. I would highlight that those who breed responsibly do so very scientifically and with much thought, in many cases with generations of knowledge and expertise, but even they, producing very high quality animals with commitment, love and dedication, cannot find homes for all the ponies they produce—or certainly are finding it very difficult to do so with an economic return on them. Why then are irresponsible owners simply getting away with indiscriminate breeding? In many cases, close relatives will be breeding among themselves, producing many conformational defects and horses that are never going to be any use on the open market because they are not sound and never will be.

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Earlier this year a loose pony was found on the A36 trunk road running through my constituency. I met one of my constituents clinging desperately on to it with a length of washing line in the car park of the local convenience store, and I did the decent thing and took it home. As I did so, I spoke to a police officer who had been forced to stop all the traffic on the trunk road, and a jam was building up. I said, “What do I do with it now? How are we going to find the owner?” I was met with the response, “We’ll just wait until somebody notices it is missing.” I looked at this beast, which I did not much want—it was very sweet, but I did not want to keep it or have the costs associated with doing so—and was told that the owner might appear. Last night we debated the perils of social media but this incident proved their power, because once the mugshot of the offending pony was plastered all over Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat the owner recognised the wandering criminal, came forward, collected it and took it home.

I wondered what would have happened if the owner had not done so. How long would I have been left with this wee beastie? If I had sent it to auction, that would in no way have met the cost of keeping it for however long was necessary. If it had had to be sent to be humanely destroyed, I certainly was not going to be the one stumping up £500 for that. The local authorities do not have the capacity to stable unwanted straying horses, the charities are at breaking point and the police certainly did not want to be lumbered with this beast, although they were keen to get it off the main road. Thankfully, it eventually went home. I cannot say that I blame the local authority or the police for not wanting it, because the costs of stabling it would have been horrendous, and over long periods, in particular, our public services and local authorities cannot be expected to sustain those, especially not in the numbers we have heard about today.

Hampshire is thought to have about 5,000 fly-grazed horses and ponies, and is second only to Surrey in that respect. Those figures were put together by the Country Land and Business Association. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has done sterling work in introducing the Bill, which aims to remove the ambiguities in the current law, and consolidate powers into one place and strengthen them. He has worked tirelessly to secure Government support and, given that, as he said earlier, the situation is a crisis, he has been absolutely right to do so. What we all want from this Bill is an improved welfare situation; greater clarity for local authorities so that they can more easily detain, secure and dispose of animals that are causing a hazard and being illegally grazed; an avoidance of situations where owners at the last minute remove one animal and replace it with a different one; and, importantly, a presumption that, if you can find them, the owner of the horse will be liable for damage and all associated costs.

12.47 pm

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who brings to this debate a good deal of experience in the ownership of horses, both as a child and as a responsible adult. It is also a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the

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Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing this Bill to the House. Like her, he knows a great deal about this subject, both as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a farmer. He has set out the facts and the concerns that a great number of his constituents and mine, and no doubt those of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, have as a consequence of the unlawful grazing of animals on other people’s property. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to sum up this debate and respond on behalf of the Government. His presence here highlights the importance the Government place on this matter. It is important that we try to produce a practical solution to this obvious problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, the current legislation is well meaning but it is inadequate to deal with the problem we face, which is a national one. The Welsh Government have attempted to deal with it, but in his constituency, as in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North and in my own, in Leicestershire, we see on a daily basis the difficulties caused by irresponsible owners and the illegal use of other people’s land.

At the moment, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer candidly accepted, the Bill deals with public land only. It is most important that it is adjusted to enable the owners of private land to be protected by its provisions. The problem on public land is bad enough, but until we sort out the private land problem, we are only nibbling at the problem.

We have all seen examples—I have certainly seen them in my constituency—of horses either tethered or wandering about on main road verges, roundabouts and other vacant land, which may or may not be in public ownership, strictly speaking, but which is certainly accessible to the public. There one sees—predominantly, I am afraid, they are coloured horses or ponies—horses of varying degrees of health. Just outside my constituency in Enderby, which is close to the city of Leicester, I have seen horses that could only be described as toast racks. I have seen them lying alive but unable to move in puddles, in boggy fields and in the most appalling state and the most uncomfortable conditions. Until those irresponsible owners are prepared to own up to owning them, very little can be done of a practical nature.

At the heart of the matter is how best to use public resources to deal with the problem and how best to discover and then to deploy the evidence of ownership. Without evidence of ownership, even under my hon. Friend’s measures, it will still be difficult to pin on those errant owners financial responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

I applaud the introduction of measures that will allow local authorities to dispose of such beasts, either by sale or destruction at an abattoir, but I worry that if the local authority cannot sell the beasts, and as my hon. Friend has quite properly said, these animals are of little financial worth, and is forced to have them destroyed—to have them put down—that will involve a cost.

As we well understand—this is not a controversial party political point—our local authorities are short of cash. Harborough district council has a revenue budget of between £10 million and £12 million a year. It is not a large metropolitan authority with lots of money. It must husband its resources extremely carefully. It must

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have an order of priorities. If it is a question of performing a more general and acceptable public service or spending its limited resources on taking abandoned horses to the abattoir, I suspect that it will place the removal of the horses at the bottom end of the list of priorities and that the problem will persist.

I look to the Minister to see whether he can provide us with at least an indication, if not the whole answer, of what we do when a local authority would like—it is not a matter of wishing or desiring, but this is the only option available to it—the horse to be taken to the knackers or the abattoir, but the cost of doing so is an inhibiting factor, even if not wholly prohibitive.

There is this great problem of ownership. Far too many people need to be brought to book, whether under the criminal law or under the civil system of justice, for their irresponsible ownership of their animals. The shorter detention period that my hon. Friend’s Bill would introduce is a welcome amendment to the law. He set out the deficiencies or difficulties caused by the existing legislation, particularly the Animals Act 1971. A number of other pieces of legislation work to a greater or lesser degree, but they all founder on the difficulty of pinning ownership on an individual or a group of individuals who can be required to accept responsibility.

Evidence, evidence, evidence is what we need, and unfortunately this Bill does not provide for it, but at least if local authorities and, when the Bill is amended in Committee, private landowners can, after the shorter detention period, deal with the animals in question, I hope the problem will be lessened and the Bill, as amended, will have a deterrent effect. Once the legislation is in force, I hope the Government will make sure that nobody can be in any doubt that if they leave their horses on somebody else’s land, be it a private owner or a public owner, the horses will be confiscated and brought into the ownership of other people, who will be able to dispose of them, and that if the original owner can be found, it will be at their cost.

I have one question which my hon. Friend the Minister may be able to answer when he responds to the debate, or perhaps on another occasion or in writing to me. That relates to one of the conditions in the proposed amendment to section 7A of the Animals Act 1971, which is dealt with in clause 2. Subsection (2) of proposed new section 7B states:

“The right to detain the horse ceases at the end of the period of 24 hours beginning with the time when it is first detained unless, within that period, the local authority gives notice of the detention to”—

this is where the question lies—

the officer in charge of a police station”.

What is the officer in charge of the police station supposed to do with the information? Is that simply a box that has to be ticked or does it place a positive duty or burden on the police to do something? No doubt the affected landowner would like the police to go and search for the owner of the horse. Certainly, that is what I have asked my local police to do on behalf of my farmers and owners of fields who have had their grazing land trespassed upon by these ponies. Like the local authority, my police force does not have endless resources.

Julian Sturdy: The intention is to allow people who have legitimately lost their horse, or whose horse has broken free from land it has been grazed on—paddock

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land and so on—and has strayed, to log that with the local police force. If the police have that information, they can then respond accordingly so that the shorter period of detention does not impact on those legitimate horse owners.

Sir Edward Garnier: That is extremely helpful; I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. That releases my hon. Friend the Minister from having to deal with that point, which has now been dealt with comprehensively. That is the advantage of having a chap who knows what he is talking about introducing the Bill.

All that needs to be said has been said by my hon. Friends and I will therefore curtail my remarks, apart from two general points. First, if the Bill is to work, it is essential that we collect evidence of ownership and tighten up the means by which we identify the owners of horses. It is well said in the document “Stop the Scourge”, which was produced by a number of bodies interested in the subject whose concerns are well set out, that if we do not improve the way in which we identify horse owners, there will be a lot of tears before bedtime. The existing identification system needs to be strengthened.

Secondly, we need to make sure that the balance of resource is properly distributed. I fear it is a matter of practicalities. We are unlikely to recover much money from the errant horse owners. There will therefore be a competition, or the absence of a competition, between public authorities over who should have to pay for all this. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to have some intense discussions with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government on how we distribute the burden of sorting out what is an obvious problem.

As I said a moment ago, I have had any number of constituents bring to my attention the problems they face as a result of having horses unlawfully on their land. I have had a number of meetings with the Market Harborough branch of the National Farmers Union, a number of whose members have been physically threatened, and indeed physically assaulted, by the owners of those ponies and horses. It is extremely frustrating for them, as law-abiding, tax-paying, farming citizens, to have to watch those people stick two fingers up at them as the horses trample on their crops, predate on their grazing and cause them endless trouble.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for introducing the Bill and wish him every success with it, not least with his amendment to introduce the aspect of private land ownership. I urge all parties in the House to allow him the triumph that he well and truly deserves.

1.1 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I begin by thanking the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for bringing forward this important private Member’s Bill. His comments demonstrated a clear understanding of the issues relating to fly-grazing, such as the impact on horse welfare, the burden that this illegal habit places on local authorities and why it has been increasing in recent years. He has a long history of campaigning on the issue and, as the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) pointed out, he has worked hard to secure Government

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support for the measures being debated today. He underlined the cross-party support for the Bill, which I will talk more about later.

I also thank the other Members who have spoken, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), who both highlighted the problem in their constituencies. I also want to put on the record our thanks to the organisations that have campaigned long and hard to get this issue on the national political agenda, including the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings. They all came together recently to produce a damning report entitled “Left on the Verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales”, which the hon. Member for York Outer referred to. It catalogues the appalling neglect and animal welfare abuse all over the country, including in his constituency.

In short, this problem affects all parts of the UK—I want to emphasize that point—and it is growing. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North rightly indicated the extent of the problem in her area, in Hampshire, and, in particular, in Surrey. The hon. Member for York Outer also pointed out that it is a big issue in north Yorkshire and in places such as Doncaster. Although Doncaster is governed at local level by a metropolitan local authority, it does not have the significant resources required to deal with such problems. We should not be using local authority money to deal with these illegal activities. We need to deal with the problem, which affects the whole UK.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough also referred to “Stop the Scourge”, the booklet recently produced to indicate the depth and scale of the problem and what needs to be done. What is pleasing about that report is that the RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance are on the same page—something we do not often see. That indicates the strength of feeling on this issue across the country, and the strength of the consensus about how to deal with it.

It is important to point out that there are many good horse and pony owners, including many in the Traveller community, for whom responsible horse ownership and trading is an integral part of their way of life and culture. However, there is also a minority of people who, for many reasons, are not responsible. Those people do not care about animal welfare and frequently put horses at risk, never minding the damage and dangers that they create for others with their irresponsible actions. The incident on the A64 highlighted those dangers perfectly.

Illegal fly-grazing is a complex issue with many aspects. The dumping of horses is often a consequence of over-breeding and the drop in the value of horses. There is a lack of passporting and micro-chipping to enable easy identification of horse ownership, as has been clearly illustrated by all the examples that have been laid before us. It is to do with the complexity of outdated legislation, which allows unscrupulous owners, at great taxpayer expense, to dance around the authorities and enforcement regimes. It is also about criminality.

Labour Members believe that this issue needs urgent attention, and we therefore support the Bill and hope that it makes good progress. That is not to say that we

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are completely happy with it, or that it will not benefit from improvement in Committee, as the hon. Member for York Outer acknowledged. We believe, like him, that it could be improved in some areas.

Before I move on to our concerns about the Bill in its current form, I would like to comment briefly on the lack of action by the Government. In contrast to Labour in Wales, which has grappled with this issue and already brought forward legislation to deal with it, Ministers in this place have dithered and done nothing while the problem grows. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) recently stated, the Government could have introduced amendments to existing legislation, such as the Animals Act 1971, to improve the situation, but they have chosen not to act.

Alternatively, Ministers could have brought forward a simple Bill, as did the Welsh Government, that would have given local authorities and other agencies the powers they are asking for to deal with this issue—powers relating to proof of ownership, to removal, and to the ability to dispose of animals removed in such a way. Instead, we have seen nothing, and now, perversely we see the problem growing in England after Wales has acted. In short, parts of England are being seen as the softer option, and Wales’s problem is being exported to add to the existing problems that we have in England.

We do absolutely welcome the Bill. However, one major difference between this Bill and the legislation introduced by the Welsh Assembly is that it covers only public land, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. That, in our view, is a major weakness. Without the inclusion of private land, enforcement would be difficult, if not impossible in many cases, and that is unacceptable. For the Bill to be effective, all types of tenure of land need to be included. We believe that private land needs to be added to its provisions, and we would support its strengthening accordingly. I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the use of an instruction by way of a motion for the House to consider. We will support any motion of that kind in order to get the Bill into the right form. I hope that the Minister will say the same, and that we can all continue to work together on this on a cross-party basis.

The RSPCA has seen a 20% rise in calls relating to tethered horses, and over the past few years there has been a huge rise in incidents of fly-grazing reported to local authorities. The impact, therefore, is not just on local authorities, whether they are large or small and whatever their resources, but on big charities such as the RSPCA, which is feeling the pressure because it has to deal with the issue.

Our outdated and ill-fitting legislation and enforcement powers are allowing criminals to pirouette through their responsibilities and evade justice while horses suffer and landowners, whether they are public or private, find themselves enmeshed in a cruel and unnecessary tragic farce.

We wish the Bill well as it passes through its perilous parliamentary journey, which could be made much easier with Government backing. There is every indication that they do back it, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and hope we can get the Bill through the House and the legislative process. We will continue to offer our support, so long as the Bill deals with the issue in its entirety. However, let me make one

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thing clear: if this Bill fails to make it to the statute book or, indeed, if it remains too weak to be able to tackle this most serious of issues, we will legislate to stop this practice, if we form the next Government.

1.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to tackling the issue of fly-grazing. Before I begin, perhaps I ought to declare an interest: I am a member of the Flicka Foundation, which is a horse and donkey sanctuary based in my constituency. As part of my membership package, I think I adopted a donkey called Tabitha.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) has long championed this issue. As he said in his opening remarks, he first held a debate in Parliament on this issue as long ago as 2012. I am happy to tell him that, sometimes, persistence pays off in this place, because I am delighted to confirm that the Government will support this simple but important Bill, which we believe could have a significant impact on helping people deal effectively with the issue of fly-grazing.

Many hon. Members will have had large amounts of correspondence from their constituents on this important issue. Animal welfare charities have done a great deal to highlight some of the challenges, including by producing reports such as “Left on the Verge”, to which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), referred. As some hon. Members have said, it is estimated that there are some 3,000 stray ponies and fly-grazing horses in Wales and another 2,500 or so in England, so this is a serious problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has pointed out, this is not the first time we have debated the issue. Indeed, last November, about a month into my appointment as the Minister responsible for farming, we had a debate that had been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). During that debate, we heard about the many problems caused by people fly-grazing their horses, and we have heard more about that today. In some parts of the country, significant numbers of horses are being fly-grazed and such incidents appear to be occurring more frequently. There have been incidents of fly-grazing horses straying on to the highways and, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer noted in introducing the Bill, in at least one case that has led, sadly, to the death of a person in a road accident.

Since the November debate, there have been many calls on the UK Government to replicate for England the provisions in the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. We have been watching developments in Wales with interest. My hon. Friend said that he was reluctant to seek inspiration from Wales on this issue. As a Cornishman, I have no such reluctance: we western Celts have much in common and often learn from one another.

During last November’s debate I set out the approach we have taken in England to date, which has been to encourage all relevant local interests—local authorities, police, farmers, landowners and animal welfare charities—to co-operate to tackle the issues on the ground using the existing legislation. It is worth remembering that that there are four key relevant Acts, including the Animals

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Act 1971 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is relevant to the issue of horses in distress. I also highlighted during the November debate the potential for the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to give us stronger powers to deal with fly-grazing; I will return to that later. Finally, there is the Highways Act 1980.

Since the debate in November, we have given the issue more consideration. I can tell the House that my noble Friend Lord de Mauley has done a lot of work on it. He has met welfare charities, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, to discuss what can be done. The Government now recognise that making small amendments to the 1971 Act would go a long way to ensure that the provisions work better for those trying to deal with fly-grazing. The amendments would bring the legislation up to date, and make the process more efficient and less burdensome.

The debate in November brought out the fact, which has been highlighted again today, that there have been several changes since 1971. The first change is the introduction of microchipping and horse IDs. As I noted in the previous debate, since 2009 it has been a legal requirement that horses be identified with a microchip and passport. We know that many people who fly-graze horses do not do that, which has created two problems that we did not have in 1971. First, it makes it very difficult to identify and tackle the owners. Secondly, it makes it all the more expensive for local authorities and others to deal with the issue. Once they have detained a horse, they have to microchip and passport it themselves before selling it, which places added costs and burdens on them.

Another development since 1971 has been the change in the mode of sale or disposal of fly-grazed horses. Under the 1971 Act, a detained horse can be disposed of only through sale at market or auction. In 1971, when the Act was drawn up, animals fetched a good price at auction, and fewer horses were fly-grazed. My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes to amend the 1971 Act to provide a more flexible set of options, including euthanasia, sale or gifting to a charity.

The reality is that horses often have little or no monetary value today. There have even been cases of the owner of a detained horse buying it back at a knock-down price at auction, after it had been microchipped by the person who detained it. The fly-grazer was therefore able to gain a legally compliant horse at little cost, which cannot be fair. We need to address that matter, and my hon. Friend’s Bill does just that.

We have listened to the animal welfare charities. They have strongly argued for a mechanism whereby fly-grazed horses can either be re-homed or, in some cases, put down. Sadly, there is so little demand for horses and so much demand for re-homing that charities such as the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare and Redwings have all reported that their re-homing centres are full of unwanted horses.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Is there a direct correlation between the increase in fly-grazing and the fact that the value of horses has dropped so much? People just do not care any more: as horses have no value, they might as well fly-graze them.

George Eustice: From listening to the animal welfare charities, we know that part of the problem has undoubtedly been a lot of irresponsible breeding of horses. Horses

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are being bred for whom there is no market. Sadly, they are then abandoned by people who, frankly, are not fit to own horses in the first place.

I want to move on to the central feature of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which is the length of time that an animal must be detained before it can be sold. One difficulty created by the 1971 Act is that it requires the person who detains a horse to look after it for up to 14 days. During that time, they are responsible for its welfare and for preventing it from straying, and they are liable for any costs incurred. The Bill would permit the disposal of horses after the equivalent of four working days, rather than the present 14 days. We think that four working days strikes a good balance: it is lower than the figure of seven days that applies in Wales and, to respond to the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), it will significantly reduce the cost to both local authorities and landowners of intervening in such cases, because they can sell or dispose of an animal after only four working days.

There are consequential amendments that must be made to the 1971 Act, one of which relates to the point that was put to me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough about the requirement to give the police notice that one has detained a horse within 24 hours. In addition to the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, it is worth pointing out that currently, notice must be given within three days. We think that it is proportionate to reduce the deadline to 24 hours, given that we have condensed the period of detention. There is a requirement to give notice to the police so that if they receive a report of a horse going missing, they can reconcile it with the report of fly-grazing, and thereby reunite ponies and horses with their legitimate owners who have just managed to mislay them.

Sir Edward Garnier: I am grateful to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for clearing up the point about the police. When the Bill becomes an Act, would it be worth issuing guidance to local authorities and police authorities on informing local hunts of the existence or whereabouts of detained horses, because they have facilities to help with the removal of horses, dead and alive?

George Eustice: That is something that may be considered when the Bill is, I hope, enacted.

The animal welfare codes recommend that a horse that is being kept should be tended to at least once a day to check that its welfare needs are met. We feel that the 24-hour notice period is reasonable because the legitimate owner of an animal would realise that they did not have the animal quite quickly. If the police are notified within 24 hours and there is a four-working-day period of detention, it will enable them to reunite the legitimate owners of a horse with their animal.

In common with the 1971 Act, when a detained horse is sold and there is money left over from the sale, any excess money, after the costs of the sale and of keeping the horse are deducted, can be claimed by the horse owner. For the most part, the horses that we are talking about will probably be of such low value that it is unlikely that there will be any money left after the sale.

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The final element that I want to touch on relates to the concerns of welfare charities about the ambiguity of the definition of “stray” horses. Although the position has never been tested in the courts, the Bill seeks to address the concern that the 1971 Act is not designed to deal with deliberately placed horses. Clarifying the definition by making it clear that it includes horses that are there without legal authority is an important step forward.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I hope that consideration will be given in Committee to areas such as Exmoor and Dartmoor, with which the Minister is familiar, where there are wild ponies. How will one distinguish between animals that are being fly-grazed and wild herds?

George Eustice: My hon. Friend may well have the opportunity to raise those points as the Bill progresses.

The Bill represents an important step forward in promoting more responsible standards of horse ownership. It will uphold the need for owners to pay proper attention to their horses’ welfare and to avoid the burdens that fly-grazing imposes on public safety and private and public property.

I want to return to a point that I raised in the last debate on this subject. We must not lose sight of the potential to use the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to deal with this issue. In addition to the changes that the Bill will make to the 1971 Act, it is possible for local authorities to use a more streamlined antisocial behaviour measure under the 2014 Act, which came into force only this week. Local authorities and the police can issue a community protection notice against fly-grazers without having to apply to the courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, we recognise that in most cases the owner of the fly-grazing horse would have to be known, and in many cases that is not possible to establish without some form of investigation. To return to the point that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough made, however, it is important that we do something about owners who abdicate their responsibility and neglect their horses. The Bill will give local authorities the ability to pursue irresponsible horse owners. Two prolific and persistent fly-grazers have recently been issued with antisocial behaviour orders under the old-style measures, so although we accept that there are difficulties, we still believe that we should act.

Finally, I return to the extension of the Bill’s provisions to private land, which several Members have mentioned. Bearing in mind the significant effect of fly-grazing on private land, the Government support such an extension, which would be consistent with the scope of the 1971 Act. It will require the approval of the House for amending the scope and long title of the Bill, but given the importance of doing so, the Government are happy to support that on this occasion. Such amendments would give private landowners and occupiers the benefits of the changes to the 1971 Act that local authorities will gain in respect of public places. I can confirm that we will therefore table a motion to direct the Public Bill Committee that it can consider amendments to the Bill that would enable its provisions to apply on private land.

I believe that the changes will be welcomed by local authorities, landowners and the animal welfare charities that have done much to highlight the issue in recent years. I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member

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for York Outer, who looks set to be more successful with his private Member’s Bill than I was with mine some years ago. I am happy to confirm the Government’s support for the Bill, and I wish him the very best of luck in taking it through Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

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

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Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill

Second Reading

1.27 pm

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is an important Bill for solving the problem of health and safety interfering with small charities and community groups that are trying to do the right thing in their community but sometimes get bogged down in the bureaucracy of local government. The Bill will make local authorities accountable for health and safety decisions that they take about events, and it will offer citizens a route of redress when the local authority cancels events or when members of the public consider that the local authority’s conditions on an event going ahead are over-zealous, unreasonable or disproportionate. In particular, it will give members of the public the right to a review of a negative decision.

The Bill also makes specific provision for the local government ombudsman to treat complaints related to health and safety decisions about events differently from how it responds to other complaints. It provides for the possibility of a fast-track process to allow the ombudsman to examine those decisions and overturn them or recommend that they be reviewed rapidly—hopefully within 14 days. It is also intended that the Bill will go some way towards halting or even reversing the risk aversion that seems to have developed in our local authorities over recent years. That risk-averse culture is what makes the Bill so necessary.

The inspiration for the Bill comes from Lord Young of Graffham’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, which was produced after a Whitehall-wide review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture. In his forward to the report, the Prime Minister expressed clearly the genesis of the Bill when he wrote that newspapers were reporting even more examples of senseless bureaucracy that gets in the way of people trying to do the right thing. He said that we should put a stop to senseless rules that get in the way of volunteering, and that we need a system that is proportionate, not bureaucratic, that treats adults like adults, and that reinstates some common sense and trust. Treating adults like adults and not letting bureaucracy get in the way of communities coming together to hold events, celebrate local anniversaries or mark a special event in the national or local calendar is one aim of this Bill.

I am sure everyone knows a story about health and safety, or a decision taken by a local authority that could politely be described as over-zealous. I have a couple of examples with which I hope you will allow me to indulge the House, Mr Deputy Speaker. A pancake race was held on pancake day in St Albans, but health and safety officials decreed that because it had rained in the morning, competitors would be required to walk rather than run. Apparently the announcement was met with playful and friendly banter from the crowd, but one can only imagine how people will have responded on that occasion. There are examples of a ban on sparklers. Anyone who is planning on celebrating bonfire night in the near future will know how charming and decorative sparklers can be—indeed, I suggest they are

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almost an integral part of bonfire night, unless someone happens to be at a display in Newcastle, Gateshead, Manchester or Lambeth, where sparklers have been banned. One presumes that hot soup and sizzling sausages might also be banned on account of their danger.

Finally, a recent example of just how far the culture of an over-zealous, disproportionate application of an unbalanced approach to health and safety has spread can be found at a village cricket team in Norfolk—the county where the Minister has his constituency—which has been forced to relocate after the council introduced new rules banning the use of cricket balls on its pitch. I suffer at home because my wife has banned the use of cricket balls in the house—my son and I have both been disciplined for that—but a cricket pitch is probably a reasonable place to expect to use a hard cricket ball.

The Bill tries to redress some of those issues, and proposed new section 22A(2) to the Local Government Act 1974 states that if a local authority in England prohibits or restricts in some way an event on health and safety grounds, it must give written notice of the decision, and the reasons for it, to the applicant or event organiser. Local authorities should already be doing that; it is not unusual and we would expect that to happen, but it does not on every occasion. Proposed new section 22A would also require local authorities to carry out a review of the decision if requested, and reply within 15 days explaining whether it is to be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced or varied, and the outcome of that decision must be provided in writing. Once again, one would expect a local authority to do that already, but that is not the case in every circumstance. The Bill is silent on the mechanics of such a review, which allows local authorities to determine for themselves what process to go through and how it will work, so that they can design their own systems and the most cost-effective way of responding to applicants.

If local authorities behave as they should, there will be no extra cost whatsoever. The system will work perfectly well, and the current system of inspecting health and safety and ensuring that our constituents and local charities are safe will carry on as it always has. If they behaved as they should, a review would not be needed. Any local small charity that was holding an event would apply for a licence and be given permission, with no over-zealous constraints, so that the event could run as planned.

If an issue could not be resolved locally, a complaint could be made to the local government ombudsman. If the complainant considered that they had suffered an injustice arising from maladministration of that decision, they could forward it to the local government ombudsman. Clause 2 would amend section 28 of the 1974 Act to give the local government ombudsman power to adopt different procedures for different categories of any case, including a fast-track procedure for certain cases—so what I am proposing would be legally possible. The expectation is that the ombudsman would use the fast-track procedure to deal with complaints arising from decisions of local authorities to ban or restrict events on health and safety grounds, so that if the recommendation by the ombudsman were that the decision be revisited, the authority would have the opportunity to do so before the event took place. That is important. If someone is

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faced with such bureaucratic nonsense, the ombudsman would have the opportunity to step in to allow the local authority to rethink its decision and for the community event to continue as planned. Unfortunately, the ombudsman does not have the power to overturn a decision, but it can recommend that a decision be revisited. If that is not possible, the ombudsman does have the power to recommend compensation. If the time scale does not allow the event to go ahead, but the ombudsman finds in favour of the applicants, compensation could be paid for their losses.

The Bill would not affect the important and necessary health and safety legislation that exists to protect employees and the public in the streets. We need to curb the over-enthusiastic and over-zealous implementation of health and safety legislation without putting members of the public in any danger. If someone were to propose letting members of the public dive off a high board into 12 inches of water, common sense would say that that was dangerous and pretty daft. Health and safety legislation has a role in looking after our constituents, but when it gets to the stage of making the players of a game of conkers wear goggles so that they are not injured by flying sections of conker, we have gone from conkers to bonkers.

Occasionally, there is less to a story than gets reported, but the stories do seem to keep coming. The Health and Safety Executive has even set up a myth-busting section on its home page. I commend that website to Members and the public to educate themselves. Anyone who thinks that the health and safety culture is a myth should consider such examples as the library that instructed borrowers not to take books into the toilet, the school that banned a sports day morning session because of dew or the village hall that ruled that washing up after events could not be done by hand but a dishwasher had to be used. Those stories, and hundreds like them, make a compelling case that this is a serious issue.

Communities should not be dissuaded from coming together, whether it is to raise money or celebrate a local or national anniversary. The health and safety culture puts extra barriers in the way of those communities who want to get involved and support each other. The Bill should help to block the actions of some of the over-zealous members of our local authorities. It would not only make local authorities more accountable for their decisions but encourage them to think more carefully about them. It would give applicants and event organisers a means of redress when events are cancelled by an authority on health and safety grounds, if they consider the restrictions unreasonable, and, crucially, help to halt the risk-averse culture that has developed in our authorities.

I hope that in Committee we can examine how the Bill might effectively address issues that have arisen over the years and that small charities, women’s institutes and others will be able to hold community events without some local authority staff being overzealous in their application of the licensing procedures. It is a simple Bill, with not many lines to amend, and I am hopeful that the Government will support it. I thank the Minister and his team for their support so far and other Members who have pursued this matter, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who first raised it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

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Lord Young’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, which followed a Whitehall review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture, made recommendations on the compensation culture, low-hazard workplaces, raising standards, insurance, education, health and safety legislation and local authorities:

“Officials who ban events on health and safety grounds should put their reasons in writing… Enable citizens to have a route for redress where they want to challenge local officials’ decisions. Local authorities will conduct an internal review of all refusals on the grounds of health and safety…Citizens should be able to refer unfair decisions to the Ombudsman, and a fast track process should be implemented to ensure that decisions can be overturned within two weeks. If appropriate, the Ombudsman may award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. If the Ombudsman’s role requires further strengthening, then legislation should be considered.”

The Government accepted these recommendations, and the Bill addresses all of them, so I hope we can move forward with it.

The Bill would insert new provisions into the 1974 Act requiring local authorities to provide the event organiser or person applying for a decision with written notification of a decision when the authority stops an event or imposes conditions or restrictions on health and safety grounds. It also provides that the applicant or event organiser can request a review to be completed within 15 days and that the Local Government Ombudsman may identify categories of complaints and require that these be investigated faster than others. On finding that the process to arrive at the decision involved maladministration, the local government ombudsman can recommend that the authority undertake to pay compensation.

This is a timely Bill; indeed, it probably should have been brought forward a little earlier. Obviously, Government business has not allowed it to come to the fore hitherto. I hope that, with Government support and the support of my colleagues, we can move forward and put the Bill on to the statute book to allow those community groups to continue to do the good work they do in raising money for charities, marking anniversaries and celebrating the sort of community events that hold our society together. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.45 pm

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak again on this very active Friday and to congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on coming so high up in the private Members’ ballot, on tabling the Bill and on proposing its Second Reading.

I seem to be having a rather disquieting day in that I have to admit that I am agreeing with Conservative Members rather more than I am accustomed to! The Minister and I did not trade blows on housing earlier this morning; rather, we had a useful discussion on the first private Member’s Bill we considered. I fear that there is going to be another reasonable, balanced and consensual discussion about this Bill, too.

Let me present the Opposition’s position on the Bill. I understand that its purpose is to introduce a right of rapid appeal when a local authority proposes to prevent

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an event from being held or indeed seeks to impose restrictions on such events on health and safety grounds. The Bill places on local authorities a requirement for a written justification for such a refusal.

In common with the hon. Member for Sherwood, I am keen on community events—especially if they take place in my Wolverhampton North East constituency, but I support them in different parts of the country as well. Some of the examples given in the hon. Gentleman’s opening speech are indeed worrying. It is also true to say that local authorities, as he acknowledged, have a duty to their communities in preserving health and safety and ensuring that people are always safe. The hon. Gentleman provided an example at the other extreme—about diving boards and a lack of water—and we would of course not want to see that happen. This debate is interesting in that the most difficult decisions taken by local authorities are not often at either of those extremes, but either somewhere in the middle or at the margins.

Difficult decisions need to be taken by local authorities, sometimes in unusual circumstances. In my constituency and across Wolverhampton, for example, we have a healthy and vibrant Sikh community. One year, the local council cancelled the annual Vaisakhi event, literally on the very morning it was due to take place. It takes place every year on the first Sunday in May. I attend it every year. It was cancelled on the basis of very high winds and appalling weather, and I think the council was right to do that, as it looked pretty dangerous. A local authority does not take lightly its duties to protect health and safety; it takes them seriously.

The Bill would not affect those sorts of cases, as it attempts to strip out what the hon. Gentleman calls the most over-zealous applications of health and safety legislation. I understand his reasoning. We need to strike a balance between protecting the health and safety of those whom we represent and for whom local authorities work, and ensuring that community events are allowed to go ahead when there are no substantial risks

Mr Spencer: I hope that if the Bill is passed it will never actually need to be used, because a local authority and the organiser of a community event will have gone through the process of discussing health and safety before the point is reached at which someone would step in to stop the event. That is what causes the most frustration: a community group has advertised an event to the public, and then someone steps in and stops it at the last moment.

Emma Reynolds: I understand that. In the example that I gave, extreme weather conditions prevented a community event from taking place. In such circumstances, it is difficult to give any warning. However, the examples given by the hon. Gentleman made clear that decisions are often made too late, and events have to be cancelled after a great deal of work has already gone into publicising and marketing them. Sometimes it is difficult to let everyone know that an event has been cancelled. The Opposition are sympathetic to the idea of fast-tracking the appeal mechanisms that the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce, because we think it right to give communities and those who organise community events more certainty

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and a better process to follow. We are keen to scrutinise the Bill in Committee to ensure that the appeal mechanisms are appropriate and proportionate.

I urge the hon. Gentleman and the Government to consult carefully with the Local Government Association, which I hope they are already doing. The association has made known its views on the Bill, and has asked for Government assistance. The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill will not require any taxpayers’ money, but—I am being devil’s advocate here—the association contends that it may end up doing so if spurious claims are brought against local authorities. I know that the LGA is particularly nervous about the Bill. I think that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, and his Department, should do some more detailed work to ensure that authorities are allowed to make the right decisions in the right way without finding themselves having to disburse what they say could be significant sums as a result of spurious claims. I am sure that that point will arise in Committee.

The Bill is intended to change the culture and try to introduce a more common-sense approach to the way in which decisions are made, and that is welcome. Sometimes, in difficult and extreme circumstances, local authorities have to change arrangements or refuse to allow events on the basis of health and safety. They will still be able to do that, but the Bill requires them to present a written report explaining their decisions. In fact, they are probably already doing that internally, but it seems right for event organisers to have access to a local authority’s justification, and, if they feel that it is not good enough, to be able to appeal.

We broadly welcome the Bill, although some of the details will need to be scrutinised in Committee. I must say that I hope this does not start some kind of case-by-case cross-party agreement with the Minister, because I think that that would make our lives in Parliament a bit boring. However, it is sometimes good when we agree because we are then able to get down to the nitty-gritty, and it is in that spirit that we will support the Bill’s Second Reading.

1.54 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I am not quite as surprised as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that we agree; I always knew she would come round to our way of thinking eventually, and long may it last.

On a serious note, I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for his excellent work on this Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. I want to make it very clear what this Bill does not do before moving on to the drivers of the Bill—why it is needed—and its intended effect, because I do not want there to be any misunderstanding or confusion about the provisions in the Bill, their intended effect or what the Government are supporting. The hon. Lady is right that there will be things to talk through in Committee and the LGA will want to feed into it, although I would point out to the LGA that while local government is building up reserves of some £20 billion to £21 billion it should be focused

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on the savings it can make by not needing to have health and safety inspectors trawling around taking up too much time—and it will probably find there is a potential saving there as well.

We do need to make sure health and safety is taken seriously and addressed sensibly, however, so let me be very clear: this House will not weaken the very necessary and important health and safety arrangements that rightly exist to protect employees and the public health and safety regime in place nationally. The public, employers, authorities and enforcement organisations do have an important role to play in ensuring that not just our workplaces but our streets and recreational spaces are safe.

Proper and proportionate management of risk is, I think we can all agree, important, and where it is done properly it is to be commended, and in most of the country most of the time that is the case. We have no problem with adequate safeguards or with the proper and proportionate management of risk, nor will this place an unreasonable increased demand on the local government ombudsman’s resources, who also provides a valuable service, considering complaints from members of the public who consider they have suffered an injustice arising from maladministration in councils and other bodies.

The Bill does not change the remit of or impose extra burdens on the local government ombudsman, so what does it do? To begin with, it may be useful to reflect for a moment on the drivers for this Bill—on why it is necessary. My hon. Friend has outlined some of them. It could be said that the Bill has its origins in the rise of the risk-averse culture. By this I do not mean tall tales of health and safety gone mad—although, worryingly, it can be impossible to tell in some cases what is tabloid exaggeration and what is an actual decision about health and safety at an event that we could describe as an over-enthusiastic application of the health and safety culture. Rather, I mean the spread of a risk-averse culture where councils are taking decisions on the grounds of health and safety that either prohibit events from taking place altogether or place such heavy restrictions on them that the event is effectively prohibited from taking place.

These concerns were crystallised in Lord Young of Graffham’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”. The review found inconsistency across local authorities, with the rules on health and safety not being applied with a view to a proper risk management approach.

Mr Spencer: We are also talking about some of these events being prevented not for health and safety reasons, but for other reasons, where health and safety is cited as the purpose for blocking the event. Sometimes people use health and safety just as a reason from nowhere to try to block an event that they do not want to support or have not had the time to consider. It is those types of excuses, as it were, that I want to try to stop with this Bill.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event happening, rather than an organisation being honest about whether it wants something to happen or not, that does a disservice to the entire world of local

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government and health and safety because it dilutes the very important role health and safety can play in our lives.

The review also found that in some instances inspectors were giving poor advice to organisations and individuals who were in turn prevented from running an event, such as a school fete, when there was no legitimate health and safety reason. Currently, there is no requirement to put the reasons for these prohibitive decisions in writing, and the specific grounds for the decision are not required to be made transparent. That is where part of the problem my hon. Friend outlined is clear. There is also currently no system for appeal or redress when an event is banned or curtailed; event organisers are simply required to accept the decision and not go ahead with the event as planned.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with organisers discouraged from planning such events for fear, or out of an expectation, that a local authority official will not allow it. That leaves us with communities frustrated in their attempts to come together to celebrate national events or local events, or to raise money for good and charitable causes. Today, we can start to bring an end to that situation. We can put a stop to the spread of this culture.

This Bill is not just about making councils put decisions about health and safety at events in writing—they should be doing that in any case. It is also not just about providing those organising the event with a right of appeal when they disagree with a council decision—again, councils should be doing that. The Bill is about making councils think—about reasonable risk and about a proportionate assessment of health and safety—before they act. The Bill’s aims are simple. Its provisions would require local authorities to give written notification of a decision relating to health and safety at an event and to undertake a review of that decision, if requested. The intention is that those measures will rightly lead authorities to give health and safety issues careful consideration, bringing an end to bans or restrictions on activities that are a result of a risk-averse culture rather than a balanced and informed assessment of risk. Quite simply, the Bill should put a stop to rash decisions based on a risk-averse culture and lead to local authorities making well informed and sound decisions.

The provisions of the Bill, and the need for the local authority to provide reasons for its decision in writing, would bring transparency and accountability to the decision-making process in a way we have not seen before, and would do away with the culture of decisions behind closed doors. Local authorities are accountable to their electorates in the decisions they make. It is right that members of the public should be able to see how a decision has been arrived at as well as why. If a local authority’s decision is informed and sound, there should be no reason for an applicant or events organiser to seek a review of the decision through the ombudsman and, therefore, seek recourse to the mechanism that the provisions in this Bill will provide. The Bill is as much about changing behaviour about local authority health and safety decisions as it is about ensuring the decisions are sound and well informed.

Mr Spencer: Does the Minister recognise that as a society we seem to have lost the ability to rank risk and understand risk? Members of the public sometimes

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obsess about things that show no risk at all. When we drive to a community event we probably put ourselves in more danger than we do at the event itself. We sometimes wrongly prioritise and misunderstand the proportions of risk.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me give him a very good practical example of what he is talking about. As hon. Members will know, I always like to refer to the fantastic area of Great Yarmouth, where I live and which I represent. We recently held an event there in September, extending the tourism season, called the Out There festival, and I want to describe one of the most fantastic things in it, which was the crescendo and which almost brought everything to a close. The media loved it, as did the public; we had a fantastic atmosphere. It was a party where everybody anywhere in Great Yarmouth got covered in paint. It was the most phenomenal colourful exhibition of fun and of a community coming together, despite the fact that everybody probably had large cleaning bills afterwards. It was fantastic, but it is exactly that kind of event that, with the wrong attitude, could easily have been stopped. That event was an amazing way of not only improving our tourism economy for the year, but bringing the community together, raising the profile of our area and bringing people together to have fantastic fun. Such events are important to our communities. Where there is risk we should be aware of it, but it should not necessarily stop a good event, good fun and sensible times being had by all.

We have all heard of incidents in which it is fair to say there have been questionable decisions about events—we have all heard our own stories—but we need to be fair. It is perhaps advisable to question the veracity of health and safety stories that occasionally appear in the press—for instance, about festive events involving reindeer being cancelled due to the threat of snow—where the reporting may have erred on the side of being enthusiastic, or where the true origin of a story, perhaps schoolchildren being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, has more to do with individuals being over-enthusiastic in ensuring playground discipline than any local authority decision.

Indeed, there are so many stories about ludicrous health and safety decisions being made based on a risk-averse culture that the Health and Safety Executive, as has been said, has an area of its website dedicated to myths. It started in 2012 and showed 325 cases by the start of this October, the latest of which is about passengers not being able to board an aeroplane while carrying hot beverages. It really is recommended reading if anyone is ever in any doubt whatsoever that there is an over-cautious approach to health and safety in local government and beyond.

A few highlights—or lowlights, some people may argue—include the case of the scouts who were not allowed to have an allotment. Apparently, a troop of scouts under the supervision of a leader was advised by the chair of its local allotment community gardens site that they could not have a plot for health and safety reasons. The scouts were keen to grow their own veg, and an allotment would have been ideal for a small group to get started with. The HSE’s site usefully includes

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its view of the case, and it strongly believes that this was an excellent opportunity for scouts to become involved in growing food and getting physical exercise.

I am afraid to say that this is not the only case of children being discouraged when attempting to grow their own veg. A pre-school that used a garden managed by the local parish council and a designated public open space was told that it could not leave pots of flowers and vegetables grown by the children in the garden, claiming health and safety reasons, and asked for them to be removed. The pots were placed by posts holding up a small patio area and on slabs surrounding a shed. The pre-school had been told that someone might trip over the pots and sue the parish council. It has removed the pots, but it is unhappy because the children no longer have the learning opportunity that the growing of plants and vegetables would have allowed.

The HSE’s safety supremo was far from impressed and claimed that it is potty—yes, I am sorry about the pun—to impose a blanket ban on those standard garden items. These are everyday risks, and the parish council appears to be risk-averse in case it is sued. If there are real concerns about people tripping over pots, the council should discuss them with the pre-school staff, instead of depriving youngsters of the opportunity to learn by growing their own food and flowers.

Then there is the case of council bureaucrats banning donkey rides for children at a village fete because of health and safety concerns. If we ban donkey rides, most of our seaside resorts are in big trouble. Of course, nothing in health and safety law stops children enjoying a holiday donkey ride or requires them to wear helmets to do so. The HSE was very keen to set the record straight and for this and future generations to continue to enjoy the traditions of the summer fete and the seaside holiday.

To continue the seaside theme—as MP for Great Yarmouth, people would expect me to do no less, I am sure—let us move on to chips. We have fantastic chips in Great Yarmouth market square. I highly recommend them to all visitors.

Mr Spencer: Before my hon. Friend moves away from donkeys, I should draw the House’s attention to the fact that this could be the first time that donkeys have featured in debates on two consecutive Bills. I wonder whether the fact that we are prevented from bringing hot beverages into the Chamber is a health and safety issue, or whether it prevents Members from having our own little picnic and not concentrating on the business of the day.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case.

Brandon Lewis: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend’s desire for a hot toddy late on a Monday evening is one that I will leave him to debate with the relevant authorities in due course.

Let us move specifically on to chips not being served in a paper cone—something that would ruin my Friday afternoons most weeks when I am not here. When ordering chips from a chip shop to take away, a customer asked for her chips to be just put in paper and wrapped in a cone, rather than having them served in the normal

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plastic tray, so that they would be easier to eat and carry as she walked round the shops. However, she was told by the lady serving behind the counter, “We can’t do that. It’s against health and safety, in case you burn yourself on the chips.” She was advised that once they served them to her, she was more than welcome to remove the tray and wrap them up herself.

The Health and Safety Executive is obviously no stranger to how best to enjoy this traditional treat. I should say that that did not happen in Great Yarmouth. We are very good at looking after our customers, as my Yarmouth Greats campaign has shown, with our great chip shops. The HSE considered that the customer made a perfectly sensible request and there was no health and safety reason that would prevent the shop proprietor from doing as requested. It concluded that such cases of poor customer service need to be wrapped up and thrown in the bin—I am sorry, but I could not resist that.

Fancy a swim to work off those chips, as some Members might argue I should do more often? Just make sure you take all your own equipment. A poster at a public swimming pool stated:

“Due to health and safety regulations, we are unable to lend floats, goggles or woggles.”

I leave Members to look up the meaning of “woggle”. The Health and Safety Executive was having none of this. It was clear that no health and safety regulation prevents the loan of goggles and flotation devices at public swimming pools. Many public swimming pools continue to provide these aids to swimmers without a problem.

Then there was the case where a council managed to use not only health and safety but planning as an excuse to annoy the very community that it should be serving. As the planning Minister, I found this example astounding. A council planning department asked the public not to remove out-of-date planning notices in public areas. The public were doing this in an understandable effort to clean up their community, proud of the area in which they lived. The tone of the Health and Safety response can be described as indignant. Stopping these community-spirited people makes no sense at all, it wrote. The council should cut through some of its own red tape and support well-meaning local volunteers. Removing redundant planning notices as part of a community clear-up poses no significant health and safety risks and should not be an issue.

Finally, there was a case that illustrated not health and safety gone mad, but a sensible approach to a problem which, by the way, turned out to have nothing to do with health and safety. A borough council hung bunting carrying 20,000 small knitted Tour de France jerseys on lamp posts, but the county council asked for the bunting to be taken down owing to concerns about the structural integrity of the heritage-style lamp posts. It appeared that the problem in this case was not the use of bunting, given that the council was distributing quite a lot of it, to its own design, but the use of wire under tension to attach it to heritage-style lamp posts. Given that the lamp posts were seen to be leaning under tension, it was probably a good idea to remove the bunting. The solution lies in suggesting alternative means to display the magnificent work of the locals in creating their own tribute to the tour.

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These cases demonstrate that the risk-averse culture extends beyond local government. If reports are to be believed, it can even extend to our chip shops. We in local government and central Government set a trend. We have the ability to set the tone and the direction of travel for others so that they understand the need for common sense, but it is clear that councils have proved particularly adept at banning or prohibiting things on the grounds of health and safety. What the Health and Safety Executive’s replies show, and it should know about these things with the experience it has, is that we can and should trust people to get on with things and look after their own lives. There is risk, and there is also reasonable risk. People should be free to enjoy gardening, donkey rides and hot snacks served in newspaper, should they so choose.

Simply put, this risk-averse culture must be halted, and if by means of the Bill we can introduce measures that will halt it in councils, we will have made an excellent start. Councils have authority. When they set a bad example, it is easy for others to follow. Let us encourage them to set good examples, to let children do gardening and to let their own public-spirited residents remove out-of-date planning notices if they want to. The story of the knitted jerseys in particular illustrates reasonable risk prevention. It was not the fantastic bunting that was the issue, but the decision to suspend the bunting using tension wire. One can understand why a local authority may take issue with suddenly being famed for its leaning lamp posts, but a simple solution was to use a different type of wire.

Reasonable risk, communities coming together, enjoyment and celebration without frustration—that is what the Bill seeks to achieve. It is true that there are stories about councils banning activities on health and safety grounds that, on closer inspection, turn out to have more to do with the desire to publish a good story than with what might actually have taken place. But what does the story about the council that required a pancake race to be held at walking pace tell us about health and safety? It sounds much less plausible than the story about a killjoy council stopping children enjoying a donkey ride, but it is true—that actually happened—and it is not the only example.

In short, there is a culture of local authorities making decisions about events based on the over-enthusiastic application of a risk-averse health and safety culture. Those decisions have a real effect on people and our communities. We have a great tradition in our country of communities coming together to celebrate, have a good time and raise money for good causes while doing so. It is wrong for councils for no good reason to prevent community celebrations and events that draw communities together.

The problem is this: local authorities have become overly cautious in respect of health and safety; not in all cases—let me be clear about that—and not all over the country, but certainly on too many occasions. Where health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event taking place, or to place restrictions on it, it is right that such decisions should be transparent and challengeable.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned, and as I have made clear, the Bill does not seek to ensure that the very sensible health and safety regulations that apply to the workplace, to public areas, to our streets and to our recreation spaces are disregarded. Rather, we want to ensure that on the occasions when health and

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safety is used as an excuse to ban or restrict an event—when the application of health and safety concerns is over-zealous or disproportionate, or when the restrictions on the event are unreasonable, either by requiring a fee or restricting an activity—the authority must first justify its decision and then, if required, review it. That process should bring accountability to health and safety decisions and, in so doing, result in minimal recourse to seeking to review a health and safety decision.

The proposals are straightforward, sensible and proportionate. The Bill requires authorities to undertake certain actions when they ban or restrict events on health and safety grounds. In particular, it requires that if an authority decided to prevent an event from being held, or imposes restrictions or conditions on it, it must put the reasons for such a decision in writing, electronically or otherwise. That written notification of a ban or restriction must be sent to either the person who made the application or the organiser of the event if no application was made. The written notification must be sent on the day the decision was taken or, if that is not possible, the first working day thereafter.

The requirement to issue written notification extends not only to a ban that prohibits an event, but to restrictions that might be judged so unreasonable as to amount to a ban. If the person who made the application, or the organiser of the event, is unhappy with the authority’s decision to ban or restrict the event on health and safety grounds, they may request that the authority reviews the decision. The authority must complete an internal review as soon as reasonably practicable after it receives a request for a review and, in any case, within 15 days of receipt of the request, and on completion of the review it must give written notification, in electronic form or otherwise, to the person who requested it. The outcome of the review is that the decision may be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced with another decision or varied, but only varied so far as the decision could have been one reached in the first instance.

Local authorities are accountable to their electorates for the decisions they make, so it is not unreasonable for us to expect an authority to put its reasons for refusing or restricting an event on health and safety grounds in writing for the people affected. That is the sort of good practice that authorities should be following—many already do—in bringing transparency to their decision-making process. True localism is about embracing the wishes of local communities. The provisions in the Bill put in place a framework that will allow localism, and not a risk-averse culture, to flourish.

Briefly, on the role of the local government ombudsman, we consider that it is right that local issues should be resolved at a local level, without a member of the public needing to have recourse to a national body such as the ombudsman.

Mr Spencer: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister when he is in full flow, particular as he is agreeing with me so wholeheartedly, but I wanted to put on the record the fact that, as I am sure he recognises, most people who work in local authorities have the best intentions and want to support community groups, and it is only in a very small number of these cases that decisions need to be controlled and overturned.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He reminds me that I should have made it clear, for the benefit of all Members, that I am sure the Committee—

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the shadow Minister outlined her view that it should look at this thoroughly—will want to ensure that the Bill enables his wife, Mrs Spencer, to use health and safety measures quite widely to ban his internal cricket matches at home, which sound as though they may bring his cricketing judgment into question. I am sure that his family can deal with him appropriately when he gets home.

This Bill will ensure that local authorities do not make rash, unsubstantiated decisions. The provisions that require a local authority to set out its reasons for a decision, and allow a decision on health and safety grounds to be challenged, should lead to a more informed, sound decision-making process and ensure that matters can be resolved, where they should be so resolved, at a local level by local people accountable to their local communities.

However, if things cannot be resolved at a local level and the authority is at fault, it is right that the public have a right to redress through the local government ombudsman. I stress again that we are not changing the ombudsman’s remit. We are giving the ombudsman the ability to fast-track such investigations, at their discretion, so that where they do arrive at a decision that finds maladministration, the local authority is given the opportunity to review the decision to enable the event still to take place. The Bill therefore makes specific provision for the ombudsman to treat this particular class of complaint differently from other classes.

These provisions do not change how the ombudsman currently operates in relation to local authority complaints. We expect local authorities to comply with the recommendations of the ombudsman. The objective of the ombudsman is to secure, where appropriate, satisfactory redress for complainants and better administration for the authorities. If, following an investigation, the ombudsman determines that there has been maladministration in a local authority, the ombudsman can make recommendations for redress— for instance, an apology or payments of compensation —or recommend that the local authority undertake some remedial action or provide a service.

The ombudsman can already recommend financial settlements, where appropriate, to put right an injustice. The ombudsman recommends paying compensation in a very small number of cases. While the ombudsman has discretion in the remedies that are applied where a complaint has been upheld, a financial remedy is applied only where it is felt that this is the appropriate remedy

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to put right an injustice. It is true that the Bill’s provisions will allow the ombudsman discretion to award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. However, given the mechanism to accelerate a decision on health and safety grounds so that the local authority can still look to reverse that decision on review, it is highly unlikely that the ombudsman will need to seek recourse to this remedy. Indeed, I would go further and add that the threat of a remedy, including a financial remedy, should ensure that local authorities think very carefully about decisions on health and safety grounds.

As I have said, this Bill is as much about common sense, and changing the behaviour of local authorities in the way that a decision is arrived at, as about putting in place a mechanism for allowing a member of the public to seek redress when a decision is viewed as disproportionate and unreasonable. If we do this right, and the Bill goes through all its stages, its most vital aspect will be in changing people’s attitudes and getting us get back to trusting people to make decisions for themselves and their communities.

We consider that the provisions will perform a valuable function. It is right that if an authority takes a decision to stop or to impose restrictions on an event on the grounds of health and safety, it should put its reasons in writing. It is right that there should be an appeal mechanism where the decision is a negative one. It is right that the local government ombudsman should be able to fast-track complaints about such decisions, meaning that they can conclude an investigation before the event is due to go ahead and so facilitate that event. The provisions should put an end to the days of organisers being deterred from planning an event in the fear, or expectation, that some local authority official will not allow it. I therefore commend the Bill to the House as a common-sense, proportional measure.

2.24 pm

Mr Spencer: I will take 30 seconds to once again thank the Minister, his officials and the official Opposition for supporting the Bill. I look forward to it going through Committee so that people can get on and raise funds for great causes such as tackling breast cancer. I hope you will not call me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, for pointing that today is “wear it pink” day and I am wearing my pink tie for breast cancer awareness. Many good causes will need this Bill to stop health and safety getting in the way of their excellent work.

Question put and agreed to.

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

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Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill

Second Reading

2.25 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am very pleased to have this surprising opportunity briefly to set out the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I should like to make sure from the start that we give all the credit to him: this is his Bill and it is superb. Members will only be disappointed that he is not here to propose it himself, because he could do so with much more skill and panache than I am able to muster. While I give him full credit for the Bill, I certainly take full responsibility for the poor quality of the speech proposing it on his behalf.

We do not have enough time to go into any great detail, but I want simply to set out what the Bill does and why it does it. It makes it a criminal offence to be an illegal immigrant in this country. At the moment, people can come here with impunity: they can come into this country as an illegal immigrant, try their luck and do their best to give it a good shot. Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent years, far too many people are successful at giving it a shot. They come into the country and if they get caught the worst thing that can happen to them is they will be kicked out, but, given all the human rights legislation we have, they would have to be particularly unlucky for that to happen. There is absolutely nothing in place to give any real, meaningful deterrent to prevent people from giving it a go in the first place. My hon. Friend is trying, rightly, to provide a real, proper, meaningful disincentive for anybody who tries to come into this country illegally by making it a criminal offence that can carry a sentence of imprisonment.

I am not naive enough to imagine that this Bill will, at once, clear up the mass problem this country has with illegal immigration. There is an awful lot we need to do. We need to get ourselves out of the European Union for starters and get back control of our own borders. We need to have much better controls over who is coming into the country, including knowing whether they have any criminal convictions. We also need to get rid of all the human rights legislation that stops people being deported when they are illegal immigrants.

My hon. Friend’s modest Bill makes it clear that being an illegal immigrant in this country should be a criminal offence and that a meaningful deterrent of a prison sentence should go with it. That may play a small part in deterring people from trying to enter this country illegally, and on that basis I commend the Bill to the House.

2.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Karen Bradley): I genuinely feel that this a Radio 4 moment: I will speak for just over a minute—that is all the time I have—without repetition, deviation or hesitation. [Interruption.] I will try my best not to deviate.

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It is very important that we in this House think carefully about the matter of immigration, which, as we all know from our time on the doorsteps, our constituents care about. It is an issue of integral importance to the people we speak to and represent, so it is vital that we take their concerns seriously.

Philip Davies: The Minister has less than a minute left to speak, so may I help her by suggesting that, rather than just waffling on about the subject of immigration more generally, she explain succinctly why the Government think it is wrong that being an illegal immigrant should be a criminal offence?

Karen Bradley: I fear that we are getting into repetition. I want to talk about the important work of our Border Force. I was at Heathrow airport last week.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): To help the hon. Lady, may I ask her whether one of the consequences of the Bill would be that we have to build many jails in this country to house the armies of illegal immigrants with whom the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggests there is a problem?

Karen Bradley: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is clearly a matter for the Ministry of Justice, not the Home Department, so I do not wish to comment on the number of prisons that may be needed. We should pay tribute to our Border Force teams—

2.30 pm

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

Ordered, That the Bill be resumed on Friday 7 November.

Business without Debate

House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill

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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November.

Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (Statutory Requirement) Bill

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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February 2015.

EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill

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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November.

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Wild Animals in Circuses Bill

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

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last Friday, I wrongly accused the Deputy Chief Whip of being responsible for blocking the Second Reading of the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, which stands in my name. I wish to apologise to him for misleading the House, and to apologise to the House for getting that wrong. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has exercised his right to object to the Bill today. The Bill was objected to last Friday and the Friday before that by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). They acted as individuals, and I apologise to the Deputy Chief Whip for saying that he was responsible for something that was clearly nothing to do with him.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That certainly clarifies the situation and sets the record straight.

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Christopher Rochester

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

2.32 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): This is the fourth Adjournment debate that I have secured on the case of Christopher Rochester in the past 13 years. I and his family wish that it was unnecessary, after 14 years, to raise the case again.

Christopher Rochester, a 24-year-old constituent of mine from Chester-le-Street in North Durham, died in the Andreas Papandreou hospital on the island of Rhodes in Greece following a fall from the apartment complex in which he was staying on holiday. Despite falling from a balcony on to the concrete patio below, he survived, but he was allowed to die a slow, painful and lingering death due to the negligence of doctors at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes.

Christopher’s mother, Pam Cummings, and her family have fought a long and persistent campaign to secure the truth about the events that led to his death in 2000. This fight finally led to three doctors being found guilty of manslaughter through neglect. That was clearly down to the tenacious way in which Mrs Cummings and her family pursued the case. I again want to put on the record my admiration of their tenacity in having pursued the case to find out the truth about his death.

Unfortunately, that was not the conclusion of the case. The family have not been able to get closure because of a separate issue about what happened to Christopher’s kidney once he had died. When his body was returned to the UK for burial, it was discovered that one of his kidneys had been removed and was missing. At the time, Mrs Cummings contacted my predecessor Giles Radice—now Lord Radice—to ask why that was the case. He, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British consulate in Rhodes, got the Andreas Papandreou hospital to send the kidney back to the UK via the consulate. I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its staff for their work on this case because, over the past 14 years, they have been helpful in trying to move things on. They do not often get thanked, so I would like to put my thanks on the record.

For some unexplained reason, Mrs Cummings was convinced that the kidney that had been sent back from Rhodes was not that of her son Christopher. She therefore asked for the DNA to be tested. That was done by NorthGene, which is a leading genetic research agency in the north-east of England. To her horror, her suspicions proved to be correct. The DNA test confirmed that the kidney that had been sent from Rhodes was not Christopher’s.

Representations were made to the Greek authorities. Their ludicrous suggestion was that the British consulate in Rhodes had somehow mixed up the kidney and returned the wrong one. I am not sure how many kidneys the consulate in Rhodes deals with on a daily basis, but clearly that was a ludicrous suggestion. I pressed the case, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Greek authorities finally suggested that an independent test should take place in a third country to verify the facts surrounding the

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kidney that was returned to the UK. The family agreed to that and it was decided that Belgium would carry out the test.

The Greek authorities then insisted that in order to get a DNA sample from Christopher, his body would have to be exhumed, despite all the leading experts arguing that it was not necessary. That included Professor John Burn, who is not only one of the UK’s leading experts on genetics, but a world-renowned expert. I thank Professor Burn for his assistance with the case. It has been greatly appreciated by the family. Clearly, this was yet another tactic on behalf of the Greek authorities to put more pressure on the family. I also think the Greek authorities thought that the family would not agree to it.

It was a difficult decision for Mrs Cummings and her family, but they agreed that Christopher’s body should be exhumed. That took place on 27 June 2011 in the presence of officials from the Greek Ministry of Health. At this point, may I put on the record my thanks and the thanks of the family to Durham police for their assistance, in particular DS Ken Donnelly and DI Steve Murray, who assisted the family throughout the process? DNA samples were recovered from the body and sent to Belgium. Durham police also took samples from the body, which they still retain as part of the evidence in the case. Likewise, samples of the kidney that was sent to Durham were sent to Belgium for analysis.

A common problem in this case has been the length of time the family have had to wait for any kind of information. They had to wait another year, until May 2012, before receiving any news on the results, which they only received following a letter that I wrote to the Greek ambassador in London and representations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Office was simply advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the DNA analysis supported the conclusion that the kidney almost certainly belonged to Christopher. That is completely at odds with the tests that have been carried out in this country and with the review of Professor John Burn of the analysis of the kidney that was sent back, which showed that it was clearly not that of Christopher Rochester.

On 18 June 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a full report could be obtained only if an application was made by the family to a Greek court. Professor Burn has offered to have a look at the report and see what tests were carried out. However, making representations to a Greek court would clearly involve huge expense for the family, so they are unable to do so.

On 10 March this year, I wrote to the public prosecutor’s office in Rhodes and to the Greek Ministry of Justice with a signed letter of consent from Mrs Cummings authorising me to act on her behalf. Despite two follow-up letters, I have had no response to date. On 25 July, I wrote separately to the Greek ambassador in London, asking him to ask the prosecutor’s office to respond to those letters. The embassy confirmed by telephone that it would make representations, but to date we have heard nothing from it.

The case raises serious questions about how a British family can get legitimate answers to questions about the death of one of their loved ones in a fellow European country. Without a copy of the report of the DNA test

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that took place in Belgium, which Professor Burn has agreed to look at, the family cannot draw this sad case to a conclusion. I am not quite sure what the Greeks have to hide by not producing that report for the family, but will the Minister make representations to the Greek authorities about the issue? Will he also raise it directly with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and separately with the Greek ambassador in London? I have tried to do so through faxes, letters and e-mails, and I seem to get no answers. As I said, a common thread throughout the 13 years I have been dealing with the case has been that they seem not to reply to any representations on behalf of the family.

This is obviously a very sad case, but it also demonstrates the persistence and courage of a loving mother who will not let the case go despite the objections and obstacles that Greek officialdom puts in her way. I assure Mrs Cummings and her family that I will continue to do what I can to get them the justice that they deserve, so that they can have final closure on this very sad case.

2.42 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my old friend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for the strong support that he has given Mr Rochester’s family over what is now a long period. As he said, his predecessor Lord Radice did the same before him.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised a number of issues relating to the case with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I thank him for expressing his gratitude to officials for all the work that they have done over the years. I know I would have done precisely what he has done—at least, I like to think I would—had I been in his position. This is an extraordinary and unsatisfactory case. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has taken a close interest in it and met the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions to discuss it. I welcome this opportunity to respond on his behalf and on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

First, may I restate our deepest condolences to Mr Rochester’s family, who, as the hon. Gentleman explained, have lost someone dear to them in tragic circumstances? The death of a loved one is painful under any circumstances, but I am conscious that when a death occurs overseas, the cultural differences, the language barrier and the systems used by foreign authorities can be difficult to comprehend, making the grief felt by the bereaved family all the more acute.

As the hon. Gentleman set out in detail, the loss and grief suffered by Mr Rochester’s family have been compounded by the challenges that they have faced, not only in their pursuit of justice against those they see as responsible for contributing to his death, but through the damaging confusion over the repatriation of one of his organs. I would like to take this opportunity to confirm for the record the sequence of events as we understand them and the consular assistance that we have provided to the family.

After a series of court cases, both Greek and British authorities agreed that Mr Rochester did not receive adequate medical treatment following his fall. That was confirmed following the retrial in Rhodes on 5 February

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2008 of the medical staff who treated Mr Rochester immediately before his death. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the court found one of the medical assistants guilty of homicide by negligence and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for three years. The other two accused were acquitted.

When Mr Rochester’s body was repatriated, the post-mortem examination in the UK found that he had been returned without his left kidney. At the family’s request, staff at our consulate in Rhodes helped to arrange the kidney’s return to the UK by liaising with all the relevant authorities, and funding its safe delivery to Dryburn hospital in Durham. On its return to the UK, however, the DNA testing requested by the family threw into doubt the identity of the kidney. I cannot begin to imagine the additional distress that that must have caused Mr Rochester’s family at that time.

Consular staff urgently sought clarification, and at the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman and Mr Rochester’s family, in 2002 the Greek authorities agreed on an independent DNA test to be carried out by a third country at the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology in Belgium. In order to complete that test, the Greek authorities stated that three samples were required, including one from Mr Rochester’s remains, as the hon. Gentleman has said.

Despite our representations on behalf of the family to explain their distress, Greek authorities remained firm on that point. They did not accept that it would be possible to determine once and for all the identity of the kidney unless the sample was taken from the exhumed remains. They would not accept skin samples that had been previously taken from Mr Rochester for an unrelated reason in the UK some time before his death, and they would not take samples from a next of kin.

It is testament to the fortitude of the family that, despite their concerns, they agreed to the exhumation of Mr Rochester’s body. The DNA test could then proceed, and in May 2012 a summary of the results was passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the office of the hon. Gentleman and the family. The summary stated that the kidney that was originally repatriated on 14 August 2000 did, with almost certain probability, belong to Christopher Rochester. The Greek authorities had initiated a criminal case based on the Greek organ trading Act, following reports that the kidney did not belong to Mr Rochester, but the case was then closed.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the family have since made it clear—quite understandably—that they would like to see a full version of the results to assure themselves that they are valid. Our understanding from the Greek authorities is that those results would be disclosed in full only to someone with a vested legal

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interest in the case, such as a family member as next of kin, or their appointed lawyer in Greece. That would mean a family member either travelling to Greece, or appointing a legal representative there.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a signed letter from Mrs Cummings authorising him to act on her behalf, but as I have said, my understanding is that that can be done only by a legal representative in Greece.

Mr Kevan Jones: What the Greek Ministry of Justice has been asked for is a Government document. Will the Minister make representations to his Greek counterpart to see whether there is some other method? This family is not in a position to get the finance together to do what has been suggested by the Greek authorities, but without that, and without a full copy of the report, as I have said, they will not get closure.

Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman is right—of course they will not get closure until they see the whole report. However, the Greeks are standing firm on this matter and have said that the results can be disclosed only to a next of kin or legally appointed representative. We will raise the case again although I suspect we will not get very far on that particular point.

It is not for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to interfere with Greek law on this point. But it is right that the Greek authorities should respond to the hon. Gentleman directly, and I am more than happy to write to the Greek ambassador. I am incredulous that the ambassador has not replied to the hon. Gentleman and I can only think that it is the result of an oversight that I am sure the ambassador will wish to right at the earliest opportunity. I shall point out to him as soon as possible that the hon. Gentleman still awaits a response. I will also ask our embassy in Athens to press the Rhodes public prosecutor’s office for a response to the hon. Gentleman’s letter and, of course, we can provide updated details for lawyers in Greece if that would be helpful.

Once again, may I say that my deepest sympathies go out to the family? It is only natural and understandable that they should seek closure on what must have been a terribly distressing period of uncertainty over Mr Rochester’s body—an uncertainty that has gone on for far too long. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to give all appropriate support to the family as they pursue this, and we will also give what support we can to the hon. Gentleman, who has been so dogged in his determination to get justice for his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

2.51 pm

House adjourned.