Christopher Chope debates involving the Home Office during the 2019 Parliament

Tue 7th Dec 2021
Fri 12th Mar 2021
Fri 12th Mar 2021
Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading & Report stage & Report stage & 3rd reading
Fri 16th Oct 2020
Registers of Births and Deaths Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading
Fri 25th Sep 2020
Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading

Nationality and Borders Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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I think everybody in this House wants to do the right thing by our own country and the right thing by vulnerable people too. I do not except anybody from that. What I am trying to do here is to let people know what will happen, before we are fixed with the system and then find ourselves defending something that may turn out to be indefensible. That is my real concern about this element of the Bill, and in my view, the biggest argument is on humanitarian issues.

Also, as Conservatives, we should think about the cost. By any measure, this will be eye-wateringly expensive. At the moment, we spend £1.4 billion annually on asylum costs. That is about £11,000 per asylum seeker. Australia has spent £4.3 billion on just over 3,000 asylum seekers. That is about £1.38 million per person. As an ex-Public Accounts Committee Chairman, I looked rather askance at that and went through it with a fine-toothed comb, and I can tell the House that it is right. If we applied that cost to our asylum situation, we would be talking about something like £34 billion or £35 billion, which is the size of the Government Department. Let us imagine that we were twice as effective as that: the cost would still be £17 billion. Are we really talking about doing something like that? The reason for this is, of course, that we would effectively have to bribe the country that would take the asylum seekers.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Is my right hon. Friend not overlooking the deterrent effect that this would have?

None Portrait Hon. Members
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Hear, hear!

--- Later in debate ---
Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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This Bill is literally inhumane: it dehumanises asylum seekers, puts lives at risk and turns people into criminals for simply attempting to exercise their basic human rights. But the UK Government are not going to let small matters such as fundamental human rights, the rule of law and natural justice get in the way of their hostile environment, and their attempts to exclude practically anyone who is not a tax-dodging billionaire from settling on these shores. We keep hearing, “The asylum system is broken” from those on the Government Benches. Well, how did that happen? The Government have been in power for 10 years, and the environment has only become more hostile. Perhaps a different approach is needed.

It is for that reason that I support the right to work outlined in new clause 45, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). The right to work is a human right. It is in the universal declaration of human rights, and although it might be denied, it cannot be taken away. Lots of us heard that last week from people who had travelled from Glasgow and the Maryhill Integration Network to speak to us about the issue. They want to work, contribute and share their skills.

Instead of people being a cost to the system, we should let them contribute to the system. Instead of them receiving meagre, insulting support payments from taxpayer, we should let them become taxpayers, but that is not something that the Government are interested in. I do not know when a Government Minister last had to sit in a constituency surgery and look at a biometric card that says, “No right to work” or “No recourse to public funds”. It is one of the most heartbreaking things that Members of this House have to do, and it is a complete insult, because being able to work is a human right.

I also support new clause 9 on EU certification, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), because it would correct another historical wrong. I have constituents who have had emails saying, “Congratulations, you have your settled status. By the way, this email is not proof of your settled status.” Quite how they are supposed to prove that status if they do not have the documentation is beyond me, but it is all part of a Home Office agenda that does not want people to make the United Kingdom their home.

The Government want to close borders, shut down routes to citizenship and send a general message that says, “Unless you have lots of money, you’re not really welcome here.” How can the UK ever be the first safe country of arrival? We are surrounded by water. It is simply not possible. That approach would mean that practically everyone turning up here to claim asylum—whether on a ship or small boat or at an airport—would become a criminal. That is rejected by people in Glasgow North and across Scotland. I look forward to the day when we can have an open, generous, accessible pathway to asylum and citizenship, for those who want to take it up, in an independent Scotland.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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It is not just the asylum system that is broken; it is also the immigration enforcement system. Last year, the Public Accounts Committee reminded us that the immigration enforcement directorate has 5,000 staff and costs £400 million a year to run, but that every year for the last several years, there have been fewer enforced removals and fewer voluntary returns. In 2019—the last year for which figures were available—there were only 55 convictions for all immigration offences, yet we know that there are probably 1.2 million illegal immigrants in this country. I therefore ask the Minister: what is happening to the published aim of the immigration enforcement directorate, which is,

“to reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes”?

The reason why I tabled new clause 18—I much appreciate the support of the 17 colleagues who have signed it—it is that it would make it clear that it is a criminal offence to be in the United Kingdom illegally. Most people find it amazing that it is not already a criminal offence. It is a criminal offence to watch a television without a television licence, but not to be in this country without authority. My new clause would change that and address the issue of all the people who are here unlawfully.

Sky News has suggested that there may be about 87,000 new illegal immigrants coming in each year. Very few of those, relatively speaking, are failed asylum seekers. There is a much bigger problem of clandestines—those arriving without documents—and there is a very large number, estimated to be 66,000, of people who stay beyond any visa entitlement. We have to deal with the wider issue of illegal migrants and enforce it properly.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Registers of Births and Deaths Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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My hon. Friend makes a good point and I would certainly welcome our looking into that at a later stage. It makes sense that the Bill could bring some environmental benefits.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend share my concern that many of these registrations of deaths during covid have inaccurate information on them? They say the death is caused by covid or with covid, when the nearest and dearest of the people who have died often say there was no covid involved at all. There is a lot of inaccuracy. How does his Bill address that?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I recognise that he has always been a doughty champion of parliamentary scrutiny. I do not share that concern in reference to my Bill because the reason for the deaths is stipulated by the coroner, which is outside the scope of the Bill.

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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I thank the Minister for that clarification.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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But does that not highlight the difficulty that, if somebody registers a death on the telephone, they may not have access to the death certificate and may find that the death is registered with inaccurate information from the death certificate?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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I think that is transmitted directly to the registrar, who is of course independent. That creates a check and balance in the process, from my perspective.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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My hon. Friend says the information that comes from the death certificate is transmitted directly to the registrar. That is right, but if the person who is the nearest and dearest does not know what is contained in that death certificate and is concerned about its accuracy, the death could be registered with information that the nearest and dearest disagreed with.

--- Later in debate ---
Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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I thank the Minister for further clarification on that point.

I mentioned that I spoke to the National Association of Funeral Directors, and I am sure the whole House will pay tribute to the funeral industry, which, like many parts of our community, has worked incredibly hard over the past 12 to 18 months due to covid. I certainly pay tribute to funeral directors for their hard work.

Registering a death has traditionally been a paper-driven process and has often been hindered by delays in the system, which serve to increase the gap between the death and the funeral. In fact, a survey of NAFD members in 2021 confirmed that 82% of funeral directors felt that processing the forms digitally was working either well or very well, and almost 80% of respondents confirmed that they rarely or never experienced delays in the registration of deaths.

But I would go further: if we have the chance today to ease the pain of any individual who is grieving, we ought to take that opportunity. That is the opportunity I believe this Bill presents. The last thing anyone who is grieving wants to do is to make that journey—sometimes a very long journey—to the registrar to register a death. Being able to do so electronically may provide some relief in an otherwise difficult time. I reassure my hon. Friends that, as has already been mentioned, this Bill does not make any changes to the information that is to be recorded in an entry, such as who can act as a qualified informant. That remains the same in the case of a birth or a death.

A further change that clause 1 makes to current procedure relates to how information is given to the superintendent registrar. Currently, registrars are required to submit copies of all the birth and death entries that they have registered in the last quarter to their superintendent registrar through a system of quarterly returns. When received from the registrar, the superintendent registrar certifies all the entries as being true copies of the birth and death entries in the registers, and forwards them to the Registrar General. The Registrar General holds a central repository of all births and deaths registered in England and Wales, which is then completed electronically using the electronic system.

My Bill removes that administrative burden, because the move to an electronic register would make the system of quarterly returns unnecessary. Following the registration of a birth or death in the electronic register, the entry would immediately be available to the superintendent registrar and Registrar General without having to complete the quarterly return process from the paper registers.

I turn briefly to the clauses. As already explained, clause 1 removes the duplication of processes and no longer requires the upkeep of a paper register. Instead, all registrations of births and deaths will be processed on to the electronic register. The clause also ends the administrative burden of quarterly returns, as I have stated, as the electronic register will make birth and death entries available to the Registrar General and the superintendent registrar immediately.

Clause 2 makes arrangements for the equipment and facilities to be maintained by local authorities. It makes it clear that all local authorities must provide and maintain the relevant equipment and facilities that the Registrar General deems necessary for all register and sub-district register offices.

Clause 3 introduces a new power that amends the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and allows the Minister to bring before the House new regulations in respect of non-paper registration. Where someone complies with specific requirements, such as the provision of identification, they will be treated as having signed the register in the presence of the registrar.

Crucially, if passed by the House under the affirmative procedure, provision may be made to include the signing of something other than the register, so that a wet signature would not be required and an electronic one would be acceptable. Those requirements would have to be put to the House in further legislation. The clause makes it clear that the Government can do so only under the affirmative procedure, which means that the provisions must be laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Can my hon. Friend explain how that fits with the provisions of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981?

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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My hon. Friend makes a good point. I admit that I am less au fait with that Act; I know that he was instrumental in helping to make some of the provisions originally. The provision will be considered further in Committee, where I would welcome his input if he were so inclined.

Clause 4 deals with the treatment of the current paper records, which date back to 1836. It requires the registrar to keep and maintain all registers in paper form. Clause 5 brings the schedule into effect. Clause 6 provides the power to make further consequential provisions, including any changes to primary legislation which, to reiterate, would be done through the affirmative procedure only. Clause 7, the commencement clause, comes into effect the day the Bill is passed. It is also worth noting that the Bill does not require a money resolution or a Ways and Means resolution.

In conclusion, the Bill modernises our registration system and makes it more efficient. I hope that we can look back on this debate in years to come as the moment when we collectively made our constituents’ lives more convenient at a time of their lives that can often be pivotal—a moment of happiness or, in the case of deaths, of great tragedy. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill and commend its provisions to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart
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My hon. Friend raises a valid point and I absolutely agree.

The Bill removes the requirement for paper registers to be held and stored securely in each registration district, and with records already stored electronically there is no need for on-paper storage. This will save space and eliminate the cost of that extra storage, as explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. As paper comes from trees, going paperless by utilising electronic document management systems helps cut down on deforestation and pollution, leaving more trees to absorb carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate climate change.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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My hon. Friend is rightly concerned about hacking down trees unnecessarily but will she address her remarks to the problem of hacking electronic records?

--- Later in debate ---
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). I hope to be able to share with her a cautionary tale about the consequences of putting blind faith in digitalisation. Before I do so, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) on introducing this Bill, which I think was a presentation Bill rather than a balloted Bill. However, I think he made the wrong choice about the topic for debate, because, as he has said, this proposal was debated and was the subject of a balloted Bill in the last Session of Parliament.

At that time, our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) promoted it, brought it before the House for a Second Reading debate for about three quarters of an hour and kindly offered to let me serve on the Committee, although that offer never materialised. My right hon. Friend told me, in a very courteous letter, that he thought that it was because of covid, but I think that it was just because the invitation never materialised. If it had materialised, I would have been more than happy to serve on the Committee. As I was not able to serve on that Committee, I tried to amend the legislation on Report, but unfortunately there was only one minute for my speech on 12 March.

Saqib Bhatti Portrait Saqib Bhatti
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I reiterate my invitation to my hon. Friend to join me on the Committee. We can address any concerns that he may have at that stage.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am grateful for that offer and shall certainly take it up, because a lot needs to be amended in the Bill. When I tabled amendments on Report last time, they were set out on the amendment paper on 12 March, but we were not able to make much progress. It disappoints me that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has so far shown no willingness to take on board any of the suggestions put forward in those amendments, the essence of which was to try to ensure that we still have physical, hard copy registers alongside e-registers, so that we do not facilitate fraud and corruption in our registration service.

There has been a lot of talk of those of us who believe in having a hard copy record being backwards, and those who believe absolutely in modern technology and electronic records being the great modernisers, but let me share with the House a current live constituency case, about which I have written to the Home Office, as will become apparent in the course of my remarks.

The case is of a Ghanaian citizen, who has a Ghanaian passport. He came to this country about 20 years ago and now wishes to become a British citizen; he has indefinite leave to remain, and a driving licence, national insurance number and all the rest of it. His Ghanaian passport and his driving licence correctly identify his name, which consists of one forename and two surnames. I am not going to shout out his name in the House now, because I still hope that we will get a satisfactory answer out of the Department without the need to name and shame it publicly. He applied for British citizenship on 5 May 2021, and that was approved, subject to him attending a citizenship ceremony to receive his certificate. The certificate was issued correctly with his full name—his first name and his two surnames—so he thought that everything was fine. He then applied for a British passport and the Passport Office informed him that his surname did not match his citizenship certificate because only one name had been recorded as his surname. Subsequently, he spoke to the Home Office customer service team and was advised to fill in a form and post the certificate, with any proof of his correct name, to the Home Office. He sent off all that material—including his Ghanaian passport, his driving licence and, as the Home Office instructed, his cut-up indefinite leave to remain card—at the beginning of August.

The website said that corrections to citizenship certificates take 24 working days. After three months had elapsed, he contacted me and I contacted the Home Office. On 26 November, perhaps in anticipation of this debate, I received a reply from UK Visas and Immigration that sets out a whole lot of facts that we already know and I have shared with the House, and that the requested amendment is still outstanding. It says:

“Please be assured that this is being processed…In the meantime, an application can be expedited”.

I had already explained that the lack of his documents was preventing him from being able to start work as a van driver. That remains the situation.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Drummond
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My hon. Friend is demonstrating very well why we should have electronic records: they can be passed forward and backwards much quicker than paper copies, which can also be lost in transit.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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The point is that there was an inaccurate translation. When he got his citizenship certificate, somebody mistransposed the full names and put just one surname on his certificate rather than two surnames. That is an example of what happens when we rely on electronic records rather than the actual records, because he is now having to prove to the Home Office—and it is taking a long time, as I have been explaining—that his name is as it is set out on his driving licence and in his Ghanaian passport. He is fortunate that he still had his original records, which we assume have not been lost in the post.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb
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That is just one example; I would like to see far more examples of digitalisation having gone wrong in computer records. As someone who spent more than 29 years in a business that was very technology-driven—I started in 1989 in a company that was all about technology and computerisation—I assure you that such instances are few and far between. I can guarantee you that it is more than likely that an error would be made in a handwritten record, not through digitalisation.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have a lot to answer for.

Handwritten errors can be identified and corrected. If there is fraud in handwriting, that can be subject to prosecution under the Forgery Act; if a digital record is inaccurate, either through accident or by design, it is very difficult to prosecute under the Forgery Act—in fact, I am not aware of any way in which it could be.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
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Let us return to the subject of the debate, which is the births and deaths register. The two systems have been running in parallel since 2009; does my hon. Friend have any evidence to adduce that there has ever been any mistake that would have been corrected had there been a paper record rather than an electronic one?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I do not have any evidence on that either way. The whole purpose of the 2009 regulations was that we would still have the hard-copy back-up system. Now, having put those regulations through on the basis that there would be a hard-copy back-up system, the Government say 11 or 12 years later that we do not need one, and can rely on the electronic system. That, I think, is playing fast and loose with the House. Why did the Government introduce regulations in 2009 to amend the system while still assuring the House that hard-copy records would be retained, and why, all these years later, are they seeking to abandon them? I am very concerned about that, but let me now finish the story about my constituent.

As I said earlier, I received a reply on 26 November saying that if my constituent required the return of his documents urgently he could submit a request, but I had already submitted a request for the return of his documents to the Home Office on his behalf. The letter made no reference at all to the fact that while this delay continues, and this muddle continues unresolved, he is unable to work. It is outrageous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) said that this was just one example. I do not want to detain the House with a whole lot of other examples, but we do know that the hacking of computer records is prolific. It is widespread. It has led to large public companies, and indeed Government Departments, suffering severe fines, penalties and reprimands because of their inability to keep accurate data and protect themselves against hacking processes.

Even in the corridor just outside my office in this wonderful building, there is a great big poster—I think it is the only poster up there—about how we in this place are under continuous cyber-attack. If we are indeed under continuous cyber-attack, why are some of my colleagues so relaxed about it? I see no grounds whatever for being relaxed, and I think we should be very vigilant and protective of our paper record system.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
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The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is that there must be some great injustice in the current system if it needs to be changed. If the only reason for changing it is modernisation, we as Conservatives should not be supporting it—but perhaps my hon. Friend knows what the problem is with the current system.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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That takes me on to the question of how we got to where we are now. For those interested in the background to this, let me explain that one of the former Members for the Christchurch constituency, George Rose, proposed a Bill to overhaul the registration system. He did that in 1812, and Hansard reported at the time:

“It must, he thought”—

this refers to my predecessor—

“be universally allowed, that parish registers were of great importance to all ranks and classes of people from the nobleman to the peasant; and it was highly desirable they should be regularly entered, and safely deposited. At present, instead of being kept in the house of the clergyman of each parish, they were kept in a very slovenly manner in the dwelling of the parish clerk, and he had found, as Treasurer of the Navy”—

in those days you could double up these jobs—

“numberless instances of the widows of seamen, who, from this culpable negligence, were not able to prove their marriages.”

The legislation was passed, and proved to be inadequate. That ultimately led to the 1875 Act, which is the core of our current system. Under our current system, almost all the people who are born have their details recorded. I think that, according to the latest information available, there are about 20 cases a year in which people are born without having their details accurately recorded.

Fundamental to the issue is that it is a basic legal requirement to have a birth registration, and birth registration—I hope the Minister agrees—is one of our most fundamental human rights. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child acknowledges that every child should be registered immediately after birth. We now say that should be six weeks, and we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and others that it can be very burdensome for someone to go off and get their child registered.

All I can say is that my daughter gave birth to a little baby girl about a fortnight ago, and she and my son-in-law are much looking forward to going to the district register office in Lymington to record the details, including the name, of their daughter. Whatever happens, that record will be on paper as well as being an electronic record. How sad that it seems to be the intent of the Government that, in the future, people who are lucky enough to have children will not be able to have the privilege of a proper written birth certificate—a hard copy holograph birth certificate. I think that that is quite an unnecessary restriction on those fundamental freedoms.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster
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To be absolutely clear, that is not the Government’s intent. The law will still provide for hard-copy birth certificates.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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What my hon. Friend is referring to is like saying, “When I print off an email, it’s a hard copy.” It is not a hard copy; it is emailed and printed off. The Minister is talking about an electric record that can be reproduced in hard copy form. If we are talking about hard-hard copies, then, as I asked earlier, how does that fit in with the Forgery Act? Obviously, hard copies depend on having holograph signatures, and we hear that in this Bill there is the power for people to be able to register births without having to provide any signature at all unless they can send their signature by electronic means to the registration district. This is a very serious issue.

Without dwelling any more on the history of the Act, let me just say that throughout the mid-19th century, the only blip on issues relating to birth registrations, which were increasing the whole time, was the Vaccination Act 1853, which tied compulsory vaccination of all infants to their registration and gave powers for parents to be fined for non-compliance. As always happens with the law of good intentions, it ended out quite differently because as it was the local registrar who informed parents of their legal obligation to vaccinate their children, parents who feared vaccination avoided the registrar. Plus ça change, as they might say, in the context of today’s attempts to try to require compulsory vaccination for everybody in this country even if it means depriving them of their right to work in a care home or in the national health service.

The Bill itself contains a number of provisions about which I raised concerns with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he brought it forward originally. One of those is the fact that there are lots of regulation-making powers in the Bill. I said to him that I thought it was desirable that those regulations or orders should be available in draft at Committee stage so that they could be properly examined in Committee. He said that he thought that was a really good idea. However, when we got to Committee, no such draft regulations were available.

I presume, because the Government attach urgency to this Bill and more than a year has elapsed, that those regulations and draft orders are available. I look forward to the Minister confirming that they are, but if they are not, why not? When will they be available? Why can we not see them before the Bill goes into Committee? These draconian measures give great power to the Government to set out regulations and change the existing law. It seems bad practice that people should be expected to go through a detailed Bill such as this in Committee without having any inkling of what the Government are hiding away in the regulations that are held in the relevant Department and are not being openly disclosed. I fear that that total lack of transparency is almost endemic in so much of what the Government do.

My next concern about the Bill is that under clause 1(3), section 28 of the 1953 Act, in relation to the custody of registers, would be repealed. That would remove any requirement for registration officers to hold registers. As a consequence, the hard copies that so many people look at when they examine their family history would not be available and accessible. Clause 4 states that such a repeal of section 28 would not affect the requirement that every superintendent registrar should keep records that were already in existence, provided that that did not cover records issued between 2009 and the day when this Bill comes into effect.

I was assured by my right hon. Friend and the Minister, who responded to the debate on the previous Bill, which is on identical terms, that the requirement to keep existing—or what might be described as old—records would not be affected in any way. However, when one looks at clause 6 of this Bill, one sees that the Government are taking the power to make further consequential provisions on any provision of this Act, including clause 4, which is meant to be a safeguard. That power

“is exercisable by statutory instrument”.

It includes the powers

“to make different provision for different purposes”

and

“to make transitional, transitory or saving provision”,

and it

“may, in particular, be exercised by amending, repealing or revoking any provision made by or under primary legislation”—

in other words, this is a Henry VIII clause writ large—

“passed or made before, or in the same Session as, this Act.”

Under the powers in clause 6, all the assurances and guarantees on the operation of clause 4 and the safeguards under what is now section 28 of the 1953 Act are completely worthless. We, as a sovereign Parliament, do not have the power to bind our successors, but we do have the power, if we so choose, not to make it too easy for our successors to change the rules against the wishes of the people. That is why I think it is outrageous that the Government should be taking powers to change by regulation the guarantees that they say are in existence in clause 4 of this Bill. That is just the sort of issue I would like to address in Committee, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden will be able to give me some indication that he will accept amendments facilitating those safeguards for existing registers and records.

Another concern I have about the Bill, which my hon. Friend alluded to in introducing it, is the way regulations could be amended to change the requirement to actually sign the register. Those provisions, set out in clause 3 of the Bill, amend the 1953 Act by inserting a new section 38B after section 38A. An extraordinary lack of information is attached to what the Government intend here. It has been alluded to in the speeches of some of my hon. Friends, who seem to think it is really desirable that we should simplify what has been a solemn and historic process of registering births; I will come on later to the issue of registering deaths.

The proposed new section says:

“Where any register of births or register of deaths is required to be kept…otherwise than in hard copy form, the Minister may by regulations provide that—

(a) a person’s duty…to sign the register at any time is to have effect as a duty to comply with specified requirements at that time, and

(b) a person who complies with those requirements is to be treated…as having signed the register”.

In other words, somebody who has not actually signed the register will be treated as having signed it. Are we seriously going to legislate to create the pretence that somebody who has not signed the register has signed it and is deemed to have signed it, that, in the case of a duty to sign the register in the presence of the registrar, they are deemed to have done so in the presence of the registrar, and that accordingly in such a case the entry in the register is to be taken for the purposes of the Act as having been signed by the person when it has not been? Why are we allowing that?

What is one of the biggest safeguards of the integrity of our births register and our deaths register? It is the sanction against forgery. A sanction against forgery is nugatory if we do not require holograph signatures. My hon. Friend who so ably introduced the discussion on the Bill seems to be slightly poleaxed—I think that might be the expression—by the references to that. We have not yet had any help from the Minister on how the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act fits into this, but maybe the regulation-making powers under clause 6 of this Bill will be able to change the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act so that it applies not to actual forgery as we would know it, with people using pen and ink to change something, but to something that is deemed to be pen and ink.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Will he tell me what happened during covid? Unfortunately, I was involved in registering a death during the covid period and it seemed to me that this was all done electronically, with no signatures required. In the case I was involved in, that did not work particularly well. Does he have any views on that?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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When we were discussing earlier the issue of registration of deaths, I drew my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that I have had lots of constituents—he probably has the same situation—raise with me the fact that their loved ones were given death certificates that inaccurately reflected their covid status. In a sense, the Government are hoist with their own petard on that, because it was all part of what has been described as a “scaremongering propaganda campaign” to make it seem as though more people were dying from covid than were actually doing so by saying that they may have had covid within the 28 days before their death. Extraordinarily, if one asks questions about whether people have died within 21 days or 28 days of having received a vaccine against covid, the Government get very coy about that. I do not know why that might be, because I think that the more transparent the Government are, the more they will be able to counter the vaccine hesitancy that is an increasing problem in this country as people find out that some things relating to the vaccines are being suppressed if not fully exposed to public view. I will not go on about that, but I referred in this House a few weeks ago to my Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Bill and I do so once again, without going into any more detail about it.

There is a real problem if the Government put provisions in a Bill and then are not willing to spell out all the implications. What do the explanatory notes say about clause 3? Obviously, in the absence of anything else, one looks at the explanatory notes, but they do not help, because the notes on clause 3 just repeat the content of clause 3 without explaining what the Government have in mind. Why are we in that situation? Why has no cost-benefit analysis or regulatory impact assessment been published in respect of this Bill? We know that the requirement to do this does not apply to private Members’ Bills, but if such a Bill is, in essence, a proxy for a Government Bill, is there any reason at all why those things should not be published? Again, the Government are intent on bringing this measure forward, but wish to do so without sharing with the House and the public all the implications that flow from it and the Government’s thinking about what might happen.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have been thinking long and hard as the debate goes on. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill does appear to be a Government Bill but not in Government time, so it does not have an impact assessment? For that reason alone, when we vote later, I urge hon. Members to reject it to make sure that the Government bring it forward properly for proper scrutiny in Government time.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
- Hansard - -

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s suggestion and it would be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say in response. [Hon. Members: “Hurry up, then!”] If the Minister wishes to intervene, I shall happily give way.

It is the Government’s prerogative to bring forward their legislation to the House. When they do so in the normal way, a Bill has a regulatory impact assessment, a cost-benefit analysis and so on. The Government should not avoid that system, and avoid the need to be transparent, by using the proxy system whereby a loyal Back Bencher takes on a Bill as a handout Bill.

My hon. Friend the Minister is a man of absolute integrity who has participated in almost as many Friday debates as I have over the years. In all those debates, I have not once found him wanting in terms of dealing straightforwardly with the subject matter under discussion. It is open to him to say that he will bring forward a regulatory impact assessment before we get to Committee so that we can examine it and we know the Bill’s full implications.

There is obviously no discipline or requirement on the Government to publish the impact assessment if they think that they have a majority of 80. I imagine that the Government will now bring forward the Bill as a Government Bill because my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I are expressing concerns about it and it is not making progress in the House as quickly as they might wish. If they do that, there will be a proper Second Reading, Committee and Report, which is fine.

I hope that we will then have the regulatory impact assessment in front of us and we will be able to assess what the Government have in mind and what they are hiding from us. Having had the experience in the previous Session of being told one thing in the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) about what would happen when we got to Committee, and those promises, or certainly expressions of intent, not materialising, I am very suspicious about the Bill.

People up and down the country will wonder why we are spending so much time discussing the issue of removing proper paper records of births. What will we do about all the people who will be adversely affected by that? I have another example of a constituent who is a South African citizen whose child was born in the United Kingdom and is therefore entitled to United Kingdom citizenship. To take his child to South Africa, he has to provide a hard-copy, holographed birth certificate. How will he do that in future if those hard copies do not exist?

That is another practical example of how the Bill’s provisions will adversely affect people of foreign citizenship who have children born in this country for whom they wish to have an old-fashioned birth certificate rather than one that has been put on a—

English Channel Small Boats Incident

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Thursday 25th November 2021

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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The answer is no, because the Nationality and Borders Bill does create safe and legal routes.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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At the end of her statement, my right hon. Friend said that crossing the channel in a small boat was illegal. Would that it were, but it is not illegal, as was confirmed by the Crown Prosecution Service on 8 July. What would make it illegal would be passing into law my Illegal Immigration (Offences) Bill, whose Second Reading is due to take place tomorrow. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would agree to meet me to discuss the content of that Bill and how it will contribute to what we all want to see, which is an end to this vile trade.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I certainly think that more needs to be done, so Ministers would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Forensic Science Regulator Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I support the Bill as well. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for reminding me of the scrutiny that I gave the Bill on Second Reading, and I am delighted that it empowered him to analyse the cost on a fresh basis. As somebody who has practised in our criminal justice system as a barrister for many years, I do not think there is anything more important in our system than that we should be able to have absolute trust in the integrity and quality of the forensic science service and that the evidence it provides, which is so often crucial in court, should be beyond reproach. To that end, I am sure that the Bill, which was discussed and significantly amended in Committee, is all for the good.

This is another example of why it was common sense for the Leader of the House to enable the Bills that have been considered in Committee to come back for consideration on Report in this special Friday sitting. That is good. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as the Chairman of Ways and Means, were much involved in facilitating this; if I am wrong, you will not need to say that, because I am sure that even if you did not do it directly, your influence has been there all along, trying to encourage our ability to constructively bring forward legislation that has already been discussed and steer it to fruition. I understand that their lordships will consider the Bills that have passed in this House today and, as a result, they will hopefully get on to the statute book. That would not have been possible but for the House authorities facilitating what we have done today.

Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Expiry

“This Act expires at the end of a period of 3 years beginning with the day on which it is passed.”

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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New clause 1, in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), replicates, almost exactly, a new clause that was moved in Committee to try to ensure that there is a proper assessment of the Bill.

The new—temporary; perhaps permanent—prisons Minister had the courtesy to phone me yesterday to discuss the reasons why he believed the new clause was unnecessary. I was able to exchange with him an actual case in my constituency that is causing me concern, which he said he would take away and act upon. I will summarise that case, which shows how important the issue of drugs in prisons is.

The case concerns a constituent whose husband was convicted of murder and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment. Within a short time of his arrival in prison, never having taken drugs before, he became addicted to drugs, and he was then trying to get off those drugs. Ultimately, it resulted in him and his family being subject to payments of extortion amounting to no less than £60,000. Despite him and his parents and family reporting the matter, none of the people to whom the £60,000 was paid have been brought to justice. Fortunately, my hon. Friend the new Minister has assured me that he is going to investigate the matter and take care of other issues relating to the welfare of my constituent’s husband.

I tabled the new clause in order to raise that issue. I am not very familiar with procedures in the House, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, but as we need to resolve this Report stage so that the Bill can be given its Third Reading, would it be in order for me not to speak any longer about new clauses 1 or 2 but to seek the leave of the House to withdraw them both?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I take it that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to press his new clauses, for which the House will be grateful.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

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Lyn Brown Portrait Ms Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab) [V]
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I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), and on behalf of the Opposition Front-Bench team I thoroughly welcome the Bill.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I support the Bill—indeed, I was present in the Chamber when we discussed the initial concern about my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) not being able to deal with the Bill herself physically. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) came in and helped to fill the breach, so I thank him for and congratulate him on what has been achieved.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham for her foresight in choosing this topic for the Bill that she wanted to promote. Few things are more important for our constituents who are sadly in prison than to ensure that although they are in prison for punishment—the deprivation of liberty—they are not there to become drug addicts or to be subjected to extortion or other illegal behaviour. If, by facilitating our keeping on top of new substances, the Bill leads to fewer people getting addicted and leaving prison fully addicted, that would be great. I have challenged my hon. Friend the new Minister to be the first prisons Minister to create a truly drugs-free prison in the United Kingdom—a dream that I very much hope will be realised.

Registers of Births and Deaths Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a most important point. I will come to it, but clause 4 refers to the very point that my hon. Friend so wisely makes.

Currently, registrars submit copies of all the birth and death entries they have registered in the last quarter to their superintendent registrar via a system of quarterly returns. The superintendent registrar certifies those entities as being true copies of birth and death entries in the registers and forwards them to the Registrar General. That is done electronically using the electronic system. The Registrar General holds a central repository of all births and deaths registered in England and Wales. My Bill will remove that administrative burden.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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When the electronic system was introduced in 2009, why did the Government decide not to abandon the hard copy record? Surely the reason was that it was a safeguard. Hard copies are an essential safeguard, are they not?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will come on to a number of points that my hon. Friend alludes to, but I think he will be satisfied, when he hears about the other provisions of my Bill, that that point is properly addressed.

With the move to an electronic register, the system of quarterly returns will no longer be necessary. Following the registration of a birth or death in the electronic register, the entry will immediately be available to the superintendent registrar and the Registrar General, without the quarterly returns process having to be completed from the paper registers.

The Bill amends the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 to insert a new section that enables Ministers to make regulations that make provision that a duty to sign the birth or death register is to have the effect of a duty to comply with specified requirements. If an informant complies with those requirements, they are to be treated as having signed the register and to have done so in the presence of the registrar.

The entry in the electronic register will be treated as having been signed by the person who has provided the information relating to a birth or death. For example, the regulations may require a person to sign something other than the register or to provide evidence of their identity. I reassure my hon. Friends that the regulations would be made using the affirmative procedure, which requires them to be approved by both Houses of Parliament and therefore there would be the opportunity to discuss the content of those measures.

The provisions in my Bill are the first step in moving to a more modern system of birth and death registration. By removing the requirement for paper registers to be signed in the presence of a registrar, we would pave the way for a move to online methods of registration. That would provide more flexibility and allow an informant to provide the particulars of a birth or death online and at a time to suit the individual, without having to visit a register office. That would modernise how births and deaths are registered in the future and give the public more choice, but the choice to register in person would remain, as register offices and facilities are needed for marriages, civil ceremonies and citizenship.

As I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, removing the requirement for face-to-face services is particularly relevant and most important at the moment as we deal with the issues of covid-19 and the pandemic. My right hon. and hon. Friends will also be pleased to hear that just these measures in respect of the registration of deaths would save the taxpayer £90 million over 10 years. Over the next 10 years, we conservatively estimate that the effect of all these measures would save £170 million for the taxpayer. I should explain that the figure of £20 million that appears in the explanatory notes is a reference only to the amount saved by removing the paper register and the requirements for quarterly returns. The savings to the taxpayer would be significant indeed.

I turn briefly to the clauses in the Bill. Clause 1 amends the original Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. The new sections allow the Registrar General to determine how registers of live births, stillbirths and deaths are to be kept. It would remove the duplication of processes: all births and deaths would be registered in an electronic register without the need for paper registers.

Clause 2 deals with the provision of equipment and facilities by local authorities. It makes clear that all local authorities must provide and maintain the equipment and facilities set down by the Registrar General for all register and sub-district register offices. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) for specifically raising that point in our discussions earlier.

Clause 3 is the requirement to sign the register. This is a new power that would bring before the House new regulations in respect of non-paper registration. Where someone complies with specific requirements, they will be treated as having signed. Obviously, such provisions may require evidence of identity, and those provisions would be put to the House in further legislation that we would move in the way that I have described. The clause makes it clear that the Government can do so only under the affirmative procedure, which means that any provisions must be laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Clause 4 is the about the treatment of existing registers and records—the point made so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb). It requires the Registrar General to continue to keep and maintain all the existing records.

Clause 5 effectively brings the schedules to the Bill into effect. Clause 6 is a power to make further consequential provisions, including, if required, to primary legislation. Again, in those circumstances that can be done only by affirmative resolution. Clause 7 is the commencement clause, which comes into force on the day the Bill is passed. Finally, the schedule deals with minor and consequential amendments to the original 1953 Act and certain other primary legislation consequent on the provisions of this Bill.

The Bill requires neither a money resolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be pleased to hear, nor a Ways and Means resolution. It is also fully compatible with the European convention on human rights. I very much hope that the Bill will progress through the House and, indeed, the other place, where our late colleague my noble Friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton has agreed to assist in its passage, and that, with its self-evident benefits for our constituents, it will, after further scrutiny, become an Act. I commend its provisions to the House.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I am not sure that we wanted our parents to give us really popular Christian names, but I note that my parents had the foresight to give me the same Christian name as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), so that was obviously a good thing. We are 152nd in the league table. I predict that it will not be long before we are about 1,000th in the league table because obviously Christopher is a name that has Christ in it, and I fear that the Christian emphasis in our society is on the decline, rather than on the increase, but that is by the bye.

The Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) is one about which I have considerable concerns. The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) identified two concerns: the risk of identity fraud associated with the registration of births, and the problems that there already are in the reliability of the registration online system. We have a registration system at the moment and there is a back-up, which is the hard copies. What this Bill is going to do is to deprive us of that back-up.

I am sure there are hon. Friends who run their constituency offices on the basis that it is all purely electronic, but I certainly do not, and I have good reason not to do that because on so many occasions the electronic systems fail and we need to rely on the hard copy back-up. If that was not just a general proposition, it was brought home to me last evening because I was talking to my wife and she showed me an email that she has had from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency saying that her driving licence details need to be updated. She looked at the email and saw that the details registered were not correct. She tried to change the details but could not. Suffice it to say that, in those details, there are names of foreign people and suggestions that my wife’s driving licence record has now been tampered with and been the subject perhaps of fraud or forgery.

I cite that as a topical example of what happens if we become wholly reliant upon electronic systems. I think most of us will have safes at home where we keep our birth certificates for ourselves and our children, our marriage certificates, our passports, our driving licences, exam certificates, degree certificates and so on. The reason we do that is that we have the security of having a hard copy, instead of having to faff around trying to get duplicate copies. How can we be sure that the back-up system, which will now become the main system under my right hon. Friend’s Bill, will be 100% reliable and proof against fraud?

My right hon. Friend identifies savings, and obviously any savings that come from efficiency are good. In terms of the need to pass these records on up through the lines, from the area manager to the regional manager and then to the top dog, I think that is a very sensible reform, but dispensing totally with the written record will save only £20 million over 10 years. The other savings to which he referred are from the other streamlining processes set out in his Bill. I have no problem with those, but I question whether, for £2 million a year, it is worth taking the risk both in terms of opening up fraud and damaging the potential for future generations to be able to examine this period of our history, which is much easier to do with hard-copy, written records than it is with electronic data.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I believe that in Committee we will be able to satisfy my hon. Friend absolutely on the issue of fraud and on the other points as well. I hope that he will perhaps consider serving on the Bill Committee, where I am completely confident we will be able to satisfy him on all his concerns.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his confidence. I approach this sort of legislation in a constructive frame of mind. One point occurred to me when he referred to draft regulations. In due course, we will all be able to see these draft regulations. Although they would be affirmative resolution regulations, we know that we would not be able to amend them. I ask my right hon. Friend: would it be possible, by the time that the Bill reaches Committee, as I expect it to, for us to have a draft of those regulations so that we can look at them in Committee alongside his Bill? That practice has often been supported by Ministers, and I think that he would support it as well.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that would be a very good thing to do. Of course, it would have to be the proposed orders, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution, as we have both agreed, that are already on the stocks, and there will be more in the future, not least to address any dangers—he mentioned the issue of fraud—that are not relevant or understood today but which could emerge in future.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
- Hansard - -

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that assurance. We are talking about fraud and forgery. We know from our own constituency records that it is rife. Action Fraud is incapable of dealing with all the fraud cases that come before it. Most of our local police forces are incapable and under-resourced to deal with the fraud, which is rife. It never used to be part and parcel of British society that you assumed that people were fraudulent until proved otherwise, but we have almost got to that stage now. Elderly people are receiving phone calls and most of them seem to be to try to con the individual out of some money. There is every incentive for fraud where we are talking about birth certificates and certificates of registration, which give us our identity. What could be more fundamental than that? I look forward to seeing these assurances in Committee, but it would be helpful and desirable that we should be able to give them a line by line examination, rather than just rely on expressions of good intention.

I go back to the point that I made in an intervention on my right hon. Friend’s speech. When the legislation was changed in 2009 to allow electronic records to be kept, safeguards were in place. Who could object to the establishment of electronic records if we were going to retain the hard copy written records? Now, just over 10 years later, we see that that safeguard, which was fundamental to the change then, is being removed and without, it seems, any justification. I hope that, in due course, my right hon. Friend will be able to explain what has happened in the last 10 or 11 years that has removed the necessity for the safeguards which this House thought were absolutely essential back in 2009.

Gang-associated Girls

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Tuesday 6th October 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Before we start this debate, may I remind Members that only those on the call list are able to participate? We have five right hon. and hon. Members in Westminster Hall at the moment, and that will be the maximum number who can participate in this debate. That means that even if the debate looks as though it is going short, others who are not on the call list will not be able to join us.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered gang-associated girls.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to be back in Westminster Hall to debate such an important topic. Youth violence is a very serious issue across our four nations in the UK, and it has a devastating impact on families—mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers—as well as on the wider community in our towns and cities. Here in London, it has almost become a daily occurrence on news bulletins. In the last two months alone, I have had to speak to three inconsolable mothers who have lost their children as a result of knife crime. These children were murdered by their peers. As a mother of two young children myself, that is not something that I can live with, ignore or accept.

However, today I want to talk about something different—another aspect of youth violence, and one that is hidden and often under-reported. It is the role played by girls and young women, whose activities and exploits, both in and around gangs, so often fly below the radar. I will also touch on the emerging issues and evidence that gang members are using the uncertainty caused by covid-19 to recruit vulnerable girls, as they adapt their business to the models of the new normal following lockdown.

I am sure that we all want to see an end to violence, exploitation and abuse, but if we want to understand this whole complex picture, we must understand that gang violence and abuse is a gendered and intersectional issue that requires a different approach. Even the word “gang” can be problematic when discussing the risks faced by girls and women. A youth worker who I spoke to recently highlighted to me that the language used to identify this issue sometimes fails to communicate the impact suffered by girls and young women. As she put it to me:

“Girls running county lines are not in a gang. They are victims of gangs.”

Girls and young women face different risks from those faced by males. Girls and young women may experience rape and other forms of sexual abuse, physical abuse, online grooming in the form of job offers, and direct threats of violence to themselves or their families to make them move or store drugs, weapons or even cash.

Some of these girls start off as girlfriends and get emotionally drawn into a relationship with an exploiter, and they face the additional emotional obstacle of trying to escape from that relationship as well as other forms of exploitation. Young women often carry the emotional burden for gang members and their wider crew, because they are often relied on for emotional support and counsel. Unfortunately, some girls are forced into criminal activity, such as county lines—moving drugs between cities and rural areas. There have been press reports recently of young women dressing as key workers to avoid being stopped and searched while travelling during lockdown.

The perception that girls work only in low-key roles in county lines is now starting to be challenged, with professionals reporting that, increasingly, young women work in the same roles as young men. That highlights the full scale of the exploitation that is taking place. Also, because young women and girls often go under the radar, their associations are much harder to track than those of males, but that does not mean that we should not offer them support. These are some of the most vulnerable young women and girls.

In February, in my role as London Assembly member for Lambeth and Southwark, I released a report entitled “Gang Associated Girls: Supporting young women at risk”. One key issue that I identified was a lack of data. There was no reliable information about the number of girls associated with gangs. For example, here in London, the Metropolitan Police Service’s records as of last year highlighted on its gangs matrix only six females, in contrast to 2,492 males. However, also in February, the Children’s Commissioner estimated that about 2,290 girls were associated with gangs in England; that is about 34% of all gang-associated children. When I sent a freedom of information request to all London boroughs, I found that more than 1,000 young women and girls had gang associations identified as a factor in their assessments by children’s social services. Therefore, we know that the data is patchy at best.

The invisibility of gangs’ association with girls has dire consequences. Abianda, a social enterprise that works with young women, highlighted that and the problems that it causes. A report from the crisis support charity Hestia in July found that girls were being deployed in county lines operations specifically because they were less likely to be stopped and searched by the police, and that exploitative romantic relationships were being used to lure young girls and women into carrying out that dangerous activity. Therefore, while we as the policy makers fail to truly appreciate the role that girls are playing in gangs, the same gangs are deliberately using that exploitation—that gendered advantage—to pursue their criminal activities. They are evading the law and, because girls on the periphery of gang violence who may need support are not being identified, funding is being disproportionately channelled into supporting young men.

A lot of good work is going on to rehabilitate young men away from this criminality, but there is little support for young women and girls. The issue of gangs’ association with girls is largely absent from the public discourse about violent crime, with both media reporting and funding concentrating on young men who are involved with gangs. Unfortunately, that means that public agencies risk missing the signs of gang-associated girls and do not offer the right support services to help them. If we do not offer adequate support to young women and girls at risk of gang association, we miss a vital opportunity to tackle violent crime.

The Minister shares my passion to end the exploitation of county lines, so will she ensure that resources are put in to disrupt county lines, working on the principle of taking a gendered approach to ensure that those working to prevent county lines activity are always aware of the role of young women and girls in these operations? If we accept that the cause of gang-associated violence has a gender dimension, it follows that the solution should also adopt a gendered approach rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Young women and girls experience the trauma of gang-related violence in a different way and, as a result, they present differently in hospital settings. Redthread, a charity whose workers operate in hospitals across London and the midlands, has reported that when they talk to young women, they are less likely to present with a physical injury, such as knife wounds, and are more likely to present with psychological issues related to trauma, such as self-harm, suicidal ideation and overdoses. In response, that charity has placed a number of young female workers in accident and emergency departments specifically to support these young women and girls.

The St Giles Trust is another charity that helps young people who are caught up in gangs. It has found that when it works in a hospital and its staff are given flexible access to a range of departments, they can identify these females at risk of exploitation and criminal and sexual abuse. If staff can get to them earlier, it will save costs down the line and get better results for the young women and girls.

Gender-based support works, but we know that our local councils up and down the country are struggling to provide that tailored support because of severe budget cuts. Given the potentially life-changing benefits that will be produced by programmes such as these, run by charities, will the Minister lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that councils have the funding available to provide that bespoke care? The reality is that gang-associated girls are part of a bigger system that not only harms the young women and girls directly involved, but contributes to the wider criminal activities of gangs and their exploitation of children and vulnerable young adults.

We cannot address gang violence without taking a gendered and intersectional approach. We need a better understanding of the role that girls and young women face so that support services can be there for them. We need to look at targeted interventions to help the girls who are being exploited, groomed and abused. We need to continue to raise awareness with the authorities around the use of girls in county lines and other gang-related activities, and we need policy makers to change the language that they use in highlighting the issue. Most importantly, we need to continue to listen to what young women and girls tell us.

When we talk about youth violence, knife crime or gangs, young people are too often labelled as criminals and perpetrators, but evidence shows that the young people themselves have been victims of crimes. We need to remember that when we talk about them. We are all here today because we want an end to the criminal exploitation of all vulnerable young people. To do that, we need to recognise and understand the gender dimension of gang association and violence, and invest in solutions based on that reality. It is a difficult reality, but one that we need to face up to, otherwise we risk dealing with only part of the problem. If we do that, the girls and young women who we all care about, and will carry on advocating for, will continue to suffer and end up in prison, or, even worse, continue to lose their lives.

Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons
Friday 25th September 2020

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 - Private Members' Bill (Ballot Bill) Page View all Forensic Science Regulator Bill Debates Read Hansard Text
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Following up on that point, is it right that the regulator already has problems with codes of practice and conduct? The annual report refers to the fact that there has been a delay in publishing issue 5 of those codes but that it would be published in early 2020. Has it now been published? Why are those non-statutory codes not sufficient?

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
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The regulator has been able to introduce codes of practice, but where they have not been followed, she has not been able to enforce them, which is one of the main issues today. As I understand it, the codes of practice are published in co-ordination with the Home Office, so perhaps the Minister can give an update on the outstanding codes that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

The market’s dependence on large or specialised service providers is not an abstract concern. We know that the resulting fragility, which already existed because of a lack of competition in the market, has had damaging effects on people in the criminal justice system. The collapse of key forensic services in 2018 is a case in point. To manage the fall-out from that collapse, police forces contracted other commercial providers to take on the resulting workload, creating system-wide capacity constraints. The appalling consequences that the Forensic Sciences Regulator laid out show that some cases, where forensic science may have provided valuable information or evidence, could not be processed. In addition, there was evidence of an increased error rate during this period, as well as an unsustainable strain on staff working overtime.

I am sure that all hon. Members agree that that is an unacceptable position for part of the criminal justice system to be in and that we should do our best to try to fix it. At the risk of straying a little beyond the immediate scope of the Bill, I urge Ministers to recognise the systemic issues that such cases highlight. Giving the regulator statutory powers will raise standards but cannot by itself mend a broken market. In the medium-term, the only way to get forensics right is through sustained investment in people, processes and skills.

I am sure that other hon. Members will have examples on which to draw, but the way in which violent sexual crimes are prosecuted makes an especially clear case for why statutory powers are so important. Such crimes, which are subject to unique challenges in obtaining convictions, often rely on DNA evidence as the critical element of a prosecution case. It is therefore vital that the possibility of contamination, for example, at sexual assault referral centres, is minimised as far as possible, yet the regulator’s 2016 annual report highlighted instances of DNA swabs being contaminated through unrelated case handling of different victims on the same day. Clearly, that is unacceptable.

Ensuring adherence to the regulator’s quality standards is a basic precaution, as victims and the general public rightly expect. However, the cost of testing to achieve compliance has meant that the commissioners of affected centres are unlikely to co-operate unless the regulator is empowered to require that. That inadequate incentive structure gets to the heart of why the current soft regulatory model is so weak for existing markets. The regulator’s highest aspiration is to create a competitive climate, in which underperforming or corner-cutting suppliers are unable to acquire contracts.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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What a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), whom I congratulate on introducing the Bill and addressing this subject following his success in the private Member’s ballot. I am sure we all agree that we want a fine, good-quality forensic service.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that we need the regulator to take action to improve quality. I am sceptical, because we have had a regulator in place since 2007 and it has the powers to bring in codes of practice and, in essence, to encourage, by one method or another, people to comply with those codes. The Bill refers to the introduction of statutory codes of practice that would have to be subject to consultation, but it is not clear to me whether the existing powers have been used sufficiently. It is one thing to say that the regulator has the powers, has been using them and has not been able to make them work so needs them to be put on a statutory footing, but is not clear to me that the existing regulator has been using the available non-statutory powers.

Let me give an example. In her annual report, the forensic science regulator says, in paragraph 2.1 on compliance with the regulator’s codes of practice and conduct:

“The number of organisations that have demonstrated compliance with the Codes has now risen to 42. This leaves approximately 17 organisations in England & Wales that hold accreditation to ISO 17025 but not the Codes and are regularly practising forensic science in the CJS”—

the criminal justice system.

She goes on:

“Of these, 12 are in policing”.

The Home Office, which funds the regulator, also funds the police service. If the Home Office talks to the regulator, why has the Home Office not been successful in persuading 12 police organisations to comply with the codes prepared by the regulator? I do not understand what is going on. I hope that when the Minister responds he will explain why there is this dichotomy: the Government say that they support the Bill because we need a statutory regulator, but at the same time they seem to have been doing nothing to try to bring the recalcitrant police forces into compliance.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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My hon. Friend is raising an important point, but there are two things to say. Part of the complication is obviously the operational independence of chief constables, in that the Home Office cannot bring any direct sanction to bear where something falls within their ambit, and as this issue does. However, as a strong champion of the authority and importance of this House, he will also know that transposing regulations into law has had enormous effect in the past. Back in, I think, March 2019, this House passed a statutory instrument on fingerprinting and DNA standards that took us from 9% compliance to 90% across police forces. That illustrates the power that he has from the Back Benches to mandate that kind of action across the country.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am fascinated by my hon. Friend’s response. The chief constable of Dorset is the lead chief constable on this very subject. Perhaps following today’s debate I will be able to have a conversation with him on this matter; but I still despair, really, that it is necessary for this House to intervene to get the police to do what we and an independent regulator think is the right thing for them to do.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green
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Does my hon. Friend share my concern that spending on the forensics sector decreased, from memory, from about £120 million a year in 2008, or thereabouts, to about £50 million to £55 million a year over a 10-year period? That is a judgment that police forces have to take, but we have to consider the wider financial constraints that they face.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Obviously police forces face constraints, but ensuring that the best quality forensic evidence is presented in the court system should be the top priority. Why should that be relegated as a lesser priority? My view would therefore be: yes, it is very important, but chief constables should be addressing that issue.

I am slightly sceptical about the need for this Bill, and my scepticism was increased when I looked at the regulator’s annual report and saw that her budget, supplied by the Home Office, runs to only about £400,000 in total admin expenditure for a year. What will be the costs of this legislation, which the Minister is supporting? We are now told in the explanatory notes that it will add about £400,000 a year to the costs of the Home Office, so the admin budget for the forensic regulator would be doubled. How does that compare with the estimate given when my hon. Friend the Member Bolton West (Chris Green) introduced his Bill in the 2017-19 Session? The explanatory notes for that Bill said:

“An impact assessment has been conducted by the Home Office. The Home Office estimates that the statutory powers of the Regulator will cost an average of £100,000 per year in addition”.

How is it that in the space of just two years the Home Office’s estimate of the cost of this legislation has quadrupled? And how, on that basis, can we rely on any of its promises about what the costs will be? I do not know whether in due course we will have a separate debate on the financial side of this Bill—I imagine that we would need a money resolution—but perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can answer that point now.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I think my hon. Friend has missed his calling: his forensic examination of these documents is to be admired. During the course of the debate I will seek an answer to the question that he raises; I do not have it at the moment. In response to an earlier point that he raised, it is not just the police who are the users of forensic services; very often defence will use them. Having a consistent regulatory environment that is observed by all means that we will get greater consistency in courts, and therefore there will presumably be less time lost—and a saving—in trials that are broken, cracked or have to be delayed because of differences in forensic evidence.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Just to say the hon. Gentleman’s calling is Friday.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and I look forward to hearing the outcome of his further enquiries. His strategy seems to be to supress my scepticism by using charm and flattery, which I am sure are important weapons in his armoury.

I am conscious that lots of people want to participate in this debate. I hope we will be able to get on to some of the later debates on the Order Paper, so having expressed some of my scepticism, I will now sit down.

Operation Augusta

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Wednesday 5th February 2020

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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The report is scandalous, harrowing and difficult to read. I quote one thing with reference to what the hon. Gentleman has just said:

“the decision to close down Operation Augusta was driven by the decision by senior officers to remove the resources from the investigation rather than a sound understanding that all lines of enquiry had been successfully completed or exhausted”.

On its own merits, that is scandalous. That is in the report. I also read—

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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Order. Interventions must be short.

James Daly Portrait James Daly
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I do apologise—

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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Could you resume your seat, please?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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The hon. Gentleman is underlining and emphasising my point about the lack of resources and leadership.

Two of the senior officers became chief constables afterwards, and their recollection of events is either non-existent or hazy. I simply do not believe that someone who had been in charge of such an operation and received such awful reports would not remember—the junior officers have clear memories of how it was finished. That, of course, meant that the perpetrators, who were known about by the police and social workers, carried on, as the report says, in plain sight. A lot of the abuse took place above Indian restaurants on Wilmslow Road—the so-called curry mile—in south Manchester. Cars were known to pull up with girls, and the police did nothing—in fact, they withdrew from acting on that information. As the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) said, that is scandalous.

Since the termination of Operation Augusta, the response of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council to this quite shocking report has been to apologise and to say that they are improving co-ordination and intensifying work to identify people, and they have done that. The awful thing is that, for the last 50 years, many of the children who have been abused and murdered have become the subjects of well-known operations. Reports always make 80 or 90 recommendations after such failures, and those are always agreed to, but we carry on writing reports, and children carry on being abused. Although I believe that Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester police are sincere in their attempts to be more effective and to get their act together, we need to understand the issue more deeply by asking why these things have happened time and again and what can be done to prevent a report from being written in 16 years’ time about children who are on the streets now, while we discuss this situation.

I referred to the clear memories of the more junior police officers and the amnesia of the senior officers involved. If there had been a different culture and stronger protections for whistleblowers, allowing those junior police officers and social workers to report such cases in the knowledge that they would not lose their careers, I believe more would have been done. In no sense would the public have put up with what happened if they had known about it—they expect our children’s services departments and the police to protect the most vulnerable young women—but they know about it only 16 years later. We need stronger protections for whistleblowers and an acceptance that bringing such issues to the attention of the public and senior politicians is a good thing.

Although there were disputes about resource allocation in the police force and between Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council, one has to remember that, at the time, police numbers were going up and local government was better funded. That is no longer the case; there is not a children’s department in the country that is not short of resources for the protection of children. We cannot wish, as I do, for better service provision for those vulnerable people without providing the resources. Police numbers have also gone down. However, that decline in resources does not apply to the time of Operation Augusta.

Another point that was made in “The Betrayed Girls” and in the report, and that has been made more generally, is that the vast majority of the men involved were of Pakistani origin and of the Muslim faith. The police, who probably had good intentions, made a mistake in saying, “We will be accused of racism if we point this out.” Nazir Afzal, the previous director of public prosecutions in the north-west and a practising Muslim, said that such activities are against the teaching of Islam and of the Koran, and that the vast majority of Pakistani people are as appalled by what has happened as the rest of the population. That is not to say that one should hide what has happened on Wilmslow Road or in other parts of the country, such as Telford, Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford or Ipswich—one can go on and on listing different towns where such cases have happened.

A final point on resources is that a number of requests have been made for the Home Office to do serious research into grooming. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) recently asked that of the Home Office, both by letter and on the Floor of the House. It is a mistake to think that the grooming of children, as described in the report, is the same as paedophile rings. The Home Office has done good research on paedophile rings. They are understood by the police and the Home Office, which know how to disrupt them. However, very little research has been done on grooming gangs. For instance, we do not know whether there are “Mr Bigs” behind the gangs at a national level or whether the cases represent major crime or decentralised local activity. That is important for our understanding; if it is major crime, organised on a national and international basis like drug crime, the National Crime Agency should be involved in disrupting that activity. I would be grateful if the Minister explained when the Home Office will fund and sponsor research into grooming gangs.

As I said, if people had blown the whistle, a stop could probably have been put to these things, because the public would not stand for them. I want to mention two people who have stayed with this issue and have continued to bring it to the public’s attention since the first Rochdale and Rotherham cases came to light. Sara Rowbotham, who worked in Rochdale as head of its crisis intervention team and is now a Rochdale councillor, and Margaret Oliver, who was a detective on the Augusta team before her maternity leave, have constantly brought it to the public’s attention. Margaret has argued very strongly, alongside the family of Victoria Agoglia, for the case to be re-opened and for the police to take more action against the perpetrators. Those two women deserve serious praise for what they are doing. I do not want in any sense to trivialise this serious debate, but they are more worthy of being nominated to the House of Lords than some of the people who have been put forward by the Labour party, which has put forward a pretty eccentric list, to put it mildly.

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None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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Order. Before I call Sarah Champion, let me point out that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred at the outset of his speech to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but that in itself is not sufficient in a debate. People who are not privy to that register entry need to know the relevance of it, so I will point out that the hon. Gentleman’s register entry includes a reference to the fact that he is a paid adviser to the board of the Outcomes First Group. That is the relevance of it. I remind hon. Members, particularly at the beginning of a new Parliament, that the whole purpose is to promote transparency.

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None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 10.40 am. Five people wish to speak, so I encourage a self-denying ordinance of a maximum of five minutes each. I call Chris Green.