All 10 Christopher Chope debates involving the Ministry of Justice

Fri 16th Oct 2020
Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading
Wed 17th Jun 2020
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]
Commons Chamber

Committee stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Wed 5th Sep 2018
Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Tue 17th Oct 2017
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Commons Chamber

3rd reading: House of Commons & 3rd reading: House of Commons
Fri 24th Mar 2017
Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons

Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2021

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Tuesday 9th March 2021

(10 months, 1 week ago)

General Committees
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Alex Chalk Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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I beg to move,

That this Committee has considered the Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 (S.I. 2021, No. 164).

The statutory instrument before us extends the existing prohibition on enforcement agents—bailiffs—from attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession, except in the most serious circumstances. It applies to enforcement action in England and will be in force until the end of March 2021. The House has debated this restriction on two previous occasions, so I will take the matter in short.

This statutory instrument is a public health rather than an economic measure. It extends the restrictions on enforcement agents carrying out evictions that have been in place since 17 November until 31 March. It prevents enforcement agents from giving tenants notices of eviction or from attending residential premises to enforce a writ or warrant of possession, except in the most serious circumstances. That ensures we continue to protect public health during the national lockdown, at a time when the risk of virus transmission is high, and to avoid placing additional burden on the NHS and local authorities.

We have continued to provide for limited exemptions from the ban in cases where the Government feel that the competing public interests in ensuring access to justice, preventing harm to third parties, taking action against egregious behaviour and upholding the integrity of the rental market sufficiently outweigh the public health risks.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I do not oppose the regulations, but I am interested in what will happen after 31 March. Will the Minister indicate whether there will be fresh regulations to renew the constraints, or will 31 March be the end date, after which people will be able to recover their properties under normal common law?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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May I say that the Government are acutely aware of the point that my hon. Friend properly makes? There is a balance to strike here, not least to consider article 1 of the first protocol to the European convention on human rights—in other words, the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions. As to when the decision will be made, it will be made shortly.

Let me return to the exemptions. They are as follows: first, where the claim is against trespassers who are persons unknown; and, secondly, where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of antisocial behaviour or nuisance, false statements, domestic abuse in social tenancies, or substantial rent arrears equivalent to six months’ rent, or where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of the death of a tenant and the enforcement agent attending the property is satisfied that the property is unoccupied.

I pause there to make the point—picking up on the representations made a few moments ago—that those cases where the arrears are particularly egregious are capable of leading to an eviction order. It is important to recognise that.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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The Minister mentioned the arrears being for more than six months but £1,500 a month in rent in arrears for five months is still £7,500. Is that not a big sum?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It certainly is a big sum. My hon. Friend, with laser-like focus, highlights the very balance that has to be struck. That is the issue and concern here: at the time of a pandemic, what is the correct balance to strike between the interests of tenants and of landlords? The Government are acutely conscious of the need to strike that delicate balance, and will continue to give active consideration to where it lies.

The statutory instrument contains a requirement for the court to be satisfied that the exemption applies on a case-by-case basis. That will ensure a clear, uniform and transparent process for establishing whether an exemption to the ban applies. In cases in which a court has decided that an exemption to the ban applies, bailiffs need to give tenants at least 14 days’ notice of an eviction and have been asked not to enforce evictions where a tenant is self-isolating.

The instrument permits writs and warrants of restitution to be enforced. Those orders are issued in cases in which a person who has been evicted from premises re-enters those premises illegally. Therefore, it is appropriate that they are excluded from the ban.

These regulations will be in place until 31 March. We continue to keep the need for this measure under review, as I have indicated already, and will make an announcement shortly. In addition to the regulations, the Government have introduced a requirement in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to require landlords, in all but the most serious circumstances, to provide tenants with six months’ notice before beginning formal possession proceedings in the courts. That is an important protection for tenants, because we know that most tenants leave before the end of the landlord’s notice period. That protection will stay in place until at least the end of March 2021 and means that most renters now served notice by the landlord that they want them to leave the property can stay in their homes until September and have time to find alternative support or accommodation. The Government are also considering whether it is necessary to extend that measure.

As I have alluded to, the Government are continuing to take action to prevent people from getting into financial hardship by helping businesses to pay salaries—the most important measure to ensure that people can pay their rent—through the furlough scheme, which has been extended to the end of September, as the Committee is well aware. In addition, the self-employment income support scheme allows eligible individuals to claim a taxable grant worth up to 80% of their average monthly trading profits. That scheme will also remain in place until September.

We have also boosted the welfare safety net by billions of pounds. In the Budget, we announced that the universal credit top-up of £20 a week will continue for a further six months and that we will provide a one-off payment of £500 to eligible working tax credit claimants. We have, in addition, provided an extra £1 billion to increase local housing allowance rates so that they cover the lowest 30% of market rents. In 2021-22, local housing allowance rates will be maintained at their increased level, meaning that claimants renting in the private rented sector will continue to benefit from the significant increase in the rates applied in April 2020.

The Government have also made available for local authorities £180 million for discretionary housing payments to help renters with their housing costs. From 2021-22, the Government will make available an additional £140 million in DHP funding, which takes account of the increased LHA rates.

In addition, temporary court arrangements and rules remain in place to ensure appropriate support for all parties until the end of July. That includes the introduction of a new review stage at least 28 days before the substantive hearing, so that tenants can access legal advice; a requirement for any cases that were started prior to August 2020 to be reactivated by the landlords until 30 April; and a requirement for landlords to provide the courts and judges with information on how tenants have been affected by the pandemic.

In addition, the Government are piloting a new mediation service, as part of the possession action process, to support landlords and tenants to resolve disputes before a formal court hearing takes place. The new service is free for tenants and landlords that agree to use it. The aim is to help more tenants at an early stage of the formal possession process in order to help sustain tenancies where possible, thus reducing the risk of tenants becoming homeless. That pilot will run until August 2021.

The Government continue to think that it is proportionate to provide for an exemption in cases in which a landlord has brought a claim on the ground of rent arrears and where a full six months’ rent is owed. It is important to balance the impact of the ongoing restrictions on landlords, many of whom rely on rental income, with the need to continue to protect tenants. Given the significant level of financial support that has been available to renters through furlough, welfare and the other measures that I have referred to, it is unlikely—indeed, this is borne out by the statistics—that a full six months of arrears would have been accumulated solely due to covid-19.

Let me conclude by referring to some points that the right hon. Member for Tottenham made on the previous occasion we considered the matter. He talked about the level of financial support available to tenants to help them to pay their rent. As I have set out, the Budget has extended much of the support—I hope he will welcome this—that has been made available to help tenants to pay their rent. That includes extension of the furlough scheme, widening of access to grants in order to make a further 600,000 self-employed people eligible for help, and continuation of the universal credit top-up of £20 a week for a further six months.

The instrument provides tenants with protection from eviction up to 31 March, ensuring that vulnerable tenants are not forced from their homes during the current national lockdown restrictions. It is intended to protect public health during the national lockdown, at a time when the virus transmission is high, and to avoid placing additional burdens on the NHS and local authorities. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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It is a pleasure to contribute to this short debate. If I had been selected as a member of the Committee it would have been quorate at the outset, instead of having to rely on Whips. It is desirable that on an issue as controversial as this one, which affects so many small businesses, ordinary Back Benchers should be able to articulate, on behalf of their constituents—

None Portrait The Chair
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Order. Sir Christopher, you will know, as a senior Member of this House, that when addressing the Chair in a debate we are talking about the matters before us. It is not a matter for this Committee to consider what the Whips may or may not be doing, and who is attending the Committee. You are here. You are free to speak, but can we please stick to the matter before us.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Absolutely, Mr Pritchard. I shall stick to the matters in front of us. All I am pointing out is that I am the only Government Back Bencher present in the Committee and I therefore feel a heavy onus and responsibility on my shoulders. How that came about is of no interest to anyone on the Committee, I know.

I must say that the Opposition spokesman has really made me feel that I am sat on the right side of this Committee. His approach seems to be very much anti-landlord, “property is theft” and old-fashioned hard Labour. However, my approach is that we need to have a balance—and I think that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts this—between the needs of tenants in this crisis and the needs of small-scale landlords in particular, many of whom do not have any income other than from letting one or two properties.

Most private tenants are responsible and take the view that their first obligation is to pay their rent, and we must not damn all tenants by suggesting that they are irresponsible. The vast majority of tenants are being very responsible and, although they may be facing financial hardship, they recognise that paying their rent to their landlord is an essential part of what they do.

However, I am concerned about that small minority of tenants who are taking advantage of the indulgence of the Government and are making life a nightmare for their landlords. I have attended this afternoon because I have received a number of representations from constituents who are on their uppers, absolutely tearing their hair out, because of their frustration at not being able to recover possession of a premises. In some cases, the premises have probably been abandoned, but it is impossible to prove that under the present circumstances—no rent is being paid, there is a threat of squatters moving in, and there is sometimes active vandalism of the property.

I am concerned that my hon. Friend the Minister says he is still weighing up the options as to what will happen after 31 March, because here we are today, on 9 March, and this House rises in just over two weeks for the recess. There seems to be no urgency to bring regulations forward, which then justifies no advance notices and no consideration by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I would have expected that, if the Government were going to bring forward regulations extending this protection from eviction beyond 31 March, they would have done so now, so that there would be a proper opportunity to debate those regulations before the Easter recess.

Am I right to interpret the fact that those regulations have not been laid as meaning that the Government have decided—and I would certainly support this—that the moment has now passed when this protection against eviction, in these stark terms, is needed, and that the time is now right to rebalance the interests? Unfortunately, in answering my own question, my hon. Friend the Minister said “No, this is still under consideration; it is still being balanced,” but when is it going to reach a conclusion?

I am not expecting to get an answer, but I think this is symptomatic of the hand-to-mouth existence that we seem to be living in this Parliament, in terms of legislating, without taking into account the burden that we are placing upon people who we are regulating. Those landlords—and, for that matter, the tenants—wish to know where they stand with this.

My plea to the Government is to ensure that these regulations are not renewed beyond 31 March, but, if they are renewed, to issue the draft regulations now, give a proper opportunity for people to discuss those and to debate their merits, ensure that they can be debated in this House before they come into effect—which would be a novel innovation—and I would also suggest that they have a proper regulatory impact assessment attached to them.

These regulations, like so many others, do not have an impact assessment because it is said that it is not necessary to have one, but the Minister himself has said that a careful balancing act must to be conducted, taking into account competing interests. Therefore, we owe it to Parliament and to the process of scrutiny to be able to see the Government’s workings. If the Government are going to proceed and extend the regulations beyond 31 March, I hope we have a proper impact assessment, early production of those regulations and a full opportunity to debate them before the Easter recess.

Courts and Tribunals: Recovery

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Thursday 3rd December 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Can I reassure him that, having looked into that particular issue, , thankfully no cases are actually being listed in 2023? We have listings into 2022, yes, but the bulk of cases on remand, as I have said, are going to be heard between now and the spring. We have cases out on bail that are going out to late 2021 or 2022. It is my intention, and indeed the intention of the Lord Chief Justice, with the funding that we have secured, to reach a situation where, as a result of that, we can start to eat into the backlog in the year ahead and make a difference for witnesses and victims.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Following on from the answer that my right hon. and learned Friend gave to our hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), will he tell us when he is going to make his response? I have a private Member’s Bill down for 29 January and it would be useful to have had a response from the Government, preferably before the end of this year, so that we can draft a Bill appropriately.

May I also ask my right hon. and learned Friend about the attitude of the Bar? We have read reports that barristers are planning to go on strike, because they do not like the idea of having to work longer hours. Will he condemn any such behaviour?

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for taking such an interest in the magistrates’ retirement age. I undertake that I will work in a way that means we may dovetail our separate efforts with regard to his private Member’s Bill. I will come back to him before then.

With regard to my colleagues and friends at the Bar, a consultation is going on about covid operating hours to allow the courts to sit for two sittings a day in some court centres. I will await the outcome of the consultation—it is only right for me to do that—but may I appeal to the better angels of our nature on court recovery? Those at the Bar are doing a tremendous job—let us stay positive and stick together, and we will get this sorted.

Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) on bringing forward the Bill; it is a pity that she is unable to be here physically to support it today. This is a good Bill, but I will say a few things about where I think we could make it better.

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been in this House for some time and one of the perpetual challenges that I have put out to successive prisons Minsters is, “I hope that during your time as prisons Minister you will be able to deliver not drug-free prisons, but just one prison in this country that is free of drugs.” The short answer is that none of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have held that position has ever been able to achieve a single drug-free prison as an objective, and likewise, Labour Ministers were unable to deliver that.

One of my concerns is that when one talks to people who have been in prison and know the Prison Service, one finds that a lot of prisons seem to be rather relaxed about the current regime for drug testing. The Bill extends the substances in respect of which there can be testing, but why are we not already testing a lot within prisons? I have constituents who have served time in prison and have come as drug addicts having gone in without having a drug addiction. Too much of that is going on, and I would like to know from the Minister why there is this manifest policy failure. We have been discussing a lot of policy failures in this House recently centred around the Department of Health and Social Care, but there has been, and is, a continuing policy failure on the part of the Home Office not to enable people to stay in prison without being addicted to drugs. The one way of dealing with that is to have regular testing.

I was most concerned to see in the explanatory notes the financial implications of the Bill. Paragraph 29 states that

“the legislation would not significantly affect the practice of drug testing in England and Wales, so any financial impact would be modest.”

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why she does not believe that the present practice should be changed, because at the moment, a sort of game is being played within prisons. There is a minimalist approach and tokenism in relation to testing for drugs, because many prison officers take the view that it is better to have drug-dependent prisoners because they are less trouble. Why do we still have a situation where we are trying in vain to stop drugs coming across the borders into our country from overseas when we have proved ourselves incapable of preventing a single prison in this country from being infiltrated by illegal drugs?

It seems to me, as so often happens with private Member’s legislation, particularly when it has the support of the Government, that instead of concentrating on the real issue, which is the prevalence of drugs in prisons—there is already the power to test for that, but testing is not being carried out frequently enough—we are moving into saying that we need to test for other substances as well. I am sure that we do, but the same paragraph of the explanatory notes says that the Prison Service drug testing procurement exercise currently taking place—we heard earlier from the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) that there is a monopoly supplier, which is in itself unhealthy—is not scheduled to conclude until December 2021. Why is that? What is the delay? We seem to be able to get a lot of procurement pretty quickly under the covid-19 emergency legislation, so why can we not deal with the monopoly problem in the Prison Service drug testing system?

The explanatory notes suggest that

“Affordability will depend on achieving much better value for money from the new contract.”

If we are going to get new a new contract, why not get on with it now? Why is the specification for a new contract not being drawn up? Perhaps the Minister would like to place a copy of the draft specification in the Library so that we can see whether it will attract more than one bidder and save a significant amount of money.

It is amazing that so little money is being spent on this drug testing. The explanatory notes say that the current budget for mandatory drug testing is just £4.4 million. The cost to society of illegal drugs and substances being not just within prisoners inside the prison but within drug-dependent people who are released from prison is far in excess of £4.4 million. It almost seems as though the Home Office is giving some sort of perverse incentive to the Prison Service not to do more testing because it will be too expensive. It seems to me that of all the benefits that could come from expenditure of money, few could deliver better rewards for society than higher expenditure and more testing in prisons of those who are suspected of having drugs and other illegal substances. Therefore, although the explanatory notes say that we will have a money resolution for additional expenditure, it is envisaged that it will not be very much. We need a clear explanation from the Minister as to why this very important activity, which is designed to save lives and save public expenditure, has not been funded to a much better extent already within the Prison Service.

One of the great benefits of such a Bill is that it gives us a chance to discuss the policy background. I hope that, if the Bill gets to Committee and we do not get satisfactory answers, we will have a chance to explore it further on Report. I certainly support its Second Reading.

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Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed. We have had many opportunities to correspond digitally, so it is delightful to see the hon. Lady in person. She rightly referred to the importance of substance treatment and the fact that it works. I am delighted to tell her that 53,193 adults accessed drug and alcohol treatment services within prisons and the secure estate between April 2018 and March 2019. We continue to see those services as a beneficial source of treatment. She will have seen in our sentencing White Paper that we want to further use community treatment orders, so that people do not go to prison at all, and we can treat them in the community.

The hon. Lady referred to the importance of decent living conditions. She will know that we, too, are committed to ensuring that prisoners can live in decent conditions. That is why we have a £2.5 billion prison building programme, with £156 million spent on maintenance this year. She asked what else the Government are doing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) mentioned, the Government are putting extensive funds into tackling drugs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) talked about the importance of expenditure in this area. I hope Members will be pleased to know that we are spending £100 million on boosting security to crack down on crime behind bars. That is not just about testing. It is about introducing airport-style security—in fact, it is better than that—with X-ray body scanners at 50 sites. It is about stopping devices such as illicit mobile phones working through phone-blocking technology. It is about strengthening staff resilience by enhancing our counter-corruption unit, and it is about increased disruptions against high-harm, serious and organised crime through a multi-agency team and enhanced intelligence capabilities.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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In the light of what the Minister just said, when does she expect to be able to deliver the first drugs-free prison?

Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am delighted that my hon. Friend mentions that. I was just about to say that, as he may be aware, there is a pilot drug recovery prison at HMP Holme House, which helps prisoners improve their chance of recovery, so we are testing a dedicated prison to try to improve the issue of drugs. It has been in operation for a short period, and the evaluation of the pilot is due shortly. We are not just focused on one drug recovery prison, though; we have enhanced units or wings at many of our prisons, and we would like to expand them in due course.

The hon. Member for West Ham asked whether it might be better to spend money on more staff, better access to drug treatment and through-the-gate services. In addition to the money that I have identified, we are already spending money on all those things. She will know that, since 2016, we have had a net increase in our prison officer numbers by more than 4,000. Notwithstanding the pandemic, we are continuing to recruit into our prison service, and we are doing so at a good rate. We recently increased the moneys to our community rehabilitation companies for through-the-gate services by something in the region of £22 million.

The hon. Lady also identified the fantastic work that prison officers have been doing throughout the covid pandemic. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to their ongoing work in very challenging circumstances over the past few months. She is right to identify the importance of continued programmes. We are looking at how we can maintain safety and security during the pandemic so that we do not have too many prisoners meeting other prisoners and therefore seeding and feeding the infection. At the same time, we are continuing with individual work.

A number of hon. Members referred to prisons in their areas. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), I pay tribute to the work that is being done at Berwyn. I had the opportunity to speak to the governor of Berwyn recently; he has done a remarkable job through the covid period. I also pay tribute to the work at HMP Bure, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) referred to.

Hon. Members made a number of points about the importance of this legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), who always speaks with such knowledge on these issues, said that it could be profoundly beneficial. My hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) and for Wantage (David Johnston) both said that this legislation will give people a further chance of turning around their lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) said that it may help make prisons safer. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said that the Bill is not just good but necessary. For all those reasons, I confirm with great pleasure that the Government support this important Bill, and I look forward to its passage through this House.

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Committee stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Wednesday 17th June 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 - Government Bill Page View all Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Debates Read Hansard Text
Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not think the Bill adds to that problem at all. If it exists, it can exist in any profession and can be dealt with by proper regulation. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, that the current situation makes that problem worse, because people have to go through what is rightly described by the research from the University of Exeter as a legal farce—a legal ritual of saying, “What is the minimum form of words that your client will accept that will meet the legal test to enable us to get divorced?” That is the sort of thing that can be taken advantage of and it is where the unscrupulous will come in. Removing fault removes the ability for the unscrupulous person to play upon fault, be they a purported adviser or a party to the divorce. Maintaining that approach and resisting these amendments, however well intended, is important and I urge the Government to do so.

It is important to look at the international comparisons. In England, a disproportionate amount of reliance is placed upon fault as the grounds for divorce. There are other grounds for divorce, but because it is complicated at the moment some 60% of divorces in England are based upon allegations of adultery. By that stage, people have split up and are often living apart. There is the business of having to point the finger about who did what. My old pupil master, whom I believe I mentioned on Second Reading, was around when we still had to go through the charade of getting an affidavit from a chambermaid or the receptionist in a hotel to prove divorce. It was a demeaning business and thank God we got rid of that. Maintaining a fault system, which, as I say, entrenches conflict, does us no credit as far as that is concerned.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend accept that there is only one ground for divorce, which is irretrievable breakdown, and there are five areas where one can adduce evidence of that irretrievable breakdown? Should we not be concentrating on that one issue: irretrievable breakdown?

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It seems to me that that is precisely what the Bill is seeking to do. The problem is the requirement to prove the following facts to support that because, inevitably, that evidential requirement elides into the grounds, and the conflict created by the need to prove one or other of those facts is the difficulty. So I think that the Bill is moving in the direction that my hon. Friend, with his own experience in the law, will probably wish us to go.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who made a compelling argument in support of new clause 9. I am convinced by it, and I hope that others will be as well.

I wish to speak in support of the amendments and new clauses tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). If any more evidence was needed that our Government have lost their moral compass, this Bill provides it. I never thought that I would be asked by a Conservative Government to support a change in the law that gives unilateral access to the courts without any requirement to establish facts. It is completely at odds with the values of justice that I hold and which I think most members of the Conservative party, if not the nation, also hold.

I was a pupil in chambers specialising in family law around the time that the 1969 legislation was introduced that changed the divorce laws to say there was only one ground for divorce, and that was that a marriage had broken down irretrievably. There were five ways in which that irretrievable breakdown could be satisfied on the evidence. The Bill retains irretrievable breakdown as the ground for divorce but enables that to be proved by mere assertion by one of the parties to the marriage without the need to provide any evidence in support, even if the other party profoundly disagrees.

We know that our courts are under pressure, but how can this justify the expedient of removing the requirement to adduce any facts as evidence? Reliance on mere assertion was how we used to deal with witches, and it is still a favourite tool among dictators such as Putin and Erdoğan, who govern by decree. I did not think we were going to venture down that route in this Parliament under a Conservative Government.

I am particularly attracted to the provisions of new clause 3, which skilfully avoids the use of summary justice. It adopts the Scottish approach to separation with consent by reducing the separation period from two years to one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has told us that some 95% of divorces in Scotland are now on the basis of that provision—in other words, with consent after one year. The Law Commission recommended that instead of one year or six months, the right time would be nine months. The Lord Chancellor has arbitrarily rejected that suggestion. The argument deployed was merely that the approach to divorces in Scotland is piecemeal. I profoundly disagree with that conclusion. I think the approach in Scotland is a much more sensible one, and I do not say that just because I had the benefit of a Scottish university education when I studied Scots law, among other things.

Many marriage breakdowns are temporary and not irretrievable. That is why the issue of evidence for irretrievable breakdown is so important. Sometimes the parties interpret a breakdown as irretrievable, they get divorced and they live to regret it later. Who can doubt that many divorcees on their own during the covid-19 lockdown desperately wish that they had persisted with their marriage? My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) referred to some 50% of people who get divorced having regrets about having done so. I suspect that, following this lockdown, that percentage might increase even further.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Andrea Leadsom
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Further to the statistic that up to 50% of people said they regretted divorcing, the reasons they gave were things like they felt they still loved their partner and that they missed their partner, so for all the huge number of comments that it is all financial, it is very genuinely emotions.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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This is a very emotional subject, and we ignore that at our peril.

The Bill and the lack of response by the Government to the criticisms that were made on Second Reading lead me to believe that the Government do not really accept the important role that family life has to play in maintaining social cohesion in this country, with the institution of marriage at its heart. The Government almost seem to be venturing down the same route as those who support cultural Marxism. Are the Government inadvertently collaborators with cultural Marxism in seeking to undermine nuclear families?

In the opening speech on Second Reading, the Lord Chancellor said that

“it is often too late to save a marriage, once the legal process of divorce has started.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 95.]

but he sought to avoid the concerns of the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about access to free counselling for those with marriage difficulties, and he cited the Department for Work and Pensions programme of £39 million on reducing parental conflict as the solution.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Gentleman mentions my comments to the Secretary of State last week. I do feel that the opportunity for Relate and marriage guidance should be available, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, before the marriage starts but also as the process comes to its end. It should not just be available in the early stages—I understood from what the Secretary of State said that it would only be available early. Is it not important that at all stages the chance to reconcile and save a marriage should be paramount and should be tried in every case?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My regret is that the Marriage Guidance Council ever changed its name to Relate because I do not think that as many people understand what Relate is actually about. Of course, after the hon. Gentleman put that point to the Lord Chancellor, there was a non-response—I think that is the generous way of putting it. Then my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire intervened and asked about guarantees that the DWP programme would continue, because at the moment it is only funded for the next nine months. Again, there was no willingness to give any assurance from the Front Bench that that programme would be renewed or even that the Lord Chancellor would support such a renewal. That is why I am sceptical about all this.

The Lord Chancellor said that the aim of the Bill is to “reduce conflict”. He described it as being about the “legal process”, not about stopping the decline in the institution of marriage or, as he put it, “committed relationships”. He also conceded that this Bill is not going to make divorce less attractive, and he did not think it was intended for that end. However, surely this is a golden opportunity to expand marriage guidance services and to make them more easily accessible. It is an opportunity that has been missed, and that is why I shall be supporting new clause 1 if it is put to the vote.

Marriage is something that people have to work at, and I think most marriages will have had their ups and downs. The temptation now is that a party to a marriage going through a bad spell can suddenly, arbitrarily, unilaterally and without consulting their spouse terminate the marriage, and then within six months have a divorce, and I think that is highly unsatisfactory.

The Lord Chancellor seems to believe that nobody embarks on divorce other than in circumstances where the marriage has ended. May I draw his attention to the fact that one of the side-effects of this will be to facilitate the development of more sham marriages? A sham marriage can then result in a sham divorce, and sham divorces will be able to follow on much more quickly than they have been able to do hitherto. Ironically, I think this is going to promote sham marriage and all the abuse of our immigration law and other laws that that leads to.

This Bill is essentially introducing what I would call marriage shorthold, a legal agreement that can be terminated unilaterally after six months, without any evidence of fault. Is it not ironic that, while the Government are introducing marriage shorthold, they are seeking to abolish tenancy shorthold? Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 allows a six-month housing tenancy to be terminated unilaterally after six months, without evidence of fault. What is the justification that the Government are putting forward for ending tenancy shortholds? It is because tenancy shortholds undermine security. What does this lead us to conclude? It leads me to conclude that the Government value housing security above marriage security, and I think that is a really perverse order of priorities.

I suppose, as a supply side supporter, I could be arguing that, in the same way that the supply side reforms in the 1988 Act—I was privileged to be a Minister in the Department of the Environment when we bought it in—had the consequence of increasing the number of tenancies and the availability of rental options, perhaps the supply side changes to our divorce law will have the consequence that people will feel they can enter into marriage more easily because they are going to be able to end it after six months if it does not work out. That is not a justification so far put forward by the Government, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister how he finds consistency in the approaches to shorthold tenancies and to shorthold marriage.

I think this Bill lacks ambition, and that is another reason why I am not going to be able to support it. I think it should be used as an opportunity to help address conflicts in marriage and between married partners, but it should not be designed, as I think it is, to undermine the institution of marriage in itself.



In conclusion, let me just say this. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has repeatedly described himself as a doughty champion of family values, but I think it is significant that throughout the debates we have had on this Bill, he has been remarkably diffident about promoting the positive benefits of marriage, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have done during the course of this debate. Unless the Government accept the amendments before the House today—particularly, in my view, new clause 1—there will be no evidence to back up the Lord Chancellor’s assertion of being a champion of family values. Indeed, like a party to a divorce under this Bill, he will have absolved himself of any requirement to establish the facts. What a sad state of affairs that is.

Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Wednesday 5th September 2018

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 - Government Bill Page View all Voyeurism (Offences) Debates Read Hansard Text
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, particularly for the generous comments with which she began her remarks.

As a consequence of this being a Government Bill rather than a private Member’s Bill, my right hon. Friend will have seen its financial implications. The financial implications set out in the explanatory notes are on the basis that there will be 29 prosecutions a year—that is all. Is she surprised at all the hoo-hah about this, and that the Government are expecting only 29 prosecutions a year?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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My hon. Friend will hear my thoughts on that in a few moments when I talk about my experience of estimates of the levels of revenge pornography, which were equally low. In practice, there has been much more of it. I therefore wonder how accurate the projections are.

My concern is that drawing the Bill in this way will artificially depress the number of people who come forward. The courts might think that Parliament, in its specific omission of certain groups of people who perpetrate this crime—we know they are doing it already—is artificially narrowing the number of convictions that are brought forward. I do not think that is how Parliament wants the Bill to work. Amendment 3 would make sure that it worked far more broadly and called to account all the people who are committing this crime, not just a very small section of them.

The Minister was at pains in Committee to underline that the two purposes are based “word for word”, as she said, on the Scottish Act. As we have heard, only a handful of cases have been brought under that legislation—just three a year over the past eight years. That is an extraordinarily low level in the context of the statistics that the hon. Member for Walthamstow went through. Research tells us that about one in 10 young people in this country experiences upskirting. That would mean a far higher rate than just three in Scotland or just under 30 in the UK. We need to hear from the Minister what information she has received from Scotland on why there is such a low level of conviction, and what will be done to change that.

I was interested to read the evidence of Alison Saunders of the Crown Prosecution Service. While it said that the motivations in the Bill covered the overwhelming majority of cases, it admitted that:

“It is not inconceivable that suspects will advance the defence that…they had another purpose, such as ‘high jinks’.”

That is a direct quote from her. How confident is the Minister that the CPS has a true grasp of the nature of this offence, given the data we have that implies that there are far more than just a handful of cases every year? As I said, I recall being told that there were just a handful of cases of revenge pornography—fewer than 10 every year—by the same Crown Prosecution Service. With the right legislation, which was put in place by the coalition Government, we now see more than 500 convictions a year for revenge pornography.

Adopting the Scottish model might artificially limit the number of cases that are brought forward. What will the Government do to address that? Will the Minister undertake to have a review of the way the law is working in practice, so that we are not simply having a nice debate today that has very little impact on the lived reality of people who experience this appalling invasion of their privacy and this virtual sexual assault?

Rather than requiring the police to tease out the motivation of an offender and to prove that a victim was humiliated, alarmed or distressed, amendment 3 would make upskirting of any kind a crime. It would have absolutely no impact on the ability of a court to identify the most dangerous offenders and place them on the sex offenders register. Nor would it increase the number of people who are drawn into that.

Amendment 5 directly tackles the other shortcoming in the Scottish Act by making it an offence to distribute upskirting images. Given the Government’s stated objective of copying the Scottish Act word for word, it is unclear why they have chosen to omit the pivotal amendment made to the Scottish Act in 2016 outlawing the distribution, particularly online, of upskirting images. Our existing laws on this issue are patchy at best. I am aware of the Law Commission’s long overdue inquiry into laws in the online world, but to present the Bill with an essential element missing appears to me to be at best an oversight. Will the Minister explain why she felt she should omit this element of the Bill, when it was deemed an essential change required in Scotland?

We need a broader review of the law on image distribution—I have felt that strongly since I was first approached by a constituent about revenge pornography—and I am delighted that the Law Commission is now doing work in that area, but it will take a number of years to complete. In the meantime, outlawing distribution in this Bill specifically would be a stopgap solution, with the Scottish experience as a clear legal rationale. Will the Minister speak to her Scottish counterpart to understand why the amendment was made in Scotland and perhaps even revisit this in the Lords? I am sure their lordships will also be keen to take an interest in this aspect of the Bill.

There was much talk in Committee about not wanting to unintentionally criminalise people, particularly young people, and that is absolutely right—there can be few people who see that as helpful—but rather than dwelling on the perpetrators, we also need to think about the victims and the huge damage being done, particularly to young women, who are on the receiving end of this type of sexualised assault. What message is Parliament sending to young men who are taking pictures up the skirts of their school mates for a laugh if this place excludes that from the law? What are we saying to those young women about the value we put on their right to be protected in law if we see this sort of non-consensual virtual sexual assault as a price worth paying?

I commend the hon. Member for Walthamstow for raising the issue of misogynistic hate crime. It is under active consideration by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in its current inquiry, and I would not want to prejudge that inquiry, but I will say that the scale of sex-based and gender-based crime needs to be recorded, recognised and acted upon, and it needs to be tackled much more broadly, not just in terms of upskirting. I also fully endorse her sentiments about the Law Commission, although it could be said that including that element in the Bill could be problematic in other discussions.

The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is a tenacious campaigner, and it is to her credit that we are here today discussing the Bill, which deserves the full support of the House. As today’s debate proves, swift change does not have to come at the expense of proper scrutiny.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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I want briefly to share my experiences last week in Korea, in Seoul, where upskirting has not been addressed either by society or by the law. The situation there for women and girls is truly horrific. Girls are scared to go into any sort of public toilet, whether in their school or a shopping mall, and women, when they go into public toilets, take a device with them and scan the toilet to see whether they are going to be violated in this way. I do not want us to go down that route. I want us to look at what is motivating society. Why do men seem to feel entitled literally to expose women in this way, sharing the images and seeing them as objects they can control and do whatever they want with?

We have spoken a little bit about the potential of there being only a low number of prosecutions for this crime. I see that as a good thing. What making this illegal would do is send out the clearest message to people that this is a crime and an offence and that they will have action taken against them if they carry it out.

I am incredibly pleased that relationship education is now coming into primary school for all children. A key component of that is explaining to children what is and is not acceptable and that these gender assumptions are put upon them from the very youngest age and that it is their right to challenge them and to have society challenge them on their behalf, so that they can live a full life, making the choices that they believe in and that they are able to make.

I want to reflect briefly on our society and on how we have come to this point now where we have femicide—two murders a week of women—where violence against women is commonplace and where we have this complete objectification of women without any recourse. I go right back to the very beginning when little girls are effectively told what their expectations can and should be. They are given dolls and tea sets. They are told to be complicit and they are told to be quiet. Boys are told that they will be great crusaders. They have guns and they can become world leaders. We encourage children’s expectations at the age of two or three. That then becomes amplified through social media and, specifically, through online porn.

Porn is overwhelmingly made by men for men and overwhelmingly sees the woman as an object that a man can use and abuse however they choose with no repercussion. Until we get the relationship education that shows children that this is a fantasy—in many cases, a perverse fantasy—that is what children will believe that they have to be subjected to. I am talking about boys and girls. When Members go into secondary schools, I am sure that they have young boys and girls coming up to them and asking them, “Do I have to have anal sex? Do I have to strangle my girlfriend when I have sex? Do I have to have sex with other people there?” They are genuinely anxious about this, and we are letting our children down. This legislation on upskirting is about saying, “No, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for you to perpetrate and it is unacceptable for it to happen to you.” It sends out a really clear message. I am incredibly grateful that the Government have introduced this Bill.

I also wish to focus on the amendments that include the distribution and the profiting from upskirting. Much of this is being done for money. In Korea, that is what is happening. People are humiliating women not just for their personal gratification, but to make money, so it would be a grave omission if that were not included.

I turn now to the substantive point that I have been trying to make: this crime is a symptom of the misogyny that we are experiencing in this country and that we are seeing escalating in this country, and it needs to be tackled in this country. I urge the Minister to carry out the review that has been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for “Walthamshire”—[Laughter]—and to incorporate the amendments in the Bill.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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May I say how much I welcome this debate? I am grateful to the Government for taking forward this measure as a Government Bill rather than relying on the private Members’ procedure. I am also very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, for her generous comments about the importance of being able properly to scrutinise in a sober fashion the very serious issues that are contained in this Bill and indeed the wider debate, which has been developed by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). In answer to her point on that, I say bring on the Law Commission. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I think that it is very important that we should try to keep abreast of new developments. Hate crime is one of those vile activities that we need to legislate against, but we need to do it in a really good way. The best way to do that is, as she suggests, by getting the Law Commission on board because it has the expertise to help us in this House.

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Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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I feel the need to stand up for the members of the Committee, having been a member of it myself, and to reflect that the discussions we had in Committee about treating misogyny as a hate crime did not receive Front-Bench support. That made me, as a Back-Bench Member scrutinising the Bill, reflect on what more could be done to win that argument. It is not always a good thing to be told no.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I have nothing but praise for the hon. Lady. Fortunately, the Opposition Whips, who are represented on the Selection Committee, obviously did not think it was necessary to allow the Bill to proceed without any amendment. It is worth putting on record that, during that Committee debate, the official Opposition spokesman said:

“The Opposition support the Bill completely, and will not propose any amendments.”––[Official Report, Second Reading Committee, 2 July 2018; c. 17.]

At that stage, the Opposition were blindly supporting the Bill, rather than being prepared to examine exactly how it might be improved.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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My hon. Friend has referred to the procedures, processes and membership of Committees. I should like to remind him that the Second Reading of this Bill was done in Committee, and I had to fight slightly to be a member of that Committee. Does he agree that using these kinds of techniques has not really speeded up the delivery of the Bill up to this point and that it has created an opaqueness about the methodology that Parliament uses?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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It has certainly done the latter. It is quite a long time since a Second Reading Committee was set up to consider a piece of legislation, but in terms of making faster progress, there is no doubt that we are much further on than we would have been if this had remained a private Member’s Bill. Some of the other Bills that had already had their Second Reading have yet to come out of Committee and reach their Report stage. So those are some of the advantages of having a Government Bill. Another advantage is that when the Bill goes into Committee, the Committee has the opportunity to take evidence. My right hon. Friend gave potent evidence to the Committee, as did other witnesses. That would not have been possible if the Bill had stayed a private Member’s Bill.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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Can the hon. Gentleman perhaps confirm that he said “Object” on 15 June in order to speed up the process of the Bill?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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My purpose in saying “Object” was that I wanted the Bill to be scrutinised, and full marks to the Government—I do not always give them full marks—for recognising that this was a Bill that could be properly scrutinised only if it became a Government Bill. So did I achieve my objective? Yes, I did. I am pleased that the Government have done this. I am sure that the hon. Lady, having seen the strength of some of the amendments and new clauses, will reflect on the fact that if the Bill had been left as a private Member’s Bill for her to steer through, she would have been under pressure from the Government throughout. They would have told her not to accept any amendments, and that if she did, the Government would prevent the Bill from making progress. The Bill would have been vulnerable as a private Member’s Bill—that is particularly true when a Bill reaches the other place.

Mr Speaker, I know that I am going to be told that I am straying from the amendments that I am seeking to address, and I apologise if I am doing that. I am hoping to establish support for amendment 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, to ensure that the Bill delivers what it says on the tin. The Minister said that she was going to outlaw upskirting, and judging by the correspondence that I have had, most people assumed that that was what was going to be delivered. But then when one looks at the detail of the Bill’s financial implications, one works out that the Government are banking on it costing only £230,000 a year to a prosecute all these offences. When one divides that by £8,000, which is the cost of each case, one comes up with a figure of 29 prosecutions a year. If the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) had gone out into the street in her constituency and said, “I’m bringing forward this really important piece of legislation that will result in 29 prosecutions a year,” I am unsure whether people would have thought that it was as significant as it was being portrayed.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are trying to prevent the crime from being carried out by making it clear in this Bill that upskirting is a crime? It should therefore be seen as a good thing if the Bill brings down the number of cases of upskirting.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I agree with the potential deterrent role that legislation can have, but I would use a different analogy. There is a general law against driving without due care and attention, but due to the incidence of and public concern about people driving while using mobile phones, which was and is, strictly speaking, an offence under the law against driving without due care and attention, Parliament decided to introduce a specific offence, effectively replacing the previous one. The hon. Lady will know that, sadly, that specific offence has not actually had the deterrent effect for which many people had hoped, and that large numbers of people are still offending.

Taking that analogy and looking at the specific offence contained within the Bill, amendments to which we are seeking to discuss, if the general common law under which a lot of upskirting activity is prosecuted at the moment is replaced with a specific statutory law, prosecutions will come under the specific law, rather than under the general common law, which, as Lord Pannick has said, is vague and ambiguous in many respects. If the consequence of the Bill is that all offences of upskirting are then brought within its ambit and prosecuted on that basis, that will be great and I am all in favour of it.

However, if we are going to do that, we should not constrain those offences by saying that they can be proved only if a motive is also proved. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked, why is not the mere fact that somebody takes a photograph without the consent of the “victim” an offence in itself? Why do we have to limit the offence in the way that this Bill does?

John Bercow Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I have been listening patiently and most attentively to the hon. Gentleman, who has offered the House a procedural disquisition and some remarks that touch on what might be called the theology of the Bill, which is of considerable interest to the House. He also animadverted to a number of the Bill’s explanatory notes, but if he felt able to proceed fairly promptly to the amendments, which relate specifically to guidance, purposes, aggravating factors, and notification under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, he would be beautifully in order.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am most grateful to you, as ever, Mr Speaker, for your guidance on such matters. Turning specifically to my right hon. Friend’s amendment 1, it would remove from the Bill any requirement to prove a motive. It seems to me that the activity itself should be criminal and should not need to have a motive ascribed to it. As soon as a motive has to be established, it makes it much more difficult for the prosecuting authorities. It makes it so easy for members of Her Majesty’s constabulary to say, “Well, there was no motive.” Why do we need a motive in respect of an offence that outrages public decency? No one has written to me saying that they think upskirting is a reasonable activity in which to participate. I very much hope the Government will accept amendment 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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Whether or not these offenders should be on the sex offenders register is a difficult issue, because many of these offences will be committed by under-18s on under-18s; they will receive short sentences, but they will be committing offences on other children. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is right that we have this discussion now? Does he also agree that the police guidance on sexting may be very useful in working out a way forward on this difficult and sensitive matter?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important that we should have this discussion, as this issue is complicated, and I agree with her suggestion. That is another argument in favour of having a proper, sober debate on this issue, without getting too much emotional involvement in it.

Finally, if the Government are reluctant to accept the amendments put forward today and reluctant to extend the scope of the Bill so that it embraces more than 29 potential prosecutions every year, I hope that when the Bill reaches the other place their lordships will look at this legislation and say, “We want to make sure it actually delivers what it says it is going to deliver.” It certainly does not do that at the moment, and it will not unless it is amended. One final consequence of this being a Government Bill is that when it goes to their lordships’ place nobody will be deterred from tabling amendments on the basis that if they do so, there will not be time to consider those amendments in private Members’ Bill time in the House of Commons and therefore the Bill will be killed. That argument will not run in the House of Lords in relation to a Government Bill, which this is. That is another reason why it is a very good idea that it is a Government Bill. I am very enthusiastic about amendment 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, and obviously equally enthusiastic about my own.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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It is a pleasure of sorts to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). We have disagreed on things, but I am pleased to say that I agree with him that we want to make this Bill as good as possible and, in particular, to ensure that it acts as a good deterrent so that people do not consider this vile practice.

I am immensely grateful that the Government have taken the upskirting Bill through the House so quickly. Everyone involved can be very proud of what has been achieved so far. This Bill is testament to how we can all work together constructively. We all agree that upskirting is a vile practice and has to become a specific sexual offence. We all agree that either to gain sexual gratification from upskirting or to take an image for the purposes of distress, humiliation or alarm should not be tolerated and should now be prosecuted in law. We also agree, by and large, that the worst offenders should go on the sex offenders register.

This Bill is aimed at stopping a vile offence by either deterring upskirting in the first place or through the successful prosecution of offenders. We want to ensure that everybody is protected from this crime. We are not debating those common principles today; we are debating how to bring about effective prosecutions and not allow anyone to slip through the net. The wide-ranging discussion on this Bill over the summer has led me to put my name to amendments that explore how we make this upskirting Bill as watertight and effective as possible. I believe that we can strengthen it in two ways.

First, the Bill, as drafted, makes upskirting a sexual offence only if it is done for sexual gratification or if photos are taken to humiliate, distress or alarm the victim. That means that those taking upskirting images for other purposes, for example financial gain, non-sexual enjoyment or “having a bit of a laugh”, would not be committing an offence. However, I believe that whether an offence has taken place should be determined by whether the victim has consented and whether the images were taken intentionally. The harm caused to the victim is substantial, regardless of the motivation of the perpetrator. Upskirting should be an offence regardless of the motive.

Secondly, the Bill would make the taking of the image an offence, but not necessarily the distribution of the image. Amendment 5 would make it an offence to distribute an upskirting image without consent, to which two defences would be available—to prevent or detect crime, or that the person distributing the image did not know that it was an upskirting image.

The large increase in sexually offensive images online is a real problem. Only on Monday, the Home Secretary made a speech talking about his shock at the sexual exploitation of children online, and the responsibility of online platforms. I understand that the Government intend to conduct a wide-ranging review of this problem, but it will probably be years before we can successfully tackle the issue in law. I therefore see no harm in trying to prevent the distributing of upskirting images now, even if other legislation lags behind.

I want the Bill to stop the vile practice of upskirting. It should be a successful tool for prosecution, but it should also act as a deterrent—zero tolerance, no loopholes. Since I got involved in the upskirting campaign, I have understood how distressing upskirting is to victims. I want to make sure that anybody even considering taking an upskirting image should think twice. I would also like the Bill to have a wider purpose—to inform the wider discussion around consent, online distribution of sexual images, and outdated attitudes, especially towards women. We have heard about that subject today, and I very much welcome the contribution by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). The Bill marks an important stepping stone, and I am grateful for the largely consensual debate on how we can stop upskirting for good.

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Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi
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I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention, and I stand corrected. The hon. Gentleman referred several times to the figure of 29 cases, and I sensed that he was trying to say that the estimate that 29 people a year would be affected made the Bill not very important. By referencing, as the right hon. Lady said, what is happening online, I was trying to emphasise that the Bill will potentially cover many, many more people.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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If the hon. Lady needs a reference for the figure—I am surprised if she does—it is contained in the explanatory notes. Paragraphs 29 to 31, which concern the financial implications of the Bill, make it clear that the cost per prosecution is £8,000, and that the total cost to the Exchequer of the legislation will be £230,000 a year. If we divide one into the other, we get the figure of 29.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful lesson in arithmetic. I can do that arithmetic, but the point I was trying to make was that he kept repeating that figure, so it seemed to me that he was trying to suggest that the Bill might not cover as many people as it purported to do.

Another man posted:

“I’ve been upskirting chicks, mostly at clubs, for almost two years. The club I go to is a great spot, real crowded, strobe lights going, loud music, so no one notices me sitting near the edge of the dance floor and if a woman in a skirt ends up by me I stick the cam under and snap.”

Legislation is needed to deal with those types of cases.

Several Back Benchers tabled amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke with great passion about her new clause and street harassment, and we support her on that. The Government must urgently look into bringing forward a comprehensive Bill to deal with many issues, including anonymity for victims of revenge porn; the cross-examination of victims of abuse by defendants, as occurs in civil courts; and the distribution and sharing of images. We need a fundamental review of all hate crime and sexual legislation to ensure that victims are protected and have access to justice, so it would be very welcome if the Law Commission or another body could look into this issue, with its recommendations implemented in law as soon as possible.

I commend the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for her tremendous work as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, which itself does tremendous work. I hope that the Government will address the points in her cogent and pertinent amendments and take on board the matters that she raised and the issues of concern. Hopefully, as the Bill progresses through both Houses, the Government will consider those amendments.

Lastly, on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch, I believe that in all cases judges should have discretion in deciding who should be put on a sexual register and when. That should not be a blanket proposal; it should be left to the individual judge in an individual case to decide whether somebody should be put on a sexual register, because being on the sexual offenders register has clear implications and repercussions for people.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I say “Hear, hear” to what my right hon. Friend has just said. This is a good day for democracy. I pay tribute to the Minister for the understanding that she has demonstrated throughout the course of this debate and for her kind personal remarks about my motivation, which has been so misunderstood—deliberately by some and in ignorance by others.

Owing to the shortage of time on Report, the Minister was unable to take my intervention when she was responding to my amendment 6. However, I know that on Third Reading we discuss the content of the Bill, rather than rejected amendments, so I want to look at the part of the Bill that my amendment was intended to address.

My hon. and learned Friend slightly misrepresented what I was proposing, because, far from wanting to weaken the Bill, I was suggesting that, as presently drafted, clause 1(4) will not ensure that sufficient numbers of people who are guilty of voyeurism with the motivation of sexual gratification actually reach the sex offenders register. The Bill is currently drafted in such a way that someone can be guilty of voyeurism for the purposes of sexual gratification, but they will not go on the sex offenders register if they are under 18 unless they have been sentenced to a term of at least 12 months’ imprisonment, which is extremely unlikely and de minimis.

The more important aspect is that the Bill as currently drafted means that someone will not go on the sex offenders register even if they have committed an offence of upskirting with the motivation of sexual gratification unless the victim was under 18 or the offender has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment or detained in a hospital or made the subject of a community sentence of at least 12 months. The offence of voyeurism with the intent of sexual gratification should be linked directly with the sex offenders register, and I do not understand why the Government have been unwilling to tighten that up in the way that some of us would have wished. I hope that that will be considered in the other place.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), I hope that the other place will also look carefully at the restrictions that are currently in proposed new section 67A(1)(b) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which is found in clause 1(2) and relates to the necessity of proving a purpose in order to establish guilt. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister talked about mens rea—I am not sure whether, in due course, we will get on to “womens rea”—and I would like her to explain how it is that, under the current common law offence of outraging public decency, for which she says this Bill is filling a geographical gap, there is no requirement for mens rea. That common law offence is on the statute book, so if there is no requirement for mens rea in relation to that offence, why are we saying that the geographical gap in the law can be filled only by legislation that includes a requirement of mens rea and a requirement to prove the motive of sexual gratification in particular, and other motives besides?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked, which instances of voyeurism that are currently subject to the common law, and that can be prosecuted under the common law offence, will not be covered by this Bill in the geographical location that is not covered by the offence of outraging public decency? It does not seem to me that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has addressed that conundrum, and in the absence of its having been dealt with in this House, I hope it will be dealt with in the other place.

My hon. and learned Friend has offered a review of the legislation after two years, which is obviously better than nothing, but with the greatest of respect, the best thing for her and her Department to do is to review the Bill between now and when it is debated in the other place—that will hopefully be a lot sooner than two years—so that we can try to get some consistency. As a leading counsel, she will know that, where a statutory offence is introduced, it trumps a common law offence as a matter of principle. Surely the Government’s motivation is to simplify the law in this area and to ensure that all offences of upskirting are dealt with under the Bill, rather than under the common law. It would help to spell that out, not least for the benefit of police officers and the prosecuting authorities.

If that is the intention—I drew an analogy earlier with the offence of using a mobile phone while driving compared with the offence of driving without due care and attention—there is a lot to be said for having the specific offence in the Bill cover all instances of upskirting. If and when the Minister addresses the issue, perhaps she will come up with an answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke of what offences of upskirting she believes should not be subject to any criminal sanction. That is our challenge to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister.

In all the correspondence I have received, people feel that all upskirting offences should be subject to the criminal law and criminal sanctions, irrespective of motive. If there are to be offences that are not subject to criminal sanctions, we need to spell them out squarely and fairly, which has not been done so far.

I welcome the scrutiny the Bill has received so far, the way in which the Minister has accepted the spirit of new clause 1 and her willingness to look again at other issues, and I am happy to support Third Reading. But I hope that when, eventually, the Bill returns to this House, the Government will accept amendments made in the other place that make it even better.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]

Christopher Chope Excerpts
3rd reading: House of Commons
Tuesday 17th October 2017

(4 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her very full introduction to this Third Reading debate. I objected to the Third Reading going through on the nod because I thought it important that the undertakings given in Committee were recorded in this Chamber so that everybody could look back and see the nature of those undertakings.

I echo my right hon. Friend’s tribute to our colleague who lost his seat at the general election. David Burrowes was an outstanding Member of Parliament. He was a really easy-going colleague and we had many a wry laugh not just about this Bill but lots of other things. He had a great twinkle in his eye, which I am sure he has not lost as a result of his electoral experience.

I would also like to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. With private Bill procedure, one often thinks that if the business goes to an Unopposed Bill Committee there will not really be any effective scrutiny and it will go through on the nod. The record of the role that you played in the Unopposed Bill Committee shows that you were rigorous in exploring matters and putting questions to the promoters, some of which they answered more easily than others. As a result, they wrote to you on 2 February setting out the four undertakings, which I will not repeat because my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet has already referred to them. In securing those undertakings through your expert cross-examination, you have done everybody a great service. You have also put it on record that this sometimes obscure private Bill procedure never suffers if we have proper scrutiny, whether it be in debates on the Floor of the Chamber or in Committee.

This Bill now has the support of everybody, I think. We also have a written memorandum, to which my right hon. Friend did not refer in much detail. The one I have here is signed for and on behalf of New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium Ltd and dated 5 September 2017, but another one in almost identical terms was issued in March this year. The memorandum sets out more detail and background on the way in which the cemetery will be maintained in future. Apart from the safeguards set out in the memorandum and the undertakings, there is also the fact that the promoters will send those undertakings to the Ministry of Justice, so that the Minister may place the information in the Library of the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to confirm that that will happen, because it is important that when people look back at these proceedings years hence, they are easily able to access the documentation. I wish this Bill a safe passage.

Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Friday 24th March 2017

(4 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 - Private Members' Bill (under the Ten Minute Rule) Page View all Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 Debates Read Hansard Text
Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have read the consultation, to which there were 40 responses, of which eight commented on the proposal that applications should be made only after 90 days. Some of the responses said that 90 days was too long—I accept that—but practical points on timing were made, including by the Finance and Leasing Association, which had concerns about the 90 days. The consultation response therefore states:

“We accept that the 90 day period may create problems in some cases, but are also conscious that over-hasty applications may result in unnecessary expenses being incurred.”

The period is 90 days and not 60 or 100, so I am seeking the rationale for 90 days. My hon. Friend was helpful in his intervention and has made it clear why he has gone for 90 days, and I am grateful to him for that.

As hon. Members can see, amendment 4 would reduce the maximum period of guardianship from four years to two years. Clause 7 sets out the period of guardianship and requests that the period for which the guardian is appointed be stated in the court order. The maximum possible is four years, and I propose to halve it. Again, I am trying to tease out from my hon. Friend why he believes four years is right, and why the period should not be longer or shorter. I can see the attractions of making it longer to avoid people having to go back time and again, given the cost of doing that. I was not sure whether the primary purpose was to avoid that or there was another rationale as to why four years was the appropriate time.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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My concern arises from the same issue, and it is what happens when a missing person is found. That does not automatically negate the guardianship, as I would have hoped that it would, and is an argument for saying that the guardianship should be for a shorter period. Otherwise, as soon as somebody is found, the guardian will have to apply to the court to end the guardianship before they can again be treated as a normal person.

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Sam Gyimah Portrait Mr Gyimah
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on introducing the Bill to create the new legal status of guardian of the property and financial affairs of a missing person and on bringing it so far so quickly. The Government are committed to creating that new legal status and are pleased to support the Bill.

The proposals in the Bill have taken some time to evolve. It goes without saying that the Bill will not create a panacea for all the troubles and anguish caused by a sudden and unexplained disappearance; however, it will provide a clear, practical procedure for those left behind to use to find solutions to the financial problems they face. Putting one person in charge of another person’s property and affairs is a very significant step, but guardianship is not unique in that respect.

The Bill has been modelled in part on the provisions for the appointment of deputies in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The guardian is, for example, to be treated as the agent of the missing person. I hope that businesses and other organisations can therefore relatively quickly adapt their systems to accommodate the new status and deal with guardians confidently.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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The Government have said that they will introduce the secondary legislation that the Bill requires within 12 months—in other words, by 2018. Will my hon. Friend please give that assurance to the House today from the Dispatch Box?

Sam Gyimah Portrait Mr Gyimah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I can assure the House that the Government support the Bill and that we will do everything in our power to introduce those regulations, so that they can come into force as soon as practicable.

Putting one person in charge of another person’s property and affairs is a significant step. As I have said, guardianship is not unique in that respect. The character and qualities of guardians will be critical. Guardians can therefore only be appointed by the court and can be held to account for their actions by individuals affected. They will also be subject to supervision by the Office of the Public Guardian. The detail of the supervisory regime will be worked out in secondary legislation and codes of practice, as is the case for deputies.

The key principle that the guardian must observe is that he or she must act in the best interests of the missing person. “Best interests” is defined in the Bill and may be further defined in regulations, but it does not simply mean preserving and protecting—and, where possible, augmenting—the assets of the missing person. That would certainly do some good—as against the return of the missing person—but would do nothing, until the missing person returned, for those left behind. The guardian is therefore able, subject to the tests in the Bill and the terms of the guardianship order, to use the missing person’s assets for the benefit of people whom, had he or she not disappeared, the missing person would probably have supported.

I acknowledge the unstinting efforts of the charity Missing People, which, along with its pro bono lawyers, Clifford Chance, has assisted the Ministry of Justice in preparing legislation. The Department is grateful to the charities Prisoners Abroad and Hostage UK, which have contributed to the Bill’s development. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for his hard work in steering the Bill thus far. I am grateful to all the families affected by disappearances who have shared their experiences in public to help to raise awareness of the need for reform and to Peter Lawrence in particular. As my hon. Friend said, in the letter of the law this is called the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill, but it will always be known as Claudia’s law.

The Bill has been a long time in getting to this stage. The all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults called for legislation in 2011, and the then Government undertook in the cross-Government missing children and adults strategy, published that year, to consider whether legislation was required. I am delighted to commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Tuesday 7th March 2017

(4 years, 10 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Sam Gyimah Portrait Mr Gyimah
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We want to make sure that our hard-working prison officers are well rewarded. Our announcement on 19 February, to which he refers, was specifically designed to tackle jails where it is very hard to recruit because of the high cost of living in their particular market. This year’s pay award for all prison staff is a matter for the independent pay review body, to which we will submit evidence shortly.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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12. How many people are serving sentences of imprisonment for public protection which have lasted for more than twice the length of their original sentence.

Sam Gyimah Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Sam Gyimah)
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As at 31 December 2016, there were 2,006 unreleased prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment for public protection who had served more than twice their original tariff.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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I thank my hon. Friend for that depressing statistic. My constituent has served not twice but five times the length of his original sentence. Having been sentenced to two and a half years for actual bodily harm, he has been in prison for 12 and a half years. When is he going to be released?

Sam Gyimah Portrait Mr Gyimah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is obviously aware that the IPP tariff was introduced by the last Labour Government, and abolished by the Conservative Administration in 2012. Our efforts are now focused on giving IPP prisoners the support, opportunities and motivation to progress more quickly so that, when they are reviewed by the parole board, they have the best possible prospect of securing release. We are tackling delays in the system and have identified what more needs to be done. A specific unit is looking at individual cases in order to progress them as quickly as possible.

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Elizabeth Truss Portrait Elizabeth Truss
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have expertise in dealing with psychoactive substances. We have rolled out tests across the prison estate, and we are working on prisoner education to deter people from that type of drug abuse. I am very happy to facilitate a meeting with the Prison Service and the hon. Gentleman, so that we can make progress together.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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T9. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share my concern at the content of the answer to my earlier question? Will she get a grip on this important issue, and will she follow the lead of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in saying that prisoners such as the one I mentioned earlier should be released immediately?

Elizabeth Truss Portrait Elizabeth Truss
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

First, I am very happy to make sure we look into the case my hon. Friend raises. We do have to remember that public protection must always be our priority, so while we are keen to see people get the training and re-education they need to secure a successful parole hearing, we must always make sure the public are kept safe.

Suicide and Self-harm in Prison (England)

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Wednesday 1st March 2017

(4 years, 10 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

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments. Is he aware of figures from De Montfort University that show that 46% of women in custody have previously attempted suicide and that women in the criminal justice system on average die 16 years younger than their counterparts? Will he acknowledge that that issue should be part of the ongoing dialogue that is needed between the mental health and the criminal justice systems?

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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Order. I did say to the hon. Lady earlier that interventions from Opposition spokespersons are not allowed in a short Westminster Hall debate. I have re-confirmed that that is the ruling, so I am not going to allow the Minister to respond to that intervention. I apologise to the mover of the debate for the interruption.

Sam Gyimah Portrait Mr Gyimah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Any loss of life, whether male or female, is tragic. I would hope that my comments will address the issues in female as well as male prisons.

Deaths in the early days and weeks of custody are highest after reception, sentencing, transfer or recall. There are also significant numbers of deaths among lifers and other prisoners late into long sentences. We are developing a package of reforms as part of the prison safety and reform programme, and we will consult with a range of external stakeholders to seek their views on the action that will be taken to address the complex issue of suicide and self-harm in prisons.

In a written question, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree asked about the internal review. I assure her that there is an inquiry under way to look at all deaths in custody in the past year and to further our understanding of why those events are happening. She will know what the results of that inquiry are as soon as they are available.

The early days and weeks in custody are particularly critical, and we are taking steps to ensure that when somebody enters a prison they are given the support they need at that important time. We are rolling out new training courses across the estate to help our staff to identify risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and to understand what they can do to support prisoners at risk. That involves awareness training for prison staff on supporting prisoners with mental health issues. The new package consists of six sections that can be delivered to both new and existing staff either in succession or in a modular form.

New Southgate Cemetery [Lords]

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Tuesday 29th November 2016

(5 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Burrowes Portrait Mr Burrowes
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My hon. Friend is right. Parliament granted local authority-run cemeteries in London the power to reclaim graves in the 1970s and the power to lift and deepen in 2007. I understand that the City of London has made good use of the powers to reclaim and to lift and deepen in a cemetery in Newham without adverse reaction, while providing a sustainable future. In reality, the powers are available to cemeteries run by local authorities, but not cemeteries in the private sector. This Bill would seek to put the promoters on an equal footing with municipal cemeteries, which I would hope that Government Members supported.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for the beginning of his speech. Is it not right that the 2007 legislation has not been used by any local authority other than the City of London and that the cemetery in Newham is on consecrated land, where special rules apply? As I understand it, this Bill will not apply to consecrated land.

David Burrowes Portrait Mr Burrowes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest. Time will tell how many will take up this opportunity; this is a particular issue that affects London, and although successive Governments have not said that it needs to be a universal power across the country, there has been recognition of its critical importance in London. Newham has taken up the power and I understand that Kensal Rise is looking at the progress of this Bill and considering taking the powers further.

My understanding is that most of the land in New Southgate cemetery’s ownership is consecrated and that the safeguards that ensure proper consultation with the diocese will apply. They will be particularly pertinent to this Bill. The difference with municipal land is not whether the land is consecrated but the fact that it is in different ownership, and we want an even hand.

The Bill is critical because the communities that the New Southgate cemetery serves do not generally choose cremation. For the Greek Cypriots, it is not allowed, and in the Caribbean communities burial is the preference of 99%. Burial is also the strong preference of Roman Catholics, who are strongly represented around the area served by the cemetery. The Baha’i community also has a requirement to bury and not to embalm or cremate.

The Bill will enable the creation of more spaces in existing graves and ensure a sustainable future. It provides adequate safeguards; it ensures that there will be notices, that objections from relatives or owners will be heard, and that Historic England and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be involved as regards proper respect for the heritage of those sites.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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The Bill does not specify the means by which old graves may be reused. My hon. Friend referred to a process called lift and deepen; is that the specific and only process that the promoters of the Bill have in mind?

David Burrowes Portrait Mr Burrowes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Unused graves can be reclaimed by allowing the exclusive right of burial to be properly extinguished. The alternative is through lift and deepen. If there are alternative directions from the Secretary of State, we will no doubt hear them from the Minister. It will reassure my hon. Friend to know that there are powers in clause 4(10) for the Secretary of State to provide additional direction in relation to the powers, if that is considered appropriate.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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My hon. Friend may have addressed this at the beginning of his remarks. The predecessors in title of the present company that owns the cemetery sold off vast areas of land that were attached to the original Victorian cemetery. If all that land had not been sold off, the issue would not have arisen. Is this not a case of a commercial organisation, having sold off a lot of its surplus land for housing, trying to use the land it has in a different way, arguing that it has not got enough space?

David Burrowes Portrait Mr Burrowes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is trying to reach into the motivations and the history. At the beginning of my remarks I referred to the history and the involvement of the Great Northern Railway. The original aspiration was that the cemetery would serve the interests of Londoners for centuries, but that did not happen. We can go as far back in history as my hon. Friend wants, but we are where we are now. Although there is inevitably some commercial motivation for a sustainable commercial future, it is undeniably the fact that for the communities that the cemetery serves, there is an interest in ensuring that there are adequate graves available for their burials.

The consultations that have taken place have not led to any petitions. They have led to understanding and support for the in-principle situation. There needs to be a level playing field between the powers available for municipal cemeteries, which have also taken an interest in how much land is available as municipal land, and for privately owned cemeteries, which should have the proper powers available to them. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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It is great that we are having a debate about the Bill. If I had not tabled a blocking motion, it would have gone through Second Reading on the nod. It is undesirable that issues such as this are not open to debate and discussion in this House.

The Bill touches on an area that successive Governments have long avoided. In 2004, the Labour Government held a consultation on the possible re-use of graves. The consultation lasted six months, and after about three years there was a response from the Government in which they said that they were definitely going to do something about it, and quickly. Nothing has happened since. A Minister in the coalition Government, the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Simon Hughes, said that they were definitely going to do something about it, but, again, nothing has happened. Perhaps the Minister on the Front Bench today will seize the moment to tell the House what the Government’s plans are in respect of the cemetery.

The issue is much bigger than is reflected in the terms of the Bill. I do not intend to divide the House on it, but in such a debate it is important to be able to ask a few questions. When my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) comes to sum up, I hope he will be able to respond to them.

The cemetery has a long and interesting history. It was originally some 200 acres. Over a period of time—this is the ninth Bill relating to this land to come before the House, and there have been eight Acts of Parliament since 1855 covering New Southgate cemetery—more and more of the cemetery has been sold off. In 1976, the Great Northern transferred the ownership and management of the remaining parts of the cemetery to New Southgate. Since then, part of the cemetery has been sold off and part has been transferred to the Baha’is.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is it really unreasonable for land set aside to accommodate the dead to occasionally be sold off to accommodate the living? That does not seem an unreasonable thing for the cemetery to have done, and it is not really a reason to oppose the Bill.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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As I said, I am not opposing the Bill. What is unreasonable is that land retained to bury the dead was disposed of, and now the owners of that land, who profited from the sale of it, are saying, “We have not got enough space. We need special powers to reuse graves.” There is a difference between reusing graves in a municipal burial ground, where a local authority is accountable to local people, and reusing graves in a private burial ground, where there is no such accountability.

What worries me is that the local authority has apparently been unhelpful in allowing an extension to this area so that there is more space for the burial of the dead. More land has been sold than is needed now, but as soon as this organisation seeks to purchase a bit more land, all sorts of problems are apparently put in its way by the local authority—the very local authority that, I suspect, developed the houses on the land that was sold to it originally.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would gently urge my hon. Friend to recognise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I have areas with great religious diversity, and the pattern of burial and cremation has changed in our constituencies over the years. Between 1997 and 2009, the number of cremations in London fell from 48,275 to 36,736, and the nature of our constituencies means that many people, for religious reasons, cannot be cremated, as people would have been previously, when the land was disposed of.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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I take very much the point my hon. Friend makes, and it is symptomatic of the change in the character of large parts of our country and particularly, for the purposes of this debate, of London. There is now a much increased number of members of the Muslim faith, for example, living in the United Kingdom. However, that is surely an argument for the local authority to facilitate the making available of more land to meet the religious needs of this very important part of the community, rather than an argument for saying, “We are so short of land that we are going to reuse the graves of those who were previously buried in the New Southgate cemetery.” I can understand why the Bill is being promoted, but I cannot understand why a sensitive local authority would not help to provide more land.

David Burrowes Portrait Mr Burrowes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s interest in the Bill, but the crucial point is that the promoters are not the company that sold the land before 1976, but the company that bought the cemetery to run it, as set out in the recital. The only sale that has taken place in relation to that company is to the Baha’is.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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As I understand it, part of the cemetery was sold to the Baha’is because one of their religious leaders died while he was visiting London in 1957, and he was buried in the cemetery. That is why it is a place of particular pilgrimage and interest to people of the Baha’i faith. However, as my hon. Friend may have said earlier, it is not just Baha’is who are buried there. Our great hero Ross McWhirter is buried in the cemetery—it is some 40 years since he was cruelly murdered by the IRA. A lot of distinguished people have been buried in this cemetery. If Ross McWhirter has now been buried there for some 50 years, under the proposals in this Bill it will be only another 25 years before his remains can be disinterred. That puts these issues into perspective. I expect that members of the Freedom Association, which was founded by his twin brother, with whom he established the “Guinness Book of Records”, will still be going there for a lot longer than 25 years. It may well be that the grave of Ross McWhirter becomes a place to which people would wish to conduct pilgrimages, in the same way as, I think, many years ago, Ross McWhirter discovered in deepest France the burial site of the person who made the first rugby ball, and following that discovery, that grave itself is now visited by rugby enthusiasts.

We must not deal with these things lightly—I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate is doing that—but there is a potential solution to this if there was more co-operation from the local authority.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Mrs Villiers
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the reasons I support this Bill is that using our existing burial space more efficiently will relieve the pressure to create new cemeteries elsewhere in my constituency—something that is likely to encroach on green-belt land, substantially detracting from and damaging the local environment.

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Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Not only in her constituency or in this area of London, but throughout the country where there is pressure on land, it is important that we have a properly worked-out policy for whether, and if so in what circumstances, graves can be reused.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said, the London local authorities gave themselves powers in this respect that they have hardly used. With the exception of the cemetery in Newham, no local authority has started to use the powers given to them because of the sensitivity around them. That was indeed the conclusion that the Government reached when they went out to consultation on this issue more than 10 years ago. They accepted that it was a very sensitive issue and there was a lot of public concern about it, but no conclusions were reached. It was said that about 30 years’ worth of land was available for burials, and more than 10 years have gone by since then, yet nothing is being done. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will put this in the wider context of what proposals there are to address this problem, particularly in the light of the very significant changes in the character of much of our population and the very significant increase in the number of Muslims, for whom burial is a religious requirement that cannot be substituted with cremation.

Like all these things, when one starts to lift the stones and look at a bit more of the detail, one becomes aware of gaps in the proposed legislation. This Bill is defective in that it does not specify the means by which the graves may be reused. As I said, lift and deepen is one method, but there are others that could be much less sensitive.

Under lift and deepen, the remains are removed from the existing grave and put further down in the same grave; in other words, they remain in the same location. Less sensitive methods might be the cause of some offence. Once the decision has been made in a private cemetery, there is limited opportunity for public opinion or any individual to influence what happens.

The problem does not arise with consecrated land, because such land is subject to control by the Church of England authorities. Clause 4(11) and (12) give particular recognition to the status of consecrated land. Quite rightly, the Bill also makes exceptions in relation to Commonwealth war memorials.

It seems to me that a Bill such as this should be tightly drawn and subject to a lot of proper parliamentary scrutiny. My final point is that a commercial organisation is running the process, so how can we be sure that it will comply with all the requirements in the Bill to record the details of the graves that will be disturbed and the memorials that will be removed? Why has the company promoting the Bill not already recorded those details for posterity? Where will those records be kept, and who will maintain them? If this was a publicly owned activity, we might have a bit more control over it. That is why I have concerns about it.

The fact that there have been no petitions against the Bill suggests that people in the locality are content. Perhaps they are content in their ignorance; I do not know whether that is a fair comment. We should cherish the opportunity to debate the matter. The Government have always said that there was no time available to discuss it more generally, but I hope that they will be inspired by this evening’s proceedings to think about the public interest in public policy making on the matter. In the meantime, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for his great courtesy in dealing with the issue and for keeping me in touch with what has been going on. I hope that some of the concerns that I have expressed will be taken on board.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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I rise to urge the House to support this Bill to give new powers to the owners of New Southgate cemetery in my constituency. As things stand, within 10 years we will run out of burial space there, or we will come close to doing so. There is now a widely held view that the only way in which the public can continue to have affordable, accessible cemeteries is if we make better use of existing burial space.

As we have heard, public burial authorities in London already have some powers to lift and deepen existing graves that were last used 75 years ago, to create more space. The Bill would simply give to New Southgate cemetery broadly the same rights as those already afforded by Parliament to public burial authorities in London.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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Can my right hon. Friend surmise why those powers have, with one exception, not been exercised?

Theresa Villiers Portrait Mrs Villiers
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I surmise that it is because the pressure on burial space is not so great as to require the use of such powers, but it is important that we equip cemeteries for the pressure that they will experience in the future.

--- Later in debate ---
Phillip Lee Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Dr Phillip Lee)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on moving the Second Reading of this private Bill.

Building on the historical tone of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), I am pleased to participate in what is nowadays one of Parliament’s less-used procedures. Historically, this procedure has played an important role. Indeed, I understand that more than 37,000 private Acts have been passed since 1539. In the 19th century, most legislation was private business, which typically addressed issues as diverse as transport schemes, public works, permissions for divorce and the settlement of estates. These days, there is little need to use private Bills for such purposes. Like the Bill we are addressing, private Bills are promoted by organisations wishing to disapply or modify the general law in relation to their own powers.

The New Southgate Cemetery Bill does so to address an identified need for additional burial space in the cemetery. I should it make it clear from the outset that the Government do not oppose the Bill. As has already been explained, in addition to doing so for the cemetery company, the Bill provides powers for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom. The cemetery, part of which is owned by the National Spiritual Assembly, is an important Baha’i spiritual centre, so it is appropriate that the Bill will facilitate its continued availability as a burial place for Baha’is.

Before I address the Bill in more detail, I want to mention the issue of burial space more generally. There is increasing interest in this issue in the media, in the burial sector and, indeed, among parliamentary colleagues. Burial space is running out in parts of our towns, cities and countryside, but this is not a concern in other areas. Even within Greater London, the picture is not consistent. A 2013 York University cemetery research group audit indicated that there is acute pressure on burial space in parts of London, but that is not true across all of London.

There is already private legislation that, for almost 10 years now, has enabled public burial authorities in London to reuse graves, yet very few have done so. It is therefore not yet clear that pressure on burial space is a national issue requiring central Government intervention. Successive Administrations have kept the situation under review; I and my ministerial colleagues are considering whether that position should continue. Where there is local pressure, however, it is right for local solutions to address it. The Bill addresses the needs of New Southgate cemetery, and the Government do not wish to prevent the cemetery from remaining viable and continuing to serve its communities into the future.

I move on now to Government scrutiny of the Bill. As lead policy Department, the Ministry of Justice wants to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose, with appropriate safeguards, and that the views of those most affected by it have been fully considered. We have therefore consulted other Departments and arm’s length bodies. I am grateful to the New Southgate burial authority for agreeing amendments arising from that process, including requirements for Historic England to be notified of any proposals and a requirement for remains to be reburied in an earthen grave as opposed to a structure above ground. I am pleased to note that the burial authorities have fully engaged with faith groups using the cemetery. I am grateful for the information provided on that, and having reviewed it am satisfied that the issue has been properly addressed.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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Is the information to which my hon. Friend referred on the public record—is it part of the Bill—and if not, how will it be put on the public record, so that people can be held to account for what they have said?

Phillip Lee Portrait Dr Lee
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As I understand it, the relevant religious groups have all been consulted, where those groups have an obvious representative to consult. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details.

I have written to the Chairman of Ways and Means confirming that in my opinion the Bill’s promoters have fully assessed its compatibility with the European convention on human rights and that I see no reason to dispute their conclusions. However, I have noted two points: first, that the burial authorities will be required to act compatibly with convention rights in carrying out functions of a public nature within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998; and secondly that I am satisfied that other methods of developing burial space have been implemented as far as is possible. I therefore agree that the Bill’s powers are both justified and proportionate.

I turn now to the series of questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised. First, existing burial space can be maximised by something called mounding, which involves new soil being placed over existing graves to allow additional graves to be excavated; by cramming, which is where new graves are created in available spaces such as pathways; and by reclaiming unused space in existing graves. The latter can be applied only to private graves, unless under Church of England authority—so-called faculty. Outside London, only unused graves can be reclaimed. In 2007, the then Government endorsed the principle of reusing existing graves by the lift and deepen method, which saves on the cost on new land, avoids competition for new land, keeps burial local, represents a sustainable use of resources and provides a new income stream for burial authorities, in turn reducing local authorities’ financial liability.

My hon. Friend mentioned the cemetery’s selling off of land. We have dealt with the cemetery as it currently stands throughout. There is a need for additional space now and the Bill proposes all appropriate means of addressing that need.

My hon. Friend asked whether the 75-year period was long enough, referring in particular to the grave of Ross McWhirter. The Bill provides that graves can only be considered for reuse 75 years after the most recent interment. It also provides that relatives of the deceased can object; if they do so, the grave cannot be reused for at least another 25 years. In practice, therefore, a grave in which living relatives have an interest can be protected for 100 years.

My hon. Friend also mentioned accountability. As private providers, the NSC burial authorities are not subject to the same degree of statutory regulation as local authority providers. However, that is already the case regarding their existing management of the cemetery. There is no reason to expect that, as a subsidiary of one of the UK’s leading providers of cremation and burial services, NSC’s standards of operation and service would not continue to be upheld.

Phillip Lee Portrait Dr Lee
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I need to consult before I can respond appropriately and will write to my hon. Friend accordingly.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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Do the Government encourage the creation of more private cemeteries, and to what extent are they committed to what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) in a ministerial statement following the consultation? She said that it was the intention of the then Government to use powers under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 to enable all parts of the country to have reused graves.

Phillip Lee Portrait Dr Lee
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The Government are conscious of the need to ensure that appropriate burial space is available across the country. My understanding is that need differs from region to region. We continue to consult and I expect to receive further information in the coming weeks.

On NSC accountability, the Bill provides significant recourse to users. NSC must give notice of proposals to extinguish burial rights, disturb human remains or remove memorials. Objection from the owner of burial rights amounts to a veto, and an objection from a third party is subject to directions by the Secretary of State as an independent third party. Objections from relatives to the disturbance of remains amounts to a 25-year veto. An objection from a third party is subject to directions by the Secretary of State as an independent third party. In addition, NSC has a published complaints scheme. I can confirm that the Government secured an amendment to require record keeping on the disturbance of remains and the removal of memorials.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for securing the debate. I am grateful to all who have contributed to today’s proceedings.