I am grateful to serve on this Committee but sad that we find ourselves here because my constituency has seen two riots in a generation. It is right to update this legislation, and I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dudley South for his work on the Bill.
I have tabled some probing amendments that I suspect will go to regulations. The Committee will understand that these matters are of great concern to my constituents, but many hon. Members might also want to raise these issues. Amendments 5 and 6 relate to the kinds of areas that experience riots in our country and the kinds of people and businesses that find themselves having to make a claim. Hon. Members might remember that the original legislation allowed for 30 days in which to claim compensation. After much lobbying by Members and others, that was extended to the 42 days that has been landed on.
Many Members across the House will recognise that many small, high street businesses were in a state of utter shock after the riots. I ask the Minister, the hon. Member for Dudley South and others to stop for a second and imagine what that must have been like. I know that all Committee members will recognise that those who run small businesses on our high streets are, by and large, people who do not rely on the state for much. They are people who get up very early in the morning and finish work very late at night. On my high street, those are independent businesses, rather than big chain stores; if they are chain stores, they are usually franchises. These are some of the most hard-working people in this country. Surprisingly, even though they do customer-facing jobs, they are a long way from the Government.
In a constituency such as mine, many small business owners are part of Britain’s ethnic minority population. Many of them speak English as a second language. Many of them did not expect their businesses to be burnt to the ground and for vicious looting to take place through the night, leaving their stock gone. On the Sunday morning after the riots on the Saturday, I remember many constituents standing in just their pyjamas, holding their children in their arms.
These are people who, understandably, did not even realise there was a riot damages Act. Despite the work that this Committee might do and the Bill that will follow, those people still may not know—God forbid—in 10, 15, 20, 30 or 40 years, long after we are all gone, that there is a riot damages Act. This business of the length of the notice period is therefore very significant indeed.
I think of one individual who ran an auto repair shop that was totally flooded because it was next door to the grand department store—the Union Point building—that was burnt down in my constituency. He could not get into the shop for weeks, and a heart attack ensued. The state of shock would have been so deep that I do not think he would have met the 42-day limit. I am sure hon. Members can think of constituents who are too busy dealing with the total shock of what has happened and with basic things to meet that limit—“How do I get a new credit card, now that it’s gone in the fire? Where’s my passport? Where have all my phone numbers gone? I’ve lost my diary. My identity is completely gone. I’ve got to claim this and claim that. I haven’t got a driving licence. I can’t get into the car.” Those things take weeks and weeks to sort out, never mind getting a business back into a state in which it can get moving again.
The purpose of the amendments is to extend that limit to 132 days, adding to the extra 90 days inserted by the Bill, and to probe whether, in regulations, there will be exceptions and an understanding of the medical conditions that can fall upon individuals. I am talking about small businesses, but a number of individuals lost everything, and in some ways they have even less capacity. We must think about where riots have sadly happened in the history of our country, what kinds of communities typically see them and what capacity they have to respond in such catastrophic circumstances. Given that this Committee is sitting during a period of serious flooding in our country, it is easy for Members to understand the total destitution of the people who experience such catastrophes. People are going through a similar process at the moment.
Birmingham was one of the cities hit hard by the riots, and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood was particularly affected. I want to draw a distinction between, on the one hand, big retailers such as Next or supermarkets, which have the capacity to submit a claim quickly—they understand the process and can take advantage of the 1886 Act—and, on the other hand, smaller businesses. Business organisations have said to us—we are sympathetic to such representations—that some individuals were traumatised, some were injured, some faced financial problems and some literally faced bankruptcy. For those people to learn about the procedure, compose an application and submit it, they need time. I sense that the Government are sympathetic to the arguments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has powerfully deployed, so I hope that the Minister will be flexible. This amendment might usefully be made.
I fully understand the thought process behind the amendments and their tone. Of course, there was an extensive consultation process, but we have to draw a line somewhere. I fully understand the points made by the right hon. Member for Tottenham and the shadow Policing Minister, as I am sure other Members do. I will commit to putting exceptional circumstances into the regulations.
The Bill is for people who have suffered and the most vulnerable. It is a safety net; that is what it is there for. The regulations will cover exactly what the right hon. Gentleman has asked for. Exceptional circumstances could easily cover medical conditions, residential properties and small and medium-sized enterprises. The Bill is rightly not about the Nexts of this world. Given what I have said and will say, I hope that Members and other people will realise that we have listened. We will do this in the regulations, which is where it should be. That commitment is now on the record, so I hope there is no need for the amendments.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to require that any estimates of the cost of repairs are to be prepared by approved contactors.
The amendment deals with the approved contractors that act on behalf of the Secretary of State, engage with individuals who find themselves having to make a claim under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 and estimate the cost of the repairs. It would be remiss of the Committee if we did not put on record the substantial findings in the months after the riots. That comes up time and again in the House, and it will come up in relation to the floods being experienced across the country.
The London Assembly committee chaired by John Biggs did very good work and published a very good report in 2012 on the riots. The committee took evidence from a range of people. The report said:
“Loss adjusters who were involved in assessing insurance claims after the riots faced a complex situation. Nevertheless, some loss adjusters behaved insensitively in handling claims, and lacked the skills needed to deal effectively with some owners of small businesses.”
As I said at the time, there is no point asking someone to provide receipts for their stock if their business has been burned to the ground. There was an inability, frankly, to understand where those small businesses were coming from and what they were facing. There were challenges in such areas as Croydon, Birmingham and Tottenham, where businesses—they are often independent, ethnic minority businesses—were made to feel like they were criminals attempting to defraud the state. I had an Adjournment debate after the riots where I expressed my concerns about the insurance industry and some—not all—loss adjusters.
I tabled the amendment to probe the Minister to say a little more about the nature of those approved contractors and how we might deal with the issue. I pay tribute to the independent review of the Riot (Damages) Act by Kinghan, which laid the foundation for much of the work that led us here. He recommended that a riot claims bureau be developed with the agreement of the Home Office and the insurance industry. He also recommended that a manual be prepared, as soon as is practicable, to provide guidance on the types of claims likely to follow a riot, including how to deal with clients unused to making claims and other issues. That is a part of his report that is pertinent to the issue raised by the amendment.
Members will understand that floods occur more often than riots in the United Kingdom, because of the nature of our geography. In 2011, much of the expertise simply was not there. The country had not seen widespread riots in the 10 years since Bradford and Oldham, and it is easy to lose the expertise, the necessary sensitivity and the understanding that the context in the communities experiencing such events is very different.
Kinghan also recommended that, in their emergency plans, local authorities should be asked to include planning for riot recovery services to provide co-ordinated advice and support. I do not know whether that recommendation relates to all local authorities, but that, too, goes to the point about expertise. It would be wrong if I did not mention loss adjusters at this point. Will the Minister say something more about the approved contractors and how we can avoid the situation that caused real concern in the communities affected?
Clause 3(4) is also about trying to prevent fraudulent claims, but I am just trying to understand what the amendment, by making this mandatory, would preclude. With approved contractors on an approved contractors list, it might be hard to identify a local authority or others outwith the approved process of the Secretary of State or local policing bodies. Is there an important flexibility that may help to a degree with timeliness? I know that the right hon. Gentleman was concerned, as I was, about the timeliness of compensation for our constituents’ businesses.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In a sense, this is a probing amendment to get to the substance of what we are really talking about. The “must” probably goes too far; I accept that. I hope that I will get some comfort from the Minister shortly.
No one can predict when the next riot will be and no one can entirely control the individual loss adjuster who is behaving insensitively, but what one can guarantee is that, by and large, it will be in a deprived area and, if it is a high street area, it will involve independent shopkeepers. We have had a long history, over successive generations since the Windrush, of independent shopkeepers largely being of refugee and immigrant stock. I think of the parts of my constituency that are still Orthodox Jewish and of the émigrés who ran the shops many decades ago. Over the decades, different communities have run the shops. Shopkeepers find themselves in a situation where, if they have been ransacked, they are not getting understanding from parts of the insurance industry, particularly loss adjusters, about providing receipts, for example. That is why I make the points that I do.
I fully understand and also respect, not least because of the conversation that we had outside, the right hon. Gentleman’s probing amendment. I have to agree with him that “must” goes a bit too far, but I fully understand exactly where the amendment is coming from.
May I say at the outset that we are looking to put together an approved list of loss adjusters who will be responsible should riots take place? Obviously this is different from the insurance side, because these measures are for people who are uninsured.
The Minister mentioned the issue of insurance and I wanted to raise that issue in this regard. The areas that tend to be worst affected by riots tend to be poorer areas, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has described. One of the issues that affected businesses in the London Road area just outside the town centre of Croydon—it was the London Road that was hit the hardest; that is where businesses tend to be poorer and to be led by ethnic minority owners—is that after the riots insurance premiums grew so rapidly that many of those businesses became uninsurable. That led to further pressure on those businesses to close down. The last thing that we want to see is areas that are already poor, and where businesses are starting to grow and bringing life back into those areas, being hollowed out and shops closing down. Do the Government have any intention of addressing the issue of insurance becoming unaffordable in areas that have previously been hit by the riots?
Order. Before the Minister resumes, I want to say that I have exercised quite a bit of latitude so far in these proceedings. The hon. Member for Croydon North could well have made a very good speech consisting of exactly the words that he has just used. Interventions should be much briefer than that. I say that very gently, but advisedly.
It might have been a long intervention, but I think it was very useful to the course of the debate. I am sure you would agree, Mr Howarth, even if we need to keep interventions short. Should I need to intervene on anyone, I will try to keep my intervention short as well.
I say to the hon. Member for Croydon North on that specific point that I have just had the 10th anniversary of Buncefield in my constituency, which was the largest fire and explosion in this country since the second world war. The quality of the loss adjusting in some companies was brilliant; the quality in others was appalling. The insurers were very good in some areas and did not boost the premiums, while other premiums, particularly for smaller companies, were extremely harsh. It is something I have been working on with other Departments. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to join me outside the Committee in working on that issue, I will be more than happy to do so.
With regard to the probing amendment, there are two things we have to ensure. This is taxpayers’ money, so we have to make sure—this is a safety net for people who are uninsured—that fraud and other events do not in any way mean that taxpayers’ money is misused. However, we do not want to say that everybody will be a criminal and try to defraud; they are after help in 99% of cases. We also do not want to slow down the process of making the payments. If we look at the sheer scale of the riots in 2011—we have heard today about the myriad different communities across the country that were affected—we can see that to have all the estimates done by approved contractors would be enormously difficult.
The point about guidance was very well made; for want of a better word, on paper, it would say, “This is what should happen, should these terrible events happen again”. That was a recommendation of the review. That is something I will take away from the Committee, work on and make sure it happens.
With regard to the loss adjusters, an approved list is exactly where we need to go. On the need for this provision and the need for the word “must”, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree to meet me and consider the comments I have made.