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Commons Chamber

Volume 447: debated on Monday 19 June 2006

House of Commons

Monday 19 June 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

Mr. Tawanda Machingura

1. What progress he has made in ascertaining the whereabouts of Mr. Tawanda Machingura, an illegal immigrant imprisoned for sexual assault of a mental health patient whilst working as a nurse in a local NHS hospital. (77870)

I am not able to comment on individual cases within the House. I apologise for the delay in responding to the hon. Gentleman. I was able to update him this morning.

I hear the Minister’s response. This foul crime, committed two years ago, caused much concern locally, and all we wanted to know was the whereabouts of this dangerous individual after he was released. Despite writing to the then Home Secretary in April, asking written questions on 10 May, 17 May and 14 June and phoning the Home Office, I hit a wall of silence. It has taken the Minister being dragged to the Dispatch Box to get a simple answer to a simple question. Given the Prime Minister’s promise of transparency on this issue, will the Minister explain why I received no responses to my named-day written questions? Does this case not show that the Government have failed to reassure the public on the foreign prisoners’ crisis?

The lack of response that was accorded to the hon. Gentleman’s inquiries was completely unacceptable. In my view, it highlighted again some of the failings on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has briefed the House. The processes to which the hon. Gentleman alludes will be part of the review that we are undertaking over the next month and a half.

I know that hon. Members are standing to be called, but this is a closed question. I must move on to Question 2.

Deportation (Zimbabwe)

The situation remains as set out by the then Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, now the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, on 20 April 2006. We are not enforcing returns to Zimbabwe pending a further hearing listed by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal from 3 to 7 July.

While sex offenders are released and remain untraceable, one of my constituents, Ashleigh McMaster, is stuck in an asylum limbo. Her mother has been attacked and stabbed and her step-father has been hospitalised in Zimbabwe in the past year. Yet this young woman, whose grandfather served in the Royal Air Force for 20 years, and whose father enjoys British citizenship and lives in my constituency, faces the prospect of deportation. I have already asked to have a meeting with the Minister. Will he now agree to meet me to discuss the case of Ashleigh McMaster?

As I have said, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he knows from correspondence with my ministerial colleague, fresh evidence was submitted by the applicant, which entailed a further review of the case details.

The Minister will be aware of the limbo in which many Zimbabwe asylum seekers live in this country. Zimbabwean asylum seekers will want to return some day to restore Zimbabwe to democracy. As our friends, why are we not treating them as we treated people from South Africa? Why are we not allowing them to work? Many of them are well qualified and, in the meantime, they could contribute a huge amount to this country. Why are we not allowing them to work in this country, to contribute to it and to prepare themselves to go back to a new Zimbabwe?

An important court case is pending that will, I think, change the context in which they are treated. As my hon. Friend knows, it is a valuable privilege to be able to work in this country. We think that it would be wrong to let certain people jump to the head of the queue. A related question has been asked about accessibility to benefits. As my hon. Friend knows, the rights of such applicants are set out clearly in section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

As long ago as November last year we were told that the inquiry into alleged fraud through the ancestral visa route from Zimbabwe was completed. Will the Minister tell me why constituents such as mine, the Mitchell family, have been held in limbo now for more than two years? Those people suffered greatly in Zimbabwe and they just want to get on with their lives. Their parents hold a British passport. It cannot be that complicated for the Minister’s Department to process this case, and many more like it.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, some applications were the subject of extensive fraud. It was important and absolutely right that the immigration and nationality directorate undertook extensive inquiries so that it might make the right decisions. If there are specific cases that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about, we will be happy to correspond with him further about them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just a matter of policy, it is also a matter of process? He alluded to the statement made by the Home Secretary that he regarded the Home Office as being unfit for purpose. Will he guarantee the resources necessary to ensure that cases to do with people from Zimbabwe, and the other cases at the IND, are dealt with speedily and efficiently so that people can get results, and also that no bonuses will be paid to the senior management of IND until those cases have been cleared?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice on human resources policy at IND, and I will take his thoughts into account in the weeks and months ahead. At this stage, I do not have anything to add, either to my own evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs or, indeed, to the evidence of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but the point is well taken.

I call David Davis. [Interruption.] It appears that he does not wish to ask a question, so I call Julian Brazier.

While strongly sympathising with earlier comments by colleagues from all parts of the House, may I raise again the case of Sungaradazzo Mudgyiwa, who is not an asylum seeker but a straightforward illegal entrant from Zimbabwe? She was sent to prison for four and a half years for stealing more than £100,000 from the benefits system and more than £12,000 from the Post Office, but she is still resident in Whitstable and occupies a council house with her teenaged sons, one of whom has recently been served with an antisocial behaviour order for violence and intimidation. Once that case has been heard, will action be taken on deportation?

We made it clear in our evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that enforcement and removals are a critical part of IND business that need to be strengthened. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for reserving my position on individual cases and not commenting but, again, if he would like me to update him on specific details, I am happy to do so.

Under-age Drinking

3. What assessment his Department has made of the case for additional measures to reduce the incidence of under-age drinking; and if he will make a statement. (77872)

The Government are determined to crack down on those who sell alcohol to children. Through almost 17,000 test-purchase operations funded by the police standards unit, increased penalties in the Licensing Act 2003, and Government work with the licensed industry, the rate of sales to children, measured through test-purchase failures, has fallen considerably. Both the on and off-licence sectors have committed themselves to seek to eliminate under-age sales.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will be aware that the increase in drinking among the young has caused increased vandalism and antisocial behaviour. Is it not time that we looked at giving proper sentences to the people who retail that drink? Can she look at alcopops in particular, and their effect on the increased alcohol abuse prevalent among the young?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. He will be aware that young people who reported drinking once a week or more committed a disproportionate volume of crime, accounting for 37 per cent. of all offences reported by individuals between the ages of 10 and 17. I can give him some comfort, however, as the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is proceeding through the House of Lords, will introduce a new offence of persistent selling of alcohol to children, with offenders risking a £10,000 fine and suspension of their licence, or closure for up to 48 hours. The majority of 10 to 17-year-olds who have drunk alcohol in the past 12 months reported that they had obtained that alcohol from their parents, so there is a message both for the industry and for families.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) about alcopops, will the Minister look again at the way in which the Portman Group is supposedly regulating the matter? It is time for Government intervention, because that advertising is targeted at youngsters, creating a problem that should not exist. Will the Government undertake to look again at the way in which the Portman Group is allegedly regulating that activity?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the document on social responsibility standards for the production and sale of alcoholic drinks in the UK that was released last November includes guidelines on the marketing of those alcoholic drinks and supplements the existing guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group’s code of practice on the packaging, marketing and sale of alcoholic beverages. We must keep the matter under review, because those drinks are particularly attractive to young people, but I accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend will know that many retailers take their responsibilities extremely seriously and ask young people for proof of their age when they purchase drinks. However, many young people get older people to buy their drinks, so has the Department liaised with the police to ensure that when youngsters are seen drinking publicly in our communities they are apprehended and their parents find out about it?

My hon. Friend may be aware of the alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns—AMEC—of which there have been four, which have been very successful. They are aimed at shop owners who sell to under-age young people and do not ask for proof of identity. They also target those who are under age and purchase alcohol. Those measures are designed to deal with young people who purchase alcohol and others who purchase it knowingly on their behalf, and it is important that the measures and powers available to the police are used, because when they are used, they have some success. We know, for instance, that the number of young people who report using alcohol has dropped, inasmuch as the proportion of schoolchildren who have never had a drink is at its highest level— 42 per cent. Clearly, there is much more to do in this regard, but the powers exist and we encourage their use both in the AMEC campaigns and outside those campaigns.

My constituent, Blake Golding, was savagely attacked outside a Milton Keynes nightclub by a young person on new year’s eve 2005. Since then, his mother, Marjorie Golding, has run a campaign—which has attracted over 100,000 signatures, is the subject of early-day motion 385 and was the subject of an Adjournment debate in the House last year—to change glasses and bottles in nightclubs to plastic. Does the Minister think such a measure would help to curb the rise in alcohol-related violence?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He will know that among the measures that local authorities and the police have been taking with local public houses in the run-up to the World cup, they have recommended and in some cases insisted that they use plastic glasses. Clearly, the police think that that is a measure that works in public houses where there is a problem. Other measures, such as drink banning orders and alcohol disorder zones, are also being used to deal with unruly public houses.

Child Pornography

4. What further steps he plans to take to stop pornographic images of children being downloaded from the internet. (77873)

We continue to work closely with law enforcement agencies, the new Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, industry and international colleagues, to tackle the downloading of such images. I have recently set the UK internet industry a target to ensure that by the end of 2007, all internet service providers offering broadband internet connectivity to the UK public prevent their customers from accessing those websites.

As my hon. Friend knows, BT is blocking about 35,000 attempts every day to download child pornography from websites. Can he explain whether the announcement that he has just made about the target will be a compulsory regulation for the ISPs, which is necessary in order to cut the market and end child abuse around the world?

We are determined to tackle that abuse, and our abhorrence is shared across the House. We expect 90 per cent. of internet service providers to have blocked access to sites abroad by the end of 2006. The target is that by the end of 2007 that will be 100 per cent. We believe that working with the industry offers us the best way forward, but we will keep that under review if it looks likely that the targets will not be met.

Given that the registration of sex offenders who pose a continued threat to children is as low as 30 per cent. on registers in operation in some states in the United States, whereas the equivalent figure in the UK is well over 90 per cent. on the sex offenders register, does the Minister agree with the Minister for Children and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) who stated in 2002 that

“making information about sex offenders widely available would hinder child protection”—[Official Report, 15 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 180W.]

precisely because it would drive some of the most serious sex offenders underground? If that is the case, why do the Government seem to be revisiting an idea that was so summarily rejected by the Minister’s predecessors?

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced, we are considering all those matters, and we will reach our conclusions in due course. The Government’s aim is to tackle access to child pornography on the internet, sexual abuse and sex offenders, and we will come up with the best policies to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend for his positive response to my ten-minute Bill. Is he aware that children’s charities and credit card companies are working together to see whether credit cards can be used to block access to child pornography? And will he tell us when schedule 3 to the Data Protection Act 1998 will be amended to allow us to end that despicable crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for pressurising the Government to take further action. The order that she has mentioned was laid on 13 June.

Knives

5. How many offences involving the use of knives or other bladed weapons have been recorded by the police in each of the last five years; and if he will make a statement. (77874)

With the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes involving knives and sharp instruments. Of the 4,141 offences currently recorded as homicide between 2000-01 and 2004-05, 1,211 involved sharp instruments. On 24 May, the Association of Chief Police Officers and I launched a nationwide knife amnesty to encourage people to hand in unwanted knives. The amnesty runs until the end of June, following which forces will undertake robust enforcement actions, education and community engagement work. Concurrent with that, the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is currently before Parliament, contains a number of measures to tighten still further the control of knives.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He may be aware that 10 years ago I worked with Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered head master Philip Lawrence, in order to secure action to deal with the scourge of knife crime. At that point, the then shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), assured me that dealing with knife crime would be a priority for a future Labour Government. Since then, public concern about knife crime has risen—in my constituency, one school pupil, Natashia Jackman, was attacked in the precincts of her own school, and we are all aware of the recent tragic murder of Kiyan Prince. Will the Home Secretary tell me what he and his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills are doing in order to ensure the safety of schoolchildren against that particular scourge? And what will he do to honour the promise so freely given by his colleague 10 years ago?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the matter is a major public concern. Although I have been at the Home Office for a relatively short period, I have already indicated that I am reviewing the situation and considering the options on the possession of knives. I am giving serious consideration to suggestions that the maximum sentence for possessing an article with a blade or point in a public place should be increased, which is a measure of the seriousness with which I treat the matter. I would not like the hon. Gentleman to think that we have not acted previously, because we have, but I accept that the level of public concern obliges me to re-examine whether we should make sentencing even more robust in that area.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the perception that knife crime is a serious problem drives many young people to carry weapons where they might not otherwise do so? Although screening, stop and search and deterrent sentencing have an important role to play, prevention must lie at the heart of the response. In my constituency, which incidentally includes St. George’s school where Philip Lawrence was tragically murdered 10 years ago, we are currently seeking charitable funding for a major project that will work with schools and youth clubs to get to the root causes of why so many young people seek to carry weapons as a result of fear and as a way of resolving conflicts. Will he urgently work with the DFES to see whether ways can found to ensure that projects are available in a range of constituencies to work with young people to make prevention a priority?

Yes, I certainly will do that. It is important that, along with other measures, we educate young people out of the idea, which is no doubt fashionable and attractive, that if someone carries a blade or a knife it will somehow defend them from attack. In fact, in many cases it will provoke, and may even be used against them. Education is an important aspect, as are prevention and prohibition. We are also considering banning samurai swords and other weapons used in violent crime. Sanction is important as well, so I confirm to the House that in reviewing sentencing options, I am giving serious consideration to the suggestion that the maximum sentence for having a knife or a blade in a public place should be increased. We intend to make a decision on that before the Violent Crime Reduction Bill is debated on Report in the other place.

Given that it is possible to receive a lengthier jail sentence for stealing a bicycle than for carrying a deadly weapon in the form of a knife, can the public really have confidence that the Government’s priorities are right when it comes to tackling violent crime?

I think that the hon. Gentleman would want to be as honest as possible on the length of sentence that one can get for possessing an offensive weapon, which in the case of a knife could be up to four years. However, there is an incongruity in that in other circumstances the sentence for having an article with a blade or a point would be limited to two years. I am considering that with a view to possibly extending it. Of course, someone who uses a knife in pursuit of another crime can receive up to a life sentence—for instance, in the case of murder with the use of a knife.

When my right hon. Friend is reviewing sentencing policy, will he also consider the Government’s approach to working with young people and acknowledge that the carrying of knives seems to be closely related to gang culture and the organisation of gangs among young people? For all the effort that we have put into working with young people, there is very little focused work by the police or other agencies to tackle and to break up gangs. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), goes to the USA, he could look at some of its experience in tackling and busting gangs to see whether that can have any effect on the predominance of knife-carrying.

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, both ministerial and from his position as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I certainly will consider that. I would not like people to think that we have done nothing in this direction. First, in May 2004, we set up the Connected fund to provide grants for small community groups. It now supports more than 200 local groups working on gun crime, knife crime and gang-related issues. I accept that that was a start, but it was a substantial start.

Secondly, we have to deploy a range of measures—for instance, the amnesty that we are carrying out at the moment. The previous amnesty brought in some 30,000 knives. As we announced last Friday, in the first week of the amnesty about 17,700 items were handed in to forces in England and Wales. I do not pretend that that deals with the whole problem, but it is another aspect of tackling it. People should understand that if they are found in possession of such weapons after the interlude during which they can be handed in, they will be tackled robustly.

I will resist the temptation to talk about Zimbabwe.

Given what has been said in questions from both sides of the House, and given that the Home Secretary himself said that he is considering extending the penalty for carrying knives, why did his own Government oppose this exact proposal from the Opposition in November of last year?

The hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question—[Hon. Members: “Right hon.”] I beg his pardon. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question, through a slightly different prism, that he asked a fortnight ago—that is, how I could vote on something with the Government a few months ago. I think that he has served in government, and he will know that there was a different Secretary of State then. [Interruption.] Just as I, as Secretary of State for Defence, made different judgments from those that the current incumbent will make on some matters— the nature of Cabinet Government is collective responsibility—so I have now reached a new position. I have considered what has been said and, rather than being completely focused on the process whereby we reach decisions—which is a legitimate subject—I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also be interested in their substance. I am prepared to consider extending the sentence in one of the examples—indeed, I will go further and invite him to discuss the matter with me. I hope that that process will not upset him unduly.

I promise not to be upset when I discuss with the Home Secretary the sentencing options, which are currently before the Lords, of three, four or five years under the Tory agenda. I am sure that he will accept one of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) made a powerful point about the length of time that the issue has been before the Government and, indeed, the previous Government. Three years have passed since the massive public outcry over the brutal stabbing of the schoolboy Luke Walmsley—I am sure that everyone remembers that. There was a great deal of tough talk from the Government then but little effective has happened since.

Since the Government have been in power, the number of knives in schools has doubled yet the convictions for selling knives to minors—under-16s—run at an average rate of six a year. That is how seriously the issue has been taken. Let me therefore bring the Home Secretary to a practical point about knives, youngsters and schools. When will the Government ensure that all at-risk schools have the resources and facilities to screen all their pupils to ascertain that they are not carrying knives?

First, I take it that the right hon. Gentleman’s response was an acceptance of my invitation to discuss the matter. The public are more interested in that than point scoring about the process.

Secondly, I would not like the House to be misled inadvertently. As I said, with the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes that involve knives and sharp instruments. I therefore took the trouble to examine the incidence of the use of knives in homicides. The figures have stayed roughly the same for the past five or six years—between 29 and 33 per cent. That is around 230 out of 820 homicides. I do not want to give a sensationalist portrayal of the use of knives. Nevertheless, there is great public concern about it and I believe that it should be a cross-party issue, which we ought to discuss with an open agenda to ascertain how we can deal with sentencing. I am more than willing to discuss any related issues, including schools, at the same time.

Alcohol-related Crime

A series of alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns have targeted public violence and disorder caused by binge drinking since 2004. We believe that the success of those campaigns has contributed to reductions in more serious violent crime. For example, during the third campaign, police and local authority partners visited some 27,000 licensed premises, dealt with about 33,000 offences, made 25,000 arrests and issued approximately 8,000 fixed penalty notices for alcohol-related offences. In addition, it is important that the alcohol industry plays an important role in improving standards, especially with reference to binge drinking.

Trends in recorded crime due to alcohol are higher in large cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Salford. We have happily experienced some improvements in Salford—indeed, 11 local authorities in the north-west have experienced a fall in recorded crime. However, does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities and the alcohol industry need to crack down on the matter, which is a genuine quality-of-life issue in our urban areas, to accelerate those improvements and try to make them more even throughout our regions?

I agree: it is only through such partnerships that these matters can be dealt with successfully. This is as much about education and awareness in schools as it is about licensing regimes, the police, and the crime reduction strategies in each local authority. Partnership is the key to dealing with this issue.

Did the Minister notice the tone of censoriousness that crept into the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), when she said that many children obtained alcohol from their parents? Does the Minister not agree that the best place for children to learn to use alcohol moderately and sensibly is in their family?

Strangely or otherwise, I do agree, although not about the censorious nature of my hon. Friend’s response. The hon. Gentleman will know from a recent survey of drinking patterns that abuse of alcohol is more often than not started by parents giving drinks to their children at an unduly early age. However, he is right. As a starting premise, education and the awareness of a balanced use of alcohol must start at home with the family.

I congratulate the Government on the steps that they are taking to tackle binge drinking, but much more education needs to be given to our young people about its effect on not only their health but their safety while they are out. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Department for Education and Skills? Experience suggests that, while our young people are given a great deal of education on the effects of illegal drugs, they do not always get very much on the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol.

I agree, and the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and others are talking far more readily about all these matters in order to address the issues. Local government and the alcohol industry are also participating in the rounded partnership to which I referred in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). Every aspect of the issues must be covered, as the way in which we deal with them is multi-faceted. I will ensure that the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) are passed on to the DFES and to the Department of Health, as well as to the Home Office.

Police

I remain of the view that strategic mergers are the right way to improve protective police services. However, I am keen to continue the discussion and dialogue that we have begun with police forces and police authorities on the best way to get to that destination. Accordingly, I do not propose to lay any orders for enforced police force mergers before the summer recess. I hope, however, that it will be possible to press ahead with laying the order for the voluntary merger of the Cumbria and Lancashire forces.

I thank the Home Secretary for that response, especially in relation to my own region. I understand his wish to kick this issue into the long grass; I hope that, in the case of Yorkshire and the Humber, it will be elephant grass. As a rule, the Government are keen to have a big conversation with the British people. Will the Home Secretary assure me that in the case of enforced police mergers regional referendums will be held before any such measures are imposed?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is complaining because I have listened and responded to the feelings of many people in the House and outside. Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not believe that the status quo is an option. The destination that has been outlined, particularly in the study carried out by Denis O’Connor and others in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, is the correct one. It will be better for the strategic-level protective forces and will supplement efforts to put more police on the streets in our neighbourhoods in a visible, accessible and responsive fashion. This will mean that, when a major crisis occurs, we will not have to pull them out to deal with it.

I accept, however, that people want to discuss in greater length and detail many of the questions arising from these proposals. I have therefore decided—along with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, whom I have asked to deal with this issue—that this merits further and slower consideration. I cannot promise a referendum but I can promise discussion, dialogue and listening throughout.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will be extremely popular in north Wales. Will he ensure that each merger that takes place in due course is tested rigorously against the criteria set down by Denis O’Connor in the report? I believe that when that test is made in respect of Wales, the proposal originally made will be found wanting. Will there be close and rigorous analysis relating to the proposal for an all-Wales police force?

Yes, that is one area where discussion will take place. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has already opened discussions and has conducted the beginnings of a public debate in Wales.

I repeat that the strategic direction and the ultimate destination—where we are going—are correct and will be illustrated in most cases to be correct, but I am responding to the will of the House, the police authorities and many outside the House to conduct matters in a way that meets the anxieties not only of members of the police service but of local people who want to ensure a degree of local accountability, neighbourhood policing and police on the streets, as well as a sense of their still owning their own police services locally. Those are perfectly legitimate aims and are therefore a perfect arena for further discussion.

I thank the Home Secretary for his thoughtful answer and for listening. Will he perhaps bring before the House, before we rise in July, a realistic, measured timetable that allows for proper, full consultation throughout the country? This is the biggest change to the police force, certainly for 50 years, and arguably for a century or more. May we please take proper time and do it methodically?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take proper time. I am reluctant to give him today, or indeed to promise in the next few weeks, an adequate timetable—

Because I think that is a legitimate part of the discussion of how this might be done, how it might be handled and what areas it might include.

I have already made it plain that there is no need for anyone to panic over time, because I will not lay orders on enforced change. Where there is voluntary agreement and willingness to go ahead—I hope that that is the case in at least one example—we will lay an order, but the timetable and details will be part of our discussions with people such as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows of the statements that the Prime Minister has made in the Chamber on these issues—that adequate time be provided, that the opinions of the communities involved be taken into full account and that all options will be considered, including the co-ordinated co-operation of neighbouring police forces.

Will the Home Secretary give the Chamber an assurance that all those prime ministerial stipulations will be taken into account before any decisions are made?

Of course, all those items will be aspects of the discussions, but I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend into thinking that I start with a blank slate. I am persuaded that the status quo is not an option and that the experience brought to the study by people with many years of operational experience—Denis O’Connor and Ronnie Flanagan are but two of them—is sufficient, along with the coherence of their argument, to convince me that the destination that we want to end up at, which was identified by my predecessor as Secretary of State, is the right one.

In relation to where I am giving a degree of flexibility in the face of requests for discussion and dialogue and of legitimate questions being asked over local accountability, financing and all sorts of other areas, I am saying that the journey from where we are to where I think we should end up might be at a different pace and in a different fashion. We must of course allow for the possibility of changes and nuances, otherwise we would not be acting in good faith. Equally in good faith, however, I can tell the House that I am pretty convinced that we will—and ought to—end up at the destination identified in “Closing the Gap”.

I thank the Home Secretary for his opening comments, but will he explain why, if the status quo is acceptable in Kent, it is not acceptable in Essex? This morning the Essex police authority launched a county-wide consultation. If the verdict of the people of Essex is that they want their own police force and not a merger with the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire forces, will the Home Secretary support that majority opinion?

The answer to that question is simple. There is no template for the exact size, configuration and balance of police services and specialities in any given region, and we should not assume that we will end up with any such uniformly imposed, centrally dictated template. It is, however, entirely possible that some forces are better able than others to stand on their own because of their size, configuration and specialities.

The key point is that unless protective services allow the police in a given area to respond to a crisis, such as a succession of serial murders or a terrorist attack, without continually drawing forces from the neighbourhoods, the whole idea of neighbourhood policing that is visible, accessible and responsive to local people’s needs will not be sustainable. We want the strategic configuration not just because it is suitable at a higher level, but because it supplements our aim of putting a record number of police into the neighbourhoods. The configuration will not be exactly the same in every single area, any more than it is now, but overall the strategic configuration will serve the public better.

I am glad that there is to be further discussion, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the delay may send a signal that alternative suggestions that have been discounted locally may be given credence? Will he knock on the head once and for all the ludicrous notion of splitting the county of Durham in half and merging it with Cleveland, and will he back the idea that a single strategic force for the north-east is the answer?

I entirely accept that. Resolution is sometimes portrayed as obstinacy, as dictatorial or as bullying. On the other hand, when people respond flexibly to the demands of Members of Parliament, that is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as irresolution. I am not irresolute. I do not seek another destination on the map. I am convinced, until persuaded otherwise, that the destination specified by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is the correct one. I do accept, however, that all the problems and questions that people have raised are legitimate and require further, deeper and wider discussion and dialogue. We will engage in that discussion and dialogue over the coming period, and if a better solution emerges, any open-minded person will consider it; but I do not think that that is where we will end up.

Has the Home Secretary read the report by the head of finance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which warns that police force amalgamations will contribute to a funding gap equivalent to 25,000 police officer posts nationally? It says that such a cut would

“destroy any realistic hope of developing Neighbourhood Policing”.

Is that not enough reason not just to delay these unnecessary, unwanted and expensive mergers, but to scrap the idea altogether?

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman appears to have written his question before I gave my first answer. I always hate to disappoint the Opposition, but I am not going to withdraw my first answer.

I must confess that I have not read in detail the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but he will be gratified to know that I discussed it in detail with the authors, who tell me that the one example that he gave from a range of speculative options that they were considering was the worst and most extreme that they examined.

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to engage in a discussion about this paper, but I could not have done better than to speak to the people who wrote it; he merely read it. The hype and spin around it, which is some five weeks old now, prior to the Police Federation—[Interruption.] No wonder the hon. Gentleman is laughing; he has tried it on and been caught. The scenario described is unrealistic; it is a speculative, in extremis case, which has been denied even by the authors of the report.

I do not want the Home Secretary to run away with the idea that all police forces are against these amalgamations; only voices against them are heard in this Chamber. May I point out that the west midlands force is very much behind them and says that the worst thing we could do is consult for too long and end up not making a decision, because uncertainty is bad for all forces?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. If I have found out one thing in the Home Office in the last five weeks, it is that it is very difficult to get anything right, whatever one says. So it is unsurprising to me that, as my hon. Friend legitimately points out, there are people who take a different view, and who reasonably believe that there is such a self-evidently correct destination that we should move to it at a far quicker pace. The design of those who say that they have specific complaints is to stop the whole process.

It may well be that there are two extremes in respect of this matter. There is probably a mainstream position that says, “We are willing to enter into discussions but want clarification of a large number of points about accountability, finance and so on, on the basis of which, we would be prepared to proceed.” It is on the basis of such good faith that I enter into the discussions, and we will see whether that is a flexible and intelligent way of approaching them, or merely the naivety of a young and aspiring politician.

Prisons

Some 900 additional places are being provided at existing prisons, which will increase total capacity to around 80,400 by the end of 2007. We will of course keep under review the need for additional capacity.

Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and that one in 10 prisoners are foreign nationals, should not the Home Office redouble its efforts to ensure that, during an early part of their sentence, as many as possible of the 8,000 foreign prisoners in our jails are returned to secure detention in their own countries?

The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the prison population is rising, and he is right to suggest that we have repatriation agreements with many countries. He will know that we have 97 prisoner transfer agreements with particular countries. My right hon. Friend Baroness Scotland has met representatives of other countries, particularly Jamaica, to see what we can do about repatriation. We continue to work in as many ways as we can to get people out of our prisons who do not need to be there, and we are looking at the arrangements.

What effect will the extremely welcome letter that my hon. Friend sent to me on Friday have on prison capacity? He said unequivocally that no sex offenders will go into the Bunbury House bail hostel, thereby reversing a policy position adopted under the Conservatives. Will that have any impact on the prison population?

It clearly will. My hon. Friend is referring to our decision to make sure that child sex offenders will not be in approved premises adjacent to schools, which is entirely sensible and in the interests of public protection. I know that he, like other Members, is concerned about how we deal with what is a very difficult problem, and I look forward to working with Members in all parts of the House on addressing the issue of child sex offenders.

May I say that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the impact on prison capacity of imprisonment for public protection and extended sentence provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003? There is a very real concern that they will result in many people spending many years in prison, not least because parole boards, against the background of the current tabloid campaign, will be reluctant to release them. Much injustice might be done this way.

The Government’s position is that serious offenders and dangerous people should be imprisoned. That is what we want. Of course, the courts are responsible for sentencing, which is quite right—

As the shadow Home Secretary says, I am responsible for prisons, but I will not be doing any fag-packet calculations about new ones. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has many years of experience, that we need look at the wider issues to do with the prison population, including whether the right people are in prison and whether capacity is right. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says, we need to take account of that in the review. It is interesting to note that, since 1997, nine new prisons have been built with an increased capacity of 19,000 and a greater than 50 per cent. rise in the prison population. Those are serious issues that have to be faced, and it is important that the whole House reflects seriously on them to ensure that the right decisions are taken.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one thing we should be doing is ensuring that people in prisons really need to be there? Far too many people are in prison at the moment: they are there fundamentally because they have mental health problems or because in many cases they are on remand. Will my hon. Friend reflect on what happens now as a result of the fact that remand practices vary so much from one court district to another? Prisons as overcrowded as they are now are more difficult to manage and reduce the chances of the work done inside them to stop reoffending being effective.

My hon. Friend, who is noted for the work that he does in this area for the all-party group, is entirely right to say, as I said earlier, that we should reflect on the prison population and consider who is in prison and who needs to be. We also need to ensure that public protection remains at the forefront. I am aware of issues around remand, which will be dealt with in the review.

What the Minister may not realise is that he has just admitted that prison capacity has not expanded at the same rate as the prison population. If he looks at the Prison Service business plan for 2006-07, he will see, as I am sure he knows, that it has seven main priorities, but that increasing prison capacity is not one of them. Since the document can have been published only with the Minister’s and the Home Secretary’s knowledge and prior consent, it follows that, despite their sentencing policy, and despite the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), the Government have no plans to increase prison capacity. Why not?

I wish that the hon. and learned Gentleman had listened to what I said. We will consider all options in the review that the Home Secretary is undertaking, and capacity will feature. I have already said that capacity will increase by 900 by the end of 2007. I have also already said that we are looking at the prison population. Yes, it is at its highest level, but we still have spare capacity in our prisons and we are looking into all the available options.

Rape

In this financial year, the Home Office is investing around £2.75 million in services supporting victims of sexual violence, including sexual assault referral centres, independent sexual violence advisers who will provide support through the criminal justice system and specialist sexual violence voluntary organisations providing therapeutic care.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. In a recent report, Portsmouth was cited as the city with the highest number of reported rapes in the country, but that was partly due to the fact that we have an excellent rape crisis centre, offering support to men and women and giving them the confidence to report rapes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Does my hon. Friend agree that such services are important, and will she agree to come to Portsmouth to see for herself the excellent work being done at the rape crisis centre and to use it as a model of best practice?

I thank my hon. Friend and am aware of her efforts and support for the provision of quality services in this area. I hope that a visit can be arranged, as I would be most willing to go to Portsmouth. My hon. Friend will know that we are working across Government to develop an action plan on sexual violence, aimed at preventing such violence by increasing reporting of cases, increasing access to help and support services, and improving the criminal justice system response to victims of sexual violence.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

11. What steps he is taking to improve the administration of the immigration and nationality directorate. (77881)

I thank the Minister for that question.

I ask him, however, to look at the deportation of husbands of arranged marriages. I know of several examples of women who are being harassed. They have given information to the Department. Even though their husbands’ appeals have failed, the IND has not taken steps to remove them.

I hope that what I gave was something of an answer, rather than a question.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I will be happy to look into it further with him.

One suggestion that the Minister has already made to reduce the backlogs that plague his Department is an amnesty for all illegal immigrants. His predecessor rejected it because he could not give even a rough estimate of how many illegal immigrants there are in Britain. It would be highly irresponsible even to consider an amnesty without knowing the numbers that it would cover. I am sure that the Minister is not irresponsible, so can he give us that number?

The hon. Gentleman talked about an amnesty. It is true that we have asked officials to look at quite a wide range of analysis as we prepare to reform the IND. However, the point that I made to the Home Affairs Committee was clear: we expect the enforcement and removal regime to be strengthened. Therefore, there are no plans for an amnesty, because that would cut against the position and direction of policy that we set out so clearly.

European Council

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the European Council held in Brussels on 15 and 16 June. I would like to thank Chancellor Schüssel and the Austrian Government for their arrangements for the summit and for the way in which they conducted their presidency.

There were two parts to the Council. On the constitutional treaty, it was agreed that there would have to be a further period of reflection, because at present there is no consensus on how to proceed. [Interruption.] A Europe of 25, not 15, soon to become 27—[Interruption.]

Order. Opposition Members often want Ministers to come to make a statement. Hon. Members ridiculing the Prime Minister, or anyone else, is not behaviour that I can condone.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

A Europe of 25, not 15, soon to become 27 and in time enlarged still further, needs a modern set of rules to function effectively. As regards this treaty, around 15 states have ratified it, but of course there have been the no votes in France and Holland, and as a result others, including the UK, have not proceeded with ratification. The German presidency in the first half of 2007 will therefore consult member states and present a report to the European Council. Decisions will then be taken by the end of 2008, but it was made crystal clear that, in line with the conclusions of the Council in June 2005, there can be no presumption as to the outcome of this discussion.

The bulk of the conclusions of the Council, however, deal with the specific issues of most immediate concern to Europe's citizens. One of the key outcomes of a positive attitude towards Europe on the part of Britain was the election of President Barroso to the Commission. I therefore thoroughly welcome his commitment to the Council to transmit direct now to national Parliaments all new Commission proposals and consultation papers and to take due consideration of their views. That is an important boost to a long-held British concern over subsidiarity.

In addition, on better regulation, the Commission has already announced the withdrawal of some 70 pieces of legislation. The European Council invited the Commission to report by early 2007 on further progress, and in particular asked the Commission to make proposals by that time on how to reduce administrative burdens on businesses by 25 per cent. That, again, is a central British objective, on which we built alliances with other partners.

On the single market, the Council welcomed the agreement on the services directive; welcomed agreement on the competitiveness and innovation programme; and looked forward to the Commission's forthcoming review of the single market and proposals for completing it. The services directive, in particular, is expected to deliver some 600,000 jobs across the European Union and add around €31 billion to the EU economy. I pay tribute to the work of British MEPs—both from the party of European Socialists and the European People's party—in securing the compromise necessary to allow it to pass.

The Council agreed a number of specific measures and initiatives to combat illegal immigration, designed to strengthen borders while improving co-operation with some of the main source countries of migrants and refugees. In particular, the Council agreed to implement regional protection pilot projects to protect refugees in their region of origin and, therefore, avoid the need for mass migration. We also agreed to intensify work on readmission agreements, so that across Europe failed asylum seekers can be more easily returned.

On energy, another of the Hampton Court initiatives, we welcomed and agreed to take forward proposals for an external energy policy, developed jointly by Javier Solana, the EU’s high representative, and the Commission. One of the priorities will be developing strategic partnerships with the main producer and transit countries, including a commitment to seek an agreement with Russia.

The Council also agreed declarations on the western Balkans; Iran; Iraq; the middle east peace process; Africa; the Lebanon and Timor Leste.

Finally, on climate change, the European Council committed itself to pursuing, in all the relevant multilateral organisations, an international goal consistent with the objective of a maximum global temperature increase on 2o C above pre-industrial levels.

This was a European Council which focused on the practical policy-driven agenda that we have long advocated. It demonstrated yet again the benefits of positive engagement with Europe, and I commend the outcome to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement.

We support action on climate change, so we back the commitment to a new Kyoto-style treaty.

We support enlargement of the EU so we welcome the accession talks with Turkey. There are genuine concerns about Turkish recognition of Cyprus and how Turkey treats Cyprus at present. The summit conclusions refer to the EU’s

“capacity to absorb new members”.

Can the Prime Minister assure us that that is not a new obstacle to Turkish membership?

Those of us who want the EU to be a force for co-operation, trade, stability and democracy on our continent should support further enlargement. Does the Prime Minister agree that that enlargement should eventually include all the western Balkans, Ukraine and, perhaps, even Belarus?

We back deregulation and we shall want to see concrete results from what the Prime Minister told us today. We have long supported greater openness and transparency at EU Ministers’ meetings, so should we not all be relieved that the Foreign Secretary completely failed in her extraordinary attempt to block the opening up of EU meetings to public scrutiny? When it comes to building alliances to block transparency the score, apparently, was 24-nil.

As well as opening up the EU’s decision making, we should be reducing its costs. Does the Prime Minister support the growing campaign for the European Parliament to sit in just one place, rather than wasting hundreds of millions of euros moving between Brussels and Strasbourg?

Let me deal with the two most contentious issues at the summit: criminal justice and the future of the constitution. On criminal justice, will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that Britain will not give up its veto in that vital area? Our criminal justice system may have been reduced to chaos by the Government but that is still not an argument for handing it over to the European Union.

Three years ago, the then Minister for Europe—I am sorry to see that the current Minister for Europe has not even made it on to the Treasury Bench today—warned that ending the veto could

“change fundamental principles of our legal system”.

Can the Prime Minister explain why the Government now apparently have an open mind on the issue?

The European Commission has said that if we had no veto it would want to look at issues such as Belmarsh. The Prime Minister and I agree that ultimate responsibility for dealing with terrorism must lie with the British Government. Is that not an issue on which the Prime Minister should look to the long term, take a firm stand and not hand over responsibility for something that he will later regret? Abolishing the veto in those areas was a key part of the European constitution. Does the Prime Minister understand that reintroducing such changes without a referendum is completely unacceptable?

Is it not clear, after two decisive referendum defeats, that the European constitution should be declared null and void? The Prime Minister repeatedly told us that the constitution was essential to make enlargement work, yet Die Welt has said recently that

“the last 12 months have shown that Europe can live without a constitution”.

Does the Prime Minister accept that his argument about the constitution is being disproved by events? Is not the real alternative an open and flexible Europe? May we have a clear answer from the Prime Minister about the issue?

The Austrian Federal Chancellor, who chaired the discussion, said:

“There is…agreement that the substance of the Constitutional Treaty is sound and should be retained.”

Does the Prime Minister agree with that? Or does he agree with the Labour party’s representative on the constitutional convention, who is in her place, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart)? She said last week:

“The first thing the Government needs to do is to state categorically that the Constitution is finished. Like the parrot: dead, deceased and no more”.

The Government are perhaps starting to look a bit like a Monty Python sketch so perhaps it is time to say: and now for something completely different. Instead of his usual pre-prepared rant, will the Prime Minister just answer two simple questions? They concern the key issues at the summit. Will he give up the veto on home affairs and is the constitution dead—yes or no?

First, let us go through the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised at the beginning. On the capacity to absorb new member states, no, that is not a new criterion. Indeed, it was part of the insistence of this country that conclusion language that suggested that it might be a criterion was taken out. In respect of Turkey, yes, of course, we support Turkey’s accession, which is why, under our presidency, we began the accession negotiations.

In respect of the criminal justice system, fortunately as a result of what we have negotiated, we can opt in or out at our leisure. That is the right thing to do. There may well be circumstances in which, as a result of Europe, for example, wanting to tighten immigration controls in a particular instance, we might want to participate in that process, but it is up to us. That is the benefit of the flexible arrangements that we negotiated.

As for whether the constitution is dead or not, that depends not simply on me, but on all the other countries in Europe. What is very obvious, however, is that it cannot be proceeded with unless there is an overturning of the French and Dutch no votes.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about leadership in Europe, he is not going to get a pre-prepared rant. [Interruption.] No, I am just going to point out that his decision that the Conservative MEPs should leave the European People’s party is a foolish error of judgment. It is one of the few instances, incidentally, in which an error of judgment by the Opposition can have an impact on the country. If he wants to take someone’s word for it—not mine—I can tell him that the British Chambers of Commerce has said that this would damage British commercial interests and several members of his own European party have said that it is deeply inimical to the proper interests of this country. He has said that, by the end of next month, he will reach a decision on this matter. Let me tell him what other Members of the European Parliament call the people he is negotiating with: “nutters”, “the barmy army”, “very embarrassing allies”,

“fascists, outcasts and ne’er do wells”.

That is his own people. May I suggest this to him? Since his position now is not merely to withdraw from the European People’s party, but to support the—

Order. I must gently say to the Prime Minister that he should really be responding to the statement that he has made. He has made his point.

I begin by generally welcoming the terms of the Prime Minister’s statement. There are a number of matters that are particularly welcome that he did not mention. I have in mind, for example, the agreement to deliver aid to the Palestinians. I welcome the renewed commitment to enlargement and, although there is no doubt that there are particular difficulties that attach to Turkey, it has been the view on both sides of the House that Turkey’s accession to the European Union is essential for the future of the European Union. I also welcome the agreement on transparency, although the Prime Minister may care to reflect on how the United Kingdom came to be isolated on an issue of that kind.

The Prime Minister is right to accept that a union of 25—soon to be 27—cannot operate within a framework designed for six. In the meantime, what practical steps can be taken for reform and does he remain committed to a referendum if there are any proposals for constitutional change that would significantly alter the relationship between Westminster and Brussels? If I may say so, he was a little hard on the Leader of the Opposition. I wonder whether he would give some consideration to the constitutional propriety of this: if there is a referendum, could we have a second question to ask the British public whether they think that Tory MEPs should leave the European People’s party? We would not find it too difficult to agree on the form of a question: “Should the Conservatives leave sensible Mrs. Merkel and join a rag-bag of eccentrics?”

What does the Prime Minister propose to do to involve British citizens in the debate about Europe in the 21st century? Was there any discussion of rendition and possible breaches of international law? Does he accept that, however welcome negotiations with Russia about security and energy might be, they should not absolve Russia from legitimate criticism of its human rights record, its restrictions on non-governmental organisations and its attitude towards freedom of the press?

First, in respect of enlargement, we are essentially agreed that we want enlargement to proceed. The issues raised by the constitutional treaty will come back in some form or another, for sure, because if we have a Europe at 25 and then 27—or an even greater number if we encourage more member states to join, especially from the Balkans, which would be sensible in the longer term—the issue of how Europe works will be a live one. It would be deeply unfortunate if this country took an unprincipled decision to be opposed to anything that changes the proper workings of the European Union.

Secondly, on the practical steps in the meantime, the steps on subsidiarity are important, thanks to this European Commission President, as are the additional steps on deregulation that are being taken. For the moment, the single most important issue for the European Union is to concentrate on things such as energy policy, on which there is a common and collective need, and mass migration across the European Union. In that regard, there was a debate on illegal immigration, which affects all the major countries in Europe and, obviously, the United States as well. That discussion during Thursday night’s dinner perhaps could not have been held in quite such a way a few years back. There is now a far stronger need to take European action, which is, again, a reason why—with the greatest respect to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—taking the unprincipled position of never co-operating on the European issues of justice and home affairs would be great mistake.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was saying that. The only way in which one can co-operate is to opt in to certain parts, so we must be able to do that.

For us as a country, the important thing is to keep our options open on such issues and, in the meantime, to carry on building the alliances that have seen very successful measures being negotiated in the European Union recently, not least of which was, of course, the services directive.

What discussion took place about the need for EU action to assist the African Union and to contribute to peace and security in Darfur and Congo? Has any progress been made on the establishment of the battlegroups in the European Union and an enhanced role for the EU on security and defence policy?

There has been progress both on establishing the peacekeeping force in Africa, which is part of the work of the United Nations, and on trying to ensure that the EU has the strategic capability to assist any such progress. The declaration specifically on Africa, which recommitted us to the millennium development goals, was an important part of the statement. There is also a desire to hold the EU-Africa summit, if we can overcome some of the difficulties that have been experienced with it in the past.

I was surprised that the Prime Minister responded to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) about whether the constitution was dead by saying that that was a matter for our other partners in Europe, given that he told us last year that because the constitution was dead, we did not need a referendum in this country. Now that he has decided with his European colleagues to postpone the constitution’s burial for two years in the hope of resurrection, will he assure us that if there is any question of that resurrection, the matter will be put to a referendum of the people of this country so that they can make it clear once and for all that they do not want a European constitution?

Our position on the constitutional treaty—or any constitutional treaty—and a referendum has not changed. I said that it would be not for me alone to say what will happen to the constitution because that will be a matter for agreement among the 25. The question for Conservative Members is whether they are more interested in making a point to their own party than in securing the right agreement in Europe.

Was there was any discussion of the working of existing European institutions, especially those such as the European Aviation Safety Agency, which has taken over responsibility for licensing air safety? Will my right hon. Friend give me a certain undertaking that under no circumstances will the United Kingdom accept a derogation from our existing air safety that would put at risk anything in the air space of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister will know that on the Order Paper, as there has been for months now, there is provision for the European Union Bill to have Second Reading, for a money resolution and so on. Last year, through that Bill the Government voted to implement into UK law the full text of the European constitutional treaty and to provide for a referendum on it. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he cannot implement part of the treaty, so either he is completely committed to every provision of that treaty, in which case he should tell us now and get on with the Second Reading, or he is committed only to some part of it. In the event of the latter, he should withdraw the Bill from the Order Paper. Will he do so?

No, for the reasons that we have given on many occasions. Let me explain. I understand entirely why the hon. Gentleman holds the position on Europe that he does, but the amendment that he tabled to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill—an amendment supported by those on the Conservative Front Bench—would mean, in effect, our leaving the European Union. [Hon. Members: “No.”] Yes, it would, because it specifically sought to allow the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972—the Act of our membership—to be overruled. To the Conservatives, I say that they have positions on such issues that they may want to keep within their own party, but they are central to the future of this country and we shall expose them at every turn.

In the discussions about migration policy, did the Prime Minister or any of the other leaders discuss the plight of very poor people from west Africa, hundreds of whom have died trying to cross from west Africa to the Canary islands or to the Mediterranean, or those hard-working people who lead a twilight existence in every major city in Europe but none the less contribute to the economic well-being of us all? Will the European Union take a humanitarian view and do its best to assist poverty alleviation in west Africa?

We did discuss that—it was a major part of our discussion on mass migration. It is important that we work to ensure that those African countries that are in a state of abject poverty are helped; that is why this country in particular has played a leadership role in help for Africa, the millennium development goals and so on. On the other hand, the people coming into Europe often do so in extremely dangerous circumstances, as my hon. Friend rightly says, and they are often prey to organised crime and illegal people trafficking. It is important that we have solid rules in the EU that protect our borders; otherwise the incentive is for people to engage in that appalling trade continues. We need a balance: we need to make sure that there is properly managed migration with proper controls and we need to act on some of the root causes of migration in the countries of origin, and we are doing both. It is interesting that that is the single biggest issue facing EU countries such as Spain and Malta.

I broadly welcome the statement, particularly the comments on the services directive which, the Prime Minister suggested, would create some 600,000 jobs. However, he will be aware that there are some concerns. What discussions took place and what discussions are planned on levelling up and equalising professional qualifications, so that there can be confidence in the UK that those who provide services from the EU are suitably qualified to do so?

We discuss that regularly with our European partners, but it is important that we do not allow discussion of professional qualifications to become a way of protecting vested interests and keeping out people who come here and often perform a great service for our country. I do not oppose some harmonisation where that is sensible, but the point was made in relation to the services directive that we have to be careful not to “level up” in a way that keeps out people who would do a good job.

My right hon. Friend referred to the middle east peace process. I congratulate him and the Foreign Secretary on the part that they have played in channelling finance to the Palestinian Authority to alleviate the appalling poverty suffered by the Palestinian people. What action are the Government taking to compel the Israeli Government to pay over to the Palestinian Authority the tax revenues that they are stealing from the Authority?

I know that my right hon. Friend realises that we are working closely with the Israeli Government to try to ensure that the release of money happens. It is a difficult situation, for a reason of which my right hon. Friend is aware, that of the continued threat of terrorist activity. The most important thing that we agreed at the European Council is to ensure that we develop the right mechanism for getting money to the Palestinian side to alleviate human hardship. As my right hon. Friend knows—I am sure that he would agree with this—the only ultimate answer to the question is to get the peace process back on track and reach a negotiated settlement.

We are all glad that the Foreign Secretary’s extraordinary attempt to block a modest opening up of the Council of Ministers to public scrutiny was itself turned down. However, are our own procedures much better? Does the right hon. Gentleman think it right that the EU Scrutiny Committee weekly meeting has to be held in private, with the public and the press excluded? Will he end this anomaly and strike a small blow for the right of the public to know in our own Parliament?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has heard what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I know that there are discussions taking place about that matter.

My right hon. Friend mentioned an enhancement of the role of Javier Solana, the high representative, so that he is involved in energy negotiations with the countries outside the EU. Have there been any further discussions on the external action of the external diplomatic service?

There continue to be discussions about how we make the service more effective and ensure that we pool our resources collectively in circumstances where that is appropriate. The main thing that people were concerned about was to ensure that, in terms of foreign policy, this was very much kept as a Council matter.

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that the Union is entering into what I think he called strategic negotiations with Russia and other energy suppliers over the long-term security of supply, would it not be reasonable for those countries to ask in return for security of demand, and how would a market economy such as ours provide such security?

I do not know that we could provide security of demand in that way. We are seeking an agreement with Russia because of the degree to which the EU is now dependent on Russian supplies of gas, which makes it important to get the right strategic partnership with Russia in relation to that. A balanced energy policy in this country is important because in the future all of us will be, to an extent, dependent on imports of gas. We need to ensure that that dependency is not so great as to put our security of supply at risk. There are a certain number of things that Europe can do collectively to influence that, but I do not anticipate making an obligation on the security of demand in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Would the Prime Minister confirm that we already have a constitution for the European Union? It began in 1957 and continued through the Maastricht treaty. The words that he has used refer to a consensus on the modern set of rules. Why should it be appropriate to wait until 2008 for the European Council to look again at the issues of a new constitution? In the meantime, is it not incumbent on politicians, academics, business men and others to seek a new way forward by building a new consensus that can be pushed forward to Government, and from Government to the people in a referendum?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Certain rules will be necessary if the Union is to work effectively once it is enlarged. It is already the case that a Union of 25 people sits round a table. The amount of negotiation that can take place in the room is limited for that reason. Next year, the membership will be expanded to 27 countries. In time to come, if Turkey and other Balkan countries come in, we shall have a completely different type of European Union from that which was envisaged by its founders. My hon. Friend is right in saying that it is sensible, and in a constructive way with others, to look to find a way through this so that we meet the concerns of citizens while meeting the absolute necessity for a better and more effective functioning of the Union.

Given that the Prime Minister utterly failed to answer two simple questions put to him by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—namely whether he would exercise the veto on something that was apparently vital to the national interest just a couple of years ago and if he would say whether the constitution is dead or not—and then launched an attack on my right hon. Friend, is it the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that the British Conservative party should remain a member of the European People’s party? That would seem to be rather a strong endorsement of the policy adopted by my right hon. Friend.

Order. That is a matter for the Conservative party, not for—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister raised it, but I reminded him that he should not have done so. The hon. Gentleman should not raise it either.

As we are to have a period of reflection, will the Prime Minister continue to pursue the reform agenda in Europe, not only to make the Commission more efficient and effective but to develop the economic agenda? As he said, Bulgaria and Romania will join next year, which will obviously create even more problems in the running of the European Union. Is 1 January a firm date, or is it likely to be 2008?

There will be a report in October, and we have always supported the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to EU membership. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to push hard on the reform agenda, and it will be very important to build alliances, not least with the new German Government, in doing so. The reform argument is being won in Europe today. Its pace, I agree, is a more open question, but the direction is now very clear. One of the most important things to happen in the past few years was the nomination and election of President Barroso as head of the Commission, which gives us the chance to work with the Commission. While he is strong on the Commission’s rights and responsibilities, he also shares our vision of a Europe of economic reform.

At the end of the Council meeting, the Dutch Prime Minister pronounced the constitution dead. Why was he wrong?

If the right hon. Gentleman studies carefully what the Dutch Prime Minister said, he will see that he said the same as everyone else. In Holland, unless there is a change in the no vote—I said all this last year—the constitution cannot be proceeded with, so there will not be a situation where the constitutional treaty is implemented in its present form. The question is: how do we secure the best set of rules for the future of Europe? That is something on which we as a country should be engaged, in negotiation with our European partners. The debate about whether the constitutional treaty is dead can go on all over Europe, but it does not make the slightest difference to whether we secure a sensible outcome to the rules that will be necessary to govern a Europe of 25, then 27, then further countries. The issue for us as a country is whether we can build sufficiently strong alliances with other like-minded countries so that the necessary changes in rules can be made to make Europe more efficient, without going down the federalist path. That cannot be done unless we build those alliances.

May I ask the Prime Minister whether, in plenary or in the margins of the summit, the final status of Kosovo was discussed, or the ramifications of Montenegro’s independence, in the context of the need to rebuild the fractured countries of the western Balkans in the European Union were discussed?

That was not specifically discussed by the leaders in the European Council, but I understand that there was a brief discussion by the Foreign Ministers, and a statement or declaration appears as an annexe to the European Council conclusions. The truth is, we are trying to find a way through a very difficult issue with Serbia; it is difficult for the Kosovan people, too. I hope very much that we will be able to reach a conclusion in the next few months.

The Council of Europe, as distinct from the European Council, is a specialist forum that promotes human rights in its 46 member countries, including Russia and Turkey. Belarus is currently suspended, because of its human rights record. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that the proposed fundamental rights agency in the European Union will duplicate the work of the Council of Europe, and will, indeed, threaten its very existence?

There are some concerns about how the agency will develop, which were expressed at the European Council. That is why the wording in the conclusions is very careful, precisely to make sure that the agency does not have the effect to which the hon. Lady draws attention. My best belief about the general sentiment in the European Council is that the agency’s role should be clearly limited, to make sure that it does not conflict with the Council of Europe.

Again on the middle east peace process, did the Council discuss the killing on the Gaza beach which took the lives of five young children, among others? Is it not rather peculiar that the Israeli authorities first seemed to accept responsibility and said they were sorry, and now deny that the event ever took place, as far as they are concerned? What are the Israelis playing at? And yes, I am totally opposed to suicide bombings.

I know no more about the matter than what is in the statement put out by the Government of Israel. Obviously, there will be a continuing debate about that, as my hon. Friend knows. Of course, everybody deeply regrets the loss of innocent lives on the Gaza beach. Unfortunately, there are innocent lives lost on both sides in the conflict. That is why it is important that we do our utmost to reach a solution. I believe that the only sensible solution is to return to the provisions of the road map, which we carefully negotiated at international level, and make sure that they are implemented.

Whenever the right hon. Gentleman talks to his colleagues in the European Council about the European constitution, he needs to make it plain that there can be no progress without the United Kingdom approving the proposals in a referendum. He ought to remind his colleagues at the European Council that no significant diminution in the rights of nation states or any significant enhancement in the powers of the European institutions is likely to be approved by the British electorate.

Each country will look after its own interests. We look after our country’s interests—[Interruption.] Yes we do, and an important way of looking after our interests is to secure the objectives that this country wants on issues such as, for example, the election of the new Commission president some time ago, the services directive and the working time directive. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends want us to have any influence in Europe, the sensible thing is not to keep lecturing other member states the entire time about British positions with which they are extremely familiar, but to try to reach agreement on the objectives that we need and they need in order to move Europe forward.

I fully agree with the idea of an extended period of reflection on the constitution, but in the view of the Belgian Prime Minister, who believes that if four fifths of member states ratified the constitution it could be referred back to the European Council for some sort of immediate action, it is possible that that period of reflection could be cut short. Could my right hon. Friend tell us whether that was discussed at this week’s summit, and whether he supports that view or whether he would vigorously oppose it if it were put forward?

With the greatest deference to the Belgian Prime Minister, whose enthusiasm for the constitutional treaty is well known, the fact remains that unless all the member states ratify it, it cannot be proceeded with.

The Prime Minister mentioned the matter of influence. Does he believe that by announcing his retirement but not setting a date, he has weakened our negotiating position in the European Union?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman, if I am allowed to, what I think does weaken our position—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”]. It is the decision to leave the main grouping of similar parties. That would be damaging for us and very damaging for the country. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity of repeating that.

The Prime Minister will know that the element of energy policy that our constituents, in particular pensioners, find most troubling is their heating bills. Many businesses, too, are worried about their energy costs rising dramatically. Did my right hon. Friend have any success in trying to pursue energy liberalisation with the French and the Germans, so that we might see a fairer deal between countries around Europe?

There is a commitment to pursue energy liberalisation. The pace of it is the issue, not so much with Germany, but to an extent with France. My hon. Friend is right: this is another area in which we must work with other European countries; otherwise the security of our energy supply might be at risk and the price of our energy will rise. That is why energy policy, which we put on the agenda at Hampton Court, along with some of the other issues that I have mentioned, has come centre stage for the European Union—and rightly, too.

Members throughout the House will be delighted to hear that European leaders have decided that global temperatures should not rise by more than 2º C above pre-industrial levels, but the Government are failing to meet their own target of a 20 per cent. cut by 2010, and the pre-Budget reports produced by the Environment Audit Committee show the trail of inaction on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his reluctance ever to allow policies to deliver on objectives which, I am sure, the Prime Minister shares. With the current Chancellor in place, and the possibility of his becoming Prime Minister, how will we ensure that we cut British emissions and keep to that temperature rise?

One way would be by keeping the climate change levy, which the hon. Gentleman opposes. There is a simple reason why Britain’s position on climate change is accepted throughout Europe: we will not only meet our Kyoto targets, but exceed them by double the original amount, and we will be one of the few European countries to do so. We have led the way on extending the European emissions trading system, which is extremely important, and we have also obtained an agreement to implement another treaty when the Kyoto treaty expires in 2012. Again, that is an area in which constructive relations with other Europeans are important.

The Prime Minister will recollect telling us before May 2004 that between 8,000 and 13,000 EU accession migrants would enter the UK. He was only out by a factor of 10: more than 200,000 people have entered in that two-year period. Most of those people are decent and law-abiding, but not all of them are. Why have his Government specifically absented themselves from the EU pilot project that began this month to share across Europe information on the criminal records of EU citizens?

People from eastern Europe were entitled to come here once their countries became EU members; the question was whether they were entitled to come here and work. The best evidence suggests that large numbers of people have come from eastern Europe and worked here, and many of them have gone back. I happen to think that migration from eastern Europe has been positive rather than negative for this country. We are keen to share data with other countries, but it must be done in a way that protects our interests, which is the point that I made earlier.

The Prime Minister was keen on introducing the euro and abandoning the pound. Was that matter discussed at the European Council? If not, will he introduce the relevant proposals before his retirement?

The position on the euro is perfectly simple—it depends whether the economic tests are met, which they have not been. It is extraordinary that not one of the questions asked by Conservative Members has been positive about Europe. That is an expression of that party’s deep hostility to Europe, which is completely inimical to the interests of this country.

In his statement, the Prime Minister mentioned administrative burdens on business, but he did not mention the working time directive. Will he confirm that, whatever advice he is getting from his MEPs, he still intends to keep the UK’s individual opt-out, which is essential for British industry and our future?

Yes, I can confirm that. One of the reasons why we can maintain that position is because we have the support of Germany. The hon. Gentleman should remember that that is why it is quite important to keep good relations with Germany

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), the Prime Minister said that changes in the treaty and the rules were needed now. Moreover, he also said that the constitutional treaty required unanimity. However, two countries have said no, which means that the treaty cannot be implemented into English law. In the light of my representations and my question to the Prime Minister, will you, Mr. Speaker, consider whether it is appropriate to maintain on the Order Paper a provision relating to the Second Reading of a Bill which, by the Prime Minister’s own admission, cannot proceed?

No, I will not enter that argument. I think that that was the hon. Gentleman’s way of putting the matter on the record.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, the relationship between this country’s judges and Her Majesty’s Government, no matter who is in power, is important for all our constituents. In the past couple of weeks the Home Secretary lambasted judges and the Lord Chancellor defended judges, before a junior Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs—the Lord Chancellor’s own Department—lambasted judges again. Have you, Mr. Speaker, received any representations from Ministers to come to this House and explain Government policy?

Is it on the same point? If so, there is nothing further to be said about it, because Ministers do not approach me on these matters.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House is about to debate the very important Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. May I ask your advice on an important point? The previous Secretary of State for Education and Skills promised us that

“Ofsted will carry out an urgent survey of existing vetting practice in a sample of schools, and it will report to me in the spring.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 969.]

She later stated that this was

“in order to inform policy development”.—[Official Report, 1 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 24WS.]

We understand that that the Ofsted report is currently being circulated to the press under embargo. It is entitled: “Safeguarding children: an evaluation of procedures for checking staff appointed by schools”. Is not this House in a very difficult position if we are debating legislation regarding the safeguarding of children and registers of sex offenders but a crucial document commissioned by the previous Secretary of State, which is directly relevant to our proceedings, is already available to the honourable members of the press but is not available to this House so that we can draw on it as we debate the Bill? Do you have any advice, Mr. Speaker, about how we can ensure that our consideration of the Bill is properly informed by the report that Ministers commissioned specifically as background to it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I listened carefully to what he said, but I must say to him that the timing of the publication of the report and the arrangements for embargoed copies are matters for Ofsted, and not something upon which the Chair can rule. However, it may be helpful to bear it in mind that today’s proceedings are on the Bill’s Second Reading. There will no doubt be ample opportunity to take account of this report during subsequent proceedings.

Orders of the Day

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

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

Nothing can be more important than ensuring that children and vulnerable adults are properly safeguarded. It is critical that where evidence suggests that an individual presents a risk of harm, they are prevented at the earliest opportunity from having access through their work to vulnerable groups. I know that all Members present agree on that point. That is the primary aim of the Bill, which seeks to improve significantly the current arrangements for vetting and barring.

In putting in place a more robust and tougher system, the Bill is central to delivering one of the five key outcomes of the “Every Child Matters” programme—“Staying Safe”. Equally, it will significantly improve the protections currently in place for vulnerable adults and ensure, as far as we can, that they are safeguarded from avoidable harm at the hands of those who work with them.

In order to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected as fully as possible, safeguarding must become everybody’s business—that of Government, regulators, local safeguarding children boards, and, in particular, employers, who have the ultimate responsibility of understanding and carrying out their respective responsibilities to the full. It is important that we get the detail right. The spirit in which it was examined and debated in the other place was testimony to our commitment to do that.

As I understand it, the Ofsted report is about whether local authorities and schools have discharged their obligations. Did the Minister use it in developing the policies in the Bill?

No, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the report was not available to us at that point. Ministers would have preferred it be available before today, but as Mr. Speaker rightly said, it was not in our gift to effect that.

The third Bichard report, which the Home Secretary issued only a month ago, clearly refers to the Ofsted Bill. I find it interesting that the Home Office has had sight of it when the Department for Education and Skills has not.

First, there is no Ofsted Bill but a report that the Government commissioned. However, Ofsted undertook it completely independently; that applies to the way in which it was carried out and its formulation. It has not yet been published, and the Home Office did not have prior sight of it a month ago. As I believe the hon. Lady knows, it will be published shortly. We shall respond to it as soon as it is published.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is right to say that it is important to get the detail right. The detail of policy, procedure and practice on the ground is important. I have no doubt that the commitment that we witnessed in the other place will be reflected here.

The Bill builds on a sequence of measures since 1997 designed progressively to strengthen the safeguards for children and vulnerable adults. We have tried to ensure that we learn from tragic events such as the Soham murders and the death of Victoria Climbié. In doing so, we have gone further than any previous Government in introducing a substantial programme of legislation and reform designed to protect children and vulnerable adults—rightly so. I should like to acknowledge that hon. Members from all parties have shown interest and co-operation.

We tightened the vetting and barring schemes for those working with children and adults by making operational from 2000 the scheme under the Protection of Children Act 1999, and effecting the protection of vulnerable adults scheme from 2004. Also in 2000, we published the document “No secrets”, which provided for the first time a framework for local authorities to work with the police, the national health service and the regulators to tackle and prevent the abuse of vulnerable adults.

The Criminal Records Bureau was created in 2002, with the task of helping to protect children—and, from 2004, vulnerable adults—by playing a key role in ensuring that unsuitable people were not recruited to positions of trust. In 2003, we passed the Sexual Offences Act, part 2 of which built on the original notification requirements for sex offenders that came into force in 1997, further to ensure that the police are kept informed of their whereabouts.

The Children Act 2004 further strengthened arrangements to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. It required key people and organisations to make safeguarding arrangements for children and ensured that agencies worked together through the local safeguarding children boards. All 150 boards were established by the deadline of April 2006.

The IMPACT—information management, prioritisation, analysis, co-ordination and tasking—programme is another key reform, which arises from Bichard and is in the process of being implemented. It is designed to improve the police service’s ability to manage and share operational information. The IMPACT nominal index has recently been launched, and enables one police force to identify quickly other police forces that hold information about specific individuals. The code of practice on the management of police information was brought into force in November 2005, and a comprehensive set of supporting guidance in March 2006.

The Minister will recall that I represent Soham. I am obviously glad that the IMPACT programme is in place, but can she be absolutely sure that it is available to operate between every force in the country? Four years after the event has been a long time to wait for that development, bearing in mind the fact that a scheme already existed for Scottish police forces that the Home Office could have taken up, had it wished to do that. My constituents and I would like the Minister’s assurance that the scheme is fully operational between every police force in the United Kingdom, and that the position that arose whereby one police force could not inform another properly of the circumstances of a man such as Huntley could never happen again.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s obvious concern. The IMPACT programme is fully operational across all forces, enabling police services to communicate with one another and find out whether a known individual in one force is known by another police service. However, its capacity in relation to the storage of soft information and intelligence will involve a phased development. It will not be fully operational in terms of its full capacity until 2010. However, the police national computer is now able to hold some of that soft information, including information on acquittals, cautions and reprimands. So the vetting and barring scheme that we are discussing today will be able to draw on that information from the police national computer and progressively use the IMPACT scheme, as its capacity expands. But that has to be done in a managed way.

Following the Secretary of State’s statement to the House on 19 January, we took immediate further steps to tighten the present vetting system in the run-up to the implementation of the Bill. Under regulations issued last month, Criminal Records Bureau checks have become mandatory for all newly appointed school employees. We intend to introduce further regulations to enter automatically on list 99 anyone who is convicted or cautioned for a sexual offence against a child or for a serious sexual offence against an adult. We have established a panel of independent experts, chaired by Sir Roger Singleton, to oversee the whole list 99 process. The Ofsted review of existing vetting practice in schools, which was announced on 19 January, will be published shortly. As I have said, we will respond immediately to its findings.

Will the Minister give us some advice on the position of children, particularly those over 16 but under 18, who commit sex offences against other children? The Bill rightly contains provisions for barring adults with a history of sex offending from being in contact with children. What is the position with children between 16 and 18?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be patient, as that will become clear when I get to those provisions in the Bill shortly. I can tell him, however, that there are different levels of protection and different levels of barring decisions that the independent barring board will be able to take. If a person under 18 commits an offence that would, if committed by an adult, cause them to be considered for barring, they will be considered only under a discretionary process. There will be no automatic barring of young people under 18 who commit sexual offences. Each case will be considered on its merits, and not in relation to a list of offences that would involve automatic barring for adults.

We are only too painfully aware of the specific background to the Bill. Indeed, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has just referred to it. The tragic deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002 highlighted starkly and horrifically the fact that there were weaknesses in the systems that ought to prevent unsuitable people from gaining access through their work to children and vulnerable adults.

In response, we commissioned the inquiry chaired by Sir Michael Bichard to investigate those weaknesses. We welcomed the publication of his report in 2004, and had no hesitation in accepting all its 31 recommendations. Well over half of them have already been put in place, and the remainder are being implemented. It is recommendation 19 that we are concerned with today. It proposed new arrangements requiring those who wish to work with children or vulnerable adults to be registered. We have given a great deal of consideration, in conjunction with many key stakeholders, to how best to implement that recommendation. The new vetting and barring scheme that will be introduced through the Bill is the culmination of that thinking. It represents a step change in the safeguarding arrangements required to meet the Bichard inquiry recommendation.

The Bill is the centrepiece of our overhaul of the present system for vetting and barring, and it is underpinned by four key principles. The first is that the interests of the child and the vulnerable adult are paramount. As we said on 19 January, we need a system in which the protection of vulnerable people is the first consideration. Secondly, everyone has a responsibility for ensuring that children and vulnerable adults are safe. All must play their part, including the state and employers, as well as parents and families.

The third principle is that the new vetting and barring scheme is focused specifically on the world of work, both paid and unpaid. It does not intrude in family relationships.

The final principle that underpins the Bill is that the reform system needs to be proportionate. We intend the breadth of the bar to be proportionate to the risk, and the Bill establishes different vetting requirements for different work contexts, as I shall explain in a moment, in proportion to risk.

Will the right hon. Lady explain the rationale behind there being two barred lists? There will obviously be a great deal of concern that somebody barred from working with children can work with a vulnerable adult, and vice versa. That will be difficult for the general public to understand.

I know that there is a lot of concern about this. Indeed, an amendment has already been made in the other place, as the hon. Gentleman might know, to ensure that when the IBB receives a referral and starts to collect information about an individual about whom there is concern, it is required to consider that information in relation to both lists.

There might be circumstances—for instance, where somebody had caused financial harm to an elderly person by exploiting their financial interests—that do not necessarily automatically translate to concern about a person working with children, but the IBB will have to consider the individual in relation to both lists and, if appropriate, put him or her on both lists.

I can give the hon. Gentleman another assurance. If he looks at list 99 and the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the protection of vulnerable adults list, he will see that there is already considerable cross-referencing.

To deal with inconsistencies in a variety of arrangements, the new scheme will integrate list 99, POCA and the disqualification orders regime to create a single list of people barred from working with children. There will be a separate, but, as I say, aligned list of those barred from working with vulnerable adults. In the light of the debate in the other place, we have made it clear that the IBB is under a duty to consider information in relation to both lists.

As clause 2 makes clear, the barred list will be established and maintained by the IBB. Using its expert members, the IBB will take all discretionary decisions about whether to include an individual on a barred list, as well as receive representations as part of that process. Ministers will not be engaged in discretionary decisions by the IBB on individual cases in any respect whatsoever. That delivers on the commitment made on 19 January, and I think represents a fundamental shift and improvement on current systems.

The IBB will work closely with the Criminal Records Bureau, which will provide the administrative function enabling the scheme to be operated effectively. It will receive applications from individuals to be monitored by the scheme, as well as gathering and monitoring that subsequent information on behalf of the board. The board and the CRB will work closely together to deliver on key reforms of the current system and the need for vetting and barring decisions on an individual’s application to work with children and vulnerable adults.

I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is going to elaborate, but will she explain the rationale behind the need for one list for people working with children and a separate list for people working with vulnerable adults? I am not clear why we need two lists. It may be that I ought to declare an interest; I did not check beforehand. I have a 33-year-old son who has severe learning disabilities. He has the mind of a four-year-old—the mind of a child—but the body of an adult.

I am very aware of my hon. Friend’s personal interest in the matter and why she raises the question. I responded to a similar point from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and explained that the IBB will now be required to consider the information in respect of both lists. On the basis of current practice—which I imagine will continue, given the expertise of the board—people will be placed on both lists when appropriate, but, as I have said, there might be some cases, perhaps involving financial abuse of adults, in which people would not necessarily be disqualified from working with children. That is why there are two separate lists. They will be aligned, and the board will have to consider whether individuals should be on both lists when it makes its assessment.

Schedule 1 outlines the arrangements for membership and staffing of the IBB, as well as its incidental powers. The board will be required to issue annual reports and to keep accounts, which will be audited by the National Audit Office and laid before Parliament.

The new scheme for which the Bill provides increases safeguards significantly by covering a much wider work force than is currently covered. In doing so, it provides for three levels of protection for children and vulnerable adults, which are set out in clauses 5 to 20 and in schedule 3. The first level of protection is the requirement for employers to check the barred status of individuals whom they intend to employ, and to check that the bar applies. That is defined in the Bill as “regulated activity”, and covers circumstances in which an individual would be working most closely with children and vulnerable adults. It covers work in key settings such as schools and care homes. It covers certain specified activities that bring an individual into close contact with children and vulnerable adults. There are several specified key positions of authority to which the bar and the duty to check also apply, such as directors of children’s services and adult social services.

We are committed to making the system far more robust. Clauses 7 to 13 provide for new criminal offences to ensure compliance with the scheme. Barred people, and those who are not subject to monitoring, who seek to engage in regulated activity will be committing criminal offences. An employer who knowingly employs a barred individual in a role in which the bar applies will be liable to a prison sentence of up to five years, a fine or both.

My right hon. Friend has said that the Bill covers a far wider work force than is covered by current legislation. What measures will she take to ensure that people are aware of it? She referred to “an employer who knowingly employs a barred individual”. An employer who is unaware of the Bill might unwittingly employ a barred individual. What publicity will my right hon. Friend give the proposals?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We need a wide and detailed campaign or communications strategy for everyone who might be affected. The board itself will have to initiate and maintain a continuing dialogue, particularly with employers, about the criteria and thresholds required for the referring of information to it, and the processes for doing that. We are very conscious that that is an essential part of the implementation of the scheme.

If an employer employs a person not subject to monitoring by the scheme, or fails to check an individual’s barred status in the first place, he will risk being fined up to £5,000.

The second level of protection is defined in the Bill as “controlled activity”. It will be made clear to employers through statutory guidance that they must check an individual’s barred status, but they will have discretion to employ an individual who has been barred. Controlled activity covers support workers in general health, further education and social care settings—for example, catering staff in a general hospital or cleaners in an adult day centre.

I am a little confused about the differentiation between further education establishments and schools in respect of ancillary workers, given the 14-to-19 agenda to get young people into FE and the large array of courses offered by FE colleges for those with special educational needs.

Many students in FE colleges will be over 18, but I am referring to support work, not to direct teaching work. The principle underlying the Bill is that the frequency with which people might have close contact with children, or young adults aged under 18, is one of the factors that determines whether an activity is in the regulated activity category. The opportunity for catering staff to have unsupervised close contact in an FE college is much less than it is in a school. But the hon. Lady is right to raise this issue, where judgments have to be made and lines drawn; we will doubtless get down to such issues in Committee, and she might well want to raise it again then. Throughout the process of making the definitions included in the Bill, we have had to make such judgments, and it is right that they be open to scrutiny because they deal with important issues.

On the way in which lines have been drawn in the Bill, another important issue is that, increasingly in education—as in health—workers are being recruited from abroad. Does the Minister think that any of the Bill’s provisions will ensure scrutiny of people recruited into education or social services from outside this country?

The Bill makes no distinctions whatsoever in terms of the requirements for checking whether an applicant is a British or foreign national. However, we certainly have more to do in enabling employers, as far as we can, to access and check the criminal records of people in certain foreign countries. The Criminal Records Bureau already provides an information service—it is now an online service—for employers on how to do that. The CRB is working very closely with the countries that send the largest numbers of people to the education sector, and it is developing protocols where possible.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is right, however, to suggest that if some countries outside the EU—and outside the 21 with which we are developing protocols—provided us with a criminal record, we would be unsure how robust it was compared with criminal records here. For example, in certain countries such information is provided only if the person in question has served a prison sentence. We therefore have to think more carefully about the advice that we give employers in those circumstances. We clearly cannot control the criminal record procedures in far-flung countries, but we can give advice to employers here on what their position should best be if they are not sure that the criminal record information from a foreign country is adequate or complete. We will do further work on that very issue.

Might employers be found guilty of racial discrimination if they err on the side of caution in respect of an applicant from a country from which it was not possible to obtain adequate information?

No, I do not think that that would be the case. The law will require, as it currently does, employers to assure themselves that people are fit for the jobs they are applying for, and one requirement is to check the criminal records of people wanting to work in close contact with children and—through this Bill—of those wanting to work with vulnerable adults. So that statutory duty to get adequate information would be paramount.

We were discussing controlled activity, which covers support work in general health, further education and social care. The guidance that we will issue communicating the requirements for engaging an individual in controlled activity will firmly state that extra safeguards will need to be put in place if an employer is considering employing a barred individual, and we will set out what those safeguards should be. They could include a longer probation period, extra supervision, and ensuring that the individual is never left alone in situations involving children or vulnerable adults.

The Minister touched on the issue of people who do controlled jobs, and on them receiving supervision. However, there is no provision in the Bill for any sanctions against people who do not properly supervise those in such positions. Is that an error of omission, or did the Government deliberately adopt the stance that no sanctions will be taken against employers who do not properly supervise their employees? Will the Minister elaborate a little on what the supervision mentioned would consist of?

That is an interesting point, which I think we will discuss further. In respect of an activity for which there is a duty to check but it is not illegal to employ a barred person, thus far the view has been that sanctions would be inappropriate. However, I have asked for further work to be done on that point, because we might want to look into whether there should be sanctions not only for the issue that the hon. Lady raises about the putting in place of safeguards, but for the duty to check even if a decision is made that a job offer is appropriate and can be managed. I would be happy to re-examine that in Committee.

For employers, the safeguards required in such circumstances are a complex area. How will they be advised of the appropriate safeguards that will be necessary, and how will that be monitored?

We will set out in great detail in statutory guidance the extra safeguards that employers will be obliged to follow in such circumstances. Normally, the monitoring will be performed through the inspection processes that pertain in particular settings; that is how such matters will usually be regulated.

The third level of protection is where there is the ability to check barred status, but no requirement to do so. Where an individual is engaged in an activity offering specified close contact with children or vulnerable adults but they are employed by a domestic employer such as a parent, there is no duty on the parent to check the individual’s status in the scheme. However, for the first time, a parent will be able to check whether a prospective employee has been vetted, is subject to continuous monitoring, and therefore is not barred. The fact that a parent is able to check the status of their nanny, for example, is a significant improvement on current arrangements, and critical to increasing parents’ confidence in the individuals whom they employ to work with their children. However, while the duty to check does not apply in such situations, the bar still does. A barred individual seeking to do, or doing, any such work would be committing a criminal offence.

The Minister was asked how information would be disseminated. It seems to me that it will be particularly difficult to get through to parents in such circumstances. What plans does the Minister have in that regard?

It will be very important that we communicate to parents not only the details of the scheme, but the new opportunities that they will have to check online somebody’s current status in the scheme. We are still considering the details of what I have acknowledged will have to be a very considerable communications plan, and we will discuss how best we can do that with stakeholders, children’s organisations and local authorities.

The ability to check online is not covered by the Bill, despite the fact that it was heavily trailed when the Bill was first announced. Will she explain how the Government intend to deal with some of the problems that people have experienced with online facilities in the US, where 11 American states experienced extreme problems with their security systems when they were compromised, leaving sex offenders able to change their own data online? Will the Minister outline the Government’s plans to ensure that we do not have the same problems in the UK?

There are security questions, which we have considered in great detail. Parents will be able to check, with the applicant’s permission, whether the person concerned is subject to continuous monitoring. That will be the relevant information. I understand that the language is rather tortuous, and we have to get around language problems for the communication plan, but if a person is in the scheme and is subject to continuous monitoring, it means by definition that they are not barred and that there is no known information about the individual that would cause them to be barred. They are therefore safe to employ, as far as we know. At that level of information, the security issues are much reduced and we think that we can manage them. As the hon. Lady says, the details will need to be explored more fully and we are currently in the process of doing so.

Someone such as a parent can look online to check the details of someone they are employing, but what if I am a neighbour with serious concerns and the parent has not taken the opportunity to check? Am I entitled to check up on someone living next door to me who may have access to my child, or will it be strictly employers only who can use the service?

This facility will not be open to all and sundry. The person who wants to check online has to have the consent of the individual who is seeking the job. That person will probably have a unique identifying number that will enable access to be made. We are looking into how the system will be accessed and certain things will have to be unlocked in order to do so. Again, it will require the consent of the applicant. It will not be possible for anyone not interested in employing another person to go fishing on the list in the manner suggested by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). As I was saying, a barred individual in this category would be committing an offence if he sought to do any work.

Following fruitful debate in the other place about the extent to which checks in certain situations should be mandatory or optional for vulnerable adults, we intend to introduce amendments in Committee to reduce the exemptions under clause 14.

Paragraphs 1 and 6 and 2 and 7 of schedule 2 allow for the automatic inclusion of individuals on the barred lists, following conviction or caution for a specified offence or order. The list of offences will be prescribed in regulations, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. An automatic bar, without the right to make representations, will result from the most serious sexual offences against the vulnerable group, such as the rape of a child in the case of a children’s list and sexual offences against those with a mental disorder in respect of the vulnerable adults list. The commission of such an offence in itself is clear evidence that the individual poses a manifest risk to children or vulnerable adults.

A further list of offences will also lead to an automatic bar, but with the individual retaining the right to make representations to prove, if they can, that they do not pose a risk of harm to vulnerable people and so should be removed from one or both lists. Examples of offences being considered for this category are those relating to trafficking children, prostitution and specific types of pornography.

Does my hon. Friend believe that people accessing online child pornography will fall within the classification that she just mentioned?

My hesitation arises from the fact that the form of words in the Bill in relation to pornography is different for children and adults. We have given a commitment to table amendments to reconcile the references on pornography for both children and adults, but I certainly expect that the offences that relate to pornography, whatever their eventual written formulation, will be part of this category.

Paragraphs 3, 5, 8 and 10 of schedule 2 set out a discretionary route to barring for all other cases. Where the information suggests that a person’s behaviour has harmed a child or vulnerable adult or that they pose a risk of harm to them in future, the IBB will gather all the necessary information to consider the case. The IBB is under a duty to provide the individual with all the information that it intends to rely on in making that barring decision and to give them the opportunity to make representations about why they should not be included on the barred list. The IBB will then consider carefully, using its expertise, whether the person should be barred.

Paragraph 16 of schedule 2 will make provision for an individual to request a review of their inclusion on the list after a prescribed period of time. A review provides an opportunity to demonstrate that the individual no longer poses a risk to vulnerable groups and therefore that they should no longer be barred.

Clause 4 provides for appeals to the Care Standards Tribunal on a finding of fact made by the IBB or on a point of law following a barring decision. I reiterate that the spirit of co-operation that marked the debate on that issue in the other place enabled the provision to be refined, so that the transparency of the scheme as a whole has been enhanced.

In the critical role that the IBB and the CRB will play in keeping barring decisions updated—a fundamental change and improvement in the operation of the current systems—clauses 21 and 27 to 38 provide for the board to receive ongoing information from a wide range of sources. Not only will information come from the police, but the Bill will place duties on employers, on local authorities and on supervisory and regulatory bodies to provide information to the IBB in certain circumstances, as well as if and when the board requests it. The IBB will also exchange information with bodies such as the General Teaching Council and the General Medical Council.

Of course, in one respect, although the Bill is the culmination of long-term thinking on the strengthening of vetting and barring arrangements, it is also the beginning of the process of implementing the new scheme. We are working hard to finalise the design of the processes required by the scheme, drawing on the expertise of a large number of experts, as well as police and employer bodies and so on.

I hope that, by outlining the provisions of the Bill, I have made it clear that the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults is a top priority for all hon. Members. That sentiment was shared in the other place, and I think that it will be in the House. Indeed, several key improvements to the Bill that have been announced but not yet made will be introduced in Committee. We are committed to make the necessary improvements to the current arrangements for vetting and barring and to respond effectively to recommendation 19 of the Bichard inquiry and to establish a scheme, as I think the Bill does, in which parents, carers and the public can have confidence.

I stress, however, that any system is only as good as the people using it and that no Bill can take away from employers their ultimate responsibility for making safe appointments. We need to inculcate a safeguarding mindset and the understanding that the recruitment of people to work with children and vulnerable adults must be based on robust procedures, on meticulous practice and, in the end, on sound judgment at the point of recruitment.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the impact of implementing these proposals on the recruitment timetable? When people leave work, how long will it take to replace them? That is a problem at the moment, but if we rightly and properly extend the vetting procedure what will be the impact on staff, children and vulnerable adults?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. When the scheme is fully implemented and when employers have the ability to make checks online, it might take less time than it does at the moment to obtain the information required to make a safe judgment about people’s criminal convictions, about their behaviour and about any concerns that there may be. I know that there are stories of some problems in some areas but, by and large, the CRB is meeting high standards in terms of the turnaround times for both standard disclosures and enhanced disclosures. I am sure that that process will continue.

My hon. Friend is right to make that point. It reminds us that nothing can take away the responsibility of employers at that point to be assured themselves that they have all the information they require to make a safe appointment, and the information that they need to make a judgment.

The Minister has been generous in giving way. I entirely agree with what she has just said. Nothing can replace competent personal judgment. In too many cases, people have made unwise decisions; most people would have made different decisions in those situations. I ask her about one specific issue that stems from the Soham situation and relates to spouses or partners. Will there be any information in the IMPACT system or available to the board about records relating to spouses or partners? There are many occasions—Soham was one—where the spouse or partner of someone employed will also come into contact with the children in the school, on school outings or because they happen to be at an adjoining school. Therefore, any information that may relate to the partner or spouse may be of significance in reaching a judgment on whether to appoint another individual, whose own record may be unblemished, but whose presence in the school might bring the children into contact with someone they should not be in contact with.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises that point. It is a delicate issue, which we need to be careful about. There will be special situations in which not necessarily the spouse but, more broadly, the associates of a particular individual might be cause for concern. There may be intelligence on that, which the police feel it is appropriate to pass to the IBB in the event of a person entering the scheme and being monitored and all that information being collected. Therefore, there could be circumstances in which associates more generally are relevant to a particular job, but the police will have to make the decisions about when that information is relevant.

I refer the Minister to the point made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about recruitment. Many organisations recruit overseas. Have the Government made any specific IMPACT assessments of delays in recruitment from overseas? For example, a residential home in my constituency that recruits from the Philippines has experienced such delays. I am sure that there are potential problems.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place when I responded to an earlier point about overseas workers and foreign nationals coming here to work. I said that the Bill does not discriminate. Exactly the same checks have to be made about foreign nationals as are made about British nationals. However, we recognise that, from some countries, there are difficulties in employers obtaining either full records or assurances that they have a complete record of someone’s criminal history. We are giving further thought to the guidance that we need to give employers in that situation.

Although responsibility rests firmly in the procedures, practices and judgments of employers, the measures in the Bill will help them by establishing a much more comprehensive but simpler system for them to use. It will greatly improve safeguards for children and vulnerable adults, not least by constantly monitoring those who work with them. The Bill constitutes a step change that measures up to the high demands that Bichard rightly made of us in his report, so I commend it to the House.

The most fundamental role of Government is to help to ensure the safety of their citizens, so it is of deep concern to parents, teachers and other professionals who work with children and other vulnerable groups that sometimes the procedures and practices that the Government put in place can seem wholly inadequate.

When the Minister presented the Bill, she rightly said that its background is painfully lodged in our memories, with the tragic murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. But that is only part of the story that we cannot forget as we start our consideration of the Bill: each year, 500,000 older people are abused and 1,400 adults with learning disabilities are the victims of sexual abuse. It is a startling situation that graphically illustrates the need for fundamental change.

The Government appear to be good at passing laws and regulations but, on occasion, less good at ensuring that they can be implemented and followed through in detail.

Is the hon. Lady aware that sometimes the problem with regard to vulnerable adults and elderly people is that they are reluctant to report abuse, especially if the abuser is a member of their family or a neighbour, but even if it has taken place in an institutional setting? We cannot legislate to force them to report an abuser, so how would she ensure that people being abused feel confident enough to come forward so that they can be part of the process and protected?