House of Commons
Wednesday 19 July 2006
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
On 28 November 2004, I was in Sydney on official business to discuss the legacy of the Olympic games and the regeneration of the former Olympic sites. I visited the Star City casino, which is part of a major waterfront regeneration scheme in the city that I discussed with the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr. I was accompanied by a number of officials, including my permanent secretary and the chief executive of English Partnerships. I have not visited any other casinos.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has been reading too many press cuttings. Let us be clear, as I have been: I was not associated in any way with the planning or sale of the dome. The decisions were made in the Department by other Ministers, and I informed the House about them. As for my meeting with Mr. Anschutz, I promised when I first met him that we would meet regularly to ensure that he was fulfilling the obligations involved in the development of the dome—which meant 10,000 new homes, 24,000 jobs and £5 billion of private investment. I am quite prepared to meet people who provide jobs and investment of that kind, and it was quite right.
The Deputy Prime Minister rightly says that he had no influence in relation to the dome and the establishment of a casino there, but may I ask him to use his influence in relation to the one casino for this country? May I ask him to support the siting of the casino in Lancashire, where it will regenerate the area and bring many thousands of jobs? Such an establishment is greatly needed in Lancashire.
I understand why my hon. Friend advocates placing a casino in Lancashire, but I assure him that I am not involved in any such decisions. The House decided that there would be an independent commission to decide how many casinos there should be and where they should be placed. The commission will report to the Secretary of State, who will come here and present recommendations to the House. Every Member will then be able to make his or her own decision on which recommendation to support. That is what the House decided, and every one of us will be involved in the subsequent decision.
During his various discussions with Mr. Anschutz and the Attorney-General, was the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the potential value of a dome casino licence was about £250 million? In view of the large sums involved, was his primary duty to avoid discussing the matter because of conflicts of interest, or to discuss it in order to secure a better deal on the dome site?
I was not involved in any discussions with Mr. Anschutz about the casino. As for the amount and the value, I saw in Australia that there are major regeneration benefits—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) has referred—but I have not been involved in any decisions on the casino, and I think that my action was right and proper.
As a Minister, I have no specific role in relation to gambling or planning, but as a parliamentarian I have exactly the same say as Opposition Members, because—as I have explained—in this House Members will have the final say on the location of any casinos. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for gambling policy, and the Department for Communities and Local Government is responsible for planning policy.
Given the responsibilities that the Deputy Prime Minister used to exercise in the office of Deputy Prime Minister, will he take legal advice on whether he is in breach of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1916 and report back to the House, in the light of that Act’s provisions, on how Government lawyers view his receipt of gifts and hospitality from Mr. Philip Anschutz?
That is typical of the wild charges that the hon. Gentleman used to make when he wrote his articles in The Times. Let me make it clear that I do not believe that any act of corruption has been committed. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence he should provide it, rather than just making the allegations here.
The Deputy Prime Minister is a man of influence within Government. Will he take it from me that there is deep concern about the impact of gambling on indebtedness, which is increasing in this country? Will he ensure that all individuals and organisations making a bid for regional gambling centres are organisations and individuals of the very highest integrity?
The hon. Gentleman is well aware that in discussions on the Gambling Bill—there was also pre-legislative scrutiny—a lot of consultation and debate took place, as the legislation was controversial. All views were expressed in the House, which finally came to a decision. I think that that decision was right and we must wait and see how it develops.
I am not an enthusiast for gambling, grand casinos or anything of that kind, as I have made clear previously, but is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour Members totally reject all the innuendos to the effect that he is somehow corrupt or dishonest? Whatever mistakes may have been made here or there, we know about the great contribution that he has made to the Government and to the Labour party and movement over many years.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support, though I do not expect it from Conservative Members. However, when it comes to accusations of corruption, Members must make a serious judgment. There is no corruption here and those charges should not be thrown around lightly in the House—however easily done in the press. I totally reject that and I hope that people will take my contribution over 35 years in Parliament into account, whether or not they agree with what I have done. I might add that over those 35 years I have never been employed in any other job; I have never received any payment from other bodies; I have simply carried out my job as a Member of Parliament. Can they say that on the other side of the Chamber?
chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Children in Care
The Government have made tackling social exclusion in respect of children in care a priority and have improved standards for fostering services and children’s care homes, put new duties on local authorities to promote the education of looked-after children and strengthened the rights and financial support for those leaving care.
We are also publishing our social exclusion action plan in the autumn, which will frame our cross-government approach to tackling the social exclusion of vulnerable groups, including looked-after children. The action plan will closely co-ordinate with the forthcoming Department for Education and Skills consultation on proposals to transform the outcomes of looked-after children, with all of those issues considered in the light of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.
Yes. On appointment, I looked into various examples of good practice elsewhere and I was particularly impressed with what looked like very good outcomes in Germany and Denmark. I visited Germany two weeks ago and found that there, as in many other European countries, children’s work force professionals—called social pedagogues—commonly look after children living away from home. The principles that they use to educate, challenge and engage with children seem extremely valuable and effective. The approach is focused on emphasising each child’s individual potential in a holistic way, involving education in health and overall child development. We will look very carefully to establish whether we can incorporate such principles in our children’s services.
Given that there are approximately 44,000 looked-after children in this country and that only about 8 per cent. currently obtain five A to C grade GCSEs and a mere 1 per cent. secure access to university, what discussions has the Minister had with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about the need to ensure that most vulnerable children are granted a legal entitlement to personalised learning?
That is an issue that we all take extremely seriously. I have had discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills. Actually, the figures suggest that about 11 per cent. now gain five GCSEs. I accept that that is not good enough, but it is more than double the number in 1997. We are not satisfied and we want to do whatever we can to enhance learning and opportunities for looked-after children. Both I and the DFES are looking into that matter extremely carefully at the moment.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that in the London borough of Ealing, which for 12 years enjoyed the wise and sagacious leadership of a Labour council and is now temporarily in the hands of the Tories, 10 per cent. of the looked-after children go on to university—the highest level anywhere in England and Wales? May I invite her to visit Ealing, despite its current political complexion, to see how we have achieved that excellent result?
I congratulate Ealing, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has been keeping his eye on what has been going on and ensuring that, indeed, best practice is implemented. He understands that we are looking at tackling social exclusion very much by learning from what is working best, so I will be delighted to join him in looking at Ealing’s success.
Is the Minister aware of the activities of some private providers—noticeably, Greencorns—that move children around the country and provide homes not close to their family ties? When those children get into trouble, as they often do, they do not get the support that they need to help them.
I am concerned about too much movement of looked-after children. We are concerned to ensure not only that they have a stable experience, but that we do as much as possible to encourage contact with their own families. So I will take into account what the hon. Gentleman has said in relation to my discussions with the DFES and the proposals that it will produce later this year.
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
During my visit to China in February this year, I discussed China’s engagement on climate change and sustainable development with Premier Wen and other senior members of the Chinese Government, including State Councillor Tang. Together, we chair the UK-China taskforce. I also held discussions with Mayor Han of Shanghai to discuss the Dontang eco-city project, which is a new concept in building sustainable cities in which British companies are involved.
The UK is leading the way internationally on city regeneration and sustainability, proving that it is possible to support jobs and economic growth in an environmentally responsible way. We are now sharing that knowledge and enterprise with other countries.
With the Chinese economy growing by 13 per cent. a year and reports that a new coal-fired power station is being opened every fortnight in China, it is a major source of carbon pollution. How confident is the Deputy Prime Minister about involving China in a successful outcome post-Kyoto?
I have absolutely no doubt that China is a pretty active player in the desire to get a climate change programme, and the Prime Minister’s effort at the G8 to include China and India is a major step forward in achieving an agreement that was not readily available to involve China and India in the Kyoto agreement. So I am absolutely convinced of that, and my hon. Friend will know that I discussed the issue on my last visit, last February, but he may also like to know that I opened the Ningbo campus of Nottingham university, which is a very important part of the education contacts between our two countries and, indeed, deals effectively with climate change studies, too.
Why does the Deputy Prime Minister feel he could give useful advice about Kyoto to the Chinese, given his own failed environmental policies at home: his failed pledge to ensure that fewer car journeys take place, his failed integrated transport system, and his Strategic Rail Authority that was so bad that it was immediately scrapped by his successor? Everything that he does goes wrong. Does not China deserve better?
Good comment; no truth. In reality, I made a successful contribution to Kyoto: we did get an agreement. On the environmental targets, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that we are the only country in Europe to achieve double the target level in the reduction of greenhouse gases. No other country in Europe has been able to achieve that. If I look at the Opposition’s environmental and transport policies, although I am not sure what they are at the moment, I think that rail privatisation has been rejected. The 10-year plan that I introduced is being continued. More people are travelling on public transport than ever before. That sounds like success, not failure.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that despite the chaff from the Opposition, his well known and highly regarded leadership internationally on this issue is well respected? Does he also accept that if he can advise China on how to achieve a balance between economic growth and sustainable environmental policies, it would be a major step forward and one that Labour Members would really appreciate?
Anyone who has experience of travelling abroad, as the deputy Leader of the Opposition has, will be aware that one of things that is admired about Britain is that we have been able to achieve economic growth in a sustainable way, while at the same time achieving our climate targets. There are very few countries that have achieved that, and it is because of the success of this Labour Government’s policies.
I did not understand the question.
How can the Deputy Prime Minister not have had any discussions, given that Office of the Deputy Prime Minister civil servants, attending a Thames Gateway meeting in February, stated that Ministers would appreciate some joined-up thinking and would like a single bid for the Thames Gateway? Are those the same ODPM officials who received briefings from the Deputy Prime Minister following his meeting with the dome’s owner?
The hon. Gentleman has made accusations in the press and in the Chamber about the feeling in his constituency about whether we interfered with its application for a casino. The former Tory mayor said that we had: the present Tory mayor has made it clear that that was not true—
I shall quote what the Tory leader of Southend says—[Interruption.]
The Tory leader in Southend said:
“There wasn’t any pressure put on us”.
I accept that man’s statement and that is exactly what happened. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in casino policy. I understand that his constituency party in Rochford and Southend, East receives funding from a company that wants to build a £15 million casino and hotel complex in Southend.
It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman is a busted flush—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw.”]
Order. It is difficult for me to be fair if I cannot hear what is going on. I shall take advice on what has just been said and make a ruling—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) should be quiet. I understand that he is a Whip and I do not want Whips shouting from the Back Benches. The Deputy Prime Minister has made an allegation, but allegations have come from both sides of the House. The best thing to do is to ask questions and hear the answers without any allegations being made. That includes replies, which should not incorporate any allegations.
Whether there will be a casino at the dome or not, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he is doing to bring about the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula. I take the same view as the former Conservative mayoral candidate for London who, when asked on Radio 5 whether my right hon. Friend should have met with Anschutz, said that if he had not he would not have been doing his job properly. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to bring about the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula and the job opportunities for my constituents.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is the overwhelming view in London, where people want more jobs and investment. To be fair to the Opposition, the development of the site was begun by Lord Heseltine. He wanted regeneration to take place, and we have carried on the process. To a certain extent, I am surprised that people attack the idea that houses, development, jobs and investment should not follow naturally. If that is not what the Opposition intended, it is certainly what the Government intended, and we have carried it out.
Given the latest questions about the Deputy Prime Minister’s compliance with the ministerial code and his actions in respect of casinos, and all the acknowledged breaches by a succession of Ministers who have now departed the Government, does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Government have lived up to their commitment to be purer than pure?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has the direct responsibility to implement the ministerial code. In his considerations, he has made it clear when he thinks that the code has been breached, and when it has not. He made it clear at the weekend that I had not done so.
I think that that means no—that the right hon. Gentleman does not think that the Government have been purer than pure. However, although he has been stripped of his Department, he still costs £2 million a year. Is it not time for him to recognise that that is neither comfortable for him nor acceptable to the country? Does not the idea that he cannot have a Department but can be left in charge of the country defy credibility? He mentioned that he has been in the House for 35 years, and I respect that, but I am someone who once resigned from office and I know that sometimes we all have to judge whether we are doing any favours for our party, our country or our own reputations. Is it not time for him to exercise that judgment?
I like the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that he resigned from Government. Did that not happen after a general election, when there was going to be a fresh start—with policies that the present Leader of the Opposition is rejecting every day? The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) says that he believes in consistent policies, but the country’s rejection of the policies of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was shown by the fact that he won only one extra seat in that election. He did not resign: the electorate rejected Tory party policy and accepted what Labour believed in.
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Voluntary Sector (Regulation)
The Government are taking forward a range of measures to reduce regulatory burdens on the third sector, including through the Charities Bill, which has completed its Committee stage in this House, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is being considered in another place.
The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill offers an approach to the repeal of unnecessary regulation, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be much better to go forward with an all-party consensus on the matter? If so, what is he doing to achieve that?
I agree very much that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is an extremely important measure. It introduces risk-based regulation, including for the Charity Commission, which has a lot of dealings with the voluntary sector, and it also allows us to repeal unnecessary regulations. The Opposition talk a lot about the need for reform and getting rid of unnecessary regulation. It is time for them to vote accordingly and support the Bill when it comes back to this House.
The citizens advice bureau in Rushden, the second town in the Wellingborough constituency, was forced to close recently, which meant that people in desperate need of advice were left without an advice centre. It appears that the Government make no contribution to local citizens advice bureaux, but will they look at that again?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and I am happy to look into that specific case. On the basis of my local experience, I think that I am right in saying that citizens advice bureaux are generally funded by local authorities. However, I shall be happy to look into the matter that he raises.
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
My hon. Friend will be aware that I chair the Cabinet Committee looking at these important issues. The next meeting is scheduled to take place very shortly. The Committee’s terms of reference are
“to develop and monitor the delivery of policy affecting older people”.
We have already made excellent progress over the past nine years, with 2 million pensioners lifted out of poverty, free eye tests for the over 60s and free TV licences. However, there remains more to do, and I am working to ensure that action is taken coherently across Departments to tackle the key issues facing the older generation.
That is an excellent record. As one of the big beasts of the Government and, in this instance, as the Minister with responsibility for the Government’s policies on ageing, will the Deputy Prime Minister have a word with another big beast, the Chancellor, to facilitate the 1 million-plus additional jobs that are needed—including with flexible working arrangements—for the over-55s? Will he also say whether more legislation is being considered to remove the barriers to people working longer, if they wish to?
I certainly will take up with the Chancellor, as another big beast, the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the House will be very happy at the fact that the Chancellor’s wife has given birth to a baby boy.
The Government are clearly committed to doing a lot more on this issue. Our measures will prohibit the unjustified direct age discrimination that many in this House have complained about, and all harassment and victimisation on the ground of age, of people young and old. It is important to keep more people in work, because doing so makes an important contribution to maintaining increases in what are record levels of employment. That aim has a major part to play, and I am attempting to co-ordinate across government in order to achieve it.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the House will join me in mourning the loss of our late colleague, Kevin Hughes, who died on Sunday from motor neurone disease. We will remember Kevin as a thoroughly decent human being: loyal, immensely likeable—a man who showed the same high courage as he approached the end as he had shown throughout his life in politics. We send our deepest sympathy to Lynda and her family.
I am also sure that the House will join me in offering our condolences to the family of Corporal John Cosby, who died in Iraq at the weekend. Our sympathy and prayers are with them at this difficult time. In the last 24 hours, we have once again had reason to be grateful for the professionalism of our forces, as we have seen HMS Gloucester evacuate British citizens from Beirut.
Mr. Speaker, this morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and I join in his condolences, particularly in respect of Kevin Hughes, who was a very decent man. Will the Prime Minister find time in his busy schedule to meet a broadly based cross-party delegation from Eastbourne, made up of people who are desperately concerned about financial pressures, job cuts and the loss of core services such as maternity from our local district general hospital?
I am perfectly happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any delegation. However, I have to say to him that it is important to recognise that the deficit in his trust area must be dealt with, and that, at the same time as they deal with that trust, hospitals in his area will still be cutting their waiting times and waiting lists. In that area they have had, for example, some 4,500 more nurses since 1997, so we have put a substantial amount of investment into Eastbourne. I entirely understand the concerns that arise as the trust makes sure that it comes into financial balance, but it does have to come into financial balance.
My right hon. Friend will know that the 135th open golf championship is due to start in my constituency tomorrow. This is the first time in nearly 40 years that the championship has taken place at Hoylake. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the partners who brought that about—the Royal and Ancient and Royal Liverpool golf clubs, and the Labour-led Wirral borough council? Will he also—
May I join the Prime Minister in what he said about Kevin Hughes? He was a man who believed in plain speaking and hard working, and many colleagues will have fond memories of him in this House. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal John Cosby, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. He died serving his country, and our thoughts should be with his family, too.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that this week, the key part of the home information packs is being ditched?
As a result of representations made by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, it will not be possible to proceed with the mandatory home condition report. However, we will of course have to proceed with the energy performance certificate, as that is now required by European Union legislation. We will obviously wait until the pilots have reported to see what more we can do to make sure that we do not end up in a situation—this is the reason for the home improvement packs—of spending round about £1 million a day, as ordinary consumers are at the moment, on abortive house sales. It was entirely sensible, because of the energy performance certificate, to go down this route, but as a result of the representations of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, we are going to have to change that.
I think that the Prime Minister needs to mug up on this area; after all, he will be moving house soon.
The fact is that the Minister for Housing and Planning said that introducing home condition reports would have “significant risks” and “potential disadvantages”. For months we were told about the benefits of the reports, and now we are being told about the disadvantages. Why did Ministers get it so wrong?
There would be tremendous benefits from the home condition reports—[Laughter.] Of course there would: people waste a lot of money acquiring reports, then losing that money if the sale does not go through. That is the very reason for doing this. Alongside that is the fact that, irrespective of what happens, we will have to have the energy performance certificate. If the Council of Mortgage Lenders, having consulted its members, says that that will not be enough for people to get a mortgage, because lenders will ask for an additional report, it is of course sensible to make it voluntary rather than mandatory.
If the Prime Minister is worried about people wasting money when they move house, he should have stopped the Chancellor clobbering everyone with extra stamp duty.
Let us look at another tax: will the Prime Minister confirm that the planning gain supplement tax, which the Chancellor announced in his Budget as a key reform to pay for local infrastructure, is also being ditched?
I will not confirm that at all. It is extremely important to make sure that we extract the maximum gain we can when planning goes through because it is important that we be able to invest the maximum amount of money in housing.
As we are talking about housing, the most important thing for home owners in this country is that interest rates are half what they were in the Tory years. As he is someone who worked at the Treasury when mortgage repossession was going on, I do not think we will take lessons on housing from the right hon. Gentleman.
The Prime Minister needs to get with the programme. The fact is that the Planning Minister has met a Treasury Minister, and that tax has been shelved.
Let us take another example of a simple reform that is being dropped: the Government promised at the election “tougher sentences” for those who assault public servants. Why have the Government neutered the Bill that would bring that about in law?
We do not neuter any proposals—[Interruption.] We do not. There should be the strongest possible penalties for people who assault public servants. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that when we introduced tougher penalties in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, he voted against.
We need a tougher penalty in law, and the Prime Minister neutered the Bill. There is a clear pattern: police mergers, dropped; ID cards, dropped; home information packs, dropped; planning reforms, dropped; laws to protect public servants, dropped. Given the Government’s complete inability to implement their programme, how can he possibly believe that the right thing to do is to put the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the country?
Let me explain: we most certainly are not dropping proposals for identity cards, or tougher penalties regarding public servants, or planning reforms. If we want to talk about policy making, I have calculated that the right hon. Gentleman has had four since becoming Leader of the Opposition. The first was a new British Bill of Rights, which was denounced by the chairman of his democracy commission as nonsense. The second was English votes for English MPs, described as a constitutional abortion by a senior Back-Bench Tory MP. Then came his law and order policy—hug a hoodie. We have not heard much about that. Finally, his flagship European policy was to leave the European People’s party, which was first to be done immediately, then within months and now not until 2009. Before he criticises our policy-making skills, he should acquire some of his own.
These sessions are about the Prime Minister answering questions on behalf of the Government. I know that he does not like being interrogated, but with the way things are going at Scotland Yard, he had better get used to it. For the purposes of the tape, Mr. Speaker, I am interviewing the Prime Minister.
Does not the Prime Minister’s complete lack of judgment in trusting the Deputy Prime Minister show that it is high time that he and his deputy saddled up and rode off into the sunset?
Mr. Speaker, you are absolutely right; it is best not to talk about Opposition policies because they are better for an Opposition than a Government. But let me just tell the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that we will continue with policies for a strong economy, not the boom and bust of the Tory years, and for investment in our health service and education, and with family-friendly policies, and investment in Sure Start, the new deal and lifting pensioners out of poverty. We will continue with the policies that have made this country stronger, fairer and better—not those that brought us 18 years of Conservative misrule.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are still clearing up the mess of the Tory years? Although they have acknowledged that privatisation of the railways was a mistake, that does not help to make stations safer, so will my right hon. Friend assure me that the new franchises will be awarded only to companies that put safety first and people before profit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank her for drawing my attention to what is actually another Tory policy—[Laughter.] Sorry. My hon. Friend is right: the Tory policy under the previous Government was disastrous, but fortunately it has been turned around under this Government.
I begin by associating my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy that we heard from the Prime Minister a moment or two ago.
Yesterday, the House joined the Prime Minister in condemning Hezbollah’s bombardment of Israel, but how can we be even-handed if we are not willing to condemn Israel’s disproportionate response, which the Prime Minister of Lebanon has described as cutting his country to pieces?
Let me repeat what I said yesterday. It is important that Israel’s response is proportionate and does its best to minimise civilian casualties, but it would stop now if the soldiers who were kidnapped—wrongly, when Hezbollah crossed the United Nations blue line—were released. It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians. If those two things happened, I promise the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I would be the first to say that Israel should halt its operations.
I am not sure that that squares with the Prime Minister’s conversations with President Bush. In the course of those conversations, did he understand that it was America’s policy to allow Israel a further period for military action? Is that why the UK is not calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire?
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is seriously saying that I should call for an unconditional ceasefire by Israel now—[Hon. Members: “Both sides.”] I should call for both sides to do it? May I just point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our influence with Hezbollah has been somewhat limited? It would not be possible. Does he not understand that Hezbollah fired somewhere in the region of 1,600 rockets into northern Israel? I agree that what is happening in Lebanon is tragic and terrible, not least for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese Government—a Government who have brought their country out of the dark days into democracy—[Interruption.] Yes, but if this is to stop, it has to stop by undoing how it started, and it started with the kidnap of Israeli soldiers and the bombardment of northern Israel. If we want this to stop, that has to stop.
Can the Prime Minister explain why it is that since the Labour Government took over, Ireland has grown four times as quickly as Scotland? Does that not mean that there is not only a problem of disloyalty in No. 11, but a problem of incompetence?
I am very happy to send a message of congratulations to Charlton on their wonderful new sporting facility, which will do so much for young people. I congratulate the Football Foundation and Barclays bank, which I think are the other partners, and I also congratulate Charlton on the wise re-signing of Darren Bent.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that question, so that I could learn the details of the matter, which is helpful. All major PFI schemes are being taken forward, and the Department of Health asked Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in January to reappraise its proposals for the Maidstone and Pembury hospital sites to make sure that they could demonstrate long-term affordability. I am glad to inform the hon. Gentleman that the reappraisal report for that scheme has been completed and we are aiming to announce decisions from the reappraisal exercise, including that for the trust, shortly. Therefore, we will be in touch with him shortly. As he knows, the capital value of the scheme is almost £300 million.
Whatever the proximate causes of the current middle east crisis, is it not clear that there will be no solution while Muslims believe that the political route to a viable and sustainable Palestinian state is blocked and at the same time Israel believes that it can get more by the use of military force and annexation of large tracts of Palestinian land than by seriously negotiating the Quartet road map? In those circumstances, should we not only be calling on the EU to demand a very clear and unambiguous statement of a ceasefire but, more important, more vigorously confronting the United States that, if it does not put considerably more pressure on Israel for a—
There is a problem with the negotiated solution to this. After all, it is now clear that everyone wants a two-state solution, and the road map is there and agreed by the whole of the Quartet, including the European Union, the UN, Russia and America, obviously. This problem is not being held back by America or by anyone's intransigence and refusal to negotiate; it is being held back by the fact that we cannot even begin the essential preconditions for the road map to exist properly. Those essential preconditions are about security and about ensuring that, for example, the thing that sparked everything on Gaza, which was to do with the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, and other such things stop.
I share my right hon. Friend’s concern. I pushed for the adoption of the road map. I pushed for a two-state solution. But in the end the only negotiated way through this is by everyone committing themselves to exclusively peaceful, democratic means, and that has to hold on both sides of the border—not just on the Israeli side, but on the Palestinian side.
The UK Government are currently considering the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking agreed last year. At present only one country, Moldova, has ratified that convention, but let me be clear that we are determined to tackle human trafficking. The police have set up the UK human trafficking centre to continue the fight against that crime, and Operation Pentameter resulted in over 150 arrests and the rescue of 75 trafficking victims.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister. Thirty of the 45 Council of Europe countries have signed the convention, but we have not done so. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and his officials said in the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the fear of “a pull factor” was preventing the UK Government from signing the convention. But is the Prime Minister aware that in Italy there is no evidence of a pull factor, and a hundred times as many women have been saved and there have been a hundred times as many prosecutions? Will he reflect again for the sake of the victims of trafficking, and allow the UK to sign the convention?
I will reflect again. The hon. Gentleman rightly puts his finger on the reason for our refusal to sign and ratify the convention so far. An absolute 30-day reflection period is required for victims who are here without leave, to enable them to recover from the experience that they have been through. Our worry is that, unless we are very careful about the way in which that is implemented, it will cause a major problem with people who come here under the auspices of organised crime and are not proper asylum seekers, as we would be obliged to keep them for a fixed period. I am afraid we have to examine what that means in practice for our system before we can agree the convention.
Last week, the Prime Minister agreed to meet a delegation led by myself on the issue. There is widespread support in the House for the signing—not ratification, which is different—of the convention, as well as widespread support among the police, Anti-Slavery International and Amnesty International. I would rather not meet him, because I do not want to discuss a problem. I would rather that the Home Office provided a solution without too much time passing.
I entirely understand what my right hon. Friend is saying, and he made his point in a very reasonable way. I will look at the issue again, but we need an answer on that point. It is not only Britain that has not signed the convention—countries such as Spain have not done so because they, too, are worried about the same problem. However, if we can find a way around it—and we may be able to do so—that would obviously allow us to sign.
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. I am aware of the fact that there is an important potential for sugar beet and biofuel, but I cannot offer any assurances. I obviously sympathise with her constituents’ plight, but I would have to see whether there is anything that Government can do, and there may not be.
What advice would my right hon. Friend give a Member of Parliament who voted against the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave, who voted against extending maternity leave to 26 weeks, and who voted against the request for flexible working? Would that advice include the words, “On your bike, Dave”?
My right hon. Friend will be aware of our policy on the renewable transport fuels obligation, which will ensure that 5 per cent. of fuels are biofuels. A million tonnes of carbon will be prevented from entering the atmosphere every year, which is the equivalent of a million cars coming off the road. Is it not true that the Government have done a tremendous amount on climate change, and will continue to do so in future?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we have done a great deal to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, we need to do a lot more, which was the purpose of the energy review. One vital part of reducing carbon output is the climate change levy, which has been and will be responsible for carbon emissions into our atmosphere being reduced by millions of tonnes. The energy review gives us a sound way forward—a proper policy basis for planning for the future of this country. The interesting thing about the G8 summit is that what we had in the British energy review is four-square behind the thinking of the leading countries of the world.
I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend was about to add to the holiday suggestions. He is right. Although there is a great deal more to do on antisocial behaviour, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will say, none the less antisocial behaviour legislation, where used by local authorities and the police, has had a major impact in local communities and we will strengthen the law still further. There are those who used to describe it as a gimmick, but it is not a gimmick. It is a vital part of making our communities safer.
The Prime Minister will know of the widespread disappointment at the failure of the United Nations review conference in New York a fortnight ago to agree principles on the transfer of light weapons and arms, even though 150 countries supported that. Can we rely on the UK Government to adhere to their manifesto commitment to challenge the few Governments who continue to block the process?
Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have pushed the matter very hard for a considerable time, but as his question implies, it is not simply us—it is the whole of the international community that must agree the process. We fully support it and will continue to encourage others to support it.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to fund Sure Start and children’s centres. She is right to say that they perform a vital task in many communities. I know that the Sure Starts in my own community have been immensely popular. About 800,000 people are benefiting from the programmes, and the great thing about Sure Start is not merely the help that it gives to the children, but the help that it gives to the parents. It has had a very great benefit in many constituencies, and we will certainly continue to support it.
I know the hon. Gentleman will continue to make representations on the matter, but I point out to him that it is not a question of management and people being appointed to the board; it is a question of ensuring that however much money we put into the national health service—we have put in vast additional sums that have reduced waiting times, reduced waiting lists, reduced waits for treatment such as cardiac care, and made sure that we are cutting the number of people dying from diseases such as cancer and heart disease—and although it has had a huge impact, every single trust has to live within its means. Sometimes trusts have to reconfigure services, but I do not believe that they will do so to the detriment of clinical management, clinical care or patient care in communities.
We will, of course, remain as part of the grouping of the centre left parties, and it is extremely important that the Conservative party also remains part of its grouping. I have a feeling that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has changed the Conservative party’s position, on which I congratulate him.
Business of the House
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement. The business for tomorrow will now be, first, a motion to approve the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2006. Then, in response to requests from both sides of the House, there will be a debate on international affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. The debate on international development, which was due tomorrow, will now be scheduled for another date. I shall, of course, make my usual business statement tomorrow as well.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for acceding in his statement to the request made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House to debate international affairs, particularly the growing problems in the middle east. Tomorrow we will have departmental questions, his normal business statement, the order that he has mentioned and, possibly, a statement by a Minister. Will he programme tomorrow’s business so that we can guarantee four hours for the international affairs debate?
I cannot formally programme the business, but we will do our best to ensure that it proceeds as quickly as possible. The order is down for a maximum of an hour and a half, but, frankly, it is not particularly controversial. Two organisations connected with Omar Bakri Mohammad are to be proscribed. The case for proscribing the first organisation, the Baluchistan Liberation Army, speaks for itself. The second organisation, the TAK, is a Turkish terrorist organisation that has admitted to carrying out terrorist outrages in Turkey. Provided that hon. Members are relatively brief, we should be able to proceed quickly.
I, too, thank the Leader of the House for providing an opportunity to debate foreign affairs, for which, as he knows, we have been asking for some time. Tomorrow’s debate will inevitably deal with the developing, and concerning, situation in the middle east. I repeat my other request in relation to foreign affairs, which is for a specific debate on Iraq. Tomorrow it will be two years to the day since the House last debated Iraq in Government time.
Tomorrow’s debate is on international affairs, so there will be every opportunity to discuss Iraq, and I have no doubt that the matter will be raised. The need to schedule a foreign affairs debate has raised an issue: it is eccentric that while some debates are programmed in Government time each year, including five debates on defence and a number of others at the request of the House, other key areas, including international development and foreign affairs, must take their chance in negotiations through the usual channels. I hope to ask the Modernisation Committee, which I chair, to re-examine how scheduled debates in Government time are organised and which subjects are debated.
Would it not be better to have a substantive debate on the situation in the middle east, rather than an Adjournment debate on international affairs? There is a widespread feeling on both sides of the House that the United Kingdom Government have abandoned their role as an honest broker and have become a client state of an American Administration who are failing to live up to their global responsibilities. A substantive debate would allow “Yo Blair” to develop some independence of mind and thought.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a small error, which is that when he speaks for himself he thinks that he is speaking for the whole House. It is appropriate for such an issue to be discussed on a motion for the Adjournment, so that debate can be very wide-ranging. None the less, I am up for there being more debates in Government time on substantive motions. Indeed, there have been two in recent weeks—one on the BBC and the other on the pensions White Paper. In many circumstances, that is appropriate. I am not in the least worried, and neither is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, about having a debate on foreign policy on a substantive motion. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to use some of his Supply day time for a debate on that, let us see it.
The great majority of Members will be extremely grateful to the Leader of the House for moving so quickly to ensure that there will be an Adjournment debate on international affairs tomorrow. Had there not been such a debate, our constituents would not have understood why we were going into recess next week without one. May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further? If, unfortunately, terrible events develop in the middle east during the recess, which might well involve our troops, can he give the House an assurance that it will be briefly recalled to debate those matters?
The question of the recall of Parliament is kept under active review by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by senior Ministers throughout the recess. I am not just using that as a formula. The right hon. Gentleman will know, because it is a matter of record, that the House has been recalled on three occasions in the past nine years—in 1998, 2001 and 2002. If it is necessary, and subject of course to consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, I can assure the House that it will be recalled.
Home Office: Reform Action Plan
I should like to make a statement about our plans for transforming the Home Office. I have today placed in the Library a copy of a reform action plan which gives details of the changes that we intend to make.
All political change should start with values and objectives. The Home Office exists to protect the key elements of civilised society: to reduce fear and increase security, from global terrorism to local cohesion in our streets and communities, and from justice and fairness to the protection of opportunities to live life in security. However, the context in which we seek to apply those values is changing faster than ever before, and changing fundamentally, creating new and different challenges for the future.
In the past 15 years, we have seen no less than seismic geopolitical changes, ranging from the global to the local. Globally, the old cold war had frozen the world into relative immobility. States were frozen, ethnic tensions and religious extremism were repressed, borders were inviolable, and peoples were largely static. The end of the cold war brought a torrent of new problems and, above all, the challenge of international mobility on a hitherto unimaginable scale. We have seen unprecedented levels of migration, with the movement of more than 200 million people in 2005, the development of international terrorism—[Interruption.] That is hardly a laughing matter. We have also seen the growth of global and organised crime.
Moving from the global to the local, relative immobility has given way to social and geographic mobility, whereby the old group allegiances, extended family relationships and inherited patterns of voting and religious observance have broken down, and with them the old forms of community cohesion. Unlike most other Government Departments, we find that in this changing context many of the people whom the Home Office is trying to deal with—prisoners, criminals and illegal immigrants—see it as their primary objective not to co-operate with the Government, but to resist our authority and evade our control.
In the face of those challenges, the Home Office has been in a process of change and reform for some years. The Department now has a more streamlined focus as a result of some of our responsibilities being transferred to other Departments. I give credit to my predecessors and the civil servants who worked with them for facing those challenges. They took a system that was designed before the cold war and improved it in three important ways: through additional resources, improvements in technology and legislative and practical solutions.
Those improvements have led to notable successes in key matters. Crime is down significantly—the chance of being a victim of crime in this country is the lowest since 1981. We have record numbers of police and an additional 6,300 community support officers on the streets. Asylum applications are now tackled in two months, as opposed to 22 months under the previous Government. The UK Passport Service, which was failing just a few years ago, now regularly tops customer service polls, beating some leading private sector organisations. It is a shining example of transformation, and what can be achieved.
However, the underlying systems and practices for dealing with those issues have not changed sufficiently. Many of the fundamentals that underlie the systems in the Home Office were designed for a pre-cold war era. In the face of the huge challenges that I outlined earlier, we have now reached the limit of what can be achieved without a fundamental overhaul. The Home Office capability review, which is published today, strongly reinforces those views.
Some of the inadequacies have surfaced recently—in co-ordination, administration and accounts. In co-ordination, the House knows only too well—I do not have to rehearse the matter—how the release of foreign prisoners challenged systems across the Home Office and the criminal justice system, and found them wanting.
In administration, the House knows that, for example, the National Audit Office last year suggested that 283,000 unsuccessful asylum applicants might still be here—excluding dependants and those who claimed asylum before 1994 and after 2004—reflecting the difficulties of successive Governments in removing failed asylum seekers. That is reflected in the immigration and nationality directorate’s case load of around 400,000 to 450,000 electronic and paper records, which, as hon. Members also know, are riddled with duplication and errors, and include cases of individuals who have since died or left the country, or are now EU citizens.
As for accounts, the House knows that the Home Office’s resource accounts for 2004-05 were disclaimed by the National Audit Office. We have sought to remedy those individual instances. I have today set out in a written ministerial statement, through my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, our plans to improve the way in which we deal with foreign national prisoners. We will tackle the case load in the IND with the aim of clearing it—not in 25 years, as has been suggested, but in five or less. We will put our books in order. However, as today’s capability review shows, we need to go much further in general and fundamental reform.
For all those reasons, I am today setting out plans for an ambitious set of reforms across the Department. They are outlined in the document that we published today, and I shall highlight some of them. We will sharpen the Home Office’s focus on its core purpose of protecting the public through the six key priorities set out in today’s plan. We will establish a new top team with a reshaped Home Office board and 15 immediate changes at director level—that is more than a quarter of all directors.
We will reshape radically the structure of the Home Office, with a major shift in responsibility and resource to the front line. We will fulfil our commitment to reduce the total size of Home Office strategic and operational headquarters by 30 per cent. by 2008—and today I can also tell hon. Members that I am making a commitment to a further reduction of 10 per cent. in headquarters staff by 2010.
The cumulative effect of these changes will be to reduce the size of the headquarters of the Home Office and its agencies from 9,200 in 2004 to 6,500 in 2008 and to 5,900 by 2010. These changes will mark the biggest shift from the centre to the front line in the Home Office’s history. We will thereby save £115 million a year by 2010 in HQ costs, which we will invest in improving front-line services.
We will go further by establishing the immigration and nationality directorate as an executive agency of the Home Office—a shadow agency will be in place by April 2007—with strong accountability arrangements. I shall give more details of this in the next few days. We will establish clear performance frameworks for the operational services of the Home Office—the immigration and nationality directorate, the National Offender Management Service, and the identity and passport service—and hold the heads of those services accountable for operational performance. The National Offender Management Service headquarters will be focused on the job of commissioning high-quality services for managing offenders and of driving up the performance of the probation and prison services. As a result, the headquarters of NOMS will get progressively smaller. We will reduce it by 50 per cent. by 2010.
We will develop a renewed contract between Ministers and officials, clarifying respective roles and expectations in relation to policy, strategic decisions, operational delivery and management. We will seek to reduce further the bureaucratic burden on the police and other partners in tackling crime, by implementing simpler performance arrangements for policing crime and drugs.
We are also launching today a radical reform programme in the Home Office, with seven strands of change designed to transform the culture, skills, systems, processes and data of the Department. Today we have set out a clear action plan to deliver this reform, and more. By September, we will develop a full implementation programme. An external audit of progress will be conducted in December and annually thereafter. In the next few days, we will supplement today’s plan with two further sets of proposals: on rebalancing the criminal justice system and on reforming our immigration and nationality directorate.
We are determined to deliver a confidently led and well managed Home Office which delivers high-quality services to protect the public and better meets their expectations, and which builds through transformation on the improvements that have been achieved so far. I would like to thank my predecessors, my Ministers and my senior officials for all the work that has already been put into the development of the Home Office and into our new plans.
I stress to the House the fact that we are not starting from year zero, and that we do not expect perfection at the end of the process. This is the start of a long-term programme for transforming the fundamental systems of the Home Office. All those involved—Ministers, directors and staff—know the extent of the challenge, and that this will not be accomplished overnight. However, we are committed to making early progress to demonstrate our seriousness to the public and to our stakeholders and staff. The fundamental change that we are seeking will require determination and, above all, endurance. This is the unglamorous hard work of delivering good government. That is now the task ahead, and I commend the plan to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement, much of which we agree with. We wonder, however, why it has taken 10 years for some of these lessons to be learned. I was quite surprised by the right hon. Gentleman’s undertaking—which I did not see in the original statement—to clear up in five years the backlog that the Home Office faces. Working on today’s numbers, that implies that it will be deporting a net figure of 80,000 people a year, and I would be interested to hear the Home Secretary confirm that that is the case.
In the past 12 weeks, we have witnessed a serial catastrophe in the Home Office, with daily disclosures of massive failures of policy. The issues have included the release of foreign prisoners, murderers on probation, sex-for-visas scandals, dangerous prisoners being put into open prisons, hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers, and massive numbers of illegal immigrants.
This has been a spectacular serial failure of government, the like of which has not been seen in modern times in this country. Each and every failure that we have talked about in the past 12 weeks has serious implications for ordinary decent British citizens. At the very least, the Government have wasted hard-earned taxpayers’ money and put excessive pressure on housing and public services. At worst, they have threatened public safety and even, in some cases, national security.
We need to understand why that has happened—the wrong analysis of the problem will lead to the wrong conclusion. The Home Secretary puts it down to the end of the cold war, and with it the rise in asylum seekers and other threats. But that does not explain why Britain, which is further away from the failed states than any other European state—except Ireland—and which is an island and therefore harder to get into, with borders that are easier to control, has had the second highest number of asylum applicants in the world in the past five years.
The reason is simple. The new Labour Government—I see that the previous Home Secretary but two is on the Treasury Bench—repealed Conservative laws allowing us to send people straight back to safe countries on the so-called white list. They terminated Conservative welfare arrangements designed to deter economic migrants, and failed to negotiate a continuation of the right to return asylum seekers to France. I see that the right hon. Gentleman is nodding. They later tried to reinstate some of those laws, but too late. In the following five years, more than a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers—failed asylum seekers, not real asylum seekers—tried to enter Britain, with almost 90,000 in one year alone. That, along with political decisions to increase net immigration by nearly 200,000 a year and not to strengthen our borders, is why the immigration and nationality directorate was overwhelmed.
Of course there have been failures of management, but there have been much bigger failures of political leadership. The same is true elsewhere in the Home Office. We have seen the disaster over foreign prisoners, the debacle over putting dangerous prisoners in open prisons, and the catastrophe of murderers released after a 25-minute telephone call and going on to murder innocent people. All those came from the same cause—a political decision not to build enough prison places.
The Government’s own review showed that they needed 100,000 prison places by 2010. Even after the 8,000 new places that I understand the Home Secretary will announce tomorrow, they will still have less than 90,000 places by 2012. Again, there are failures of management, but in a system put under intolerable pressure by failures of political leadership. We could go on. We have a police force so overburdened with central targets and politically correct red tape that its detection rates dropped to an all-time low two years ago. As a result, violent crime is spiralling out of control, as we will no doubt hear tomorrow when the crime figures come out, putting extra pressure on the police, the courts, the prisons and the Home Office.
Of course, Ministers themselves have put intolerable pressure on the Home Office. Since 1997 there have been more than 1,300 new regulations, many hundreds of initiatives and over 50 major Home Office Bills—more than the total number of Criminal Justice Bills in the previous century. Some of those Bills were useless—not in my opinion, but in the Government’s. In the case of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, 110 of its provisions never came into force. Seventeen more were repealed before they could come into force, and another 39 were repealed after they came into force. That is by no means the only example; there are many others. Massive amounts of work were piled on to the Home Office, for no use whatever.
This is not a Department that is impossible to run. Since 1997, as the Home Secretary mentioned in his statement, it has given up responsibility for 24 policy areas. It has less to do in straight policy terms than it had. Under the burdens of a target-driven, red tape-driven, bureaucratic, top-heavy approach pursued by this Government, however, its central staffing has doubled—and is it not revealing that the number of press officers has trebled ?
It is true that some of the Home Secretary’s proposals have merit. For example, the agency proposals for the IND—I think that I disagree with my ex-leader on this—may improve some aspects of its management. It may, however, make communication and co-operation with other parts of the Home Office more difficult, so none of these things come free. It will certainly not absolve Ministers of responsibility for effectiveness and delivery.
The main issue is that the Home Office is a Department in severe crisis, as a direct result of Government policy. It is no hyperbole to say that the crisis is the biggest faced by a Department in modern times. The failures are multiple and massive, and will have a serious impact on the public. We all hope that the Home Secretary’s measures succeed. Even if they do, however, they are unlikely to resolve problems of the size that his Department faces. And whatever they do, they will not allow him to sweep a political problem under a bureaucratic carpet.
I shall try to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions—although I must say that he asked very few. I do not, however, begrudge him his entitlement to make a statement on the matter.
On the clear-up rates, I think that his long division was based on the false premise that every case file equals a person. That is a wrong assumption on which to work. As I said earlier, some case files are duplicates, and some represent a decision that someone can stay here but we have not been able to get in touch with that person to tell them. In some cases, the person concerned may be dead, or may be from a state that has now become part of Europe. In some cases, the limited evidence that we have suggests that the person may have left of their own accord.
I did say that we would aim to clear up the caseload legacy in five years—or, I hope, less time than that. That is because we have made significant progress since the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in power. We no longer take 22 months to deal with a case; we deal with it in eight weeks—[Interruption.] I think that Opposition Members will accept that I am always ready to admit our inadequacies; they should not be so sensitive when I point out some of the inadequacies of the Conservative Government. The truth is that we have made massive progress in recent years to reform the asylum system. We have reduced applications by 72 per cent., and we have reduced the time taken to deal with them from 22 months to two months.
The right hon. Gentleman asked why so many asylum applicants come to Britain. First, we have the English language. Secondly, we have had a more prosperous economy than anywhere else. Thirdly, his facts are wrong—in terms of asylum applications per thousand, the rate of application in this country is no greater than that in many European countries, and less than in some, including France. We should get our facts right. The truth is that there are inadequacies, and as I said earlier, one of the greatest is that the Home Office’s fundamental systems were made for a different age. That created problems for everyone, including the last Home Secretary under the Conservative Government.
It is just not fair to suggest that my predecessors did not have major achievements. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, when he was Home Secretary, halved the time taken for persistent young offenders to be dealt with in the court system. He introduced a ban on handguns and the first race relations legislation in 25 years, and developed and introduced antisocial behaviour orders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) brought in a record number of police officers, and created community support officers, neighbourhood policing teams and the street robbery initiative that did so much to reduce crime. My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) established the Serious Organised Crime Agency, dealt with 7/7 and its aftermath with great statesmanship, and achieved the tipping-point target whereby, for the first time in the past 20 years, we are deporting more failed asylum seekers than we are importing. It is a mixed balanced sheet, but to pretend that the previous Conservative Government achieved anything like what my three predecessors did is to fantasise about political history.
My right hon. Friend’s plans are certainly bold. One of the problems with the immigration and nationality directorate in recent years has been not that it has failed to meet its targets, but that it has met its targets and failed to deal with other problems, such as foreign prisoners, on which common sense requires action. Agencies are usually managed against targets. The great challenge to the Government and my right hon. Friend’s proposals is to ensure that the new agency does not just deliver on a narrow set of targets laid down by Ministers, but deals with the whole problem.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that at the core of his proposals is a belief that the slimmed-down centre of the Home Office will be able to offer a higher quality of leadership from officials, and—if I may say so—a less ministerial impatience and desire to intervene than we have perhaps been able to show in the past?
The answers to my right hon. Friend’s questions are yes, yes and yes, particularly on the last point. If we want to encourage a spirit and culture of acceptance of responsibility and accountability among officials, that will require us to tolerate a degree of risk-taking on the part of officials; and that will require a degree of self-denying ordinance when such risks result in something going wrong, as they inevitably will. Hopefully, however, those tactical mistakes will be to the benefit of an overall strategic change in the systems, giving us more effective and efficient management and output.
The reason we want to do this is that, even after so many years in government, we should take upon ourselves the process of renewal of government, of Government Departments and of Government delivery—in a self-critical and, we hope, a constructive fashion, but also in a way that delivers from the centre what people want, rebalances our criminal justice system as people want it to be rebalanced, and provides a fair and effective system of managed migration that people can see to be both fair and effective. At the end of the day, we must show the public that we pay some attention to their concerns about government and governance.
I thank the Home Secretary for allowing advance sight of his statement.
Given the suspense involved in awaiting this important blueprint for reform of the Home Office and given that the Home Secretary has been working on it for 18 hours a day, I must say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by what appears at first glance to be a hotch-potch of managerial doublespeak and wildly implausible targets. Some of it, of course, is welcome—we have been calling for the creation of a semi-independent agency from the immigration and nationality directorate for a long time, and we obviously welcome it now—but can the Home Secretary explain why he did not go further and look at models in other European countries and in north America, where the monopolistic functions of the Home Office are divided between a justice ministry dealing with judicial issues and a separate ministry dealing with police and security matters? That model works extremely well in large parts of the western world; perhaps the Home Secretary could reflect on it further.
I was intrigued to learn that the end of the cold war is now held to be at least partly responsible for some of the woes in the Home Office, but I wonder why the unrelenting flow of headline-grabbing legislation from this Government—more than 50 Bills and more than 1,000 new offences in under a decade—was not mentioned in the statement. Surely the Home Secretary accepts that no Home Office, however structured or however reorganised, can work effectively as long as Ministers push it from pillar to post on the back of a volley of half-baked media gimmicks and legislative initiatives.
I believe that the Home Secretary announced today a new contract between Ministers and civil servants. Will he confirm that his side of the bargain will be to guarantee that he will not announce any new initiatives at the behest of newspaper editors until he has discussed them in full with his civil servants?
In the light of what is widely regarded as a bold if somewhat implausible claim that nearly half a million failed asylum seekers will be deported in less than five years, will the Home Secretary agree to look at the example of Canada, where a totally independent asylum agency has been created? Its functions are separate from the other functions of the immigration service, and it has proved spectacularly successful in dealing—free from political interference—with a highly sensitive area of public policy.
I take it that when the hon. Gentleman spoke of the making of policy, he was referring to the protection of children. May I remind him gently that I was an Opposition spokesman on children 15 years before he entered the House? I spend considerable time thinking about these matters before I announce them.
As for the implausibility or otherwise of the performance objectives, I think it best to make them public and to let people judge, according to the milestones that we are also making public, whether we achieve them. I thought that, as an adherent to the policy of open government and good delivery, the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. As for management practices, I cannot pretend to be a management expert. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is one, but I assure him that I have full confidence in my permanent secretary and the top leadership, and in the external management experts who advise them.
The hon. Gentleman was a little churlish to diminish the efforts of many good people in the Home Office who have worked very hard for the past two months. They worked long hours, including weekends, to produce this as well as two other plans. The fact that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) was able to welcome many of the proposals is testimony to the good sense of those proposals.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of a monopolistic tendency in Departments. I should have expected him to welcome the fact that we are moving from the centre to the front line, talking about devolving accountability and responsibility, moving from centrally controlled to agency status and introducing contestability, which may result in a degree of privatisation in certain areas. What the hon. Gentleman said makes me wonder which document he has been reading. Nothing in this document moves towards monopoly; everything in it moves in the other direction. It may be the right or the wrong direction, but I should have thought that he would be able to discern the direction of travel.
The hon. Gentleman cast aside, rather dismissively, any suggestion that the cold war could have had huge geopolitical consequences that caused problems for all Departments. I remind him that my first job in Government involved reconfiguring the whole of the British armed forces because of the changes brought about by the cold war. It has affected all our lives. The extension of Europe to the east, which the hon. Gentleman will have welcomed—eight more countries, and possibly another two, with all the migration that that involves—is a direct result of it. Those are not insignificant events. We ought to start facing up to the challenges that the new world presents to us, and that is what I am trying to do today.
Order. A good many Members are seeking to catch my eye. May I appeal for brisk questions, and perhaps for brisk answers from the Home Secretary?
As regards asylum, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that with all the talk of targets, tipping points and agencies, we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings? Most people in this country are not as mean and nasty as most of our loathsome tabloids would have us believe. They do not want children who have lived in this country throughout their conscious lives sent back to destitution in countries such as the Congo, Angola and Sudan. May I therefore express the hope—
Order. That is enough to be going on with.
My hon. Friend made some of those points recently in an Adjournment debate, the report of which I read with interest. I have a degree of sympathy with what he has said, but I hope that he understands that the aim of those of us who talk of providing a fair and effective system of managed migration is partly, at least, to ensure that when genuine cases such as those that he mentioned arise, everyone in society accepts that fair and genuine decisions have been made. The problem at the moment—with so many unknowns, so many illegal immigrants and a system that so many people feel is not fair and effective on the immigration side and not balanced in favour of the law-abiding majority on the criminal justice side—is that the legitimacy of taking decisions gets undermined, but that is the balance that we are trying to strike.
Does the Home Secretary recognise that his proposals for transferring or transforming the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office into an agency will limit his ability to intervene as part of what he rightly described as carrying out the “unglamorous” business of good government if things continue to go wrong—if, for example, the fears expressed by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) about the effect of targets prove to be justified? Is that the Home Secretary’s objective? Does he agree, given that he has described that part of the Home Office as not fit for purpose, that it would be better for him to continue to accept personal responsibility for its future performance rather than to offload it to an agency?
There is no way that I would want to give up responsibility for an agency inside the Home Office, because the strategic direction, the policy decisions and so forth clearly lie with Ministers. I accept that the application of policy and operations cannot always be separated from policy decisions—there is no absolute differentiation between the two; there will be an overlap on occasions—and that some cases are strategically important, or perhaps in the national interest, so that a Minister has to intervene, but I nevertheless hope that by establishing the right regulatory and leadership framework and a greater degree of devolved responsibility to the agency, we will get a more effective output at the end of the day. That is, of course, a matter of discussion and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman, or, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) have further points to make—they bring a great deal of experience to bear on the matter—I would be more than happy to reflect on them, as I do not regard the managerial aspect as a matter of party politics.
Following that very point, I am interested in the new contract between Ministers and officials. When will it be put in place and will it be published? Where will ministerial responsibility end and the responsibility of officials begin?
We have called it a renewed contract. My understanding, although I am not a constitutional historian, has always been that general responsibility for policy and strategic leadership lies with elected Members and Ministers, while responsibility for the detailed minutiae of operational work lies with officials—in the same way that advisers advise, but Ministers decide. It has at least been perceived and may have been the case in reality over recent years that Ministers can get involved in micro-managing operations to the detriment of the strategic whole. That is why we are trying to re-establish the relationship. As so often in other matters, the contract will be public, but this does not have the glamour of a contract signed by football players; it is an attempt to re-establish a balance in the relationship between Ministers and officials.
I served in the Home Office for three years under my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Hurd, and the Department was then not unfit. If it is unfit now, that is the consequence of Ministers who have overloaded and abused the Department. If the Secretary of State looked into recent failings—most notably, oppressive legislation struck down by the courts, the unjustified merger of police forces, the chaotic Criminal Justice Act 2003 and failing immigration controls—he would see that they were all the direct responsibility of Ministers. In those circumstances, it is unworthy to poor-mouth officials and not to take ministerial responsibility.
I would have thought that I had taken a great deal of ministerial responsibility. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a little unfair, but I hope that I am not being unfair when I say, first, that I did not say that the whole Department was unfit for purpose, but that certain fundamental systems in the Department were unfit for purpose. Secondly, if it was so fit for purpose when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was there, I wonder why crime doubled during that period. Thirdly, the suggestion that problems dealing with immigration, the number of illegal immigrants and the state of knowledge of data systems are afflictions that have been visited upon us only since we have had Labour Secretaries of State is not a true reflection of history.
Some of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s predecessors know full well that there are difficult problems to cope with. Tracking people in, tracking people through and tracking people out has always been difficult. In a world in which the number of migrants has doubled and we have 90 million visitors and roughly 90 million people going out of the UK, it becomes very difficult. That is the problem that we are trying to resolve. If Mr. Speaker allows me, I shall have more to say about that in the next few days.
I very much welcome the reforms, especially the shift of resources to the front line, which is where my constituents want them to be. On the IND proposals, what will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that strict protocols are in place so that the system is secure, to cut out duplication and to ensure consistent decision making in what will be an arm’s-length, decentralised agency?
We can try to do that by simplifying the law. Much of the detail that my hon. Friend seeks I will, if I am allowed, elaborate on a future occasion. As I have said, my officials have been working very hard on two other sets of proposals: one is about rebalancing the criminal justice system and the other relates to the specifics of the IND. One thing that we certainly should do is listen carefully to what those with experience, either as constituency MPs or former Ministers, have to say. I think that I am correct in saying that in the past 24 hours my hon. Friend has met my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality to discuss the matter, and we are always willing to discuss it further.
I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and I welcome some of its contents, not least the plans to transform the culture, skills, systems, processes and data of the Home Office. He will be aware of many recent criticisms, such as foreign prisoner release, the missing passports fiasco, and the imbalance between the location of immigration officers and ports at which so few, if any, people illegally entering the country are apprehended. Can he assure us that, in making the changes in the 55 paragraphs and 38 high-level bullet points at the back of the action plan, there will be no loss of front-line focus in those areas? In particular, will there be a continued focus on the direct relationship and linkage between the Home Office and the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency over serious crime and drugs issues and the counter-terrorism role?
Yes, I certainly hope that that will be the case. By definition, if we are identifying international contacts and dealing with organised crime on a pan-national scale, it would be completely contradictory if we were to lessen the co-ordination in the fight against crime among the countries of the United Kingdom.
In supporting the broad thrust of my right hon. Friend’s proposals, may I gently remind him that, as those of us who have had extensive experience of the Child Support Agency know only too well, arm’s-length agencies are not of themselves necessarily a solution? What steps will he take to ensure that the combination of challenging targets and a head-count reduction do not lead to the sort of collapse of morale that occurred in the Child Support Agency? That has many implications not just for the effective management of the system, but for meeting the needs of vulnerable individuals within it and, of course, for community relations, particularly in multiracial communities such as those in my constituency.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not go into the details of the immigration and nationality directorate reforms at this stage, because I hope to report back to the House with further detail shortly, as I have said. At that stage, I hope that she will be satisfied that we have achieved the right balance in respect of general accountability, regulation, objectivity, advice and autonomy of leadership. I agree with her that, on its own, agency status will not solve all the problems. I do not believe that an organisation’s being in the private sector or the public sector necessarily makes it good or bad. Similarly, being an integral part of a Department or an executive agency is not necessarily all good or bad. However, I believe that what we are suggesting will provide a good degree of freedom for top management, in whom I have confidence, to take on the responsibility to lead and, in the midst of all the pressures on immigration from all sides, to sustain objectives. The maintenance of objectives is the first rule of achieving them.
I would be most grateful to the Home Secretary if he would accept from me that my immigration case load has gone up from 50 to 80 per cent. of the total in recent years and that that is primarily to do with the inordinate length of time that the Home Office takes to make decisions. What assurances can he give that, while the changes take place in the IND, a primary management objective will be to ensure that no further delays occur in my constituents’ cases—or should I write to them to suggest that they must wait even longer?
I certainly hope not. I assure the hon. Lady that the issue is very high in all our priorities. She is absolutely right to suggest that unacceptable delays, which run through from answering questions from Members of Parliament to dealing with immigration cases, are not only inconvenient for the individuals involved but highly deleterious eventually if anyone wants to deport those individuals. The longer that they stay here, the more that they have a case under article 8 of the European convention on human rights about the disturbance to their family life, as they have become settled. So there are all sorts of reasons why we ought to do such things far more swiftly.
I welcome the statement, particularly as it contains no reference to the over-ambitious identity card scheme. I remind the Home Secretary that for the past nine months police forces in this country have not been, in his phrase, sharply focused on their core purpose of catching criminals, because they have had to put up with the massive distraction of police reorganisation. Can he assure me that police forces such as my own in Gwent, which put a great deal of effort and resources into preparing for reorganisation, will be compensated for the money that they have wasted?
I hate to disappoint my hon. Friend on a number of fronts. I hope that he is pleased that we have decided to abandon an approach by diktat and to try to fill the gap, which everyone thinks is there in the protective services, by discussion, dialogue, collaboration and partnership and, where possible, by strategic mergers. I hope that that will be done, and most people would think that, on balance, it is a far better way of doing it. That has certainly been the reception that we have had. I am sorry to disappoint him, however, about ID cards: the more that I see of the problems that we face in counter-terrorism, fraud and organised crime, the more that I become convinced that we made the right decision on ID cards, and I therefore reaffirm our commitment to them.
I support the Home Secretary’s firm intention to shift resources over time from headquarters to front-line services—I wish him well with that—but will he look urgently at the resources behind border controls? Certainly in Plymouth and at other ports of entry, there is a very real fear that many people, perhaps undesirable, and many undesirable substances are coming into the country with not a sign of a border guard or a Customs official to detect or deter them. Will that be looked at very urgently in his great new Home Office?
I note what the hon. Gentleman says—most of our exercises in that respect are intelligence-led—but he may find it of interest to be here when we discuss in further detail some of the plans for the IND and wider, associated issues, if Mr. Speaker allows us to do so in the near future.
Can my right hon. Friend give any assurance at this stage that hon. Members will continue to have access to Ministers on behalf of constituents who are involved in particularly difficult immigration and asylum cases?
Certainly I and the Ministers associated with me have always tried to make time available to hon. Members who want to speak to us on any matter. However, we all accept that a system whereby there is routine reopening and re-examination of every decision that is taken by the IND adds very little to its fairness but hugely to its inefficiency. So we must try to get that balance right. Again, we will return to that subject when we discuss the matter in the near future, I hope.
May I ask the Home Secretary a question on ministerial accountability? On Monday, I asked the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality a question about the sex for visas issue, which strikes right at the heart of the problems at the IND. I am afraid that I got a reply that showed that the Minister simply does not understand the issue and that the people concerned—the victim and her solicitors—have not been kept informed. That is an issue of fundamental importance to the integrity of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department and the directorate. Will he look at a letter that I have written to him today, follow that case through and assure the victim of that incident and me that her concerns are being met?
Yes. I will not refer to that incident, because I think that I am correct in saying that criminal investigations are still going on in that case. That is partly why my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality was reticent. Investigations are certainly going on in one or two of the cases. Therefore, we must be rather careful about what we say about them, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that it is entirely unacceptable that such things go on. When they are discovered—we have strengthened our fraud investigations internally—people ought to be investigated and, where appropriate, disciplined and, again where appropriate, criminal charges should be brought, and they are being brought in some of those cases.
However, we are rather reticent to discuss cases openly for two reasons: first, if judicial proceedings are going on; and secondly, although we can try to ensure that such people are discovered and penalised, the intervention in individual and specific cases that involve members of staff is normally better left to the permanent secretary and others who manage the staff side. That is partly intended to maintain the integrity of the relationship between Ministers and officials. However, I fully accept the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about keeping the victim of that incident informed. If he would like to see me and my colleagues afterwards, I will see how we can do that in a way that is commensurate with not intervening in any judicial proceedings.
While my right hon. Friend is reforming his Department, can we give some thought and appreciation to the people on the ground who are fighting crime, particularly crime reduction officers and community support officers? Will he join me in congratulating Crime Reduction Officer Steve Barrett in my constituency on coming up with the simple idea of producing a key fob with the picture of the community support officer on it, so that local people can recognise their CSO, and with the contact details on the back? That is a very effective way of helping community policing to work. Will he encourage other police forces to take up that simple idea?
The Home Secretary will be aware that most members of the public have contact with the Home Office through their local police. In his statement, he talked about simplifying the procedures for the police and improving front-line services. In view of those comments, would he like to take this opportunity today to rule out clearly, unequivocally and without hesitation any prospect of those wholly unwelcome police mergers?
I have already made my position known on that. In fact, I told the Police Federation within a week of coming into the post, I told the Association of Chief Police Officers a week later and I have told the House several times that I do not intend to force people to merge. The legislative, parliamentary and local support and the community, judicial, financial and fiscal problems of doing so were sufficient to deter even a Glaswegian from going in there, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that the status quo is not acceptable and that some protective services need to be provided, and that therefore either through collaboration, partnership or some sort of voluntary merger, we should try to do so. That is what I have asked the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to do. I hope that we never have to return to do that by diktat, because that is not the route that I prefer, and I have ruled it out certainly for the foreseeable future.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and what he is trying to achieve. May I direct his attention to the asylum seekers in my constituency, who have been there for at least five years? Their children have gone through primary school and are heading to secondary school. Adding another five years will mean that those children will be more British than from the country of their parents’ origin. Will he ensure that they are looked after?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The longer it takes us to deal with cases, the more likely it is that the scenario that he outlined will occur. Then, of course, however fair or unfair the original entry into this country was, it becomes difficult to ask people to leave, not least because it is in contravention of article 8 of the European convention on human rights on settled family life. That is precisely why, if we are to have a fair system, it needs to be a speedy and efficient system. I certainly aim to ensure that that is the case so that we move from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle. That will not happen quickly and it will require great endurance. I hope to go into the detail in a few days’ time.
The creation of an agency is like moving around the deckchairs on the Titanic, rather than keeping an eye open for icebergs. One of the icebergs is hospital orders. Does the Home Secretary agree that we need to consider how offenders are handled if they are given hospital orders and how the National Offender Management Service deals with people at the end of such orders?
Yes. Quite separately from what I am telling the House today, a written ministerial statement has been issued by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, which addresses several issues regarding foreign national prisoners and associated areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I would point out that while we will have another opportunity to discuss the immigration and nationality directorate, we have hugely reduced the number of asylum seekers and hugely speeded up the process of dealing with them. For the first time in our history, we are deporting more false asylum claimants than we believe are coming into the country. That is what is allowing us to tackle the inherited legacy of cases. We are slowly winning the battle, but I hope that people recognise that—apart from the IND—the document published today about the transformation of the Home Office is very significant and will be challenging for the permanent secretary and everyone involved. I hope that we will all give them a great deal of support as they try to transform this old, important and venerable Department of State into one that is fit for purpose in every conceivable direction.
Notwithstanding the connection that the Home Secretary has drawn between the ending of the cold war and mass migration, the statistical fact is that there was a sharp and significant increase in net migration into this country after 1997, in no small measure as a result of Government policy. Will the Home Secretary reflect on the estimate given by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on housing demand, namely, that up to 2026 around a third of net household formation—65,000 additional households a year—will be attributable to immigration?
The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that apart from mass migration being easier because of the porous nature of borders, failed states and the push factor of civil wars, there was also a magnet effect in this country after 1997. The economic development and the employment opportunities provided by 2.5 million extra jobs, which had not—in fairness—existed under the previous Administration, pulled people in. That is why it became an even greater challenge. The reduction of 72 per cent. in the number of asylum applicants, the speed with which they are dealt with, and the tackling of the inherited legacy—which goes way back to the early 1990s—are all stages on a journey that has had measured success. However, we now need to redouble our efforts and transform the whole of the system.
On 31 January, the Home Office presented a set of accounts to Parliament that was unaudited. I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that that is not only unacceptable, but disgraceful. Can he give a guarantee that that will not happen next year and that Sir David Normington will have the top team support that he needs to ensure that it does not happen? Who will do the external audit of progress that will be conducted in December?
Yes, it is entirely unsatisfactory that the accounts should be in that state, and that is why I included them among the difficulties in my statement. However, I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that things will go as swiftly and as orderly as I would like with the next set of accounts, because the difficulties were not remedied until halfway through the financial year that has yet to be approved. That might be a qualification. I can assure him that Sir David is well on top of the issue and has been at the centre of all the work of the past few weeks. He will have all of the assistance that he requires. I cannot guarantee, however, that there will be no problems.
On the issue of indefinite leave to remain, rather than asylum, can the Home Secretary tell us how many outstanding cases there are and the time taken to process those applications? How will his reforms impact on that waiting time? Many of my constituents wait five, six or seven years to get through the process and have still not reached the end by the time they come to see me. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary could give some opening statistics on where we are today.
If I could get reliable statistics of that nature, it would be very helpful. One reason why we are carrying out a fundamental overhaul of our systems, including our information systems, is that such information is not easily to hand—and when it has been in the past, it has proved unreliable. I accept that verifiable databases and information systems are a fundamental part of any modern organisation that is trying to tackle such problems. I invite the hon. Lady to take part in our longer discussions when I make a statement—if I am allowed to do so—on the transformation of the immigration and nationality directorate. Everyone gets a second bite of the cherry under a new Labour Government.
On Monday, I asked a junior Minister if he could tell the House the exact number of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation. He could not give me that number. Surely, if someone fails their asylum application appeal, a record must be kept somewhere. How can the Home Secretary have any confidence in his ability to sort out the asylum system unless he has that vital information to hand?
I thought that I had covered that point honestly in my statement. I gave the House the number of cases—or files—but I pointed out the complications of that number, in that some files are duplicates; some are in error; some may not have been asylum seekers, but people whose stay here had been approved and who had not been contacted yet; some may have left of their own volition; some may now be here legitimately because they came from states that have subsequently become part of the European Union; and some may even have died. For all those reasons, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact figure. I have a quote from the last Conservative Home Secretary, who said:
“By its very nature, illegal immigration is difficult to measure and any estimates”—
[Interruption.] Well, illegal immigration and failed asylum seekers who have disappeared like illegal immigrants and are trying to evade the authorities bear a striking similarity in terms of how difficult it is to calculate their number—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should listen to the answer that he sought from me, which is that we can give the estimate that the National Audit Office produced last year of up to 283,000, to which we should add dependants. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an accurate figure, but nor could the last Tory Home Secretary.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, there have been exchanges between hon. Members and Mr. Speaker about parliamentary answers. On 10 July, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he had made of the frequency, scale and sophistication of Taliban attacks on British forces in Helmand province. In reply, I was told what we knew already—that attacks had increased with the deployment of British troops in the south of Afghanistan. However, the end of the right hon. Gentleman’s answer was extraordinary. He said that neither the Taliban nor the range of illegally armed groups currently posed a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. That is exactly the opposite of what the House has been told over recent months. This country has deployed troops to Operation Enduring Freedom and to the NATO mission precisely to secure the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, ask Mr. Speaker to use his good offices to ask the right hon. Gentleman to come to the House and explain what he meant by that answer, which hon. Members will find as perplexing as it is disturbing?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, Mr. Speaker has no direct responsibility for the quality of ministerial replies to questions. If he consults the Table Office, I am sure that staff there will be able to assist him in following up answers that he regards as inadequate. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will have noted again the points that the hon. Gentleman has made today, as they will be on the record.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During questions to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, I asked a question about casinos. In his reply, the Deputy Prime Minister accused me of receiving money from casinos via my Conservative association. That is wholly and totally untrue; it is a very concerning accusation that has no substance. What advice can you give about how I can place it on record that the accusation is untrue? Does Mr. Speaker have the power to call the right hon. Gentleman back to the House of Commons to set the record straight?
I think that accusations of any kind, from any side of the House, should be thought through very carefully before they are made. They should not be made as often as they are, but the hon. Gentleman has succeeded in putting the matter on the record.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On 28 June, I asked the Prime Minister a question about infant class sizes. I put it to him that he had not met the pledge on that subject that he made before the 1997 election. He said:
“As far as I am aware, the infant class pledge has been met.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 259.]
Yet Government figures reveal that nearly 30,000 children are being taught in infant classes with more than 30 children. I have written to the Prime Minister telling him that he inadvertently misled the House, but he has not replied. What further steps can I take to oblige him to correct the record, as this is a serious breach of his responsibilities to this House?
I trust that the Prime Minister will reply in due course, and that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with the answer. When figures such as those are bandied about, they are often less a matter of record than of debate.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Through you, may I thank Mr. Speaker for an intervention that he made in respect of a parliamentary question that I tabled on 25 May? I finally received a response yesterday. The question asked how many questions tabled to the Home Office before 5 May had remained unanswered by 25 May, and yesterday’s answer put the number at 565.
This is a hugely important matter, and I am grateful for Mr. Speaker’s intervention. I understand that the Home Secretary has said that the problem will be resolved by 9 October and that questions will be answered appropriately. However, parliamentary questions are very important to Back-Bench Members who want to put the Government under scrutiny. Will you urge the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that he fulfils his pledge?
The whole matter of questions to Ministers and their answers is clearly extremely important. The House is already aware of Mr. Speaker’s interest in the matter, and the hon. Gentleman has placed his concerns clearly on the record.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have either you or Mr. Speaker been approached by the Ministry of Defence with a request to allow a Minister to give an oral statement to the House about troop deployment to Iraq? I discovered from a written statement yesterday that my local regiment, the Black Watch, was being asked to undertake an unprecedented third tour of duty in Iraq that does not comply the 24-month period that should elapse between deployments. Given that the deployment is so contentious, should not a Minister come to the House to be questioned by hon. Members?
There is a debate on these matters tomorrow. I trust that that will allow the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to raise the points that he is now raising with me.
Further to the point of order raised yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) about supplying water to visitors to the House, a delegation of more than 600 of my constituents had to stand outside the House in tremendous temperatures. I hope that you are able to convey to Mr. Speaker my gratitude for his kindness and thoughtfulness in ordering the Serjeant at Arms Department to make water available to those visitors.
I am sure that Mr. Speaker will read with interest the points that the hon. Gentleman makes.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to forbid the sale, manufacture, hire, loan or importation of sharpened samurai swords; and for connected purposes.
The recent knife amnesty has reminded us of just how many knives and other bladed weapons are in circulation in our communities. Nearly 90,000 weapons were handed in to police and, in virtually every local or regional news story that I have read, samurai swords are mentioned as having been deposited at police stations during the amnesty. It is a sad fact that there is an increasing number of these lethal weapons out on our streets, and ease of supply is a significant factor.
Too many families and communities have suffered the appalling consequences arising from the use of samurai swords. In my own area in and around Hornchurch, we have seen at least three serious incidents. In one, a man’s hand was severed, and another involved a serious assault. In the third incident, mothers and toddlers were forced to flee a children’s play site when someone started wielding a sword in the area where the youngsters were playing.
I wish that I could say that those were isolated incidents. However, from a brief examination of some of the reported attacks that have taken place this year alone, it is clear to me that samurai swords are being used increasingly in violent crime up and down the country. The following extracts from stories in the past few months give some feel of the nature of the incidents involving the use of samurai swords:
“Two gang members have been found guilty of murdering a builder with a samurai sword at a pub in Newport”.
“Police in County Durham have released the name of a woman who died after she was stabbed with a samurai sword and then run over by a car”.
“A teenage thug who nearly killed a man when he sliced through his chest with a samurai sword is facing years in jail. The victim’s heart stopped twice on the operating table as surgeons battled to save his life”.
“A robber who threatened to behead a hotel porter with a samurai sword has been jailed for seven years”.
“A twenty six year old man has appeared in court charged with the murder of a man who was stabbed with a samurai sword in Corby.”
Those are just a few examples, but each case highlights the tragic consequences when these weapons are used. I have little doubt that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be able to provide many other examples.
There is also a disturbing link between samurai swords and gang culture. It has been suggested by some that obtaining a samurai sword is almost becoming a rite of passage for criminal gang members. The recent pictures in the national press of 15-year-old Alex Mulumba—thought to be a member of the south London gang “Man Dem Crew”—lying in his hospital bed with a ventilator tube protruding from his mouth after sustaining a single fatal stab wound from a samurai sword say a great deal about the impact that those weapons are having on the streets. A report in the Daily Mirror from last December summarizes the position well. It said:
“Police in Plymouth are reporting once incident involving a samurai sword every week. In Middlesbrough they are the ‘most attractive weapon’ for thugs ahead of guns and knives. A senior Home Office source said, ‘They are now the weapon of choice amongst many organised criminals’.”
Yet buying one of those potentially lethal implements could not be easier. People can buy them in shops, in markets, on the internet and even in car boot sales. As one commentator said:
“It’s as easy as purchasing a lotto ticket.”
Police and trading standards officers are absolutely powerless to do anything about that. Although it is an offence to have a samurai sword in a public place without good reason or lawful authority, it is entirely within the law to sell an item with a blade or point—including a samurai sword—to someone over the age of 16. That seems ludicrous to me, and the consequences of having these dangerous swords out on the streets in criminal hands is increasingly plain to see.
I have become convinced that the availability and supply of these items is a significant factor. A campaign last autumn by Devon and Cornwall police calling on shops to stop selling samurai swords had a clear impact. Instead of averaging one samurai sword incident a week, the force reported only a single incident during its three-month campaign. The time has come to ensure that that approach is taken across the country and that it is given statutory force through legislation.
That said, it is important to recognise that many people use or possess samurai swords lawfully and without causing harm to anyone else. The sports of kendo and aikido specifically call for the use of Japanese swords. The original Japanese katana is the sword that is most commonly referred to as a samurai sword, and those traditional items, forged with the highly specialized tamagahane steel, are highly valuable and important cultural and historic items, some of which are considered works of fine art. It is possible to frame legislation in such a way that sales of samurai swords to museums, heritage bodies, martial arts groups, theatre and drama companies and other lawful groups can be protected, while banning the sale of dangerous weapons for criminal use.
The reference to “sharpened samurai swords” in the text of my proposed Bill is intended to reflect that approach, as a number of samurai swords imported into the UK are made from an aluminium composite that cannot be sharpened to have a cutting edge and therefore would not be capable of being used for the sorts of attacks that I have highlighted.
If action is required, which I believe it is, the only realistic alternative to prohibiting the sale and importation of samurai swords is some form of licensing scheme. I am persuaded that a general scheme would be costly and bureaucratic and would not reduce the flow of these items into criminal hands. However, licensing of certain groups or organisations may assist the framing of the exemptions that I have highlighted, and I will certainly reflect on that in the drafting of the Bill, should I be granted leave by the House today. The Home Office has said for a long time that it is considering a ban on samurai swords—that was said most recently by the current Home Secretary on 19 June—but we have yet to see a firm commitment actually to introduce legislation to that effect. Although powers are being reserved, it remains uncertain whether those powers will be used. It is for that reason that I seek leave to introduce this Bill.
There is a clear and increasingly worrying link between gang culture, violent crime and the use of these dangerous implements. Reducing the ease with which such swords are supplied would have a direct impact on taking these potentially deadly weapons off our streets. A ban on the sale, import and manufacture of such items—with appropriate exemptions—is the only practical way of giving effect to my intent. The time to act is now. I hope that the House will take this opportunity to introduce a law that will significantly restrict the sale of these potentially deadly items, and in so doing reduce the number of serious attacks in which samurai swords are used.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by James Brokenshire, Mike Penning, Mr. Lee Scott, Angela Watkinson, Mr. David Jones, Mr. Shailesh Vara, Jeremy Wright, Andrew Rosindell, James Duddridge, Mark Pritchard, Martin Horwood and Mr. David Amess.
James Brokenshire accordingly presented a Bill to forbid the sale, manufacture, hire, loan or importation of sharpened samurai swords; and for connected purposes: 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 217].
Home Information Packs
I beg to move,
That this House expresses profound concern at the lack of adequate preparation made for the introduction of the Government’s Home Information Packs (HIPs); is further concerned at the failure on the part of the Government to provide a substantive pilot scheme; acknowledges the misgivings of various professional organisations; registers grave concern about the failure of HIPs to include reliable information on electrical safety, flood risk and contaminated land; fears that the cost of providing a HIP could be as high as £1,000; asserts that valuations and surveys will still be required, particularly for first-time buyers, increasing the cost of buying and selling a home; and notes that independent economic experts have warned of a negative impact on the economy arising from the introduction of HIPs.
May I say how pleased I am that the Minister for Housing and Planning is still in her place, because this debate gives me an opportunity to congratulate her on grasping the nettle, which her predecessors avoided, of signalling the death of home information packs? For let us be in no doubt that the announcement that she made yesterday—with becoming modesty, by way of a written statement—was an obituary to the Government’s plans to tie up the housing market in red tape. The Minister has come to the House today not to praise HIPs, as she may have anticipated a week ago, but to bury them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making reference to last week, because a week last Sunday I read in my newspapers that the major issue for the Opposition was English votes for English Members. I cleared my diary and prepared my speech in defence of the Union. I wanted to ensure that there would be no second-class MPs. What happened?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am always delighted to hear from a fellow Scot in such debates, and I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman might wish to say about the subject that is actually being discussed this afternoon.
Despite the Minister’s many skills at the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, she will not be able to disguise that the central part of HIPs—the keystone around which everything else was constructed—has been demolished. Her decision yesterday to make home condition reports a purely voluntary part of HIPs means that they are now, in effect, a dead letter. After all, who in their right mind will voluntarily wish to pay hundreds of pounds extra for a home condition report, with all its current defects, simply to market their property, when they can go ahead without one? Making the preparation of a home condition report voluntary is like making payment of council tax voluntary—something the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister knows all about. If a Government-mandated levy is no longer obligatory, why should people pay?
For the benefit of the House, I should point out that council tax collection rates are at their highest ever level.
I am delighted to acknowledge that, thanks to the wonderful campaign conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), the Deputy Prime Minister has at last succeeded in paying his council tax, no doubt contributing to the increased collection rates in Conservative-run Westminster council.
Thank you very much for your welcome intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker; it allows me, despite the temptation offered by the Minister for Local Government, to get back on course.
I am naturally delighted that the Minister for Housing and Planning, in making yesterday’s announcement, accepted the force of Conservative arguments, because we have consistently highlighted the scheme’s weakness and invited her to climb down. I am particularly delighted that she has appreciated the importance of economic stability and the vital role that a stable housing market plays in ensuring such stability. [Interruption.] Labour Members laugh—perhaps they take a cavalier approach to economic stability—but we Conservatives put it at the heart of economic policy. That is why we welcomed the independent report by the lenders GMAC-RFC, which showed precisely what consequences the introduction of home information packs might have for the housing market and broader economic stability.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman is a fan of free markets, given his background in the Policy Exchange and his being a Tory, and all. So I am sure that he is aware that free markets can be fair only if everyone has the same information. Is his opposition to the Government’s plans merely based on keeping information in the hands of the rich, rather than making it available to all?
That was a beautifully read intervention. As a believer in free markets, I welcome precisely what the Government have done, which is to replace something that would have been compulsory—an intervention and a regulatory clogging of the market—with a voluntary proposal that allows the market to continue to function well.
As I was pointing out, we Conservatives welcomed the report by independent lenders GMAC-RFC, which pointed out that, unfortunately, the introduction of home information packs could—if the Government had gone ahead with them—have had profoundly destabilising effects on the housing market. That report took the Government’s own projections of the likely effect of home information packs—a 10 per cent. reduction in the number of properties for sale—and fed the figures through the Treasury model. The report showed that, as a result of pressing ahead, there would have been a deleterious effect not just on economic stability, but on gross domestic product and unemployment. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) laughs, but the silence from the Treasury at that point was notable. It did not utter any criticism, as it so often does when independent economic reports and forecasts are made, of that report. Indeed, shortly after it was published, the Treasury made its feelings known and, sure enough, the Minister for Housing and Planning, who keeps in close touch with Treasury thinking, ensured that it was taken proper heed of and that a voluntary scheme was introduced.
Was not the sad reading from the Whip’s brief that we heard earlier evidence of the Government’s considerable embarrassment at having got the worst of all possible worlds? My hon. Friend is being far too kind to the Minister—[Interruption.]