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Commons Chamber

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2003

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 20 May 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 10 June at Four o'clock.

Oral Answers To Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked

Nuclear Industry

1.

What assessment she has made of the effects of the policies set out in the Energy White Paper on jobs in the nuclear industry in Scotland. [113323]

The White Paper sets out a framework for energy policy that will significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, with increased priority given to energy efficiency measures and to generation from renewable sources. The White Paper has no immediate implications for jobs in the nuclear industry in Scotland. Nuclear generation continues to play an important part in supplying the UK's energy needs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I wonder whether she will expand on what is meant by the word "immediate". Although the White Paper makes a laudable case for renewables, we have decimated the coal industry in Scotland, thereby wiping out an energy source, and we are in danger of wiping out another energy source that supplies 50 per cent. of electricity in Scotland. That will eventually have an impact on jobs and an effect on communities and workers. What does my hon. Friend have to say about that?

My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter on behalf of her constituents, particularly those who are employed at Torness, but may I just correct one inaccuracy? I know that she did not mean it, but it was not this Government who decimated the coal industry. Looking across the Chamber at the Conservative Benches, we can see who decimated the coal industry in Scotland and the UK. My hon. Friend is correct in that our renewable objectives are ambitious, but we also recognise that nuclear generation is still an important source of carbon-free electricity. However, at the moment, new nuclear build is commercially unattractive, and the disposal of nuclear wastes is obviously an important issue.

The Minister must accept that this chaotic energy White Paper will regrettably lead to a run-down in employment at existing stations in Scotland and, in our view, to a mistaken delay in commissioning replacements, not least at Chapelcross, where some of my constituents are employed. When will her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earn her place at the Cabinet table and fight for new-build power stations on existing licensed sites in Scotland to give energy policy credibility there? Or is her right hon. Friend just bored with the subject?

The hon. Gentleman is very clever, isn't he? [HON. MEMBERS: "He hides it well."] Yes, as my hon. Friends say, he hides it very well. My right hon. Friend is a strong advocate for all Scottish issues at the Cabinet table, and we certainly do not need to take lessons from Conservative Members about how to fight for Scotland, since they palpably never did. The reality is that, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, no one is asking for new nuclear build at the moment. The energy White Paper holds to the position as it is at the moment, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to be accurate about jobs, he should realise that decommissioning itself creates many jobs.

Regarding jobs, obviously, if we see the demise of nuclear power or new nuclear build, yes, we will support sustainables, but we will not meet our targets on CO2 emissions unless we include nuclear build in the policy. Will my hon. Friend push the facts in the White Paper, so that we have a discussion and debate on new nuclear build as soon as possible, as it is an important element for the nuclear industry and workers in Scotland?

:I agree with my hon. Friend that, at the appropriate time, we ought to have a wide-ranging discussion on nuclear energy and whether or not nuclear power will be needed to support our energy supply industry in the United Kingdom. The energy White Paper is very clear about the fact that we will have to begin consultations as and when appropriate.

If we are to meet the aspirations for CO2 emissions and renewables, rather than talking about new nuclear energy build, should we not be considering public investment in the infrastructure of the national grid to ensure that it is strengthened in those areas that can provide renewable energy and much-needed jobs?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, that is already being looked at and is part of the wider discussion that arises from the energy White Paper, and I assume that the hon. Gentleman and his party will participate in that consultation.

Given the vast subsidies that the Government have recently had to pay out to the failing nuclear industry, may I assure my hon. Friend that very many people in Scotland will welcome both the Government's commitment not to put any more money down that drain and their decision not to go ahead with any new nuclear power stations at this stage? Will she join me in welcoming the decision of the new partnership in Scotland, led by Labour, to aim for a 40 per cent. renewables target by 2020? Will she give the Government's commitment now to give their full backing to that ambitious but important target for increasing renewable energy, thereby providing many more jobs in the energy industry in Scotland?

My hon. Friend is correct that the new Labour-led partnership in Scotland has identified very clear targets, and as part of the development of the energy White Paper we were in constant discussion with the then Scottish Executive. This is a matter for the Scottish Executive within the overall framework of energy policy in the United Kingdom. I want to highlight one issue, however, in relation to British Energy. It was important for the Government to secure the supply element of British Energy and to support its restructuring, which was the reason why the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2003 was given Royal Assent earlier this month.

White Fishing Industry

2.

If she will make a statement on the economic viability of the Scottish white fishing industry. [113324]

The Government are committed to helping secure a sustainable future for the Scottish fishing industry. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a strategic review of the fishing industry in January. This study, which involves industry stakeholders, and with which I am personally involved, will consider all aspects of the fisheries sector and make recommendations to influence future decision making.

Commissioner Fischler has made it clear that the cod recovery programme could last between five and 10 years, by which time there will not be a Scottish white fish fleet, further devastating coastal communities both economically and socially. Can the Secretary of State say why the Commissioner is so confident of success, bearing in mind the fact that environmental conditions for cod are deteriorating in EU waters and that there is a continuing shortage of food in the British sector owing to industrial fishing?

The hon. Lady summed up, in her final clause, the issue regarding declining cod stocks. The important thing for the long-term future of the white fishing industry in Scotland that we have a sustainable and coherent strategy for the future, which secures the long-term supply of fishing stocks. That is the purpose of the Prime Minister's strategic review. The issue should have been addressed years ago, but it was ducked by the Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, and now we have to ensure sustainable long-term supplies of white fish. I have been involved in extensive discussions with the industry as recently as two weeks ago, and will continue to have those discussions. Scaremongering and populism, however, will not resolve the problems of the white fish industry.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the son of one of my constituents is a fisherman on Barra and is currently travelling through Europe with some other fishermen from Barra and Vatersay? What advice would she give to them if they happen to travel to Seville and meet up with some Spanish fishermen?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I hope that one of the first things that these fishermen from Vatersay and Barra would point out to their Spanish colleagues is the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland. I know that they will have many opportunities and that they will be great ambassadors for Scotland. The most recent dispatches have it that the fishermen from Vatersay have now reached Madrid and that the Vatersay Boys are turning the town over. On behalf of every Member of the House, we hope that all the 50,000 Scots who have travelled to Seville, fishermen or not, have a very good time. If I may echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I hope that the Celtic team bring back the UEFA cup and that the Vatersay Boys have a very good time convincing their Spanish colleagues—[Interruption.] The House will be able to tell how in touch Opposition Members are with the people of Scotland.

While wishing any Scottish sporting team success, may I say that it will be a surprise to people in fishing communities that the Government are making light of the crisis that they are going through at this time. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the European Union has had an underspend of more than €7 billion? Can she tell the House how much of the €7 billion-plus will come back to the UK, and how much in terms of extra resources will go to crisis-hit communities? How much extra, in terms of the extra resources that have been put on the table by the European Commission, is she fighting to secure in Cabinet?

The hon. Gentleman always gives just part of the story. I do not know whether he does so deliberately or whether he is merely ill-informed. The whole issue of fisheries support is on multi-year programmes. Until the multi-year programme is finished, it is impossible to comment on it. I should have thought that the election a couple of weeks ago would have taught the Scottish National party some lessons. Quite frankly, a party that lost eight seats—

I have just returned from Andalucia, which I visited with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. Its fishing industry is suffering a downturn and many of its fishermen face the same problems as we do in north-east Scotland. I understand that the first meeting of the No. 10 strategy unit took place this morning. Will my right hon. Friend give us a progress report and tell us how the strategy will be worked out in the future and how that will help the Scottish white fish industry?

My hon. Friend takes a coherent and reasoned view of the difficulties facing the fishing industry and does not indulge in scaremongering, unlike Members of some other parties. Official-level contacts in relation to the Prime Minister's strategic review have begun. I met several of the representatives two weeks ago when I was in Brussels at the sea fish exposition and I know that the fishing industry greatly welcomes the review. It will take some time before we know the review's conclusions because considerable issues must be addressed. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, shares the view that the review represents the most coherent way ahead to recognise the scale of the problems. Hard decisions might have to be taken but at least we will then know how to secure a proper future for the fishing industry and the fish processing industry, which is so important in her constituency.

The right hon. Lady is trying to imply that she is an active participant in discussions on the crisis. Her reply to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) did not make it entirely clear whether she was at this morning's meeting with the Prime Minister. Has she discussed the crisis in the fishing industry with the Prime Minister? Does she have any plans to meet the new Scottish fisheries Minister? Has she held discussions on the issue with the UK fisheries Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), in the past seven weeks?

Let me begin with the hon. Lady's last point. I discussed the situation of fisheries in Scotland in general with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary as recently as last Wednesday. I left the Prime Minister half an hour ago, and I have regular extensive discussions with the fisheries industry—as recently as two weeks ago at the sea fish exposition in Brussels. I recognise the difficulties faced by the white fish industry but we must remember that there are other fisheries in Scotland. For example, considerable action, some of which has been extremely hard, has been taken on the pelagic fleet and that sector of the industry is consequently showing considerable strength. The hon. Lady should not indulge in scaremongering. The issues are serious and must be dealt with seriously.

I am sure that Scottish fishermen would not consider the situation in which they find themselves to be indicative of scaremongering. I am delighted to hear that the right hon. Lady has met the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Will she assure us that she has discussed the UK Government's proposals regarding €150 million compensation for the white fish industry? Struan Stevenson, the Conservative MEP who serves on the Fisheries Committee, has secured the European Parliament's agreement to set that sum aside as compensation for the industry.

The Scottish Executive have already set aside £50 million for transitional assistance for the white fish industry, and that is already working its way through the system. I shall hold early discussions with the Scottish fisheries Minister as soon as he or she is in place. On the point on funding for fisheries, the state aids regime is being analysed by the European Commission. No money can be paid out, as I am sure Mr. Struan Stevenson knows, until the Commission reaches a conclusion on state aids.

Hepatitis C

3.

If she will discuss the issue of hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland at her next scheduled meeting with the First Minister. [113325]

I expect to discuss a range of issues at my next meeting with the First Minister.

I thank the Scottish Secretary for her answer. Surely the key issue is whether she will fight for the right of the Scottish Parliament to pay compensation and for a 100 per cent. exemption from the benefit clawback rules. If she will not do that, will she explain to hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland why on earth Scottish taxpayers are paying £7 million for the running costs of her office?

I should have thought that the hon. Lady would have learned a lesson when she saw the majority in her constituency plummet: scaremongering does not work. There are serious legal and policy-based issues in relation to hepatitis C. There have been extensive discussions between the Scottish Executive and the Department for Work and Pensions, not least on whether payments should be taken into account as capital or income when someone claims income-related benefits. Those discussions could not continue because of the Scottish Parliament elections. As soon as the Minister for Health and Community Care is in place in the Scottish Parliament, those discussions will continue. The issues are not superficial and the hon. Lady should not treat them in a superficial manner.

During the Secretary of State's next meeting with the First Minister, will she make clear this House's unequivocal opposition to proportional representation for local government?

As my hon. Friend is aware, those matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that he voted in favour of the Scotland Act 1998, which sets that out quite clearly.

Given the changes in public health laboratories and what might be happening both north and south of the border, can the right hon. Lady assure us that diseases like hepatitis C will be considered on a national basis and not broken up and devoluted to any part of the nation?

I read some strange words over the weekend, the origins of which I had never seen before, and "devoluted" falls into a similar category. I think the hon. Gentleman means devolved. However, he makes a valid point in relation not just to public health laboratories but to the Medical Research Council and its work, not least on diseases such as hepatitis C. There is a need for clear co-operation and clear guidelines to deal with such problems. Places like Edinburgh are world leaders in that type of research. Both the UK Government and the Scottish Executive are proud of that. We aim to ensure that such bodies are well funded and have the resources that enable them to make a proper contribution. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is very valid.

Winter Fuel Payments

4.

How many pensioners in Scotland will benefit from the £300 winter fuel payment for the over-80s. [113326]

We estimate that around 200,000 pensioners in Scotland will benefit from the £100 additional payment attached to the winter fuel payment.

All our Government's measures to help people cope with winter cold are particularly welcome in northern Scotland. Does my hon. Friend consider that those central Government policies will be valuably supplemented by the plans of the recently re-elected Labour-led Scottish Executive to extend free central heating to pensioners?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The partnership of the UK-wide winter fuel payment and the implementation of local initiatives, such as the warm homes initiative, has made a difference to people in Scotland, especially pensioners, hence the Labour-led Administration in Holyrood.

The increase in winter fuel payments for pensioners will be most welcome if they are received on time. In that regard, is the Minister aware of the complete shambles that accompanied the introduction of the working tax credit and the hardship that that caused? What assurance can she give Scottish pensioners that winter fuel payments will not suffer from the same bureaucratic incompetence and create similar hardship?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that winter fuel payments are going into their sixth season, if I can put it that way. As far as I am aware, there have been no major difficulties with their distribution. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has addressed some of the issues in relation to the transfer to the new working tax credit.

The March report for 2001–02 stated that there are £4.5 billion of unclaimed benefits in the UK, £500 million of which are in Scotland. Of the 11 most deprived areas in the UK, four are in Glasgow. Will the Minister approach the Chancellor to ring-fence all that unclaimed benefit so that it can be given to the poor?

My hon. Friend is well aware that the Government have never hidden benefits under a bushel, but have advertised them and encouraged people to pick up their benefits. The Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have consistently made it obvious that we want people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. I appeal again to the 71 Members of Parliament, each of whom is considered to be a leader in their community, to ensure that as much publicity as possible is given to benefit take-up, complementing the work done by the DWP and the Treasury.

Advocate-General

The Advocate-General was asked

Devolution

14.

What devolution issues have been raised since 8 April. [113337]

15.

What devolution issues she has dealt with since 8 April. [113338]

Since 8 April, 39 devolution issues have been intimated to me. They concerned a range of matters including delay in criminal proceedings, solitary confinement under the prison rules, offences that involve the narration of previous convictions, the requirement on the defence to lodge notice of intention to lead sexual history evidence in trials, and the use of evidence from now-deceased witnesses.

The Advocate-General will be aware that in my constituency there is a great deal of interest locally in the position of udal law, particularly as it relates to ownership and control of the seabed. That has led to the establishment of a website, www.udallaw.com. Has the hon. and learned Lady considered the position of udal law in relation to the seabed, and if not, will she do so, and offer appropriate advice to her Government colleagues?

I remember being taught about udal law at university, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman was. No doubt it has come in extremely useful to his constituents. He raises an important matter. Udal law has an important history in the Orkney and Shetland isles, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his legal background and training in a Scottish university, will be of great use to his constituents in that regard. With respect to the specific reservation in the Scotland Act, udal law is not reserved. I do not know whether I am pleased about that or not. In general, land law is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I enter the usual caveat: it all depends on the specific circumstances of the problem raised. Obviously, individual property owners must take legal advice on the extent of their own proprietorial interests.

I should be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend could explain the basis for the requirement on the defence to lodge a notice of intention to discuss sexual histories in trials.

A new requirement was introduced by the Scottish Parliament in the Sexual Offences (Procedure and Evidence)(Scotland) Act 2002. As a result of that Act, a number of devolution issues have been intimated to me. I mentioned one of them in my answer a moment ago. As yet, there has been no authoritative determination of the point that was challenged. I undertake to keep my hon. Friend advised when there is such a decision.

Human Rights

16.

What issues relating to human rights she has considered since 8 April. [113340]

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Will my hon. and learned Friend get together with the Attorney-General and the Foreign Office lawyers to consider the legal situation of two groups of people: Iraqi diplomats like Dr. Amin, who may have done nothing wrong, and is paid by nobody, with family consequences; and those like Tariq Aziz, who may have done a great deal that is wrong, but are nevertheless entitled to some kind of trial? We had better be careful about victors' justice.

I thank my hon. Friend for his advice. The general matters that he raises are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am sure my hon. Friend will find an appropriate opportunity to raise the matter directly. As regards meetings with the Attorney-General, my hon. Friend is aware that the matters that we discuss are generally confidential.

Devolution

17.

What devolution issues have been raised since 8 April. [113341]

Again, I refer the hon. Lady to the reply that I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

What difference does the Advocate-General believe her office has made in furthering the interests of the Scottish legal system and, indeed, the Scottish people, during the last couple of months?

It is important that the devolution settlement works well in legal terms. As the hon. Lady knows, one of my statutory functions is to look at Scottish Parliament legislation and deal with challenges to the acts of Scottish Ministers. I do so with the interests of the UK Government in mind, but it is in the interests of the UK Government, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people that the legal boundaries are properly dealt with. I try to do that as best I can.

Lord Chancellor's Department

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked

Legal Advice (Debt)

19.

What steps the Lord Chancellor is taking to increase the availability of legal advice on debt. [114232]

Assisting vulnerable individuals and families on debt issues is one of the key priorities for the community legal service. Through the work of more than 200 community legal service partnerships and with the support of initiatives such as the partnership innovation budget and the Legal Services Commission's methods of delivery pilots, we are devising new ways of delivering front-line debt advice services to local communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that some of the most intractable problems that hon. Members meet at our advice surgeries relate to debt owed by severely disadvantaged people? Such debt is often multiple and is owed by people who not only have limited incomes, but do not have the access to mainstream credit facilities that many of us enjoy. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious role for organisations that form part of the legal service partnerships, such as the Wandsworth and Merton law centre and the Merton money advice service, to which I often refer people? Those bodies need to be well known and easily accessible, and people need to have confidence in them. Only too often, people's response to debt problems is to stick their heads in the sand and not deal with them. What are the Government doing to involve such organisations in improving the services that are provided?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that issue. In particular, I wish to praise the work of the Wandsworth and Merton law centre, not least because of the presence of Bob Nightingale, who chairs the Law Centres Federation. My Department produced a pamphlet with the Law Centres Federation that highlighted not only debt problems but the fact that people who have such problems may also face housing and social security problems—a spiral of decline that can lead to social exclusion. The way of getting out of that is to ensure that good legal services are available. Through the community legal service partnerships, we want to work with organisations such as law centres and others to ensure that we improve the availability of that advice.

Given that in the last Parliament, the Government legislated to establish the principle of the levy of interest in cases of late payment of commercial debt and that, periodically, large numbers of citizens in this country fall into debt precisely because of late payment by Government agencies of benefits or other entitlements, does the hon. Lady concede that, in principle, there is a compelling case for establishing, as a matter of course, that when the Government have erred and are late in paying people their dues, they should pay them not merely the sum, but interest on top of it?

That matter has been looked into not only by this Government but by previous Governments. I rather think that responsibility for it lies with the Department of Trade and Industry, but I shall certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are passed on.

Law centres and citizens advice bureaux play a vital role in assisting people who get into debt and face financial exclusion, yet for the first quarter of this year, I spent much of my time fending off the possible closure of my two law centres. Only with the assistance of the Association of London Government were we able to pull those centres back from the brink. Even so, the Association of London Government does not have sufficient funds to ensure that the whole of London has adequate financial advice services.

Has my hon. Friend discussed with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister whether the "futurebuilders" programme offers us an opportunity to resource voluntary organisations and law centres in providing financial advice and debt counselling across London and the country as a whole?

I am aware of the work that my hon. Friend has put in on behalf of her local law centres, which she has raised with me before. Overall, contract funding for law centres from the Legal Services Commission has risen. She makes an important point about "futurebuilders". Some £125 million is available over the next three years to assist the voluntary and community sector in improving service delivery. Most of that money is for capital expenditure, but in view of my hon. Friend's comments I shall consider whether there are ways in which we can assist law centres, and let her know the outcome.

Magistrates Courts

20.

When he next expects to meet representatives of the magistracy to discuss recent court closures. [114233]

Magistrates courts closures are a matter for local magistrates courts committees. Where there are appeals, I am always happy to meet representatives of the local magistracy before taking any decision. I have received no requests to meet magistrates about courts that have already closed.

A few years ago, there were active magistrates courts in my constituency at Fakenham and Hunstanton, but they are now being concentrated in King's Lynn. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important for local justice to be seen to be done, and that for that to happen courts need to be close to the community? Surely, at a time when there is a need to restrain and control the increasing numbers of hooligans who are terrorising communities, there should be no further closures of magistrates courts.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is for local magistrates courts committees to take decisions about the courts estate. They have always done so, under previous Governments and under this Government. In the last year of his party's Government, there were 21 court closures; last year, there were six. It is right that magistrates courts committees should take decisions on the basis of a wide range of issues, including not only geographical access, but disability access, the availability of appropriate facilities for victims, and the state of the courtrooms.

Is it not the case that there is a continuing shrinkage not only of the number of local courts, but of the number of lay magistrates to serve in them? Several schemes for the closure of local magistrates courts are in abeyance, awaiting the outcome of the Courts Bill that is passing through Parliament. If the Government are successful in getting that Bill through Parliament, will the Minister give an undertaking that she will make it Government policy to maintain local, and particularly rural, magistrates courts; and will she give instructions to that effect to Her Majesty's inspectorate of courts administration, which is established by the Bill, so that it can inspect for locality and ease of access for those who need to use the courts?

It is important that decisions about local courts be taken in local areas. It is important not only to weigh up local needs, but to consider the facilities that are available for victims and other factors. As the hon. Gentleman will know, under the current arrangements appeals come to Ministers, and I recently overturned a decision to close Kingston courtrooms. I will always take decisions on the merits of the case. For example, unified administration offers the opportunity for the Court Service and magistrates courts to work together, which may increase the viability of courthouses in certain areas that are able to share facilities, but do not do so.

The Magistrates Association, of which I am a member, welcomes the recent Government amendment to the Courts Bill, which will require direct consultation with local benches on court reorganisation and other matters. Does the Minister believe that that will slow the steady flow of courthouse closures; and can she update the House on the continuing struggle between her Department and the abolitionist Home Office, which seems to dream of low-cost courthouses in remote regional locations that are utterly detached from the communities that they serve?

In fact, I can update my hon. Friend on the fact that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office have been working together on proposals around community justice centres, which are outlined in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. It is important that local communities feel that they have a strong stake in the local criminal justice system and the courts in their area. He is right that we have tabled an amendment to the Courts Bill to require consultation with magistrates. I am aware from discussing the small number of appeals that have come to me about magistrates courts closures that the local bench often makes representations, even though the magistrates courts committee and the committee of magistrates in that area have, in theory, made the decision.

The Parliamentary Secretary speaks about working together. Does she accept that that has resulted in a staggering 96 magistrates courts closures throughout England and Wales since 1997, with more expected? Home Office statistics reveal that public confidence in the manner in which we deal with the criminal justice system has plummeted under the Government. Against the clear backdrop of threat to local justice under the Lord Chancellor's regime as more and more magistrates courts, many in rural areas, are shut, how does the Parliamentary Secretary propose to shore up faltering confidence in the system?

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He should consider history. I know that he enjoys discrediting the history of Conservative Governments, but his previous party—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] That was a Freudian slip. In the last year his party was in government, three times as many courts closed as under this Government last year. Rural court closures in the last year of the Tory Government included Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove and so on. Between 1993 and 1996—

Order. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that when I stand, the lady sits. It is as simple as that.

Ethnic Minority Families

21.

What assistance the Department is giving to support family and personal relationships in ethnic minority communities. [114235]

This year, the Department made available £5 million to the marriage and relationship support grant programme. Out of the total grant programme, £800,000 is being spent on work that directly supports family and personal relationships in ethnic minority communities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and for the close attention that she pays to the issue. She knows that conferences have been held throughout the country, including at the Kirklees domestic violence forum in my area in Huddersfield and in the House last week, when the all-party groups on domestic violence and on children met. At that meeting, the point was again made that ethnic minority women are much less likely to come forward for help, despite their being at least as likely to experience problems. What can my hon. Friend do to help local groups that want to support women in their communities, create new groups and help people through the grant system, which they currently find difficult?

My hon. Friend is right to ask how we can improve access to the grant fund process. Every year, the Department, through application forms and feedback forms, looks for ways in which to ease the process. I would be more than happy to hear about any difficulties that specific groups, especially from ethnic minorities, have experienced, and about examples of how we can improve the system. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the fact that many people from ethnic minorities will not gain access to all the necessary information on, for example, remedies for domestic violence. We are considering a series of issues and methods of improving matters. Not least, we have translated into many different languages a guide that we recently produced about legal remedies for victims of domestic violence.

Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that support for family support groups, in focus and funding, does not sit comfortably with the Department's overall functions, and that it is not well done? Is it not time the Government modernised the entire procedure for support for ethnic minority families, and more widely, moved it to a Department that is primarily focused on supporting families in this country and ensuring that the support is properly given?

I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the delivery of service is poor. I think that, in terms of the number of people who are given adult relationship support, our record is impressive. The hon. Gentleman had a point, however, in saying that our support should be tailored to support for other things such as parenting. I assure him that I work closely with other Departments, particularly the Home Office, to ensure that happens.

President Of The Council

The President of the Council was asked

Sitting Hours

26.

What plans he has to propose that the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons review the sitting hours of the House. [114242]

:None at present.

I understand why that is, given the commitment from the former Leader of the House. I voted for the change in the hours with some enthusiasm, but like, I suspect, many other Members I feel that they have not turned out quite as we anticipated then. I understand that the Minister may not wish to return completely to the old system, and I would not support that, but will he consider, for example, returning to a 2.30 pm rather than an 11.30 am start for question time, while retaining the present starting and finishing times?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would welcome any specific points that any Member may wish to make about how the current hours could be made to work better, but as my right hon. Friend said when the issue was last discussed during questions, he is in no hurry to revisit it, given that only six months ago the House expressed its settled will on a free vote.

May I join those who do not think that the new hours are working very well? Indeed, I think that they are working against the democratic process.

May I also ask why, when I take junior schoolchildren on to the Terrace, I need a letter of permission from either Black Rod or the Serjeant at Arms to take a school photograph? That rule serves no useful purpose—and surely we, as elected Members, are as trustworthy as appointed Officers.

I imagine that the rule was established to protect Members from unwanted photography, but I will take up my hon. Friend's point because it has also affected me when I have entertained school parties here. I see no logical reason for such a formality.

We must all hope that the hon. Gentleman is protected from unwanted photography at all times.

Will the hon. Gentleman take careful note of the point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which reflects the extreme concern felt by many Members throughout the House about the dismal failure of the new arrangements? They have allowed the Government to get off scot free too often.

I do not accept that. Question time has become much more topical, and there are the new crosscutting questions in Westminster Hall. Taking the package as a whole, we see that the amount of scrutiny of Government has increased, not decreased, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply.

Does the Minister not accept that large tranches of very important legislation are leaving the House without being debated? There is not even the fallback of allowing some sections of the Finance Bill to be discussed up the passage in another place. Will the Minister urge the Leader of the House to review the position at a relatively early date? We want to know about experience with the new sitting times. Could we not use the time available on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to ensure that the House does its proper duty, and that legislation is scrutinised adequately before going on the statute book?

As I told the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the suggestion of a review is interesting. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—as a member of the Modernisation Committee and as Chairman of the Procedure Committee—has a specific proposal, he will wish to pursue it further. I think there is potential for use of Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to good effect, but to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the overall modernisation package means less scrutiny of Government—

It seems that I have impugned the hon. Gentleman. I am glad he accepts that scrutiny has become better rather than worse as a result of the package.

Cross-Cutting Questions

27.

What assessment he has made of cross-cutting question sessions in Westminster Hall. [114244]

:My right hon. Friend has as yet made no assessment of the cross-cutting question sessions in Westminster Hall, but I have attended most of them and my impression is that they are a useful innovation welcomed on both sides of the House, and that they are working well.

:The Minister says that the sessions are a useful innovation, but situations still arise in which Members table questions affecting a number of Departments, and those questions are referred to an inappropriate Department. Will my hon. Friend look at the issue of ordinary parliamentary questions on crosscutting issues?

I will certainly look at that issue. Perhaps my hon. Friend has a specific example of a question that he has tabled which he feels has been directed to the incorrect Department. I would say to him that this issue is usually handled with great expertise and knowledge by the Table Office, but I will take up any specific examples that he has with the Table Office.

House Of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked

Broadcasting Rules

28.

What assessment the Commission has made of the effects of changes to the rules on broadcasting within the parliamentary estate. [114246]

The Commission is advised on these matters by the Administration Committee, which has approved a trial for this Session involving giving broadcasters access to live interview points in Central Lobby and the Committee Corridor, and to two areas in Portcullis House. The Committee will review the experiment at the end of this Session, taking into account all the views expressed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response. As he will be aware, most of the coverage of this place by the media covers the theatre in this Chamber. As someone who is about to descend into—and who is looking forward to—several weeks on the Finance Bill Committee under the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and others, and who has served under his chairmanship in a Select Committee, I am keen that people should understand that a lot of work goes on Upstairs.

Is it the hon. Gentleman's understanding from the experiment so far that we are getting more coverage of Select Committees and Standing Committees, or is it just being used to give coverage to what the media might consider to be gossip in the Westminster village?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I believe that the experiment has improved public understanding and accessibility. Some 658 booked interviews have occurred during this Session; that is quite a lot. There are very strict rules under which these interviews must be conducted: they are supposed to be specific interviews with Members of the House on specific issues that are before the House. Those rules need to be carefully monitored and established, in order that we keep control of what I think is an important part of our attempt to explain—rightly, as the hon. Gentleman says—what goes on here. This also gives me the opportunity to say that the Committee would welcome any views, positive or negative, on how the experiment has worked to date.

President Of The Council

The President of the Council was asked

Government Amendments

29.

If he will make a statement on the number of Government amendments made to each Government Bill passed by this House in this Session. [114247]

The number of Government amendments made to each Bill is not held centrally, but the information is available from the Official Report, and from the Votes and Proceedings or the Standing Committee proceedings.

I was a member of the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill, which was one of the most excellent Standing Committees on a Bill that I have ever had the privilege to serve on. The Bill is now back before the House yesterday and today, and, unfortunately, about half of it is new to the House and to members of the Standing Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful!"]—although Opposition Members who are always crying wolf do not do us any favours when there is a genuine problem about parliamentary accountability.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether he feels that pre-legislative scrutiny of all Bills will help the House to scrutinise Bills effectively and to reduce the unacceptably high number of Government amendments that are made to all Bills these days?

Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He will probably know that we have already published four draft Bills this Session; we expect to publish several more in the next few weeks. I am confident that significantly more Bills will have been published in draft this Session than ever before. On my hon. Friend's specific point about the Criminal Justice Bill, I am please that his experience on the Standing Committee was a positive one, and I would remind the House that the Government have given an unprecedented amount of time to the Report stage in the Chamber—

:Yes, they have. No previous Bill has had three full six-and-a-half-hour days on Report on the Floor of the House.

Today's running order for the Criminal Justice Bill—by the way, it carries the words, "By Order of the Speaker", although that should read, "By Order of the Government", if I may say so, to protect you, Mr. Speaker, and your impartiality—shows, by my calculation, that the Government are allowing the House of Commons two and a half hours to consider 16 new clauses and more than 30 amendments, an hour and a half to consider three new clauses and more than 100 amendments, and a further hour and a half to consider four new clauses, one schedule and one amendment.

How on earth do the Government expect the House to discharge its responsibility for proper scrutiny of legislation when they are imposing such a timetable on our deliberations? Are not the Government yet again trampling gratuitously all over the House of Commons and denying Members of Parliament the opportunity to discharge our responsibility to our voters by properly scrutinising legislation? When is the Minister going to do something about it?

The right hon. Gentleman's fake outrage might carry more credibility if the Opposition had used the full six and a half hours that we gave them yesterday. They did not; the business ended early.

I am dumbfounded by that comment from the Minister. The fact remains that nearly 500 amendments and 28 new clauses have been tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill, dealing with the most crucial issues of life and liberty. The Government have effectively introduced a new Criminal Justice Bill on Report, so should there not be a process whereby the Bill is automatically referred back to a Standing Committee to receive proper consideration before going to another place, which, I might remind the Minister, is not elected and therefore does not have the same credentials as this House to examine those essential issues?

Many of the changes to that Bill came out of the 32 Standing Committee sittings to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) referred. [Interruption.] Yes, they did. Others have been introduced as a result of legal necessity, because of judgments in the courts outside this place. Would the hon. Gentleman like to suggest which other important measures, such as those on getting to grips with the scandal of killer drivers who get off with lenient sentences or the problem of firearms, his party does not want on the statute book?

Does the Minister believe that two and a half hours is adequate for talking about life sentencing, road traffic offences and firearms offences? Is it sufficient for the House of Commons? Will he assure us that, if the House of Commons gets that time, the House of Lords will get something similar?

The Opposition did not use their full allocation of time yesterday when we were debating the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman's false outrage would be more credible if they had. As I said in answer to an earlier question, no previous Government allowed nearly 20 hours on Report on the Floor of the House for any Bill. This is unprecedented.

House Of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked

Child Care

30.

If he will bring forward proposals to increase child care provision in the House of Commons. [114248]

The House provides help with child care through a child care voucher scheme for staff of the House, and also makes places available in a subsidised holiday play scheme for children of school age during the summer recess. This is open to children of Members, their staff, and staff of the House. The Administration Committee, however, is reviewing options for the possible extension of child care provision on the parliamentary estate and off site. The Commission expects to receive the Committee's findings before the summer recess.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply, but I am curious as to whether the Commission has considered the use of allowances to pay for such child care. Could Members do that?

I understand that Members can use allowances for child care for members of their staff, but they cannot do so for their own children. If the hon. Gentleman has any other suggestions to make about such matters, it would be helpful for the Administration Committee to have access to his views so that they can be taken into account in the finalisation of the review before the report comes to the Commission.

What objection is there to the establishment and maintenance of a crèche?

There are constraints on the House. There is no space available for the proper provision of child care facilities on site or immediately off it. However, phase 2 of our review of space is being undertaken by the House authorities, and I confidently expect that the provision of such accommodation for child care facilities can be taken account of in the review.

Modernisation

31.

What recent representations he has received on the modernisation of the House of Commons. [114249]

I am grateful to be called again, Mr. Speaker. May I—

That is what happens when one gets two bites of the cherry. In the past month, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has received four letters on modernisation of the House of Commons, one of which was from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Modernisation issues have also been raised with my right hon. Friend in informal conversations in the House and elsewhere, including during meetings of the Modernisation Committee, of which the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a member.

I am grateful for that reply, but bearing in mind the Minister's response to earlier questions relating to the Criminal Justice Bill and the huge number of additional clauses and amendments introduced by the Government, a very good case clearly exists for the House's finding additional time. Is it not sensible that the Modernisation Committee should give early consideration to this matter, to ensure that Parliament can do its proper job of adequately and fully scrutinising legislation that is of critical interest not only to this House, but to the people outside? I shall certainly use my good offices as a member of that Committee and as Chairman of the Procedure Committee to ensure that that happens.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished member of the Modernisation Committee, will use his position on it to make that very point.

Primary School Tests And Targets

12.31 pm

(Urgent Question): Will the Secretary of State make a statement about the changes to the primary school tests and targets that he has announced this morning?

I have published a document today, "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools", that sets out the Government's approach to primary education, copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House. It outlines an approach that joins high standards through a varied, rich and exciting curriculum with high standards of excellence and achievement through testing, targeting and tables.

We support the testing regime that we have established. We believe that tests mean that teachers and parents can track the progress of every single child. They help to identify those pupils who need extra support, as well as those who need to be stretched. Targets show what we need to achieve, and provide clear focus and an important means of measuring progress and improvement. Every organisation that wishes to succeed sets itself goals and targets, and we confirm that approach in our document. We believe it important to maintain the regime of performance tables, which gives information to parents in a way that enables them to use the information and make choices about schools.

Following our conferences of primary head teachers, we have taken a number of the sensible suggestions made by them to modify the application of some of these principles. Four points in particular should be noted. First, in future the target-setting process will begin with schools themselves for key stage 2, and local education authority targets will be set afterwards. Schools will set targets based on what they know about individual children's abilities, but also on high aspirations for the value that the schools themselves can add. We want schools to aim to add more value each year, and to look at the performance of other schools in similar circumstances.

Secondly, I have listened to concerns about testing and key stage 1. I believe that robust assessment is a vital learning and teaching tool, and that most teachers support that strongly. I do not accept that the sort of tests and tasks that children are set at key stage 1 are too stressful for them to do, but we will look at the way in which the tests and tasks are used, and we will trial an approach in which tests and tasks underpin teacher assessment, rather than being reported separately.

Thirdly, I have listened to concerns about the reporting of the achievements of children with special educational needs. We will consult to establish precisely how we should consider modification of our approach to deal with those needs. Finally, we are prepared to consider ways in which schools' broader achievements than those measured purely through the tests can be better reflected in the performance tables.

As well as outlining the changes that I have mentioned, the document that I have published today sets out how we will support schools in taking more control of their own improvement, and in providing children with a broad, rich curriculum, which we will support. I commend our statement to the House.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which enables this House to do its proper work of scrutiny.

The Secretary of State launched this morning what he calls a new primary schools strategy. I welcome this tacit admission that the Government's previous complacency about standards in primary schools has been completely misplaced. Just as his Department has caused uncertainty and demoralisation in secondary schools and among university students, so it has signally failed even to meet its own targets on primary school standards. Does he accept that the strategy does nothing to deal with the key issues affecting schools at the moment? Will he admit that it will have no impact on the school funding crisis that his Department has created, and will be of no comfort to head teachers faced with budget cuts? It is significant that, as he introduces the strategy for primary schools, thousands of the assistants whom he must rely on to implement it face redundancy because of the funding crisis. If he talks, as he did this morning, about more skilled adults in the classroom, what does he say to teachers and teaching assistants facing redundancy?

A signal of the Secretary of State's problems—indeed, it is always a symbol of a Secretary of State in trouble—is the fact that in his tour of the media this morning he consistently tried to misrepresent our policies. He has been saying, on the basis of my speech to the National Union of Teachers—I know he has read it because he keeps quoting from it—that we would abolish the tests. He knows that we are committed to testing—but not to the arbitrary targets that he insists on setting schools. I know that he would not wish to mislead the House, even though he wishes to mislead the media, so perhaps he will take the opportunity to set the record straight. The shift in his position on testing and the use of targets is breathtaking. Only last month, he told the conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers:
"The tests are here to stay, and so are the targets".
Today, he is changing the testing regime and abandoning one of his own targets. Is he genuinely moving towards abolishing the destructive regime of national target setting that has caused so many problems in schools? If so, I welcome his first tentative step towards our policies. However, given the problems that the targets created for his predecessor, I can understand why he would want to abandon them. If he is genuinely interested in scrapping these national targets, will he now confirm that he will abandon all of them—for secondary schools, colleges, and the 50 per cent. university admissions target—because they have had such a destructive effect on our education system?

I suspect, however, that today's announcement is merely a convenient way for the Government to shift responsibility for their own failures. Will the Secretary of State admit that his Department has failed to meet the targets that it set for literacy and numeracy among 11-year-olds, meaning that every fourth child leaves primary school unable to read, write or count properly? Will he also admit that his use this morning of the language of autonomy for schools is merely a hollow vehicle for shifting the blame, as his Department has admitted that it will fail to hit those targets? There will be no extra autonomy for schools that have already set local targets because the national target will still exist—it will just be deferred to 2006, conveniently after the next general election.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the real problems for schools lie in his Department's addiction to a regime of central command and control that sends teachers up to 20 pages of paperwork every school day, instructing them how to do their job? When he said this morning that primary education should be magical, did he not realise that that would be greeted with hollow laughter in hard-pressed staffrooms throughout the country?

This is not a new strategy. It is a smokescreen designed to hide the central fact that the Government are failing in primary schools, just as they are failing in secondary schools and our universities. With every week that passes, it becomes clearer that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department in disarray, letting down hard-working teachers as well as pupils and parents. Unless and until the Government stop interfering and start trusting professionals while giving parents real choice, his policies will continue to fail. Will he reverse those policies, because if he does not the failures of the present will be repeated in future and he will let down further generations of schoolchildren, teachers and parents?

Let us start with the facts—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear them, but, compared with 1998, about 84,000 more 11-year-olds are achieving the expected level for their age in maths, and about 60,000 more in English. The percentage of schools achieving below 65 per cent. in English and maths has been halved since 1998. The percentage of schools achieving 80 per cent. or more in English and maths has more than doubled since 1998. The lowest achieving local education authority is now performing at about the level of the average LEA of five years ago. The international test—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study test—demonstrates that England's primary school pupils are the third most able readers in the world, behind Sweden and the Netherlands, and that England is the most successful English-speaking country in literacy among 10-year-olds. We have a record to be proud of, which is why we will maintain the tests and targeting regime that we have established, as they have achieved so much.

Why? Because we know that, despite the advantages, more than one in four pupils are still leaving primary schools without achieving the expected level in English and maths. That is not good enough and it must improve. We also know from the different levels of free school meal provision, that there is a massive range of achievement—not just between suburbs and inner cities—at SATs level 4 at key stage 2.

We need a test regime and a targeting regime. That is the main contrast with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who told his new friends in the National Union of Teachers that he was announcing—I quote his words, as he wanted me to do so—"a bonfire of targets". He went on to say that he wanted to scrap the targets. Both the key stage 2 targets would be abolished and the key stage 3 targets would go, too. He said that he would get rid of the target for English and maths for 12-year-olds and GCSE targets. That amounts to a clear set of policies to abandon children who are not achieving, whereas it is our aim to help and support them in every possible way.

Why? Simply because 70 per cent. of pupils who achieved level 4 at key stage 2 went on to get five or more good GCSEs, and of those pupils who did not reach level 4 in 1997, only 12 per cent. achieved five good GCSEs. That reveals a serious failure, which, under the previous Conservative Government, led to 7 million to 8 million adults in this country being unable to read and write at the essential levels that we need. We are not going to repeat that, and I hope that the House will decide not to go down the path recommended by the hon. Member for Ashford.

The Secretary of State knows that I do not often rush to be the first to praise him for the documents that he produces, but this morning's discussion paper "Excellence and Enjoyment" is very good. In view of the inheritance bequeathed to the Labour Government in 1997—with appalling levels of achievement in literacy, numeracy and GCSEs—many of us understand why a strict regime of testing and targets was necessary. We have now reached a time for softening the approach, as demanded by schools, teachers and parents. Speaking personally, rather than as Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, I welcome the softening of the approach and the manner in which the Secretary of State has listened to so many of the articulate voices in the education sector.

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's remarks and I pay tribute to the way in which he, unlike some Conservative Members, has studied the issues and come to a clear view of them. It is critically important to maintain a national regime of tests, targets and tables. However, it is also critically important to implement them in a way that gives possession of the system to teachers and governing bodies in primary schools throughout the country. That is what our proposals are all about and that is what I believe they will achieve.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting the urgent question today. It is appalling that, on such a significant issue for the entire primary sector, an urgent question is necessary before we can bring the Secretary of State before the House to respond.

Liberal Democrat Members are constantly fed up of hearing successive Secretaries of State say that their targeting and testing regime is responsible for improving the quality of education in our schools. It is the work of our teachers, not the Secretary of State's targets, that has achieved that. If the Secretary of State spoke to teachers—including those in the National Union of Teachers, which he boycotted last Easter—they would tell him that the one thing that prevents them from raising standards even higher in our schools is his regime of narrow targets and testing.

Having said all that, we welcome the partial U-turn that the Secretary of State has made today. In lifting the pressure of tests on seven-year-olds, he has gone some way towards meeting our requirements. Does he agree that the key issue for parents—not for the Secretary of State—is the progress of their children? What they want is testing that is geared towards their children, to determine their needs. By retaining the element of central testing, the Secretary of State will remove opportunities for schools to achieve what parents want. How does he reconcile allowing schools to set their own targets for literacy and numeracy at key stage 2, while retaining a national target for other stages? That is contradictory. Does he accept that we have seen progress in science, at key stage 2—for which no targets have ever been set—rocket forward faster than either literacy or numeracy?

We also welcome the Secretary of State's comments about special educational needs. The tragedy is not the inclusion of children with SEN in the league tables, but the damage that is done to individual children with SEN and their learning. Regimenting those children into a target and test regime often does enormous damage to their learning opportunities, arid I hope that the Secretary of State will address that.

If the hon. Gentleman did listen to teachers in primary schools, he would hear them say that the numeracy and literacy strategy has been a tremendous success that they welcome and applaud. That is why we have today announced the extension of that approach to subjects other than mathematics and English. The hon. Gentleman would also hear teachers say that despite initial reservations about the operation of Ofsted, it has positively improved the provision of good quality schools throughout the country and has dealt with problems where they have occurred.

We have listened to teachers on these proposals. On the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raises, I completely agree that testing has to be geared to the needs of every individual child, but parents want to have some sense that their children at the age of 11—the end of key stage 2—are achieving certain basic national standards in maths, English and science. We need a national testing regime to ensure that parents know what the situation is.

The statement contains important news about our targeting approach. We believe that targets will be more effective if they are owned, controlled and determined by schools locally, and then aggregated. However, we would be failing in our responsibility as a Government if we did not seek to set national targets to raise the quality of English and maths at all levels throughout the school system. That is important, and it is genuinely extraordinary that some of the Opposition parties do not identify with such targets.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned special educational needs. We will consider that issue to meet precisely the point that he made. We need to ensure that the regime considers the specific needs of every child with special needs, and I believe that we can do that very effectively.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. The big improvement in primary education is a result of the extra resources that the Government have put in and the professionalism of primary school teachers and head teachers. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that in implementing the changes that he has proposed today the Government will have a lighter touch on regulation and perhaps show more faith in the professionalism of teachers in primary schools, with less need for the rigid regime that, to some extent, has begun to reduce some of the flair they can show?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he requests. I am the first to say that the people who make the changes happen are the teachers and the teaching profession, but others support them. For example, they are supported by classroom assistants; by the provision of more teachers, as has happened; by the production of good quality material, such as the numeracy and literacy strategy, which we will now extend to other areas; and by the provision of good quality data about students that enables teachers to focus specifically on the needs of each student. Each of those initiatives requires support, so while I pay tribute to the teaching profession, and the individual professionalism of teachers, I also confirm that we will continue to support that professionalism in a variety of ways, rather than casting teachers on the waves and telling them to get on with it.

The Secretary of State will forgive all of us for considering that he has created an impression of a certain degree of incoherence and panic. Last week's debate on school funding proved to many of us that the funding provided by his Department, and not by LEAs, was seriously lacking. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has been dragged here to make this statement, which shows that the Government's policies have failed. Will he explain why teachers, teaching assistants and school governors should believe that his current policy this week will be in place in two or three months? What credibility does his policy have with teachers?

The process that has led to the publication of this document is precisely the opposite of that described by the hon. Gentleman. As with our documents on secondary education and education in London, we identified some months ago what we needed to do with this document. We identified that we needed to set out a clear strategy for our approach, to consult the professionals—which is why we consulted more than 2,000 primary school head teachers—to listen to what those professionals told us and to see whether we could improve our policy. The final step was to publish the document for public debate.

That is precisely what we have done. The policy will not be changed according to any time scale of the sort that the hon. Gentleman might suggest. It is in fact a tribute to our approach that we have published the document after considerable discussion and debate, and after paying considerable attention to the key issues that need to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman would do better to give the Department credit for that, instead of trying to score a cheap and inaccurate point.

Will my right hon. Friend explain how the new strategy will help three primary schools in my constituency, where 95 per cent. of the children enter without being able to speak a word of English, and without having heard much English? Key stage 1 is therefore a very difficult exam for them, and the staff, to cope with. It does not really reflect the value added gained by staff and children in the period that it covers.

I very much respect my hon. Friend's commitment to fighting for the schools in question. She and I have discussed these matters on other occasions. The proposal made today will meet her concern precisely, as it will ensure that it will be teachers' rounded assessments of children entering school, such as those to whom she referred, that will form the report to parents and the public as to what has been achieved. That report will take into account the national SATs at key stage 1, but no more than that. The result will not be that two different scores are published side by side, as it were: one account will be produced by the teacher, and it will take account of the problem described by my hon. Friend. I believe that it will help teachers in her constituency properly to look after the needs of the children whom she has described in a coherent and comprehensive way.

The column on page 7 of the document entitled "Realising the Vision" states:

"Schools need stable and predictable funding arrangements."
Primary schools in my very rural constituency created stability this year by cutting their budgets to keep teachers and classroom assistants. Next year, however, the situation will be very unpredictable, and schools do not know whether they will be able to retain staff. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that?

The hon. Lady must not have been in the House last Thursday, when this matter was discussed at some length in an Opposition Supply day debate. I am sorry that she was unable to participate in that debate. I agree with her to the extent that it is right that there needs to be certainty about funding next year, 2004–05. I set out last Thursday a clear set of ways in which that will be achieved. However, I must say that the uncertainty caused by Opposition talk of 20 per cent. cuts in education is extremely destabilising for schools in the hon. Lady's constituency.

Having spoken to several primary school head teachers this morning, may I pass on to my right hon. Friend their congratulations—[Laughter.] This comes from the chalk face, and it is true. May I pass on those teachers' congratulations that my right hon. Friend has listened to teachers on this matter? Does he agree that the changes at key stage 1 are not causing a decline in standards, as teacher assessment is increasingly accurate because teachers constantly review the effectiveness of their work? Is not the change a real vote of confidence in teachers, allowing them to improve standards in a broader and wider curriculum?

I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. I believe that the experience of primary teachers in his constituency will be widely shared, including by their colleagues in the constituencies of Opposition Members. However, I want to reinforce a key point made by my hon. Friend. One reason why we felt able to take the steps on key stage 1 that we have taken is the increasing evidence that teacher assessment at key stage 1 is close to the SATs assessment. We can therefore have confidence in the professionalism of teachers to make the assessment in that way, as long as it is underpinned by the national SATs results. My hon. Friend is right to say that the change is a sign of our confidence in teachers. It is precisely because of that confidence that we can make the announcements that we have made today.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent statement by Britain's leading performance musicians that the current regime of testing, tables and targets is driving subjects such as music out of the curriculum, with very damaging long-term consequences? The same is true of sport. How does the right hon. Gentleman propose to rebalance the primary sector's priorities?

I am aware of the reported remarks of the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. I am having a meeting with those people later today for an in-person discussion about those matters, but the document is specifically about encouraging and improving the quality of the curriculum in primary education in respect of music, sport, the arts and modern foreign languages. All those subjects need more Government support in terms of materials for teachers, and a greater focus through existing work force agreements. We are therefore trying to meet the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, and the document is major step forward in that respect.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement? I have seen in my constituency that the testing regime has driven up standards, but it must also be right to review the regime with the benefit of hindsight to see how we can make it operate better in terms of meeting our targets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while it is right that we send a message to teachers that we treat and view them as professionals, setting clear targets is a very important way for parents, as well as the Secretary of State, to hold teachers and head teachers to account?

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful for his comments. That is why I find so disgraceful the suggestion made in some quarters that targets should be abandoned. Data from free school meal provision show very wide variations at each level in the number of children reaching SATs 4 at key stage 2. If we could only achieve the position where children in the bottom half of achievement got up to the level of median attainment at each of those levels, we would be well past the 85 per cent. target that we have set nationally. Our target is to improve all primary schools so that they can maximise their performance. This document commits us to that target. The Opposition are totally uncommitted to improving our schools.

Good schools, such as Summerfield primary school in my constituency, manage to provide a breadth of curriculum despite testing, targets and tables, as I found when I attended that school's May day celebrations. Why is the Minister for School Standards—who so ably but ill advisedly erected this edifice in a previous life—distancing himself from the Secretary of State by skulking out of shot at the far end of the Treasury Bench?

I am glad to say that all my colleagues are very proud to be in shot. We may not have generally commendable physiques, but we are very proud of what we achieve. I know that in the Isle of Wight the idea that the Conservative party is the party of the poor has already taken root. In that context, I am delighted that, as part of the new ideological shift, the hon. Gentleman was present at the May day celebrations to deal with the situation. However, I hope that he will agree that, in any school in his constituency, there must be room for improvement and for getting more children to read and write properly at the age of 11. He ought to be committing himself to that goal, as the Government are doing.

I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is showing extra confidence in the professionalism of teachers. However, will he say a little more about the importance of our strategy on tests and targets, especially in schools in poorer areas? An example of that is Northcourt primary school in my constituency, which, although it is the most improved school in Kent, is threatened with closure by the Conservative-controlled county council.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a critical point; the people who most gain from our testing and targeting regime are children in the poorest communities and from the poorest backgrounds. Our obligation is to drive standards up for them, even more than for everybody else. In the past, the Conservatives have not bothered about those people. That is their privilege. However, we, as a party, are going to focus on ensuring that the poorest people get the best opportunities.

Has the Secretary of State consulted his colleague in Northern Ireland, where there is not quite the same scrutiny on education? I welcome his comments on statementing, as we often seem to fail in that regard. Does he agree that in areas of need there may be a role for after-school homework clubs to help children? Experienced adults could help them at home or in the community rather than in the classroom.

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a great deal in the document about extended schools, including after-school clubs, breakfast clubs, weekend and holiday activities and so on, for exactly the reason indicated by the hon. Gentleman. The more we can ensure that children in some of the worst-off communities have opportunities for engaging and learning, the better will be their prospects in the future.

Following this change of policy by the Secretary of State, will he reconsider another decision, namely his extraordinary refusal to see a cross-party delegation of MPs from Leicestershire to discuss primary schools in the county and their funding? Better still, will he visit primary schools in Leicestershire, especially Cosby primary school and John Wycliffe primary school, as both schools, according to a report in the Leicester Mercury, are apparently having to make two teachers redundant? Perhaps he will listen to the primary school head teachers who are having to make cuts and the 24 teachers who face the axe. Perhaps then he will be able to tell the House how he has been listening to teachers.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to be in the Chamber last Thursday for the debate called by the Conservatives on that matter. Had he been present, he would have heard us discuss that question in great detail. Many Members raised constituency questions on the issue. We set out a clear strategy to deal with the precise issues that he mentioned.

Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that, in considering more flexibility, more self-regulation and more local self-targeting, we continue to be aware that we introduced targeting because so many of our children did not meet the aspirations that we wanted for them as they go through our school system? Many Members may have the wherewithal and the confidence to be happy with their own evaluation of their child's progress, but many parents throughout the country do not have that confidence. They rely on the state and the schools for testing and targeting to ensure that their children get a decent education.

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's comments. She is correct in every respect and I can give her the assurance she seeks.

What I find so depressing about the position of the Conservatives is that they have abandoned ambition and aspiration for children throughout the whole country, especially for poorer children. We do not do that; we say that everybody can achieve and that investment needs to go in at the primary point. The Government have an obligation to do what we can to help teachers and to strengthen their professionalism. These proposals are intended to achieve just that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that his earlier statement about the need for a broad, rich curriculum and his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on music and sport are an admission that, after six years of a Labour Government, those aspects have been squeezed out of primary schools—otherwise there would have been no need to take this line? Will he confirm that 75 per cent. of our primary school children are not receiving even the minimum of two hours physical education a week, with the result that our youngsters are less fit than ever and obesity is rising to record levels?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's figures, although I know that his obsession with Colchester United—the reason for which escapes me— can sometimes blind him to the general situation. However, I make the serious acknowledgement that we need to do far more about sport in schools, far more about music in schools, far more about art in schools and far more about modern foreign languages in schools. That is precisely what the document is trying to achieve.

I commend the excellent work being undertaken in Preston primary schools, especially at Moor Nook community primary school, which has seen huge improvements as a result of the Government's policies. Will my right hon. Friend comment further on the improvements in schools where there are difficult socio-economic backgrounds?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I recently visited Preston to see some of the achievements there and the way in which creative projects, like the playing for success project with Preston North End football club, can help teachers with their professionalism in precisely the aspects that he describes.

The choice is clear. There is our position, which is saying that we trust teachers, have confidence in them and want to support them, and that we want to set aspirations and do what we can to help; or there is the Opposition's position who say, "We don't care about ambition. We don't care about aspiration. We are not going to help and we are not going to move things forward." I prefer the Government's position for my hon. Friend's constituents.

The Secretary of State will be aware from the recent National Audit Office report that 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read properly, compared to only 7 per cent. in Sweden. He will also be aware that in Switzerland, where synthetic phonics are used to teach reading, children learn to read in two terms, compared to between two and three years in this country. His document refers to strengthening phonics, but how does he intend to tackle the problems highlighted by Ofsted, that at key stage 1

"teachers still do not give enough emphasis to the application of phonics"
and that
"there has not been enough improvement in the teaching of phonics in Years 3 and 4"?
How does the Secretary of State intend practically to tackle those criticisms from Ofsted?

The hon. Gentleman raises entirely legitimate points. I have met delegations from those who are concerned about synthetic phonics, to see how we could move things forward. The Department has held a number of discussions involving various academic experts in the field to consider how we could improve the programme. Our commitment is to ensure that the literacy and numeracy strategies are based on the best international knowledge and I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman's points are legitimate parts of that discussion. I am not going to commit myself here and now to any change of approach on those matters, but only to ensuring that we listen to the best possible evidence before deciding precisely what to do.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the outer estates of Nottingham, North are among some of the toughest educational environments in the United Kingdom, and that the combination of effective testing and clear literacy and numeracy programmes, allied to some heroic local head teachers and primary teachers, has raised standards immeasurably in that area? While bringing flexibility to testing, will my right hon. Friend none the less ensure that that clear framework is maintained so that, as he said earlier, the poorest children—those from the most educationally deprived backgrounds—can continue to aspire and to attain?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to his personal work in ensuring that such issues are raised; for example, sure start has made a major difference in his constituency. That type of address—the focus on raising standards, improving the quality of schools, bettering the condition of people going to school and providing proper support—will make a difference. The difference between us and the Conservatives is that we focus on that—they do not.

Why is the document not called "Nothing New Under the Sun"? The executive summary states that

"in future the target-setting process will begin with schools setting their own targets for each child".
Is that not precisely what good teachers and good schools have been doing for decades? Why has it taken the Secretary of State six years to catch up with a profession that he clearly does not trust?

The reason that the document is called "Excellence and Enjoyment" is that the whole primary education system should be about promoting those qualities. In many cases it is, but we have to spread that and take it forward, as the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge.

As for nothing new under the sun, when I hear the posturing of Opposition Front-Bench Members, I can only agree.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the inquiry that the Public Administration Committee has been undertaking into government by targetry? Although we have not yet reported, the evidence that has come before the Committee overwhelmingly suggests, first, that targets are important and should be retained by the Government; and, secondly, that they should be more flexible and that more of them should be set locally. I thus commend the approach that my right hon. Friend has announced today.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expert opinion. The key question is exactly as he suggests: how do we ensure that targets are owned and possessed by those who have to carry them through? The principal reason for the changes that we have announced today is to try to promote that. We have received evidence—we have listened to primary heads—that the current regime does not give enough weight to the views and opinions of those actually in schools in setting targets as they have to do. I hope that the system that we are putting in place will meet the ambitions set out by my hon. Friend.

I am very grateful to the House for opportunity to consider this urgent question because it is still not clear whether the Secretary of State has moved the goalposts, as it is unlikely that the Government will achieve the targets, or whether he is simply unable to deal with his job, like his predecessor.

The simple answer is that we have not moved the goalposts in any respect whatsoever. The national target that we have established for each of the years 2004, 2005 and 2006 is 85 per cent. We have said that very clearly all the way through. That remains our target, and it is what we seek to achieve and we will continue to press it. Again, I can say only that it contrasts starkly with the policy of the Conservative party, which wants no ambition or aspiration.

Of the 150 local education authorities in the United Kingdom, right at the very bottom of the league table for funding per primary school pupil is the county of Leicestershire. Can the Secretary of State explain how, with the new framework announced today, we can deliver premiership performance on third division funding? Does he accept that the devolved Administrations probably had it right in sticking with the key stage 2 measurements but abandoning the pernicious and counterproductive publication of league tables, which does nothing for schools in poorly funded authorities such as my own?

I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. As I have tried to set out in my answers earlier today, it is important to have a test regime and a targeting regime, and it is also important to publish the data, so that parents can understand exactly what the situation is.

When the right hon. Gentleman was appointed as Secretary of State, he said that Norfolk primary schools could look forward to a bright future—we are all very encouraged by that—but is he aware that Norfolk may well lose up to 90 teachers, with primary schools bearing the brunt, including Reffley, Fairstead and St. Edmunds county primary schools in my constituency? I was here last Thursday; I listened to the debate very carefully, and the right hon. Gentleman could not give Norfolk any real guarantee that there would be a way out of this funding crisis. Can he tell us today whether there is any real hope for Norfolk in this funding crisis?

I give the hon. Gentleman credit for being present during that debate, which was called by the Opposition, and, moreover, for participating in it and putting the points that he makes now. Unfortunately, I am not able to add to what I said last Thursday, but what I announced then will lead to a better situation for schools throughout the country.

Given that the reduction in primary school tests and targets urgently needs to be replicated in a reduction in the unprecedented paperwork burden on teachers, can the right hon. Gentleman now tell the House what his quantitative target for that reduction is and, if there is no such target, why on earth not?

We have a whole series of proposals in this area, where a great deal of measures have been taken. The quantitative material sent out to schools by my Department has been very substantially reduced in the past two years, as the data will show. I do not have the quantitative figures to hand, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with them.

Points Of Order

1.13 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you and the Ministers concerned prior notice. You will have seen that, in today's Order Paper, notice is given that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a written ministerial statement about housing benefit. You will have been as surprised as I was to see in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail this morning reports that set out the details of that statement and contain direct quotations from it by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, a press release containing full details of the announcement appeared on the Departmental website this morning, well before the statement had been deposited in the Library. Is it in order for Ministers to brief the press the day before and allow themselves to be quoted using exactly the same words as appear in the statement, so that the precise text of the statement is available publicly in the morning papers before it has been made to the House? Is that not a discourtesy to the House? Can you offer any guidance? What is to be done about such things?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. Written ministerial statements may be made at any time from 9.30 in the morning. It is of fundamental importance that they are not given to the press before they are made available to the House. In this instance, it appears that at least two newspapers had a copy of the departmental press release in time to print details this morning. Departments must not pre-empt the House in that way, and I look to Ministers to ensure that it does not happen again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has made a very serious and fair point. I wish to offer my sincere apologies and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the fact that news of our announcement on housing benefit sanctions became public before Parliament had been informed. That was a genuine error, and I assure the House that there was no intention to be discourteous. We gave notice yesterday that we would make a written statement this morning to announce that we would issue a consultation document on those proposals. A press release was prepared with the intention that it would be sent out after the written statement had been issued. I very much regret that the press release was mistakenly issued last night. We take our obligations to Parliament very seriously indeed and normally—as I hope you will agree, Mr. Speaker—we observe the protocols of the House when we make such announcements. I can only say how sorry I am that that did not occur on this occasion.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Not that long ago during questions in the House, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office made the astonishing assertion—he made it not once but a number of times—that Her Majesty's Opposition had not taken up the full allocation of time under yesterday's very tight guillotine on business. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that column 798 of yesterday's Hansard not only shows beyond doubt that a Government Back Bencher was speaking when the time expired, but it says:

"It being six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, MR. SPEAKER put forthwith the Questions necessary".
That was at 10.2 pm, which was the expiry of the time allowed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise to the House and to Her Majesty's Opposition for that error and that perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you will consider re-running that part of Question Time, so that the hon. Gentleman can give accurate answers to the questions that we asked him.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The information given by the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office was clearly incorrect, as even a cursory glance at Hansard would reveal. However, in case there is any glimmer of doubt in the hon. Gentleman's mind about our determination to pursue the arguments arising from the Criminal Justice Bill for as long as necessary, is there any opportunity, Mr. Speaker, even at this late stage, for the hon. Gentleman to table a manuscript programme motion that will extend the time available for debate this evening, so that we can properly consider the very many new clauses that the Government have tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill, without allowing them to pass to the other place without proper scrutiny?

Further to that point of order, the two hon. Gentlemen are both entirely right, and perhaps I can take this opportunity to apologise to them, to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House. The debate on the Criminal Justice Bill did indeed go the full six and a half hours last night. In response to the last point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), may I say that it remains the case that three full days' debate on the Floor of the House on Report is unprecedented for such a Bill?

Order. I hope that it is not on that matter; the Minister has apologised.

No it is not. I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me and I seek your guidance. Further to your very welcome ruling on the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that relates to advance briefings and leaks—the latest in a series of welcome rulings on this matter—can you offer any reassurance to the House that, when breaches of this kind occur, they will as a matter of course result in a requirement for the Minister formally to apologise to the House? Most Members would greatly welcome what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say today, but if it were understood that a Minister would always be required formally to apologise at the Dispatch Box, such incidences probably would not occur anything like so frequently.

The Minister came to apologise to the House, and in this instance, the matter has ended.

Medical Practitioners And Dentists (Professional Negligence Insurance)

1.19 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the holding of professional negligence insurance as a condition of registration to practise in medicine or dentistry.

It is generally assumed that doctors and dentists are indemnified against professional negligence, both for their sake and the patient's. Indemnity insurance for professional negligence is a mandatory requirement for several professions, few of which are in a position to inflict as much damage to their clients as a negligent or incompetent doctor or dentist. Sadly, that is not the case, and serious consequences can flow from it.

At present, staff employed by health service bodies are covered by the NHS indemnity scheme while they are providing services under the NHS. Private practitioners, however, are not necessarily covered by insurance. They may be members of the Medical Defence Union or Dental Defence Union and may have discretionary insurance cover, but it is not mandatory, and the provision of an indemnity insurance by the MDU is a recent development. About 40 per cent. of doctors in private practice and 70 per cent of dentists may not have the contractual certainty of insurance and are thus exposed to the risk of being pursued in the courts for professional negligence. Their patients are equally at risk if they are unable to pay judgments that the courts may hand down.

Such an example arose in my area. A dentist practising privately was sued for negligence because of the damage to one of his patient's teeth. It is estimated that it will cost £11,000 for further treatment to repair the damage so that he can use his teeth to eat. The court awarded £6,000 in damages and the costs were another £6,000, but the dentist declared himself bankrupt and has left the country without paying a penny. The solicitor who represented the patient has another 40 cases pending against the same dentist, and it is believed that about 1,000 patients have been similarly damaged by the same dentist. Clearly, he is an outstandingly bad example, and I do not suggest for a moment that that case is typical of medical practitioners. None the less, it illustrates what can happen.

The sums involved in medical cases can of course be much larger, especially in obstetrics where the delivery of a baby with cerebral palsy can lead to court judgments of the order of £3.5 million to cover the cost of a lifetime's care for the child. The bill for claims in obstetric cases to the NHS currently runs into billions of pounds, and, unsurprisingly, independent midwives are virtually extinct. Clearly, the current situation in which insurance is discretionary is not acceptable. Insurance against damage to third parties is mandatory for motorists. Professional negligence insurance is mandatory for other professions and an overwhelming case exists for making it mandatory for health professionals.

Clearly, the Government recognise that there is a problem, as the Health Act 1999 contains an enabling provision that would provide for mandatory insurance:
"Regulations may make provision for the purposes of securing that, in prescribed circumstances, prescribed Part II practitioners hold approved indemnity cover."
It continues:

"The regulations may, in particular, make provision as to the consequences of a failure to hold approved indemnity cover, including provision—
(a) for securing that a person is not added to any list unless he holds approved cover;

(b) for the removal from a list prepared by a Health Authority of a Part II practitioner who does not within a prescribed period after the making of a request by the Health Authority … satisfy the Health Authority that he holds approved indemnity cover."

In moving the clause in another place, the noble Lord Hunt, speaking for the Government, said:
"At the moment neither doctors nor dentists are required legally to maintain professional indemnity cover. Although those employed in the NHS, for example in an NHS trust, are covered by NHS indemnity for general medical practitioners and high street dentists, we rely on the guidance of the regulatory bodies and the professional organisations. We consider that to be unsatisfactory."
He went on to say:
"This amendment would allow the Secretary of State to require Part II family health service practitioners—those are the professions providing general medical services, general dental services, general ophthalmic services, or pharmaceutical services—to hold indemnity cover. I should say that the vast majority of those practitioners already act responsibly by arranging suitable indemnity cover for their work. By covering all, this amendment seeks to address the small minority who are not so responsible."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 March 1999; Vol. 598, c. 550.]
That was the Government position at the time of the Health Act 1999, but, sadly, the power has not been exercised. That is why I am seeking the leave of the House to bring in this Bill, the thrust of which is that in order to practice as a part II practitioner any health professional must hold a valid certificate of indemnity insurance, and that to practice without insurance would be an offence.

I know that the Government are seized of the problem and are considering a system of no fault compensation to operate in the NHS, which would address the acute public sector, but insurance cover already exists for NHS staff and patients. My Bill would ensure that there is protection in place for both practitioners and the public, in the public sector and the private sector. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Mr. David Lepper, Dr. Ian Gibson, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Vera Baird and Mr. David Heath.

Medical Practitioners And Dentists (Professional Negligence Insurance)

Dr. Desmond Turner accordingly presented a Bill to require the holding of professional negligence insurance as a condition of registration to practise in medicine or dentistry: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed [Bill 111].

Orders Of The Day

Criminal Justice Bill

[3RD ALLOTED DAY]

As amended in the Standing Committee, further considered.

Government New Clause 30

Determination Of Minimum Term In Relation To Mandatory Life Sentence

'(1) This section applies where after the commencement of this section a court passes a life sentence in circumstances where the sentence is fixed by law.

(2) The court must, unless it makes an order under subsection (4), order that the provisions of section 28(5) to (8) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (c. 43) (referred to in this Chapter as "the early release provisions") are to apply to the offender as soon as he has served the part of his sentence which is specified in the order.

(3) The part of his sentence is to be such as the court considers appropriate taking into account—

  • (a) the seriousness of the offence, or of the combination of the offence and any one or more offences associated with it, and
  • (b) the effect of any direction which it would have given under section 222 (crediting periods of remand in custody) if it had sentenced him to a term of imprisonment.
  • (4) If the offender was 21 or over when he committed the offence and the court is of the opinion that, because of the seriousness of the offence, or of the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, no order should be made under subsection (2), the court must order that the early release provisions are not to apply to the offender.

    (5) In considering under subsection (3) or (4) the seriousness of an offence (or of the combination of an offence and one or more offences associated with it), the court must have regard to—

  • (a) the general principles set out in Schedule (Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence), and
  • (b) any guidelines relating to offences in general which are relevant to the case and are not incompatible with the provisions of Schedule (Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence).
  • (6) The Secretary of State may by order amend Schedule (Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence).'.— [Mr. Blunkett.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    1.28 pm

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 31—Duty to give reasons.

    • Government new clause 32—Appeals.
    • Government new clause 33—Review of minimum term on reference by Attorney General.
    • Government new clause 34—Life prisoners transferred to England and Wales.
    • Government new clause 35—Further provisions about references relating to transferred life prisoners.
    • Government new clause 36—Duty to release certain life prisoners.
    • Government new clause 37—Mandatory life sentences: transitional cases.
    • Government new clause 38—Interpretation of Chapter.
    • Government new clause 39—Increase in penalties for certain driving-related offences causing death—and amendment (a) thereto.
    • Government new clause 46—Minimum sentence for certain firearms offences—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.
    • Government new clause 47—Certain firearms offences to be triable only on indictment.
    • Government new clause 48—Power to sentence young offender to detention in respect of certain firearms offences: England and Wales.
    • Government new clause 49—Power to sentence young offender to detention in respect of certain firearms offences: Scotland.
    • Government new clause 50—Power by order to exclude application of minimum sentence to those under 18.
    • Government new clause 51—Increase in penalty for offences relating to importation of exportation of certain firearms—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.
    • New clause 7—Prohibition on mandatory sentences.
    • New clause 9—Penalty for causing death by dangerous driving.
    • Government amendments Nos. 426 to 429, 223, 430, 224, 436 and 437, 228 and 229, 438 to 440 and 431.
    • Government new clause 41—Mode of trial for certain firearms offences: transitory arrangements.
    • Government amendments Nos. 325 to 330, 338, 342, 225, 432, 441, 303, 305, 442, 230, 226, 434 and 435, 227 and 259.
    • Government new schedule 2—Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence—and amendments (a) to (j) thereto.
    • Government new schedule 3—Mandatory life sentences: transitional cases.

    I shall speak to new clauses 30 to 38, with regard to sentencing for murder, new clause 39 on increasing penalties for driving offences causing death, and new clauses 46 to 51 relating to firearms offences. These proposals should be seen in the light of the overall changes that we are making to provide a sensible framework. First, in the Bill we have outlined the purpose of sentencing, on which there is accord across the House. Secondly, we have established the principles and a framework within which the judiciary can use its discretion. Thirdly, and crucially, by offering a clear response to public concerns and establishing clarity and consistency in the sentencing framework, Parliament will see a role for itself. In my view, no disagreement exists between the Government and the judiciary about the fact that it should have the discretion to make decisions in relation to individual cases. We do not intend for the new clauses and amendments to interfere with that. We want to reassert the role of Parliament that historically existed when considering cases of murder, and to ensure that there is clarity and a response to public concern about issues relating to driving, the carrying of guns and the use of firearms. I hope that there will be more light than heat this afternoon, and I intend to deliver the justification for the new measures in that vein rather than taking a bombastic approach on the need for greater responsiveness to public demand.

    1.30 pm

    There is no question but that the public are bewildered by how sentences can be reached when they know that the crime that has been committed was so heinous that there could be only one sentence: life should mean life. When the death penalty was abolished—I am wholly in favour of that—it was presumed that those who committed such an act against their fellow human beings would go down for the rest of their lives. There was a presumption that the removal of judicial murder would safeguard the interests of the community and send appropriate signals to both perpetrators and the wider community to show that we understood the nature of what was being done and those who perpetrated such heinous crimes.

    As Home Secretary, I have had the privilege and trauma of examining cases for which tariffs were set in which people had committed the worst possible crimes in our community. In cases such as those involving crimes against children, we have to consider not only people who have committed murder—horrendous though that is—but their actions and behaviour before the murder. I take no pleasure in saying this but it is important for people to know that those who have read the cases on to tape for me have done so in tears. The horrendous nature of the cases and the decisions that must be taken are such that it is difficult to get inside the minds of, or to predict the likely future actions of, the people with whom we are dealing.

    I do not apologise for saying that successive Home Secretaries of all political persuasions have intended that we should not only send a signal to, but deal decisively with, those who threaten the life and limb of others, by saying that such people should be given life sentences that would literally put them away for the rest of their lives. We are talking about such cases as multiple and sadistic killings, and when terrorists take the lives of others. In more traditional terms, before suicide bombing occurred, there was at least a way of sending signals to and getting retribution from terrorists. We are talking about incidents of child murder, which I have described, and the way in which people abused others before committing such a crime.

    The Home Secretary is addressing a matter of utmost importance. While accepting that in several cases life most certainly should mean life and that it is unimaginable that there could be any mitigating circumstance that would allow an exemption from that edict, is he arguing for life to mean life in cases of heinous crimes on the basis of a commitment to justice or retribution, or is he motivated by a consideration of the capacity to deter?

    I am motivated, as is indicated by the sentencing framework and the new purposes of sentencing, by the desire to show those who are engaged in such actions that there will be clear and unequivocal consequences. Such people are often the associates of those who are the instrument of the intended murder or those drawn into the situation because, on several occasions, more than one person has been engaged in the most horrendous murders. I am also engaged, as the guidelines on sentencing and on the purposes of sentencing set out, with the need to punish. Punishment means that there is an element of retribution on behalf of society. Those aims are not the least bit contradictory and that is why we were careful to ensure that they were not contradictory in the provisions on the purposes of sentencing.

    Does my right hon. Friend accept that although many of us agree with his view on mandatory life sentences, we also agree with the provisions in the Bill that would establish a sentencing guidelines council? Several of us think that the council would be stronger if it included him, the Lord Chief Justice and a senior Member of the House so that all arms of state were represented. Does he accept that his strong case for mandatory sentences for certain murders would find favour on such a council and lead to a consensus on sentencing but that if his proposals were carried today, there might be continual chipping at them by Members of the House and, above all, members of the judiciary? Surely trying to find consensus on an eminently sensible proposal is better than producing a proposal that might lead to further confrontation.

    I do not want confrontation in any sense and I do not imagine that we will have confrontation. We will re-establish what we thought already existed. In 1983, the then Home Secretary introduced the tariff system which, as hon. Members know, was overturned on appeal.

    I am trying to re-establish the role of Parliament and our democratic processes in relation to the most difficult crimes with which we deal and to establish, for the first time, the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which will involve people other than the judiciary, although the judiciary will represent the majority on it. That arrangement is designed to deal with the plethora of sentencing challenges that exist. It would be impossible for any Member of the House or the Executive to do that on an ongoing basis because so many issues and time-consuming questions must be addressed. That is why it is appropriate for the House to lay down principles and frameworks on the cases with which we deal today, for the Sentencing Guidelines Council to make proposals on the broader thrust of sentencing, and for the Home Affairs Committee and the House to return to the issues from time to time to appraise how the Sentencing Guidelines Council is working. That process has been a feature of Parliament since democracy and the franchise were extended and I am not trying to interfere with that in any way.

    I have a lot of sympathy with the Government new clauses. As the Home Secretary knows, this Parliament is still responsible for criminal law in Northern Ireland and several measures in the Bill already extend to Northern Ireland. Given that he is introducing new proposals, has he consulted the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on them? What response has he received from the Northern Ireland Office?

    I have consulted and I always take account of representations and concerns on specific issues relating to Northern Ireland. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks it appropriate, I would be happy to arrange a discussion with him before the Bill enters the House of Lords so that we can take account of any of his concerns and be responsive to them. I hope that he finds that offer acceptable given the complexities that always exist when dealing with the delicate situation in Northern Ireland, especially while he and the Prime Minister are making efforts to re-establish the Executive and to move toward elections being held.

    May we explore the extent to which the measures introduce arrangements that we believed already existed before the recent court judgments and the extent to which, in practice, a far larger number of people will serve either whole-life tariffs or greatly increased life sentences? What estimates does the Home Secretary have on the overall effect that the measures will have on the lifer population?

    We believe that in time there will be an increase in those serving life sentences and, as a consequence, an increase in that part of the prison population. That will inevitably take time to work through. We have done some work, not least in the past few weeks, to ascertain what changes occurred when the death penalty was abolished and when the tariff system was introduced 20 years ago. As with statistics generally, there are always perverse findings. The statistical data on the abolition of the death penalty were paradoxical because the taking of prisoners' lives reduced the length of time that they served for the most horrendous crimes. Prisoners whose lives were taken served only that time until the death penalty was carried out, so the overall length of time served by the most dangerous criminals was statistically reduced. I hope that that makes sense.

    As for what happened post-1983, according to surveys undertaken for a House of Lords report immediately after the removal of the old system and the introduction of tariffs, the tariffs set in the first six months of the new issue rose by 40 per cent. That fell to a third two years later. It would appear that the judiciary responded to the tariff system and the indications given by the Home Secretary.

    I just want to press to what extent we are putting in place what we believed already existed and the extent to which that represents a ratcheting up of the length of time that life prisoners will serve and the number of them who will eventually accumulate in our prison system.

    Let me give examples. When life means life for crimes that are committed in the most horrendous circumstances, that will ratchet up the length of time served, but only in line with what the House intended when it voted in 1983 and by its subsequent actions. Today I am responding to the judgment. Although I accept that it takes the tariff out of the hands of the Home Secretary—as I said, no Home Secretary would be sorry to see that go—we are trying to achieve the same result.

    In 1985, for instance, the trial judge gave a sentence of 20 years for an offence of rape and murder and rape and attempted murder by one individual. The Lord Chief Justice ratified that, but the Home Secretary increased it to 30 years. In 1996, the trial judge recommended 25 years for an offence of three sexual assaults and murders. The Lord Chief Justice affirmed. The tariff was 35 years. In 2000, three murders resulted in a sentence of 25 years. The Lord Chief Justice agreed with that. The tariff was set at 35 years.

    It is not difficult to see from those examples that, as a consequence of decisions taken by the Home Secretary, tariff setting increased the length of time served for the multiple crimes of murder and rape, which no one in the House would dispute are horrendous. I want to codify that within principles and the sentencing framework so that the decision is taken not by the Home Secretary now or in the future, but by the judiciary. Should it use its discretion outside the terms laid down by the House, it will account for that publicly in court, which is a reasonable and transparent way to behave in a free and liberal society, as the shadow Home Secretary described it yesterday.

    1.45 pm

    What has changed since April last year when the Home Secretary received the Sentencing Advisory Panel advice to the Court of Appeal? It suggested that the norm—the starting point—should be 14 years, the higher level about four years above that, and the lower level about four years below it. The advice also said that the 30-year tariff should be applied in exceptional circumstances only and that whole-life tariffs were not a good idea. It clearly recommended that young people should have nothing like a starting point of 15 years. I gather that the Home Secretary accepted that advice a year ago. What has made him change his mind?

    There has clearly been a misunderstanding. The Home Secretary does not ratify the advice of the Sentencing Advisory Panel. I have accepted no sentencing precepts for murder. I have continued in the best way that I can to fulfil the obligations and duties put on me to set tariffs for murders, including some of the most horrendous murders that were committed before I took over as Home Secretary. I believe that the sentencing principles and framework that I am laying down are correct. They are my suggestions, discussed with Ministers and my officials, and attempt to replace, and therefore to restore, the general sense of what Parliament required of the Executive in giving guidance to the judiciary and responding to it.

    I understand the Home Secretary's arguments on the full-life tariff and the criteria that have been established. Is it not the case that if we go down this road it is likely that more full-life tariff sentences will be imposed, as I think he accepted? In such circumstances, is a 30-year sentence for the next category down the scale the correct median point to be built up or down? It is our impression that that figure is rather high. It would be interesting to understand the Government's reasons for choosing it.

    It is a high figure. In the case of the murder of a police or prison officer, or a murder involving the use of firearms, we need to send a clear signal that such horrendous crimes warrant a more severe starting point for sentencing. People need to understand that life means life. That has not been the case because people who have been given life sentences have served anything but life. People need to know that there is clarity and consistency so that they have confidence in the system. We need to send those signals and establish a framework in which it is clear that such crimes—especially those in which someone has put his or her life on the line in dealing with the most dangerous criminals—warrant a more severe starting point for sentencing. We also need a minimum sentence of 15 years, which did not exist before, so that that, too, sends a signal.

    Let me draw breath for a minute. People cannot understand that when someone has been found guilty of murder—there are arguments about whether a transfer to manslaughter is more appropriate, and I understand those—the sentence that is served for taking a life does not always equate to other forms of criminality for which people at a lower level of the sentencing framework are serving longer sentences. People think, honestly, that we have all lost our marbles. They do not understand how, if murder is the most horrendous crime, others do not see that the perpetrators must be put in jail for as long as possible so that society demonstrates its common sense through its actions.

    Should not the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why it is being asked to approve a range of life sentence tariffs which are greatly in excess of the range set out in the practice directions from the Lord Chief Justice of May 2002? There, the suggested starting point was 12 years, rising to 15 and 16 years, then to 20 years, and only in exceptional cases, 30 years or whole life? The plain truth is that what we are being asked to approve is substantially in excess of what the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal recommended.

    Yes, I accept that entirely. I disagreed with the Lord Chief Justice's practice guidance. I happen to believe, and the House can take a contrary view if it wishes, that we should lay down a framework that will give the people of this country confidence in the system, for two reasons—first, that those who commit the most horrendous murders will get what used to be called, in old-fashioned language, their just deserts. Secondly, when people have confidence in the system and there is consistency in the treatment of the most difficult and dangerous crimes, they might be prepared to listen to a broader debate about sentencing policy, the sentencing framework and the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and about how we stop lower-level repeat offenders reoffending. We can have, in the House and in the country, a much more rational debate if people believe that we have got it right at a level that they currently do not understand.

    I thank the Home Secretary for his typical generosity in giving way yet again to me. In the next bunch of amendments, we will create a sentencing guidelines council, which is designed to achieve a broader-based consensus on sentencing across the board. In the present group of amendments, we are taking from the council's ambit a number of key offences—murder through driving and firearms offences. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if his case is as strong as I believe it to be—I know that he believes passionately in it—he could win his case around the table with the Lord Chief Justice, other members of the judiciary, and a broader-based group including prison governors and police officers, being present, himself as a full member? That would be a way of making sentencing command public support not just today, because of an impassioned argument arising from a particular offence, but for a long time, so that we could end the problem of megaphone diplomacy between his Department, the judiciary and others who are concerned about the issue? Will my right hon. Friend put the offences before the Sentencing Guidelines Council and get consensus?

    If I believed it was appropriate, following the decision on tariffs, simply to leave the matter to the future, I would have done so. We cannot do that. As we made clear at the beginning of the year, we must make decisions about how we proceed following the judgment. I believe that these are decisions that should be taken by the House. We cannot deal with the multiplicity of sentencing guidance required, and I could not possibly sit on the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I have a slot each day somewhere between 12 midnight and 5.30 am.

    I could depute someone. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) would probably not be too pleased if I put him on such duties as well, although he would perform them extremely well, on the basis of yesterday's performance.

    My hon. Friend has volunteered, and I have every confidence that he would come to the same conclusions as the House will reach later this afternoon. We know that there are certain cases on which the House has historically ruled, such as when it ruled that there should, and eventually that there should not, be a death penalty, and the kind of sentences that we are debating this afternoon arising from death by dangerous and careless driving or firearms offences. There have been certain historic sentences for which the House has taken responsibility.

    It is right that the House should take responsibility. Democracy is the stronger for politicians who take decisive action, who are seen to be held to account, and who can say to the public, "If you make representations to us, if you want to change, we are here and available to make it happen." In our democracy, people are not aggravated by politicians taking responsibility and making decisions. They are fed up with politicians not taking responsibility, not making decisions, not making them fast enough and not responding effectively to rapid change economically, socially and in the criminal justice system.

    I am grateful to the Home Secretary and to my hon. Friend. I agree with the Home Secretary in the sentiments that he expressed, but it is important, is it not, that Parliament should not raise unrealistic expectations about what it intends to do, which prove not to be feasible? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the guidelines on sentences. That sends out a signal about what Parliament wants, but in view of the way that they are framed, and in view of the fact that the 15 and 30-year sentences may be considered too high by the judiciary, it may well not be what the public get. Will not that bring Parliament into disrepute, as much as the judiciary?