House of Commons
Monday 9 October 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Officials from the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and my Department met representatives of the publishers, wholesalers and retailers of magazines and newspapers earlier this year to discuss this issue. As a result, the trade associations issued guidelines reminding members of the need to exercise common sense in deciding how to display material intended for adults.
My hon. Friend will be aware that earlier this year I introduced a ten-minute Bill that called for a ban on the sale of sexually explicit material to children. Despite huge public support for that request, the response from WH Smith was to issue a notice that such material may still be displayed at 1.2 m, which is the height of the average seven-year-old. Given that the industry appears incapable of regulating itself, will my hon. Friend consider meeting me and child-centred agencies to talk about what we can do to prohibit the sale of such material to children?
First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House? Both sides will agree that self-regulation is always preferable to Government regulation. We saw a good example of that with the video games industry two or three years ago. A problem was drawn to its attention and it responded by changing methods of classification and dealing with retailers. My Department is consulting on the issue that my hon. Friend rightly raises, and I hope that she and other hon. Members who wish to lobby on the issue will provide more evidence. It is appropriate to encourage the industry to self-regulate. I have now seen some of the content in question and it is clearly preposterous to suggest that placing the material at a height of 1.2 m is an adequate safeguard.
The definition of pornography is a grey area. One of the main publications that has given rise to concern is the Daily Star. Has the Minister had any discussions with the printing industry on whether the contents of that publication constitute pornography, because I am sure that most responsible newsagents would happily consign it to the top shelf?
We have not had specific discussions with the Daily Star—[Hon. Members: “Daily Sport.”] Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has now given me a copy of the Daily Sport and I understand that hon. Members are interested in looking at it.
The material in some of the publications is the kind of stuff that one would expect to find, at best, on the top shelf and probably not in any newsagent. It is important that the House takes the matter seriously and that we consult on it. It is our ambition to achieve a resolution through self-regulation, but we would like the industry to take the issue as seriously as it merits.
I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments and the slightly more open approach that he is now taking to the issue. In his consideration, will he take into account the fact that retailers and distributors of magazines have contractual arrangements under which more is paid to have magazines displayed at the most visible levels? It should therefore be straightforward to sort out which contracts are acceptable and which are not.
The latest estimate, from 2000, suggested that 0.6 per cent. of the adult population in Great Britain are problem gamblers. That is a low proportion and we intend to keep it that way. The Gambling Commission’s next prevalence study is under way and will report in September 2007, to coincide with the introduction of the Gambling Commission. The figure for problem gambling in that report will provide the benchmark against which further judgments will be made. We intend that the Gambling Act 2005 will introduce the most protective regime in the world, with the key aim of protecting the vulnerable and children from the risks of gambling. It is worth underlining the extent to which the Gambling Commission and I, as Secretary of State, will have unprecedented powers to intervene in how gambling is run to minimise harm, protect children and keep the levels of problem gambling low.
GamCare says that the number of people using the charity for gambling-related counselling has increased by 41.3 per cent. between 2004 and 2005. The Secretary of State gave a figure of 0.6 per cent. in her answer. Does that mean that 250,000 to 350,000 people have gambling problems? Therefore, has she not presided, perhaps irresponsibly, over an enormous explosion in problem gambling?
Not at all. The figure that I quoted of 0.6 per cent. represents about 360,000 people in Great Britain, and derives from the 2000 prevalence study. It is time to update the figure, because new technologies mean that more people are gambling. It is precisely because of the inadequate protection offered by the existing regime that, two years ago, we introduced the Gambling Act 2005. It established the Gambling Commission, which will be a powerful regulator, with the central aim of promoting social responsibility among operators and keeping problem gambling low.
Can I say, to reassure the hon. Gentleman, that we have one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world, and we intend to keep it that way? That is not in any way to diminish the suffering of those people and families for whom gambling becomes a problem. However, the list of measures includes, from September next year, the removal of 6,000 machines from unregulated premises such as minicab offices and fish-and-chip shops, to protect children from the risks of addiction to fruit machines. The Gambling Commission will have powers to oversee and to control the rate and frequency of play, stakes, and access to gaming machines which, as we know, can be a source of addiction. In particular, £3 million a year will be levied from the industry to support services for people who become addicted. Such work will be undertaken through the good offices of GamCare and the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). In addition, at the end of the month we will host an international summit that will look at the exponential increase in online gambling. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) will take comfort from the measures that the Government have put in place to protect people from gambling and the risks, particularly from new technologies.
The Secretary of State will be aware of concern about the rise in online gambling. It is difficult to see what social good will come from it, as it does not even create jobs. She will be aware, too, that the US Congress is examining steps to clamp down on online gambling by stopping credit card companies processing payments. Are the Government looking at such measures for the UK?
As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), at the end of the month we will host an international summit to address precisely that problem. As things stand, such offshore gambling is beyond the regulatory reach of the UK. The United States has recently introduced new legislation to enforce existing powers. We can certainly—[Interruption.]
I apologise, Mr. Speaker.
To sum up, of course, we will look at that issue, but our approach to gambling regulation is different: to avoid prohibition, to introduce regulation and to avoid the damage that the free market will do. That is the approach—not just to gambling in this country but to the increased gambling opportunities online.
The Gambling Commission is central to this, so I congratulate the Secretary of State on the decision, taken over the summer, to locate it in Birmingham. May I suggest that she take a similar approach to the regional casino and to what may technically be known as the London Olympics but which we in Birmingham hope will be known as the Birmingham and rest of Britain Olympics?
I thank my hon. Friend and I am sure that the Gambling Commission will flourish in Birmingham. The decision about the location of the single regional casino is a decision for Parliament, on recommendation from Professor Crow when he and his panel report later this year.
Is not the Secretary of State right in acknowledging that, if online gambling is the largest cause of increases in problem gambling, it is crucial that we get online gambling organisations registered and regulated in the United Kingdom? She is right to say that in this country we have the toughest regulatory regime, but at the moment nobody is coming here because we do not have the taxation regime right. When will she sort that out with the Treasury?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, my Department is in discussion with the Treasury about precisely that point. We are concerned to ensure increasingly that online gambling companies understand the benefits of registering in this country. The consequence of that is their good name in complying with the very high regulatory standards and standards of public protection and social responsibility that will accompany the issue of their licence.
But is not the real problem that the internet is now spreading gambling as a vice, as it does with pornography? I welcome the action of the American authorities in clamping down on that. A little bit of prohibition in both areas would be a good thing. Will the Secretary of State talk to the United States to see what we can do to stop pornography as well as online gambling polluting the screens that our children and too many of our fellow citizens look at?
I understand why my right hon. Friend links the two issues, but it is important to take this on a case-by-case basis. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country gamble online and never have a problem with it. We have to ensure that the small majority who have a problem are properly protected and that there is no scope for exploitation, fraud or any of the other detriment that will harm people and undermine the objectives of our policy. We certainly ban internet material where it is pornographic and promotes violence. It is not our intention to ban internet gambling as such, but it is our intention to make sure that people are properly protected when they play.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Presumably, the Secretary of State agrees with her official briefing, recently quoted in the press:
“It is a government-wide policy, and that includes HM Treasury, that Britain should become a world leader in the field of on-line gambling.”
How can the Secretary of State justify giving tax advantages to online gambling operations that other forms of gambling and betting will not enjoy? Given the mounting evidence that problem gambling is growing fastest in the field of online gambling, what assurances can she give that Britain will not become a world leader in problem gambling as well?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my assurances, and indeed the careful scrutiny before the House of the Gambling Act 2005 as a measure to prevent problem gambling. In relation to his point about the regulatory status of online gambling, there are decisions to be taken by my Department; ultimately the taxation position is a judgment for the Treasury. It may be that in other countries—other jurisdictions—the tax advantages will be better, but in the long run it is in the interests of modern gambling companies, if they want to protect their reputation, to be prepared to comply with and to abide by the social responsibility standards that we will insist on in this country. That is what we offer online firms which come to this country.
Following the previous question, I, too, read the press report suggesting that the Government are seeking to make Britain a centre for online gambling and I am much more concerned about that than even Front-Bench Members. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to think about reversing that policy and not make Britain a centre for online gambling?
As I think the Daily Mail pointed out today when it made that claim—[Hon. Members: “And The Times.”] And The Times. It is certainly not our intention that we become a world centre for online gambling. Do not confuse that, Mr. Speaker, with our aim to get online gambling companies to register and to come on-shore. If we do that, we will have better powers and those companies will be in a better position to act in a socially responsible way, so we will ensure that, in a rapidly increasing area of gambling, we can keep down the proportion of problem gambling. We are not marketing the UK as a centre. We are marketing the UK as having the toughest regulatory regime in the world and as being the safest place for people to gamble. It is a public interest test.
It is still too early to draw firm conclusions, but indications are that the new licensing regime has been successfully implemented and is working well.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Why do certain activities on the Isle of Wight, such as the Chale show, the county show, the garlic festival and other very attractive festivals, find themselves regulated both under the Licensing Act and under the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971, despite my having been told by the Minister’s predecessor—the present Minister for the Middle East, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells)—before the Licensing Bill became law that it would impliedly repeal parts of the Isle of Wight Act? Which sections have been repealed?
I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I am glad that the Chale show, notwithstanding the difficulties that were faced, was a success. None the less, I recognise the problems faced as a result of the Isle of Wight Act and the Licensing Act both having to be navigated by those putting on the show. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my predecessor wrote to him in 2002, setting out the Department’s view that there would be implied repeal of elements of the Isle of Wight Act as a result of the new legislation. I have asked my officials to look into the matter and I am happy to meet him to discuss it because, as he knows, the intention behind the 2003 Act was to simplify the procedures, not to make things more difficult.
I therefore remind the hon. Gentleman that, as part of the new Licensing Act, we were able to reduce from 174 to 20 the number of forms, licences, notices, certificates and declarations. We managed wholly to repeal 23 Acts of Parliament relating to licensing and all associated regulations, and 69 Acts in England and Wales were reduced. Nine licensing regimes were reduced to a single regime. However, there was clearly a problem in the Isle of Wight and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to see what we can do so that the problems faced by the Chale horticultural show can, if possible, be avoided in future.
My hon. Friend will remember the dire warnings about the implementation of the new Licensing Act leading to an increase in drunken violence. Can he confirm the figures given to me by West Midlands police, who say that more arrests were made this summer in one day at Ascot than during the whole World cup period in the centre of Birmingham nightlife, Broad street?
It is always difficult to account for particular behaviour at major events such as Ascot. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to inform me of any individuals from the House who may have taken part in those events. The overall evidence on the implementation of the Act is being collated at the moment—it is important to look not at a particular moment or day but at a long period—but early anecdotal evidence from the police and the local licensing authorities is that, by and large, it is successful and is having a positive effect on crime and disorder. Of course, there will always be exceptions.
The Brecon access group in my constituency, whose purpose is to promote access for disabled people to public buildings and private businesses, complains that when licensed premises undertake substantial refurbishment the opportunity is not often taken to make reasonable adjustment, as in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to allow disabled people to use their facilities. Will the Minister see whether anything can be done through the advice notes to local authorities or by changing the legislation to make sure that licensed premises are available to disabled people and that they can enjoy them in the same way as more able people?
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Newport city centre, robbery, assault and violence are down this year by 40 per cent., which Gwent police attribute to the new licensing laws and the staggered opening hours? Will he join me in congratulating the police, the council and the licence holders on their teamwork, which has cut city centre crime?
Absolutely. I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments, but the picture is not always so rosy. As we know, there have been problems with young people, particularly. The new licensing regime has enabled the police to deal more effectively with those. Police can issue £80 fines to those who act in a drunk and disorderly manner, and they have not been afraid to use them, with 8,000 fixed penalty notices being issued during the enforcement campaign last Christmas alone.
Is the Minister aware that many tourists on the north Yorkshire coast this summer have been disappointed at not being able to have a drink in small hotels and guesthouses because the owners of those premises have been put off by the cost and the bureaucracy involved, so the tourists have to go into seaside towns to other institutions where there may have been a lot of trouble in the past, which have longer opening hours and more problems?
I am not aware of the specific venues to which the hon. Gentleman refers. By and large, however, the effect of the Licensing Act has been to simplify procedures, although there are problems in relation to the forms. We have been considering the length and complexity of the forms that have had to be filled in. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me about the establishments of which he speaks, I will be more than happy to look into the specifics.
I welcome the new measures under the licensing law. Will my hon. Friend review the level of fines for convenience stores that have alcohol licences and which are found guilty of selling alcohol to people under the age of 16? There is growing concern about the matter in my constituency. The minimum fine is too low. If it were raised to £2,000, so that a store could opt to go to a magistrates court and risk a higher fine, the measure would become more self-policing and we would be more effective in stopping young people gaining access to alcohol.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Licensing Act has already increased fines for selling alcohol to under-18s from £1,000 to £5,000. That is welcome. However, he rightly draws attention to another aspect. He may wish to know that, as well as the review that will take place after 12 months, I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), are meeting the trade this afternoon to discuss those matters. We will continue to keep them under review, because under-age drinking and the problems associated with it are a menace in our society, and it is the job of Government and all parties in the House to deal with it.
Before I answer the questions, I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering Lord Monro—Hector Monro—who, sadly, died on 30 August. He held many ministerial posts, but the one that he held with the greatest pleasure was the one that I now hold, as the Minister with responsibility for sport. He and I have something in common: we were both brought back from Australia, where we were watching rugby. He was brought back in the 1970s when he was manager of the Scottish team, and I was brought back in 2003 when I wanted to watch England win the World cup. The great game of rugby union binds us together.
The independent casino advisory panel is continuing with its work, and remains on track to make its recommendations at the turn of the year.
I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about Hector Monro.
Can the Minister confirm that it is alleged that people are being recruited and trained as croupiers in the area around Greenwich to work in the former millennium dome? If that is the case, does it not suggest that the entire selection process may be a farce? Can he state categorically that some deal was not cooked up on a dude ranch somewhere in America, and that that is not a means of getting rid of that white elephant, the dome, which has remained an embarrassment to the Government?
Can I say very clearly that the panel that is now looking into the siting of these casinos is independent? What the hon. Gentleman has just said is very serious. We have brought together an independent panel under Professor Crow, and what the hon. Gentleman says brings Professor Crow’s integrity into disrepute. That is very serious. Professor Crow will make the decision, and that decision will come back to the House, and if the hon. Gentleman—or, indeed, any other Member—wants to question that decision of the panel led by Professor Crow when it comes back to the House, they have the right to do so. There will be an affirmative vote of this House to determine where those sites will be. Members ought to remember this: we have brought in an independent person of the integrity of Professor Crow to head this panel, and to impugn his integrity in this House is unacceptable.
I noticed that the Minister made a slip of the tongue about sites. Stephen Crow, head of the panel, said:
“How are we going to make up our minds? I don’t know.”
Given that we might have more than one site brought back, will the Minister select just one of those sites, or will the House have a chance to vote on all of them?
There will be a recommendation to the House on one regional site, eight large sites and eight small. As for how that decision is brought about, the hon. Lady might wish to look at the Gambling Act 2005, as she will find guidance in it. The panel has been set up under it, and there will be a recommendation—and the final decision will be taken by this House.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that the whole process for selecting a site for a regional casino has to be seen to be transparent and fair. Is it his understanding of the process that the casino advisory panel will listen to representations from local authorities and will then make a recommendation to this House about which local authorities should be chosen, and that the local authority should then decide, through a proper and open process, who the operator for that site will be? Does he therefore understand that it is slightly against at least the spirit of that process for local authorities to come forward with what are effectively joint proposals and joint bids from an operator who has already been selected in advance of the whole process being started?
I advise local authorities not to go down that course. There are three stages. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) would listen—and, indeed, read the Act—he would not make comments as stupid as those he made to the Conservative party conference, but that is an aside, Mr. Speaker. I see you have a smile on your face, so you obviously appreciated the joke.
The Gambling Commission will find out whether those applying to run a casino in our country are fit and proper to do so. It is then up to local authorities to site casinos in their area—anybody would think that we were haranguing local authorities, but we are not. They will come forward on two matters: premises licenses and planning under planning regulation 106. It is up to them to get the best possible deal. I advise any local authority not to pre-commit themselves. They have a fantastic negotiating position—if they get an offer from Professor Crow’s committee in respect of siting.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key element in the deliberations of the panel should be the strength of local support and interest in a regional casino bid? If he does, will he note the comments of Professor Crow at the Blackpool examination that there were more people at that examination than at any of the others all together? Will he underline to Professor Crow and his associates the need to take into account the groundswell of public opinion when reaching their decision?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for Blackpool. I will not go down the route that he wishes me to go down, other than to say that clear terms of reference have been set out. I think that what he mentions will be factored into that, because the terms of reference under which Professor Crow and his colleagues are operating would allow that. So the answer to the point he makes is yes, but equally that goes for every other local authority—and, indeed, lobbying group—as well.
In commissioning the Budd report, the issue was not casinos but online and internet gambling, which is the big growth area. The 2005 Act for the first time protects children and the vulnerable through an Act of Parliament, which the Gaming Act 1968 does not. I am absolutely confident that the Gambling Commission and the actions that we will take under the 2005 Act will protect the vulnerable and probably provide more protection than any other country in the world provides. Many countries are looking at the Gambling Commission, which we put on to the statute book, to see whether they can use the same model.
I suppose that the Minister’s having paid so much attention to what I said at last week’s highly successful Conservative party conference is a form of progress. However, it is astonishing that, just weeks away from the decision on the super-casino licence, we still do not know the criteria by which the pilot scheme will be judged a success or failure. Is not the reason that the Minister and his Department have already decided that they want more super-casinos, and will use any excuse to increase the number? The Minister said in an earlier answer that this matter would be brought before Parliament by the casino advisory panel, but he should be aware that, under clause 175 of the 2005 Act, the Secretary of State has the right to increase the number. Will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out increasing the number of super-casinos, even if the panel fails to recommend just one? A simple yes or no will suffice.
The hon. Gentleman’s definition of “success” differs from mine, to be honest. If he thinks that the Conservative party conference was a success, he will have to go a long, long way before he occupies the seat occupied by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If that conference was a success, he needs to keep on going. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government proposed eight regional casinos and the proposal was in the wash-up before the last general election. The Conservatives decided to come back with the proposal of one regional casino, which we accepted because we wanted to get the Bill on to the statute book in order to protect the vulnerable in our society. That is where it now stops—at one regional casino—unless the hon. Gentleman says to the Government that the Conservatives want to change the proposal. The proposal is very clear: one regional casino, and eight large and eight small. That is what we agreed before the election, and that is the basis on which the 2005 Act went through. [Interruption.] Absolutely no: there will be one regional casino, and eight large and eight small—unless the Opposition propose an alternative that is acceptable to us, up to a figure of eight.
We recognise the important role that skateboarding and other non-traditional sporting activities can play in attracting young people to participate in sport. Sport England advises that, over the last 10 years, skateboarding has received some £1.5 million in lottery funding.
Recently, I had the opportunity to open a skate plaza in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Middlesbrough council and Councillor Coppinger, who has been the driving force behind this project, which has been of great benefit to the community? Does my hon. Friend also recognise that young people indulging in sport is one way to keep them occupied, instead of getting involved in antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend is right, and we want to associate ourselves with, and to encourage, such informal sports. I congratulate Middlesbrough on having one of the best skateboarding facilities for young people in the region. That is precisely what we need to avoid antisocial behaviour in our communities, and my hon. Friend and Middlesbrough council need to be congratulated in that regard.
May I publicly thank Mr. Ken Lynch of Sandy, who works tirelessly with youngsters in my constituency to identify and provide facilities such as skate parks for the many who wish to practise the sport responsibly? However, may I share his concern with the Minister that, when these facilities are planned, enough attention should be paid to security—lighting and closed circuit television—in order to protect such youngsters, who are often bullied by others who want to disrupt them? I should be grateful if the Minister ensured that, when these facilities are planned, proper attention is paid to security to encourage youngsters, so that they are not driven away by those who are out to spoil their sport.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement, but what steps are his Department taking to encourage teenagers to have a say in the process of obtaining facilities in their local area and to engage with those youngsters so that they can be kept away from antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend is right. He knows that the Government will shortly be introducing a local government White Paper and appreciates that, while Sport England wants to ensure that it consults young people on its plans, a large part of sporting provision is run by local authorities. I hope that, when we debate the White Paper, we can take those issues forward.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Stonehenge last month. She will be speaking at the launch of the English Heritage report on 15 November and will visit more English Heritage sites in an official and private capacity by the end of the year.
My constituency probably has more listed buildings than almost any other area of England and I was pleased recently to welcome both the chairman and chief executive of English Heritage to the underground bunkers in Corsham and to Brunel’s famous Box tunnel, but is the Minister not concerned that, if the rather peculiar plan to bring in a hybrid Bill to de-list and then to demolish to Commonwealth Institute building in London is brought forward, that will set a worrying precedent for buildings at risk across England?
We are having discussions on the Commonwealth Institute, but those discussions are unique. There is no other building whose sale and listing have a bearing on education in the Commonwealth. We clearly have a responsibility in that regard and that is why we are having the discussions.
It is always a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the Stonehenge world heritage site in my constituency and it was a pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State last month, together with the chairman of English Heritage and the Roads Minister, and, significantly, a Treasury official. Are the Government fully apprised of the importance of the development of the visitor centre at Stonehenge, of getting the decision on the road right and of the fact that this is about the Olympics as well? It is not in competition with the Olympics but should be seen as complementary to the Olympics, as showcasing the best of English Heritage properties to the world.
There is no doubt that Stonehenge is a great iconic site and incredibly important to Britain’s heritage, and that is why the Secretary of State made her visit recently and why I too have visited it in my present capacity. The hon. Gentleman will know that, because of the huge cost implications in relation to that site, there was a review that will be considered by Ministers shortly, and that must be right. I make no comment in relation to the planning matters raised, because those have been called in by the local authority.
Shurland hall in my constituency is a building in which Henry VIII had one of his honeymoons. Ten years ago, English Heritage put up special scaffolding at a cost of £200,000, probably more than the building was worth at the time; at one point I asked whether that could be listed. I am pleased to say that we have won a £300,000 award from English Heritage to restore the façade of this fantastic hall. When it is finished, would the Minister would come and open it?
I appreciate the problems with regard to Stonehenge that the Minister pointed out, but may I try to ensure that it is predominantly a heritage rather than just a transport-related matter, and that the heritage rather than transport issues hold sway as far as possible? It is disappointing that, in the Secretary of State’s first five years at the helm, she failed to visit a single English Heritage property in an official capacity, as the Minister said in a parliamentary answer on 6 April. As well as her endeavours to acquaint herself with English Heritage property, will she ensure that its vacant chairmanship is taken up by a Government appointee not as closely associated with the Labour party as the incoming chairmen of Ofcom and Sport England?
Surely the Opposition can do better than that. The Secretary of State is the first Secretary of State for 20 years to introduce heritage protection legislation, which will be introduced shortly. She is the first to begin a discussion about the public value of heritage, which she began last year in her essay and which led to a huge conference in January with the heritage community. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State and others will decide the future chairmanship of English Heritage in an appropriate, transparent and open way.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church Heritage Forum, of which the commissioners are members, has welcomed “Inspired”. The forum’s chairman, the Bishop of London, has also said that the repair needs of historic churches are much greater than the sum that English Heritage has asked for.
Is there not an urgent need to maintain and repair many crumbling cathedrals, churches and chapels? While congregations and local communities must play a role, the sheer scale of the sums involved means that the Treasury also has a part to play. Is it not disappointing that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has seemingly not signed up to English Heritage’s “Inspired” campaign?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who often raises the matter in the House. He is right that the upkeep of our magnificent church buildings should be properly reflected in funding received from the state, and the Church Heritage Forum and the Archbishops Council are constantly exploring possibilities with a number of Government contacts. The interest that this House takes in that Church-state relationship and getting more money into our churches is welcome.
Is it not true that a tiny fraction of the money spent on that ridiculous dome, and an even tinier fraction of the money that will be spent on the Olympics, would ensure that all our cathedrals and churches were safe for a further 100 years?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act
The Electoral Commission has informed me that it issues advice and guidance on which accounting units are required to submit a statement of accounts and on the format and content of those submissions. Additionally, it provides advice through central party organisations on the reporting of donations. The commission checks all the statutory information that it receives to identify any discrepancies or inconsistencies, and all those arising are addressed with the relevant parties and accounting units.
PPERA states that constituency parties with incomes more than £25,000 must declare their accounts. At the end of the last financial year, 308 Conservative associations, 93 Liberal Democrat associations and only 38 Labour associations had filed their accounts. The worst offender was Hammersmith and Fulham constituency Labour party. Regardless of political party, what progress is the commission making in ensuring compliance with the 2000 Act?
The accounts that Hammersmith and Fulham Labour party submitted for 2005 were received on 12 July 2006, and they are in a satisfactory form. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, as a considerable number of accounting units have not reported on time. However, the Electoral Commission takes the view that it is appropriate to have a sense of proportion about this, and that the criminal penalties available in legislation are disproportionate. The commission has the option either of reprimanding the accounting unit or of seeking to impose a criminal sanction against the treasurer, who will often be an untrained amateur. The commission has therefore made recommendations for a more enforceable scheme, and its review is expected to report in December.
The Electoral Commission informs me that research conducted after the 2006 local elections in England found that the overwhelming majority of voters and non-voters, including 97 per cent. of those who voted at a polling station, found the voting process easy and convenient.
In the Rushden East ward of my constituency, there have been two district council by-elections separated by a few months. In the second by-election, the number of polling stations was halved from what it had been for the first by-election. As a result, turnout in the second by-election was a third lower than in the first. What assessment has the Electoral Commission made of the need for more, not fewer, polling stations?
I am advised that special circumstances may have applied in the Wellingborough district council area. Portakabins were initially used and subsequently found to be inappropriate as regards access for the disabled, and the presence of a contractor outside one of the polling stations required using only one door instead of two. That may have had some special influence. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 requires local authorities to complete a review of the accessibility of polling districts and places throughout their area within 12 months after the provisions come into force. Local authorities must thereafter undertake further reviews within four years of the latest review.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the recent changes in electoral law passed by this House, it is likely that the counts for general and local elections will take place on the day after the close of poll instead of overnight immediately after the close of poll. Will the Electoral Commission consider a system whereby any voter can vote at any polling station and polling stations can always be sited in places convenient for large numbers of people, such as railway stations and supermarkets, so that we maximise the catch of people who can vote on their way to, or back from, where they usually go on their business?
How easy will it be for the Electoral Commission itself to vote if it does not have a chairman? My hon. Friend will know that the chairman’s present term of office expires at the end of December, but no decision has been announced. Can he tell the House when that will take place?
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Access to Churches
That is a matter for individual churches and their insurers and it depends largely on local circumstances. However, we know that the major insurer encourages churches to remain open during the day.
That is the problem, is it not? We have 16,000 Church of England churches, more and more of which are closing their doors to the public outside service times because they fear vandalism and theft. Why is it not possible for churches to get a better deal by pooling their insurance premiums?
As my hon. Friend says, it is unfortunate that many churches feel the need to close their doors to protect themselves. The major insurer—Ecclesiastical Insurance—has suggested that an active, well-visited church should deter arson, theft and vandalism. Advice on extra security measures is available and the insurance company provides a security marking system free of charge to all churches. However, my hon. Friend’s suggestion is worth taking up with Ecclesiastical Insurance, and I will do so.
A benefice in my constituency consisting of eight churches, with a church roll of 2,500 people, has to find a diocesan contribution of £63,000 a year—and that is before it has started paying for insurance premiums and the maintenance and repair of buildings. Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the church authorities the funding crisis in rural parishes in constituencies such as mine that cannot afford the contributions that they have to make to the diocese as well as to the maintenance and insurance of these buildings?
I am grateful for, and would be happy to make, the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, I could not make it better than he has done and I congratulate him on that. He is right that there is a huge problem with church funding, which is reflected in the questions that I am asked in the House, between what the state and what the Church can provide. We have seen many articles in the newspapers about cathedrals and churches that are in difficulty. The question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is about that. We need to deal with the matter and, to do so, the state must take a much more proactive role.
There is a growing problem with insurance, whether the churches are open or closed during the day, arising from the increased ingress of bats. If only they would stay in the belfry, but they do not. In several churches—especially in Norfolk, I am told—bat excrement is causing serious damage to the interior fabric of churches, at the cost of thousands of pounds and the great inconvenience of those who wish to worship.
Before the recess, I saw a bat in the House of Commons corridor. I do not know whether it had come from the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is valid. The problems add to those that the Church already has with repairs, security and those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that bishops should be appointed on their spiritual and administrative attributes and skills, not time served? If so, what is the Church doing to recognise such skills earlier in those clergymen who have not served 20 or 30 years? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made the sedentary comment, “Answer that if you can.”
The criteria for appointing bishops are in line with the hon. Gentleman’s question. The criteria that he mentioned are in place. We are considering the average age of bishops, which is 57, and doing our best to bring forward those who are younger and can invigorate the Church, as those who are in their posts do.
Church of England Calendar
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the rule was changed in 2000 in the lectionary, which is the Church of England calendar for vicars and priests. Does he have any information about how the rule came to be applied, given that prayers are still an obligation every 6 February as the date of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession both to the throne and as Supreme Head of the Church of England? Would it be possible to publish the minutes to ensure that there was no political correctness or political interference in the decision?
I am happy to refer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question back and give him a written response. The anniversary of the sovereign’s accession is observed annually by the Church, but it does not form part of the ecclesiastical calendar. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman believes that it might, as his question suggests. I shall pass that view to the Liturgical Commission, which is responsible for such matters. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman about the publication of minutes.
Church of England Estate
A wide range of Church of England bodies, including the commissioners, own land and property and it is not possible to give a single figure covering receipts for the whole Church. However, the Church Commissioners’ total property sales in 2005 were worth £242 million.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree, as a point of principle, that, if land in a parish is sold for housing while in the same parish the church is raising a public appeal to modernise its church hall, the least that could be done would be to pay for those improvements from the proceeds of the sale of any land that had been owned by the parish?
The two sets of circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers are not mutually exclusive. In relation to property sales and to the Church’s expenditure in 2005, the commissioners spent about £100 million on pensions, £31.5 million on parish mission and ministry support, £21 million on bishops and £6.6 million on cathedrals. The parish land to which the hon. Gentleman refers might not be within the domain of the Church Commissioners.
Young People in Care
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the children in care Green Paper, which I have published today. Copies have been placed in the House of Commons Library. At the heart of the Green Paper lies one simple presumption: that the aspirations of the state for children in care should match those that each parent has for their own children. Right hon. and hon. Members recognise that moral imperative, and I should like to pay tribute to the associate parliamentary group on children in and leaving care, and in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), for highlighting many of the issues that the Green Paper seeks to resolve. They have vociferously pointed out that this area has received too little attention for too long.
We know the depressing statistics. Children in care are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs, and nine times more likely to be expelled from school. One quarter of people in prison today have spent some time in our care system. This Government have introduced a number of measures to try to address the complex problems of children in care. Since 1997, we have invested almost £1 billion in the quality protects initiative to improve outcomes for children in care. We have taken steps to encourage adoption instead of care, and we have placed a duty on local authorities to improve educational outcomes for this specific group of children. However, this has clearly not been enough.
Today’s Green Paper builds on those efforts and the implementation of “Every Child Matters”, which for the first time provides the infrastructure to deal with this issue in a co-ordinated way. The first priority must be to prevent children from slipping into care when there are family alternatives. We must take effective pre-emptive and preventive action, so that no child can be sucked into the system by default. If there is a chance that a child can be safely restored to a healing family environment, we must take it. We will trial a new kind of intensive family therapy to address parents’ problems while ensuring that children are more than just helpless bystanders. We will seek to get to the heart of the domestic problems, tackling the most difficult situations of abuse, neglect or violence with a mix of conciliation and targeted care. To raise our knowledge of what works in this new area, we will create a national centre of excellence to share experience and knowledge.
Secondly, the care system must act more like a traditional loving family, with all the extra responsibility that that implies. The fact that a child is in care does not mean that he or she should be deprived of the emotional support and development that most children, thankfully, can rely on. The state must ensure that children are always in the best hands, constantly supported by continuous guidance and motivation, investing in their futures and shaping their decisions.
The care profession already comprises many dedicated, experienced professionals. However, we need to ensure that all carers reach the standard of the best. We will begin a round of specially tailored recruitment campaigns. We will also take steps to match foster carers with children more intelligently, fitting the complex needs of the child with the specialised skills of the carer. A new, tiered framework of qualifications, payments and standards will be used to steer these difficult decisions. By taking more trouble to get it right first time, we will avoid children being bounced from placement to placement, which is so damaging to them personally and disruptive to their studies.
Thirdly, we must ensure that children in care receive an excellent education. Results have steadily improved for children in care, but still nine out of 10 do not achieve five good GCSEs. To ensure that they benefit from access to sport, music and drama, which instil cultural values and equip them with social capital, we will encourage local authorities to open their sports centres and leisure clubs to children in care free of charge.
Social workers will receive budgets to spend on the personal needs of each child, allowing them the flexibility to find money quickly when a child needs extra support such as speech or language therapy.
We will appoint a new—a dreadful phrase, I know, Mr. Speaker—virtual head teacher, who will, I reassure Members, be a real person, in every area, with overarching responsibility for driving up results among local children in care. We will guarantee catch-up lessons. With the passage of the Education and Inspections Bill, we will also require schools to take in children in care, even if the school is full, so children are elevated to the best schools rather than dumped in the worst.
We will do more to prevent children in care from being excluded. Nothing is more damaging to a child’s chances of success than moving school after they have made their GCSE choices. Children who change school after year 10 drop around one and a half grades per subject, so eight C grades become four D and four E grades. We will therefore create a presumption that children in care will not move schools in years 10 and 11.
When children have to move home, we will do all that we can to avoid them moving school as well. We have proposed that, in such circumstances, and where practicable, children in care will get free transport to their existing school rather than move to a new one.
Fourthly, we need to ensure that children leave care in a measured way. Too often, children in care feel that the system spits them out on their 16th birthday. Only 6 per cent. make it to university, compared with 38 per cent. of their peer group. We must ensure that children get a soft landing when they leave the system, particularly during those crucial years when decisions are made about their future.
We will give every child in care a right to decide when they leave the system and the chance to stay with their foster families up to the age of 21, or longer if they are continuing in education. We will establish a new £2,000 bursary to encourage them to attend university, and we will also put an extra £100 into their child trust fund for every year they spend in care.
Parenting is a weighty responsibility and institutions need to be held accountable, just as individuals would be. Every local authority will be subject to regular children in care inspections by Ofsted. My Department will make it a specific priority to improve the academic performance of children in care, and Ministers will hold an annual stock-take to review progress.
Too often, decisions about children in care are taken without listening to those with most at stake—the children themselves. Local authorities will be encouraged to set up children in care councils so that the voices of children in care are properly heard. For this Green Paper, we will ensure that our consultation stretches right into children’s homes to connect with people who have been through the system.
This is a Green Paper with as many ideas as prescriptions. We recognise that during open consultation many further ideas will emerge—indeed, from Members on both sides of the House, but particularly from those who have been in care and the dedicated professionals who work in this area, day in and day out. They are not to blame for the collective failure that this report highlights: we are.
We need to provide a more co-ordinated approach to these entrenched issues, ensuring that our care system is focused less on systems and more on care. These children are our responsibility. We cannot continue to fail them.
We welcome the statement, as the evidence on the plight of our cared-for children is deeply shocking. Fifty-four per cent. of them fail to get a single qualification from school. Twenty-five per cent. of people in prison were children in care. The system is letting down the nation’s children in the greatest need.
The Secretary of State paid tribute to the all-party group. We should also pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Barnardo’s and the NCH, and to The Times Educational Supplement, in helping to keep up the pressure to tackle this problem. Over the past 10 years, various attempts have been made to tackle it: initiatives such as “quality protects”, public spending up to £1.9 billion, and targets. I remind the Secretary of State of the target set in 2002:
“to substantially narrow the gap between the educational attainment and participation of children in care and that of their peers by 2006.”
That was supposed to mean that no more than 10 per cent. should reach school-leaving age without having sat a GCSE. In 2005, however, 36 per cent. of children in care left school without having sat a single GCSE. Sadly, the Government’s targets have not been met, and, despite the increases in public expenditure, the problem persists, as the Secretary of State openly acknowledged.
We therefore welcome many of the Secretary of State’s further proposals today. Is he confident, however, that there is the capacity to deliver the initiatives? Initiatives are endlessly brought to the House, but all too often there is not the organisation and resource to make them happen. Is he confident that local authorities, which, in reality, will bear the brunt of many of his proposed initiatives, have the capacity to deliver them? Is he aware of what is nothing less than a crisis in the recruitment of social workers, with a 10 per cent. shortage in London and the south-east? It is all too easy to kick social workers, and blame them, but the initiatives he describes will work only if we have more social workers. We should not be kicking and blaming social workers; we need to recruit more. We also have a shortage of 10,000 foster carers. With such a shortage, how can we deliver his initiatives? We need that capacity, and we heard nothing from him today about how that will be achieved.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is right about the need to enable children to stay on longer in care if possible. Will he admit that another example of well-intentioned initiatives going wrong is the Government’s Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000? It has become part of the problem, creating a perverse incentive for local authorities to get children out of care early, so that they do not have to write cumbersome pathway plans. That is the regrettable and unpredicted effect of his legislation.
I must admit to the Secretary of State that I am not quite sure—and I do not know if he knows—what a virtual head teacher is. I very much look forward to him telling us. I think of it in a simple and practical way. Who will take responsibility for turning up at parents’ evening to ask how a child in care is doing? Will it be the social worker or the new virtual head teacher? If, as a result of his proposals, there is even more confusion about that, we will have gone backwards rather than forwards.
There are also some wider issues. Many children in care have troubled and chaotic lives, and many of them have come from families with troubled and chaotic lives. All too often, Government schemes, instead of providing some stability and security, have mirrored the chaos and confusion from which many of those children have suffered. It is so important that they have more stability.
If the Secretary of State’s proposals do indeed mean fewer school moves and fewer different placements for a child in care, we will certainly support them. However, I should be grateful if he explained how he will ensure greater continuity of education when we know that the average move to a new placement involves a journey of 20 miles. If he is to provide more specialist placements, how can he be confident that they will be nearby, and how can we be confident that a child will retain contacts with neighbourhood and family?
The Secretary of State will of course recognise that even when a child is moved out of its immediate family, there might be members of the extended family who can take some responsibility for it. As we know from his extraordinary personal experience, the Secretary of State was not in care because members of his family were willing to help him. Is he aware that extended family members sometimes feel that social workers are excluding them from decisions about the child’s future? I have heard from grandparents, for example, who wished to be involved in fostering or even adopting a child, and who feel that social workers have ignored the opportunity that they could have provided. Will more be done in that regard?
The statement is welcome. If the state is to take on the enormous responsibility of caring for children, it must try its best to match the commitment, stability and emotional support that a family can provide. If the proposals that the Secretary of State has announced will achieve those objectives, we will support them.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the evidence is shocking, and absolutely right to say that the problem persists. I have not tried to make political points at the Dispatch Box. I have said that this is our responsibility, we are in government, I am the Secretary of State, and the buck stops here.
We must measure what is happening to children in care, and until the late 1990s there was very little such measurement. The quality protects initiative, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, invested some £1 billion in additional funds, and some of the statistics have improved; but an increase from 7 per cent. to 11 per cent. in the number of children gaining five GCSEs is not good enough. There is no need for any party-political points to be made. I should like to think that Members in all parts of the House, and certainly the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), are determined to tackle the problem.
That brings me to the issue of capacity. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned social workers. We are already involved in a project called “options for excellence”, which aims to give social workers the right professional status, reduce wastage rates and ensure that social workers continue to work with children. It is rather like some of what we tried to do for teachers in the 1990s. An interim report has already been published, and the final report should be published shortly. We certainly do not want to stigmatise social workers, which is why I have gone out of my way to say that the problems we face in relation to children in care are not the fault of the dedicated professionals who work with them day in, day out.
We need to consider whether we should give foster carers a salary. That is a specific proposal in the Green Paper. Another is the proposal for three tiers of social workers: one to deal with the least difficult cases, then another, and a top tier dealing with the most difficult problems and receiving the support, training and salary that will enable them to do that.
I do not agree that the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 has made no difference. The statistics show that there are still too many children in care who are not in employment, education or training, but the figure of 46 per cent. before the Act was introduced now stands at 59 per cent., so there has been an improvement of 13 percentage points.
The hon. Gentleman challenged me to define a virtual head teacher. I will have a go. The idea is for a local education authority to employ someone—most likely a retired head teacher or a head teacher who has moved on to other employment—who will do the job for the whole authority. That person will cross school boundaries to ensure that children in care are being properly looked after and dealt with in the school system.
The point about parents’ evenings—a poignant point that I believe features in the Green Paper—was made by a child in care, who said, “Nobody turns up on my parents’ evening; there is nobody there.” We want to ensure that someone is there. If the child in care has a foster carer, the foster parent should be there—and most foster parents would agree that that is part of being a foster parent. If the child is based in an institution, his or her social worker should be present. That is all very much part of the plans that we have set out.
The dedicated teacher idea—I believe that it emerged some years ago under the previous Government—can be made to work more effectively and it also connects with our ideas about advocacy. The problem with children in care not having a lead professional to look after them can be tackled in a number of ways.
The penultimate point is about stability, and I agree with the hon. Member for Havant that it is the key word. If there is a mantra that runs through it all, it is stability. We have to get the placements right in the first place, which is part of the tiered approach. Part of the reason why children move around so much is the fact that the original placement could have been handled better and dealt with more intelligently.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about members of the family and social workers. It is right to look carefully into that. Social workers should not be in a position whereby the extended family cannot convince them about the care that they could provide. Children themselves are sometimes old enough and able to articulate their views and legislation already contains the presumption that the child’s views should not only be heard, but taken into account, yet that does not seem to be happening. All those points need to be addressed. I accept that, as with other Green Papers, many other ideas will emerge as the consultation proceeds.
As my right hon. Friend says, early intervention in children’s lives is crucial to prevent them from coming into care in the first place. What can make a difference is good-quality child care from birth, which some parents cannot provide on their own. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in implementing the Childcare Act 2006, it is important for families where children are at risk that free and good-quality child care is available in children’s centres to support non-working parents and to improve children’s early-life care?
My hon. Friend—my young hon. Friend—is absolutely right. One of the problems identified in the Green Paper is the availability of child care, but it is also important to ensure that foster carers are aware of Sure Start and children’s centres. We are having some problems ensuring that Sure Start gets through to the most difficult-to-reach groups, which is an important element of the question.
May I begin by welcoming the Green Paper and thanking the Secretary of State for the tone of his statement? It deals with an area where Government policy has failed in the past, but I want to pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to tackling the issue. There is much good news in the Green Paper and I want to acknowledge it before questioning the Secretary of State further.
I wholeheartedly welcome the announcement in the Green Paper that the designated teacher is to be put on a statutory footing—a matter that he did not mention in his statement but which appears in the Green Paper and for which we have called for some time. I also welcome the announcement that young people will be able to remain with their foster family until they are 21. Many young people in care have had a fractured experience of education, meaning that it often takes them much longer to complete their studies. The extension of fostering recognises that and the fact that care in a family setting does not normally end at 16. Similarly, I want to welcome the increased emphasis on academic achievement of young people in care, through priority in admissions and bursaries for university.
Surely, however, one way to encourage schools to take young people who may struggle is to target money on the pupil. Why have the Government not adopted a pupil premium to ensure that schools can provide the extra help that vulnerable young people need? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the new requirement on schools to prioritise admissions of looked-after children will apply throughout the school year and not just at the beginning?
I welcome the proposals for training and salaries for foster carers—something that we have called for some time. I also welcome the acknowledgment that too often potential carers from within the family are overlooked. Are the Government looking at better allowances for kinship care? When placements change, the only stable figure is often the social worker. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is less churn of appointed social workers for individual children?
The Green Paper announces that the Government will encourage councils to provide free leisure activities for young people. Will the extra money be provided to councils to ensure that that is possible, even where services have been outsourced to another provider? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the extended schools programme will be available free of charge to looked-after children? Do the Government have any plans to reintroduce the programme that provided foster homes with a home computer?
Finally, one of the greatest tragedies of looked-after children is, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the fact that so many, so early in their lives, find themselves on the wrong side of the law. It is perhaps ironic that immediately after this statement there will be another one on overcrowding in prisons. Let us hope that this Green Paper marks a new chapter for some of the most vulnerable in our society.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for her welcome for many parts of the report. I shall pick out the issues that she raised when she went beyond praise, and important issues they are. The first was the issue of targeting money on individuals. The whole problem of children in care is that there are so few of them that they do not register on the system. Part of the idea behind the virtual head teacher and Ofsted inspecting every school in the local area every three years is to ensure that children in care do register. I do not think that this is an issue about finances. Martin Narey, the chairman of Barnardo’s, made it clear this morning that, unlike most political issues with which he has dealt, this is an issue about systems rather than finance. That is at the core of the problem in terms of the help that we give to children in schools.
I will take away the issue of better allowances for kinship care; it has not been drawn to my attention and there may be a legal point. However, it fits well with the idea that if there is an opportunity to use a family member to avoid a child slipping into care, we ought to grasp it.
Ensuring less churn is part of the current work on social workers’ pay and conditions. We must look at how social workers can bid for work, with the local authority being the commissioner. Social care workers often want to stay dedicated to looking after children but too often are diverted on to paperwork and bureaucracy. If social workers can continue to do what they want it will help with churn.
The issues of home computers and free extended schools will be addressed as the Green Paper goes through. They were very good suggestions, if I may say so.
Sometimes quite simple things can make an enormous difference. Will my friend have a word with the Department for Work and Pensions about benefit offices’ increasing use of telephone conversations held in open offices? This constitutes a barrier for young people who often do not want to discuss difficult questions about their private lives in front of an office full of benefit claimants.
I did not even get an “honourable.” My hon. Friend makes an important point about discussions with the DWP. I will raise it, just as we have raised the issue about foster carers who decide to keep a child past the age of 18 and find that this has an adverse effect on any benefits to which they are entitled. This issue needs to be discussed across Government, which is why the Green Paper was produced by a cross-Government working party.
I welcome many of the changes that the Secretary of State has announced, but it is one thing to enable and another to motivate. I talked recently to a foster mother who has fostered several children and who told me that when they reach 16 she advises them to stay on for sixth form and to be aspirational. However, along comes a social worker who tells them that now they are 16 they are entitled to independent accommodation and various benefits. It is not realistic to expect the degree of maturity required to choose education and pocket money over what looks like immediate independence. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the presumption will be that children will stay on, instead of the false motivation to leave education at 16?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. The motivational aspect is one issue, and another is what is cheaper for the local authority. Persuading the child to move to an empty flat round the corner is less expensive than leaving them with foster parents. That is why we intend to pilot the presumption that a child will stay on past 16 in care and with their foster carers past 18. It is no good talking about the importance of listening to the child if they are insistent on moving away, but if we can get the motivational aspects right, we can create the climate in which the child can make a more mature decision, assisted by a social worker whom they have grown to trust because they have not been chopped and changed every five minutes. If we can achieve that, it will lead to different decisions being made by the child.
The care leavers whom I met last week were clear that they want to see more help for families, more foster carers—so that they have a better choice and can stay in a stable home with the foster carer of their choice—more contact with social workers and more account taken of their views. The personal commitment of my right hon. Friend is beyond question, as is that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, but will he ensure that alongside the theme of stability that runs through the Green Paper he will add the themes of consistency of approach, by everybody who deals with the children and young people in that vulnerable group, and of listening to them? In the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers that I chair, there are many youngsters who are bright, thoughtful and full of ideas to whom we should listen. They can certainly make a contribution to decisions on how they are looked after.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families on her commitment to this issue. Continuity is part of the stability argument, because continuity leads to stability. I therefore agree with the need to ensure continuity and I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about the voice of the child. The voices of children not in care, expressed through school councils and the like, are becoming an increasingly important way to instil citizenship and impart ideas about how democracy works at classroom level. That is even more important for children in care.
My hon. Friend has a long background in this issue and he will have heard many heartbreaking stories about teachers telling the whole class that a child is in care. The teacher thinks that they are doing a good thing for the child, but it can be embarrassing or stigmatising for them. We need to listen to the child and what they think that the state and local authorities should do, because that is crucial to the whole exercise. The Green Paper will involve our talking to children in care now, and going into prisons—I say that in front of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is in his place—and talking to prisoners who were in care to find out what went wrong. We have an enormous job to do in listening to the voice of those who have been in care and those who are in care at present.
Will the Secretary of State say something about what his Department can do to turn off the tap of the flow of children coming into care in the first place? I am talking about practical examples. For example, a number of community family trusts across the country face obstacles, but they are not looking for more money from the Government. Those organisations do very good work. Frankly, we are being left behind by other countries that are making inroads into the problem; divorce rates have halved in some American towns. Will the Secretary of State say a little about that subject, too?
One of the countries that we have looked at is the United States. That is where the idea of functional family therapy comes from, in which there is serious concentration on conciliation; people are given an intensive three months to tackle the problems. That is a specific idea from the US. There is a lot of best practice in local authorities around the country. I went to a centre on Meliot road in Lewisham last week with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, where we saw an initiative that has been under way for the past 20 years. It is on a very small scale because of the size of the centre’s accommodation, but it works very well, as it concentrates on the interventions that can be made to prevent children from slipping into care in the first place. A large part of the Green Paper is about how best practice, both on this issue and others, can be adopted by local authorities around the country.
I very much welcome today’s statement by my right hon. Friend, especially his emphasis on recruiting and training specialist foster carers, so that there is a match with the children for whom they care. In that context, will he pay special attention to the needs of children with disabilities, which are often profound? Recruiting people who can look after those children is a delicate, important task. They need specialist training and appropriate reimbursement, but they also need a package of measures—they need adaptations to their home, so that they have a long-term resource for looking after children with disability. They are often a forgotten group in the care system, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will address their needs.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The idea is that third-tier foster carers will be trained, supported and given help, including with changes to the house, to enable them to deal with the most difficult cases, particularly of disabled children. My hon. Friend makes—and has made over several years—all those points. When she finds the time to look at the proposals, she will see that that is exactly what we are seeking to do.
I welcome the approach to education and the incentives to go on to university, but what further help with training opportunities can be offered to those care leavers who wish to enter employment? Could there be an entitlement, or incentives for employers to provide such opportunities?
First, of course, there is the 14-to-19 agenda, which seeks to address that issue for all children. Children in care would be a particular part of that. There is the entitlement to a level 3 qualification for all 19 to 25-year-olds—I am talking about general issues now, but I shall come on to the specific point about children in care—and the initiatives around “Train to Gain”. In addition, we all await the Leach report. Specifically for children in care, we found— once again in Lewisham, but it is also happening in Barnet and other local authorities—that there are initiatives through which children in care are offered help during that crucial period into work. They are offered training, and—in Lewisham—a certain number of jobs. The effect is that Lewisham now has a lead officer who was herself in care for 14 years but came through that process, and now does a very good, worthwhile, professional job. There are all kinds of ideas out there to reduce the number of children in care who are not in employment, education or training, which must be an absolute priority of the Green Paper.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that children in care are our responsibility, and that we cannot continue to fail them. When children are in care, society is their parent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as good parents, giving children in care treats or rewards to aspire to good behaviour or good grades, as we do with our own children, may go a small way towards preventing them from turning to petty crime to obtain desirable items that our own children, and their peers, take for granted?
My hon. Friend is right. I am not pretending that part of the £500 that we will give the social worker will go straight on the latest whizzy toy—some of us would not give our own children that immediately—but if the child wants music lessons or to go ice skating on a Saturday morning, the social worker has a sum of money that they can use rather than having to go through a bureaucratic paper chase. All kinds of ideas are emerging, such as those from the music profession for providing children in care with free music lessons. Proportionately, only very few children are in care—about 0.5 per cent. of the child population—so those things are do-able, if there is a co-ordinated infrastructure to allow an integrated approach, which is what “Every Child Matters” gives us.
I applaud the Secretary of State’s desire to improve outcomes for looked-after children. He asks for ideas; is he considering the use of state or private boarding schools as a placement for those young people? That might improve the educational outcome of many and will add to their stability in many ways. It might also unleash more foster parents, including grandparents, who would be able to share care in the holidays and share the burden with the school.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on developments in the prison population over the summer recess, and setting out the steps that I am taking to ensure the necessary prison capacity now and in the future.
The Government have kept and will continue to keep our commitment to tackling crime—reducing it by 35 per cent. in nine years—and tackling the causes of crime. We have 2.5 million more jobs, the lowest level of unemployment for decades, 1,000 Sure Start centres and a significant reduction in social deprivation—attention to the early years of life, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has just outlined. We shall continue that commitment to tackling both crime and the causes of crime.
Public protection has always been our first priority. We have consistently supported tougher sentences in the course of protecting the public. Even today, in another place, we are tabling an amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to increase sentences for those caught in possession of blades or sharp instruments. That has been a constant message over the past decade and has been reflected in the growth in the proportion of people sent to prison and in the increase in the length of time for which they have been imprisoned—in short, making the sentence and the punishment fit the crime more appropriately.
To match that growth we have already built more than 16,000 prison places in nine years—approximately the same amount as the previous Conservative Government built in 18 years. Labour has built at twice the rate of the Conservatives. However, I have never hidden from the House our continuing need for more prison places to keep pace with the requirement.
In July, I published the document “Rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”, in which I said that
“we will now build an additional 8,000 places and will keep under close review whether more are needed”.
That was set out in terms in the document. I said, too:
“We already have an additional 900 places under construction which are due to come onstream in Autumn 2007.”
I also said:
“We continue to imprison too many non-dangerous people with mental health problems who should be more effectively diverted into appropriate treatments at an early stage.”
“We will focus prison places for remand prisoners on those with the highest risk of re-offending. And we will work with the Lord Chief Justice and sentencers to ensure probation resources are targeted on those who most need them.”
Of course, hon. Members will have studied carefully and remembered those words. I remind the House of them in view of the Lord Chief Justice’s remarks at the weekend. That remains my framework for addressing these issues in the medium term. However, it is the case that in the short term the prison population has risen sharply over the summer period and today stands at 79,819. I want to highlight two factors among others that specifically contributed to that increase over the summer and during the year.
First, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is beginning to have a real effect. The House will know that the Act introduced tough new sentences—indeterminate sentences—to answer the public demand that life, where appropriate, should truly mean life for those judged to be a danger to the public. It also introduced more flexible community orders which would be a more effective alternative to prison for lower level offenders. The evidence so far is that our courts are making good use of indeterminate sentences so that dangerous people are staying in prison for longer, but they are not yet using community orders as fully as they might. That was the point emphasised this weekend by the Lord Chief Justice. That leads to increased pressure on prison places above that anticipated in the short term.
Secondly, I made a commitment to the House to consider, find and detain as many of the previously unconsidered 1,013 foreign national prisoners as we could. In addition, I made a further commitment: I said that we would not release those foreign national prisoners who ought to be considered for deportation before such consideration had been completed and we would continue to detain them until that was done. Working through that process of dealing with the backlog while maintaining the deportation consideration for everyone who is released from prison will obviously contribute towards a higher prison population until the position is fully resolved. I shall return to details of that later in my statement.
I want now to set out some of the actions that have been recommended to me since July to alleviate the pressure, and my response. It has been proposed to me that I should agree to the early release of prisoners into the community. I have considered that carefully, but I do not believe that it is appropriate at this time and I have rejected it. My view is that it should be used only in the last resort. I have, however, accepted the recommendations of the prison authorities in a number of other ways: first, in the re-roling of two women’s prisons to take male prisoners, which is a sensible use of resources; secondly, in providing maximum flexibility within the prison estate to allow transfers to the open estate under severe restrictions in addition to those transferred as a matter of course. That measure was focused on lower-risk offenders serving short sentences for non-sexual or non-violent offences. Prisoners have been transferred only after careful risk assessment.
Thirdly, we will improve processes for dealing with foreign national prisoners. I hope that by the spring of 2007 we will reach the position where the consideration of deportation for all foreign nationals will begin six months before the end of their sentences. We are making steady progress towards that as we deal with the backlog. That would ensure a reduced requirement for detention after the normal release date and therefore a reduced pressure on the prison population.
Fourthly, I have today accepted the recommendation to implement the formal use of police cells, known as Operation Safeguard. Implementation will be on Thursday 12 October. The use of Safeguard is not ideal, but it is tried and it is tested. I am extremely grateful for the support that we have received from the Association of Chief Police Officers and from individual chief constables, as well from the Metropolitan police. Those measures should help to alleviate the position in the short term.
In addition to that, I can today tell the House that on top of the medium and long-term proposals that I set out in our July plans and to which I referred earlier, I am also developing further measures. Specifically, we are in negotiations and consultation to convert a former Army barracks into prisoner accommodation. Similarly, we are in negotiations to utilise a former secure hospital in Ashworth East near Liverpool. We are expanding our immigration estate by 300 places by March 2007 and by a further 400 places by 2008, and we are exploring further innovative ways of extending immigration detention capacity for those who are detained as a result of immigration considerations, thus releasing pressure on the prison estate. We will, of course, continue to work closely with the private sector to get the best of what it can offer us, and we are continuing to encourage the courts to make effective use of bail, taking advantage of electronic tagging and alternative accommodation.
I have also agreed an additional package of measures to improve the processing of foreign national prisoners. The immigration and nationality directorate has been taking a robust approach to the deportation of European economic area nationals, which has been defeated consistently in the courts. We will be changing the law to strengthen the link between criminality and deportation, but in the meantime we are no longer taking unproductive cases to the courts at the taxpayers’ expense, with negative results. We are introducing an incentive scheme to persuade prisoners to return voluntarily to their own country. As we have always treated Irish citizens in a way which reflected the close historical, community and political ties between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the existence of the common travel area, we are considering treating those citizens as a special case. In addition, the director general of the immigration and nationality directorate, Lin Homer, is writing to the Home Affairs Committee today to provide a further breakdown of the progress made on the 1,013 prisoners released without consideration of deportation, and I will arrange for a copy of that to go into the Library of the House.
Finally, in the longer term, we have already outlined plans for a prisons building programme for 8,000 places by 2012, and what is required beyond that will be given further consideration. We have also outlined plans for the greater use of community sentences, a scheme for payback to the community, and the rehabilitation of prisoners. I hope the measures that I have taken will alleviate the pressure in the short term and will complement the measures that I outlined to the House in my statement in July. I commend the measures to the House.
May I start by thanking the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement? May I also take this chance—my first opportunity—to congratulate him on his management of the alleged terrorist plot in August, which, if I may say so, I think he handled rather well? I am breathless in my admiration for the brazen way in which he claimed credit in his statement for the Tory initiative on increased penalties for knife crime, but of that more later.
As my hon. Friend says, it is called chutzpah.
Regrettably, I cannot say the same of the Government’s sorry handling of the crisis in our prison system. There is no excuse for the catastrophe facing the country.
In the past five years, the Government have received warning after warning that they were going to run out of cells—warnings from the Opposition, from the Prison Reform Trust, from their own advisers, and even from the chief inspector of prisons. In 2002, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population by this year was 87,000, which is significantly higher than the capacity that it now has. When the Home Office could have acted to provide the necessary extra prison places, it failed to do so. Last year, long after it knew that it had a looming crisis, it even sold off a prison ship, cutting prison places by another 400.
Even on the current Home Secretary’s watch, the Department has been lackadaisical and slow to act. On 24 May this year, he was quoted in the press as saying:
“Protecting the public is my absolute priority.”
That is quite proper for a Home Secretary, yet I have a memorandum written by his private secretary only the day after, detailing a discussion of this crisis and considering the option of administrative release—the early release of prisoners to free cells. We know that that proposal was quashed by No. 10, but why were not all the proposals that the Home Secretary has put before us today initiated then, in May, before we had a crisis? Why do we have to have a crisis to get action out of this Government?
The Home Secretary’s predecessors attempted to head off this problem by way of a combination of early release and community sentencing. To justify that, they pretended that community sentences were equally tough as punishments, deterrents and methods of rehabilitation. None of that is true. Nine out of 10 of those who go through Labour’s flagship programme—the intensive supervision and surveillance programme or ISSP—reoffend within two years. The Home Secretary talked about more tagging: 75 per cent. of young criminals on tags reoffend within one year.
The Government’s strategy for rehabilitation is not only failing outside prison; it is also being destroyed inside prison. Owing to prison overcrowding, in order to create places in individual prisons, vast numbers of transfers occur. Last year, there were 98,000 transfers between prisons among a population of 80,000. That means that prisoners are frequently uprooted before they complete courses designed to rehabilitate them and to equip them for an honest life in the outside world. As a result, under this Government reoffending rates for prison have gone up from 56 to 67 per cent. Does the Home Secretary accept that that increase in reoffending rates—the greatest in the history of our prison system—is a direct result of the Government’s neglect of this area?
The various proposals that the Home Secretary has detailed might now be unavoidable, but only two—the action to remove or swap out foreign prisoners, and the re-roling of women’s prisons—are relatively low risk and low cost. Both of them should have been done months or even years ago.
Using police cells will be costly and will probably also be counter-productive. The last time this Government implemented Operation Safeguard, it cost more than £10 million, tied down policemen who should have been catching criminals rather than acting as part-time prison warders, and clogged up the police cells so that there was nowhere to put criminals who were caught. Does the Home Secretary accept that that will happen again this time, and if not why not?
Does the Home Secretary recognise that by accepting the transfer of category C prisoners to open prisons he is sanctioning an increase in risk to public safety? He might talk about risk assessment, but he must know, even now, that this is a very imprecise technique. Otherwise, how does he explain the rash of murders committed by prisoners on probation and parole? Does he recognise that each of his proposals will buy him only a matter of weeks or perhaps months? Even his conversion of an Army barracks will buy him only just over one more month.
The programme that the Home Secretary has laid before us today might get him to just past Christmas, but what will happen then? Will there be even more inappropriately given, non-custodial sentences or even earlier releases? Does he accept that the prison capacity failure has harmed every stage of the criminal justice system? It will handicap policemen from catching criminals. It has meant that criminals who should be in prison are either not sent to prison or released too early, and even when some criminals go to prison, the process has been rendered so chaotic that reoffending rates are climbing to record levels.
The Home Secretary must recognise that he cannot blame this on the civil servants, prison officers or judges. This crisis—this catastrophe—has arisen because this Government, by the policy that they have chosen to follow, have been derelict in their duty to protect the public.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the events of August and the counter-terrorist measures that were taken. Far from in any way attempting to lay blame today with any officials or with anyone outside those who are responsible—i.e., me—I would much prefer to join him in laying some plaudits at the door of those who worked on that counter-terrorist operation. As I said, that is not a reason for complacency, but all of us should take all opportunities to put on the record our thanks for the dedication of those people who work night and day to protect this country from terrorism, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman allowed me the opportunity to do that.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned statistics and inadvertently illustrated just how difficult it can be to judge the trend. He said that the lowest estimate for this year was that 87,000 prison places were needed, but in fact, that is some 7,000 places above the capacity and the requirement at which we are operating. So it is not an exact science, but I have, I think, been quite straight with the House in three areas. First, I accept responsibility, because I am the Secretary of State for home affairs. Secondly, I have not hidden from the House that there is pressure on prison places, which is why I have not only discussed this issue in detail here, but within six weeks of coming in, discussed it with our colleagues at the Treasury and got agreement for another 8,000 prison places. Thirdly, and as I have said today, I have been considering further measures to deal with this issue. It is not true to paint this as a crisis; we did not discover it over the weekend. I have known since we went in about the pressure on places, and I have tried to manage the short, medium and longer term, and to outline these issues before the House with as much honesty as I can.
Let me then ask for a little honesty on a couple of subjects that the right hon. Gentleman raised. He was very selective in his discussion of reoffending rates. He chose to discuss the intensive supervision and surveillance programme because he knows that the hardest category of people to prevent from reoffending is young people, and that the hardest category among young people to prevent from reoffending are the worst offenders among young people. That is precisely why he chose to discuss that category.
Let us deal with some other reoffending categories, such as home detention curfew. The right hon. Gentleman is prepared continually to run down anything that happens outside custodial sentences, but the reoffending rate for home detention curfew while tagged, since it began in January 1999, is only 4 per cent., which is an unparalleled low level of reoffending. More than 130,000 people have been released on home detention curfew, and given the low reoffending rate of 5 per cent., I should have expected that extraordinary statistic to fall from the right hon. Gentleman’s lips while he was at the Dispatch Box.
The House will also be interested to know that for adults—not youngsters—the overall community sentence reoffending rate is too high, at 53 per cent. over two years, but that is 14 per cent. lower than the figure for those who serve prison custodial sentences. So probation is not obviously and self-apparently worse in all circumstances, and the right hon. Gentleman would do better to give a balanced view. Moreover, the overall reoffending rate is not 90-odd per cent. for juveniles; it is some 41 per cent. over one year. So it is wrong to take one specific area and to suggest that everything is the same.
Let me deal finally with prison building. It is absolutely true that we are under pressure, which is the reason why I am bringing in these measures. I hope that the situation has been managed over the past five or six months in a way that copes with the present pressures on prisons, as well as with the foreign national prisoner crisis. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches—and they are all gentlemen—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who is very obviously a lady, was hidden by the desk; I must have it moved. My profuse apologies, Mr. Speaker. Re-roling prisons is one thing; re-roling ladies on the Front Bench is quite another, more offensive, thing.
I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will support me in my attempt to ensure that no foreign national prisoners are released from prison before they have been considered for deportation. If that is the case, while we work to the early lead time that is necessary in order to ensure that we can give six months’ notice so that people will be considered before release, there will be pressure on prison places. I would have hoped that the Opposition would accept that. But the truth of the matter is that while the right hon. Gentleman has been making a dreadful, dreadful fuss because we are a couple of hundred short of maximum capacity—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) shouts, “A crisis.” Let me give the figures for April 1997, which we inherited. In April 1997, after 18 years of Conservative Government, the total capacity of our prison system was 60,353. The actual prison population was 60,131. They were 223 short of absolute total capacity after 18 years. We will not take lectures from them on this.
As a staggering total of one in seven of our prison population are foreign nationals, will the Home Secretary tell us a little more of his conversations with other Governments about our wish to deport those people who are clogging up our prisons? Would it not be cheaper wherever possible to pay the country of origin to look after these prisoners so that they serve their sentence there, not in this country; and is not a real test of whether people should be in this country whether they have committed crimes?
To start with the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question, my view on that is known. Foreign nationals who come to this country, take its privileges and demand the rights and hospitality that it bestows upon them, should match that by showing responsibility, and failure to do so is clearly signified in the breach if they commit a serious crime. That is why anyone who is in that position should be automatically presumed to face deportation.
With regard to the first part of my right hon. Friend’s question, yes, I agree. At the moment there is a series of obstacles to asking foreign prisoners to go back to their country of origin. We are examining all of those obstacles in detail to see how, either by persuasion or by the obligation of law, we can overcome them. As part of that I have been discussing with my European colleagues, as late as Thursday of last week, this very issue. That would be an additional weapon in our armoury to ensure that we keep in prison in this country those who ought to be there for as long as they ought to be there, but remove from prison those who ought not to be there, either because they need treatment or because they should be back in their country of origin.
I too thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and for dealing with the unprecedented events of this summer on behalf of us all, and I thank him for keeping me and, I know, other Opposition Members informed of events as they unfolded.
All Governments get caught on the hop by unexpected events. It is in the nature of things that disasters creep up on Ministers with little warning. It is also in the nature of things that that happens to Opposition parties too. Any reasonable observer will forgive a little Government panic when unpredictable events take over, but what possible excuse is there for a Government to fail to heed not one, not several, but continuous and repeated warnings of crisis in our prisons stretching back several years? Listening to the complacency of Ministers, the public would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a matter of a little temporary discomfort for prisoners themselves. The truth, of course, is altogether more serious. Overcrowded prisons prevent prisoners from being rehabilitated and so have a direct effect on increased levels of crime in our villages, towns and cities, inflicted by ex-prisoners who now reoffend at an historically unprecedented rated. No one should be under any illusions: public safety is yet again at stake because of Government incompetence. The Home Secretary has come to the House today in an attempt to camouflage a series of stop-gap, emergency measures as a carefully considered package, yet his proposals have raised more questions than long-term answers.
First, the Home Secretary’s statement does not explain why it is estimated that more than 500 foreign prisoners who should have been deported at the end of their sentences are still languishing in prison. The Home Secretary has said that he has set a target of spring next year to sort out the matter, but why take so long? Just a few days ago, a prison governor told me about a foreign prisoner who is desperate to be deported back to Asia and who has no idea why she is still in prison in this country a full nine months after her sentence finished. What possible explanation can the Home Secretary give for such woeful bureaucratic foot dragging?
Secondly, when will the Home Secretary not only, as he has done today, pay lip service to, but confront in practice, the fact that far too many individuals in prison have acute mental health problems—as many as one in 10 are estimated to be functionally psychotic? Rather than spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in a frantic effort to build prison cells as quickly as they are filled, does it not make more sense to invest that money in building more secure mental health treatment capacity?
Finally, is it not time for the Home Secretary to pluck up the courage to make the public case, beyond the few fleeting mentions here today, for non-custodial sentences as an effective alternative to prison for those who have committed lesser offences? I welcome his approach, but will he commit himself to do it again, to do it more and to do it in public? There is nothing tough in failing to take the political lead in advocating new ways to punish and rehabilitate offenders outside prison. Contrary to the assertion by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), there is plenty of good practice to build on. In Chard, the community justice panel pilot project has achieved reoffending rates as low as 5 per cent. In Scotland, reoffending rates for those on community service orders now stands at 42 per cent., which is well below the current 70 per cent. reoffending rate for young male prisoners in England.
The Home Secretary has said it all.
Perhaps the Home Secretary will say it again and lead the public debate rather than merely making debating points in the Chamber. The sticking-plaster solutions that he has unveiled today are too little, too late, and he needs the courage and foresight to think anew.
I will say it again: the reoffending rate for home detention curfew is 4 per cent.; the overall reoffending rate for adult community sentences is 53 per cent., compared with 67 per cent. for prison; and the overall reoffending rate for juvenile community sentences is 41 per cent. As requested, I have said it again—I do not know why the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) thinks that he has made a case whereas I have merely mentioned something. I have made those remarks as part of what I hope is a balanced contribution.
Those who should stay in prison longer for the protection of the public ought to be retained in sufficient prison places, while others ought not to be in prison. The Liberals constantly demand more prison places and fewer people to fill them. I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not make a commitment on how many extra prison places the Liberals would build. I have already said 8,000 extra prison places, and I will continue to review the matter, but does he have a figure in mind? He would provide an unspecified number of extra prison places for fewer prisoners, although that is unspecified, too. That is a typical concoction from the Liberals, and “vacuous” is too substantial a word to describe it. [Interruption.] Conservative Members should not laugh, because they have not told us how many prison places they would provide.
In the summer, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said that the Conservative party would build more prison places, but he was immediately put back in his box by the shadow Chancellor, who told him that there would be no commitment. [Interruption.] If there is a specific number, I am waiting to hear it.
I have tried to be honest with the House in saying that there is pressure on prison places and explaining how we are going to manage that in the short term and the longer term. This is not a case of being caught on the hop by an unexpected event. The only unexpected event that caught me on the hop was being appointed to the Home Office, and I have already accepted that. Since I have been there, I have tried to ensure that we have a planned, progressive attempt to make sure that the sentence fits the crime and that the prison places available fit sentence lengths and numbers. That is what we will continue to do.
On foreign national prisoners, we are doing a considerable amount. Five hundred people are allocated to this to try not only to reduce the backlog but to deal with the cases that are coming up. Since we had our first discussion in this House, about 3,800 cases have been dealt with and 1,000 of those people have already been deported. Events continue to take place as we deal with the problems that arose in May or June of last year. I thank my officials for dealing with both those areas with dedication and commitment.
Order. This is a very important issue and an awful lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but we also have a lot of business to get through this afternoon and I must protect that. If hon. Members can possibly ask brief questions and the Home Secretary can perhaps make brief replies, fewer people will be disappointed.
My right hon. Friend will know that Armley prison in my constituency has struggled to cope with overcrowding for more than two decades, with more than 1,000 people locked up every night, 50 going in and 50 released. Even in those circumstances, the governor and staff have done a remarkable job in providing education and training and tackling drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is now well-established research saying that if a prisoner who has a family—that applies to 50 per cent.—gets more than six visits from his young children he is very unlikely to reoffend? When we tackle reoffending, will my right hon. Friend join together the programmes for adult literacy—
Order. The right hon. Gentleman clearly did not hear my earlier remarks.
Let me pay tribute not only to the staff at Armley prison but to prison officers throughout the country. It is true that rehabilitation is an important part of the purpose of prison. Articulacy—learning to read and write in some cases—is also important. In Armley, the learning process has been combined with visits by encouraging the prisoners to read and to help their children to learn. That requires the support of a dedicated prison service, and I should like to pay tribute to staff who are working very hard under very pressurised conditions.
May I ask the Home Secretary to distinguish between operational capacity and certified normal accommodation, the second of which measures overcrowding? Since he is so fond of comparisons with 1997, will he give us the percentage of prisoners sharing two to a cell designed for one, compared with 1997? Will he tell us whether there are any instances of three sharing a cell designed for two, which we had wholly eliminated; whether, as a result of bringing back into use discarded accommodation, there is any slopping out, which we had completely eliminated; and how many national vocational qualifications are being awarded, compared with 1997?
Because I did not anticipate that I would have the pleasure of a question from her. [Interruption.] I can approximate towards the answer that she is asking for, and I will certainly write to her afterwards. In 1997, the total crowded capacity in prisons was 60,353—that is, with people double-bunking as well—and the actual prison population was 60,131. In other words, even with massive doubling-up the prison population was only 223 short of running out of places. I will find the percentage figures, which I do not have available, and write to the right hon. Lady.
I would caution the hon. Gentleman as he peruses world encyclopaedias to remember that different countries do not all measure by the same standards. For example, the measurement for people locked up per head of population is different from that for those locked up in proportion to offences detected. In this country, in proportion to offences detected, we are lower than many European countries. Secondly, there is a huge variation between European countries in how one measures offences detected and offences reported. Although international comparisons are useful, they are genuinely useful only if they are made on the basis of the same bottom line. That is rarely the case.
When the Home Secretary described the Department as not fit for purpose, I presume that he was referring to his predecessors’ failure in nine years to create a proper prison-building programme. Does he know that he will be judged on how many genuine extra prison places he creates in the next few months?
As it happens, I was not referring to my predecessors or prison places. One of the reasons for that is that my predecessors built almost as many prison places as the previous, Conservative Government in half the time. We have built 16,300 prison places in nine years. The previous Government built approximately 17,000 in 18 years. Far from believing that my predecessors did not build sufficient prison places compared with those who went before them, I know that they built many more pro rata.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for agreeing to meet me and Dover district council to discuss his proposals to use Connaught barracks in Dover as a prison site. He knows that people in Dover are outraged and angry about the proposals, not only because of the site’s proximity to local schools and a local housing estate but because it is special and key to strategic redevelopment. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, when we meet, we have the opportunity to put those powerful arguments to him, as we did to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), and that he will take those points into consideration before making a final decision?
Of course I can assure my hon. Friend of that. He knows that I have said that I am more than willing to meet him. In the course of that consultation and negotiation I shall bear in mind factors such as local regeneration and opinion. He has already met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the matter and I look forward to meeting him and his colleagues and listening to what they have to say.
What reassurances can the Home Secretary give the people in my constituency who live near Kirkham open prison that the category of risk for prisoners deemed suitable, under his proposals, for transfer to an open prison will not change until his additional prison places become available?
Actually, those prisoners who, for efficient management of the estate purposes, will go to an open prison system in addition to those who would normally go, constitute a lower risk. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the normal course of events under Governments of all persuasions, sometimes people who had served long sentences would go to an open prison before being released into the community at some stage. Those people would occasionally have committed violent offences, sexual offences or other offences leading to long sentences. That is not the case for those whom I have agreed can be moved for the additional management of the estate. I have insisted that that applies to people who are serving low sentences for non-violent and non-sexual crimes and that they undergo careful scrutiny before they go. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that anyone who goes under the latest decision making will be of a lower risk than those who have gone previously.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposal to look at what can be done to ensure that people who do not need to be in prison do not go there. Will he also examine what is happening now to people on parole who are recalled to prison? It appears that some are being recalled for the most trivial breaches of their parole conditions, and that no discretion is being given to probation officers to determine whether the problem is a serious or repeated breach.
I do not know any of the specific cases to which my hon. Friend refers. However, if people are allowed out of prison subject to not breaching the terms of their licence and they then proceed to breach them, they should go back in, and that is what is happening.
Is the Home Secretary aware that, in July 1998, the Home Affairs Committee published a report entitled “Alternatives to Prison Sentences”, which contained 47 recommendations? Does he agree that, if those all-party recommendations had been fully implemented, we might not be in the situation that we are in today? Will he also clarify precisely which garrison accommodation he is proposing to convert for prison use? His statement is silent on the location of that accommodation.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question is Dover, but if he knows of any other barracks, institutions or premises that might be suitable and available, I will of course look at them as well.
Many of the recommendations in the report that the hon. Gentleman mentioned have in fact been implemented. We commit people to community service where that is appropriate. However, the public will be more likely to accept a sentencing regime—including community service—if they know that it has not been dictated by a shortage of prison places. In other words, they want to be reassured that those who deserve to be kept in prison for longer periods are being so detained, rather than illegitimately being given a non-custodial sentence for the wrong reasons. I understand that feeling, which is why I want to ensure that dangerous offenders are kept away from the public if their offence merits that. On that basis, we can then argue that community service and other non-custodial sentences—many of which are referred to in the report—are appropriate, and they will gain public acceptance.
My right hon. Friend rightly stressed the importance of community sentences to reducing reoffending. Does he also agree that community and voluntary sector groups have a valuable role to play in working with prolific offenders and with young people at risk of offending, to ensure that the future prison population is kept down to a manageable level?
Yes, I do. I want to see more involvement of and partnership with the voluntary sector, as well as with the private sector, not only in this context but throughout the public services. That is not a particularly new thing; it is part of the very origins of the Labour party to work alongside those who believe that self-improvement and voluntary partnership are important elements of creating a better society. That certainly applies in the case of the Prison Service in regard to reducing reoffending, and it is central to the National Offender Management Service plans that we will develop over the next year.
Rehabilitation, literacy learning and detox programmes all require a degree of stability. Will the Home Secretary give the House an undertaking that the Prison Service will do all that it can to prevent the unnecessary movement of people around the prison estate, so that they have a chance to complete their literacy programme or their detox programme, or to get their NVQ? That is crucial for the men at prisons such as Bullingdon, if we are to reduce reoffending rates.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I know that that is the ideal, and the objective of those who work in the Prison Service, from the prison officers right up to the top management. It is one of the effects of the pressures on the prison population that we cannot always maximise the benefits of these programmes, but it is certainly our objective to do so. We want to do that, and we will do what we can.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The issue of prison capacity was raised with me on many occasions while I was working with the West Midlands police this summer, and I believe that these proposals will help. However, I should like to raise the issues of the availability of drugs and the illicit use of mobile phones in prisons. As well as increasing prison capacity, will my right hon. Friend undertake to look into the recruitment of warders and the management of our prisons?
Both of those activities are important—not only drugs, which are an obvious problem, but the use of mobile phones—particularly where they are related to ongoing involvement in criminal activities outside the prison. My hon. Friend makes a good point; they are two priority areas for investigation.
Given that we get scandalously poor value for money from tens of thousands of people perambulating repeatedly through the revolving doors of our criminal justice system, when will the right hon. Gentleman be really brave and show foresight by making a firm commitment on the Floor of this House to substantial investment in education, training and therapy on the scale that alone might enable us to convert at least a proportion of career criminals into constructive contributors to our society?
That is precisely what underlines our approach in the National Offender Management Service. There is no question but that the range of rehabilitative courses and learning that goes on pays immense benefits, not only to the individuals concerned, but in terms of the protection of society when people are released. When I was at one of the London prisons recently, people were developing skills in bricklaying and plastering, related to the building trade and in anticipation of the building boom that will be necessary for the Olympics, and arrangements were being made with building firms outside to place the prisoners when they are released.
That is a huge advance, and I would guess that the probability of some of those people returning to prison is minimised precisely because of those arrangements, so I have no hesitation in saying that such learning is an essential element of why we have prisons in the first place—ultimately, reducing reoffending protects society—but it is obvious that we are not achieving that at anything like the rate that we ought to be.
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to discuss a specific and important matter that I believe should receive urgent consideration—namely, the serious job losses in York over the summer at British Sugar, Norwich Union and Nestlé Rowntree.
In July, British Sugar said that it would close the York sugar factory after this winter’s beet processing campaign, with the loss of more than 100 permanent jobs. Seasonal workers and the factory’s suppliers—farmers and road hauliers—will lose their jobs too. Then, in September, Norwich Union announced the loss of 450 jobs in York from its life assurance business, and the following week Nestlé Rowntree announced plans for 645 redundancies at its York factory.
Those job losses are a body blow for the workers and their families, who will lose their livelihoods. Many of them will find it hard to get alternative jobs with similar pay because their industrial skills, which used to be so highly valued, are no longer in demand.
The job losses are a shock to the York economy, which has been performing well in recent years. Unemployment in my constituency dropped from a high of 6,500 under the Conservatives to 1,300 in 2004, but since then, with the closure of York’s other chocolate factory, Terry’s, and other retrenchment, it has climbed back to 1,700, and sadly will rise higher as those latest job losses feed through into the unemployment figures.
Average wages in York have risen sharply since 1997, but over the last two years average male earnings have fallen back. Those job losses have been a wake-up call for York. Following my suggestion, the council has commissioned an independent review of the city’s employment strategy, involving business leaders from science, transport, tourism, manufacturing and services.
York’s experience should be a wake-up call to national Government too. The Government need to re-examine their manufacturing and competition policies. The Bank of England is warning that the overvalued pound is costing manufacturing jobs, and it is putting pressure on service industries, too, as Norwich Union’s decision to transfer some back-office functions to low-wage economies shows. It is all very well to enjoy cheap summer holidays abroad, on the back of a strong pound, but the memories fade pretty fast when people come home to find that their job has gone. The strong pound is hitting incoming tourism, too, which also matters to York.
My city needs support from the Government and from Yorkshire Forward to help redundant workers find new jobs and to encourage inward investment to York. We also need the Government to re-examine their regional economic strategy and to work with York’s employment review to bolster York’s regional role as a science city, for example, and as a centre for financial services and civil service jobs. Given the pressure on food manufacturing jobs in particular, the Government need to make sure that the Competition Commission uses its investigation of the groceries trade to see whether the big supermarkets are putting too much pressure on their suppliers, to the point that the suppliers are cutting jobs.
Those are the urgent matters that I want the House to discuss, Mr. Deputy Speaker, either this afternoon, if you see fit to adjourn the House, or at some other time in the near future.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I must give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you and all Members of the House realise that the situation in North Korea, with today’s news of nuclear weapons tests there, is a matter of growing international concern. Earlier this afternoon, a Foreign Office Minister made a statement and answered questions on this matter in another place. Less than an hour ago, the Foreign Secretary made a statement on this matter to the members of the press. However, no Foreign Office Minister has come to the House to make a statement and to answer questions from hon. Members. Given all that the Speaker, you and other Deputy Speakers have said previously about the importance of Ministers making statements to the House, I seek your guidance as to how we can ensure that, in future, on such matters of grave concern, Ministers recognise their responsibility to put themselves forward to be asked questions by elected representatives in this Chamber, and not simply to give statements to the press.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the whole House is seized of the importance of the report of a successful nuclear weapons test by North Korea. Was an approach made to the Speaker this morning by a Minister asking for the opportunity to make a statement? Obviously, there is an urgent need for an early debate or statement.
There were moves this morning for the matter to be discussed. Decisions were taken then, and they are not ones that the House or anyone can go back over now. I understand the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which she has put firmly on the record. Mr. Speaker’s views about such matters are well known. We have a crowded programme today, with two statements as well as a lot of other business, but no doubt those on the Government Front Bench will also have heard what the right hon. Lady said and will take what action they think is appropriate.
Orders of the Day
Road Safety Bill [Lords]
As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, this very important, wide-ranging Bill deserves the highest level of scrutiny. We were promised a day for Report and Third Reading, but now, because of the two statements, important though they were, we are faced with considerably less time in which to debate a whole raft of new clauses and amendments. As the House has today returned reinvigorated and refreshed from the summer recess, I wondered whether you have heard from those on the Treasury Bench that they intend to make provision to allow the debate to continue until midnight.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about the timing of today’s debate, and about the time that we have already taken up, on which he may have heard my earlier comments. We cannot now go over the time allowed, for that has already been decided by the House. I can only suggest to the House that any time devoted to debating this point further would be better spent on the business before us.
New Clause 6
Immediate suspension and revocation of drivers’ licences
‘(1) Part 2 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles in England and Wales outside London) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 61 (suspension and revocation of drivers’ licences), after subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) Subject to subsection (2B) of this section, a suspension or revocation of the licence of a driver under this section takes effect at the end of the period of 21 days beginning with the day on which notice is given to the driver under subsection (2)(a) of this section.
(2B) If it appears that the interests of public safety require the suspension or revocation of the licence to have immediate effect, and the notice given to the driver under subsection (2)(a) of this section includes a statement that that is so and an explanation why, the suspension or revocation takes effect when the notice is given to the driver.”
(3) In subsection (3) of that section, after “under” insert “subsection (1) of”.
(4) In section 77 (appeals), after subsection (2) insert—
“(3) Subsection (2) of this section does not apply in relation to a decision under subsection (1) of section 61 of this Act which has immediate effect in accordance with subsection (2B) of that section.”.’.—[Dr. Ladyman.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 7—Abolition of “contract exemption”.
Government motion that clause 53 be transferred to the end of line 23 on page 56. Government amendments Nos. 1 to 3.
I hope that it is not impertinent of me to say thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the ruling that you have just given.
New clauses 6 and 7 deal with taxis and private hire vehicles, sometimes known as minicabs. Both clauses have the same objective: to make travel safer for people who use those modes of transport. Against the background of the Bichard report and the legislation that we have brought forward in that regard, we have considered carefully whether we should use the opportunity presented by the Road Safety Bill to deal with any urgent safety concerns relating to taxi and PHV legislation. The result is these new clauses to deal with two worrying aspects of the legislation that we identified.
New clause 6 addresses our concern about a taxi or PHV driver’s right to continue working while appealing against a decision to suspend or revoke his licence, even if he is considered to represent an immediate threat to public safety. The new clause gives local licensing authorities in England and Wales, outside London, a new power which will enable them to suspend or revoke a taxi or PHV driver’s licence with immediate effect on safety grounds. That power has been available to the licensing authority in London—Transport for London—for a number of years.
Drivers’ automatic right to continue working pending appeal has been a source of justified concern to many taxi and PHV licensing authorities. They want to use their licensing powers to ensure that passengers are safe using local taxi and PHV services. They play a tremendously important role in protecting residents and visitors who use taxis and PHVs in their areas. The new clause will enable them to do so even more thoroughly in some circumstances—for example, when a driver has committed a serious offence or is suffering from a medical condition that makes it unsafe for him to continue working.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early in his speech. He will know that there is concern among private operators who provide special-needs transport because they are subject to enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks, and many are locked into local authority contracts until 2010. Operators in my constituency want to know when the Minister intends the enhanced protection regulations to come into force, because owing to the local authority contracts they are already subject to the checks. I gather that there may be some room for manoeuvre over when the imposition will actually occur. If the Minister could provide any guidance, those operators would be very grateful.
I understand their concern. If the new clause is accepted today, there will be a consultation with all stakeholders following Royal Assent. One of the issues that we will consider during the consultation is the time at which the changes will come into force. However, I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that a key principle on which we shall have to decide when making a decision is the safety of the public. I am sure that he and his constituents would agree with that. There may therefore be a conflict between the interest of protecting the public and the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have existing contracts. I hope that we shall find a way of resolving that conflict, but if there is no way of doing so, we shall have to come down on the side of public safety. I hope that despite that caveat, and given the promise of a thorough consultation involving all stakeholders, the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that we will listen to his constituents’ concerns.
New clause 7 deals with our concern about what is commonly known as the contract exemption: the provision that exempts drivers, vehicles and operators outside London from licensing if the vehicles are hired only under contracts lasting seven days or more. On Second Reading and on other occasions, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) expressed concern about what will now be clause 53, which tightens the definition of a private hire vehicle in London and will bring vehicles dedicated to contract work within the London PHV licensing regime.
One of the hon. Gentleman’s points was that the clause would be inconsistent with retention of the contract exemption outside London. In Committee I promised to consider the matter, while warning the hon. Gentleman that those who open a can of worms must expect what they are likely to find in it. Having considered, I reached a conclusion—also reached by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—that was not the one for which the hon. Gentleman had hoped. Our conclusion was that public safety, and indeed consistency, required not that we did not make the provision in London, but that we extended it to the rest of the country and ensured that contract private hire work was licensed both in London and elsewhere. That is why we tabled the new clause.
Having sat in Committee, I appreciate how much work had been done on amendments in the meantime. Most organisations, certainly the Scottish Campaign against Irresponsible Drivers, are delighted at the work that has already been done, but one matter has not been taken into account in any of the amendments or new clauses. Will you comment on the fact that—[Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend comment on—
Order. I was about to correct the hon. Lady, but she has now corrected herself.
I will take up those issues as we discuss the various amendments before us. There is a difference between causing death and causing serious injury, and I believe that the provisions dealing with them should be different. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, which she has put to me before and, if she will accept it, I will deal with them in greater detail at a more appropriate place in our debate.
To continue my discussion of new clause 7, there are no compelling reasons why private hire services provided under long-term contracts should be outside the arrangements for ensuring public safety, which are considered to be essential for other private hire work. The need to ensure public safety remains the same, regardless of whether the hiring is a one-off or part of a long-term contract. For a passenger possibly at risk, the method of hiring is not relevant; what is important is that there is no doubt that all the necessary checks and procedures have been comprehensively and effectively carried out. There are good grounds for removing the contract exemption in terms of ensuring a level playing field in the industry. Unlicensed contractors have a commercial advantage over their licensed counterparts, which cannot be justified.
I believe that both new clauses are strongly supported by those who have responsibility for taxi and PHV licensing.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene so early. Given that we are so keen on the safety of drivers and that we are introducing so many sensible amendments, will he explain why there is no discussion of pedicabs, which are highly dangerous, yet seem to be of no concern to anyone? It is quite possible, if one is bored with someone, to put them in a pedicab.
It would be wrong for me to debate Mr. Speaker’s selection of amendments. I know that some hon. Members tabled amendments on pedicabs, but they have not been selected. However, I know that Transport for London intends to bring pedicabs within a regulatory regime. In my view, the proposed arrangements will be adequate to cover the issue. My hon. Friend may have a different view, however, as she does on so many issues that we discuss.
As I was saying, both new clauses are strongly supported by those with responsibility for taxi and PHV licensing and have been welcomed by many in the industry. They are necessary to safeguard the public and I commend them to the House.
We agree with the Government on one of the new clauses, but probably not on the other. New clause 6 introduces new provisions into the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. That Act currently allows a local authority or other licensing power or body to exercise the power to revoke, suspend or refuse a licence where the subject is convicted of specific offences or for “any other reasonable cause” that the authority has “grounds” for believing. If I understand the intention behind the new clause, it will allow a local authority or licensing body to revoke or suspend the licence of taxi driver or minicab with immediate effect where it is a “matter of public safety”, or on other grounds after 21 days where notice has been served on the driver.
Our question, on which I seek clarification, is this; the Government currently have powers under the 1976 Act to revoke a licence for “any other reasonable cause” and for a “specific conviction.” The proposed public safety grounds represent a power that is additional to the Act and it is unclear how this will work in practice.
I assume that a conviction for a serious driving offence would be covered under the specific conviction provision. I assume that a conviction for an assault such as actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm against another road user, a pedestrian or a passenger would again be covered under the specific conviction provision. I assume that driving a vehicle without a valid MOT or in an unroadworthy condition as designated by the police or by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency would be covered under the reasonable cause provision. I assume that a deterioration in a given medical condition would be covered by that provision as well.
If the Minister is willing to tell me that my assumptions are incorrect, I will see the need for the new clause. If so, perhaps he will give me three specific examples where public safety needs arise beyond those already dealt with by the 1976 Act. The Minister made much in Committee about powers that were not being enforced at present, and said that we should not introduce more new powers that were unlikely to be enforced. We need clarity from the Government as to exactly how the new clause will work.
There was substantial discussion in Committee of new clause 7 and the Minister has done what he warned us he would do; he has closed what he described as the can of worms. However, as new clause 7 puts into effect for the rest of the country what clause 53 does for London, is it necessary? The 1988 Act is working perfectly well within London. There are vast numbers of contractors supplying private hire services to councils on a contract basis. They are Criminal Records Bureau-checked and their vehicles are checked and comply with safety provisions, but they are not available to the public. There seems to be no reason for the Government to intervene in an Act that is working well. This seems to be another piece of unnecessary legislation.
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous. Were we here today debating an abuse of a vulnerable person by someone driving a private hire vehicle who had not been appropriately checked and who had been allowed to drive because of the contract exemption, I suspect that his argument would be that I should resign my position because I had not taken the opportunity of the Road Safety Bill to close that loophole.
Clearly there are opportunities within the process that someone must go through to have the right to drive a vehicle under the contract exemption that might allow someone who had not been appropriately checked to drive. We had this debate on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Orpington said that the need for checks would put his constituent, who had a PHV company that was taking advantage of the contract exemption, at a competitive disadvantage, because he would now have to pay for his drivers to be checked. Clearly there is a loophole. I agreed in Committee to look at the matter and to decide whether, in the interests of consistency, we should close the loophole not only in London, as Transport for London had requested, but in the rest of the country. We took the view that we should close it in the rest of the country.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to cite three examples, but I cannot do so. I hope that nobody will ever be in a position to do so, because we have closed the loophole. Serious questions would certainly be asked if we did not do so. Will the change be a major regulatory burden on the industry? No, it will not. I hope that anybody who has used the contract exemption in the past has checked their drivers and gone through the whole process. The fact that they will now have to do so by law is neither here nor there. It should be no additional burden if they have followed best practice in the past. If they have not been doing so, there will be an additional burden, but I argue that it is an appropriate burden for them to carry.
The Minister is carefully—but not helpfully—intertwining the two clauses. Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 a taxi or minicab driver can be suspended for being convicted of a specific offence or for any other reasonable cause decided by the licensing authority. I would like the Minister to tell us what public safety requires beyond “any other reasonable cause”. As yet, he has not told us.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of the new clause and I accept full responsibility for not having explained it. There will be no new powers to suspend or revoke a licence. One would still have to satisfy the grounds for a suspension or revocation of a driver’s licence as under the present legislation. The difference is that at the moment if the individual whose licence is suspended appeals against that suspension, they can continue to drive people around while they await the hearing of the appeal. If someone is accused of a serious offence—as serious as rape or some other sexual offence—it would be horrendous if they were allowed to continue to drive a private hire vehicle while waiting for the appeal against suspension to be heard. Under the new clause, when the licensing authority takes the view that the offence is serious, it will be able to suspend the licence.
The argument that was put to us by some taxi drivers was that it might leave them open to false allegations and they might lose their livelihood over a trivial allegation while awaiting the hearing of appeal against suspension. However, in the experience of the use of the power in London, where it has been in place for some time, it has not been abused. Drivers have had their licences suspended pending appeal only in cases in which a serious allegation has been made against them. Given the seriousness of the offences that might be involved, I think that the new clause is a proportionate response to the situation. No driver should lose their livelihood lightly even for a short time, but when someone is accused of an offence of sufficient seriousness to justify the revocation or suspension of their licence, it is appropriate that they should not continue to drive pending an appeal.
I hope that I have at least partially reassured the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and other hon. Members, and that the new clauses will be added to the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 7
Abolition of “contract exemption”
‘In section 75(1) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 (c. 57) (hackney carriages and private hire vehicles in England and Wales outside London: savings), omit paragraph (b) (vehicles used only for carrying passengers for hire or reward under contract for hire for not less than 7 day period).’.—[Dr. Ladyman.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 28
Delegation of power to make level crossing orders
‘(1) In paragraph 7 of Schedule 3 to the Railways Act 2005 (c. 14) (agreements by Secretary of State and Office of Rail Regulation for that Office to carry out on his behalf functions other than powers to make instruments of legislative character), after sub-paragraph (3) insert—
“(4) Sub-paragraph (3)(b) does not prevent the Secretary of State and the Office of Rail Regulation from entering into an agreement for that Office to carry out on his behalf the function of making orders under section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983.”
(2) Subsection (2) of section 13 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (c. 37) (agreements by Health and Safety Commission with Minister to perform functions on his behalf not to be taken to authorise performance of powers to make instruments of legislative character) is not to be taken to have prevented the performance by the Health and Safety Executive (on behalf of the Health and Safety Commission), in reliance on an agreement under subsection (1)(b) of that section, of the function of making orders under section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983 (c. 16).’.—[Dr. Ladyman.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 37—Increase of penalties for failure to comply with traffic lights at level cr