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Commons Chamber

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 18 June 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


Mr Speaker's Absence

The House being met, the Clerk at the Table informed the House of the absence of MR. SPEAKER from this day's sitting, pursuant to leave given on 16 June.

Whereupon, SIR ALAN HASELHURST, THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, proceeded to the Table, and after Prayers, took the Chair as DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Private Business

Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Read a Second time, and referred to the Examiners.

Committee Of Selection


That Keith Hill and Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Mr. Bob Ainsworth and Jim Fitzpatrick be added to the Committee.— [Mr. Heppell.]

Oral Answers To Questions

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked

Antisocial Behaviour


What his Department's role is in reducing antisocial behaviour in local communities. [119747]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Phil Hope)

The Government recognise the impact that antisocial behaviour can have on local communities and people's quality of life. That is why we are taking strong and concerted action across Government to tackle problems of antisocial and nuisance behaviour. Examples of action being taken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister include neighbourhood warden schemes, new measures to deal with antisocial tenants, and a new package of more than £200 million to create cleaner, safer, more attractive local environments.

I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate him warmly on his appointment.

Last Friday, I visited Inspector Holland, at Swanage police station, to discuss antisocial behaviour in that part of my constituency. He informed me of the reluctance of many local agencies to use their existing powers for antisocial behaviour orders. Will the Minister assure me that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will issue clear guidance on how councils should use the new powers in the legislation that we are currently examining in this place and elsewhere, so that, even in Tory councils, where they are happy to do nothing and then blame the Government, we can ensure that the problem of antisocial behaviour is tackled properly throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

I agree that it is important that local agencies make use of all the powers available to them to tackle antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend has been at the forefront of local campaigns to reduce that problem in his constituency, pressing local councils to take more decisive action. I take this opportunity to urge all councils to use their new powers and the new resources that the Government have provided to tackle a problem that blights too many of our local communities.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new appointment.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can be held personally responsible for the new £200 million package to which he referred, but I am keen to know his view on how that package of measures to get rid of antisocial behaviour ties in with the Licensing Bill, to which we gave a Third Reading only the other night, and its plans to allow 24-hour drinking on all our streets—especially as regards central London.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

The hon. Gentleman must understand that we are working across Government to implement a range of programmes to tackle antisocial behaviour, so that on our streets we see new neighbourhood wardens and new community support officers who will be working hard in their areas, with local communities, doing a different job from that of the police, to tackle the kind of problem to which he referred. I am confident that they will be able to take serious steps to reduce crime rates and to ensure that the trend continues downward.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to the Treasury Bench in a long-overdue promotion.

As one of my hon. Friend's first duties, will he arrange a meeting with his counterpart at the Department for Education and Skills? My hon. Friend will know from his previous work that one of the keys to tackling antisocial behaviour is developing parenting and social skills in young people before they become antisocial. Will he discuss that with the DFES and consider asking his colleagues to include those skills for young people in the national curriculum?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. As well as measures to tackle crime, we are introducing measures to tackle the underlying causes of crime—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] My hon. Friend is right to point that out. Many of our constituencies benefit from programmes such as sure start, as well as from the children's fund, from Connexions and the youth service, which work with young people and families to deal with problems of low self-esteem and under-achievement at school. Those programmes are raising standards, attainment and aspirations in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our communities.

I, too, warmly welcome and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position. He was a distinguished Back Bencher and I am sure that he will quickly get used to defending the indefensible.

Although the hon. Gentleman has been at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for only a short time, does not he feel a degree of embarrassment that the average number of antisocial behaviour orders is less than 5 per cent. of what the Government predicted? Does he blame local councils for that, or is the real culprit a Government who mistake press releases for law enforcement? Local authorities can use such orders only against a backdrop of neighbourhood policing, so will he support the Conservative call for an extra 40,000 police officers on our streets?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I am glad that I do not have to defend a record of crime doubling under the Conservatives or to go into the next general election defending a pledge to cut public spending by 20 per cent. The facts are that there have been 785 antisocial behaviour orders up to last November, that the threat of such orders can have an impact on reducing crime and that the new Antisocial Behaviour Bill, which I hope the Conservative party will stop its foolish opposition to and start to support, will introduce new measures to clamp down on such problems in our communities.

Council Housing

If he will make a statement on his policy on funding council housing. [119748]

Our policy is to enable local authorities properly to manage and maintain their stock, while charging fair and affordable rents. All councils are required to bring their stock up to the decent homes standard. Indeed, since 1997, we have reduced the number of non-decent social homes by 500,000, and we are on track to ensure that all social housing is decent by 2010.

In a recent report in Property People, Lord Rooker is quoted as telling tenants in Hammersmith and Fulham that there would be "no exceptions" to the policy of making councils choose between stock transfer, the private finance initiative or arm's length management organisation options. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether that report is accurate? If it is not, will he assure the tenants who vote against those options that their local authorities will be adequately funded to meet the Government's very worthy decent homes target?

My hon. Friend exactly reports the options that we have got. The three options, as reported by Lord Rooker, are absolutely right, but there is an option for local authorities to stay with their housing stock if they wish. Those are the choices that they have, but we have made considerable changes and investment in housing has gone from about £750 million to £2.1 billion—a tremendous increase, against the Tory record of reducing housing investment every year.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, at the end of 1997, 25,000 social houses were built in this country, but by the end of last year, the figure had fallen to 14,500 social houses built six years into a Labour Government? Why has that happened? Is not he ashamed that a Labour Government have turned their back on some of the country's poorest people?

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to say that—he belonged to a Government who had a housing record that was, frankly, scandalous. They left us with a £19 billion disinvestment, which we have just referred to, and a year-on-year decrease in housing investment. As I told the House when I launched the sustainable community package, the record in housing of all Governments, over decades, has been poor and unacceptable. That is why we have invested the largest amount of money ever given to a housing programme—£22 billion. We intend to reverse the trend, and we have made major changes in improving the housing stock. The amount of money available is not enough to meet every demand, but it reverses the decline that we saw under the Tories, who produced a massive repair backlog and a year-on-year decrease and gave away £40 billion in subsidising the right to buy, instead of improving homes for the people. Half a million homes were repossessed between 1990 and 1997. That is the record of a Tory Government, and we will not take any lecture from them on housing policy.

My right hon. Friend will have seen the report from Hammersmith and Fulham, which was well prepared and indicated that tenants wanted to stay with the council. Indeed, I gave evidence to that very excellent committee. However, one of the problems in Ealing—another part of my constituency—is that a Conservative council doubled the rent overnight. When that happens, as I pointed out to the tenants, one of the problems of remaining under council control is that they become victims of political change at very short notice. If we want good quality housing in this country, we need a genuine long-term commitment, free of that sort of political gerrymandering of rents.

Indeed, that is the record that we inherited, and we have given local authorities the option to change from that system and to have a greater opportunity for continuity, to get the proper investment and to have decent quality homes. That is the dividing line between our policies and those that we inherited from the Tories.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister regard it as indispensable, in order to meet his communities plan targets, for private developers to be given access to Housing Corporation loans?

Housing Corporation funding is available for that and has been used in the past. We are looking at a range of public and private financing. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows from his experience in government, the reality of the housing situation is that there is a lack of adequate resources. We have turned more to using public and private resources to lift the amount of investment for housing. We are considering using private resources for housing corporations.

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), council tenants in my constituency warmly welcome the Government's commitment to the decent homes target and the extra funding that has been made available for council housing. However, they are against stock transfer and want to remain with the local authority. Will my right hon. Friend assure them that if they stay with the local authority, funding will still be available for the decent homes target to be met?

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He must know from his experience on housing that the disinvestment that occurred in the local authority housing stock means that something like £19 billion has to be found. We have to restart a housing programme. There are major problems in the south and the north and we need resources from public and private sources as well as the Exchequer. Given those circumstances, we have had to say that we will try to provide adequate funding for those who want to stay with local authorities, but we have provided alternatives, which the majority of councils are using to bring together public and private financing so that investment in housing to correct the disinvestment can be achieved more quickly.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister willing to consider the project just down the road at Elephant and Castle, which he knows about, and the project on the Aylesbury estate, which he and I have talked about, to find out how we can achieve what he told his colleagues? Where a regeneration scheme that is supported by the Government is going ahead, is there a way in which people who want to be council tenants can be assured of the same funding for new homes in the public sector as would be available if they transferred to registered social landlords?

Yes, but I have made it clear that there are a number of choices: regeneration programmes, private finance initiative programmes, stock transfer programmes and ALMO programmes. They all represent different approaches and they increase resources. I am trying to be fair to all sectors of the housing community, which is what the programmes are about. [Interruption.]

Order. May I say to the House that there are far too many extraneous conversations going on, the total volume of which is making it difficult to hear both questions and answers?

Regional Government

What representations he has received concerning the case for a referendum on regional government in Yorkshire. [119750]

On Monday 16 June, I announced that Yorkshire and Humberside would be one of the first regions to move toward a referendum for an elected assembly. Our soundings exercise shows that there is a high level of interest in the referendum across all groups and interests in the Yorkshire and Humberside region.

If the Yorkshire and Humberside assembly is to have effective powers to plan integrated public transport throughout the region and perhaps to initiate measures such as a region-wide concessionary fare pass for pensioners, will there be a continuing need for separate passenger transport authorities in west and south Yorkshire?

There is no intention of changing the passenger transport authorities at this stage—I think that they are doing quite a good job. Of course, the regional dimension of transport is important. We would give an assembly, especially an elected assembly, the opportunity to make decisions on transport in the regions, and in the context of a region, rather than only with regard to an area covered by a passenger transport authority. A passenger transport authority not only plans for the area for which it is responsible, but has responsibility for delivery. I am sure that there will be a close working relationship between the bodies.

May I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and add my congratulations to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), on his arrival to the Front Bench? After his time with me on the Public Accounts Committee, I was unsurprised by his characteristically good opening performance.

The Deputy Prime Minister's idea of a good response is 833 people in favour of a referendum out of 5 million people in Yorkshire and Humberside. If a referendum is a good idea when 833 people want one, why is it a bad idea when 1.7 million people want one?

The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to 8,000. As I think we made clear in our exchanges yesterday, that does not represent the total number of people who expressed a point of view. There were 50,000 people overall. Responses on petitions, for example, which may include thousands or hundreds of signatures, were considered as one response. We have had exchanges on the subject before. I justified the decision to the House on the basis that the three northern areas have shown an overwhelming interest in a referendum. We intend to give them that opportunity. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the one county council in our Yorkshire area—the Tory North Yorkshire county council—also wanted the referendum. I am happy to agree to that.

I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman returns to the principle of the block vote in his calculation of who supports his idea and I look forward to meeting him on the hustings. BBC "Look North", not known as a Tory front organisation, particularly as his son works for it, carried out a survey this week of 5,000 people—five times the number of people who responded to the right hon. Gentleman in Yorkshire—and nine out of 10 thought that regional assemblies were a bad idea. Why does he still insist on spending millions of pounds of public money and disrupting perfectly good local government to pursue his obsession with this daft idea?

The same BBC carried out a poll that said that 72 per cent. wanted a referendum. I am prepared to accept that. There will be a referendum and by God I look forward to debating that with the right hon. Gentleman.

Home Energy Efficiency

What plans he has to issue guidance to local planning authorities concerning minimum energy efficiency standards in (a) new and (b) existing housing. [119751]

Although we have no plans to issue specific guidance to planning authorities on energy efficiency standards for housing, the Government have recently brought in a number of measures to help improve energy efficiency in homes.

For example, the new building regulations, which came into effect just over a year ago, are expected to improve energy performance in new homes by some 25 per cent. The draft housing Bill, published in March this year, aims to replace the present fitness standard with a new housing health and safety rating system, which will allow local authorities to tackle cold hazard in existing homes, especially in the private rented sector. Also, our so-called "decent home" programme, begun in the year 2000 and to be completed in 2010, will bring all social housing and much private rented accommodation up to a reasonable degree of warmth through more efficient heating and better insulation.

I am grateful for that reply, but is my hon. Friend aware that as many as 100 local authorities have reported pathetic and paltry increases in domestic energy efficiency of as little as 1 per cent. in their areas since 1996? Is he prepared to wield the big stick and issue directions to them to up their performances?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is a doughty and knowledgeable campaigner on green issues. However, this time she has not got it quite right. The truth is that energy conservation authorities report improvements in domestic energy efficiency on an annual basis. Only one local authority reported a total overall improvement of 1 per cent. or less since 1996. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that we expect local authorities to continue improving their performance on domestic energy efficiency. To that end, the energy White Paper contains the commitment to review existing guidance to energy conservation authorities on complying with the requirements of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as a Minister. Will he admit that the Government have not done enough to improve energy efficiency in houses? In particular, they have failed to take advantage of design conditions that would improve energy efficiency by maximising the use of natural daylight and heating. Will he introduce plans to encourage local authorities to improve their planning process to ensure that energy efficiency is paid the highest regard in new housing?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman., but I am grateful for his kind remarks. As I said, there are no plans to issue further guidance relating solely to energy efficiency in housing. However, many of our initiatives cover such matters more generally. For example, we are currently examining, together with other Departments, how to bring the use of renewables and the improvement of energy efficiency and its development more within the scope of the planning system. We are proceeding in the context of the review of planning policy guidance note 22 and the Government's wider planning reforms in a way that will not impose undue burdens on developers.

Local Government

What progress he has made with the balance of funding review of local government. [119752]

The steering group's first meeting on 28 April discussed key issues from the local and central Government perspectives. Our next meeting on 25 June will consider papers on principles, accountability, equalisation and international comparisons, along with proposals for further research. We will invite interested parties to submit papers later this summer.

What greater freedoms and responsibilities will that allow local authorities?

As my hon. Friend knows, we set out in our White Paper, which we published 18 months ago, proposed extensions of freedoms and flexibilities to local authorities, and we are legislating for that in our current Local Government Bill. However, the balance of funding review will explore a number of channels in which it is possible to extend that agenda to offer greater freedom for local authorities, particularly where that helps to drive up their performance and deliver higher quality services to their residents.

Does the Minister acknowledge that there can be a significant shift in the balance of funding only if local government has a fair local tax base? Will the Minister's review therefore consider scrapping the unfair Tory council tax? Does he not recognise that for councils like Kingston, which already raises 41 per cent. of its budget through the unfair council tax, the unfairness of the tax means that the burden on pensioners and those on low incomes is already far too harsh?

We have not ruled out any options from the review. We will take a broad view and consider a range of options. However, before rushing to precipitate conclusions, the hon. Gentleman ought to give consideration to one important factor: the ease of collection of forms of taxation. He will realise that there are certain advantages in taxation systems that relate to property, where evasion is much more difficult than with some of the other types of taxation that I know the Liberal Democrats tend to favour.

National Assembly For Wales

If he will submit evidence to the commission on the powers and electoral arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales. [119753]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Yvette Cooper)

The Government have provided the Richard commission with a memorandum of evidence. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has given oral evidence. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has not been invited to give evidence and would not expect to do so.

Before the reshuffle, the Deputy Prime Minister had overall control of relations between the UK Government and the National Assembly for Wales. Does he retain that position, and if so, what is the role of the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Is he, perhaps, head of a new Department of administrative affairs?

The position was set out last week. The Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for regional government in the English regions. My noble Friend the Lord Falconer is responsible for overall devolution issues arising out of the Act of Settlement, and the five people currently responsible for those settlement issues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are moving to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as set out last week.

On Monday the Deputy Prime Minister said that some of the regional assemblies in England would be accorded tax-varying powers. Why has that consistently been ruled out for the Welsh Assembly?

That was not what my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said this week.

Postal Ballots

When he last met the Electoral Commission to discuss the all-postal vote pilot ballots and their possible extension. [119756]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Yvette Cooper)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions met the chair of the Electoral Commission on 22 May. Issues discussed included the highly successful pilot schemes held in May.

Given the success of the schemes and the increased turnout, is it not important that in 2004 at the local elections and the Euro elections, people still have the chance of all-postal ballots? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that that happens?

My hon. Friend is right that the all-postal ballots increased turnout on average from about 33 per cent. to just under 50 per cent. We are looking at the implications for the combination of the Euro elections and the local government elections next year.


How many homeless households have been accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hostels since 1997. [119757]

I have placed in the Library a table detailing the number of homeless households accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hotels since 1997. The number increased from an average of about 4,400 in 1997 to more than 13,000 by the end of September 2002. That is plainly unsatisfactory and we have been taking action to address the issue, especially where it affects children. I am pleased to say that figures published yesterday show a fall in the number of such households to 12,200 in March this year. Importantly, the number of families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has been reduced even more significantly, by almost 30 per cent. over the past year.

I shall certainly look at those figures. It is nice to hear a Minister admit that something has gone wrong. Why does he think that it has gone wrong so dramatically?

There are a variety of reasons, including such sadnesses as family break-up and evictions, and the general increase in house prices. The Government are committed to dealing with these things and we are investing new funds in social housing to eradicate the scourge of homelessness in our society.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Ql. [119732]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 June.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reject the artificially generated hysteria about the Convention on the Future of Europe? Will he confirm that, when it comes to the ratification of any future European treaty. he will do exactly what previous Conservative Prime Ministers have done—reject a referendum and ratify through an Act of Parliament in this House?

That is the procedure that we will follow. Of course, we have said that, should we recommend to people that we join the European single currency, there will be a referendum on that issue. There is no need to have a referendum on the Convention or the intergovernmental conference because they do not alter the fundamental constitutional arrangements. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important to reject the position of those who, as we have seen from the Conservative spokesman on the Convention, would want to change the essential terms of Britain's membership of the European Union.

Yesterday, the new Leader of the House—part-time Leader of the House—said that he had given up a third of his job in order to be an effective Welsh Secretary. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how much time the Secretary of State for Transport has given up to be an effective Scottish Secretary?

My right hon. Friend will spend as much time on Scottish affairs as is required, as he has already said, but let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman what the Conservative position is on the Secretary of State for Scotland. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"] The position on which he stood at the last election is this—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"] This is what the Conservative manifesto said: "We will keep"—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"]

Order. I appeal for calm and dignity in the House, and I would ask the Prime Minister to remember that his prime responsibility is to answer for the Government.

And in answering for the Government, I want to say why I agree with the proposition that I am about to read out from the Conservative party manifesto:

"We will keep the position of Secretary of State for Scotland with the holder of that position also having an additional UK role within the Cabinet."
So we have implemented Conservative party manifesto policy.

Let me remind the Prime Minister that he was elected to implement his own manifesto, and ask him where in his manifesto did he make a pledge to have a part-time Welsh Secretary, a part-time Scottish Secretary, a part-time Leader of the House or, for that matter, a part-time Secretary of State for Transport?

I have not finished yet. The Prime Minister will not get away as easily as that.

Let me remind the Prime Minister what he actually did pledge. Eight months ago, at the Labour party conference, he said that transport under Labour was "probably the worst area of public services". Will he explain how full-time chaos on the roads can be dealt with by a part-time Secretary of State for Transport?

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to acknowledge that I now agree with Conservative party policy, at least in relation to the Secretary of State for Scotland. As for transport, we are investing billions of pounds in our transport system. That is public investment, and also private sector investment.

The problem that the right hon. Gentleman must explain is this. That investment programme was put to the House a short time ago, and it was voted against by the Conservative party. How can the right hon. Gentleman say that he is going to improve the state of Britain's roads and railways when he has opposed the investment that will make that possible?

It is the usual story. The Prime Minister is rattling out the same old Labour lie machine, every single time. [Interruption.] Oh yes.

Let us remind the Prime Minister exactly what state all his transport policy is in. One in five trains is now late. Train services are being cut by his Government. Train fares are set to be increased by his Government. Congestion on the roads is growing every single day.

So the Prime Minister thinks that a record like that—a record of chaos like that—can be dealt with by appointing a part-time Secretary of State for Transport. He must be the only person who does. Is that not the real reason why every pledge he makes is broken, and no one believes a single word he says any more?

First, let me say something about rail punctuality. Until the Hatfield rail crash, it was more or less constant. It is true that since Hatfield we have realised that the state of the railway infrastructure was infinitely worse than was anticipated. It is for that very reason, however, that we are committed to substantial investment. There are billions of pounds of public money, and also private sector money.

Now—can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is in favour of that extra investment or not? One thing is for sure: spending less money on transport is not going to help it.

May I ask a question about the current public debate on genetically modified food? The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that a decision on whether to commercialise GM crops should be made on scientific grounds, and that it should be established whether there is a risk to health or the environment. Quite so.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there have been no human feeding trials in either the United States or the United Kingdom to establish the health or biochemical effects of consuming GM foods? Does he agree that until such tests are carried out, an important option for the Government when they are reaching a decision later this year is the exercise of the precautionary principle? Does he agree with that, and will he ensure that it is taken on board very seriously?

I certainly think it is very important for us to take on board all the issues relating to GM food. The only other thing I have said, and I say it again, is that it is important for the whole debate to be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice.

Let me also point out that the biotech industry in this country is immensely important, and it is important for its future that it recognises that decisions made by Government will be based on proper scientific evidence. I say this to my right hon. Friend in all sincerity: it worries me that there are voices, here and in the rest of Europe, that are not prepared to give enough consideration to the potential benefits as well as the potential downsides. All I say is that it is important to the future of our country and other countries that the decision is made on proper scientific grounds.

When both the former Foreign Secretary and the former Secretary of State for International Development told the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that they had been told by MI6 that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction capable of posing a direct threat to British security, were they correct?

The intelligence that we put out in the dossier last September described absolutely accurately the position of the Government. That position is that Saddam was indeed a threat to his region and to the wider world. I always made it clear that the issue was not whether he was about to launch an immediate strike on Britain: the issue was whether he posed a threat to his region and to the wider world. [Interruption.] I must say that I thought that Conservative Members, who are muttering, agreed with that on the basis of the same intelligence.

But given the seriousness of the charges made by those two former Cabinet Ministers yesterday, does the Prime Minister think that this can be adequately investigated by a Foreign Affairs Committee to which he refuses to give evidence and a Joint Intelligence Committee which he controls? Can we not have a proper independent judicial inquiry?

The right hon. Gentleman says that I control the Intelligence and Security Committee, but he has a member of his own party on that Committee; I do not believe that he would agree with the assessment that he is controlled by me. There are senior members of the Conservative party on that Committee; they are not controlled by me, either. It is headed by a senior former member of the Government. It is entirely capable of investigating all the facts and getting to the truth. I hope that when the truth is finally told by that Committee, we will then have a debate on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of speculation, the vast bulk of which, I may say, is completely untrue.

The Prime Minister is aware that many of us in this House and outside it have long campaigned for the Executive functions of the Lord Chancellor to be transferred from an unelected, patronage-appointed official to a Secretary of State in this House answerable to the elected House of Commons. Will he confirm that under the new reforms those functions will now be exercised by an unelected, patronage-appointed official in the House of Lords answerable to the unelected House of Lords?

I do not think that many people would recognise my hon. Friend's description of the concept of an independent judicial appointments commission, which is what people have long campaigned for. I have to say to him that it does not surprise me in the least that having campaigned for many years for us to do something, when we do it he then opposes it.

Q2. [119733]

The Prime Minister will not allow Mr. Alastair Campbell to give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on the Government's handling of information in the run-up to the war. Can the Prime Minister please tell us what he is trying to hide?

It has never been the case that officials have given evidence to Select Committees, neither is it the case that the Prime Minister does so, except in very limited circumstances, which we have set out. We have made it absolutely clear, however, that we will co-operate with the Intelligence and Security Committee in any way that it seeks.

Q3. [119734]

My right hon. Friend will be aware that my borough, Newcastle-under-Lyme, has made great strides in regenerating our old coal-mining areas, not least through the efforts of our recently retired council leader, Eddie Boden. Does the Prime Minister recognise, however, that in view of continued job losses in the pottery industry, we need to deliver strategic investment and vision for north Staffordshire as a whole? Would he therefore assist us in that by reviewing the efforts of our regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, in the potteries, and by ensuring that when Government jobs and agencies are relocated outside London, the claims of north Staffordshire feature strongly on the list?

First, I should express my condolences to those constituents of my hon. Friend who have lost their jobs at the Wedgwood pottery: I know that that will be a huge blow to the workers and their families. He is absolutely right to stress the importance of Advantage West Midlands. In fact, we have more or less doubled the budget over the past few years. My hon. Friend is also right in saying that there is a strong case for relocating some Government functions outside London, and I can assure him that we will take into account very carefully the position that he outlines.

Some 42 million people were consulted on regional assemblies. How many people said that they wanted one?

In the three areas where we said we wanted a referendum, people also wanted a referendum.

Of the 42 million people, a mere 4,000 said yes. That is 0.01 per cent. of the whole population. Will the Prime Minister explain why, when only 4,000 people say yes to a referendum, they get it, but when more than 1.5 million people say they want a referendum on the European constitution, he says no?

There should be a referendum in circumstances in which there is a proposal to alter fundamentally the Government's constitutional arrangements. That is not the case with the European Convention. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could specify the fundamental constitutional changes that the Convention outlines.

Perhaps the Prime Minister would like to tell us what constitutional changes are necessary for water fluoridation. He is now offering a referendum on that. The right hon. Gentleman changes his argument whenever he meets the question. He is fond of citing our position; perhaps I can remind him of some quotes from a book, which he may recall, that he published. He said:

"If there are further steps to European integration, the people should have their say at a general election or in a referendum."
We know that the Labour manifesto at the last election did not contain a single word about a European constitution. When will the British people get their say in a referendum?

Let me ask the Prime Minister another question. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not want to hear it. On the back of the book, he made a pledge to the British people. He does not want to hear it, but I shall read it to him. It stated:
"When we make a promise, we must be sure we can keep it."
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There is more:
"That is page one, line one of a new contract between Government and citizen."
Is not the reality that the Prime Minister has broken his contract with the British people? Surely that is the reason why nobody believes a word he says any more.

What we have promised is a referendum on the single currency, should we recommend it to the British people. We will keep that promise. We have never promised a referendum on the European Convention, for the simple reason that, as I said earlier, it does not involve a fundamental change to the British constitution. Indeed, we are in a bizarre position: everywhere in the rest of Europe, people regard the outcome of the Convention as good for Britain, yet according to Conservative Members, it is such a dire outcome for Britain that they want to reduce our membership to associate membership. We know why the right hon. Gentleman wants a referendum on the Convention: to vote no and get Britain out of Europe. That has been his game all along.

Q4. [119735]

I know that the Prime Minister will welcome the setting up last month of the London-wide race hate crime forum, a partnership that is led by the Metropolitan Police Authority and involves many statutory and voluntary groups in London, including Victim Support and the Crown Prosecution Service. Ten years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence in London, will my right hon. Friend and the Home Secretary redouble their commitment to more front-line resources in the fight against race hate crime? The Ethnic Minority Center's racial harmony project and the Merton partnership against crime in my constituency show that the resources are being used to good effect.

My hon. Friend is right in what he says, especially as this year is the 10th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's death. We have introduced nine new racially aggravated offences, which carry higher maximum penalties when there is evidence of a racist motive or racial hostility in connection with the offence. The Public Order Act 1986 outlaws incitement to racial hatred and I am pleased that the Metropolitan police have set up community safety units in every London borough. Although there is a distance to go, both the police and the Government take the issue seriously. As my hon. Friend says, by taking it seriously, we are having a direct impact on the problem.

Why does the Prime Minister persist in dealing with the dignified part of our constitution so casually and arrogantly? Does not he understand that his proposal to remove the Lord Chancellor without extensive consultation is an affront to the Crown and Parliament?

As we shall discuss in a moment, the whole purpose of the reforms is to give away the power of the Prime Minister to nominate a member of the Cabinet who has a judicial function, who appoints the judges and who is Speaker of the House of Lords. I should have thought that giving away the power to make such an appointment would be welcomed.

I am, because I did not count on the completely reactionary nature of today's Conservative party. I should have thought that people would welcome the fact that, rather than having a Cabinet Minister appointed by the Prime Minister, the House of Lords will have its own independent Speaker. Only today's Conservative party could oppose that as dictatorial.

Q5. [119736]

I warmly support the establishment of a supreme court in this country. I also warmly applaud the announcement earlier this week by the Deputy Prime Minister of the opportunity for people in the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber to vote for elected regional government. May I urge and encourage my right hon. Friend to support those campaigning for a yes vote in the regional referendums, thereby sending out the clearest possible message that devolution is not only right for Scotland and Wales but firmly in the interest of the United Kingdom as a whole?

In addition to what my right hon. Friend rightly says, there is a Government office in each of the three areas that we are suggesting as suitable for regional government—indeed, the Government offices for the regions were put there by the previous Conservative Government—but they have no proper democratic accountability. The purpose of the reforms is to introduce democratic accountability.

In view of the constitutional dog's breakfast that the Prime Minister has created in the relationships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will he now appoint a Secretary of State for England—preferably an Englishman—to answer to the House on exclusively English matters?

I confess that I thought the Conservatives had now come to accept devolution in Scotland and Wales, but I assume from what the hon. Gentleman says that they have not. All that that indicates—[Interruption.] Well, that was the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's question. It only goes to show how completely out of date the Conservative party is.

Q6. [119737]

May I warmly congratulate the Government on a subject that will be of no conceivable interest to the Conservative party—namely our very positive response to the manifesto of the national Youth Parliament? I particularly welcome the proposal for a youth fund, which will give more resources to young people. May I suggest that the next logical step, alongside the review of the voting age by the Electoral Commission, should be a review of the corporate age of responsibility, so that well-established youth parliaments and councils could make more decisions on their own, rather than simply being consulted all the time? That would get more young people involved in the political process.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does with the Youth Parliament. I have heard what he has just said about how it operates, and I am sure that we shall give the matter careful consideration.


Q7. [119738]

If he will make a statement on UK relations with Syria.

The UK is committed to a policy of constructive and, where necessary, critical engagement with Syria. This allows us to support reform while maintaining a robust dialogue on issues of concern.

The Prime Minister will be well aware of a statement by the Foreign Secretary on 6 May that Syria gives support to what he described as "rejectionist terrorist organisations". Bearing in mind the fact that it was possible for me to compile in less than half an hour this not-so-dodgy dossier on the long record of Syria's chemical and biological weapons programmes, does the Prime Minister believe—he ought to, because this information came straight from the internet—that we should be worried by any threat that terrorist groups might obtain chemical or biological weapons from the Syrian regime?

Syria's support for terrorism is an issue that we have raised constantly. The closure of the offices of rejectionist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a step in the right direction, but we have to go far further. Issues to do with weapons of mass destruction are also concerning—the hon. Gentleman is right about that—but we believe that the best way to pursue those concerns is in dialogue with the Syrian Government, and that dialogue is of a frank and critical nature. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to raise those issues with them. I have done so personally at meetings with President Bashar. I have no doubt that, if we can get a peace process going in the middle east, it will be essential that Syria, and indeed other countries, cut off all support for these terrorist groups, otherwise they will derail the whole process.

Is it not a matter of concern that some formidable figures in Washington—Feith, Bolton, Wolfowitz, Perle and James Wolsey—have urged for some time that there be further action not only against Iraq but against Syria and Iran? Can we have a cast-iron guarantee that the British Government will do everything possible to oppose military action against Damascus or Tehran?

We have never had a proposition put to us by the American Government for such military action, but what they have said—and we agree with it—is that there are real concerns to do with weapons of mass destruction and with terrorism, and it is important, by the process of dialogue that I have just described, that we get both Syria and Iran to change their position on these issues. If they do not change their position on terrorism, the middle east peace process is put at risk. If they do not change their position on weapons of mass destruction, the world becomes a less safe place. We are right to pursue this frank but critical dialogue, and we will continue to do so.

Q8. [119739]

Just over an hour ago, in Westminster Hall, the Minister for Europe made it clear that the Prime Minister had no intention of raising the issue of Chechnya with President Putin on his visit next week, and he also advanced the argument that we should judge Russia differently from other countries because of the circumstances that it faces in the conflict in Chechnya, where the Russian security forces have been largely responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 people. Will the Prime Minister now make it clear that he will raise that issue with President Putin next week and state clearly that Britain expects Russia to abide by the same standards of behaviour as any other member of the Council of Europe?

We do expect that of Russia. The Foreign Secretary said that he will raise the issue with his opposite number. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that I always raise the issue of Chechnya with President Putin, but I do so in a way that recognises the point that, as a result of terrorism emanating from extremists based in Chechnya, the Russian people have also suffered a very great deal. It is worth pointing out the fact that, when we finally won the conflict in Iraq, some of the people who were still offering resistance were extremists from Chechnya. Yes, it is important to raise the issue of human rights, but it is also important that we support Russia in its action against terrorism. It is also fair to say that, as a result of President Putin's political initiative, there is now a chance of a proper political solution in Chechnya. I hope that we can agree both on the need for human rights and on the need for a complete end to any form of terrorism emanating from Chechnya.

Q9. [119740]

My right hon. Friend will be very aware of the explosion in information in the medical sciences. Indeed, Britain is in the forefront of that. We are to have a genetics White Paper next week, and there are new drugs, new treatments and new technologies, including the favourite of the Prince of Wales: the grey goo nanotechnology. Will he therefore resist the efforts of the European Union directive to prevent full clinical trials, funded by the national health service? In no way will that directive promote patients' safety, and I hope that he will join in resisting it.

That is a valid point. It is important that, in interpreting the EU directive, we ensure that we carry on doing the trials that are necessary in this country. I know that my hon. Friend has fought for this for a long time. It raises some of the issues that I mentioned a few moments ago. It is important in relation to these questions that we proceed on the genuine basis of science. Science is a vital part of our industry. My hon. Friend's point about clinical trials is right, and we will certainly take it into account when we come to discuss how we will implement the EU directive.

Q10. [119741]

The Home Secretary said with characteristic candour this morning that it was blindingly obvious that the Government reshuffle had been mishandled. Will the Prime Minister say with uncharacteristic candour who was responsible for that?

As we will discuss in a moment, I stand fully behind the changes—[Interruption.]—and when we debate the statement, the most interesting thing will be to see whether the leader of the Conservative party agrees or disagrees with those changes.

For many of our constituents, general practice is the most important face of the NHS. In some areas, however, it is difficult to recruit new GPs. I appreciate the fact that investment has helped to produce more doctors than ever before—and more in training than ever before—but what more can be done to ensure that newly qualified doctors see general practice as at least as important as acute medical care?

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of primary care; indeed, our health care system is based on it. What we are doing is introducing a series of measures—including money, incentives and payments—to encourage people into the health service as general practitioners, particularly in areas that are under-doctored at the moment. Additionally, we have a programme in place to introduce GPs from abroad to help boost our numbers. My hon. Friend will know that, since the Government came to power, there has been a huge increase in the number of nurses as well GPs, though we still have a lot further to go.

Changes To Government Departments

12.31 pm

On Thursday, we announced changes to the office of Lord Chancellor and changes in respect of the posts of Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Wales.

At present, judges are, effectively, selected by the Lord Chancellor. It is increasingly anomalous for a Minister—and an unelected one at that—to choose judges in that way. Following the Human Rights Act 1998, such a system is particularly outdated. The selection of judges should be by a transparent process, independently conducted. We propose to establish an independent judicial appointments commission to recommend candidates for appointment as judges on an open basis—something long advocated by many inside and outside the legal profession. There is already such an independent commission in place for selecting judges in Scotland and one forms part of the agreed settlement in Northern Ireland. The Lord Chancellor will also cease to sit as a judge, and the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords will become a fully independent supreme court.

As we said on Thursday, all those proposals will be subject to extensive consultation processes, with consultation papers issued prior to the summer recess. Both require legislation to pass through both Houses, so there will be ample time to debate them.

There is one further change. Again, virtually uniquely of any major democracy, the Speaker of the Upper Chamber is a member of the Cabinet appointed by the Prime Minister, but we are now inviting the House of Lords to choose its own Speaker by a process that the House itself should determine. That will enable the speakership to be independent of the Executive, as is the Speaker in the House of Commons.

This will have a further consequence. At present, the Lord Chancellor spends many hours in every working week fulfilling his official and ceremonial duties as Speaker. However, following changes introduced by the Courts Act 1971, he is also the head of an extremely important Department of Government. He is in charge of our courts system, both criminal and civil. He manages a large part of the tribunal system, including asylum and immigration appeals, and he is also in charge of a legal aid budget of £9 billion.

We need to see major changes in our courts. The judiciary has made heroic efforts to run the courts more effectively in recent years. The former Lord Chancellor also made important and lasting improvements to each part of the system, but the continuing task of reform is immense. Thousands of trials each year collapse because defendants or witnesses do not appear, and far too much police time is wasted waiting in court for cases that cannot be heard. We still do not have a proper information technology system that links courts, prisons, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. We need hugely improved co-ordination between all parts of the system. There are real problems with the way victims and witnesses are treated: in too many parts of the country, they are still put in the same waiting areas as the accused.

The Department is a major public service department with nearly 12,000 civil servants. Yet, because of his duties in the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor—and his predecessors—did not, until last Friday, even have his private office and permanent secretary in the Department, but rather in the Palace of Westminster.

For all those reasons, it is surely better that the Minister responsible for that Department concentrate on running the Department rather than on being Speaker of the House of Lords, sitting as a judge and selecting the judges. The size of his task will expand with the creation of a unified courts administration and a unified tribunal service. He will continue to ensure the independence of the judiciary and will also work to ensure that the court system provides an increasingly efficient service to the public.

As for the posts of Secretary of State for Scotland and Wales, following devolution, there is no longer a requirement for there to be Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales who hold only that office: their roles can be combined with other posts. The civil servants in the Scotland Office and the Wales Office will be part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, so as to ensure that they do not move should the Cabinet Ministers change. The new Department has responsibility for the devolution settlement and the new Secretary of State, like the Lord Chancellor before him, will remain chairing the main Cabinet Constitutional Reform Committee. Oral and written questions will continue, as now, to be answered by the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales.

The reforms that I have outlined are essential acts of constitutional modernisation. They follow on the success of devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act 1998, freedom of information, and the removal of 90 per cent of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. All those changes are now seen—at least on this side of the House—as welcome and permanent changes to our system of government. I am confident that the changes I have set out today will in time be regarded in the same light. I do not believe that any party in this House will reverse any of those changes, and I commend them to the House.

It is customary on these occasions for the Leader of the Opposition to thank the Prime Minister for making his statement, but the person who deserves all our thanks today is Mr. Speaker, who forced the Prime Minister to come to the House to account for the most botched, bungled and damaged reshuffle in modern times. Today is a humiliation for the Prime Minister. Today he stood up and attempted to justify the decisions that he made last Thursday by saying that it is all just a consultation process.

The reality is that the Prime Minister has already made up his mind. The fact is that not one word of what he has just said was available on Thursday when he made his decisions. He could have used this reshuffle to sort out the public services. We all know what is needed, and so does he, but the reality is that he did none of that. Instead, he used his reshuffle to charge headlong into change for change's sake, to launch a series of rushed measures that he has now accepted he has not thought through, and which were determined by infighting and refusal by members of his Cabinet—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister has abolished by decree the office of state referred to specifically in statute 500 times and which has vast powers over the daily lives of every single person in the entire system of justice—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. The House will listen to the Leader of the Opposition with the same respectful silence as it listened to the Prime Minister. We have to maintain a calm attitude, not only for the better prosecution of business, but so that those who watch our affairs will be suitably impressed.

The truth is that the Government are running scared. Every one of their lackeys has been briefed to act as an air-raid shelter for the Prime Minister. Last week, the Prime Minister ripped up the constitution in a matter of hours, without consultation. He made monumental changes on the back of a Cabinet reshuffle, as though our constitution were the Prime Minister's personal plaything and as though only he had the right to make the final decision. He wants people to believe that this is a fuss about nothing and that somehow everybody else is scared of change, but we are not. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, you are."] Oh, no.

Every political party accepts that the British constitution is constantly evolving, not only under Labour but under other parties. That is its great strength—the evolution of the constitution. The point is not whether the constitution should change, but how it should change. Our constitution should be changed only after thought, consideration and proper debate, both inside and outside Government. The constitution is not owned by one political party or even by the Prime Minister. It cannot be changed by whim.

Those are not just our words. Lord Donaldson, the former Master of the Rolls, was asked whether there had been consultation. He said:
"As far as I know, there's been absolutely none. I think that it is totally topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderland stuff."
Indeed, as Lewis Carroll wrote, "Sentence first—verdict afterwards." That is just what the Prime Minister has given us.

I have a question for the Prime Minister. What will he do if the changes that he has put forward today are rejected in the course of the consultations? He has made his mind up already. Is he going to withdraw the changes? Is he going to admit that he is wrong? Is he going to say that he is sorry? I doubt it.

Even today, almost a week after his reshuffle took place, there remain very serious questions for the Prime Minister. On Thursday, his Downing street website said:
"The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman said that in the transition period Lord Falconer would not fulfil either the judicial function of Lord Chancellor or the role of speaker."
So can the Prime Minister explain why Lord Falconer on Friday was hauled to the Woolsack to admit that he was both Lord Chancellor and Speaker of the House of Lords?

On Thursday, we were told that the Lord Chancellor's job had been abolished. On Friday, we were told that Lord Falconer was Lord Chancellor after all. Yesterday night, the list of Ministers was finally issued, five days after the reshuffle. This is what it said about Lord Falconer's post:
"Lord Chancellor (for the transitional period)".
That is the Lord Chancellor's new position.

Will the Prime Minister tell us how long the transitional period will last? What time scale is involved? Lord Falconer said that the transition would take three years. The part-time Leader of the House said on Tuesday that it would take 18 months. How long will it take?

Will the Prime Minister also explain how the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by an appointments commission that will be appointed by him? How will that happen? What role will the Home Secretary play in appointing the members of the commission?

If the Prime Minister is so serious and sorted-out about this matter, perhaps he can say how he will separate himself from his own power to recommend to Her Majesty the Queen who should fill the Law Lords' positions. Will the right hon. Gentleman, as part of the changes, now get rid of that power that he holds—yes or no?

I turn now to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Will the Prime Minister explain why the Scotland Office said last Friday morning that it had been abolished and was now part of the DCA, while the Wales Office stated that it had not been abolished and remained independent? I quote from the Wales Office statement:
"Across the road at the Scotland Office, they are rudderless and there is confusion on their part. They are taking down their old signs but we are not."
Later that day, the Scotland Office suddenly decided that it existed after all, and changed its statement. It stated:
"Alistair Darling has confirmed the Scotland Office still exists but has been merged into a bigger department. I don't have any more details, we are still trying to get to grips with all of this."
I tried to get to the bottom of the—[Interruption.] Labour Members can shout as much as they like, but they will not escape the fact that this reorganisation is botched, bungled and totally wrong.

Today, I went to the Downing Street website—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ooh!"] I went to the website to find out just what the Prime Minister thought about whether there was a Welsh Office or a Scottish Office. This is what it said:
"We are sorry."
That is not a bad start.
"The page you are looking for cannot be found. It might have been removed, had its name changed, or may be temporarily unavailable."
In fact, today the Prime Minister has contradicted what his right hon. Friend the part-time Secretary of State for Wales said yesterday. What the Prime Minister has said is completely different:
"The civil servants in the Scotland Office and the Wales Office will be part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, so as to ensure they do not move should the Cabinet Members change."
On Tuesday, the part-time Leader of the House said:
"I have already answered that question. The Scotland Office exists. It exists as it did before Thursday, as it does now, and as it will in the future, as does the Wales Office."—[Official Report, 17 June 2003; Vol. 110, c. 237.]
That is yet another change in 24 hours—more chaos, and more confusion.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whom the civil servants will report to? Will the two part-time Secretaries of State report to Lord Falconer? What are the statutory functions of the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Where is his budget coming from, and under what authority? [Interruption.]

Labour Members do not want to listen to any of those questions. They simply do as they are told by their master's voice—any decree, any time, any place will do for them. But there are serious questions. [Interruption.] Who, ultimately, will take decisions—[Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister agree with the former, full-time, Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who said when he was shadow Health Secretary that once health had been devolved to the Scottish Parliament,

"it is not possible for me to continue as Minister of Health, administering health in England."
Does the Prime Minister agree that it is bizarre that the new Health Secretary for England will push through policies that have been rejected by the Labour Administration in Scotland and which will not affect his own constituents? Is the Prime Minister really telling us that not one English Member among all the lackeys behind him is capable of running the Department of Health?

The Prime Minister did not bother to tell his own Cabinet—[Interruption.] Well, let me ask him this: when did he discuss the changes with his Cabinet? On what day did he do that, and with whom? [Interruption.] When did he discuss them? Most of his Cabinet do not have a clue what he said. His own Home Secretary said that he thought that the comings and goings on Thursday and Friday could have been communicated more effectively.

What I say to the Prime Minister is this—[Interruption.]

Order. These are important matters that should be heard with equal fairness on both sides of the House.

The Labour party does not care about the constitution. All it cares about is gerrymandering the constitution so that it can have its people in the right place at the right time. That is the charge. The Prime Minister is guilty of fiddling with the system without consultation. He has sacked his boss, promoted his flatmate and fiddled throughout.

The one clear message coming from the Government from last week's botched reshuffle is that neither this House nor the British people can have any faith in the Government. We cannot believe a word the Prime Minister says any more.

Let us first deal with consultation. We said on Thursday that there would be consultation papers by the end of the summer on the independent judicial appointments commission and the fact that the Lord Chancellor would no longer sit as a judge in the House of Lords. Of course, both changes would have to be subject to Acts of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman asks how long the transition will take—it will take as long as the Acts of Parliament. Of course, we will have a full debate in both Houses of Parliament about it, so the idea that there is no consultation or chance for debate is plainly absurd.

As for the speakership of the House of Lords, again, as we said on Thursday, that will be subject to their Lordships' wishes—it is up to them. I would have thought that they would welcome the chance to have an independent Speaker in the House of Lords, nominated by them. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asks why we do not ask them. We are asking them. That is exactly what we are doing. That is why, until they agree, we cannot change the position, but we want them to agree because it makes sense for the modern world.

Let us suppose that the Speaker in the House of Lords was elected by that House at present and I said, "I'm going to change that. I'm going to have a Cabinet Minister doing that job." Imagine the outcry that there would be then. All we are proposing is that the other House have charge of selecting its own Speaker as we do here. How that is a move to dictatorship baffles me.

The one thing that I never heard from the right hon. Gentleman was his position on the changes. He says that I am perpetrating this terrible constitutional outrage. Does he agree that there should be an independent judicial appointments commission? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer!"] Let's have some quiet. He said that there has been no consultation. I am consulting—I am asking him now. Does he agree with an independent judicial appointments commission? He cannot tell us—[Interruption].

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he has made a statement and the questions are put to the Prime Minister. I think that we will make more progress if we maintain that traditional balance.

We do not know either whether the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) agrees to the Lord Chancellor being a member of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. What is the Conservatives' position? We do not know, but we do know their position on the Secretary of State for Scotland—in their last manifesto, they advocated getting rid of that as a separate office.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's statement about how much he wants all Scottish affairs to be dealt with by Scotland and all English affairs to be dealt with by English Ministers, who is his shadow Secretary of State for Scotland? The hon. Lady in question sits for a constituency in the London borough of Bromley. Here we are with this great constitutional outrage and the Conservatives cannot even tell us whether they are in favour of the changes or against them. They are outraged "don't knows". It is no good the right hon. Gentleman pointing his finger. He should give us his position.

The fact is that these are sensible, modernising changes, which have been sought for many years. They involve the Prime Minister giving away power rather than keeping it. They are of a piece with the changes that we have already made. Of course, when we proposed devolution, the Conservatives said that it would lead to the break up of the United Kingdom—now, they support it. When we proposed the Human Rights Act, they told us that it was a constitutional disgrace—now, they support it. When we told them that we wanted hereditary peers out of the House of Lords, they said that it was terrible—and they still think it terrible. Now, the right hon. Gentleman wants to fight to the death to keep the Minister in charge of our court system in a full-bottomed wig, 18th century breeches, and women's tights, sitting on a woolsack rather than running the Court Service. That says a lot more about the Conservative party than about the Labour party. If that is the centrepiece of the right hon. Gentleman's electoral strategy, roll on the election.

My colleagues and certainly those on the Labour Benches will be relieved to know that I simply want to put some brief questions to the Prime Minister. Of course, that is a reflection of my own inadequacies as I have not benefited from the tremendous mechanism known as the No. 10 website.

The Prime Minister is well aware, as is the House, that the Liberal Democrats have long been urging further constitutional reforms upon the Government. Our two parties co-operated in opposition and we saw the fruits of that when Labour came to power, and we would like the progress on constitutional reform to continue. Therefore credit is due for the package that has been announced. As Ministers have indicated, however, that has been somewhat overshadowed by the confusions and fracas that accompanied it. Listening to the Prime Minister make his statement I thought that the more its content was analysed, the greater the case became for having had a proper White Paper with an accompanying consultation process.

First, the move towards the creation of a supreme court is both overdue and very welcome. The Liberal Democrats' only regret is that it does not go far enough. We would prefer the establishment of a department of justice, bringing criminal and civil justice together under one head. Will the Prime Minister say whether he has ruled that out in his own mind or whether it could be a legitimate part of the consultation process, even if it means renewed debate with the Home Secretary and the Home Office as a whole?

The Government have a practical difficulty in that there are no fewer than 500 different references in statute to the existing role of the Lord Chancellor. The Prime Minister says that we can make good progress. In abolishing the role of Lord Chancellor, how long does he envisage that it will take to delete or amend those references accordingly? There are a lot of them.

Of course we welcome the independence of judicial appointment for judges, but will the Prime Minister also acknowledge that the present system tends to favour unduly barristers who appear regularly in the higher courts, thereby discriminating against solicitors, women and those from ethnic minorities? Does he agree that that is a pertinent question that should be considered in the consultation process?

On the changes to the Wales Office and the Scotland Office, would it not make more sense to create a department of nations and the regions? In the context of the statement made this week by the Deputy Prime Minister—we certainly welcome the moves towards consultative referendums and the hope of more regionalism within England—could not all those be brought together in one huge territorial department in the longer term?

On the proposal that there should be a department for constitutional reform, is it not something of an anomaly that that would be presided over by a Cabinet Minister who is not answerable to the elected House of Commons? We want to consider the anomalies associated with the role of Lord Chancellor, but we must also be conscious of the anomalies that the proposals would create.

Finally, will the Prime Minister acknowledge that there is one yawning gap in the plans outlined for further constitutional reform? It is the predominantly unelected nature of the upper House. Now that he has appointed a new leader of that House who is himself in favour of a democratically elected second Chamber, will he give his backing to that further move in that direction? Can the consultation process involve a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, and obviously all Opposition parties? If we had had a greater and more sensible level of consultation, could we not have avoided some of the difficulties of the past few days? Is not that one of the important lessons to learn from this recent episode?

First, I take it from that that the Liberal Democrats are basically in favour of the proposals. I therefore find it odd that so many of them voted with the Conservatives against the proposals last night. Anyway, perhaps that should not really be a matter of surprise.

In respect of the point about the supreme court, that will be part of the consultation process. We announced last Thursday that two consultation papers on each of these major issues will be put to people before the summer recess. The proposals will have to be introduced, of course, through an Act of Parliament, which must go through this House with debate and through the upper House with debate. Therefore, the idea that there will be no debate or consultation is patently absurd, because of the process that we need to go through.

As for a ministry of justice, I am not in favour of that. Let me explain to the right hon Gentleman why that has never been proposed by the Government or me. It is important that we keep the criminal law and criminal justice system with the Home Secretary in respect of police fighting crime and other issues. What we have been trying to do over the past few years is to move out of the Home Office some of the constitutional functions so that it can concentrate, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is doing so well, on law and order, fighting crime, antisocial behaviour and asylum and immigration issues. That is why the Lord Chancellor's Department is obviously going to deal with many of the constitutional issues that the Home Office has been dealing with up to now.

In relation to solicitors and ethnic minorities, the right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That is one of the reasons why people have thought that it is better to have a more transparent and open system.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned this because I was going to point this out if he did not. He has put forward the Liberal Democrat proposal in relation to the Secretary of State for Scotland and Wales, which effectively means getting rid of those posts and having one Secretary of State for the nations and regions. Of course, that is one possible avenue. The reason I do not think it is the right one, however, is that it would be very odd then in circumstances where, let us say, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was Secretary of State for the nations and regions, to go up to Scotland as Secretary of State for Scotland, effectively speaking for Scotland— [Interruption.] There is a debate about those issues, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman can see that there would be anomalies in the position that he puts forward, too.

In relation to the issue of an elected upper House, I have already said that that should be a matter in which Members of Parliament should have a free vote. There will be different views: different views exist in the Cabinet, and, I am sure, in the shadow Cabinet. There are different views in the right hon. Gentleman's party, too. The most important thing, however, is that we have a debate as Members of Parliament and that we decide. My preoccupation on this issue has always been that we must not end up replicating the House of Commons in the House of Lords. That would be a mistake, and it would not help our constitution.

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that, with the constitutional changes put in place last week, the unfinished business of John Smith and Donald Dewar is now finished? There is now a stable constitutional arrangement for Scotland. strengthened within the United Kingdom with robust arrangements that ensure that, regardless of the political upheavals, that relationship will remain strong. In addition, with declining electoral support for the Scottish National party in Scotland, the job of nat-basher-in-chief is no longer needed, as the nationalists do it very well themselves.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. I also thank her for the part that she played in making the devolution settlement successful. It is worth pointing out that, when we first advocated devolution, we were attacked by the nationalists, who wanted separation and who wanted to rip Scotland out of the United Kingdom and still do, and we were attacked by the Conservatives, who told us that it would lead to the break-up of the UK. What has happened is that the devolution settlement has worked, and support for nationalism is at an all-time low.

Cannot the Prime Minister pause for a moment, reflect and realise that many of those who have admired his leadership over Iraq, in all parts of the House, in both Houses and outside—and who have given him unstinting support for which he has been grateful—think that on this matter he has behaved with cavalier disdain? He has treated both Houses of Parliament with contempt and has announced changes and then said that consultation will follow. Cannot he just admit for once that he has got it wrong?

First, whatever I say to the hon. Gentleman, I say it with respect for him, not merely for the support that he has given me over Iraq but for the work that he has done in the House for a very long time. Of course, when the Government believe that certain changes are necessary, we make the announcement saying that these are changes that we wish to make. Issues are bound to be raised, however, and I ask him to bear it in mind, as we said last Thursday, that there will be two consultation papers: one on the independent judicial appointments commission and the other on the role of the Lord Chancellor in relation to the courts. In relation to the speakership of the House of Lords, we have made it clear that we can only make those changes if the House of Lords agrees. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there will be the opportunity for detailed consultation and debate, as there should be.

In relation to the Lord Chancellor, it was a good proposal but with poor presentation. May I consult my right hon. Friend on one idea that might flow from it? Would he consider—I hope that he will have an open mind on this—a reform whereby Ministers of either House could appear in either House, rather than Members of both Houses having to rely on parrots replicating Ministers' utterances at questions? It seems to me that the architects of legislation should pilot that legislation in both Houses. For example, Baroness Amos should be subject to scrutiny and able to answer in this place. Allowing Ministers to appear in both Houses would be a very good reform that I would hope he would support.

I apologise for not having been radical enough in the reforms that we have put forward. I am afraid that I can see some difficulties with what my hon. Friend suggests, but I have no doubt that he will have an opportunity to discuss it with other Members and build up support for it.

Earlier this afternoon, the Prime Minister told the House that these proposals will be subject to extensive consultation. Like so much that the Prime Minister has said recently, that is patently untrue. In the first line of his statement, he says, "We announced the changes". He knows that he has announced the changes and that the consultation is meaningless. The Prime Minister has delusions of grandeur, but he is not the Head of State. There is a Head of State. When did he consult her and inform her that he was going to abolish 1,400 years of constitutional history?

Consultations have taken place in the normal way. In respect of the point made by the hon. Gentleman at the beginning, it is obvious that if the changes that I have announced must proceed through an Act of Parliament, both Houses of Parliament, of course, must agree to that. I do not know how else we announce the Government's position but by announcing it. That is what we believe. What I still do not quite understand about the extraordinary outrage of Opposition Members is whether they agree with the propositions or not. Surely their outrage must in some shape or form be determined by whether they think the proposals are right or wrong.

In respect of the point about 1,400 years of history, it is correct that the post has existed, in different ways, for 1,400 years, but it is also correct that, occasionally, we should evolve and change our constitution. The question is therefore whether the change is sensible or not. Before the change comes through, the House will be able to make its decision known, and the other place will be able to make its decision known, exactly in accordance with our constitution.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that some time ago the Welsh Assembly Government established the Richard commission to look at the workings of devolution from the point of view of the Welsh Assembly. In the light of his announcements on Thursday and developments over the weekend, will he set up an ad hoc committee of this Parliament to look at the devolution process from the perspective of this Parliament?

I understand entirely my hon. Friend's point. Of course, we will await with interest the outcome of the Richard commission. I must say, however, that it is probably better to discuss this matter in the usual way in government.

What possible reason could there have been for rushing the reshuffle through last Thursday, when clearly it had not been properly thought out in detail and has caused the Government great embarrassment? Was the Downing street spokesman correct when he said that it had to be last Thursday because of Lord Irvine? Why could not Lord Irvine have stayed in place a little longer?

First, let me specify again the changes that we are proposing. They are changes to do with an independent judicial appointments commission, the fact that the Lord Chancellor should no longer sit as a judge and that the speakership of the House of Lords should be held by an independent person, nominated by the House of Lords. I do not think that there is any great confusion about those proposals; they are perfectly simple and straightforward. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with them or not? I do not suppose that we shall be told. On consultation, as I have pointed out, the latter proposal can be carried out only with the agreement of the House of Lords and the first two require an Act of Parliament, therefore it is a little odd to say that I am rushing them through without consultation when actually both Houses of Parliament will have to agree them.

I welcome the proposals, in particular that for a supreme court, which was recommended in a recent report from the Public Administration Committee. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proposals mean that the Government now have their second wind in respect of constitutional reform, so that on issues such as Lords reform and civil service legislation, we shall see the same decisive radicalism?

Bearing in mind the nature of the devolution settlement in Wales, does the Prime Minister realise how important a strong Wales Office is to the passage of Welsh legislation? After all, this place is the only Chamber that can legislate for Wales. Does he realise that it is extremely offensive to Wales to sweep away the Wales Office as he has done, and that his four sentences today have compounded that offence?

The Secretary of State for Wales will occupy his office and carry out his post with another job—

The hon. Gentleman is in favour of getting rid of the job altogether. He cannot come to this place and tell me that the job is not full-time enough. If the Welsh nationalists had their way, Wales would not even be part of the United Kingdom.

Apart from the important and mistaken decision to put the new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs in the wrong place, I am entirely supportive of the measures that the Prime Minister has proposed, and I do not normally say that. However, has not my right hon. Friend put the cart before the horse? Should not we have debated the possibilities first, so that the error in the appointment of the new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs could have been avoided?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for his support for our proposals, which is all the more gratifying for its rarity.

Secondly, as I have pointed out, there may have been a misconception. The independent judicial appointments commission and the question of whether the Lord Chancellor sits as an appellate judge4 in the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords have to be dealt with by legislation. There will be ample time to debate those things in the House of Lords and, obviously, in the House of Commons, too. That is why the notion that what happened on Thursday was somehow all suddenly implemented by Monday is not right.

Can the Prime Minister tell us the costs of the changes that are already going through and of the changes that he would like to put through? Could it be that this is rather an expensive way of getting rid of an old man in tights? Might it have been cheaper to buy him a pair of trousers?

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman exact details of the costs, but I hope that he will agree that making sure that the Lord Chancellor is actually concentrating on the core business of running the courts system is actually a far more efficient use of his time.

I welcome the changes, which are long overdue, but can my right hon. Friend explain why the appointments that he made last week include people with titles such as Vice-Chamberlain and Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeoman of the Guard? What on earth does the Master of the Horse do? Clean the horse? Is not it time that, in a mature democracy such as ours, we got rid of such Ruritanian titles and jobs, the wigs, the gowns and the swords, including in the House of Commons?

Does the Prime Minister realise that these important and necessary reforms will get off to a pretty bad start if it remains unclear whether he is talking about a supreme court in the American sense of a constitutional court, or merely removing the Law Lords to sit in another building? There are certainly genuine anxieties at present about just how independent the judicial appointments commission will be and they could remain, especially when we have a Home Secretary who says:

"I just like judges who help … us to do the job."

I think that is unfair on the Home Secretary, who has said that he fully supports the independence of the judiciary.

With the greatest respect, people cannot have things both ways. There are issues to be resolved about the precise nature of the supreme court. That is why we said that a consultation paper would be issued before the recess. It is also why debates will be held in both Houses. All the issues can be resolved then.

On the point about rushing to judgment in this matter, does my right hon. Friend agree that, 10 years ago. as shadow Home Secretary, he won the Labour party conference over to a judicial appointments commission, a ministry of justice, judicial independence and a Select Committee on legal affairs? It is rather like saying that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was rushing into regional government when he made his announcement earlier this week when, in fact, he started campaigning on the issue more than 20 years ago.

In the week when those policies have finally come to fruition, I urge my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to stay with the big picture and leave the pygmies opposite to suck up the media trivia. He should re-read the speech that he made 10 years ago, when he stated that
"Labour would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a"—
democratic second Chamber—
"with a new electoral system".
My right hon. Friend is at his best when he is at his boldest.

It is always worrying when previous speeches are quoted back. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that many of the changes that we are advocating have been advocated for a long time by many people inside and outside this place. I come back to the main point. The whole basis of the changes that we are making—rather like the devolution changes—is not that we retain power, but that we give it away. I am going to be giving away the ability to nominate the Lord Chancellor, who sits in the Cabinet, is the Speaker of the House of Lords and appoints the judges. I find that proposition odd in today's world, when, surely, there should be clear separation between Executive, legislature and judiciary.

In the light of the nature, tone and content of the Prime Minister's statement, is it right that the principle of the supreme court and the judicial appointments commission is a given and that the consultation exercise will simply be about the mechanics of the principles that he has announced?

We have set out what we want to do as a Government. That is how Governments announce their policy. They say, "That is what we want to do." There is then a consultation process, which we shall initiate with the consultation papers. After that, there will be a debate in both Houses—I emphasise "both". Of course there will be debate.

We have set out our view that there should be an independent judicial appointments commission, but it will be for this House and the other House to debate the details of that. For the life of me, I cannot see why that is a wrong process.

Will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that he would not contemplate appointing Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales from English constituencies such as Beckenham and Ribble Valley?

The people of Scotland know that this botched reshuffle has done nothing to address the problems of the Scottish economy or our air transport problems. In concluding the consultation on air transport, does the Prime Minister expect his part-time Secretary of State for Transport to advocate more use of the London hub airports, or his part-time Secretary of State for Scotland to advocate more direct flights to Scotland? What will happen if they disagree?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman did pretty well. He should be shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, but he is not because someone sitting for Bromley has that post.

On the part-time point, I remind the hon. Gentleman that he was elected on a manifesto that stated:
"We will keep the position of Secretary of State for Scotland with the holder of that position also having an additional UK role within the Cabinet."
I have just implemented the policy on which he was elected.

The British constitution has many pantomime elements, but is the Prime Minister surprised by the pantomime antics of the Tory party? Yesterday, we had Widow Twanky and today we had Buttons, who could not recognise a decent constitutional change if it was lying in his bed when he came home at the end of the day. Is not the truth that, when we were redrafting the German constitution in the 1940s, this country insisted on precisely the changes that we are about to see, and that what was good for Germany in the 1940s is good for Britain now?

I do not think that we will take that too far. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend has got Conservative Members on a sensitive point. Of course, the point that he makes in relation to the constitutional changes is right, and I would simply point out that the Conservatives opposed the constitutional changes in respect of devolution, that they opposed the minimum wage and that they have opposed virtually every constitutional change. We still have not heard—perhaps someone will ask them at some point in the next few days—whether, if these changes are so terrible, they are pledged to reverse them. We should be told.

Will the Prime Minister inform the House what advice he received from his Cabinet. Secretary before he announced these constitutional changes? When the Prime Minister is formulating his strategic planning for constitutional change, which role model does he prefer: the constitution of the first French Republic after the revolution, or our constitution after the Glorious Revolution of 1688?

It is a bit much, when 1 am giving away the power to anoint—appoint, I should say. [Laughter.] It is a bit much, when I am giving away the power to appoint the Speaker of the House of Lords, to say that it is the equivalent of the French revolution. That is a somewhat extreme statement, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, would have welcomed the fact that I will have given up power if these changes go through, which is why I hope that he and others will support them.

Can my right hon. Friend convince the Leader of the Opposition that women cannot have great faith in a judiciary that is 95 per cent. male and that ethnic minorities cannot have great faith in a judiciary that is almost 100 per cent. white and excludes anyone like them? Are not the Tories simply being reactionary? They want judges to carry on being picked, by secret soundings and tittle-tattle in Pall Mall clubs, from among white men from the upper middle classes—a group only a little less representative than they are.

To be fair to my right hon. Friend the former Lord Chancellor, he made many changes in this area, but the point that my hon. and learned Friend makes is right, and it is one of the reasons why things should be transparent and open. Frankly, I believe that that is the way that virtually every other western democracy makes its judicial appointments, so that it is done in an open way. I commend to the Opposition the speech recently made by Chris Patten. [Interruption.] He is a bit of a no-no for them now. He used to be chairman of the Conservative party in the days when it was roughly sane. He said that it is very important to realise that, in this day and age, it is not acceptable for judges to be appointed by a process that, as he put it, was a bit akin to the old magic circle that used to appoint leaders of the Conservative party. It is worth reflecting on that. Surely, in this day and age, it is better to appoint judges by an open and transparent process. How that is dictatorial, I do not know.

Was it Lord Falconer's performance as a flatmate or as Minister in charge of the dome that particularly recommended him for promotion?

If the hon. Gentleman reflects on the job that my right hon. Friend did, not merely in respect of housing and planning, but on criminal justice and the police, he will see that he did an absolutely superb job.

Domestic Violence

1.23 pm

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on domestic violence.

Today, I am publishing a consultation paper outlining proposals to help to prevent and tackle the consequences of domestic violence. I pay tribute to many right hon. and hon. Members, including the Attorney-General; the Solicitor-General, who is here this afternoon; my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham); my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche); the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton); my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), and other members of the interministerial and all-party groups. I do so because I do not believe that there is any difference between political parties on this issue.

Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all recorded violent crime. One in four women experience some form of violence from their husband or partner during their lifetime. Every week, two women die as a result of such violence. All violent crime can destroy lives, but domestic violence is usually a hidden crime. All too often victims suffer silently, afraid for themselves and for their children. The trauma and long-term effects suffered by children is incalculable. Domestic violence can occur irrespective of background or circumstance, but it is predominantly women who suffer.

Our consultation paper builds on the proposals that we made in last year's White Paper on criminal justice. Preventing domestic violence in the first place is at the heart of our proposals. Research shows that one in five young men and one in 10 young women believe that violence towards a partner is sometimes acceptable. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that that is never the case. If we are to prevent such violence, we must ensure that all young people understand that basic truth. It is necessary to increase understanding of the nature of domestic violence to ensure the correct response from professionals, including teachers, doctors and those in the social services, the courts and the police service.

Alcohol and drug misuse are major factors in domestic violence. We already have in place a strategy to tackle drug misuse. Later this year, the Government will publish a national harm reduction strategy, focusing on alcohol. I believe that all hon. Members agree that the home should be a place of safety. Sadly, for those affected it is a place of fear. Therefore, the second strand of our strategy is about protection for victims. The response of the police to domestic violence is crucial. Victims need reassurance that early intervention will be forthcoming. That is why we propose to make common law assault an arrestable offence, so that, at the time of the attack, suspected perpetrators can be instantly removed from the scene.

I also welcome the work being undertaken by the inspectorates that are carrying out a major review into how the Crown Prosecution Service and the police handle domestic violence cases. Victims are often deterred from reporting violence and appearing as witnesses because of the handling of domestic violence cases. They are afraid of reprisals and what many see as the shame that such violence brings. That is why we are proposing to allow victims and witnesses to apply for anonymity. We would welcome views on that issue.

A number of specialist courts have been developed, demonstrating greater expertise and support for victims. In Leeds and Cardiff, domestic violence courts have increased co-ordination between agencies and the civil and criminal jurisdictions. We would welcome views on how further to develop such specialist facilities.

I think that we all agree that the civil and criminal law must be improved better to protect victims. We are therefore proposing some important changes. We wish breaching non-molestation orders and occupation orders to become a criminal offence, giving the police new powers to arrest in all cases where they believe that that is warranted. We intend to widen the availability of restraining orders under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. They should be available when there is insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction but sufficient justification for safeguards to be put in place. When appropriate, we will allow orders to be imposed at the time of charge, pending trial. The courts should have powers to impose restraining orders for any violent offence, not just the limited range under current law.

At present, the police have no way of telling whether a person has a civil order against them. That is why I am seeking views on whether to create a register of civil orders. Such a register would mean that the police would know at the time of being called to a domestic violence incident whether the suspect had breached an order and could thus be automatically arrested. In addition, I am reflecting on the suggestion of creating a broader register of domestic violence offenders. However, there are complicated issues that we need to think about and our minds are not closed on the issue. I should make it clear that access to any such register would be strictly limited. There would be a danger that wider access could deter victims or their families from coming forward.

We must ensure that sentences reflect the crimes committed. The sentencing advisory panel will consider domestic violence homicides and, additionally, the Attorney-General will issue new guidance to the Crown Prosecution Service on domestic murders. I am also referring to the Law Commission the defences offered in homicide cases. I shall ask it to focus particularly on how provocation, self-defence and diminished responsibility operate in domestic violence cases. The defence of provocation, for example, often relies on sexual jealousy as justification for murder. That is not acceptable.

Contact between children and their parents should be encouraged, but the welfare of the child must be paramount. We will amend contact and residence application forms so that judges are aware of allegations of domestic violence at the beginning of proceedings.

The third strand of our strategy is to provide practical support to victims. A total of more than £61 million is being spent on domestic violence this year, with £33 million being invested in new refuge accommodation over the next three years. The first 24-hour national helpline for victims of domestic violence will be established and it will be supported by a database of safe accommodation and local services.

It is vital that we also find ways of helping victims of domestic violence to stay in their own homes. We would welcome views on how best to achieve that, including views on re-accommodating the alleged perpetrator. Victims of domestic violence whose immigration status is being decided currently have no access to public support. It is our belief that all victims, whatever their circumstances, deserve our help. We shall enable places of safety to be offered, and help to support victims of violence in such circumstances.

The consultation paper is about improving prevention and providing support for victims. We must ensure that perpetrators understand that domestic violence will not be tolerated. The proposals that we are setting out today will be a further step toward that goal. We will seek to change attitudes and help victims to break free from the cycle of violence and abuse. No woman, man or child brings domestic violence on themselves. No one should have to put up with it; the abuse is unacceptable. I am therefore asking all sides of the House to support taking the measures forward, and I commend the measures to the House.

First, I thank the Home Secretary for giving me prior notice of the statement.

We welcome the Government's announcement on domestic violence. It brings a subject that has been taboo out into the open where it can be debated and better dealt with. The reason I am responding as shadow Minister for Women is not because we see this as exclusively a women's issue, for there are male victims and their plight is seriously underreported, but because we accord the highest importance to the fact that two women a week die as a result of domestic violence. I have a personal interest in the issue, having launched a poster campaign last Christmas to publicise where victims can get help.

There is no question but that the criminal justice system fails victims of domestic violence, but the Government need to be careful not to introduce unenforceable legislation in an area in which lives need to be saved. Legislating for unrestrained human emotions is not easy. Will the Home Secretary reassure the House that consultation will be as wide as possible and that it will involve not only main agencies, survivors and their families, but ethnic minorities and men's and grandparents' groups, because domestic violence casts a long shadow over the extended family?

At present, the courts feel like a hostile place to victims. Specialist courts represent progress toward improving the judicial response to domestic violence. Do the Government have any plans to extend these beyond the three to which the Home Secretary referred? Does he agree that the fact that over 50 per cent. of domestic violence cases receive a harsher sentence on appeal indicates that the judiciary requires more specialist training?

Research that shows how many young people think that violence is a normal part of their relationships highlights why prevention is a key issue. Do the Government intend to incorporate teaching on anger management and non-violent communication in the school curriculum? Perpetrator programmes are notoriously unsuccessful. Does the Home Secretary accept that changing a person's behaviour needs to start much earlier in life and to be reinforced by society's view that domestic violence is not okay?

I welcome the Government's announcement of new funds for refuges. Will the Home Secretary join me in applauding volunteers who have campaigned tirelessly to secure even the present level of one refuge per 200,000 of population? I know that figure to my cost because I have been trying for years to get a refuge in my constituency. I am appalled that there are more animal sanctuaries than refuges in this country. It is estimated that about 40,000 women are on the move in refuges every week. Such caravanning around the countryside of vulnerable women and children who are looking for somewhere to hide and sleep is barely credible in the 21st century. Does he accept that it is a fundamental injustice that the victim moves out of the family home and loses assets, status and security while the perpetrator tends to remain?

The Government must be careful not to overlook the needs of the child when reforming legislation on domestic violence. Four out of five children who run away from home say that they do so to escape family conflict, violence or abuse. What is being done to safeguard the wishes of children who may not want contact with a violent parent or who suffer mental anguish due to the guilt of not having protected their abused parent?

It is not only improving legislation that will make a difference; practical help is at least as important, if not more important. It is quite extraordinary that there is a view that if victims are housed in a safe place, they will get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Does the Home Secretary agree that there needs to be much more assistance in the aftermath of such a traumatic experience?

The subject of domestic violence is so serious that there can be no question of gesture politics. The Home Secretary refers to the first 24-hour national helpline, but the charities Women's Aid and Refuge already run a 24-hour national helpline. The Government's initiative was announced for the first time on 11 December last year, but it is still not up and running. Does the Home Secretary accept that failing to meet the raised expectations of such a vulnerable group exposes him to the serious allegation of playing politics? When does he expect the helpline to be fully operational?

Homicide reviews are all very well, but how many will it take before we finally learn the lessons? The experience of the Victoria Climbiè case shows that crimes committed behind closed doors are the most difficult to prevent and are in most need of prompt and effective intervention by agencies, which all too often allow a case to slip through the net.

We kid ourselves that we live in a civilised society. That cannot be true when such a high number of fatalities are too often dismissed with the phrase, "It's only a domestic."

I am happy to have the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) opposite me at the Dispatch Box and would be happy to repeat the experience. I assure her that no one will play politics on the issue. Whatever the gripes about the delay in setting up the helpline, we are making an offer, as the statement demonstrated, to work together in the interests of those who are dying and being abused every day—one woman is abused every minute in this country. I make that offer again because the subject transcends party politics and shows Parliament at its non-political best.

We need to be careful that legislation neither raises false expectations nor ends up being unenforceable. I am happy to take views on that. The consultation will be as wide as possible. My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, Baroness Scotland and I visited a refuge and centre in Camden today. We promised that the victims, as well as those who work with them, will be an essential part of the consultation. I accept entirely the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made on that.

Specialist courts have proved their worth. With a new, invigorated partnership between myself and the interim Lord Chancellor, we should be able to make rapid progress. We will certainly be able to do that on training. Lord Falconer and I jointly visited the judicial studies board just few weeks ago and we are keen to work with it on building up expertise. In those circumstances where there is no specialist court, we propose to combine cases so that they can be handled by someone with the relevant expertise on a particular day in a particular week.

Teaching at an early stage is vital. In addition to teaching citizenship and democracy and providing personal social and health education, we need to spot early youngsters who display aggression and to take action on that. I want to discuss with the new Minister for Children how we can develop the children and young persons unit, and those investing in education, in a more positive way than has been possible in the past.

The refuge provision is important. Some £19 million more is being spent this year than last year. I agree entirely, however, that "caravanning" people around the country is unacceptable. The damage to children in particular is incalculable because it disrupts the life and well-being of the family. That is why we want to find ways of getting alleged perpetrators out of the house and, when they are found guilty, keeping them away from the home. The Solicitor-General and I will talk to the Attorney-General about whether we should change the terminology of the orders so that people understand clearly what they mean.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Meriden for 99 per cent. of what she said and her welcome of the measures. I look forward to us all taking them forward together.

May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and congratulate him on the consultation paper? I assure him that women in Wales will be pleased that the Government have recognised how vital and serious the issue is and that they are comprehensively planning to tackle it further. I thank him very much for that.

I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is keen to involve victims in the consultation procedure. Will he assure me that the consultation procedure will be extensive and include women and other people in Wales? Will he ensure that Wales is fully brought into the consultation? In particular, will he involve the trade unions? I pay tribute to the work that the trade unions, especially Unison in Wales, have done to bring the issue to the forefront in the workplace.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work in Wales. I am aware of the establishment of the centre in Cardiff, which has been a beacon for activity. Not only will we consult widely in the terms that we have laid down, but we will be happy to hear from hon. Members on both sides of the House about what we could reach out to in their locality. There will be three months of consultation. We want to introduce legislation in the new Session of Parliament because people will expect us to get on with it, but we want to do that properly and will be happy to consider suggestions on the nature of the scrutiny of that legislation before we present it to Parliament.

Domestic violence is a huge, horrible and unacceptable part of our national and home life. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who speaks on women's issues for the Liberal Democrats, and I welcome the statement, the consultation paper and many of the initiatives proposed. Our party will respond constructively, positively and urgently to the proposals in the paper.

We share with the Home Secretary the view that education is as important as anything else and cannot begin too early. Can I assume from what he said that the first and perhaps central message is that from now on—if it was not the case before—no police officer in the land will regard allegations of domestic violence as something that they should not immediately pursue on the basis that it is a domestic matter and not for them? Can he assure me that no court in the land will regard alcohol or other drugs as an excuse for violence at home?

Are statistics on domestic violence now kept separately, both nationally and locally? Is the Home Secretary satisfied that at a local level the advice is in place so that things do not get to a crisis point at which people have to leave home? Most importantly, will he work with his colleagues so that each local authority has the assurance, as my local borough of Southwark has, that the police and the local authority will act together with no bureaucracy and no delay to ensure that people get the refuge, sanctuary, housing, support and advice when they need it and for as long as they need it to look after the families affected?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's support. I assure him that not only are the police committed to doing the job singly, they are now committed, through the multi-agency panels and multi-agency reviews that are being undertaken on incidents of domestic violence, to ensuring that we have a joined- up system at a local level in which they work closely with other agencies and partners. I pay tribute to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation for the way in which they have worked with us.

Many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have been close to the subject and have shown tremendous commitment to it. They will know that there has been a transformation in the approach that the police have taken to domestic violence incidents in recent years. They accept, and we accept, that there is still progress to be made, not least in terms of their response time and the immediacy of what is requested, as the hon. Gentleman said. I guarantee that we will give every possible support to those working with the police in making that progress possible.

I agree that we need clear statistics. The British crime survey provides us with a better route than merely relying on recorded crime. Part of our task is to get people to come forward and to demonstrate that they need no longer fear having the crime recorded. We have some way to go before we get a totally accurate picture of what is taking place in society. The statistics that we have are horrendous enough, but we believe that they may well not give the full picture. In that spirit, I welcome the other propositions from the hon. Gentleman. I know that we can do a good job together, as the all-party committee has done, in making sure that on this matter, if on nothing else, we are all in unison.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's thoughtful statement. The elements that it contains have been argued and pleaded for by the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) has chaired with such great commitment. Does my right hon. Friend understand that there is something missing from his statement? I refer to outreach services to keep women in their homes, and in particular services for children who are affected. There is a serious gap in all services for children affected by domestic violence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to put real commitment and the necessary resources behind those?

I thank my hon. Friend. I accept that resources are needed, as well as a reshaping of services more broadly for youngsters who are emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. Tackling the causes, through prevention and early intervention, is at the root of what we are discussing this afternoon. Many youngsters are traumatised by the experience of seeing domestic violence. A third of children have seen domestic violence, and that rises to 50 per cent. where repeat offending takes place. It is an horrendous, traumatic experience for those youngsters, which they carry for the rest of their lives.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) would speak, but one of the penalties of being promoted to the Whips Office is that she is not allowed to address the House on these occasions.

I welcome today's statement and the consultation paper. As the Home Secretary knows, there have been some particularly tragic cases in Norfolk, such as the Lauren Wright case. The right hon. Gentleman is also aware that many of us come across cases in which there has been a serious domestic disturbance; all too often the police are called but cannot or do not do anything about it, and then there is a recurrence. What is needed is a power of arrest so that the attacker is arrested immediately. The Home Secretary also mentioned the extra work that would be put on the shoulders of the police and the extra commitment that they will have to make. What does he intend to do about extra police resources? How many extra police officers will be required?

On the first point, I accept entirely that the constituency issues that the hon. Gentleman raised require a multi-agency review of the cases that have taken place. A review is needed of the speed with which people operate. I have outlined changes to the sentencing advisory panel and the work of the Law Commission in response to the request that we are making.

On the second point, I do not wish to be the least bit aggressive. The 4,300 extra police last year—we will shortly announce updated figures—demonstrate a real commitment. I also want to make it clear that the rise in violence generally in this country is accelerated by domestic violence, with a quarter of all violence being domestic violence and one in four women experiencing domestic violence. If we can direct resources to tackle that terrible abuse, we will see a reversal of the broader figures, which worry all of us.

May I welcome the consultation paper, which represents progress on several fronts for victims of domestic violence? I especially welcome the strengthening of the child contact procedures to ensure that proper assessment of the risk to children arises from contact orders. What steps will be taken to make sure that we progress the initiative jointly undertaken by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Treasury to ensure proper funding for child contact centres? My constituency is keen to have one under the initiative. It is important that there are properly managed contact centres where estranged and absent parents can maintain contact with their children.

That is essential. Under the changes announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week, the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the new Minister for Children in the Department for Education and Skills will include aspects of the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department that dealt with domestic and court issues. It will be for her to take the matter forward. I will give every support, as will my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and Lord Falconer, to ensure that there is a sensible and reasonable settlement so that the centres can be expanded as quickly as possible.

The Home Secretary is aware that domestic violence is a serious problem in Northern Ireland, and that in recent weeks I have been frustrated and angry that the Criminal Justice Bill did not extend to Northern Ireland from the outset. Can he therefore confirm that the welcome proposals that he announced today will extend to Northern Ireland?

We are liaising directly with the Northern Ireland Office. As the hon. Lady knows better than I do, in some respects Northern Ireland has been ahead of the consultation laid out today for England and Wales, not least in terms of arrestability and the way that cases are dealt with. I offer the proposal that the draft Bill should incorporate for Northern Ireland those aspects that are relevant to Northern Ireland and that are not already part of Northern Ireland practice. I thank the hon. Lady again for her assiduousness in making sure that we never forget.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend recalls that just after we were elected, we issued a discussion document entitled "Living without Fear". Quite a chunk of that document was devoted to the work that schools could do to challenge behaviour. I know that my right hon. Friend has commented on that, and I appreciate the thrust of his announcement, but since the discussion document, not a great deal has been done through schools to work against macho and bullying behaviour. Could schools from nursery onwards be encouraged to challenge macho attitudes and violent behaviour, and could teachers get involved with children—often quite small children—who are witnessing violence at home? Certain sections of certain communities do not regard domestic violence as a problem. My suggestions would be a way of protecting women in the future.

Order. May I say to the House that shorter questions, and perhaps shorter answers too, will enable me to call the maximum number of hon. Members?

I shall heed your words, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has done an enormous amount locally, and done so bravely, by taking on sensitive and difficult issues. Yes, we must challenge those views—both from parents who make that behaviour seem acceptable, and from youngsters who make it seem normal to their peer group. It is not acceptable, and we must get that message across to all sections of our—for it is our—community.

May I warmly welcome the statement? From a practitioner's point of view, making common assault an arrestable offence is a sensible suggestion, as is the proposal that breaches of non-molestation orders and occupation orders should become criminal offences, with police having the power of arrest where warranted. Those important steps forward will deal properly with many incidents. The register of civil orders is another important innovation. I congratulate the Home Secretary and hope that I shall be able to play some small part in the consultation process.

This is one occasion when I can be brief. Let us reach out together through the English and the Welsh languages to get this one sorted.

May I particularly welcome the timing of the document, which enables me to launch it locally tomorrow at the annual general meeting of the East Derbyshire domestic violence forum? I echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) to consult trade unions and employers organisations. At my last workplace, it suddenly dawned on me that one of my staff found work a place of refuge from the violence that she suffered at home. It was important for me to give her time off to visit the local housing department and a quiet place to make phone calls, and to try to give support. Another member of my staff suffered violence, went back to her husband and disappeared, and we do not know what happened to her. It is important to develop workplace policies and I hope that that will be taken on board in the consultation.

Evidence shows that a history of domestic violence is linked with a history of violence against children. The access arrangements have recently been relaxed and far more men who have a history of violence are being allowed unsupervised access to children. Does the Home Secretary believe that, if men realise that they may be denied such access, they might think twice before hitting their wives?

I think we all agree that men should think twice anyway, but we need to get a situation in play in which men respect the fact that they have a critical role in terms of their children and that if they behave in such a way, access will be either drastically restricted or removed all together. I think that that message should get through. We want to ensure that that happens in full consultation with employers and trade unions, and all those whom my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) mentioned.

I do not apologise for asking a male question. Pursuant to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), may I ask an autobiographical question? When I was a young teacher, I was desperately concerned about the plight of a boy whose family I thought were in great difficulties. I reported the matter through the usual channels and was then much criticised for meddling. All right, it may be a matter of suspicion, but what protection can be given to teachers who act in good faith and are in a position to know, and meddle, perhaps wrongly, in what is a desperately important subject for all of us?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. When I was at the Department for Education and Employment, as it then was, we set in train a protocol to protect teachers in such circumstances, including from counter-allegations.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for prioritising this issue and pay tribute to the astonishing commitment of the Solicitor-General, who has transformed the approach that is taken to domestic violence? Women and children around the country will thank her for doing that. I am haunted by the case of my constituent who was attacked by her estranged husband last year. Following the attack, which was made on a Friday, she rang the police and said that she was in danger. Her husband returned on the Saturday and murdered her and her daughter. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that more protection will be given to victims when they first approach the police and other authorities?

I can give that assurance. That is why the proposals determine that immediate action should be taken and that the law should be changed to make action possible immediately and on a charge being made, rather than at the point when sentencing takes place. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the role of the Solicitor-General, who has made my life a lot easier in so much of the work that she has done.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and take this opportunity to congratulate him on having a formidable team of women, including four women Ministers, who all have a track record in this area?

My right hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties in getting victims to come forward as witnesses. One of those difficulties is the number of occasions on which courts cancel hearings. That is evident from what women in Plymouth tell me and from the internet consultation that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) set in motion as chairwoman of the all-party group on domestic violence. Will he say a little more about whether there are any early lessons in respect of the special courts that he mentioned? May I urge him to ensure that the review of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police will consider the matter in a robust way?

I can assure my hon. Friend that it is crucial that we see this issue as part of criminal justice reform in terms of cracked and failed trials, listings and management of the court system in general, so that we can get this right. We will learn the lessons from the courts. I point out that there is a fifth woman Home Office Minister, in the House of Lords, and I know that she will be committed as well.

While I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and especially the review in respect of homicide cases, may I ask him also to look closely at cases of assault? All too often, the courts hand out sentences that merely reinforce offending behaviour. That can happen when a woman reports a serious assault, but only a charge of criminal damage is brought with regard to the man having kicked down a door to get at her. That sort of sentence does not do anything to give women confidence. Neither does the response of the police, as the policies of a division may be good, but they do not always filter through to the constable who makes the arrest. Will he also ensure that police at all levels are properly trained to respond appropriately when they are called upon?

On training and speed, the answer is yes. On common assault and the immediate work of the Sentencing Advisory Panel, we are asking that body to do the work rather than waiting for the establishment of the sentencing guidelines council. We all accept that we need to get on with this.

May I, too, welcome this wide-ranging and thoughtful statement and compliment the Secretary of State and the Solicitor-General on the depth of the consultation in which he has already engaged in order to formulate the proposals?

I am sorry that there is no reference to support being made available for children in refuges. I urge my right hon. Friend to recognise that he should consider that issue. About two thirds of children who accompany their mothers in such places have been abused themselves and clearly represent a vulnerable sector. In so far as contact is considered, will he ensure that it is looked at very closely indeed? The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service estimates that, in 16,000 contact cases last year, domestic violence had occurred in the marriage before it broke up, yet contact was refused in only 700 cases. Finally, when does he expect the consultation to turn into legislation?

On the latter point, I hope to publish a draft Bill in the autumn, to consult widely about it and to introduce legislation with all-party support in the next Session. I recognise entirely that where there are gaps, we must fill them. It is a genuine pleasure, which I will not take for granted, to have my hon. and learned Friend's support.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and, in particular, his intention to widen the availability of restraining orders. Will he consider introducing non-controversial powers in advance of the domestic violence Bill? In particular, will he consider introducing exclusion orders that could be associated with assault, through which domestic violence cases are often brought to our courts at the moment? As I understand it, such provision could be introduced now under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. Will he consider that issue? The sooner we can give domestic violence victims the confidence that they will be protected if they come forward and report a case, the better it will be for everybody.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and other colleagues will look into the matter immediately. I shall not only write to my hon. Friend, but ensure that we include any action plan in the conclusion to the consultation so that we do not wait for legislation, but take forward measures in the interim.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome statement and the Solicitor-General for the understanding and commitment that she has shown in respect of the case of my constituent Paula Watt's twin sister, Madeleine Humes, who died after being stabbed by her husband 12 times in 15 minutes in front of her children? The husband received a sentence that, with remission, could be a mere three and a half years, with earlier day release. Will consideration also be given to whether children's safety and welfare can properly be protected if there is a possibility of their subsequently being given into the custody of the killer?

On the latter point, that is why it is so critical that we are readjusting the evidence provided when the cases are taken in terms of custody. That will be a crucial change. The first point clearly underlines the crucial nature of introducing the new sentencing principles and framework, within which the judges will now exercise a different sort of discretion.

May I, too, pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend, as well as that of a former Member who is sadly no longer with us, Jo Richardson, who did so much and would today be so proud of this Government and the forthcoming Bill?

What work will be done with the health service and, in particular, front-line nursing and medical staff in accident and emergency or even primary care? Victims are rarely able to have consultations on their own, and when it comes to the words "How did you do this?" or "How did this happen?", the truth seldom emerges. I believe that it takes up to 60 visits by victims to nursing or medical staff for it to do so. I would like very much to know what work is being done in the health service.

Mr. Blunkett