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Commons Chamber

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2006

House of Commons

Wednesday 28 June 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Post-Primary Education

The Government believe that significant reforms are needed to ensure that every young person is equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to make a positive contribution to society and the economy in the 21st century. The vital changes required are included in the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which will be debated in Committee later today.

What impact will the full reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or not as the case may be, have on the review and its subsequent implementation?

As my hon. Friend knows, the order will put an end to the transfer test—the 11-plus—and introduce new admission arrangements that will preserve academic excellence, but also give an opportunity that is currently denied to others to raise their skills and improve their opportunities. The article on academic selection in the order will come into effect after midnight on 24 November if restoration of the Assembly and devolved Government has not occurred. If it has occurred, it will be for the Assembly to decide what policy will follow the end of the transfer test that the order will otherwise bring into effect.

I note that the Minister says that the changes that will be debated today are significant. They will change forever the face of education in Northern Ireland, and for the worse. They are opposed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland, they have been voted against in this House by the whole Northern Ireland Office ministerial team, and they are now being used as a crude form of political blackmail. Does not he feel in any way embarrassed about that inconsistency, and the crude way in which these provisions are being used to try to blackmail people politically into entering into government with Sinn Fein? Will he—

Order. I think that the Secretary of State knows that the hon. Gentleman is displeased about this matter.

You are absolutely correct, Mr. Speaker; the hon. Gentleman has often expressed his vehement displeasure to me, as have his colleagues. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman, who has properly taken a close and expert interest in education policy, that this reform comes after a long period of consultation, after independent advice, and after huge support within the education profession and among many communities right across Northern Ireland. Let me also remind him of a survey in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, which shows that many grammar schools in Northern Ireland

“have accepted pupils with C2 and D grades”

for the next academic year. It says that the statistics

“raise serious questions about the need for a long-running campaign to preserve academic selection in Northern Ireland.”

The hon. Gentleman himself is quoted as saying:

“The grammar school lobby needs to sort this out if we want to have a strong case for keeping academic selection.”

In other words, falling school rolls are forcing this change anyway. We want to ensure that everybody gets new skills.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about blackmail, he asked me to put this decision into the Assembly, and that is precisely what I have done. If he wants to restore devolved self-government by 24 November, he and his colleagues can help to shape the new admissions policy.

The Secretary of State will be aware that under the education order to be debated today, academic ability and aptitude testing must not be taken into account for admission to secondary provision. Is he aware of the fear in the rural community that lack of proximity to secondary provision will create a postcode selection process, to the detriment of our excellent rural schools—leading to their decline, and that of the rural community? What action does he intend to take to ensure that that is not a primary criterion for admission to secondary provision, and to safeguard the rural schools and community in that respect?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the overall policy. He makes an important point about rural schools and the argument that there might be a postcode lottery. That is why consultation is now under way. If restoration occurs, it will be for the Assembly and the devolved Executive to carry out the admissions arrangements and the pupil profile configuration after abolition of the 11-plus. That will give schools the protection that he desires. However, I tell him, as I told the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), that falling rolls, with 50,000 empty desks in schools, rising to 80,000, mean that there must be radical reform in education and school provision right across Northern Ireland; otherwise, standards will not be where they should be, and will fall.

The Secretary of State is intent on ramming through the House a policy of prohibiting by law academic selection in Northern Ireland, although just over a month ago, he personally went into the Lobby here to defeat a measure that would have had a comparable effect in terms of selection in England. How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly justify a Government policy that rests on such flagrant double standards?

Because, quite simply, it does not. On double standards, I shall quote what the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), told sixth-formers in Basildon on 9 January 2006:

“I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”

If the hon. Gentleman is consistent with his leader’s policies, and if those policies are being developed and spread consistently across the UK, he should support the order. By the way, grammar school excellence will be preserved under the new policy; grammar schools are becoming increasingly more open in their selection, for the reasons described by the Belfast Telegraph this morning.

I am happy to stand by my leader’s and my party’s policy of defending our grammar schools where they have public support, whether that is in Northern Ireland or in my constituency in Buckinghamshire. The Secretary of State is committed to a Government policy that, in respect of England, gives parents in a particular area the power to determine whether academic selection continues. If the Secretary of State has confidence that his policy is in the interests of children in Northern Ireland, why does he not have the confidence to rely on the judgment and votes of parents, as he does in England?

I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman, and I repeat, that if the Assembly is restored by 24 November, locally elected politicians can take the decision. I would have thought that he welcomed that. As he knows, and as the Belfast Telegraph survey confirms this morning, the truth is that grammar schools will be retained, along with the excellence for which they are known. The real problem that the hon. Gentleman fails to address is that Northern Ireland’s education system has been failing those of average and below-average achievement. We need to address that; this policy will do so.

Illegal Arms

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin on the whereabouts of illegal arms belonging to the Provisional IRA in the Republic. (79736)

Decommissioning is a matter for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which was established by the British and Irish Governments to provide independent oversight.

Is the Minister aware that a few weeks ago, 10,000 rounds of ammunition were discovered in the Irish Republic? That is despite General de Chastelain telling us last September that the totality of the IRA’s arsenal had been decommissioned, and the Prime Minister himself saying that there had been final and complete decommissioning. Will the Minister join the rest of us in keeping the pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to get rid of all the guns and weapons so that we can have a democratic Executive in Northern Ireland?

I agree that we need to get rid of all the guns and all the weapons. I am aware of the find on 1 June in County Sligo, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Irish Government have indicated to us that their initial assessment is that those munitions have been there for many years. However, the munitions have been sent for forensic examination and there will be a report in due course. I should add that the IICD has made it clear that it could not guarantee that a small number of weapons might not have gone astray or been lost over the years, but that that should not detract from the significant commitment to peace that the Provisional IRA has made.

Does the Minister recall discussions on the recent report by the commission, in which we heard that the southern authorities had said that they knew nothing about any arms in the south, and that the arms were all taken away at the time of so-called decommissioning? That has been proved to be totally and absolutely false: whether they are old guns or new guns does not come in to it; they are guns. We heard that those had all been done away with. Until the IRA does away with its guns, there can be no real democracy in Northern Ireland.

I simply say again to the right hon. Gentleman that initial indications from the Irish Government show that those materials may have been there for many years, but quite correctly, they will make a forensic examination to establish whether that is the case. I say again that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reiterates what it has plainly stated—that a find of that kind, which may occur from time to time, should not detract from the commitment that the Provisional IRA has made.

Security Situation

The latest report of the Independent Monitoring Commission confirmed that the security situation in Northern Ireland has been steadily improving since the Belfast agreement, with the Provisional IRA delivering on its promise to end not only its paramilitary activities but criminality as well. Regrettably, though, this is not yet the case for dissident IRA groups or for loyalists.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the personnel from MI5, the French intelligence service and the Garda Siochana on their successful operation that foiled the smuggling of a large arms cache to Northern Ireland? Does he share my dismay that many of the weapons involved were lethal systems, such as surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades—exactly the sort of weaponry and armoury being used day-in, day-out to kill and maim our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we not be very careful before further lowering our guard in Northern Ireland?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of dissident IRA groups. The activity that he mentioned was a major achievement by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services, co-operating, as he said, with the Irish authorities. It probably involved Real IRA dissident members. It was a major threat, involving a serious quantity of weapons. That is why we will continue to bear down on and attack the root of the organisation of the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and any other paramilitary groups.

Does the Secretary of State accept that this is not just a case of dissident republican groups and so-called loyalist groups, both of which we would condemn? The Independent Monitoring Commission has also made it plain that elements from the IRA are still involved in criminality and that Sinn Fein is still a long way from signing up to the Policing Board. Until there is an absolute denunciation of criminality and a signing up to the Policing Board, we will not have the true security that the Secretary of State and I both wish for. Does he agree?

I agree that it is important for Sinn Fein to co-operate in policing, and to do so soon. I think that it will join the Policing Board in due course. It is also important to acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman has, that there has been a sea change since the IRA made its statement last July to end paramilitary activity and any criminality. The leadership has taken repeated steps to drive out criminality, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still some localised examples, which must end. None the less, I am satisfied—as are the security services and the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that the leadership of both Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are trying to root out and stop criminality.

Given the present security situation in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State kindly agree to meet Mr. Raymond McCord, whose son was brutally murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force eight years ago and who is still awaiting truth, justice and closure in respect of his son’s murder? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to meet him?

If the hon. Lady arranges a meeting through my diary secretary, I will of course be pleased to meet him.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Northern Ireland parties are now faced with a choice? Is the security situation so bad that they hold out against restarting the Assembly, or is it sufficiently good to justify their participation in a functioning Assembly on a cross-party basis? Does he accept that the difficult but necessary choice is whether to hold out on principle against restarting the Assembly, thereby losing out on everything from the changes in education policy that we have just debated right through to the redrawing of local government boundaries and billing for utilities? Does he further accept that that choice is entirely in the hands of Northern Ireland politicians?

I could not have said it better myself. In my view, the conditions are clear. There is no reason for the parties collectively not to negotiate on the restoration of devolved Government and to achieve it before the deadline of 24 November, which is set in concrete and in statute. If that is not achieved, the salaries and allowances will end, as well as the financial assistance to political parties, which totals some £600,000. I do not want to do that. I want self-government to be restored in Northern Ireland, with elected local politicians making decisions, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Following the 2003 security breach at the Northern Ireland Police Fund, charges against Mr. Thomas Hale were later dropped. The reason given was that a member of staff had withdrawn a statement. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the member of staff did not withdraw the statement, and will he call immediately for a public inquiry?

I certainly will not. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I will provide for inquiries to be made and those responsible for the matter will doubtless report to me. If I have anything to report to him, I shall happily do that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in the light of the improved security situation in Northern Ireland, the vast sums of money spent on close protection units for individuals should perhaps be reconsidered and reviewed for scaling back?

I do agree. That is precisely why we are considering the close protection scheme, which is expensive but necessary for many individuals who may be vulnerable. We are examining whether, in the changed security climate, it is necessary to pursue it to the same extent as it operates now.

The Secretary of State will recall that, at previous Northern Ireland questions, I condemned from the Dispatch Box loyalist paramilitaries for retaining weapons and for their activity. We are now hearing reports about dissident IRA members. In The Sunday Times, Liam Clarke wrote:

“The armoury demonstrates an apparent intention by the dissidents to begin a widespread campaign on the scale of that carried out by the Provisional IRA.”

Given that, and the fact that Sinn Fein-IRA have not signed up to policing in any way, shape or form—the last time I was in south Armagh, the police told me that the Member of Parliament for that area will not even talk to them—is it not time to put pressure on those people rather than on constitutional politicians to get the Assembly up and running?

We are indeed putting pressure on Sinn Fein to co-operate with policing, locally and in every other respect. Once the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which deals with the devolution of policing and justice, is given Royal Assent at the end of next month—as I hope it will be—it will be incumbent on Sinn Fein to deliver progress on policing, to which they have committed themselves. The hon. Gentleman is right: dissident IRA groups still pose a threat. A 250 lb bomb in Lurgan was stopped from being exploded by expert intelligence activity. We must keep at it and bear down on dissident activity, but the dissidents are operating on nothing like the scale that the IRA did. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) will support the Government’s policy on devolved Government, as we supported the efforts of John Major and Margaret Thatcher to get the peace process on the road.

Sesame Street Ltd

4. What discussions he has had with Sesame Street Ltd on programmes to improve understanding between young people of different traditions in Northern Ireland. (79738)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met representatives of Sesame Street Ltd to hear of their plans to develop a series of programmes in Northern Ireland to challenge sectarianism and racism, and he will shortly be raising the issue with the director-general of the BBC.

Does the Under-Secretary appreciate the work of the international parts of the charity Sesame Street with youngsters in Israel and Palestine? It has got youngsters from both sides of a strong religious divide to work together and understand each other. Will my hon. Friend continue his efforts to ensure that people from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland get together? The strongest weapon of those who promote religious bigotry is ignorance. If we can get more knowledge and understanding between the communities through using the charity, it will reduce violence across the community divide.

My hon. Friend is right. Sesame Street is a highly respected international broadcaster with a global brand and a global outreach. It has done tremendously good work in the middle east, South Africa and elsewhere, and everyone would welcome its engagement in Northern Ireland as part of building the shared future that we all want.

I welcome the fact that Sesame Street Ltd will operate in Northern Ireland, but will the Minister also address the issue of other scourges of our young people apart from sectarianism, such as drug and alcohol abuse, diet and sexually transmitted illnesses?

I very much agree with everything the hon. Lady has said—and that is very much part of what Sesame Street has done. Another issue that could be added to the list is the upsurge in hate crime and racist violence in Northern Ireland recently. I know that she shares with me an absolute abhorrence of such crimes, and if Sesame Street can play a part in tackling any resurgence of racism and hate crime, it will also be welcome.

Ministerial Office

5. If he will make it a requirement of holding ministerial office in the Northern Ireland Executive that a person must take an oath to uphold the rule of law. (79739)

All the parties should support the rule of law and policing arrangements in Northern Ireland, especially those holding ministerial office in a restored Northern Ireland Executive, who should also abide by the terms of the pledge of office, which commits them to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

Many people believe that former terrorists should not be Ministers. However, if they are to serve in the Northern Ireland Executive, the very least they could do is to take an oath to uphold the rule of law so that their despicable pasts can be just that—their past. Would the Secretary of State agree?

I agree absolutely, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the pledge of office, which commits all serving members to commit themselves to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, is effectively a commitment to the rule of law. It was agreed by all the parties and is in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as a result of the Good Friday agreement. I am at one with him in insisting that all elected politicians, especially Ministers, comply with the rule of law and support the police.

Could we have an unequivocal answer from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Does he believe that all people who hold public appointments in Northern Ireland not only should support the policing arrangements but must support them, because the police uphold the rule of law? Will he say that they must support policing arrangements, and go rather further than he has to date?

Of course I think that the police must be, and should be, supported by all holding ministerial office. I want to be clear, however, that there has been a sea change on the part of republicans, Sinn Fein and the IRA in the past year or so, as a result of all the painstaking work done by our Governments and our predecessor Governments, and we should welcome that. I do not want to see another obstacle erected late in the day to stop the restoration of devolved government. If we disagree about that, that will have to be that.

The Secretary of State is correct to warn us of the dangers of turning objectives, no matter how good, into preconditions, but does he recognise that we are caught in a vicious circle of vetoes on policing? Sinn Fein says that it will not sign on for policing until the Democratic Unionist party agrees a date for the devolution of justice and policing, and the DUP says that it will not agree a date until Sinn Fein commits to supporting policing. Does the Secretary of State share my suspicion that those two parties are trading vetoes so that they can blame each other for failure?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in his own way. It is essential that all the parties, including the two that he mentioned, work together to get the restoration of devolved government and to make progress on policing. Both of those objectives are crucial to the future stability and success of Northern Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State try to understand the concern of my right hon. and hon. Friends that the message coming from the Northern Ireland Office is that—[Interruption.]

The message is that Sinn Fein is already a partner fit for Government, but there are still issues outstanding in terms of criminality and the acceptance of the rule of law. Instead of sending out his officials to leak to the BBC about the finances and position of DUP Members should the Assembly close, will he go out and tell Sinn Fein that there is work for it to do? May I also assure him that whatever issues my party considers in the run-up to 24 November, party finances will not be one of them?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have made what I expect to happen clear to Sinn Fein. He and his party have been considerably responsible for putting pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to make sure that they continue to change in the way that they have done in the past year. He and the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) deserve credit for that.

On the question of finance, we have made it clear that party funding for Assembly groups will have to stop if politicians do not do their jobs in the Assembly. Moreover, advice centres will have to close down and salaries will stop being paid. That is what the people of Northern Ireland have demanded, and that is what will happen at midnight on 24 November if there is no agreement.

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences and sympathy to the families of the two British soldiers killed in Afghanistan yesterday. They were fighting the Taliban, and they were brave and committed soldiers. This country can be very proud of the work that they were doing.

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

I am sure that the whole House will associate itself with those sentiments.

I thank the Prime Minister for endorsing efforts to find a cure for motor neurone disease, which kills one UK resident every eight hours. His support is welcome and hugely valued, but is he aware that, in the past five years, for every £337,000 that the Government spent in research per diagnosed case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, they invested a mere £108 in research per diagnosed case of MND? Will he therefore ask Health Ministers to meet the Motor Neurone Disease Association and give equal priority to curing that disease? Will he also back our efforts to raise £15 million for a research fund to rid the world of this terrible disease?

First, I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on behalf of the MNDA, and I thank him for arranging my recent meeting with him and the association. We fully support the efforts to raise the money required, and I shall pass his remarks on to the relevant Ministers. Much of the funding comes through the Medical Research Council, but he is right that there is a clear gap between the amount of money spent on research into CJD and what is spent on MND. We shall therefore look to see what more we can do.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, 30 years on from the introduction of the Equal Pay Act by a Labour Government, the winner of the Wimbledon women’s singles competition will receive £30,000 less in prize money than the winner of the men’s singles? Wimbledon is the only grand slam competition in which that happens. Will he support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in her efforts to persuade the Lawn Tennis Association to put that inequality right?

I was somewhat coy about that yesterday, as I did not realise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport had pronounced on the matter already. Therefore, I am happy to be bolder today, to welcome what she said, and to endorse it fully.

May I echo what the Prime Minister said about the two young soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan? Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.

When asked about the need to replace Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the Prime Minister said at that Dispatch Box last week that he wanted the fullest possible debate, and that a decision would be taken later in this Parliament. That afternoon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer went around saying that he had made a decision and that it would be announced later this year. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the Chancellor was up to?

It was made clear in the Labour manifesto that we are committed to maintaining the independent nuclear deterrent, and I have also said that we think that it is right to do so. A decision will be taken in this Parliament, and that will happen later this year. It is important that Britain makes sure that it can defend itself properly. I believe that an independent nuclear deterrent is an essential part of that.

In his speech, the Chancellor repeated what was in Labour’s manifesto, but he went around briefing something completely different. The BBC’s political editor said that he wished the Chancellor

“would use code and spin less and speak in plain English a little more. Then we could focus on the real debate.”

One of the things that the Chancellor said was that there should be a vote. So will the Prime Minister tell us, in plain English, will the House of Commons have a vote on whether Trident is replaced?

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House dealt with that during business questions last week. He said, rightly, that we will of course consult the House fully. The method of doing so will be announced at the time when we publish the White Paper. I can assure the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that there will of course be the fullest possible debate, as there would have to be.

I am rather surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to debate today the policy he announced yesterday on the Bill of Rights. Since we are having a debate, at long last, on policy, I thought he might want to debate one of his.

It is a simple enough question: the Chancellor wants a vote and the Education Secretary has said there ought to be vote; can we have a vote in the House?

I have already explained that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made the position clear last Thursday. That is the position, and we will announce the means of consultation when we publish the White Paper. Of course, we believe it is extremely important to have the fullest possible debate on the subject.

The Prime Minister is saying one thing and the Chancellor briefing another. Is not this part of a wider problem? Is not there a danger that the Prime Minister is becoming the David Brent of Downing street—utterly redundant, he is just hanging round the office?

What we are doing is setting out policies for the long-term future of the country, on, for example, a stable economy, on the new deal to help cut unemployment further, on child care and on pensions. The energy review will be published shortly, and there is the NHS reform programme. All those are substantial policies for the future of the country.

What happens to the right hon. Gentleman when he makes a policy decision? He has one on foreign policy—to withdraw from the European People’s party. He finally announced a domestic policy—his own Bill of Rights—which was denounced by the chairman of his own democracy commission as xenophobic legal nonsense. I am surprised, when he has just announced a major change to the British constitution, that he does not want to get up and debate it. Come on.

Direction is about policy. [Interruption.] I am happy to debate our policies, I am happy to debate the right hon. Gentleman’s policies, and I am happy to have a policy debate. He has two questions left; let us debate policy.

Everyone accepts the need to deal with surplus school places in a rational manner. What has the Prime Minister to say, however, about Conservative-controlled Kent county council and its crude action to close or merge nine schools in Dover, nearly a quarter of the primary schools in my constituency? Does he think that represents lack of planning, lack of imagination or just lack of care?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it does not involve lack of money, because we have put vast sums into education in Kent and elsewhere in the country, all of which, of course, the Conservative party voted against. He is also absolutely right to say that primary schools have made enormous progress in the past few years, and I should deeply regret anything that put that at risk.

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy that we have just heard from the Prime Minister.

Given the urgency of the hostage crisis and the significance of the role of the United States in the middle east, has the Prime Minister discussed the present situation with the President of the United States?

We discuss issues to do with the middle east, Israel and Palestine every time I speak to the President. I have not spoken to him in the past 24 hours or so, but those things are a major part of any conversation we have. We both believe it extremely important to make sure that we restart a peace process that is the only way to stop events such as the terrible events of the past 24 hours. In the end, what is necessary, obviously, will be to make sure that peace and calm are restored so that there is some possibility of getting negotiation going.

I think the Prime Minister will agree that this is a particularly crucial moment, so what joint actions will he and the President take to capitalise on the apparent willingness of Hamas to accept a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution? It would be a tragedy if that possibility of progress were derailed by the hostage crisis.

I think I understand what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. If Hamas is prepared to commit itself to a two-state solution and to negotiate a settlement, that necessarily must mean that it is committed to the existence of Israel, to the renunciation of violence, and to negotiation as a way of achieving that settlement. If Hamas were clear on those issues and if it was prepared to return to the road map, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends used to ask me to endorse and carry forward—as I still want to do—I can assure him, not just on my own behalf but on behalf of the President as well, that America—the Quartet—would be willing to take the process forward as swiftly as possible. But if we are negotiating a two-state solution, we need to know that both sides to the negotiation are committed to the existence of the other state.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the decision of the Conservative councillors in Hounslow to share power with a group led by Phil Andrews, a former parliamentary candidate for the National Front? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that decision is not consistent with statements from leaders of all parties condemning all racist organisations?

I am sure that all party leaders most sincerely condemn racism of any sort. I do not know about the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but it would of course be deeply regrettable if anyone was in alliance with people who do not conform to the principles to which I hope we all conform.

Q2. In light of the Prime Minister’s avowed priority for victims of crime, will he ensure that therapeutic services are available for all children who experience sexual abuse and indeed for children who exhibit sexually harmful behaviour who may have been abused themselves? That would be in line with the recommendations of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on the issue. (80668)

I would like an update, to send to the hon. Lady, about exactly what we are doing in the area of therapeutic treatment for the victims of sexual abuse. I can tell her that we have significantly increased funding for Victim Support and for the whole range of NHS therapeutic services, but I would like to acquaint myself with the actual details of what we are doing in that area and send them to her.

I am sure that the Prime Minister would accept that the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty commits this country and all other declared nuclear powers to long-term disarmament. In light of that, will he explain why the Government are even considering an extension to, or a replacement for, Trident? Should not we seize this historic opportunity to start a process of nuclear disarmament around the world?

We do an immense amount in that area, and there is nothing inconsistent in renewing our independent nuclear deterrent and in being in favour of non-proliferation. My hon. Friend’s remarks are an indication that the debate will be lively.

Ministers are meeting tomorrow in Geneva to try to resolve the vital world trade talks. When I last asked the Prime Minister about the talks, he said that failure in the Doha development round would be a disaster, and I agree. Given that Oxfam says that there are still 760 areas of disagreement, how confident is the Prime Minister that we will make progress this weekend?

It is obviously immensely difficult. However, we are working very closely, in particular with the German Government of Chancellor Merkel and with the Brazilians, to try to find a way forward. In addition, I spoke recently to Pascal Lamy, the head of the World Trade Organisation, and we talked through the various outstanding issues, but, yes, a lot of movement will be needed from all areas—from Europe on agriculture, from America on subsidies, from Brazil and the G20 countries on non-agricultural market access—and we will do everything we can to make sure that progress is maintained.

Clearly, a reduction in agricultural protection is absolutely key to those talks. Although our headline offer appears to be a 39 per cent. cut in tariffs, there are concerns that when it is applied in practice it will mean a lot less; in fact, one estimate, based on figures from economists at the World Bank, is that it would, in effect, mean an average cut of only 1 per cent. Does the Prime Minister agree that that would be completely inadequate?

Yes, I do, which is why I think that it is important that we all go further. But I should say to the right hon. Gentleman that exactly the same calculations could be made in relation to some of the other offers that are made by the G20 on non-agricultural market access and in relation to the American offer in terms of agricultural subsidy. I am afraid that, in every single part of this, there are still outstanding issues that have to be resolved. That is why—certainly prior to the G8 and possibly at the G8—I will be arguing very strongly that the leaders need to put pressure on all the different systems to go far further.

In my view, it would be a disaster not just for world trade and for the development package that we want to see, but for the whole multilateral system, if the WTO went down. That is precisely why, as I say, that has been a constant part of my dialogue not just with America, but most particularly with the German Government, who share our view that failure in this area would be deeply regrettable for the whole of the international system.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact on community relations of the alliance between the former British National party organiser Steve Edwards and the Conservative candidate in Tipton in the last local elections—

Order. That is not the Prime Minister’s responsibility. I am sure that he is pleased to hear that.

Health Service IT

The national programme for IT will help us to deliver an NHS fit for the 21st century. In 10 years, it will connect more than 30,000 GPs in England to more than 300 hospitals, giving patients access to their personal health and care information. By the end of March 2006, expenditure on the contracts let at the outset of the programme was £654 million. As the National Audit Office report said:

“The notable progress and tight control of the central aspects of the programme are to be commended”.

Does the Prime Minister agree with Sir John Bourn that value for money on this programme is safeguarded because suppliers will not receive public money for IT projects and services until they are delivered and shown to be working effectively? Can he give the House his personal assurance that that has not happened—for example in relation to iSOFT, whose directors trousered £76 million in share sales prior to their recent share crash?

I do not know about the particular example that the hon. Gentleman gave, but let me explain to him why it is important that we have that information technology programme. In the end, one of the huge benefits of having a national health service is that we can have electronic patient records that are transferable right round the system. If that happens, it means not just an end to vast amounts of paperwork in the NHS, but that things such as patient choice, for example, can become a reality. Contrary to the pre-reports of the National Audit Office report, on the whole the NAO was complimentary about the IT programme. It is a huge programme, but it will deliver real benefits. Of course, we have to make sure that people offer value for money, but by and large the NAO said that we did.

Repatriation

I entirely agree with the Prime Minister, but does he accept that no society can be safe if its laws fail to recognise that people forfeit some of their own rights when they pose a threat to, or infringe, the rights of others? Is not that failure precisely why he had to abandon the pledge that he gave the House on 3 May that foreign prisoners—criminals—would be deported automatically on release, and is it not why he is helpless to deport foreign terrorist sympathisers?

No, although there is a particular problem, which I will come to in a moment. We have many people—I think almost 40—who are foreign nationals who are accused of terrorist offences or of plotting or inciting terrorism and their cases are going through the court. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we have got to make sure that those court cases are successful. But under the Human Rights Act 1998, we have the power expressly to override legislation if we wish to do so. What I said last year, and repeat now, is that we are prepared to do so if necessary.

If I may say so, our view is somewhat better than the one expressed by the Leader of the Opposition. He said that we should replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. He also went on to say that that should not be subject to the Parliament Act, and therefore would be entrenched, which, in fact, would make it even harder to do what the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) wants. The Leader of the Opposition also said that the reason why we needed that was something called the Singh case. I can point out that the case was decided in August 2000. The right hon. Gentleman said that it had been decided under the guidance of the Human Rights Act, but that Act came into force in October 2000. So we have—

Engagements

Q5. Is the Prime Minister aware that domestic burglary has gone down by 21 per cent. in my constituency? Car theft had gone down by 23 per cent. between 2003 and 2004-05. However, in spite of extra police officers in Lancashire, extra police support staff, the new police community support officers, community wardens and special constables, many people still think that crime is going up. Will the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that they are less likely to be a victim of crime now than they would have been at any time in the past 25 years? (80671)

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely true. Incidentally, I would like to pay tribute to the Lancashire police force, which is a groundbreaking force that does a superb job. She is absolutely right that there have been big falls in both car crime and burglary, and the antisocial behaviour legislation is also of enormous help here. I know that she will realise that we need to do more, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is examining various issues to do with the Home Office. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill will play a part in this as well. My hon. Friend is right that we need to keep on ensuring not only that the laws are fit for what we need, but that we get the community policing out on the street that her constituents and others want.

In 1997, when the Prime Minister was still the future, he pledged to cut early-years class sizes to below 30. In the same year, and in every year since, he has promised to tackle school truancy. However, parliamentary answers that I have received show that those early-years class sizes have doubled since 2002 and that truancy has risen by 200,000 over the same period. Has the Prime Minister changed his mind about those priorities, or just broken his promises?

As far as I am aware, the infant class pledge has been met. If the hon. Gentleman goes into virtually any primary school in the country, he will see the effect not merely of the investment in bricks and mortar, but of something like 80,000 extra classroom assistants. In so far as we have been able to cut infant class sizes, we have done so, of course, because of the extra investment in our public services that he voted against in the past.

Q6. Since my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, hospital waiting lists and waiting times have dropped dramatically. Unfortunately, the reverse is the case for housing waiting lists. Before my right hon. Friend leaves office, will he ensure that the necessary investment is committed so that his legacy will also be one of falling housing waiting lists? (80672)

I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for the first part of her question, which I regard as progress of a sort. However, she is absolutely right that we need to do more on housing, particularly social housing. That is why we are investing literally hundreds of millions of pounds over the coming years to ensure that we have better social housing and to increase the provision of houses as well—

Whether it is provided by councils or others, it is important that we get the maximum investment in housing. Of course we only manage to achieve investment when we have a strong economy with the money therefore to invest.

Will the Prime Minister set out a clear timetable for the removal from the statute book of the Act of Settlement, which introduces clear discrimination against millions of our fellow citizens? Would a Government set on a course of repeal not be demonstrating leadership, authority and direction?

No, I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but as we are on the subject of legislation I can tell him what I would not agree to do, and that is to introduce the Bill that he wants—an independence Bill for Scotland. That would be an absolute and total disaster for the people of Scotland.

Q7. Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of my official engagements yesterday was the opening of the 11th children’s centre in my constituency, at a school, Dallow junior, which has received over £2 million of additional investment for new facilities? Will he join me in congratulating the staff involved in that achievement, and does he agree that it is another example of this Government tackling child poverty, which doubled under the Conservative party? (80673)

I can assure my hon. Friend that it is our intention to keep up the investment in children’s centres. Sure Start, too, is an immensely important programme that has not only allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get access to facilities that help their children, but benefited many parents enormously. In addition, we are trying to support people through the work-life balance, the children’s tax credit, and increases in maternity leave and maternity pay. All that adds up to a package that results not in simply talking about helping families but in supporting them in realistic and practical ways throughout the country.

I understand it, and I refer the hon. Gentleman to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said last Thursday—that remains the position.

Q8. I report with great sadness to the Prime Minister that, following the local elections and a bit of bed-hopping by the Liberal Democrats, Newcastle-under-Lyme is being temporarily led by the Conservatives. In the past 20-plus years Newcastle has been well served by Labour leaders—Mike Brereton, Eddie Boden and David Leech—and I wonder whether, in this novel situation, the Prime Minister can help me out. By which yardsticks would he judge this new, Tory/Liberal Democrat alliance in my area, however temporary it may be? (80674)

The most important thing is that the programmes of renewal and inner-city regeneration that were funded by the Government are maintained by the council, and I know that my hon. Friend will be holding it strictly to account.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will join me in congratulating Cheltenham and Tewkesbury primary care trust on never having had a financial deficit and on living within its means. Can he therefore explain to the professionals, patients and people of Cheltenham why we are being rewarded with the closure of our 10-year-old purpose-built maternity ward, the closure of our rehabilitation hospital, cuts in health promotion, cuts in community nursing, cuts in health visiting, cuts in access to acute care and the non-implementation of new NICE-prescribed drugs such as Herceptin?

I do not know the particular circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and what has happened with the primary care trust there, although I am sure that if we were to go into it we would also find that waiting times and waiting lists for patients had fallen substantially and that there were additional numbers of people being treated far faster for cancer and cardiac care. I am afraid that it is a necessary part of the financial management in the health service that no matter how much money is put in, there will have to be proper accountability to make sure that that money is spent well. I am very happy to look into the points that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Q10. I gave notice to the Prime Minister’s office that I was going to raise the case of the late Lieutenant William Norbury MC and his widow Gillian, and the battle to win her the war disability pension to which she is entitled. Yesterday, at a veterans reception in Downing street, the Prime Minister was challenged to resolve the issue by Mrs. Norbury’s splendid champion, John Nunneley. In Mr. Nunneley’s own words, he appealed to the Prime Minister to act as Mrs. Norbury’s “court of last resort”. Is the Prime Minister now able to deliver his judgment in this case? (80676)

No, I am not able to do that right now. I met Mr. Nunneley yesterday and he gave me a letter explaining the situation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of the question. It is a complex case because Lieutenant Norbury was a member of the King’s African Rifles, which is a colonial force raised in Kenya, and responsibility for his war pension was taken over by the Kenyan Government when that country gained its independence in the early 1960s. Ministers and officials have met Mrs. Norbury’s representatives on a number of occasions, and the Ministry of Defence is now examining a number of possible schemes to consider whether Mrs. Norbury will be eligible under any of them. So the MOD is looking into it, and I hope that I will be able to get back to Mr. Nunneley or Mrs. Norbury in due course.

Will the Prime Minister congratulate Plymouth city council on returning to Labour control last Thursday after a successful by-election? Will he take an interest, too, in the challenge that we face of providing enough affordable housing to rent and buy, as we need some flexibility to play our part as one of the country’s key growth areas?

I certainly congratulate the council and its Labour leadership on the superb work that they are doing, not least in relation to schools, antisocial behaviour and regeneration. The by-election last week set a very good example.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked

Jubilee Line Case Review

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service on the Jubilee Line case.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made a statement in another place yesterday. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made a statement in another place yesterday. I did seek to provide opposition spokesmen with a copy of the report in good time yesterday, and to indicate that we did not intend to make an oral statement in the House, consistent with practice on some legal issues in the past. When I had an opportunity to speak to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), he said that he wanted an oral statement, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for agreeing to allow me to make one today.

In retrospect, I think that hon. Gentleman was right that the Attorney-General’s statement on the issue should have been repeated in this House at the same time, and I apologise to him and to the House for the fact that that was not done. In future, however legalistic they are, statements made in another place ought to be made in the House unless there is prior agreement otherwise. With minor amendments to allow for the fact that a day has elapsed, the Attorney-General’s statement reads as follows:

“On 22 March 2005 the case of Regina v Rayment and Others was terminated at the Central Criminal Court after it had been running since June 2003. The prosecution announced its decision not to oppose a defence application to discharge the jury and subsequently offered no evidence. The defendants were then acquitted.

Immediately afterwards I announced that I was referring the matter to the Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service under Section (2)(1)(b) of the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate Act 2000. I asked the chief inspector: to review the circumstances surrounding the prosecution commonly known as the Jubilee Line case; to ascertain the factors leading to the decision to terminate; to consider what steps the prosecution could have taken to avoid that outcome; and to make recommendations aimed at preventing this happening again. The chief inspector’s final report was published yesterday. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The report contains a detailed, but not comprehensive, analysis of the case. The constraints imposed by the remit of Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate means the report inevitably focuses on the role of the prosecution, whilst aiming to give as balanced a view as possible of what occurred. The chief inspector also requested Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to provide expert advice and analysis on the police work in this case, particularly the investigation. The work they did was used to inform the report which is published today.”

That would have been yesterday. The Attorney-General continued:

“Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary will also be publishing separately its own stand-alone report. The review team was also able to conduct individual interviews with 11 jurors in the case, and a group interview with eight of those jurors. They were assisted in this task by Professor Sally Lloyd-Bostock and Dr Cheryl Thomas of Birmingham University, who have conducted previous research into juries. This enabled the review team to obtain the benefit of the jurors’ experience, whilst at the same time ensuring a proper distance between the jurors and the inspectorate.

The report concludes that the collapse of the trial was the cumulative effect of mistakes and shortcomings by a number of agencies and individuals responsible for the case, which tested the adversarial system, as well as the jury system, beyond breaking point. The review also concludes that the decision to end the case was inevitable and correct in the light of legal authorities, having regard to the circumstances prevailing at the time. The report highlights three specific issues which it sees as having had a major contribution towards the termination of the proceedings: the decision to include count two, conspiracy to defraud London Underground Limited; the slow and disjointed nature of the proceedings; and the illness of one of the defendants.

I very much welcome the valuable and detailed analysis by the chief inspector and his team. I pay tribute to the thoroughness of their work. I note the important conclusion that the decision to terminate the case was correct.

Views may differ as to what conclusions are drawn from the analysis on, for example, whether we should always have a jury in a case of serious and complex fraud. I will return to that subject later.

My overriding purpose in establishing the review was to ensure that we have done, and continue to do, all we can to ensure that there is no repetition of the events which led to the collapse of this case, particularly so far as the prosecuting authorities are concerned.

Investigation and subsequent prosecution of this case was spread over a long period, from 1997 to 2005. Some key decisions made at an early stage had a significant impact on the future handling of the case and, with the benefit of hindsight, can be seen to have created difficulties. I accept that there is justified criticism of some aspects of the prosecution.

Because, as I have said, the review report inevitably focuses on the CPS, and I am the Minister accountable for the CPS, it is right for me to draw the House’s attention to the steps which have been taken to improve the handling of these cases within the CPS, as well as changes in the external environment. I accept the report’s conclusion that fraud work within the CPS has not always been recognised as requiring a degree of dedicated resource and expertise. That is now being rectified, with the establishment of a separate and specialist fraud prosecution division within CPS London, a move welcomed by the report.

A wider issue is that of the case management and review arrangements which were in place during the duration of the Jubilee Line case. When I was appointed Attorney-General, it became apparent to me that the arrangements for supervising lawyers who had day-to-day control of serious and complex cases, and of reviewing the quality of their decisions, were not adequate. In particular, the culture had evolved where it was believed that only a lawyer who had read all—and I mean all—the papers could take a decision on the case. The disadvantages of this approach had already been the subject of discussion between my predecessor as Attorney-General and the then DPP, now Mr Justice Calvert-Smith. I signalled a new approach in a Written Parliamentary Answer on 27 February 2003. This enabled more senior lawyers within the CPS, including the DPP, to be involved in the decision-making process, or to take decisions on the basis of detailed briefing and consideration of the key material but without having to read all the often very voluminous papers. The effect of this change would be, as I said in the Answer, to enable greater input by senior lawyers into the most critical decisions that the service faces.

In addition, and after discussion with me, the current DPP has established a system of greater review by senior management of prosecuting decisions. In particular, he has established a system of case management panels. These are held on a monthly basis and enable a panel of senior lawyers to act as a “critical friend” to the lawyers handling a case. The panels, which have been in operation since September 2005, have already proved their worth in strengthening the presentation of cases, identifying any potential weaknesses and, in some cases, shortening the predicted trial lengths. This is especially important given the report’s criticism that the Jubilee Line case was allowed to run without such senior management control. The CPS is also developing a new case management and case quality assurance system, particularly for serious and complex cases.

More widely within the criminal justice system, Ministers and the judiciary have agreed the criminal case management framework which clearly sets out the responsibilities of all those involved in trials; and the then Lord Chief Justice issued a protocol on the management of heavy and complex cases in March 2005. These developments, combined with revised disclosure protocols and my own revised guidelines to prosecutors on disclosure, combine to make a very different system from that which was in operation during the Jubilee Line trial.

The report makes 11 recommendations. They are set out in detail in the report and I will not take time repeating them. They have been considered by Government and the agencies involved. The substance of all the recommendations are accepted, save for recommendation 10, which will require further discussions between Ministers and the senior judiciary.

Earlier in my Statement I said that I would come back to the issue of jury trials for serious and complex fraud cases. We have had extensive debates in this House and in the other place about the Government’s established policy that there should be the opportunity in some serious and complex fraud cases for those trials to be heard without a jury. The Jubilee Line report concludes that the circumstances of this case were so unusual that it cannot be relied on directly to support the case either for dispensing with, or retaining, juries. It also concludes that the case was not intrinsically of such seriousness or complexity that it would necessarily have been accepted by the Serious Fraud Office as falling within its criteria for taking on cases, nor that it would necessarily have met the conditions set out in Section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

I should say that I take a different view. I am very clear that no blame for the termination of the case should fall on the shoulders of the individual jurors; rather, they are to be commended for their commitment and attention. Nevertheless, I believe the case illustrates a good deal about the challenges of presenting long and complex cases in front of a jury.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 1096-99.]

That concludes the statement.

I thank the Solicitor-General for the statement. I fully accept his apology. He sought to keep me completely informed about the nature of the statement to be made in the other place and supplied me with a copy of the document in good time. I am glad that he acknowledges that it would have been better if statements had been made in both places simultaneously, especially as the subject matter, although it may be legalistic, touches on several contentious topics that are relevant to issues before the House at present.

The report is to be commended. I am sure that the House would wish to thank Mr. Stephen Wooler and his team. Although its remit is restricted to the Crown Prosecution Service, with an added angle of the police role, it is detailed, illuminating and helpful. The fact that no verdict was returned in the case enabled Mr. Wooler’s team, most unusually, to be able to interview jurors about their views in relation to the process, which he described as a “hugely valuable insight” into the case.

The collapse of this case was at huge public expense—some £25 million, with no verdict returned. It has been used extensively by those who have supported the argument that juries should be got rid of in long and complex fraud cases. Does not a detailed reading of this report show that that assertion is entirely unjustified? Is not one of the most interesting conclusions of Mr. Wooler’s report that his analysis does not support that at all, and that the argument is wholly erroneous? At paragraph 9 of the executive summary, Mr. Wooler said that

“although the collapse of the Jubilee Line case was regarded in many quarters as relevant to the debate about the suitability of juries to try charges of fraud, and in particular the proposal to implement Section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003”—

which has been a highly contentious issue before this House—

“its circumstances were in reality so unusual that it cannot be relied on to support either position in that debate.”

Will the Solicitor-General please confirm that that is the position of the Law Officers, because I noted both yesterday and in the Solicitor-General’s remarks, but especially in remarks made by the Attorney-General on a news programme yesterday evening, that he appears to disagree with his own inspector’s report in respect of that matter?

Furthermore, the main body of the report contains ample evidence that goes further in supporting the role of juries in trials of this kind. At paragraph 1.40, in relation to the jury, Mr. Wooler says:

“No responsibility for the inconclusive outcome of the case can properly be attributed to the capabilities or conduct of the jury. Overall, they discharged their duties in a thorough and conscientious manner. Collectively, they appeared even at the time of our interview with them to have a good grip of the evidence and the issues, particularly allowing for the fact that many months had passed since they had last heard any evidence.”

What is perhaps most telling—I should be grateful for the Solicitor-General’s comments on this—is that the inquiry had before it a letter from one of the jurors, written on the day on which the trial had collapsed and the acquittals had been recorded, in which he expressed his deep displeasure. The letter, which can be found in paragraph 11.6 of the report, says:

“I, along with the majority of the jurors, had a good understanding of what was going on in the courtroom and I have taken exception to comments made by yourself”

—the judge—

“and Mr Upward”

—the prosecutor—

“in tonight’s news coverage. It is being stated that you and other members of the court thought that we were unable to remember evidence from the early stages of the trial and thus a fair trial would prove impossible. Nobody asked for our comments and what we felt. Why would the majority of us be making notes? So that when we came to deliberate we could refer back to them and make informed decisions. I personally referred to my notes regularly during the trial and was thus able to compare evidence and make informed judgements as the case proceeded. To now be labelled an incompetent is not acceptable”.

These are important issues. I have to tell the Solicitor-General that I am troubled that on repeated occasions when we have come to consider the issues of juries in long fraud trials, we have appeared to be faced with a blank wall when we have confronted the Government. In a debate in the House on 21 June 2005, when a statement was made that there would be an end to juries in certain fraud trials, the Solicitor-General said:

“Stephen Wooler is indeed looking into the background of the Jubilee line trial and will no doubt make his report in due course, but the House needs to know when the Government have made a clear decision.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 658.]

May I ask the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General, in the light of this extremely compelling and interesting report, to reconsider their position and to take on board the comments that have been made? Will the Solicitor-General also confirm the other point that was made so tellingly in the report—that even if the Government’s proposals in section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act had been implemented, the trial would almost certainly have taken place with a jury in any event? To use this case because of the waste of public money that has resulted is particularly pernicious, and I very much hope that the Attorney-General will stop doing it.

The causes of the collapse have been correctly identified by the Solicitor-General, but one of them deserves special focus. The decision to charge conspiracy to defraud at common law was regarded by Mr. Wooler as muddling matters by introducing a charge that was vague and insufficiently particularised, and which, most remarkably, added 10 months to the trial when the issues surrounding it had to be fully explored.

The Solicitor-General will know that as the Fraud Bill has made its way through the House, the Government have resolutely maintained that the law of conspiracy to defraud at common law must be retained. May we please have an assurance from the Solicitor-General that as the Report stage of the Bill has not yet been reached, he will give careful consideration to the comments made by Mr. Wooler as an example of the particular application of the charge of common law conspiracy? Is it not the case that the decision to charge conspiracy to defraud at common law was one of the most disastrous elements that led to the eventual collapse of the trial? There must be lessons from that. Even if we do not get rid of conspiracy to defraud at common law, I very much hope that the Solicitor-General can assure the House that the issue will be examined in the context of the guidelines that the Attorney-General has already published.

The Solicitor-General will be aware of substantial criticisms of the way in which fraud has been handled by the Crown Prosecution Service in recent years. In saying that, I am very conscious of the fact that it is clear from the Solicitor-General’s statement that steps have been taken to rectify the situation. But the House is entitled to be concerned to discover that this was an unintended consequence of setting up the Serious Fraud Office. Will the Solicitor-General give an assurance to the House that the way in which changes are brought about will be kept under close review? For example, in respect of cases such as this one, should the SFO be encouraged to expand its remit in bringing prosecutions, thereby taking them away from the Crown Prosecution Service? Otherwise, there will have to be two parallel centres of expertise, because in the light of the report it is clear that the lack of a centre of expertise within the CPS was a contributory cause of the prosecution’s failure.

The Solicitor-General mentioned that he was able to accept 10 of the 11 recommendations, and, obviously, I welcome that very much. In respect of the recommendation that he was unable to accept, I entirely understand why that cannot simply be done by the Government, because it concerned the involvement of the judiciary in the development of procedures to have a comprehensive view of cases, and particularly the role of judges in case management.

I appreciate that that is a difficult issue. Judicial independence must be maintained. The judge in this case was—very properly—unable to co-operate with the inquiry, and to have done so would have been a misconduct on her part. But it would be desirable if a mechanism could be found to help judges in an area that all experience suggests is very challenging, and where even the ablest of them often have difficulty. I very much hope that the Solicitor-General is able to indicate to the House that this matter is being properly progressed.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has raised his points and for his general welcome for the report of Stephen Wooler and his team, and I join him in thanking them for what they have done. They produced a very thorough report that dealt with all the issues that they were asked to cover, and we in this House are very grateful to them for that.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. In relation to non-jury trials and section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, there is nothing in the report, as he indicated because he read the relevant part of it, that suggests that there is proof either way of whether non-jury trials are desirable. However, what my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said was not that the report somehow proved the case one way or the other, but that it was illustrative to a considerable degree of the challenges of presenting long and complex cases in front of a jury—such as the way in which such cases had to be presented, the sheer length of them, and the enormous pressures on the jury.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have agreed that the issues in relation to section 43 will be dealt with by way of a free-standing Bill, which will give us all the opportunity to look at the detailed arguments about non-jury trials. However, let me just say this: we are dealing with a suggestion in relation to not the 29,000 cases that are currently dealt with by juries, but perhaps half a dozen a year—up to a maximum of 20—of the most serious cases, which represents a fraction of 1 per cent. We need to find ways in which not only blue collar crime, but the most complex fraud and white collar crime, can be tackled effectively. I support using juries in the vast majority of cases. However, for some cases I argue not that the jury cannot understand the evidence—I hear what the juror said about making notes, and I am sure that he was assiduous in ensuring that he followed the evidence with great care—but that very long trials impose an unacceptable burden on jurors.

To make trials manageable, prosecutors often have to resort to tactics such as splitting complex cases into separate trials and reducing the number of counts on an indictment, and therefore the full culpability of criminals is frequently not exposed to a jury. We need to find a better way. We have repeatedly offered to discuss the matter with the Opposition to see if we can reach an agreement. That has not yet been possible, but I hope that between now and when we consider the Bill, we will have the opportunity to reach agreement.

The benefits of section 43 are clear. The full criminality of an issue can be exposed. We should have shorter trials. The judges can read the papers, rather than them having to be presented orally before a jury. In that way, we should be able to expose the full criminality of such issues and ensure that criminals get their just desserts.

The hon. Gentleman referred in particular to count two, which deals with conspiracy to defraud, but that was not the only cause of the collapse of the trial. There were other causes, such as the illness of a defendant and the slow and disjointed nature of the proceedings. But the fact that from an early stage the investigation did not focus on collecting all the evidence necessary to prove count two was a matter of some concern. The prosecution’s failure to show in particular why London Underground Ltd was defrauded by the conspiracy referred to in count two caused a problem, but the judge did find on two occasions that it was a proper charge.

Let me also add that we have had general discussions about conspiracy to defraud in debates on the Fraud Bill. The report does not recommend the repeal of conspiracy to defraud. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in our consultation on the Fraud Bill the majority of respondents asked us to keep conspiracy to defraud. The Rose Committee of senior judges said that it would be a big mistake to revoke it. In respect of the Fraud Bill, there will be forms of behaviour that will not be considered fraud under statute—for example, where a defendant plays his part in committing a crime but is ignorant of the wider details of the fraud, and where the final crime was committed by someone outside the immediate conspiracy.

That said, let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we hope to be able in due course to repeal conspiracy to defraud. The Government propose to have a review on that in about three years. In the meantime, the Attorney-General has produced guidelines which we hope will reduce the use of conspiracy to defraud, so that it is employed only where necessary.

The hon. Gentleman asked about changes in respect of Crown prosecutions, and I assure him that we will continue to monitor the way in which they occur. The case management panels will have monthly reviews, and we hope that that will lead to an improvement in the standard of prosecutions. Recommendation six said that there should be a multidisciplinary approach, with investigators, prosecutors and accountants—and other experts where appropriate—working together as a team from the early stages of investigations. We want to see that that happens, too. However, I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks: we will continue to monitor such changes.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the recommendation on judges. I entirely agree that it is important that we maintain judicial independence—we must ensure that the independence of the judge in question, who quite properly decided not to engage in the inquiry, is maintained. However, we will also have appropriate discussions with the judiciary to see what steps it wishes to take in the light of these recommendations.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his statement and his courtesies yesterday. I impute no criticism to him for the way that events have turned out. There was a robust set of questions and exchanges involving the Attorney-General yesterday in the House Lords, and I want to refer to some of them.

I have a particular interest in this case as I am the MP for the constituency that was most affected by the Jubilee line extension. I join the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in congratulating Mr. Wooler and his team; they clearly did a good job, and it was right of the Attorney-General to commission that inspection by the new body set up just for that purpose.

The 11 recommendations raise many issues, but I hope that the Solicitor-General will agree that there abide three central issues, and I should add that much of what I say will reflect concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. There is the conspiracy to defraud issue; the issue that the failures were of the prosecution, not of the defence; and the issue that the principle of jury trial was not at fault. To paraphrase a much more famous selection from three, the greatest of these principles is that the principle of jury trial was not at fault.

The first and third issues relate to the fact that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General have, as it were, set themselves in opposition to the logic of the recommendations. I therefore join in encouraging Law Officers to retain their intention to get rid of the conspiracy to defraud charge at the earliest opportunity. More generally, when the Law Commission makes such recommendations, it should give both Houses the chance to debate them on the basis of a considered proposal put before us. Had it done so, we could have anticipated such issues and possibly prevented this serious and very expensive mistake.

On the second issue, I wonder whether the Solicitor-General can give an answer that the Attorney-General was unable to give yesterday. The latter has accepted the proposed setting up of a fraud prosecution division, which, in effect, would reinstate under another name the arrangement that applied until a few years ago. How far has that proposal got? Has it been set up, and is it in place? If so, how many cases are now being looked after by these specialists within the London Crown Prosecution Service? It is clear that the Attorney-General has accepted that we need a structure that not only contains specialists, but has senior management control over all such cases.

Thirdly, the Solicitor-General quoted the phrase used by the Attorney-General, who said that

“the case illustrates a good deal about the challenges of presenting long and complex cases in front of a jury.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 1099.]

Indeed it does, and the conclusion was that juries can cope. In the light of that, can the Solicitor-General confirm expressly that not until the Fraud Bill—this issue has been debated during consideration of that Bill—has been enacted and tested for some years, and not until the fraud review has had some years in which to be digested, will we have any suggestion from the Government that we need to look again at changes to the principle that juries deal with fraud cases? Having passed a significant Act through Parliament that deals with these issues, it would be nonsense then suddenly to say, “We need to change the law.”

Finally, recommendation 5 sets out some very practical suggestions on how jurors should be dealt with—more respectfully and carefully, and simply more considerately—particularly in longer cases. May I have an assurance that those lessons will be learned, and that judges and courts will in future make it clear that jurors—who clearly can do the job—are respected for the job that they are willing to do, want to do and can do competently? They must be treated as a very important part of our democratic and constitutional system—a system that we Liberal Democrats believe should be the principle for dealing with all serious cases in this country.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courteous reply, and particularly for what he said about the statement—or lack of it—yesterday. Let me deal first with his final point, about which he is quite right: we should improve the quality of our treatment of jurors. I have spoken to some people who have served on juries who were particularly concerned about the way in which they were dealt with. If we can find ways of making that experience a little easier for jurors, that would be very desirable. When a juror is dealing with an extremely long case, it is all the more important that any family and work-related issues that might arise are taken account of. That will always prove very difficult in long cases, and there will always be trials that last a long time, even if we bring into play section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It is right that, in those circumstances, we should make sure that we do the best by those citizens who have given up their time to deal with such cases.

Let me deal with what the hon. Gentleman said about jury trials. Mr. Justice Auld, in his report of 2001, made his views on this issue very clear:

“If I had to pick two of the most compelling factors in favour of reform, I would settle on the burdensome length and increasing speciality and complexity of these cases, with which jurors, largely or wholly strangers to the subject…are expected to cope. Both put justice at risk.”

He went on to say:

“I am firmly of the view that we should wait no longer before introducing a more just and efficient form of trial in serious and complex fraud cases.”

Mr. Justice McKinnon, who had to deal with the Blue Arrow case, said:

“No jury should be asked to cope with what this jury… had to endure”

in terms of a very long trial. The Court of Appeal said that, in that case,

“there was a significant risk of a miscarriage of justice resulting from the volume and complexity of the evidence.”

I have gone through the arguments about the way in which prosecutors ensure that cases can go on, and I shall not rehearse them. What we need to do now is to look seriously at how we can get a just outcome from these trials. I invite the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, all the Opposition parties—to engage in serious discussions on how we can best deal with these cases.

The Government want, in due course, to find circumstances in which we can repeal the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We want to review that, probably in 2009—we said that we will do so three years after the passage of the Fraud Bill, which, I assume, will go through this year—so that is the time scale that we are looking at.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the fraud prosecution service, which has indeed come into existence. It is a new fraud unit that will harness the skills and experience of specialist fraud prosecutors, and Mr. David Kirk, a top private sector lawyer, has been appointed as its head. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how many cases it has dealt with up to now. Given that its remit was established only recently, I suspect that it has yet to get many cases to trial; however, it will doubtless be investigating a number of such cases. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me, with that information.

I notice that, in their statements, the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General have somewhat quietly and carefully shifted the argument about jury trials: they are now talking about people being kept there too long, and the difficulty of sustaining such trials. May I take the Solicitor-General back to what happened at the collapse of the Jubilee line trial and the surrounding events? Previously, there had been a very strong implication that ordinary members of the public who make up juries in fraud cases could not be expected to understand the complexities involved. The issue was them and their abilities, and not so much the time that they spent in the pursuit of such trials.

This report is more than just a blocker in terms of the attacks on juries; it actually upholds the principle of jury trials. When the jurors were interviewed, I was astonished to discover the amount of information that they retained, and their understanding and grasp of these so-called complex issues. Why, when such difficulties arise, do we, in this country alone, blame those who are determined to seek the balance, rather than those who bring the case? In America, under the procedures that apply there, a case was brought against Enron in six months—with a jury.

I invite the right hon. Gentleman to check the records, and if he does I think that he will find that the Government have never heavily relied on the Jubilee line case. Moreover, we have not argued the case that jurors are incapable of understanding such issues—the problem is the burden that a vast amount of complex information and exhibits, presented to a jury over a very long period, place on any juror. The process of oral presentation of evidence takes a very long time, but it could be dealt with by a judge very quickly; it could even be dealt with by a judge sitting with assessors, which is one suggestion that Lord Justice Auld looked at.

We must treat this issue with a great deal more seriousness. There is a tendency to fall back on the view that this is somehow an attack on juries, but it is not: it is an attempt to find a way to get justice, so that the full criminality of those who commit very complex fraud can be brought before a court and dealt with fully and properly.

The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the United States of America. We have been examining the circumstances there with a great deal of care. The US deals with cases, particularly complex fraud cases, in a very different way. Perhaps the most significant difference is the frequent use of plea bargaining. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will consider the range of lessons to be learned not only from the United States, but from Hong Kong and other countries and jurisdictions. That might form part of the wider fraud review that we hope will report by the summer and will be able to lead us towards better ways of dealing with complex fraud investigations, as well as prosecutions.

Reference has been made to the 11 recommendations in the report, 10 of which have been substantially accepted. Can the Solicitor-General give the House an assurance that measures will be put in place to ensure that those proposals are not only properly implemented, but monitored to see whether any alterations need to be made?

Yes, I can give that reassurance. We have already had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the director of the Serious Fraud Office is also aware of the full implications of the report. Its recommendations are important. We want them to be fully implemented, and we will monitor the situation to ensure that they are.

I find it hard to believe that the Government’s proposal to do without trials is due to the length of time that they take. The Solicitor-General let the cat of the bag a moment ago when he said that we are not getting enough convictions. Is not the truth of the matter that the CPS cannot present its cases well enough to get convictions, and that is why it wants to do away with juries?

The hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the CPS. Certainly, the report made some criticisms of its handling of this case, but in many other trials it has handled fraud matters very well. There is a need for improvement. That is why certain reforms have been put in place, particularly since the statement made in 2003 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General about changing the way in which cases are considered. We want the prosecution of fraud to be carried out properly and effectively. That is not only about getting more convictions, but about securing justice, and justice requires that those who have committed an offence have the full extent of their culpability exposed before a court so that they can be properly dealt with by the criminal justice system. I am concerned that the way in which prosecutions occur at the moment, with indictments being split and the number of counts being reduced, sometimes means that there is not a full exposure of that level of culpability. We need to consider that seriously, as putting our heads in the sand and being blind to it has taken us nowhere.

Points of Order

I need your help and advice on this matter, Mr. Speaker. On 26 April, I asked the former Home Secretary whether foreign nationals due for deportation were placed on the sex offenders register if they had committed a serious sexual offence, and the answer was not quite as clear as I had hoped. With your indulgence, I raised a point of order on 2 May, but still did not get a clear answer. I tabled questions on 4 May seeking information, but I have not received a holding reply. I subsequently asked a named day question, to be answered on 19 June, about the delays in answering my questions. Again, I have not even received a holding response. Given this clearly unacceptable situation, can you give me any advice on how I can gain the information that I seek?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order. As I have said on several occasions recently, it is important that Ministers give timely answers to parliamentary questions. I know that the Leader of the House shares that view, and I have no doubt that he will read what the hon. Lady has said on the record in tomorrow’s Hansard. I hope that he will pursue this matter. I would also say to the hon. Lady that in my experience perseverance is a very important thing in this House, and she should persevere.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I am sure that you are aware, on 11 December the largest explosion that Europe has seen since the second world war took place in my constituency. It not only had catastrophic effects on the environment, but put nearly 4,000 jobs at risk. On the following day, I praised the Deputy Prime Minister for coming to the House to make a statement, but since then, more than six months later, not one ministerial statement, oral or written, has been made to the House about the effects of Buncefield and the ongoing inquiry. May I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on how we can get a Minister of any Department to come here to tell us what is going on?

I always say to hon. Members that if Ministers will not answer questions, the answer is to seek an Adjournment debate so that they are brought to the Floor of the House. I advise the hon. Gentleman to do that.

Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 so as to reduce from 83 to 60 the total number of Ministerial salaries payable by virtue of paragraph 2(c) of Part V of Schedule 1.

I appreciate that some Members may think that the title of the Bill is not as clear as it might be, so let me briefly explain its intention. It would reduce the number of Members serving at Cabinet level, Minister of State level and Parliamentary Under-Secretary level from 83, the current limit, to 60. It would not reduce the number of Whips or Parliamentary Private Secretaries, although if separate legislation were brought forward to that effect I would certainly support it.

My central proposition is that there are too many Government Ministers. It may help the House if I provide some background. In 1900, at the start of the last century, when Britain ran large parts of the world, the total number of paid ministerial posts was 60. By the middle of the century, in 1950, when Britain was starting to extract itself from some, if not all, of those obligations, but large parts of the domestic economy had been brought within public ownership, the number of paid Government posts had risen from 60 to 81. By 1999, when Britain was neither running large parts of the world nor had large parts of the domestic economy within the public sector, the number of Ministers had, funnily enough, risen still further to 106.

The situation with the total payroll vote is even worse. At the time of the April 1992 general election—you may be surprised to learn, Mr. Speaker, that that was the first time I was eligible to vote—the total number of people on the payroll was 125. By December 2004, shortly before I was elected to this House, it had risen to 151, largely because during that period the number of PPSs had risen from 41 to 62—a 50 per cent. increase. It is particularly striking and extraordinary that, despite devolution to Scotland and, to a more limited extent, Wales, there still has not been a reduction in the total number of Ministers.

As an aside, I am in favour of reducing the overall number of Members of Parliament. I am aware that there are exceptional cases involving particularly large or remote communities such as Orkney and Shetland or the Isle of Wight. Nevertheless, if, at the last general election, every constituency had had the same number of voters as Taunton, my constituency, the House would have 518 MPs instead of 646—128 fewer, or a reduction of approximately 20 per cent. Happily, other Members have made the case for reducing the number of MPs, including the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) in his publication, “Pruning the Politicians—the case for a smaller House of Commons”, which was published in December 2004 and which I recommend to the House.

However, my Bill is concerned with reducing the number of Ministers. I want to give three reasons for doing so, in ascending order of importance. The first is to save money. It is difficult to predict the exact cost of reducing the number of Ministers, but each Cabinet Minister costs £74,902 extra in salary alone and, of course, there are many associated costs of supporting a Minister in office.

The second reason is to make Parliament more effective, something that has been raised in this House on a number of occasions. In 2000, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) said that

“far too many people are on the payroll in the House…There are too many parliamentary private secretaries and too many people are beholden to the Executive interests of the day. Not enough Members feel free to express independent interests from a Back-Bench point of view.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 1106.]

That view is not advanced only by members of my party. In its report “Strengthening Parliament”, the Norton commission—established by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he was Conservative leader— recommended a reduction in the size of the Government and had three specific proposals: that the size of the Cabinet be capped at 20; that the number of junior Ministers be capped at 50; and that there should be only one PPS per Department, responsible to the Cabinet Minister. That is broadly in line with what I am proposing this afternoon.

Another Conservative leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), has also proposed a smaller Government Bill, which in addition to reducing the number of MPs would cut the number of Ministers by 20 per cent; again, approximately what I am proposing this afternoon.

The distinguished political commentator Peter Riddell, in his book “Parliament under Blair”, called for

“the magnet of attraction of front bench needs to be reduced”

and went on to argue that this could be done in two ways:

“first by reducing the number of ministers in the Commons; and, secondly, by increasing the attractions of service on select committees.”

A distinguished body of opinion supports my assertion this afternoon that Parliament would be more effective if there were fewer Ministers.

My final and most important point is that I think that reducing the number of Ministers would make the Government more efficient. I will look at a number of Departments and see if I can convince the House. At the moment, the Home Office—a Home Office Minister is here, fortuitously, for the debate—has seven Ministers, a large number. If ministerial numbers were the determining factor for judging the success of the Home Office, it would be widely admired for its competence and efficiency; sadly that is not the case. Were the number of Ministers to increase, I do not believe that the Home Office would become any more effective or efficient. The problem with the Home Office is the decision-making mechanisms, the inadequate structures and the lines of accountability. If anything, more Ministers would make the situation even worse.

The second Department to which I shall draw attention is the Department of Trade and Industry. The House may recall that at the last general election my party argued for the abolition of the DTI . I do not believe that there is a need for an interventionist Department that is directed at political interference in commercial matters and at propping up failing industries against market and consumer demand. The DTI is a throwback to the days of large-scale intervention in the economy. It is no longer appropriate to a modern, liberal market economy based on competition and consumer choice.

If we go back to the 1970s, when steel, coal, water and the national airline were in public ownership, we can see that there was a case for a Department of Trade and Industry. The case is far less compelling now. I would argue that the Department should be abolished and some of its functions transferred. However, we still have six DTI Ministers.

In conclusion, I refer to two other Departments. The first is the Cabinet Office. It is hard to know where the Deputy Prime Minister resides in the current Government structure, but there are three Cabinet Ministers in the Cabinet Office: the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—a new post created as a consolation prize for the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong)—[Interruption.] The specific title of the Chancellor of the Duchy’s responsibilities is new. The third is the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). It escapes me why the chairman of the Labour party’s salary ought to be paid out of public finances. However, all three of them are entitled to attend Cabinet meetings.

Traditionally, the interests of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been represented in Cabinet by the Foreign Secretary. Now, three of the four Ministers in that Department are entitled to attend the Cabinet—the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and the Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney).

In conclusion, my point may be best illustrated by drawing the House’s attention to the fact that, for 183 days, nobody occupied the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I have to tell you, Mr. Speaker, that not a single constituent of mine complained about the Government discharging their duties less effectively during that 183-day period. That illustrates more than anything the need for fewer Ministers.

This is the nub—what is needed is better, more accountable, less remote and value-for-money government. What is not needed is a hugely inflated Executive that acts as a job-creation scheme, costs public money, diminishes the role of Parliament and militates against effective government. I urge the House to support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Browne.

Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment)

Mr. Jeremy Browne accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 so as to reduce from 83 to 60 the total number of Ministerial salaries payable by virtue of paragraph 2(c) of Part V of Schedule 1: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 203].

Police

I beg to move,

That the draft Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.

I am sure that hon. Members will recall the debates that we had during the passage of what became the Terrorism Act 2006—in particular, the lengthy debates on section 23, which amends schedule 8 to the Terrorism Act 2000 to extend the maximum period of detention of terrorist suspects from 14 to 28 days. Members will know that the purpose of the order is not to revisit that debate or its substance, but is specific to the code of practice under PACE—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—and I want to concentrate on that.

Colleagues will remember that the issue in relation to pre-charge detention was that the changing nature of terrorist activity meant that the existing maximum period of detention, 14 days, was no longer considered adequate. The strong advice that we received from the police was that terrorist investigations are now more complex. They may involve, for example, the need to de-encrypt computer equipment or to obtain evidence from overseas; they may require the translation of large numbers of documents. This led the police to conclude that they might need to hold terrorist suspects for up to 90 days. I say that purely by way of context, rather than to reopen the debate on that matter. Following a debate in Parliament—a debate that I am sure we all remember with acute fondness—it was agreed to extend the maximum period of detention available to the police to 28 days.

The subject today is limited to the new code of practice on the detention of terrorist suspects. The Government agreed during the debates on the Terrorism Act 2006 that a new PACE code of practice would be issued before the extended period of detention was brought into force. It was agreed that there should be a new code of practice rather than an amendment to the existing PACE code of practice on the detention, treatment and questioning of persons by police officers—code C—because it was felt that the procedures around holding terrorist suspects were different enough to justify a separate code.

The Minister has been clear about his wish not to revisit the time periods; I understand that. But will he confirm that if this House did not approve the codes, it would not be possible for him to move from the existing period of detention to the extended one?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for staying within the strictures of the debate, although it is tempting to do otherwise. I can confirm, as I believe we have already clearly stated, that the new code of practice should be laid before the commencement of the new order to increase the period from 14 to 28 days.

I am sorry to interrupt, but I believe that it goes further than that. My understanding of the statute and of the Government’s commitment is that the period of detention will not and cannot be extended unless the House approves the code.

I am sorry, but that is exactly what I have already said. That is entirely the position. As it says on the tail end of the code rather than the order, the extension from 14 to 28 days will come into effect only the day after the code of practice has been laid for the requisite time—to 24 July, I believe. The link between the two is exactly what the Government promised, and that is what has prevailed. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right in that regard.

Within that context, it was felt right and proper that, rather than amend the existing code C, we should bring in an entirely new code of practice—code H—not least because we were exhorted to do so by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). The proposal for a new code was supported by Opposition Members, and rightly reflected the fact that in this area detailed guidance to the police was required—a point with which we concur.

The order before us today brings into force a new PACE code of practice on the detention, treatment and questioning of terrorist suspects arrested under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The new PACE code is to be known as code H. I hope that hon. Members will not press me on why H, rather than a letter between C and H, was chosen; I can find out but I do not know off the top of my head. The order also brings into force a revised version of PACE code C. At the moment, as I said, code C deals with the detention, treatment and questioning of both terrorist suspects arrested under section 41 and non-terrorist suspects. The order simply removes all reference to terrorist suspects from code C, which still prevails for all non-terrorist suspects.

The new PACE code that deals with terrorist suspects arrested under section 41 recognises the special arrangements needed for the effective investigation and welfare of those detainees, which was the import of our deliberations on the issue. It reflects the results of a consultation held between 2 May and 23 May—a necessarily truncated consultation that took place with the indulgence of Opposition parties. We received a total of 26 responses to the consultation from a number of organisations and individuals, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, Liberty, the Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association and Lord Carlile. The overall response to the draft code was positive. The main points raised related to the security of investigations, the provision of medical attention and the transfer of detainees to prison.

The security of operations is, of course, paramount and we have included an extra note for guidance to clarify an important difference between the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000. That recognises that a reason for arrest must always be given, but that there may be circumstances in which it is not appropriate to disclose sensitive details.

We believe that the provisions for medical attention are robust. Detainees are subject to initial and ongoing assessment by custody officers, who must ensure that they receive appropriate clinical attention where necessary. The draft code expands on existing provisions by ensuring that detainees receive a routine daily health care visit after the first 96 hours in police custody.

Will the Minister say more about the human rights implications of code H, and its compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998?

I would like to say that I am shocked to hear the hon. Gentleman raise the Human Rights Act, but I am not. I am not surprised, and it is a fair question. Of course, no Government Minister, as far as I am aware, stands at the Dispatch Box to promote any legislation of any description without it being duly compatible with all the assorted human rights provisions in statute, including the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. That is entirely the case, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for teasing such an admission out of me. I have no doubt that he will refer to it again subsequently when he gets his chance, as I hope he will, to contribute to our very narrow debate on the codes of practice before us.

As I said, the draft code expands on existing provisions, and a number of respondents, quite fairly, mentioned the potential effect of prolonged detention on the reliability of a detainee’s answers during interview. Annexe (g) of the new code H contains general guidance to help police officers and health care professionals assess whether a detainee might be at risk in an interview, which emphasises the importance of ascertaining a detainee’s fitness to be interviewed.

The parts about transfer to prison produced a number of responses, some in favour and some against. Transfer to prison will ensure that detainees are held in establishments that have the experience and facilities to deal with prolonged detention. The proposal is strongly recommended by Lord Carlile, owing to concerns that police stations are not intended or suitable for detention beyond the current maximum of 14 days. As a result of the consultation, we have included an additional requirement for police to inform a detainee’s legal adviser before transfer to prison takes place and for efforts to be made to inform any other persons who may have been informed previously of the person’s detention.

With those changes, we believe that the new code ensures that detainees are treated properly, while at the same time enabling investigations to be carried out effectively. Terrorism remains a huge international challenge, particularly for democracies, which must strive to protect individual liberties while at the same time ensuring collective security. I hope that the House agrees that the codes that we are planning to introduce get that balance right within the narrow confines of the narrow debate on the code of practice that applies when we move from 14 to 28 days—[Interruption.] However narrowly or otherwise, I commend the order to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the purpose of the codes. This order concerns the most serious matters that the House could discuss: the prevention of terrorism and the extent to which the deprivation of liberty, sanctioned by the state, is justified to ensure that aim. We all agree about the need to counter the very serious threat of terrorism facing this country, and we all agree that ensuring the safety of the public must be the first duty of any Government.

I agree with the Minister that there is no need to rehearse the debate about whether detaining terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days was justified. The Government lost the argument and lost the vote, but in the furore caused by that proposal, it is often overlooked that Parliament agreed to a significant extension of the period of time for which terrorist suspects can be detained without charge. In fact, we agreed to double the period from 14 to 28 days.

Let me remind the House of why these new codes of practice are being discussed. It was the official Opposition who called for them. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) called for

“a completely separate set of PACE codes to cover terrorist cases in which detention is to last more than seven days”,

pointing out that the current codes were

“not designed to deal with people under long-term detention.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2005; Vol. 438, c. 901.]

The then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) replied that he understood the points being made and was

“ready to come back to the House with a solution that will deal with this in an effective way. We recognise that the concerns raised by Opposition Front Benchers are genuine...I am prepared to give an assurance that we will consider the issues that have been raised.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2006; Vol. 438, c. 919.]

A week later, on Report, the Home Secretary said:

“We welcome that suggestion... we can see grounds for having a separate code”,

and agreed with what my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield had argued, saying:

“Such a code would be laid before Parliament and be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure...I can give a firm guarantee that the appropriate codes and their equivalents will be brought forward.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 329.]

The then Home Secretary gave a “firm guarantee” back in November. The Government had almost five months between then and the Terrorism Bill receiving Royal Assent on 30 March to prepare a consultation paper on the draft code. Why was that consultation paper not published immediately after the Bill received Royal Assent? It took until May before the Home Office got round to consulting on the code at all. The code is certainly important, which is why we suggested its revision, but it has not been controversial. The need for it was agreed on all sides. As the Minister said, the Home Office received 26 responses to its consultation paper and they were described as generally “positive”. So why the delay?

After my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised the matter on 8 June, the Prime Minister claimed:

“The reason that we are unable to introduce it”—

the 28-day provision—

“quickly is that the Conservatives insisted on a longer consultation period, which prevented us from doing that.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 763.]

How could he possibly claim that? We did not insist on a longer consultation period. We said that a new code of practice would be needed. Are the Government now saying that they would have preferred to introduce 28-day detention without the safeguard of a code?

The delay has been unnecessary and is the result of the now all too familiar Home Office incompetence. Consequently, one year after the atrocities on 7 July and almost eight months after the Home Secretary’s “guarantee”, the provisions on the extension of detention without trial will still not be in force. The Prime Minister claimed that powers to detain terrorist suspects for longer were

“responsible, right and necessary to protect this country’s security.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 299.]

In that case, was not it responsible, right and necessary to introduce the code without delay so that the new powers could be implemented?

The Prime Minister first revealed that the Government were considering a longer period to detain suspects without charge at his infamous press conference on 5 August last year. From that point, it should have been obvious to the Government that safeguards would be necessary to ensure the proper treatment of people detained for unprecedented periods of time. Why did not work on those safeguards begin then? Why were they not included when the draft Terrorism Bill was published in September?

The Government cannot claim that somehow we caused the delay by opposing the provision to detain suspects for 90 days. First, we supported 28 days. Secondly, whatever the extended length of detention beyond the current 14 days, it should have been clear that a new code was needed to ensure proper safeguards.

My hon. Friend says that we supported 28 days. That is true in a limited sense. We opposed 90 days and 60 days. Many of us would have preferred the existing 14 days. My hon. Friends who supported 28 days did so only to avoid the longer period.

I respect my right hon. and learned Friend’s point of view on the matter. He has clearly and consistently made known his objections to any extension beyond 14 days. Nevertheless, it was the official Opposition’s position that we would support 28 days, and we did that.

Let us consider the practical consequences of delay. The suspects who were detained after the police raids in Forrest Gate earlier this month have now been released. There appears to be no evidence linking them to terrorist acts that would justify their detention. However, what if that had not been the case? What if police intelligence, which, in the words of the Assistant Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis,

“raised serious concerns for public safety” ,

had been correct? What if the police had needed to hold the suspects for longer than 14 days to gather evidence and perhaps prevent another atrocity? They would not have been able to do so. [Interruption.] If the Home Secretary disagrees, he should intervene. Surely the police could not have detained the suspects for longer than 14 days. It is self-evident, because the order has not commenced.

The House agreed the necessity for a longer period of detention in November. Eight months later, the measure remains unavailable to the police. The delay, according to the Prime Minister’s argument, has put national security at risk. That is consistent with the Government’s record on law and order—long on grandstanding gestures to capture headlines, short on the practical measures of ordinary competence that are necessary to ensure public safety.

The Home Secretary has conceded that

“from time to time”

the Home Office

“is dysfunctional in the sense that it does not work”.

Rather than blaming officials, when will the Government accept that Ministers have responsibility for their Departments, and are responsible for the delay?

I have two specific questions about the operation of the new code H. It provides for the transfer to a designated prison

“as soon as is practicable”

of suspects for whom a warrant has been issued authorising detention for more than 14 days, unless the detainee requests to remain in a police station, or it would otherwise hinder or delay the investigation. The Minister explained that Lord Carlile, the Government’s adviser, strongly recommended the provision. Why 14 days, which appears to be an arbitrary limit? Half the respondents to the consultation were in favour of the ability to transfer prisoners to a prison, but half were against.

Justice stated:

“Although we recognise that police detention facilities are not suited for prolonged detention, imprisoning persons who have not been charged with a criminal offence seems to us to blur a fundamental distinction between pre-charge detention and detention on remand. In practical terms, we are also concerned that it could lead to interference with a suspect’s right to access legal advice”.

Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? How will the proper legal requirements for the conduct of interviews and so on be ensured in prison? Will prisoners have to be transferred back to properly equipped police cells for interviews?

Secondly, the code provides that detainees may receive visits from friends, family or others, at the custody officer’s discretion. To what extent will that provision be subject to supervision or review? Should such visits be left to the discretion of a single custody officer? What appeal procedure will be available if the custody officer decides not to allow the visits?

The Minister will appreciate that the detention of suspects for such periods will inevitably be controversial. We need only look back a few weeks to the detention of the suspects in Forest Gate to realise that that is the case. Granting visits to suspects will therefore be important, and there should be proper accountability and supervision.

I hope that the Minister can answer our constructive questions and that the House will support the code so that the powers, which the House has agreed are needed to counter terrorism, can be brought into force without further delay.

Liberal Democrats strongly opposed the extension of detention without charge from 14 days to 90 days. We voted against the measure on Second Reading principally because we regarded the proposal as a breach of the ancient and fundamental right of habeas corpus, and the right to know the basis on which one is held and to challenge it in the courts.

The terrorism that threatens the safety of our citizens at this time in history has meant an uneasy rebalancing of the scales. The Government’s desire for 90-day detention was not supported by any case that was made sufficiently satisfactorily to gain the votes of a majority of hon. Members, and the provision fell. The 28-day detention period is the limit to which Liberal Democrats felt able to go without abdicating our commitment to civil liberties, which we in the United Kingdom value so deeply. It represents a doubling of existing police powers—it is quite an extension.

Although I shall restrict myself narrowly, in the way in which the Minister desires us to do, I must stress that we voiced concerns about the original proposal. The longer that a person is held in custody, the greater the likelihood that a court will eventually realise that any evidence was obtained under duress. Code H is therefore important because whatever evidence is obtained must be valuable and valid in order to be presented in a court.

I agree with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that, for something that was so urgent and pressing, the extraordinary delay in its implementation beggars belief. The Government explain it by citing work and consultation on the code of practice, but I understand that the work did not even commence until a month after Royal Assent.

We have previously agreed that a separate code of practice should be produced for those detained after arrest under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Given that that has been done, we are minded to support the Government. However, I should like the Minister to expand on some aspects of the code.

Will there be extra training for those who supervise the detention or will they simply receive normal prison training? What supervision will there be of what happens to detainees during their sojourn before charge? To whom will relatives complain or present their problems? How will we know about such matters? Will those detained under the 28-day rule come under the inspection regime of the prison or will there be a special inspection for them?

It is crucial that individuals held for 28 days be treated in such a way that their detention does not inflame the sensitivities of the communities from which they are likely—at least at present—to come. While it may be necessary—and we have now agreed to it—to remove liberty before charge for 28 days to gather evidence, it is crucial that the conduct of that detention should not exacerbate the present tinderbox situation. We have all seen the events in Forest Gate. I support the police going in to investigate, but it is crucial that their behaviour does not further damage community relations.

On the issue of the detention of those younger than usual, I refer to the recent arrest and detention of two 16-year-olds. The Minister indicates that it was only one, but the principle is the same, whether it is one, two or 10. Will he say how younger people will be supported during the period of detention? Will they be flanked by adults to support them while providing evidence?

If the Minister can give satisfactory answers to those questions, the Liberal Democrats will support the motion, and if and when detention for 28 days without charge comes into practice, I hope that it is used appropriately and professionally.

Much of the ground has been covered in the substantive debates on the Terrorism Act 2006, so I shall be brief. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said that he hoped that the code would be passed by the House, but I take a different view, not because of the contents of the code, but because the passage of the code is a condition present to the extension of the time period for detention from 14 days to 28 days. If one takes the view, as I do, that we should not extend the period of detention, one inevitably has to oppose the code, even if it is an improvement on the current position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was right to secure an undertaking from the Government that a code would be published and brought to the Floor of the House. He should be commended for that, but the essential point is whether we want to extend the period of detention. If the answer is no, the House should not pass the code. It is not necessary, desirable, just or proportionate to increase the period of detention from 14 days to 28 days. It also increases the risk of injustice. Anyone who practises in the criminal courts, as I do regularly, knows very well that the period of detention is a time of great stress for the detained person. If the period is an extended one, those detained are capable of wrongly incriminating themselves. We are embarking on a course of action that is likely to have that effect, and it is primarily for that reason that I opposed the extension of the detention period when we debated it last year.

I have also expressed, on many occasions, my dissatisfaction with the process. Statutory instruments and codes are not amendable, but they can have a heavy impact on the rights of citizens. This code is an important document. It has been the subject of consultation, and one is grateful for that, but the House cannot amend it. We must either approve it as a whole or reject it. Matters of this kind should be amendable, which could be achieved by putting them into the schedule of the Bill. I regard this as a very unsatisfactory process. Matters of this kind should be dealt with under primary legislation, and when they are detailed and complex they should be included in schedules, so that they are amendable.

I am aware—we have just heard so from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—that there will be no support for voting to oppose the order. I therefore do not propose to divide the House, but I do protest against what we are doing and against the extension of the detention period. To anybody who says that the Conservative party signed up to 28 days, I admit that that is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said in terms. But we did so because a 28-day period was a darn sight better than 90 or 60 days. It was the best deal that we could make. That is not an assertion of principle, but of pragmatic fact, and—speaking for myself—I am thoroughly against an extension of the detention period to 28 days.

My heart sank when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that he did not propose to divide the House on this matter. I support the arguments that he advanced, especially on the relationship of statutory instruments to primary legislation and the fact that they are not available at the time of consideration of the original legislation. In fact, the Modernisation Committee is considering the process of legislation and may make recommendations on that point.

I shall concentrate on the issue of civil liberties, paragraphs 7.2 and 7.3 in the guidance notes, and on the statement made by the Minister of State that

“In my view the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006 are compatible with the Convention rights.”

I asked him about that and, like most Ministers nowadays, he gaily asserted that it is a matter of routine. My objections, like those of my right hon. and learned Friend, revolve around the most basic concepts of what Britain stands for and our civil liberties. It is unconscionable that a person should be held without charge for 28 days. Fourteen days is an awfully long time, but we are talking about six weeks in the life of an individual. If the provisions are misused, careers will be wrecked, families may be broken up and great financial burdens will be imposed.

It is cynically suggested that we should accept such provisions because they will eventually be shipwrecked in the House of Lords by a judgment declaring their incompatibility. However, the statutory instrument gives us an opportunity to reflect on the provision’s incompatibility with the European convention on human rights and the possibility that the Law Lords will rule in that way. That is the judgment of many well-regarded lawyers. I suggest that it is cynical to fail to address head-on the relationship between the case law and the status of the European Court of Justice, because that is what the Government are doing. They are playing with the themes. They have brought us to the point where British citizens may be held for up to 28 days without knowing what they are charged with. That is contrary to the traditions of our common law and our history of liberty, and it is very difficult for people in those circumstances to mount a defence.

I am opposed to the code of practice—both emotionally and because of who I am and whom I represent—because I believe that the Government’s declaration of compatibility is fraudulent.

Order. I must intervene, as we are not discussing the period of detention but rather the code of practice that applies to legislation already agreed in the House.

I understand, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is why I have tried to focus on the fact that the code is a crucial part of the 2006 Act, and a requirement of it. A successful vote against the motion would shipwreck the concept of 28 days. However, I know that that concept will inevitably be shipwrecked in any case, under the existing arrangements that the Government have put in place to protect Britain, by the European Court of Human Rights.

With the leave of the House, I shall try and deal with some of the points raised in this appropriately narrow debate. I do not want to attack or challenge the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) or the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). They have merely been consistent in wanting to kick against a trend that they think they have detected. They believe that important matters are increasingly dealt with through statutory instruments, codes of practice and so on rather than in primary legislation. I do not agree with that, but I accept the broad parliamentary point.

I also accept the consequence of consistency—that those who oppose the original proposition in a Bill are being entirely consistent when they oppose it when it crops up in a statutory instrument or code of practice that flows from the Bill. I do not underestimate the integrity of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills or of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. What they say is entirely fair and reasonable. I do not agree with them, about either the parliamentary or the substantive point, but I admire them for their consistency.

In passing, even in my short time in the House I heard those views expressed extremely eloquently many times by the late right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. The position is perfectly acceptable, it is just that I do not agree with it. However, I appreciate that it is right and proper to express those views in the narrow confines of this debate—which was spoiled only when the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) came clodhopping in with his attempt to make it far broader than had been intended.

I turn now to some of the specific questions that were raised. It is of course envisaged that, if the police need to interview detainees after they have been transferred to prison, arrangements will be made for them to be moved back to the appropriate police station. That is entirely in keeping with the needs of an investigation, and there is no restriction of access to legal advice when a detainee is in prison. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked about that and I hope that my response has reassured him.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) asked about terrorist detainees in prison. As with all prisoners, they will come under the regime of Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons. Importantly, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that he will take a close interest in all aspects of the proposed extended detention. I welcome that, given that his original brief was to oversee all aspects of the legislation.

Usually, a very detailed record is kept of what happens when a prisoner is detained in a police station. It is very useful, as any allegation of duress, or that a confession was obtained under pressure, can be refuted by allowing the prosecution to look at the record. However, I am concerned that that record will not be kept in the same way when a person is detained in prison. As a result, the prosecution might be at a considerable disadvantage if it is alleged that pressure has been applied through some mechanism while that person was in prison.

That is an entirely reasonable point, although it may not be germane to the integrity of the code of practice. However, it may be worth pursuing, and I accept that custodial records and the evidentiary base available when a person is detained in a police station will be markedly different from what happens in a prison. I shall therefore explore the implications and get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

I come now to the question of the 14-day period before transfer to prison. The initial period of detention is often the time when the police need immediate and direct access to the person detained, and the present period of 14 days in police detention has been shown to work adequately. Even Lord Carlile was more concerned about what happens after the 14-day period, during the extended period up to the 28-day limit, as it is clear that police cells are not built to cope with a doubling of the detention period.

Our experience is that the problems are not as marked with detention periods of up to 14 days as may be the case with the longer period. Although I recognise Lord Carlile’s point, I do not think that the 14-day cut-off point is arbitrary, as it is based on experience. We recognise that the exceptional nature of the extension introduced by the 2006 Act requires an extra safeguard, and that is why we regard the 14-day cut-off as an appropriate time for transfer.

I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, but it is not really appropriate to go on about how long it has taken to bring the code before the House. Royal Assent was secured for the 2006 Act only on 30 March this year. By any standard, given the necessity of detailed assessment of the points raised in the consultation process and the urgency of the matter at hand, the Government have been rather speedy in getting the code before the House. It is very easy to ask why it could not have been written and subject to consultation before the Bill was secured, but that would have been rather presumptuous—after all, the Bill could have been changed markedly as a result of the deliberations in this House and the other place.

I have heard people reminisce wistfully about the debates that we had on the Bill, which could never have been called non-contentious. It could never have been claimed that the Government would be able to secure their business come what may—and that indeed turned out not to be the case—so it was never going to be possible to have written the code of practice and subjected it to consultation long before the Bill even came before the House.

The Government lost the odd vote on the Bill, which was highly contentious. It was therefore right and proper for us to wait until it secured full assent. I do not recall exactly how the votes went, but we could have been left with a pre-charge detention period lasting 14 days, 28 days—or no days at all. Any result different from what was obtained would have made a difference to the code of practice, or put in doubt whether we needed one at all.

I want to say, in the nicest possible way, that the remarks made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs were unbecoming. I shall not go anywhere near describing the most unbecoming rant of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who purports to be the shadow Leader of the House. Given the investigations that were going on at the time, I am sure that she will agree, on reflection, that it would have been better if she had not said what she did say.

In passing, it might also have been nice if the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs had, when talking about the incident at Forest Gate, said clearly and on the record that he fully supported the police in their actions in carrying out the raid. We cannot second-guess what the police seek to do before or after an event, particularly afterwards when we have the benefit of hindsight. I accept that it is perfectly in order to comment on Forest Gate, but it might have been useful if the hon. Gentleman had prefaced what he said with remarks endorsing what the police did.

None the less, for all the cheapish comments—

It is far from that. “Cheapish” is right this time. There was some value, so his remarks were not just cheap, but they were unnecessarily partisan and—

Order. As the Minister said, this is a very narrow debate—[Laughter.] Perhaps we might return to the code of practice.

Thank you very much indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, for intervening to get me off that track. I suppose I should draw the lesson that when I mean to insult someone I should just do it rather than trying to insult them politely.

I resent the charge from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that national security and public safety were somehow put at risk because of the consultation period on the code of practice. That is simply not the case.

In my next breath, however, let me say that the Bill is in a far, far better place than it was because of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there should be a code of practice and that it should be separate from the regular PACE code. In both regards, he was entirely right and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) endorsed what he said so that we could come back today. That shows how we can move forward on a consensual basis to improve the lot of people who will be affected. It is important that matters should be dealt with in this way.

I make no charge against the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills because I fully accept their integrity and the legitimacy of their reasons.

I beg the hon Gentlemen’s pardon.

The Minister has not responded to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) about training. Does he expect custody officers in each police force to be trained in the new code, or will someone held under the code be transferred to a police force with appropriate facilities and custody officers?

I suspect and hope it will be the latter. If, not because of the Bill but because of other activity, we need the equivalent of Paddington Green-type stations everywhere, that would imply a huge increase in activity among those likely to be charged under the code. Separate expert facilities, such as those at Paddington Green, will, at least at first, be the way to go. In the broader context of police restructuring—I am not seeking to provoke anyone by mentioning level 2, closing the gap and counter-terrorism provision—all that is being looked at, away and aside from the whole restructuring debate. That may result in there being equivalents of Paddington Green elsewhere. If, as I suspect, every force eventually needs the equivalent of a Paddington Green, I am sure that training will be forthcoming.

Building on the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and adopting the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), where the detained person is held in a prison rather than in a police station, questions of appointing and training prison officers to serve as custody officers might arise. Clearly, if a detained person is to be held for an extended period, many of the considerations that could arise in a police station will arise in the prison. I hope that the Minister will consider that and the implications for the Prison Service and training.

I have already said to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that that is a fair point and that I will look at it. In the main, however, in terms of individuals detained, the norm would be, as with the 14-day period, that they be returned to the safe and secure police facility for interviewing. I take the point about evidentiary trails and the role of custody officers in police stations being rather different from their equivalents in prisons. That is worthy of exploration, and I will get back to the House through a response to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

Without wishing unnecessarily to prolong matters or to go off on another insulting and inarticulate—

I am very grateful. I hope that the Minister will forgive my interruption; I had thought him on the cusp of winding up. I shall not be provoked by his comments on police amalgamation, but given his generous recognition that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) suggested that the revised codes should be put in place, does he also concede that the Prime Minister’s contention that the reason why the Government were unable to introduce the 28-day provision quickly was that we, the official Opposition, insisted on a longer consultation period for the code is simply not the case?

I, too, will not be provoked. Let me get back to my failed attempt at a peroration which, as I attempted not to insult anyone else and to exhort everyone else to be narrow, slipped into my broadening the base of the debate myself.

There are, as I have said, points of wider political debate around the order, and those may well be points for another time and another place. On the substance of the code of practice and the changed code for non-terrorist suspects, there is broad consensus in the House. Having smelled that consensus, I shall sit down before I provoke its breakdown.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.

Orders of the Day

Electoral Administration Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Joint Report from the Constitutional Affairs and ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees, Session 2004-05, HC 243, on Electoral Registration, the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6647, and Oral and Written Evidence taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii, and on Party Funding, HC 1060-i.]

Lords amendment considered.

Before Clause 13

Lords amendment: No. 8B

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Government’s approach throughout the passage of this Bill has been to seek consensus wherever possible. Indeed, in several areas we have achieved it. For example, in response to issues raised in this House and in another place, we have made amendments to the co-ordinated online record of electors, to the new duties on electoral registration officers, to the position of service voters with the support of my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence, and to anonymous registration and other things.

We have even achieved consensus on measures to address postal voting security. The Bill was introduced with provisions for the piloting of personal identifiers. Those clauses have been replaced by a national system of postal voting identifiers.

Provided that the Bill receives Royal Assent soon, to which I will return later, these tough new security measures will be in place by the elections in 2007. The only remaining area on which we disagree is that of individual registration.

We have set out our reasons for opposing individual registration, at this point, on a number of occasions, and I believe that right hon. and hon. Members are by now fully aware of them. Today, therefore, I shall focus instead on addressing Members’ concerns about the measures we are taking outside individual registration. In previous debates, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who speaks for the official Opposition on this matter, has expressed his view that individual registration will address two issues: the security of electoral registers and potential fraud in polling stations.

On the first point, we should not ignore the significant changes that the Bill already puts in place to make electoral registers more secure. Under the Bill, electoral registration officers will be able to remove ineligible people from the register right up to five days before polling day and, for the first time, people will be able to make public objections to entries on the register that they believe to be inaccurate or fraudulent. An ERO will consider every objection, and can call for evidence and remove people who prove to be wrongly registered. That opportunity, too, will be available up to five days before the close of poll.

This is an important issue. Will the Minister tell the House whether an objection could be seen through to its conclusion, in time for the election? Thus if somebody objected five days before an election and if the objection were sustained, after checking by the relevant authorities, would that name come off the register five days later, on polling day?

I see no reason why that should not be the case. If the ERO receives the information in time, reviews the evidence and believes the person to be falsely on the register, they will have the power to remove the person at that stage. If the process could be delayed, I will let the hon. Gentleman know, but that is my understanding of the purpose of that part of the Bill.

We all know that sometimes contests are tight and that there can occasionally be grudge contests, such as the recent one in the east end of London. Must the ERO always investigate an allegation? One could envisage hundreds of challenges being made at the last minute because people realised that it might make a material difference to the outcome on polling day.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and the mischief that could be created if that were to happen. But there is the five-day period, so people would not be able to try to disrupt things in that way on polling day. The ERO can take complaints up to five days before polling day. If there were a large number of complaints, he or she would take advice about how to respond—for example, if there was a particular issue in an individual ward.

We are also strengthening the law on the provision of false registration information. Clause 14 will make it an offence to provide false information to a registration officer at any time. In addition, we are making it an offence to provide false information in connection with an application for a postal or proxy vote. At present, the maximum penalty for the existing offence of providing false information is £1,000. The maximum penalty for the new offences under clause 14 will be £5,000, together with up to 51 weeks imprisonment. I am sure the House will agree that that should act as a significant deterrent.

Will the Government take responsibility for a comprehensive canvass, given Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life that there were 7 million errors on the register for England and Wales alone? He stated that there were 3.5 million names that should not have been on the register and that 3.5 million people might not have registered at all. Will the Government ensure that that is corrected?

I am aware of that academic’s evidence to the Committee. The EROs with whom I have held discussions do not accept the detail of his evidence, although we are aware from a variety of sources that there are people who should be on the register but are not. Of course, if people are on the register who should not be there, they should be removed. We want a clean and secure register and the provisions in the Bill give the EROs more powers to ensure that that happens. I will look into the evidence in detail when it is publicly available.

The Minister knows that I asked to see the responses to the Government’s consultation paper, “Electoral Administration. A Policy Paper for Discussion”, last October. They were placed in the Library on Monday, eight months later. Why did it take so long?

I am not entirely sure of the relevance of that question to this part of my remarks. It takes some time to analyse properly the responses to consultation and to give them due weight. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman might make a more positive response by accepting that we have made the information available for everyone to see.

The Minister published a summary of the responses in October, but I wanted to see the actual responses. I cannot understand why it took eight months, from October to June, to produce the real documents.

As I said, the documents are now available. It can take time to give due weight and to analyse in detail the meaning of such responses and what people are trying to get across to Government. I accept that eight months is a long time and we would have preferred the period not to be that long. There is, however, another aspect over which we have no control: we have to get permission from people to publish their documentation, which can take a long time. I am reminded of discussions with administrators about canvass returns; when we are canvassing people we sometimes need two or three attempts before we get a response. That is probably the biggest reason why it took longer than we wanted to publish those details.

I turn to the issue of fraud in polling stations. I accept that there have been allegations in Coventry recently, and they are being investigated and dealt with in the proper way. However, we must ensure that our response is proportionate. As the Electoral Commission said in previous briefings on the Bill:

“There is currently little evidence of personation in polling stations, and equally, little perception of risk attaching to voting in polling stations among voters.”

In addition, the Bill includes a measure to tighten the rules about polling stations, by providing that in future people must sign for their ballot paper. That provision will mean that there is a better audit trail and it should also provide additional confidence in the system.

Signing in polling stations was piloted in three local authorities at the recent elections, including in my authority. Initial indications are that voters broadly welcomed the new measure, and we are aware of no allegations of fraud. The Electoral Commission will evaluate the pilots and we look forward to receiving its report.

The Bill includes a number of important changes to the way registration and elections will be run and we are confident that it will meet our objectives. However, as I have said before, the Department will keep the impact of the legislation under review and we will share the results of our evaluation with the House.

I want to say a little about implementation, and about the timing pressures being created by this parliamentary ping-pong.

Will the Minister give the House a little more information about the review? Does she envisage it taking place a year hence, or perhaps two or three years hence? What time scale needs to elapse before a worthwhile review could be undertaken?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I think that we should allow for a variety of elections to take place so that we can have a fairly comprehensive view of the reaction to all the measures. I would not like to put a specific time on that, but I would like examples from a number of elections so that we can make a proper evaluation of the effect of the Bill.

I shall return to my remarks on timing. We hope to implement the postal vote identifier at the next elections in 2007. That includes elections in England and Wales, and indeed in Scotland. About 12 to 15 per cent. of people now vote by post, so we are talking about a major administrative challenge and it will take some time and a great deal of effort to get it right. We want to give the administrators and the electoral returning officers the best possible opportunity to get it right and therefore we are working to a strict deadline.

If Parliament is serious about addressing postal voting issues by the next elections, the Bill needs to be passed soon, without any further delays. Neither the personal identifier scheme, nor the Bill’s other important measures—such as the increased powers to secure a complete register and all the amendments on loans to political parties, which achieve transparency in party funding and which the whole House wants to see in order to regain the confidence of the electorate—will be in place until, at the very earliest, the elections in 2008 if the Bill is not passed by this House and in the other place in the very near future.

If the Bill were to be passed in the near future—I share the Minister’s wish that it is—but with the Lords amendment included, can the Minister confirm that that would not delay the implementation and that we could still use it for next year’s elections?

I am not sure that I can give that confirmation. As I mentioned in reference to the postal vote identifier, which will cover 12 to 15 per cent. of the electorate, the work that has to be done by the EROs and the administrators in order to get things up and going is quite enormous as it is. I am not confident that they feel that they would be able to do that in time for the 2007 elections if there was a blanket personal identifier measure. That is why I ask the House to oppose the Lords amendment. We have an excellent Bill and everyone has added to it in some way. It would be a great tragedy for those important measures to be lost on the basis of a single point.

I congratulate Baroness Hanham on her success in prevailing again in the other place. The background to our first debate in October was the widespread electoral fraud in Birmingham, which had led a judge to say that the systematic fraud there

“would disgrace a banana republic”.

I am usually reluctant to intervene on the hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks, but that is the second time in this debate that he has used the banana republic example. That was the 2004 election and, after that, we put in place a number of measures to secure the system. Birmingham responded to that excellently. He ought to stop using old evidence relating to a system that no longer exists.

The hon. Lady is right to say that there have been some improvements and there are some improvements in the Bill, but the overwhelming voice of opinion—from people other than her and a few of her colleagues—is against what she is saying and in favour of individual voter registration and personal identifiers. It is extremely worrying and sad that the Government will not accept that. Even she has to admit that it is alleged that people who were in Pakistan voted in the local elections in Coventry. That is an obvious allegation of impersonation. It really is not good enough for her to say complacently, “Oh well, we’ve solved the problem” when the fact of the matter is that the allegations continue. As I said last time we debated the issue, there are eight election petitions currently ongoing. The Electoral Commission argued in its document “Voting for Change” that it was necessary to have individual voter registration and individual identifiers such as signatures and dates of birth. Its advice—it is an independent body, set up by the Government for that purpose—was pretty clear.

In November, I asked the Minister whether she would let me see the actual responses the Government’s consultation, “Electoral Administration: A Policy Paper For Discussion”. The responses were placed in the Library this Monday and they make interesting reading. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said that he felt

“particularly strongly that registration should be verified by personal signature.”

The London borough of Merton—at that time Labour—said that the introduction of individual identifiers

“has to be supported by anyone wishing to ensure that the security and confidence in the electoral system is maintained and enhanced.”

The metropolitan borough of Bury—Labour—said:

“The introduction of individual registration, with the provision for electors to supply a signature and a date of birth would be fundamental in reducing electoral fraud.”

The borough of Telford and Wrekin—Labour—said:

“We support the use of signatures and dates of birth as individual identifiers”.

Adam Gray, a former Labour councillor and the Labour party’s election agent in the London borough of Wandsworth said:

“In respect of identifiers I strongly favour one rule for all electors so if postal voters are required to have an identifier, there is no reason why polling station voters should not be required to have one as well. While you”—

that is, the Government—

“say that there is no evidence to suggest that personation at polling stations is a significant problem, it is of course the case that the overwhelming majority of electoral fraud instances have pertained to personation at polling stations, NOT postal vote personation”.

What about the possible situation of merchant seamen in my constituency, who might be away for voyages of five months and then find themselves coming home just before an election? How would the proposal for signatures affect those kinds of people?

The people whom the hon. Gentleman represents would register to vote in October, I imagine, as others do. At the moment, they do not have to provide a signature at that point; in future, they would. When they voted, they would also have to provide a signature, because that is what the Bill says in the schedule. I do not think that there is any problem. Most people can sign their name.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, in any case, in such circumstances an electoral registration officer could take a view on that and dispense with the requirement? That is part of the amendment.

Yes. I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) was suggesting that some of his constituents cannot sign their names, because clearly there would need to be provision for that, which is what we have suggested.

I will continue with the long list. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith)—Labour—supported individual voter registration with identifiers. The hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell)—a Minister—said:

“I would support the use of individual identifiers such as signatures and dates of birth”.

Redcar and Cleveland council gave its support, saying:

“individual registration would provide a more accurate canvass.”

The Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), will have to explain herself to her council. The council where Labour was accused by the judge of systemic electoral fraud was Birmingham, which the Minister has already mentioned. The council's evidence supports collecting individual identifiers and calls that a “useful safeguard”. The respected commentator Peter Riddell in The Times has described the Minister’s arguments as “false”. He says:

“There need not be a choice between fighting fraud and maximizing registration and turnout. They are parallel, not conflicting, issues.”

He described our case as “overwhelming”—and rightly so.

I could continue, but instead perhaps I should say to the Minister that all the political parties support the case that I am making—yes, even the Labour party. I will quote from the official Labour party response to the Department for Constitutional Affairs policy paper. The head of the constitutional and legal unit said, on behalf of his party:

“We agree with the collection of individual identifiers when people register to vote as a welcome improvement in enhancing the security of the electoral process.”

So, it is not just Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Reform Society, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the other parties, Cross Benchers and the other place who agree, but even the Labour party.

Is not that marvellous? One Member from another party supports the Minister. She must be proud—she can stand tall.

The Labour party is serially incompetent. Its treasurer did not know about the main source of funds for the election, and the Minister is contradicting her party’s stated policy. It is time that the Government stopped looking ridiculous and made the concession. Such measures have worked where they have been tried and are an obvious protection. The measures in the amendment are supported by every Opposition Member who has examined them—with one exception. It is time that the Minister learned the lesson from the other place and abandoned her foolish motion.

This debate comes round again. Some of us are serving on a Joint Committee of both Houses that is examining the conventions of the House of Lords. Whatever we discover they are, or are not, one thing that incidentally comes into our discussions is a consideration of rules that might be more sensible than those that we have at the moment. An idea that is clearly up for discussion and has a lot of support is the suggestion that once a Bill has moved up and down the corridor between the Commons and the Lords a few times, there might be wisdom in establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses so that the people who know what they are talking about can sit down and try to reach an agreement. However, we cannot yet do that, so we are involved in the annual, occasional—it is not terribly frequent—and important process of finding out whether we can reach a compromise after hearing what both Houses have said.

There has been no great delay so far. The Bill was introduced into Parliament in November 2005. It came out of the Lords only on 7 June. We considered it on 13 June, it went back to the Lords for consideration on 20 June, and it is back with us today. Only two weeks have passed since this House first had the chance to consider the great volume of work done by the Lords, to which we pay tribute. As the Minister indicated, nearly all of it was consensual. All of us are clear that we are considering a significantly good Bill that will allow us to make a lot of good progress, yet we are left with one remaining disputed issue.

When the time comes, which will be no more than an hour from when we started by virtue of the guillotine, my colleagues and I will vote to uphold the decision that the House of Lords took the other day. We will do so for several reasons. As you know from your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as we all do from ours, we have to get the balance right on maximising turnout and minimising fraud, both of which we want to do. I have checked the Library note to find out the turnout at the last general election. For reasons about which we could be mischievous, although I will not, the Northern Irish always have the best turnout. West Tyrone won, with over 80 per cent. of those who were registered voting—they must be congratulated. Indeed, the four constituencies in the UK with the highest turnout were all in Northern Ireland. The constituency on the mainland of the United Kingdom with the highest turnout was West Dorset, at 76 per cent.

However, sadly, there was a different situation in the constituencies at the bottom end of the league table. The turnout in Liverpool, Riverside was 41 per cent. The figure in Manchester, Central was 43 per cent. and it was 43.3 per cent. in Salford. The turnout in Glasgow, Central was 44 per cent., as it was in Liverpool, Walton. Two Hull seats—Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle, and Kingston upon Hull, East—both had a turnout of 45 per cent. The figure in Glasgow, North-East was 45.9 per cent, as it was in Manchester, Gorton, and the turnout in Leeds, Central was 46.2 per cent. I cite those figures entirely objectively without commenting on the Members for those constituencies or their parties, but people can obviously check what sort of seats they are. Those figures are not good. According to the Library note, the turnout in the recent local elections in England was 37 per cent., but there were huge variations. In my borough, turnout ranged from 25 per cent. to over 50 per cent. Since our debates began, we have also had the Power report to examine the way in which we can deal with both maximising turnout and minimising fraud.

Two bits of objective advice have been given to us, the first of which was from the Electoral Commission, which is the statutory body that has been set up to advise us. The Electoral Commission is in favour of personal identifiers for not only postal votes, but votes cast in person. If a body that we set up is meant to have authority, it seems to me that we should take it seriously and presume that its proposal is the right one, unless there is a good argument against that.

Secondly, we have advice from the relevant Select Committee. “Electoral Registration”, the first joint report of Session 2004-05 of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, said:

“We agree with the Electoral Commission that it would not be necessary to include provision of a National Insurance number as a requirement of registration in Great Britain.”

It also said:

“We believe that the inclusion of a signature in the list of required identifiers is the correct approach.”

The history of our debate shows that the Conservative party started by saying that national insurance numbers should be used, which we opposed. The joint Select Committee suggested that there should be a system that was halfway between what we have now and that more extreme proposal—having a signature.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that I still think that national insurance numbers would be an extremely useful safeguard. It is only because I have not been able to garner sufficient support from other parties that that proposal is not still before us at this stage. That is why I am compromising.

Of course. I was not trying to misrepresent the position of the hon. Gentleman or his party. However, we are in a period of compromise. I observe in passing that that idea might have been slightly discredited by the revelation that emerged recently, although some of us knew about it a long time ago, that a person does not need a legal status in this country to get a national insurance number. That somewhat weakened the argument for a national insurance number being adopted as one of the things that a person must prove.

The Lords amendment says that there should be two personal identifiers: the signature and date of birth. The joint Select Committee talked about one—the signature. Although we can debate the matter today only on the basis of those two identifiers, my constructive suggestion to the Minister is that we could reach an acceptable compromise in this Bill for this year—before we break for the summer recess, thus providing the time for the Bill to become law and take effect before next year’s important elections in Scotland, Wales and England—by agreeing to have the signature alone as the identifier this time. My colleagues in the Lords will talk with Conservatives and Cross Benchers, as well as Labour Members and Ministers, and I hope that we may be able to use that suggestion as the basis for an agreement. However, such a measure is not an option for us today because we have to have a final go to determine the position of this House.

We are not doing this for no purpose. I know of the sensitivities among Government Back Benchers—I have heard them. Some of the Minister’s colleagues are troubled. I would be troubled if I thought that the measure would put off from voting people whom we particularly want to encourage. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has been assiduous in trying to make the point, on our behalf, that it is a pretty unpleasant argument to suggest that the people who at the moment are not voting—the young, the elderly, those in areas of economic deprivation and those from our black and minority communities—are not doing so because they cannot write their signature or, if date of birth were included, because they cannot remember and fill in their date of birth.