The Electoral Commission
As you may be aware, the Electoral Commission has sought in recent years to bring criminal offences before the courts. This is not a role that has ever been agreed by the Government or by Parliament.
I am concerned that the additional powers the Electoral Commission has taken on risk creating conflicts of interest and wasting taxpayers' money. This is because the Electoral Commission is responsible for providing the advice and guidance on electoral law on which the prosecutions it seeks to bring may depend.
It is the role of the police and the prosecution services to enforce electoral regulations and the Government intends to clarify this status quo in legislation through the Electoral Integrity Bill before Parliament. I can assure you that this is not about interfering with the investigative, operational or enforcement decisions of the Electoral Commission. The reforms would not affect the ability of the Electoral Commission to undertake enforcement action as it deems necessary, but it would ensure greater accountability to Parliament.
Sir, now Lord, Eric Pickles’ independent review into electoral fraud raised several concerns and made recommendations on the role of the Electoral Commission and the current system of oversight in 2016. These measures also seek to address those points in the context of wider work to protect our democracy and maintain public confidence in the electoral system.
My ministerial colleagues will, of course, consider proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee which are separately conducting inquiries into electoral regulation and the Electoral Commission.
Antisemitism & the Durban Conference
My ministerial colleagues and I share concerns about the antisemitic actions and speeches in and around the Durban Conference and its various follow-up events. These acts are no cause for celebration.
Following historic concerns of antisemitism – as in 2011 (the 10th anniversary) – the UK has decided not to attend the UN’s Durban Conference anniversary event later this year. The US, Australia and Canada will also not be attending.
Let me be clear that the Government unequivocally condemns, and remains fully committed to tackling, all forms of racism and antisemitism, both domestically and internationally.
On 14 October 2020, for instance, the Foreign Secretary chaired the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting, whereupon Foreign Ministers unanimously adopted a Commonwealth Statement on Racism, originally proposed by the UK, expressing their collective opposition to all forms of racism and discrimination. More recently, in March 2021, the UK's Human Rights Ambassador delivered a statement at the UN Human Rights Council to reaffirm our commitment to tackling racism.
The Armed Forces Bill
I warmly welcome the passage of the Armed Forces Bill through Parliament. I have the utmost confidence that this Bill will prevent service personnel and veterans being disadvantaged in the provision of key public services as well as improve the Service Justice System for our personnel wherever they are operating.
This Bill will enshrine the Armed Forces Covenant in law, a manifesto commitment on which I was elected. It introduces a legal duty for relevant UK public bodies to have due regard to the principles of the covenant, a pledge to ensure that the UK armed forces community is treated fairly. Focusing on healthcare, housing and education, it will increase awareness among public bodies of the unique nature of military service (improving the level of service for members of the armed forces community). Enshrining the covenant in law also builds on a number of initiatives designed to support service leavers and veterans – namely the establishment of the Defence Transition Services organisation in 2019 and an increased number of GP practices being accredited as veteran friendly.
In addition, the Bill will help deliver a series of improvements to the Service Justice System, ensuring personnel have a clear, fair and effective route to justice wherever they are operating. This includes providing clearer guidance for prosecutors on how serious crimes committed by service personnel in the UK should be handled, creating an independent body to oversee complaints and making the complaints system more efficient by bringing the time given to personnel to lodge an appeal in line with timings offered in the private sector.
I want to reassure you that the Armed Forces Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom, except in a small number of instances related to matters that are within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly. A separate piece of legislation dealing with vexatious claims against service personnel who served in Northern Ireland will also be brought forward in due course.
Vehicles parked on pavements can be dangerous for all pedestrians, as it can force them onto the carriageway and into the flow of traffic. Pavement parking can cause real problems for people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments, as well as those with pushchairs. Indeed, a recent review of pavement parking carried out by the Department for Transport found that pavement parking was problematic for 95 per cent of respondents who were visually impaired, and 98 per cent of wheelchair users.
While there is a historic ban on pavement parking throughout London, elsewhere any local authority that has taken up civil enforcement powers may introduce a ban on pavement parking where it sees fit through the use of Traffic Regulation Orders. As part of making this easier to implement, in 2011 Ministers gave all councils authorisation to use a sign indicating where a pavement parking restriction is in place, removing the need to ask Whitehall first for permission to use the sign.
Successive Governments have recognised that there is no perfect solution to this complex problem. Ministers now want to go further and recently ran a consultation on proposals that would allow local authorities with civil parking enforcement powers to crack down on pavements being unnecessarily obstructed. Outside London, only the police currently have the power to enforce this. The consultation also explores how a nationwide ban on pavement parking, enforced by local authorities, could work. A nationwide ban would need careful consideration and would have to allow, for example, for necessary exceptions or designated spots for pavement parking where required. The approach taken would also have to be tailored to the very different challenges faced in rural and suburban areas.
Corruption of Police Officers
I myself was a journalist for more than 20 years (including at the Times), and I was shocked to find out the criminal activities of some of my colleagues and their associations in the police. I should say from the outset, that the fundamental problem was not a lack of laws, but a lack of enforcement. A culture of complacency and collusion matures over decades, leading to one newspaper editor casually admitting to Parliament that they paid police for information, seemingly unaware she was admitting to something that was (and still is) illegal. I strongly believe there has been a generational reset in culture, which means far greater adherence to the law, but there is no room for complacency, and reforms were needed to make sure such tolerance of illegal behaviour didn’t become the norm again.
I wholly agree that the police service should and must be a transparent, accountable institution. The Policing and Crime Act contains several provisions to ensure that this is the case. The Act gave the Independent Office for Police Conduct, or IOPC (formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission) greater powers. Crucially, these include the ability to control who in a police force is notified of an investigation and to obtain evidence confidentially. This is designed to protect the identity of whistle blowers.
The Leveson Inquiry, which followed the phone hacking scandal and involved publications owned by Rupert Murdoch, resulted in great improvements in press regulation. This includes the formation of the Independent Press Standards Authority (IPSO) and Impress, which have the power to hold publications to account, including ordering prominent corrections. Both regulators are independent of Government and enforce Codes of Practice, which include provisions on privacy and intrusion. They both operate free complaints handling systems and low-cost arbitration schemes. I am, therefore, confident that organisations, including News UK, will operate in a robust regulatory environment (overseen by Ofcom, IPSO and Impress) which will ensure appalling incidents such as the phone hacking scandal are never repeated.
The Government announced in 2018 that it would not bring forward Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry. The original Inquiry and subsequent police investigations were comprehensive, with more than 300 people coming forward to give evidence resulting in the conviction of over 40 people during three major investigations. In addition, the media landscape has changed significantly since Part 1 of the Inquiry. Reopening the Inquiry would cost millions, and I firmly believe that it is no longer appropriate, proportionate, or in the public interest to do so. There have been extensive reforms to police practices, as well as significant changes to press self-regulation.
Upholding the Rule of Law
In the court case regarding PPE contracts, Mr Justice Chamberlain determined that the Department for Health and Social Care had acted unlawfully in failing to publish the contracts in a timely manner, but he acknowledged that this had not been done maliciously. This had instead been down to the heightened workload civil servants in the Department had been coping with at the time. Further he did not grant an order for the contracts to be published following the decision as they had already been published.
I would hope that lessons will be learnt from this within the civil service to ensure that a lack of available workforce does not lead to the law accidentally being broken again. This topic I think would be appropriate for the forthcoming inquiry following the end of the pandemic.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty
The fundamental purpose of our nuclear weapons is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent assigned to the defence of NATO, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our Allies.
Regarding your concerns about the UK’s nuclear stockpile, I would like to reassure you that the UK remains deeply committed to our collective long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons, under the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Until then, we must hold the minimum number of nuclear warheads necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. In 2010, the Government stated an intent to reduce our overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s. However, in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads.
I would also like to reiterate that the Government’s position on Trident as the UK’s continuous at sea nuclear deterrent was overwhelmingly supported by Parliament in 2016. This vote was part of a wider programme to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent beyond the early 2030s, which will see the introduction of four Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines to replace the current four Vanguard submarines - securing thousands of highly skilled engineering jobs in the UK.
As a rule, I do not to sign EDMs as they never have any impact on policy but do incur cost to the taxpayer. It is more constructive and effective to discuss issues raised by constituents with ministerial colleagues directly.
While I will not be signing EDM 1667, I welcome that the Government will continue to keep the UK’s nuclear posture under constant review in light of the international security environment and the actions of potential adversaries.
Sexual Harassment: #CrimeNotCompliment Campaign
I agree that sexual harassment of women and girls, including in public places, is totally unacceptable. No one should be forced to change the way they live to avoid harassment and abuse, or to put up with it.
Action is already being taken. You may be aware of the wide-ranging Law Commission review into hate crime. Work on this is well underway and the review will identify any gaps within the current legislation and determine if there should be additional protected characteristics such as misogyny and age. The Law Commission's consultation closed on 24th December 2020 and I am glad those with an interest, including perhaps yourself, had the opportunity to share their views. The Government will of course consider the review's recommendations when they are complete.
I also welcome the new Voyeurism (Offences) Act, which criminalises the reprehensible behaviour of upskirting. There can now be no doubt that this activity is criminal and will not be tolerated. For the most serious offences, this law will ensure that the offender is also placed on the sex offenders register. There is of course always more work to do and it is therefore good news that the Home Secretary has appointed Nimco Ali as an Independent Adviser on Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls. Nimco Ali will advise the Home Secretary and other ministers on the government’s new Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. It is welcome that Ministers will be bringing forward the new strategy this year.
You may welcome the fact that the Government reopened a call for evidence to further collect views from those with experience of, or views on, violence against women and girls. The consultation previously ran for 10 weeks from December to February. It will now remain open until 26 March 2021 and I would encourage you to take part. There is more to do, and I will be paying close attention to the important work which is underway.
I am proud that this country is built on the historic values of unity, inclusivity, tolerance and mutual respect. Hate crime, in all its forms, goes directly against these values and it is completely unacceptable that anyone in our society should live in fear of intimidation or violence. As such, we must stand up for diversity and face down discrimination wherever we see it.
Since the publication of the Hate Crime Action Plan in 2016 I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made, which has seen an increase in reporting and improvements in identification and recording of crime by the police. However, rates of attrition within the criminal justice system remain worryingly high and targeted online abuse continues to present a significant problem. While in contrast to overall trends, under-reporting still exists within specific groups.
You may be aware of the wide-ranging Law Commission review into hate crime. Work on this is well underway and the review will identify any gaps within the current legislation and determine whether sex or gender should be added to hate crime law.
I would like to be clear that I am committed to upholding free speech and reassure you that legislation is in place to protect this fundamental right. The Law Commission's consultation closed on 24 December 2020 and I am glad those with an interest, including perhaps yourself, had the opportunity to share their views. The Government will of course consider the review's recommendations when they are complete.
I am sure you will agree in the importance of allowing the Law Commission to complete its work in this area. However, it is welcome that the Government has announced that on an experimental basis, police forces will be asked to identify and record any crimes of violence against the person, including stalking and harassment, as well as sexual offences where the victim perceives it to have been motivated by a hostility based on their sex. I understand that Ministers will shortly begin the consultation with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and forces on this with a view to commencing the experimental collection of data from this autumn.
While this is not making misogyny a hate crime, it can inform longer-term decisions once the Government has considered the recommendations made by the Law Commission.
Fox & Trail Hunting
I appreciate the strong feelings many people have on this issue and I share your concern for the welfare of our wildlife. As you may know, fox hunting is banned under the Hunting Act 2004, and for an offence to be committed the behaviour in question must violate the Act’s provisions. At the 2019 General Election, I was elected on a manifesto which committed to making no changes to this Act.
Since the introduction of the Hunting Act 2004 many hunts have turned to trail hunting as an alternative to live quarry hunting. This involves a pack of hounds following an artificially laid, animal-based scent. It closely mimics the hunting that took place before the ban but does not involve a hunt for a live fox, so is not banned. For an offence to be committed it is necessary to prove that a wild animal is being hunted intentionally.
I recognise it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may on occasion pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the huntsman and women and other members of hunt staff to control their hounds and, if necessary, stop the hounds as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. Not doing so could be deemed an offence. Any evidence should be provided to the police, and it is for them to make a recommendation to the Crown Prosecution Service. If anybody is breaking the law on this sort of activity, I fully welcome prosecutions being brought.
If any wild animal was hunted intentionally, this can lead to a prosecution and an unlimited fine. Between 2013 and 2019, a total of 471 individuals were prosecuted under the Hunting Act and 227 individuals were found guilty.
Of course, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.
I take this issue very seriously and I know that my colleagues in the Equalities Office remain committed to tackling conversion therapy in the UK. I am absolutely clear that this practice has no place in civilised society. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual is not an illness to be treated or cured.
I am encouraged that this view is shared by the head of the NHS, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the British Medical Association. Each of these bodies have concluded that such therapy is unethical and potentially harmful.
The Government Equalities’ Office commissioned a large-scale LGBT survey in 2017. Sadly, 2 per cent of respondents to the national LGBT survey said they had undergone conversion therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of being LGBT. Unfortunately, in this survey, what conversion therapy entailed was not defined, nor were the respondents asked whether the conversion therapy referred to in their answer was offered in the UK.
I welcome the firm commitment to preventing these activities from continuing. Led by colleagues in the Government Equalities Office, research is underway to look at the experiences of those subjected to conversion therapy. I have received assurances that Ministers are thoroughly considering all legislative and non-legislative options in order to end conversion therapy practice for good and will bring forward plans to do so shortly.
I am positive about the steps that have been made so far in the UK to achieve LGBT equality, and am confident that this good work will continue.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (Second Reading)
The first job of any government is to keep people safe and, in the manifesto on which it was elected, this Government committed to cutting crime and reforming the justice system so that it serves the law-abiding majority. That is why, through the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government are overhauling the justice system to give the police and courts the powers they need to keep our streets safe, while providing greater opportunities for offenders to turn their lives around and better contribute to society. I certainly understand general concern about any revision of policing or sentencing policy.
A number of constituents have raised specific concerns that this Bill will stifle people’s right to peaceful protest. Freedom to protest is a cornerstone of British democracy, which if it came under threat I myself would be out in the streets protesting about. But normal peaceful protests will be entirely unaffected by this legislation. The powers in this Bill are a response to new tactics by protesters, often co-ordinated by social media, which are designed not just to make a political point, but to cause extreme disruption to other people and their businesses. People do not have a right to disrupt other people's lives just because they are making a political point. This has caused extreme frustration to the general public, and the measures in this Bill are intended to balance the rights of protesters with the rights of others to go about their business unhindered. The measures will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public. I am supportive of these proposals.
The horrific case of Sarah Everard has caused us all to reflect on violence against women, and more needs to be done to tackle that. The Bill includes tough new laws to keep people safe, including many vital measures to protect women from violent criminals. The Bill also contains measures to ensure police have sufficient powers to tackle illegal encampments, which have been distressing to many people in South Cambridgeshire. By opposing this Bill, I would be opposing these measures, as well as tougher sentencing for child murderers, sex offenders, dangerous drivers and measures that protect the vulnerable. This is not something that I am prepared to do, and I broadly support the measures proposed in this Bill.
Jagtar Singh Johal
I would like to assure you that Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) staff have been working hard to help Mr Johal and his family, and that representations are regularly made on behalf of Mr Johal to the Government of India.
I am told that the Foreign Secretary raised Mr Johal's case with the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on 15 December 2020. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, last raised Mr Johal's case with the Indian High Commissioner on 28 January 2021, and with the Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, on 3 November 2020. Lord Ahmad has also met with Mr Johal's family on several occasions, most recently on 27 January 2021.
Mr Johal's welfare is a priority, as is ensuring his ongoing access to his legal representatives. The UK's consular staff continue to visit Mr Johal regularly.
I appreciate that this is a desperately difficult and distressing time for Mr Johal, his family and many in the Sikh community and I will continue to follow this case closely. Considering the regular and ongoing diplomatic efforts on the part of FCDO Ministers and officials, I do not think it is necessary for me to contact the Foreign Secretary to the effect you suggest.
Grenfell Tower: The Fire Safety Bill
The fire at Grenfell was a tragedy and we owe it to the victims to make sure it never happens again. I fully realise that people are eager to see changes to fire safety legislation – as am I – and for these reforms to happen quickly.
I have been following this important legislation and I am aware of amendments to the Bill prohibiting the passing of remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants. I entirely support the intention of an amendment to protect leaseholders. However, for a number of reasons, I do not support the amendment itself.
Most importantly, this Bill is not the correct place for remediation costs to be addressed. The Government has already committed that it will provide an update regarding remediation costs before the Building Safety Bill returns to Parliament. In addition, work is currently underway with leaseholders and the financial sector to identify financing solutions that protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs while ensuring that the cost does not fall entirely on taxpayers. I hope we can agree that it is important not to interrupt these discussions. Therefore, I fear this particular amendment could lead to unnecessary confusion.
It is the Government's clearly stated intention to follow through on the recommendations of phase one of the Grenfell fire inquiry and this Bill is part of that process.
The Fire Safety Bill sets the foundation for implementing the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which we all want to see set in law. I am glad that the Bill has now progressed in Parliament, paving the way for more accountability from building owners and enforcement from fire and rescue authorities to hold irresponsible owners to account. I am determined to see the Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommendations implemented swiftly and without delay and I will continue to raise concerns from my constituents in Parliament at every opportunity.
The Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
I understand that nuclear weapons are a highly emotive topic which attract a significant amount of attention. While I am aware the Government does not intend to sign, ratify or become party to the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, I do want to reassure you that the UK is committed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
I firmly believe that the best way to achieve a world without nuclear weapons is through gradual multilateral disarmament, negotiated using a step-by-step approach, provided for under the NPT. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would threaten this ambition by comprehensively prohibiting participation in development, testing, production, acquisition, possession and storage of nuclear weapons. Given the unpredictable security environment we face, such a move would undoubtedly threaten our national security, and the collective security of our NATO allies.
The NPT, on the other hand, puts in place the structures to further the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Over the last 50 years, it has minimised the proliferation of nuclear weapons, provided the framework to enable significant levels of nuclear disarmament and allowed states to develop secure and safe, peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It has also played a crucial role in providing the basis for discussions with Iran and DPRK.
While I understand this is not the answer you were hoping to receive, I do want to stress that the Government has made significant progress in nuclear disarmament. The UK is the only country to have reduced its deterrent capability to a single nuclear weapon system and has reduced the requirement for its operationally available warheads.
Asylum Conditions: Napier & Penally Barracks
I understand you have concerns regarding the conditions of these facilities. I know that the Government takes the welfare of people in Home Office care extremely seriously and is fulfilling statutory duties to ensure decent, safe and humane conditions. As you will be aware, the Home Office is required by law to provide asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute with accommodation, paid for by the taxpayer.
Since March, the number of people within the asylum system has risen. This is due to the fact that the Government temporarily ceased ending asylum support for those whose claims have been granted or refused. This was necessary to help stop the spread of coronavirus and ensure they are able to follow social distancing guidelines. It has therefore been necessary for the Government to act quickly to source contingency accommodation to create additional capacity and ensure obligations are met in full.
After looking into this, I have been reassured that those accommodated at these sites have access to appropriate medical care, are provided three meals a day, and have access to the 24/7 Migrant Help helpline to raise any issues.
I will continue to monitor the situation very closely. However, I welcome the action taken by the Government to ensure the UK continues to meet its obligations and commitments to the most vulnerable people. This is of course in the context of unprecedented domestic challenges caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Commercial Sexual Exploitation
I know the Government is committed to protecting those selling sex from harm and enabling the police to target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution. It is also very important to ensure those who want to leave prostitution are given every opportunity to find routes out.
I am aware that there are different approaches to prostitution around the world, including New Zealand and in Scandinavia, as well as recent legislative developments in Northern Ireland. In addition, a Sexual Exploitation Bill was recently introduced in the House of Commons by Labour MP, Dame Diana Johnson. The Bill seeks to criminalise paying for sex and decriminalise selling sex.
I understand the Home Office has not yet seen unequivocal evidence that any one approach is better at tackling harm and exploitation. I welcome the fact that the law around prostitution in England and Wales focuses on tackling harm and exploitation caused to those involved.
Ministers have assured me that they continue to meet and engage with experts, academics, the police and those who sell sex themselves to further their understanding on the issues around prostitution and this is all the more important during the Coronavirus outbreak. I will continue to press the Government to ensure those affected by the outbreak have access to the support they need.
Criminalising Trespass: The Benefits of Walking in Nature
I know the value so many people here in South Cambridgeshire place on access to the countryside. I would like to reassure you that the measures under consideration would not affect ramblers, the right to roam or rights of way. Instead, the new proposed measures could be applied in specific circumstances relating to trespass with intent to reside.
As you may be aware, the Government is consulting on measures to criminalise the act of trespassing when setting up an unauthorised encampment in England and Wales. Ministers are also consulting on other measures to strengthen police powers in order to tackle unauthorised encampments. The consultation survey has now closed, and Ministers are currently analysing feedback. I, like you, await the Government's response and look forward to scrutinising any decisions that are taken.
I am enthusiastic about promoting recreation in the countryside and understand the benefits outdoor activities can produce both physically and mentally. Our countryside is of great importance and it cannot be understated just how much the scenery means to people. I am therefore encouraged by Government action to ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations, including our wonderful countryside.
I support the Government's strong track record on access to the countryside. For example, it has enabled the establishment of a 2,700-mile path around the entire English coastline, meaning walkers will be able to enjoy, explore and experience some of our finest and most important cultural and natural heritage – from the white cliffs of Dover, to the industrial heritage of the North East. When completed, I know that the England Coast Path will be the longest continuous coastal walking route in the world. Furthermore, I am pleased that the Prime Minister has committed to protecting 30 per cent of the UK’s land by 2030. This means an additional 400,000 hectares, the size of the Lake District and South Downs national parks combined, will be protected to support the recovery of nature.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
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